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Just like that, the 2018-19 NBA regular season is over, and that means it’s time to hand out some hardware.
We’ll honor an MVP, a Defensive Player of the Year and the Best Newcomer/Biggest Surprise from all 30 teams while also adding a separate award to cover anything else those three might have missed.
The team-specific award is a good way to hit important storylines that might have slipped through the cracks, but just as importantly, it lets us pay homage to Bradley Beal’s skills in conflict resolution.
We’ll base our awards on statistics but will also consider elements beyond the numbers.
Most of our honors will wind up in players’ hands, but coaches are fair game, too. In a few special cases, we won’t hand out awards at all. Sometimes, for example, a team’s defense is so bad that it precludes the possibility of anyone getting rewarded for being a part of it.
Let’s get on with the accolades.
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MVP: Trae Young
Overall, the Atlanta Hawks were better when Trae Young was off the floor this year, and the rookie point guard graded out as the league’s worst defender, according to ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. But if you thought anyone else was going to land this honor, you must have stopped paying attention in January.
Young shook off a dreadful start to post the most 30-point, 10-assist games by a rookie since Oscar Robertson. After the All-Star break, his presence on the floor was the difference between an offense that would have ranked third in the league or several points per 100 possessions worse than the 30th-ranked New York Knicks.
Young flashed next-level distributions skills, elite shot-making and loads of craft. He’s a cornerstone with ample room to improve, and that’s what the MVP of a rebuilding team should be.
DPOY: Dewayne Dedmon
There weren’t many great options here, but Dedmon led Atlanta in total blocks and finished third in steals per game despite averaging the fifth-most minutes on the team. He also ranked second among Hawks in Jacob Goldstein’s Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus.
Best Newcomer: Lloyd Pierce
The Hawks won nearly as often as they lost after the All-Star break, and virtually every young player showed significant growth as the season progressed. Young became a star, Kevin Huerter expanded his game and John Collins progressed after a solid (but short) 2017-18 rookie year.
Much of the credit for Atlanta’s fast-tracked rebuild should go to Pierce, a first-year head coach who borrowed ideas from former Santa Clara teammate Steve Nash and embraced the developmental approach of the Process-era Philadelphia 76ers, where he worked under Brett Brown.
The Hawks look competitive ahead of schedule, in part because of Pierce’s leadership.
‘How Much Longer Is This Possible?’ Award: Vince Carter
At least one more year, apparently.
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MVP: Al Horford
Horford and Kyrie Irving grade out comparably in RPM and PIPM. While Irving’s offensive production and usage mark him as the more important piece in the Boston Celtics’ puzzle, Horford’s moodiness never created chemistry concerns like Irving’s did. That stability has to count for something, as does the fact that Boston’s net rating was that of a title contender with Horford on the floor and a lottery team without him after the All-Star break.
Based on numbers alone, this award should go to Irving. But Boston was wildly unstable all year, and Horford often felt like the only steady influence.
DPOY: Marcus Smart
Immune to screens, irritating, crafty and highly intelligent, Smart led the Celtics in deflections and three-point shots defended while collecting 15 charges. Among Celtics players, that figure trailed only Aron Baynes, who is a human wall of granite.
If all Smart had were his physical gifts and competitiveness, he’d be one of the top defenders in the league. But he’s also sharp enough to call out opponents’ sets from the bench. That and a knack for turning the crunch-time tide without scoring make him Boston’s defensive player of the year and arguably the best perimeter stopper in the league.
Biggest Surprise: The 2018-19 Boston Celtics
The whole team shares this award, as the Celtics fell far short of expectations. Before the season, 90 percent of NBA general managers picked Boston to win the Eastern Conference. Everyone was sure the team that came within one game of the 2018 Finals would benefit from organic growth and the healthy returns of Irving and Gordon Hayward.
The postseason chapter is yet to be written, but the Celtics didn’t come close to last year’s 55 wins. Boston wasn’t a bad team, but it wasn’t nearly as good as expected.
Pump the Brakes Award: Jayson Tatum
The sophomore breakout portended by last year’s postseason performance never came. Instead, Tatum improved incrementally in some areas (assist rate and rebound rate, to name two) while regressing in others. Tatum’s scoring efficiency declined, driven down by a diminished free-throw rate and a predictable return to earth from last year’s unsustainable 43.4 percent three-point shooting.
Turns out a few hot series don’t guarantee immediate stardom.
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MVP: D’Angelo Russell
Russell’s true shooting percentage ranked 20th among the 21 players with a usage rate above 28 percent this season, underscoring his high-volume, substandard-efficiency profile. Still, for a Nets team short on creators outside of Spencer Dinwiddie, Russell’s production mattered.
Despite an inability to get to the rim or draw fouls, Russell led Brooklyn in scoring and turned in several standout fourth quarters.
DPOY: Ed Davis
Jarrett Allen defended more than twice as many shots as Davis did, and the second-year center’s block percentage ranked fourth in the league among players who logged at least 2,000 minutes. Allen also spent more time against opposing first units, which adds value to his numbers.
Davis, though, trailed only Rudy Gobert in DRPM, and his elite defensive rebounding (best in the NBA among reserves) can’t be ignored. Perhaps most notably, the Nets defense improved by nearly nine points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor. When Allen was on the court, Brooklyn’s defensive rating was nearly eight points worse than when he sat.
There’s more to defense than blocking shots.
Best Newcomer: Rodions Kurucs
Kurucs’ rookie season featured predictable peaks and valleys, but the rangy 6’9″ forward showed enough offensively to spark optimism about his future. A smart cutter with a clean release from beyond the arc, Kurucs will also dunk over just about anyone when he gets a head of steam on a straight-line drive.
He has an intriguing mean streak in his game, and we should expect the highlights and production to increase going forward.
Captain Comeback Award: Caris LeVert
On Nov. 12, Caris LeVert’s foot was pointed in a direction it shouldn’t have been. At the time, the grotesque dislocation seemed certain to end his season.
By Feb. 8, LeVert was back on the floor, contributing rotation minutes in a playoff chase.
That’s award-worthy. End of discussion.
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MVP: Kemba Walker
Walker led the Hornets in points, assists, steals, free throws and three-pointers this season. With him on the floor, Charlotte posted an offensive efficiency that would have ranked eighth if sustained for a full season. Without him, the Hornets offense was worse than that of the 30th-ranked Knicks.
