BDL's midseason award picks: MVP, Defensive Player of the Year
Three of the NBA’s 30 teams have already played half their games, and by the end of the weekend the league will officially be at its midway point. With 41 games’ worth of work in, it’s more than fair to judge just who has put in the most award-worthy work thus far.
Judged by, as you’d expect, three men with a stable full of awards tucked away in their attics: Dan Devine, Kelly Dwyer, and Eric Freeman.
[Follow Dunks Don't Lie on Tumblr: The best slams from all of basketball]
Most Valuable Player
Dan Devine: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. With all due respect, arguing others' merits seems like an exercise in avoiding disrespect. Kawhi Leonard has become a full-fledged No. 1/1A offensive option while remaining the league's most destructive defender, and Russell Westbrook has been as irresistible as last season while playing with a healthy Kevin Durant, and LeBron James is still inescapably LeBron James, and I've loved watching them all ... and none of that matters.
Nobody with this large an offensive role has ever shot this efficiently; nobody's ever shot like this, period. Steph leads the league in regular stats, in advanced ones and in joyous Vine loops created, and is the best player on the team with the best record in the league, which is also a team taking aim at history. By any definition, this award is his.
Eric Freeman: I agree, to the point where making the case for Curry in comparison to others seems almost beside the point. But there are still three months of the regular season left to go, so it remains possible that someone will rise above Steph in the event of an injury (please no!) or unforeseen Golden State losing streak. If either scenario passes, the favorite would appear to be Leonard, who has the inside track on an All-NBA First Team spot while playing for a team with a better point differential than the Warriors. He's been the best two-way player in the league and seems capable of holding at that level for a full season.
I'm not sure how seriously to take the other candidates. Westbrook and Durant seem like long shots unless the Thunder vault over at least one of the Warriors-Spurs duo, and LeBron seems so intent on staying fresh for a title run that I'm not sure his regular-season stats will be impressive enough. Am I wrong for thinking Draymond Green might have the third-best shot? He's already on the list for many, and he'd presumably shoot up boards if Curry misses time with his nagging shin injury and the Warriors hold onto the No. 1 seed.
Kelly Dwyer: At this point it's worth wondering if Curry is going to turn into the league's first unanimous MVP. To me, the only thing getting in his way would be a combination of voter fatigue and some show-offy media member trying to make some terrible, terrible point. The NBA news cycle moves so fast these days that it could be possible that, by spring, a Jeannette Rankin-type could pop up while potentially falling back explanation-wise on the famed point differential stats that San Antonio has enjoyed the lead in for weeks -- and, potentially by voting time, months. In spite of a potential 80-win season for Golden State.
Throw in the idea that GSW could lose out on breaking Chicago's record for wins should Curry's shin issues flare up or the team decides to rest him, and you would have a narrative in place for Kawhi to get a few clicks (either that, or someone accidentally clicks on Seth Curry on the league's drop-down voting menu). Leonard would seem to be the obstacle on the way toward one hundred percent, what with LeBron giving us a B-level version of The King this year and Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant seemingly canceling each others' chances out.
Draymond Green at No. 3 is an interesting idea, as voters like to go for a wild card now and then, as we saw in 2014 with Joakim Noah. This brings us to ...
Defensive Player of the Year
KD: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: I'm sure you two would agree that this isn't a pity vote, a makeup call with Stephen Curry taking the big trophy. Frankly, I thought Draymond should have won the award last season, and he was somewhat vindicated by receiving more first place votes than anyone, but the Warriors have fallen off defensively this year despite that sterling start overall, and the Spurs have a chance to be the league's best defensive team since that suffocating 2004-05 San Antonio squad that changed the we considered NBA defense.
That group featured Bruce Bowen on the wing, charged with staying with his man (which he was damn good at), and little else. No steals, no boards. The longer and more athletic Kawhi has more responsibilities, and though he's not roaming for steals at a league-leading rate (7th) or crashing the boards better than all (9th in defensive rebound rate among small forwards), the whole package is impossible to pass over.
DD: I don't think it's a pity vote at all; I'm just not sure it's the right one. All three of us picked Draymond over Kawhi last year, and I think there's a case again this season.
The individual defensive metrics seem to make this a coin flip. Green holds the edge in Defensive Real Plus-Minus; Leonard leads in Defensive Win Shares. Draymond's individual defensive assignments see their field-goal percentages drop by a larger amount than Kawhi's do, with Draymond facing many more shot attempts per game. That cuts both ways, though, because it helps indicate how opponents view Kawhi like a shutdown corner, often refusing to even look in his direction, which makes life so much more difficult.
Both are elite at stopping isolation plays, with Kawhi allowing fewer points per possession on (again) far fewer attempts, while Green's been nearly as disruptive amid more frequent testing. Leonard has kept opposing ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll and spot-up shooters from scoring more than two-thirds of the time; Draymond has stuffed opposing roll men just as often, while grading out as the game's best post defender despite giving up a size advantage every night.
You're right that the Spurs' league-leading defense has been historically excellent while the Warriors' D has merely been top-five-caliber. But Golden State has clamped down at closer-to-San-Antonio levels with Green on the floor, and turned into a sieve without him.
The Dubs have allowed 12.6 more points per 100 possessions -- the difference between the league's second-best defense and its worst -- when Green sits, while the Spurs have maintained an all-time defensive rating even with Kawhi off the floor. In fact, San Antonio has allowed a microscopic 89.5 points-per-100 in 112 minutes with Leonard sitting and Tim Duncan in the middle, which means this is probably where we should mention that the 39-year-old legend (your league leader in Defensive Real Plus-Minus, for what it's worth) merits some consideration, too.
I think Leonard is probably the game's single best defensive player. But Draymond's capacity to unlock the Warriors' switching schemes and small-ball lineups, and the degree to which his presence and absence seems to dictate Golden State's defensive production, still might make him the NBA's single most important defensive player. Does that make sense?
EF: It does, although I'm not sure it's enough to supplant Kawhi. Apart from the numbers, Leonard's defense passes the eye test so thoroughly that it almost screams out for highlights. It's difficult to watch a Spurs game and not marvel at his ability. He's overwhelming in a way that Draymond isn't, and that helps to win awards.
What's curious to me, though, is that these two favorites do not fit the bill of the linchpin center that looked like the future of NBA defense just a few seasons ago. Both Leonard and Green star with their versatility, not by sitting in the lane and ferrying all potential scorers away from the basket. They're either the future or a reminder that the league is always changing. Maybe in three years we'll all be marveling at a point guard who defends the post.
Speaking of the future ...
UP NEXT: Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year | Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year