An unofficial NBA Awards ballot starring Giannis Antetokounmpo

I am not one of the 100 media members whose votes for NBA awards are due on Friday, but if I were, this would be my ballot with the playoffs now upon us. You can rest easy knowing the picks you believe to be moronic will not actually determine the winners, and you are welcome to send your complaints to the voting panel.

The true award winners will not be revealed until June 24, when TNT will broadcast the third annual awards show more than a week after the conclusion of the Finals, four days following the draft and long after you are done stewing about these picks.

Most Valuable Player

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  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

  • James Harden, Houston Rockets

  • Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

George was somewhat of a sleeper pick for this award earlier in the season, when he was scoring remarkably efficient at a high volume and vying for Defensive Player of the Year on a team bound for 50-plus wins. A shoulder injury contributed to his relative late-season swoon, and his Thunder fell off the pace as a result.

This is really a two-horse race between Antetokounmpo and Harden, and my abbreviated argument is that I would go with the Greek Freak over the reigning MVP because he is doing everything George was doing on both sides of the ball to warrant consideration earlier this season — and doing it all exponentially better.

Giannis averaged 27.7 points on 17.3 shot attempts for a 64.4 true shooting percentage. Statistically speaking, if he were to attempt as many field goals as Harden (24.5), he would score 41.2 points per game. Antetokounmpo’s work on the offensive glass mitigates Harden’s 1.6 more assists per game, and while it’s hard to measure each player’s gravitational pull on that end, the fact that Milwaukee created more wide-open 3-point looks and Antetokounmpo assisted on two more 3-point attempts per game suggests they are at least equals in that regard.

The kicker: Antetokounmpo is the centerpiece of the NBA’s best defense, a claim Harden cannot come close to making, and the Bucks finished with the NBA’s best record. And don’t give me the East-is-least argument, because Milwaukee owned the NBA’s best net rating against the Western Conference. Let us also not forget that Harden was at the helm when Houston underperformed for the first quarter of the season with as much — if not more — talent around him than Giannis’ Bucks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden clash in what will likely be another close MVP race. (Getty Images)
Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden clash in what will likely be another close MVP race. (Getty Images)

Defensive Player of the Year

  • Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

  • Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

  • Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

That’s right. I’d have Giannis joining Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win both MVP and DPOY in the same year. He is the best defensive player on the NBA’s best defensive team, and — as a wing with freaking athleticism and a pterodactyl’s wingspan — the league’s most versatile defender to boot.

Gobert is a weapon around the rim. The reigning Defensive Player of the Year challenged more shots per game than anybody but Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid and Houston’s Clint Capela, the majority of which came within 10 feet of the basket. An argument could be made that he serves as the safety valve for a team that can better challenge the 3-point line knowing he is the next line of defense, but teams shot from distance at a top-10 rate against the Jazz this season. In other words, there is a somewhat effective way to challenge Utah despite Gobert’s presence.

Antetokounmpo is a matchup nightmare, capable of thwarting opponents anywhere from the perimeter to the rim, which seems significant in a league that is increasingly reliant on 3-pointers. While we may not know how many shots Gobert alters or discourages around the rim, we also do not know the number of times Giannis takes away an entire half of the floor as a defender who can close gaps in an instant — or how many times his closing speed thwarts transition opportunities.

The fact of the matter is the Bucks were better defensively with Antetokounmpo on the floor, allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions, than the Jazz were with Gobert (102.9 points allowed per 100 possessions), and Giannis’ versatility also allows him to be on the floor against a broader swath of lineup combinations.

Rookie of the Year

  • Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

  • Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

  • Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

I wanted to put Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in there because of his contributions as the starting point guard that made a surprising run to the playoffs despite trading its best player midway through the season, but Ayton’s numbers (16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game), albeit on an abysmal team, are overwhelmingly superior.

In reality, this is another two-man game between Doncic and Young. Recency bias might have us leaning toward the Hawks point guard, given his electrifying production and late-game shotmaking after the All-Star break, but we would be forgetting he was one of the league’s handful of worst high-volume shooters through the first half of the season. Not to mention that he was statistically one of the NBA’s handful of worst defenders among regular starters throughout the year.

Doncic was more consistently impressive, finishing with two more points per game on slightly more efficient shooting. Young owns an edge in assists per game (although the Slovenian is no slouch in that regard), but Doncic is a superior rebounder and defender. You can split hairs here, arguing Young finished stronger, but I would prefer to reward the guy who made an impact for the entire season.

