Every year, a panel of 100 media members votes to determine the league’s award winners, including at least one vote from each local NBA market. In Utah, it rotates around the various Jazz beat writers; this year, I have the honor. It’s very exciting.
Votes are due Tuesday and reflect the regular season as it stood up to March 11. Here’s who I chose and why I chose them for each award. All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams will be published tomorrow.
Most Valuable Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
4. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
5. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
I don’t think the race at the top of this list is particularly close, actually. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the clear-cut MVP.
Think about Wilt Chamberlain’s famous 50 point per game season, in 1961-62. It’s one of the most famous athletic feats of all time, but it’s hard to imagine someone doing that today. That year’s NBA had nine teams. Many famously believed that teams had an “unofficial quota” of four Black players per team. Chamberlain was one of the players who could afford to work full time in basketball thanks to his $25K salary, but many had summer jobs to supplement their income. In other words, he scored 50 points per game in a different world.
Ah, but Chamberlain played 48.5 minutes per game that season. While it’s impressive he was able to play so much, he accomplished his feat by scoring just over a point per minute.
Giannis scored 30 points per game this season in 31 minutes per game. It’s the third-highest per-minute scoring effort in NBA history. And the only reason he played so few minutes? The Bucks blew their opponents out. He only played in the final five minutes of a close game 17 times out of 57 games played this year. (The Bucks were 14-3 in those rare close contests.)
Second place on the points per minute table is James Harden’s season last year, by the way, so abundant scoring isn’t enough to guarantee you the MVP award. (Chamberlain didn’t win it in 1961-62, either. Bill Russell did.) But what’s unique about Antetokounmpo’s season is that it’s also superlative in so many other respects, too.
Take his rebounding: Antetokounmpo averaged 11.5 defensive rebounds per game this season in those 31 minutes. That’s the best defensive rebounding season in 26 years — not on a per-minute basis, but a per-game basis — since Dennis Rodman’s 1993-94 season. Per minute, it’s probably the best such season since they started keeping track of offensive and defensive rebounds. Oh, and Antetokounmpo plays defense like Rodman, too, which is why he’s on my ballot below for the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award.
It’s honestly one of the best individual regular seasons of all time, right up there with the very best of Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Speaking of James, he was terrific with the Lakers this year, absolutely sublime. The man moved to point guard and led the league in assists, while also scoring 26 points per game. He led the Lakers to the second-best record in the league, and brought together a ragtag group of teammates beyond Anthony Davis. He was wildly impressive.
Harden was second on the all-time points per minute leaderboard last year, he’s now fifth this season. Unlike Chamberlain and Antetokounmpo who were able to do it with size, dunks and other shots close to the rim, Harden does it with a dizzying array of threes, layups and free throws. He attacks scoring like the latest CPU overclocked to the maximum, calculating things at a speed unlike anything else in history. Just like a CPU, he’s not exactly fun to watch while he does his thing.
There’s a group of guys to choose among for fourth or fifth: Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic. Leonard has the Finals MVP resume, but he played only 51 games. Jokic played 65, but played pretty poorly in the first month of the season. Is it better to not play or play poorly? Lillard, Doncic and Davis all have a weird quirk: none of their teams was all that much better with them on the court than on the bench.
In the end, my tiebreakers were winning and defense. Really, the only qualm you can have with Leonard’s season is the games played number. And Davis was one of the best defenders in the league, along with prodigious offensive stats. He shouldn’t be heavily docked because the Lakers chose to split minutes with James and Davis on the floor.
Defensive Player of the Year:
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
3. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Yeah, the local yokel didn’t choose the Jazz player for his third DPOY trophy in a row. Insert boos here.
Gobert’s numbers are terrific: nobody defends as many plays as Gobert does, and he typically defends them well. He was the best defender in the league by FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR system, and by no small margin. The Jazz funnel everything to him, and ask him to save the world time and time again. Frequently, he does. And this year, dealing with more 5-out teams than ever before, he ended up switching out to the perimeter often. He dominated those matchups too: 0.688 points on 177 isolations against Gobert, per ESPN’s Zach Lowe. That’s also No. 1 in the league.
And yet there were significant stretches of this year in which I was disappointed in Gobert’s defensive effort. There were absolute game-winning plays, to be sure, but also games in which it was very noticeable that Gobert wasn’t having his usual impact.
The Jazz slipped from second to 11th in the league defensively, and while I truly believe that they’d be somewhere in the 20s without his singular impact — this Utah roster is not good on D beyond Gobert and Royce O’Neale — 11th defensively isn’t much better than average. Part of that slippage was Gobert, who simply didn’t play at a DPOY level in many of the Jazz’s losses. These weren’t cases of defended shots going in, but clear lapses from the Jazz’s best player.
Antetokounmpo’s case doesn’t have the downsides. He is the leader of the No. 1 defense in the league; the Bucks had a bigger lead over the No. 2 Raptors D than the Raptors had over the No. 7 Pacers D. He allowed the lowest opponent field-goal percentage when defending in the restricted area: 41.6% on those shots, the only guy lower than 46%. It’s the best percentage allowed since we started tracking it, actually. He also defended the perimeter extremely well. And again, he had the best defensive rebounding season in 25 years.
In my mind, there are a bunch of contenders for third place, but Anthony Davis was the largest reason the Lakers went from 14th to third defensively. He also defends the rim extremely well while maintaining excellent movement on the perimeter. He didn’t defend as many plays as Gobert did, but significantly more than other third-place candidates like Ben Simmons, Marcus Smart, Kawhi Leonard and Kris Dunn.
