BDL's midseason award picks: Rookie of the Year, Coach 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.
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(If you missed our first installment, here are the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year picks.)
Rookie of the Year
Eric Freeman: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves.
I'm less sure of this choice than anything we've discussed so far. Towns has been absolutely terrific, with an offensive game well beyond what most expected and enough defensive skills to suggest he can star at that end once he matures.
On the other hand, his team is quite bad and unlikely to challenge for a playoff start, which could put him behind New York Knicks dynamo Kristaps Porzingis by April. Porzingis is somehow everything we were told he'd be and more — his defensive skills and overall feel for the game were the first things to impress despite projections that they'd only come with time, and the outside shooting and varied offensive skillset that supposedly earned him the No. 4 pick are only really starting to reveal themselves now. Is he already the best follow-dunker in the league? And how many up-and-coming New York point guards will be named "Kristaps" 20 years from now?
Dan Devine: See, Eric, now you're making me a bit sad that my daughter was born before the 2015 draft. Oh, well. There's always the next kid.
I'm with you, in both the pick and the slight discomfort making it. Porzingis has been a revelation, easily the most exciting rookie to hit New York since the Knicks landed Patrick Ewing, Mark Jackson and Rod Strickland in the mid-to-late 1980s. His patience, footwork, defensive instincts and ability to handle the center spot for long stretches have all come much sooner and much more convincingly than anticipated. The Knicks have been more than six points per 100 possessions better with him on the court than off it, and he's producing near-nightly highlights. It's been stunning.
With Towns, though, what stands out is that his play hasn't seemed stunning at all -- that his transition and ascension has often seemed so matter-of-fact. Whenever I watch him, it feels totally normal that he looks not just capable of being the best player on the court, but like he's already getting there. He's already holding opponents to a lower field-goal percentage at the rim than Tim Duncan, already shooting a dynamite 45 percent from midrange and already working as a glass-cleaning rebounder who covers a ton of ground in the defensive half-court; he's on pace to become the first rookie since 2000 (and just the 15th ever) to average 15 points, nine rebounds, an assist and a block per game, a list featuring all-timers like Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O'Neal, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo and Chris Webber.
I mean, if the Knicks keep winning and Porzingis keeps being a significant reason why, I wouldn't flip over tables if Kristaps won ROY. (Or, if I did, it would be because I was really excited.) That said, at the halfway point, I think it's fair to say that Towns has been the better individual player, even if that hasn't translated into better on-court results for the Wolves.
... and now I realize that my rationale for KAT-over-Kristaps is basically the opposite of my rationale for Draymond-over-Kawhi. Kelly, save me from my hypocrisy!
Kelly Dwyer: It’s OK, we're not even in the primary stage right now. None of us are going to be held to any of this come November April.
It is very true that the next KAT highlight we, um, highlight will be our first. For a huge chunk of the voting media, his games begin in that weird middle ground between Knicks games and Warriors tip times, due to the Timberwolves’ home setting: REAL AMERICA, people. And despite a strong and surprising start, Minnesota remains a frustrating watch due to, eh, coaching limitations and up and down play from the team’s young core. These punks don’t even know how to throw a straight entry pass.
The situation reminds me of the 2002-03 Rookie of the Year race, because I’m super old. No rookie in NBA history entered the league with as much media scrutiny as Yao Ming, even though this was in the days before all the micro-bloggin’ and high-speed connections (yes, my apartment still had dial-up that year and a radiator that wouldn’t turn off, necessitating that me and my understandably angry girlfriend leave the bedroom window open during Chicago winters), so it wasn’t as if he was some overlooked and unheralded gem.
Still, once Yao hit the stage and didn’t disappoint, the media mainly just regarded him as a cultural phenomenon, rather than a badass basketball player. A jump hook, nice, and solid footwork on that turnaround jumper. Nothing outrageous. He’s 7-6 and famous. He’s supposed to do that.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, a guy that was then named “Amare” Stoudemire was dunking all over the place, leading what was a so-so Phoenix Suns team back into the playoffs, even giving the eventual champion Spurs a run in the first round. It’s important to remember that this was a season placed directly after the prep-heavy 2001 draft, which saw Kwame Brown, Eddy Curry, and Tyson Chandler all let their teams down while an import in Pau Gasol took top rookie honors.
Stoudemire, who went to five high schools, seemed to be the next disappointment – and yet he thrived. The surprise was enough, and even though Yao was a more efficient player who worked up similar numbers in slightly fewer minutes, the future “Amar’e” ran away with things.