There may not be a more obvious team MVP in the league.
DPOY: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
MKG was Charlotte’s leader in D-PIPM, and the team allowed roughly five fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. His block percentage more than doubled from last year, ranking tied for second in the entire league among players 6’7″ or shorter.
Best Newcomer: Miles Bridges
Mostly because of stuff(s) like this, but also because Bridges flashed just enough defense alongside promising three-point shooting. He shot 39.1 percent on 3.1 long-range attempts per game in March, both of which were season bests.
Wasted Narrative Award: Jeremy Lamb
Can you imagine how incredible it would have been if this game-winning half-court heave, which kept Charlotte’s playoff hopes alive for a few extra days, had sparked a surge into the postseason? At the time, it felt like a colossal momentum shift. But it turned out to be more like a death rattle.
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MVP: Zach LaVine
His defense remains awful, and the “somebody’s gotta get numbers on a bad team” criticism may apply, but LaVine did more than score empty buckets for the bottom-feeding Bulls. He led them in minutes, scoring, assists and usage rate, which you’d expect from one of the only guys on the roster capable of creating decent offense for himself.
But LaVine’s true shooting percentage was above the league average, despite a usage rate north of 30 percent. Among players with usage rates above 30 percent, LaVine scored more efficiently than Kemba Walker, Lou Williams, Luka Doncic, D’Angelo Russell, Donovan Mitchell and Russell Westbrook. Stephen Curry was the only guy in the 30-plus percent usage club who shot it better from deep than LaVine.
If you flipped on a Bulls game, there was a good chance you’d see him rising up for a feathery three or blowing past a defender for a slick finish. Those brief moments of joy were important in an often disheartening season.
DPOY: Shaquille Harrison
Harrison looks like a lost cause on offense, but he’s a high-energy pest on the perimeter—sort of a more musclebound version of Patrick Beverley. He, Chris Paul and Marcus Smart were the only players in the league to post steal percentages above 3 percent this season.
Harrison is also without question the second-best Shaquille in NBA history.
Best Newcomer: Otto Porter Jr.
Porter logged only 15 games with the Bulls, but he hit 48.8 percent of his threes and proved he could handle more playmaking responsibilities than he received in Washington. He’s overpaid, but Porter fits perfectly into Chicago’s small forward void.
Hold It Down Award: Robin Lopez
The Bulls got outscored when Lopez was on the floor, but his presence kept the margin respectable. He led Chicago regulars in on-court net rating, and things got ugly when he sat. Add to that Lopez’s role (along with Lauri Markkanen) in avoiding a mutiny against head coach Jim Boylen, and his steadying influence on a shaky Bulls team gains even more value.
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MVP: Collin Sexton
Sexton led the Cavs in minutes and produced the lowest value over replacement player on the team. He achieved that feat by being the league’s worst defender not named Trae Young. He also by spent the first four months of the season taking awful mid-rangers and posting an assist rate you’d expect from a center.
Sexton’s shot profile improved dramatically after the All-Star break, but the damage he did beforehand helped the Cavs finish with the league’s lowest net rating and a bottom-three win total. For a rebuilding team in need of the best lottery odds possible, Sexton was useful. He was so bad for so long that it behooved the Cavs.
With a team this awful, you have to do some logical gymnastics to find an MVP.
The Cavs put up the worst defensive rating since at least 1973-74, which is as far back as Basketball Reference’s database goes. Award denied with extreme prejudice.
Biggest Surprise: Larry Nance Jr.
While nobody was watching, Nance dramatically expanded his game.
The fourth-year center took 98 threes and hit 33.7 percent of them after topping out at 36 attempts and a 27.8 percent hit rate in 2016-17. Not only that, but he also registered the second-highest assist total on the team. He was the only big in the league to amass at least 200 assists with fewer than 100 turnovers.
Quote of the Year Award: Channing Frye, to Joe Vardon of The Athletic
“Listen, I’m rich, I’m a champion, I’m 35 and retiring and I’m living a great life. So, if you think I suck, I’ll see you at LA Fitness in a year, motherf–ker.”
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MVP: Luka Doncic
Doncic led the Mavs in points and assists per game while also ranking first in advanced catch-all metrics like VORP and box plus-minus. If there were a way to measure optimism generated, he would have ranked first in that, too.
The first rookie to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists since Oscar Robertson (and the only teenager ever to post those averages), Doncic was a star from the moment he took the floor. His craft and guile were on the level of a 10-year veteran, and his willingness to take numerous shots in high-leverage situations revealed uncommon confidence for a player so young.
Doncic is going to be a superstar. This year was just a taste.
DPOY: Maxi Kleber
The advanced numbers generally love what DeAndre Jordan did in his 50 games with Dallas, but the veteran center too often stayed rooted to one spot on the floor when a half-shuffle left or right would have put him in help position. His time with the Mavs was a master class in not trying.
Kleber moved his feet well on switches and posted the highest block percentage on the team (among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes). He didn’t hog defensive boards to pad his stats like Jordan did, but unlike Jordan, he gave his full effort when he was on the floor.
Biggest Surprise: Jalen Brunson
Brunson, a second-rounder out of Villanova, averaged 6.8 points on 22.7 percent shooting in summer league. He looked completely overmatched against competition far below the level he’d face in NBA games.
And then…he wound up looking just fine. After taking on a larger role late in the year, he blossomed, scoring in double figures in 14 of his 15 March games, topping out with a 34-point effort against the Spurs on March 12. Brunson displayed toughness and a skill for attacking the paint and finding teammates. He may not be a long-term starter, but he’ll work well as a second-unit spark in the mold of longtime Mav J.J. Barea.
Come on, Dirk. One more year? Sure, coming back will make this year’s farewell tour (which you didn’t ask for) seem awkward in retrospect, but if Vince Carter can keep this going, so can you. Plus, wouldn’t it be nice to stick around for Doncic’s encore, Kristaps Porzingis’ Dallas debut and a possible playoff trip?
Don’t go just yet. Please?
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MVP: Nikola Jokic
There’s no contest here, as Jokic led the Nuggets in total points, rebounds, assists and steals. He made his first All-Star Game, led Denver to the West’s second seed and ranked seventh leaguewide in RPM Wins.