Luka Doncic and Trae Young will forever be tied together after being traded for each other on draft day. (Getty Images)
Luka Doncic and Trae Young will forever be tied together after being traded for each other on draft day. (Getty Images)

Sixth Man of the Year

  • Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers

  • Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers

  • Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers

Williams has won this award twice before, including last season, and it’s often a crutch to slot the same names into this category every year. But this is no legacy pick. Williams finished the season as the top scorer and playmaker on a Clippers team that exceeded all expectations. His 20 points were by far the NBA’s most for any player averaging so few minutes (26.6), followed by Harrell’s 16.6 per night. And no regular reserve averaged more assists than Williams (5.4). All of that made him the closer for a playoff team that finished with the league’s ninth-ranked offense.

Harrell is a beneficiary of Williams’ brilliance, and the undersized center’s ridiculous efficiency rolling to the rim no doubt repaid the favor. The fourth-year former second-round pick out of Louisville was relentless on both ends this season, and while he may have been the horsepower behind the Clippers’ surprising season, Williams bore a greater responsibility as the offensive engine making them go.

You are free to swap Sabonis and Harrell here, as both were elite finishers around the rim and always at the center of their team’s effort advantages. Indiana’s defensive rating improved two points per 100 possessions to a league-best level when Sabonis was on the floor, and the Clips’ defense jumped from a middling mark to a top-10 rating when Harrell left the floor. Sabonis also gained an edge as the more productive rebounder and playmaker in two fewer minutes per game.

Most Improved Player

  • Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

  • D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets

  • De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento Kings

All three are deserving, and who you reward may depend on how you define the award. Russell and Fox rose to greater statistical heights, carrying greater burdens for teams on the playoff fringes, but Siakam made the greatest leap from where he was a year ago to where he is today. In other words, he was the most improved.

We might not have seen an All-Star turn coming from Russell, but he showed enough in three seasons for us to believe the former No. 2 pick was capable of continued progression in a more nurturing Brooklyn environment. Likewise, Fox made a steeper jump than we expected from Year 1 to Year 2, but he was a top-five pick who took his lumps as a rookie on a dreadful team in 2017-18, and it was practically inevitable that he would perform better with a full season under his belt.

Siakam, on the other hand, was merely a cult hero top those who watched a lot of Raptors basketball last season. He was among the team’s host of useful reserves, but far from its most productive. At age 23 in 2017-18, the freakish athleticism was apparent, but he remained raw in a way you could question whether he could consistently impact games before his late first-round rookie contract came due.

Instead, he transformed himself into arguably the most important player not named Kawhi Leonard on the 58-win Raptors, starting 79 games and wildly improving his production across the board. He went from shooting 22 percent on 1.6 3-point attempts per game to 36.9 percent on nearly three tries a night, and improved percentages from everywhere on the court sent his true shooting percentage well north of 60 percent. The 6-foot-9 stretch forward also made massive strides as a playmaker and defender whose versatility in large doses made him an invaluable weapon on a team that finished fifth in both offensive and defensive rating.

Pascal Siakam and D'Angelo Russell are among the NBA players who made the biggest leaps in 2018-19. (Getty Images)
Pascal Siakam and D'Angelo Russell are among the NBA players who made the biggest leaps in 2018-19. (Getty Images)

Coach of the Year

  • Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers

  • Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

  • Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers

I get how Budenholzer transformed the Bucks, bringing to Milwaukee the spacing and defensive schemes that made him the Coach of the Year in Atlanta four years ago. With essentially the same roster, save for the valuable addition of Brook Lopez, the Bucks won 16 more games than they did with Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty at the helm a year ago, vaulting from the East’s seventh seed to the NBA’s best record, which may say as much about the outgoing coaches as it does about Budenholzer. It also doesn’t hurt to have Antetokounmpo at the head of your roster.

I also understand how McMillan fashioned a fifth seed in the Eastern Conference out of a cast of willing contributors, if only because he accomplished a similar feat a year ago, when Indiana surprisingly took LeBron James to Game 7 in the first round of the playoffs. The loss of Victor Oladipo midway through this season makes McMillan’s work all the more impressive. The Pacers did well to avoid an immediate swoon in their All-Star guard’s absence before stumbling to the finish line.

