The Miami Heat’s blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday meant every NBA team has passed the 2018-19 season’s midway point, and we’re days from polls closing on the All-Star Game starters, so it’s the perfect time to evaluate who leads the pack for each of the league’s awards entering the stretch run.
Here we go …
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: James Harden, Houston Rockets; Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors
We need not substantiate Antetokounmpo’s claim to the MVP. He is the lone star of a team riding a 60-win pace, and he ranks among the NBA’s top 20 in points (26.7, eighth), rebounds (12.6, sixth), assists (5.9, 20th) and blocks (1.5, 13th) per game. He gets to the rim 11 times a game, where he shoots 74.4 percent, and he contests 11 shots a game, holding opponents to 41.3 percent shooting. Double impact.
But we do need to validate his claim against two players, in particular: Harden and Leonard.
Harden has been an offensive dynamo in Chris Paul’s absence, bookending 17 straight 30-point outings with two 50-point explosions, but he cannot match Antetokounmpo’s two-way impact, and there is real concern about the Rockets’ playoff viability. Also, statistically speaking, were Antetokounmpo to attempt as many shots per game as Harden, he would be averaging roughly the same absurd number of points.
Leonard is enjoying his best offensive season on a Raptors team that owns the league’s top record, but he has sat out at least one half of every back-to-back and missed 10 games in all. Leonard quite simply has more support around him and therefore doesn’t have to carry the same load as Antetokounmpo.
Least Valuable Player: Carmelo Anthony, Houston Rockets
I’m not sure we properly rated just how disastrous ‘Melo’s Rockets stint was. He played 10 games, and the returning regular-season champions completely unraveled. Anthony jammed up both sides of the ball so badly that they just told him to go home. Not, like, sit on the bench. Go home. He’s still on the roster, because no other team is willing to pay his minimum salary, so the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder are now paying him a combined $28 million to chill at home in his monogrammed bathrobe.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Runners-up: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies; DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
You really just feel bad for Phoenix, Sacramento and Atlanta, all of whom passed on Doncic. It was so obvious that he was going to be so good, and he has met our expectations at every turn — and then some. It’s not that other rookies have been bad. (Well, Trae Young hasn’t been great, but let’s not rub too much salt in Atlanta’s wounds.) It’s that Doncic has been transcendent, showing a level of playmaking and poise under pressure that escapes most everyone, let alone most 19-year-olds.
In most other years, fellow top-five picks Ayton and Jackson would make for an interesting debate over statistical versus actual impact, respectively (Ayton is averaging a double-double with two assists, and Jackson is an efficient scorer who can defend at every level), but this isn’t a conversation. Doncic is the best player on a team that he has carried within three games of a playoff spot.
Veteran of the Year: J.J. Barea, Dallas Mavericks
A quick shoutout to Barea, who ruptured his right Achilles tendon on Friday. There may be no player less likely to have this long a career in the history of the NBA. I didn’t expect him to last a week in the league, so the fact that a 5-foot-10 (“on a good day“) undrafted player out of Northeastern was still doing work at age 34, averaging 10.9 points and 5.6 assists in 19.8 minutes per game off the bench, is a testament to his heart. Here’s hoping he makes his way back from another career-threatening hurdle.
P.S. Doncic honoring Barea by doing their high five all alone is enough to bring a tear to your eye.
Before tearing his Achilles, J.J. Barea did jumping high fives during Mavs introductions.
Luka did one solo last night 👋 pic.twitter.com/DnMOHaHJvC
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) January 14, 2019
Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
Runners-up: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
George captured First Team All-Defensive honors the season prior to breaking his leg in 2014, and he’s now back to being the stopper who gave Indiana hope it could limit LeBron James enough in a seven-game series. He leads the league in steals, and his fundamental defense doesn’t suffer for it, as his 7-foot wingspan contains every opponent’s best player for large stretches, regardless of position.
As efficient as George has been offensively this season, he may be more so on the other end, anchoring a defense that leads the NBA in rating by more than a full point per 100 possessions. That rating is three points better when George is on the floor and three points worse when he is on the bench, the difference between the best defense since 2015-16 and the No. 7 defense this season. Even teammate Steven Adams, another candidate for this award, doesn’t swing the Thunder D that much.
Least Defensive Player of the Year: Jabari Parker, Chicago Bulls
Parker signed a two-year, $40 million deal with the Bulls this past summer, promptly broadcasted to Chicago, “They don’t pay players to play defense,” and then somehow proceeded to play his way out of a tanking team’s rotation in the span of two months. Even ‘Melo never said the quiet part that loud.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets; Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Milwaukee’s two biggest moves of the summer were signing well-traveled veterans Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova to a pair of mid- to low-level contracts. They have both been beneficial, as has the Greek Freak’s latest leap, but Budenholzer’s arrival is the best explanation for how the Bucks have gone from a negative net rating last year to outscoring opponents by a league-best 9.1 points per 100 possessions this season — more than three points better than any other team in the NBA.
The former steward of Atlanta’s surprising 60-win season has the Bucks taking almost 10 more 3-point attempts per game, and their ball movement is creating more wide-open shots than any other team in the league. Almost everyone on the team is playing more efficiently on offense, and together their defense has improved from a below-average outfit last season to a top-three unit this year, which is both a reflection of how bad Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty were and how good Budenholzer has been.
Worst Coach of the Year: Jim Boylen
The longtime assistant took over for the more mild-mannered Fred Hoiberg in Chicago, promised to turn the intensity level up to 11, and then alienated his young roster as a result. Boylen’s tactics, which included pushups and extended practices after back-to-backs, nearly resulted in a legit mutiny and prompted Bulls players to form a leadership committee. A grievance was filed with the players’ union.