By averaging at least 20 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists this season, Jokic joined an exclusive group populated only by Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook.
DPOY: Paul Millsap
Millsap ranked third on the Nuggets in D-PIPM and essentially operated like a defensive quarterback, leveraging his smarts and experience to help Denver finish among the league’s top 10 in defensive efficiency. Torrey Craig laid the lumber to opposing wings in a more limited role, and Mason Plumlee led Denver in blocked shots. But Millsap was the most consistent difference-maker on D.
Biggest Surprise: Monte Morris
Drafted with the 51st pick in 2017, Morris came into his sophomore season with only three games of NBA experience. He then played like he’d been in the league for a decade.
Morris was among the league’s best backup point guards, shooting over 40 percent from deep and finishing as the only player in the NBA with an assist percentage over 20 and a turnover percentage under 7. Call him a game-manager if you like, but Morris rarely hurt the Nuggets’ second unit with mistakes.
Ready For More Award: Malik Beasley
Beasley took another step forward in his third season, despite spending most of the year as a reserve behind Gary Harris on the wing.
When he had the opportunity for more minutes, Beasley performed like a player deserving of a first-unit role. In 11 games as a starter during February, he averaged 16.5 points per game with a 53.5/48.4/93.3 shooting split. Harris is the more complete talent and superior defender, but Beasley opened a lot of eyes this season.
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MVP: Blake Griffin
Griffin did it all for a Pistons team woefully short on shot-creation this year, completing his decade-long transformation from one-dimensional dunker to jack-of-all-trades offensive hub. When he wasn’t hitting threes at high volume or setting up teammates, he was bullying his way to the foul line, effectively producing offense however he could.
DPOY: Andre Drummond
Though the on-off splits reveal Detroit defended better with Drummond off the floor, he still blew everyone on the roster away in total blocks and rebounds. Plus, the catch-all metrics like him; Drummond topped the Pistons in D-PIPM and defensive box plus-minus.
Still prone to spaciness and uncomfortable away from the lane, Drummond is far from perfect as an anchor. But he had twice as many deflections as anyone else on the team was a key part of a defense that succeeded in deterring attempts at the rim better than most.
Keep an eye on Bruce Brown, who has a chance to become one of the better defensive wings in the league.
Best Newcomer: Wayne Ellington
After coming aboard via the buyout market, Ellington gave the Pistons a badly needed off-ball threat. Detroit made its push toward playoff position in March, Ellington’s only full month with the team. Ellington made at least three triples in nine of the 16 games he played that month.
Ground-Bound Award: Blake Griffin
In 2011-12, nearly 21 percent of Griffin’s field goals were dunks. This season, he posted a career low with just over 3 percent of his made buckets coming via the slam. Incredibly, his true shooting percentage was higher this year than in that dunk-filled 2011-12 season. His continued effectiveness amid athletic decline doesn’t get enough notice.
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MVP: Stephen Curry
Great as Kevin Durant is, Curry remains the engine of the Golden State Warriors.
Split the two stars, and you see the Dubs post a higher net rating with Curry on and KD off than they manage when the roles are flipped. Curry is also one of four players with a usage rate above 30 percent and a true shooting percentage over 60 percent (Durant’s not in that club), and among players who attempted at least 500 threes, Curry ranks first in accuracy rate.
If we also consider the distraction created by Durant’s impending exit, weighed against Curry’s rock-solid leadership, there’s not much of a comparison here.
DPOY: Draymond Green
Still one of the most versatile defenders in the game, Green finished second on the Warriors in total blocks, steals and defensive rebounds. He also led the way in deflections and contested shots.
Both Green and the Warriors suffered lapses in defensive focus this season—understandable, given the grind of their last four years. Green may not be a DPOY candidate for the entire league any longer, but he’s the easy pick on this team.
Biggest Surprise: Andrew Bogut
Bogut was effectively jettisoned to make room for Kevin Durant in the summer of 2016, and he was characteristically salty about it. That, combined with the physical breakdown that followed his departure and the general lack of use for non-spacing, non-switching centers made it seem like the bridge between him and Golden State was officially torched.
And then…he was back! Signed in March after an MVP season in the National Basketball League (the top league in Australia and New Zealand), Bogut returned looking slimmer and more mobile than he was when he left—apparently with no hard feelings.
Last Ride Award: Kevin Durant
The specter of Durant’s impending free agency loomed over the Warriors all year, manifesting itself in an on-court altercation with Draymond Green and several testy interactions with the media. Just about everyone, including league execs, expects him to be on another team next season.
Assuming he departs after a third consecutive title, his time with Golden State will go down as one of the great mercenary runs of all time.
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MVP: James Harden
Harden’s historic season might earn him league MVP honors, which makes him a pretty easy selection here.
When the injury-ravaged Rockets hit their nadir at 11-14 in December, Harden began a tear that pushed the usage-efficiency threshold beyond its former limits and, without exaggeration, saved his team’s season.
The statistical eye-poppers are too great in number to count, but a few standouts include: 30-plus points in 32 straight games, the highest scoring average in the last 30 years, 61 unassisted points against the Knicks on Jan. 23 and, well…this could go on forever.
DPOY: PJ Tucker
Tucker is either the toughest smart guy or the smartest tough guy on the Rockets. Either way, his versatility, tenacity and IQ make him Houston’s most valuable defensive player.
“He’s the anchor of our defense,” player development coach John Lucas told Alykhan Bijani of The Athletic. “He’s the one that’s communicating all the time. He’s active and he talks. PJ brings so much physicality, he’s our tough guy. So for us to go very far, his defensive presence is a major key.”
Tucker wrangles with bigs underneath, manhandles guards away from the ball and took more than twice as many charges as his next closest teammate.
Biggest Surprise: Danuel House Jr.
Undrafted out of Texas A&M, House lacked an NBA home for two years before catching on with the Rockets this season. The springy 6’7″ wing evolved into a knockdown three-point shooter with a clear role in the rotation, and he’ll see postseason minutes against any opponent the Rockets face.
Nobody saw this coming when the Warriors cut House in training camp this past October.
Rock on the Block Award: James Harden’s Post Defense
Harden has defended more post-up possessions than anyone in the league, and he’s been ridiculously tough to score against down there, ranking in the 90th percentile in points allowed per possession. Granted, Harden finds himself defending big lugs on the block all the time because Houston switches virtually every time opponents screen him—but teams looking to capitalize on mismatches learned this year that Harden was no easy mark.