Most Improved Player:
1. Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
2. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
3. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
Many people don’t want to put second year players on their Most Improved Player ballot. The idea, and it’s an understandable one, is that we actually expect rookies to get better in their second years, so is their improvement really a surprise? Is it really notable? But I think we’ve also seen enough examples of rookies not really getting better in their second year that we shouldn’t take their improvement for granted. And besides, the award is “Most Improved,” not “Most Surprising.”
On the other hand, I do get worried about putting players on the ballot who didn’t get much playing time before, but given a chance, take advantage of the opportunity. Christian Wood is the prime example of this: he had a terrific season for the Pistons, but showed much of that skill in an eight-game cup of coffee with the Pelicans last year. Is this just the Christian Wood that was sitting on the bench all along? I think you can make that case.
In terms of actual, provable improvement, I think the winner is Luka Doncic. Doncic was a top-50 player last year in his rookie season but has been a top-six player this year, and that’s the hardest jump to make. He scored more, finished better, passed more, rebounded more and brought his Dallas team into the playoffs.
Likewise, Jayson Tatum improved from that same third tier to a top-15 player this season, taking a big jump in his usage, his 3-point shooting and his defense. Brandon Ingram made a similar jump, but his defense wasn’t as good, his team was worse, and I’m more concerned about his percentages moving forward.
Duncan Robinson, Devontae Graham, Wood and Dante DiVincenzo deserve shoutouts for going from zero to starting-caliber players. As for Bam Adebayo, I really thought his terrific numbers and play this year was just about getting the opportunity after the Heat traded Hassan Whiteside. Trae Young made a similar offensive leap to Doncic, but wasn’t quite as good and his team is terrible, in significant part due to his defensive limitations.
Sixth Man of the Year:
1. Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
2. Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. George Hill, Milwaukee Bucks
As a basketball-voting media group, I believe in our ability to use this word to reward more than points per game.
That’s why I have Montrezl Harrell first, though he scored plenty: 18.6 points per game. But Harrell also excels at other aspects of the sport: he’s one of the biggest hustle rebounders around, he’s excellent at passing as a roll man and he’s actually a really effective shot blocker despite his 6-foot-7 frame.
Dennis Schroder, before this season, was just an empty calories points guy. But in Oklahoma City this season, Schroder looked reborn: he played defense! He also upped his scoring efficiency, become a crucial part of OKC’s lineups with two or three point guards. He was a big reason that team was more successful than anticipated.
Lou Williams will finish in the top three in overall voting, in this I have no doubt. But he was largely an empty calories scorer: his defense is still abysmal, a matchup bonus on the other end for any opponent. And this wasn’t his most efficient season: his effective field-goal percentage of 48% puts him in the 19th percentile. As Lowe pointed out, the Clippers’ end-game lineups usually feature Harrell, not Williams.
If Lou Williams is an empty-calories donut, George Hill is a nutritious smoothie. Hill only scored 9.6 points per game this season, I get it. But he did so at huge efficiency because he led the league in 3-point percentage, shooting 48% from deep this year. I’d rather have half the points at high efficiency than more points at low efficiency. Hill is also a capable passer and terrific defender, where Williams is not; the former was a key reason Milwaukee had huge leads going into the fourth quarter this year.
Apologies to other scorer types, like Jordan Clarkson, Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic and Seth Curry, who also weren’t as good defensively as Hill. Wood deserves a shoutout to be sure for his multi-faceted impact, but just wasn’t on a good team.
Rookie of the Year:
1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
3. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant is the clear winner of this award, taking ownership of the Grizzlies and steering them to a playoff spot as we enter seeding games. He was both heady and a human highlight reel.
Kendrick Nunn started for the Heat and scored 15.6 points per game on middling efficiency, middling creation and middling defense on a good team. Middling is hard to do in the NBA as a rookie! He did it.
Brandon Clarke was better on a per-minute basis, but played 800 fewer minutes. Terence Davis played as much as Clarke, but Clarke’s interior impact was slightly better than Davis’ role-playing contributions with the Raptors.
Zion Williamson played 565 minutes in total. They were great. I’m very confident he’ll be the best rookie from this class, but the award isn’t for what you will do, but what you have done.
Coach of the Year:
1. Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
2. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers
Nick Nurse’s season this year is one of my favorite coaching performances of all time. The man won a title last year, but lost his superstar in Kawhi Leonard. So what did the Raptors do? They came back and won at a higher rate the next season, with Pascal Siakam as their best player.
How did they do it? The key is the league’s second best defense, with Siakam, Serge Ibaka, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry all playing critical roles. Nurse, of course, designed their highly successful base defense, but nobody throws in more wrinkles to trick opponents. A triangle-and-two? A full-court press? Zones of all formations? Nurse tried them all — and pulled them all off.
Nurse also got minutes from four undrafted rookies this year: Fred VanVleet, Matt Thomas, Chris Boucher and Terence Davis. The rest of the roster is filled out with end-of-first round and second-round picks. The player development staff there is unsurpassed.
Mike Budenholzer led the Bucks to one of the great regular seasons of all time. His fingerprints are everywhere in the Bucks’ effective style: their offensive pace, their collapse-in-the-paint defense, knowing exactly where to help and where not to. Going from Jason Kidd to Budenholzer is one of the greatest one-team coaching leaps ever.
Looks like Billy Donovan is most frequently chosen for third here, and he had a terrific season, but I’m going with Nate McMillan. The Thunder certainly surpassed expectations, but they gained a coach on the floor with Chris Paul. Meanwhile, T.J. Warren was the Pacers’ leading scorer, and Domantas Sabonis their All-Star. The Pacers’ 39-26 record is the third time in a row they’ve surpassed expectations despite injured talent, and it’s largely because McMillan has given them a signature play style that works: physical, bruising, methodical, smart play.