The Bulls own the league’s worst offense and 23rd-ranked defense since Boylen took over, and they are riding a seven-game losing streak that has them firmly in the tank. Worst of all, though, might be Boylen’s recent benching of promising rookie Wendell Carter Jr. because, “Sometimes you learn by sitting, too.” This of course earned him a raise and extension from Chicago’s just-as-bad front office.
Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
Runners-up: Montrezl Harrell, L.A. Clippers; Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets
There are plenty of candidates for this award, from old staple Lou Williams to former MVP Derrick Rose to newer reserve standouts Dinwiddie and Harrell, but nobody has produced quite like Sabonis. In 25 minutes per game off the bench, the 22-year-old is averaging a double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds) with three assists a night, all while making roughly two-thirds of his shot attempts.
The Pacers rank second in defensive rating and operate at a league-best level when Sabonis is beasting around the court. He’s a Most Improved Player candidate, a borderline All-Star in the East and arguably the second-best player on a team that currently owns a home playoff seed. Is there a more both-sides-happy trade than the Pacers trading George to OKC for Sabonis and Victor Oladipo?
15th Man of the Year: Danuel House Jr., Houston Rockets
Shouts to House, who along with Austin Rivers helped to patch Houston’s depleted wing depth. The worst-team-in-the-league Suns let House walk at the end of last season, and the reigning champion Warriors released him from a training camp contract to start this season. In between, he had a summer-league stint with his hometown Rockets, and even still he was unemployed by an NBA team as recently as late November, when he was toiling away with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.
Shooting close to 40 percent on four 3-point attempts per game, he surpassed every one of Houston’s offseason signings to earn a starting role on the suddenly resurgent Rockets. I love when guys who never give up on their basketball dreams thrive when they finally find the right fit. Now, House has continued to bet on himself. With the NBA days on his two-way contract expiring, he has reportedly turned down a low-level multiyear deal with Houston in favor of more money and flexibility moving forward. Unfortunately, that means he must return to the Vipers as his search for respect continues.
Most Improved Player: De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings
Runners-up: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors; Monte Morris, Denver Nuggets
Fox was lost in a 2017 draft discussion dominated by Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum last season. He is now performing better than anyone in his class, averaging a highly efficient 17.9 points to go along with 7.3 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game, all while leading the Kings — the perennially awful Kings — within a half-game of a playoff spot in the loaded Western Conference. That’s star stuff.
A case could be made for Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, but there was evidence greater opportunity would yield greater production. He sharpened his shot, but much of his improvement came from a 50 percent uptick in minutes and a starting spot. Fox had every chance to show his value last season and generated the third-worst real plus-minus of all point guards. He just wasn’t very good. Now he is.
Least Improved Player: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
Come at me, Utah. Mitchell was a bona fide star at times in the 2018 playoffs — Dwyane Wade 2.0, averaging 28.5 points per game and outplaying Russell Westbrook in a first-round series. We had every reason to believe he would make a Wade-like leap in Year 2. Except, he’s regressed, shooting 42 percent on 19 shots per game. Twelve players attempt that many shots per game, and only Westbrook is shooting worse — a subject of constant conversation among Westbrook haters. At least Westbrook is averaging a league-best 10.6 assists per game, nearly three times as many as Mitchell, whose assist rate is lower than last season and last among all guards who use the ball as often as him. Not good.
This is one reason the Jazz find themselves on the playoff bubble, helped by a recent resurgence from Mitchell, who hopefully continues to play his way out of this spot, and it is the reason this joke from Rudy Gobert after Monday’s narrow win over the Detroit Pistons drew such an awkward response:
Rudy Gobert had some choice words for Donovan Mitchell 😂
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) January 15, 2019
Executive of the Year: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors
Runners-up: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder; Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks
I’m not about to credit Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka for being in Los Angeles when LeBron James decided he wanted to live there, especially not when they followed his migration west by signing a hodgepodge of veterans to one-year contracts, putting their game of chess on hold. Meanwhile, Ujiri and the Raptors showed L.A. what might have been had the Lakers pushed their chips to the middle.
The trade for Leonard has been an unmitigated success, at least until he hits free agency this summer. But for now, the Raptors own the league’s best record, Leonard is playing at a level that has many convinced that this could actually be their year, and all indications are that he’s warming to the North.
Danny Green was quietly an incredible add-on to that deal, Ujiri’s gutsy decision to fire the reigning Coach of the Year in favor of an unproven assistant has also paid off, and in a roundabout way the Raptors just plucked Patrick McCaw from the Warriors for the minimum. Everything’s coming up Masai.
Worst Executive of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Minnesota Timberwolves
Bryan Colangelo narrowly escaped this tag, earning his walking papers from the Philadelphia 76ers for the burner account controversy this past June. So, with apologies to Ernie Grunfeld, Dell Demps and Koby Altman, Thibodeau lapped the field on this one. He reportedly ignored Jimmy Butler’s initial trade request over the summer, allowing it instead to fester and blow up in his face. He allowed Butler to blow up his practice, embarrass his teammates and submarine the entire first month of the season.
There is little doubt that Thibodeau’s stubbornness with respect to Butler impacted Minnesota’s return on the investment, subverted his relationship with the young Wolves and led to his firing earlier this month. He also effectively destroyed the dual front-office job/coaching role in the process.
Other than that, Thibs did OK in Minnesota.
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