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MVP: Myles Turner
Turner continued to make strides toward stardom in his fourth season, adding incremental volume and accuracy to his three-point-shooting game and developing into one of the most impactful defenders in the league.
Though he fell short of the 14.5 points per game he averaged in 2016-17, Turner expanded his defensive role and became far more valuable than his conventional box score statistics might suggest. Speaking of which…
Nobody blocked more shots per game than Turner this season—on the Pacers or in the league at large—and Indiana’s third-ranked defensive efficiency owed mainly to his elite rim protection. Turner ranked in the top 10 leaguewide in DRPM and D-PIPM.
Biggest Surprise: Bojan Bogdanovic
Career years don’t normally happen at age 29, but Bogdanovic didn’t have a choice. With Victor Oladipo going down for the year in late January, the veteran wing had to shoulder leading-scorer duties to save the Pacers’ season.
Bogdanovic set career highs in points, rebounds and assists per game, blowing past last year’s averages despite logging only about one more minute per night. He also scored more efficiently than ever while taking on a star’s usage rate after Oladipo’s injury.
More With Less Award: Domantas Sabonis
Sabonis is the first player in league history to average at least 14 points and nine rebounds in under 25 minutes per game. He can’t defend the rim, which is a problem for a center, but nobody gave Indiana more statistical bang for its buck.
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MVP: Danilo Gallinari
Gallo was one of five players to post a true shooting percentage above 63 percent on at least 800 shot attempts this season, and he also set career highs in points and rebounds per game while hitting at least 90 percent of his free throws for the third consecutive year.
Montrezl Harrell was also in the above class of high-efficiency scorers alongside Gallo, and you could make a credible case the backup center deserves consideration as team MVP. But Gallinari generated more of his own offense, and his on-off net rating splits were better than Harrell’s, despite the latter spending more time against weaker second units.
DPOY: Patrick Beverley
It’s harder for a guard to make major defensive impact than it is for a rim-defending big or shutdown wing, but Beverley’s infectious tenacity and “come at me, bro” attitude defined a scrappy Clippers D that always seemed more productive than its talent should have allowed.
Best Newcomer: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
The rookie guard led the Clippers in total steals and starts while also finishing third in assists and second(!) in blocks. SGA displayed a slithery floor game from the moment he debuted, showing a knack for getting into the lane that most guards take years to develop. He ranked in the league’s 88th percentile in isolation scoring efficiency.
Stats aside, there’s an intuitiveness to Gilgeous-Alexander’s game that portends a long, productive career.
A pair of young trade acquisitions, Ivica Zubac and Landry Shamet, also look like keepers.
Get Buckets Award: Lou Williams
Nobody has ever scored more points off the bench than Williams, who put up a second straight season of 20 points per game en route to what will likely be his third Sixth Man of the Year Award.
Williams also developed a pick-and-roll mind meld with Harrell, and the two combined to destroy backups all season.
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MVP: LeBron James
If he hadn’t missed those 17 straight games with a groin injury, James’ Lakers very well could have made the playoffs. They were fourth in the West when he went down, and things just spiraled from there.
Oh, and here’s something to chew on as we contemplate James’ decline: Despite a career-low 35.2 minutes per game, James’ 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists with the Lakers this year are all higher than the averages he posted in 11 seasons with the Cavs and four with the Heat. Every player wishes his decline looked as good as LeBron’s.
DPOY: Tyson Chandler
Chandler played his first game with the Lakers on Nov. 7. From that point until Dec. 10, he was a rotation staple, averaging 21.3 minutes per game as the team went 13-4. During that span, L.A. posted a defensive rating of 95.2 when he was on the floor—a figure that would have ranked first in the NBA over a full season by a ridiculous margin. For some reason, the Lakers reduced Chandler’s role in mid-December, and their defense predictably fell off.
There weren’t many options to choose from here, but Chandler was easily the most transformative defensive force on the team—albeit for a very short time.
Biggest Surprise: Alex Caruso
Maybe you bought the Lakers as a contender and were stunned when they missed the playoffs, but even that level of shock pales in comparison to the one inspired by Caruso’s putback dunk against the Warriors on April 4.
The undrafted 25-year-old then posted 32 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in a win over the Clippers the next night. Are we sure LeBron didn’t somehow switch bodies with Caruso after getting “shut down” for the year?
Lucky Break Award: Jeanie Buss
Magic Johnson and the Lakers front office wasted one of James’ last remaining prime seasons by surrounding the superstar with zero support and then topped that by alienating half the roster during the bungled trade pursuit of Anthony Davis.
Johnson’s resignation as team president gives Buss a chance to build a new basketball braintrust, one hopefully possessing credentials beyond a retired jersey. Remember, for the better part of a decade, it was impossible to keep James out of the Finals. Johnson and friends didn’t even get him to the playoffs.
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MVP: Mike Conley
Conley bested all Grizzlies in box plus-minus, VORP, points and assists per game. He also hit twice as many threes as any other Memphis player while registering the only positive on-court net rating of any Grizzly who logged at least 1,000 minutes.
So, yeah…he pretty much ran away with this one.
DPOY: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Rookies are supposed to look bewildered on D, but Jackson graded out as Memphis’ most productive player on that end of the floor. He led the Grizzlies in D-PIPM and ranked just outside the top 10 among power forwards in DRPM. When he played, Memphis’ defensive rating was 102.4, which would have ranked first in the league over a full season.
He and Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson were the only first-year players to produce block rates above 5 percent and steal rates above 1.5 percent.
Biggest Surprise: Joakim Noah
Noah’s career seemed kaput until he resurfaced in Memphis and put up the best points-per-36-minutes figure of his career. In just over half a season’s worth of games, Noah posted the second-highest PIPM on the Grizzlies and may have earned himself another few seasons in the league.
Decisions, Decisions Award: Jonas Valanciunas
Valanciunas averaged 19.9 points and 10.7 rebounds on 54.5 percent shooting after coming over from the Raptors in the Marc Gasol trade. In his last full game before going down for the year with an ankle injury, he put up 34 points, 20 rebounds, five assists, two blocks and two steals—one of just six such games in the last 25 years.