I just really have no idea how the Clippers made the playoffs out West. They were in the hunt for the fifth seed entering the regular season’s final week and ultimately finished eighth, with a first-round date against Golden State that will temper any excitement. Still, the Clips won 48 games despite the front office actively prioritizing the future, trading their best player midseason for the second straight year.

Rivers started Patrick Beverley, Avery Bradley, Danilo Gallinari, Marcin Gortat and Tobias Harris in the season opener, and by year’s end he was forced to fit into his five-man unit two rookies (Gilgeous-Alexander and Landry Shamet, who was acquired in February) and Ivica Zubac, who barely played 1,000 minutes through his first two seasons before the Lakers dumped him at the deadline. In the process, Rivers repaired his reputation as an elite coach and squeezed enough out of this roster to make them an attractive destination for top-end free agents this summer.

All-NBA

FIRST TEAM

G: James Harden, Houston Rockets

G: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

F: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

C: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

SECOND TEAM

G: Kyrie Irving, Boston Celtics

G: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

F: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors

F: Kawhi Leonard, Toronto Raptors

C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

THIRD TEAM

G: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

G: Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

F: Blake Griffin, Detroit Pistons

F: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

How can you leave LeBron James on the sidelines of an All-NBA roster? (Getty Images)
How can you leave LeBron James on the sidelines of an All-NBA roster? (Getty Images)

You’re not going to find much debate here. When the biggest question is whether LeBron James — the game’s greatest active player who averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game this season — deserves Third Team mention, what are we really even arguing about? His Los Angeles Lakers were in the hunt for the playoffs before a groin injury derailed his and their season, and maybe he shouldn’t have pushed to trade the entire roster for Anthony Davis, but c’mon, man. It’s far more logical to take him than elevating someone like Siakam or forcing centers Karl-Anthony Towns and LaMarcus Aldridge into the final forward spot.

The other outstanding question is who deserves the sixth guard spot. I went with Thompson, who remains an all-time great shooter and an elite defender. He is the third-best player on a team chasing its third straight wing, and if you’re looking for reasons to give someone the benefit of the doubt, those are as good as any.

You might go with Kemba Walker, who was a fringe MVP candidate for the first month of the season and carried a horrid Hornets team within a sniff of the playoffs, or Bradley Beal, who played great ball in John Wall’s absence for the abysmal Wizards, or Donovan Mitchell, who overcame a horrid start to regain his status as the primary option on a playoff team. It came down to looking for reasons to give them the nod, as opposed to looking for an excuse not to give it to Thompson.

All-Defense

FIRST TEAM

G: Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics

G: Eric Bledsoe, Milwaukee Bucks

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

F: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

C: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

SECOND TEAM

G: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

G: Patrick Beverley, Los Angeles Clippers

F: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

F: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

There will be unending debate over these picks, because we don’t have access to the analytics that most teams use to measure defense, and the numbers we do have can molded to fit most arguments. These are the guys who stuck out as the most relentless defenders I saw this season, except in the case of Green, who isn’t the Defensive Player of the Year talent he has been in recent years but can still dial it up when he wants to and might still be the smartest defender in the entire NBA.

I like Paul Flannery’s idea for SB Nation: Hand this responsibility to the league’s video coordinators, who study each player’s defensive impact from possession to possession with way more detail than us — and who have access to better data.

All-Rookie

FIRST TEAM

G: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

G: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Los Angeles Clippers

F: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

F: Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

C: DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns

SECOND TEAM

G: Collin Sexton, Cleveland Cavaliers

G: Kevin Huerter, Atlanta Hawks

F: Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns

F: Marvin Bagley III, Sacramento Kings

C: Mitchell Robinson, New York Knicks

I’ve already laid out the cases for everyone on the First Team, save for Jackson, the 6-foot-11 forward with a polished inside-out game who looked like the best player in his class for long stretches before suffering a season-ending injury in February.

The second team is pretty straightforward, too. The biggest question mark was the fourth guard slot, which could go to anyone from Huerter to Landry Shamet (a sharpshooting contributor to playoff runs for both the 76ers and Clippers), Jalen Brunson (a solid contributor for the Mavericks in the second half) and a couple others. I just liked what I saw from Huerter, who helped Young make the Hawks pretty fun to watch in a season that was supposed to end with top lottery odds.

Regardless, the NBA’s 2020 draft class has a lot to live up to following this group.

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