In 2016, the roles are switched but the slight difference and attention is the same. We dug Porzingis last June, but were ready to wait until 2017 to see him start dominating. KAT is the first overall pick – he’s supposed to be doing this, despite the fact that he’s three months younger that Kristaps. We shouldn’t let New York’s potential playoff surprise (don’t believe in jinxes, Dan, those are only for Chicago) confuse us. It’s Towns. Not by much, but it has got to be Towns.
Geez, how great is it to finally have great rookies again?
KD: Coach of the Year: Luke Walton, Golden State Warriors
The auto-pilot theory is bunk. The idea that you could put this guy in charge of the Golden State Warriors and watch as he led them to a 39-3 record is preposterous. Especially considering the circumstances.
Yes, the Warriors mostly run the same sets – but I’m seeing less of the triangle than I saw last year and more designs set to free up a player in Stephen Curry who is turning into an out-and-out NBA legend. Not only is that great coaching, that’s brave coaching. Walton took over from a man in Steve Kerr that contended for (and, some would say, should have won the) Coach of the Year, someone who turned a disappointing team into a title-winner in his first season, and didn’t stand still.
And, not to go all sportswriter on you guys, but Walton had some chins to prop up. This is a locker-room filled with self-policing pros, but a guy who has only been around those pros for 12 months prior to his ascension as acting head coach kept this team on the uptick in spite of what could have been a disheartening turn, due to Kerr’s health setbacks. That ain’t easy. That ain’t autopilot.
All of us want to see Steve, our former Yahoo Sports buddy, come back to full health and hop back on that sideline. The Warriors will likely keep rolling, which might put voters in a conundrum come spring once they try to figure out how to use these votes. So, for now, let’s recognize what Luke Walton has thus so far.
Beyond that, Coach Pop will forever be overlooked. Rick Carlisle? Despite the recent swoon, Brad Stevens? Terry Stotts? Good god … George Karl?
EF: I agree that Walton is the midseason winner, although I'm curious to see if his candidacy sticks around when Kerr comes back. Assuming the Warriors stay at the top of the conference, I imagine you'll see a lot of pundits claim that he really was just doing basic maintenance on a well-oiled machine for a few months. Would that change if htey slip a little and even fall behind the Spurs? I'm not sure it'd be anything more than a coincidence, but we could see an interim coach get serious consideration for the award. Does that say more about Walton or the extent to which we're able to define with "Coach of the Year" means?
I have no working definition, but I'd like to second the Carlisle mention. I was very low on the Mavericks heading into this season and thought they'd fall apart under the weight of their own mistaken expectations. That turned out to be very wrong. They look as solid as any other West team outside of the top three and have managed to make several players many assumed were washed and/or too injured to function look not only usable, but genuinely good. Forget Deron Williams — can you believe how much Zaza Pachulia is doing for this team? The players deserved credit for taking advantage of what could have been their last chances to stick with a franchise, but it takes a fantastic coach to deploy them so effectively. I didn't know that a group could execute so effectively while looking like someone's limb could detach at any moment.
DD: I don't have especially strong feelings about this one. I agree that Walton should get recognition for what he's actively done thus far, and also that Kerr's return will create a pretty weird voting situation come year's end. I agree that Carlisle has probably done the best job with the weirdest array of pieces, and in the category of "bad team improving after change on the bench," Scott Skiles probably deserves some votes for turning Orlando into a middle-of-the-pack defense and what looks like a playoff team.
As is just about always the case, I also wouldn't argue with Pop getting the nod. He's continued to pull every right lever in Kawhi's ongoing development into a superstar; he's gotten LaMarcus Aldridge both acclimated to a new reality and cool with playing less than 30 minutes a night; he's masterfully managed a rotation that both keeps his greybeards fresh and allows guys like Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons and Boban Marjanovic to play real minutes often; and he's created the tactical underpinnings of (thus far) the best defense of the 3-point era and a top-three offense. Like, that's pretty good even for the guy we know is pretty good.
Or, at least, I think it's pretty good relative to other years? If there's one thing that Britt Robson's fantastic Q&A with Minnesota Timberwolves interim head coach Sam Mitchell taught me, it's that there's an awful lot we don't know about what goes into coaching widely varied rosters on a day-to-day basis. In the absence of greater clarity, then, I guess I'll go with the guy whose team has lost three games. Revolutionary thinking!
UP NEXT: Sixth Man, and Most Improved Player.