Post-up centers who can’t defend switches or scare opponents from three are out of fashion, but the Grizzlies will have to think long and hard about keeping Valanciunas if he opts out of the $17.6 million he’s owed next season.
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MVP: Josh Richardson
The Heat are defined by their lack of a star, but Richardson probably came closest. He led Miami in total points, assists, steals, threes and free throws. His 2,539 minutes were a team high by a mile, and the Heat posted a plus-1.3 net rating in his time on the floor. That may not seem like much, but Miami was in negative territory overall on the season.
Richardson may not have been quite ready for duty as a no-questions-asked alpha, but he held his own in the largest role he’s occupied to date.
DPOY: Bam Adebayo
Adebayo’s installation as Miami’s starting center happened on Feb. 27, and it’s no coincidence that the Heat posted an 11-4 record in March fueled by the league’s third-ranked defensive rating. On the year, Adebayo led Miami in defensive box plus-minus.
Switchable and far more mobile than former starter Hassan Whiteside, Adebayo gave the Heat more options against the pick-and-roll. And unlike Whiteside, he wasn’t a constant target for opposing offenses.
For what it’s worth, you could also make a case for Richardson here. He’s among the league’s top perimeter stoppers.
Biggest Surprise: Absolutely Nothing
Isn’t this exactly how everyone expected the Heat’s 2018-19 season to go? We knew they’d play hard, defend and get quality contributions from a deep roster. We also knew their lack of stars and ace shot creators would make scoring a struggle (it was; Miami finished in the bottom five of offensive efficiency), and that a record right around .500 was a reasonable expectation.
It’s difficult to think of a team whose performance aligned more perfectly with preseason expectations.
Lest anyone call this section a copout, how about the fact that all it took for Dwyane Wade to embrace the three-point revolution was age? He set a career high in made triples and crushed his previous best in three-point attempt rate.
Gonna Need a New Closet Award: Dwyane Wade
Wade’s farewell tour featured an almost nightly jersey exchange with well-wishing stars or close friends on opposing teams. Wade showed in his final season that he could keep playing at a respectable level if he wanted to, and in addition to closing out a surefire Hall of Fame career on his own terms, he got to take home a ton of collector’s items.
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MVP and DPOY: Giannis Antetokounmpo
The first guy to average at least 27 points, 12 rebounds and five assists since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1975-76, Antetokounmpo led the NBA in PIPM and is also on the short list of DPOY candidates—not just for the Bucks, but for the league as a whole.
His evolution from star to superstar, fueled by relentless rim attacks, was key in transforming the Bucks from a playoff team to the league leader in wins via one of the top 25 average margins of victory in league history. As proof of his impact, consider that Milwaukee was 10.1 points per 100 possessions better with Antetokounmpo on the floor than when he sat.
Anyone who can stifle guards on the perimeter, defend the rim like a center, run an offense, bully big men for dunks underneath and capture the basketball-viewing world’s attention on a nightly basis deserves to sweep his team’s MVP and DPOY honors.
Best Newcomer: Brook Lopez
A superstar in his role, Lopez was integral to the Bucks’ schemes on both ends. His floor-stretching pulled centers out of the lane on offense, clearing the runway for Antetokounmpo to attack a vacant paint, and his drop coverage in the pick-and-roll helped Milwaukee post the league’s lowest opponent attempt rate at the rim.
The tactics that defined the Bucks in their breakthrough season depended largely on Lopez’s unique combination of skills.
Don’t Overthink It Award: Mike Budenholzer
Of course the best way to unleash a 6’11” leviathan with a deadly off-the-dribble game was to space the floor around him and force opponents to either collapse on his drives en masse or surrender dunks. And of course it made sense to scrap an unnecessarily aggressive (and ineffective) trapping defense in favor of a stripped-down approach that conceded nothing at the rim.
What could be simpler?
Easy as Milwaukee’s tactical reconstruction may appear in hindsight, Budenholzer was the one who made it happen. And his changes took the Bucks from good to great—the hardest transformation a team can make.
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MVP and DPOY: Karl-Anthony Towns
Towns led the league with six games featuring at least 25 points and 20 rebounds. He was also the only player to average at least 24 points while hitting 50 percent of his shots and 40 percent of his threes.
Though this doesn’t apply specifically to Towns’ value in Minnesota this season, it seems worth mentioning: There have been nine seasons in which a player averaged at least 12 boards and one made triple per game. Towns just finished his third. In a row.
Robert Covington is Minnesota’s best defender, but he played just 22 games for the Wolves after coming over in the trade that sent Jimmy Butler to the Sixers. While rookie Josh Okogie showed flashes of potential, his overall defensive impact wasn’t as great as Towns’.
KAT registered more than twice as many blocked shots as his next closest teammate and led the Wolves in defensive box plus-minus. For a Wolves team that spent most of the year among the league’s bottom five in defensive efficiency, this is an award by default.
Biggest Surprise: Derrick Rose
Before an elbow injury ended his season, Rose was a fringe candidate for Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player. With an average of 18 points per game on a career-best 37 percent shooting from deep, Rose was a consistent source of offense for a team that needed it whenever Towns wasn’t on the floor.
Rose averaged just 8.4 points per game for the Cavs and Wolves in 2017-18, and it seemed as though the 2011 MVP was nearing the end of the road. After this resurgent season, Rose looks like a valuable rotation piece again.
Something to Cheer for Award: Josh Okogie
A high-energy rookie who rose to the challenge of defending James Harden and had at least four steals in a game three times, Okogie endeared himself to Minnesota. The first-year guard showed rough edges on offense but became a full-time starter in January anyway. It was hard not to love the rookie’s effort.
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MVP: Anthony Davis
At the time of Davis’ last game before his trade request, Jan. 18, the Pelicans were 21-25 with a plus-1.6 net rating that portended a playoff trip if bad luck in close games evened out over the second half of the season.
It’s difficult to separate what came after that cutoff from what came before it, but if you just take Davis’ statistical contributions in isolation—even if you want to consider his one-foot-out-the-door second half—there’s no argument for any other Pelican as team MVP.
Davis led New Orleans in points, rebounds, steals (tied with Jrue Holiday) and blocks per game while running up team-high BPM and VORP figures.
DPOY: Jrue Holiday
A strong candidate for an All-Defensive nod, Holiday finished ninth among point guards in DRPM and led the Pelicans in steals while routinely defending larger wings.
When Holiday played without Davis this year, the Pelicans surrendered 115 points per 100 possessions. That’s an awful figure that would have ranked last in the league. When Davis played without Holiday, though, New Orleans was even worse on D, allowing an unfathomable 124.8 points per 100 possessions.
If you had to pick one of the two stars as your defensive cornerstone going forward, you’d take Davis. But the numbers this year clearly suggest New Orleans’ stopping power was more closely tied to Holiday than AD.
Best Newcomer: Julius Randle
Randle was one of four to average at least 20 points, eight rebounds and three assists with a true shooting percentage north of 59 percent this year. The others are all superstars.
While you could argue Randle’s lack of defense and suspect spacing suit him better for a role off the bench on a good team, it’s hard to ignore the numbers he put up in his first season with the Pels.
Elephant in the Room Award: Anthony Davis
If you want to disqualify Davis from any team award because of the havoc his trade request wrought on the Pelicans, that’s reasonable. It seems to me, though, that we can embrace the dual truths that AD was a) New Orleans’ best player this season by any objective statistical measure, and b) he could have handled things better.
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MVP, DPOY and Best Newcomer: Mitchell Robinson
The rafter-scraping dunks, blocked three-point shots and head-turning highlights were just part of Robinson’s season, which stood out as the lone bright spot during the worst year in franchise history. In addition to those aesthetic oases in the desert that was Madison Square Garden, Robinson stood apart from his teammates statistically.
Among Knicks who logged at least 1,000 minutes, Robinson’s on-court net rating was closest to positive territory—though still firmly negative. He led New York in box plus-minus, VORP, D-PIPM, PIPM and pretty much any other catch-all acronym stat you’d care to dig up.
As much as it’d be nice to acknowledge Noah Vonleh, who might have prolonged his career with a decent showing, or Allonzo Trier, who got buckets in isolation when the Knicks couldn’t otherwise score (which was basically always), both of those guys were massive drags on winning.
Kevin Knox might seem a reasonable consideration for Best Newcomer, but he was dreadful on both ends.
No one else on the Knicks’ roster warrants praise. So Robinson gets it all.
Somebody’s Gotta Score Award: Tim Hardaway Jr.
Hardaway Jr. produced four of the Knicks’ five highest-scoring games this year, which is impressive considering he spent the post-trade deadline portion of the season playing for the Dallas Mavericks.
Though just two of Hardaway’s team-high six 30-point efforts resulted in wins, it’s hard to overstate the value of individual scoring on a team that finished last in offensive efficiency. Beggars can’t be choosers, and even if Hardaway got his buckets at an efficiency level below the league average, at least he got them.
Somebody had to.
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MVP and DPOY: Paul George
George was in the three-man conversation for league MVP and DPOY until a shoulder injury and general regression dropped him out of serious consideration midway through the year. And though the Thunder suffered their own teamwide slide in the second half, PG was still clearly their most valuable player on both ends.
He topped OKC in total points and steals, and he ran away with the team lead in PIPM.
Always assigned to the opponent’s most dangerous scoring wing, George somehow mustered the energy to disrupt passing lanes away from the ball. He led the NBA in deflections and loose balls recovered.
Among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes this season, George’s on-off differential was best in the league. Whenever he came off the floor, Oklahoma City fell apart—whether Russell Westbrook was on the floor or not.
Biggest Surprise: Jerami Grant
A valuable five-position defender, Grant added high-efficiency shooting to his game this season. He took over 100 more threes than he had in any prior year and converted them at over 38 percent. Added volume next year would make Grant one of the more valuable two-way role players in the league, but the step forward he took from the perimeter this year was as welcome as it was surprising.
He and Karl-Anthony Towns were the only players to log at least 100 made threes, 90 blocks and 60 steals in 2018-19.
Desensitized to Greatness Award: Russell Westbrook
When a third consecutive year averaging a triple-double doesn’t seem all that noteworthy, it’s a good sign we’ve gotten spoiled.
Westbrook’s achievements may feel arbitrarily significant because we like round numbers, and you could still accuse him of chasing stats. But it remains true that no other player puts his statistical stamp on games like Russ does. And any time a player joins Wilt Chamberlain in an exclusive club, which Westbrook did with his 20-20-20 game this year, it’s impressive.
We’ve just gotten used to his exploits, and that’s probably not fair.
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MVP: Nikola Vucevic
Vooch led the Magic in total points, rebounds and steals while trailing only point guard D.J. Augustin in assists. His breakthrough season earned him the team’s lone All-Star nod and made him one of just five players—Antetokounmpo, Towns, Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid were the others—to average at least 20 points, 12 rebounds and three assists this year.
Despite Vucevic’s continued inability to draw a foul, he was easily one of the most complete offensive bigs in the league.
DPOY: Jonathan Isaac
Vucevic has a case for this award, too, but Isaac’s catch-all numbers aren’t far behind his All-Star teammate’s, and his grades on the eye test are higher. Isaac, who registered more blocked shots and deflections than any Magic teammate, couldn’t go a quarter without turning in a defensive effort that prompted a double-take.
He’d appear out of nowhere to tip a pass out of bounds or cover for a teammate who’d gotten out of position. He’d swoop in from out of frame to pin a shot to the glass or switch across three positions on one defensive possession.
Still young and prone to mistakes, Isaac was easily Orlando’s most captivating defender. There’s no doubt that he’ll also be its best for the foreseeable future.
Biggest Surprise: D.J. Augustin
Augustin hadn’t been a regular starter since the 2011-12 season, but he was a hugely valuable part of Orlando’s offense in his return to first-unit duties. Only Vucevic’s absence created a bigger negative swing in scoring efficiency, and though Augustin struggled to threaten defenses near the basket, his team-high three-point percentage (he was the only Orlando player to shoot better than 40 percent) provided critical spacing for an otherwise congested attack.
You Know What You’re Getting Award: Steve Clifford
It took a couple of months, but the Magic eventually took on the hallmarks of a Clifford-coached team: excellent rebounding and minimal self-inflicted mistakes. Orlando finished the year ranked third in defensive rebound percentage and just missed a bottom-five turnover rate.
This, after Orlando ranked 28th and 17th in those categories with very similar personnel a year ago. Clifford’s 2017-18 Hornets finished in the top three in both, proving that wherever he goes, defensive boards and low-error play follow.
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MVP and DPOY: Joel Embiid
Philadelphia was nearly 14.4 points per 100 possessions better with Embiid on the floor than off, and though many lamented the team’s diminished defense, it was still elite whenever Embiid played.
On the year, the Sixers’ defensive efficiency with Embiid on the court was better than Milwaukee’s league-leading overall figure. Without him, the Sixers defended at a clip that would have ranked outside the top 10. Of course, the case for Embiid as Philly’s DPOY could just start and end with a compilation of his chasedown blocks.
Biggest Surprise: JJ Redick
Players aren’t supposed to average career highs in scoring and minutes per game in their age-34 seasons, but Redick pulled it off. Good thing, too, as his off-ball movement and hair-trigger aggression kept defenses from keying on Philly’s dangerous post-up threats. Turn your head for a second or hedge toward the big man on one of the Sixers’ patented handoff plays, and Redick was already in midair launching a dagger from deep.
Best of Luck Award: Markelle Fultz
Fultz’s brief and tumultuous time with the Sixers ended in a deadline trade to the Magic. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick will go down as one of Philadelphia’s biggest misses, but in light of the circumstances leading up to his departure, you’re not likely to find many fans (of any allegiance) rooting against him.
Here’s hoping Fultz turns things around and delivers on his considerable promise in Orlando.
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MVP: Devin Booker
Booker became one of three players to top 30 percent usage and 58 percent true shooting at age 22 or younger, joining Kevin Durant and Shaquille O’Neal. Say what you want about his late-season stat-stuffing, but don’t overlook the fact that Booker’s offense did make a positive difference.
High-volume scoring at efficiency rates above the league average are valuable anywhere. For a Suns team so short on offense, what Booker did was doubly important.
Yes, he’s still a zero on defense. But let’s wait and see how Booker’s effort looks when he’s not entirely responsible for his team’s offensive survival, and when he’s part of a basketball culture that puts an emphasis on competing at both ends. There’s still hope for him to become more than a top-notch offensive weapon.
Of course, on a team this bad, merely competent play on one end would have been enough for the team MVP. Booker did far more than that.
DPOY: Mikal Bridges
The rangy rookie wing collected more steals, deflections and loose balls recovered than any Phoenix player, remarkably grading out with a positive defensive box plus-minus and D-PIPM, despite playing over 2,000 minutes for the NBA’s 29th-ranked defense.
Most players in Bridges’ position would have started mailing it in by December, but he established himself (and verified his draft scouting report) as a future defensive star.
Best Newcomer: Deandre Ayton
Ayton improved as a defender over the course of the year, but his instincts against the pick-and-roll are still major weaknesses. Fortunately, the rookie big man proved he could score efficiently on the block (75th percentile in points per post-up play) and scoop up easy buckets on the offensive glass.
If he adds some range to his jumper and develops a modicum of defensive feel, stardom remains a possibility.
Opportunity Knocks Award: Kelly Oubre Jr.
Though he’s been in the league four years, Oubre’s single-game highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks all came after his Dec. 19 debut with Phoenix. The 23-year-old forward endeared himself to fans, coined the Valley Boyz nickname and proved he could up his production in a larger role with a young team.
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MVP: Damian Lillard
Repeated All-Star production, unsurpassed leadership and a commitment to building a winner in Portland have Lillard closing on the title of all-time Blazers MVP. With apologies to Clyde Drexler, Dame is carving out space as the organization’s most beloved figure.
He was also very good at basketball this year, pacing the Blazers in total points, assists steals, made free throws and made threes. Lillard’s scoring efficiency as the pick-and-roll ball-handler ranked in the 94th percentile, and he comfortably led Portland in box plus-minus and VORP.
DPOY: Jusuf Nurkic
Nurkic’s presence on the floor improved the Blazers’ defensive efficiency by four points per 100 possessions, and Portland held opponents to the league’s seventh-lowest field-goal percentages at the rim overall.
Among players who defended at least six shots inside six feet per game, Nurkic allowed the fifth-lowest opponent field-goal percentage in the league. No wonder he ran away with the team lead (among regulars) in defensive box plus-minus and D-PIPM.
Best Newcomer: Seth Curry
Curry finished third in the league in three-point percentage and shook off a completely lost 2017-18 season to give the Blazers a reliable scoring jolt off the bench. The shooting shouldn’t have been a surprise, but in light of his injury history, Curry’s ability to provide it so consistently sure was.
In-Between Award: CJ McCollum
For the sixth year in a row, McCollum shot over 44 percent and ranked above the 79th percentile (among wings or combo guards; he’s been classified as both in his career) in mid-range shooting. At a career-best 49 percent this season, he slotted into the 94th percentile at his position.
Don’t let anyone tell you the mid-range game is dead.
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MVP: De’Aaron Fox
Fox made a mini-leap in his second season, spiking his free-throw rate and showcasing more confidence in his three-point shot. His incomparable open-floor speed was the driver of Sacramento’s uptempo attack, and nobody on the roster collected more total assists, steals or free throws.
More than that, Fox emerged as the Kings’ unquestioned leader. And there’s a feeling he’s only scratching the surface.
“He is at a different level,” assistant Jason March told ESPN.com’s Zach Lowe. “He sees plays before they happen. When your point guard can do that in his second year, it’s special.”
The Kings’ defensive efficiency was 3.1 points per 100 possessions better after halftime. Opponents shot the ball worse, rebounded with a lower frequency and turned it over more often following the mid-game break. That’s a lot of decline to chalk up to randomness, and in lieu of any one standout defender on the roster, it only seems fair to give the Kings’ DPOY to their breakneck pace. No team devoted a higher percentage of its plays to transition pushes, and that up-and-down action seemed to tire opponents out over the course of the game.
If you want to trust defensive box plus-minus or D-PIPM, both of which give Willie Cauley-Stein the nod, go ahead. But understand that Kings fans who watched Cauley-Stein fail to protect the rim all year know better.
Best Newcomer: Marvin Bagley III
Bagley and Domantas Sabonis were the only players to average at least 14 points and seven rebounds per game while playing 26 minutes or fewer. The rookie big man featured one of the quickest second jumps in the league and showcased a more well-rounded offensive game than many expected.
Though it’ll be difficult to justify selecting him second ahead of Luka Doncic for, oh, the next 100 years or so, Bagley was far from a bust.
Dime It Up Award: Harry Giles III
Giles’ 3.7 assists per 36 minutes ranked fifth among Kings regulars (first among non-guards), and his facility as an elbow distributor was one of the more exciting developments in Sacramento this season. Cut, and Giles will find you with a slick pass, often stylized with a look in the opposite direction.
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MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge
The Spurs’ leader in total points, rebounds and blocks, Aldridge shot above 50 percent from the field for the third time in his last four seasons and anchored an offense that depended heavily on his individual scoring.
DPOY: Derrick White
White finished second among point guards in DRPM, and his return to the lineup following a heel injury coincided directly with a 9-1 stretch during which the Spurs ranked second in defensive efficiency from Feb. 25 to March 18. That run effectively saved San Antonio’s playoff hopes.
There aren’t many better backcourt pests than White, who also took special pride in swatting taller opponents. He and Jrue Holiday were the only guards to block six shots in a game this season.
Best Newcomer: Jakob Poeltl
The Spurs went 9-2 in games Poeltl started during the month of March. In the vein of Tiago Splitter, Dewayne Dedmon and countless other seemingly bland centers, Poeltl fit into San Antonio’s system and thrived. There wasn’t anything flashy about Poeltl’s game in his first season with the Spurs, but there’s value in offensive boards and sound position defense.
Do What You Do Award: Gregg Popovich
No coach is more willing to adjust style to personnel than Popovich, who allowed his Spurs team to fire away from wherever they were most comfortable. With Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan on the roster, that meant loads and loads of mid-range shots—the highest proportion in the league, to be exact.
San Antonio finished last in attempt frequency at the rim and from three, which should have been an offensive death sentence in today’s NBA. Instead, because the Spurs’ high-volume scorers generally attempted shots from spots they liked best, the team finished in the top 10 in offensive efficiency.
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MVP: Pascal Siakam
There’s no questioning Kawhi Leonard’s individual production. He led the Raptors in points per game and was one of four players in the entire league to top 30 percent usage and 60 percent true shooting. And although his defense slipped from his two-time DPOY days, Leonard was still a fearsome wing stopper who nobody could bully underneath.
But it’s hard to argue he was Toronto’s most valuable player when it went 17-5 in games he rested.
Siakam is the front-runner for Most Improved Player, and his balanced game resulted in a top-three finish on the team in total points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals. His pace-pushing in transition and growth from beyond the arc made him a multi-faceted offensive weapon—one that could also capably guard five positions on the other end.
Toronto was 14.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, while Leonard’s on-off net rating split was plus-4.6.
There’s not a wrong choice between these two, but Siakam spent more time on the floor, and his impact on wins looks to be more significant.
Best Newcomer: Kawhi Leonard
We have to give the guy something, don’t we? Leonard was ridiculously productive when he played, and even if the Raptors barely noticed when he wasn’t on the floor, his presence is what gives Toronto a championship ceiling.
It’s Contagious Award: Marc Gasol
Before Gasol arrived via trade, Toronto was just 22nd in assist percentage. From his debut until the end of the regular season, the Raps were in the top five in that same statistic.
It’s a scientific fact that if you come within 10 feet of Gasol, you automatically become less selfish.
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MVP and DPOY: Rudy Gobert
It’d be nice if we didn’t have quite so many of these joint winners, but there’s no case to be made for anyone but Gobert in either category.
Donovan Mitchell would be the obvious alternative for MVP (nobody’s coming close to Gobert on D—not on the Jazz roster or in the entire league), but the Jazz’s performance suffered more on offense when Gobert sat than when Mitchell did.
Yes, Mitchell’s importance on a team that struggled to create looks should bolster his case. But the numbers don’t show him to be anything close to indispensable.
Gobert was Utah’s best player as measured by box plus-minus, VORP, PIPM, D-PIPM and RPM. He led the NBA in DRPM and broke Karl Malone’s franchise record for point-rebound double-doubles. An all-time great defender who also led the league in field-goal percentage, Gobert stands alone as Utah’s across-the-board MVP.
Biggest Surprise: Derrick Favors
Favors has long been a good interior defender, and he was excellent last season in the following stat as well, but he led all high-volume rim-protectors in field-goal percentage allowed inside six feet this year. You know you’ve done something right when you’ve turned Gobert into the second-best shot-alterer on his own team (by one metric, anyway).
Chatting It Up Award: Joe Ingles
Ingles is a notorious irritant—both defensively and verbally. He has a knack for throwing opponents off their games with a well-timed jersey grab or a pointed barb.
Who could ever get tired of hearing trash talk in an Australian accent?
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MVP: Bradley Beal
Once John Wall went down for the year, it was all Beal all the time.
He, James Harden and Kemba Walker were the only players in the league to average 25 points, five assists and four rebounds while also snatching 100 steals.
The seventh-year guard paced Washington in total points, assists and steals, and only Thomas Bryant grabbed more rebounds on the year.
DPOY: Thomas Bryant
The Wizards were rough on D all year, finishing in the bottom five overall. But let’s go ahead and give this one to Bryant, who was the only Wizards player to log over 1,000 minutes with a positive defensive box plus-minus. Technically, Otto Porter Jr. also pulled off that feat, but he didn’t finish the year on the roster.
Bryant is an objectively poor defender when measured against the league at large, but he led the team in total blocks and defensive rebounds, and he generally played with energy.
Best Newcomer: Jabari Parker
Parker only played one full month with the Wizards after coming over via trade in February and before powering down in April. But his work in March was solid, particularly for a player who’s had a hard time producing consistently in recent years.
He averaged 17.5 points and 7.4 rebounds on 61.9 percent true shooting in 17 March contests. Though there’s no way the Wizards will pick up his $20 million team option, Parker played well enough to make them consider working out a longer deal if the money’s right.
Face of the Year Award: Beal
You’re just not going to top Beal’s smirking, arms-akimbo response to a heckler. Beal’s expression was a perfect diffusor, seeming to say without malice: “Hey man, you and I both know I’m great. How about let’s just be friends?”
And you know what? If Beal hit you with that look, you’d absolutely want to be his friend. This was a Grade-A conflict resolution.