Every team eclipsed this NBA season’s midway point last week, so before we turn our gaze to the trade deadline and All-Star Game in February, let us recognize those who distinguished themselves in the first half of this campaign, for better or worse. Much has changed since our staff’s preseason predictions.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Run this season through without Giannis on the Bucks. How would a starting lineup of Eric Bledsoe, Wes Matthews, Khris Middleton, Ersan Ilyasova and Brook Lopez fare in the East? Are they better than the eighth-seeded and sub-.500 Brooklyn Nets? Bledsoe, Ilyasova and Lopez were staples of some of the worst teams of the decade, starting for a combined 20 seasons before joining Antetokounmpo’s Bucks. Only Lopez made the playoffs as a starter with a winning record. His Nets lost in the first round.
Yet, the Bucks are on pace to join the dynastic Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors as the only other team ever to win 70 games. This is not to say Milwaukee is a poorly constructed roster. The Bucks are outscoring opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions without Antetokounmpo on the floor this season, a net rating better than every other team right now. But that can partly be attributed to many of their non-Giannis minutes coming in garbage time, after he has forced opponents to submit.
Antetokounmpo is averaging 35.2 points (on 61.3 percent true shooting), 15.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals per 36 minutes, but his impact is so significant that he only has to play 30 a night. The list of players to average a 35-15-6 per 36 over a full season: Nobody. And he has room to improve, should his three-point percentage ever level out at league average. As he stands now, Antetokounmpo is already the orchestrator of the league’s best defense and its second-best offense.
Runners-up: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers.
Least Valuable Player: John Wall, Washington Wizards
There is a lot of competition for this award, so it depends on how you interpret value. You may consider Draymond Green, who is demonstrating that the entire value of his new $100 contract extension is contingent on the health of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Blake Griffin and Isaiah Thomas are sadly past their prime. Nobody wants Jeff Green around, and Mario Hezonja was such hot garbage that it unfroze Carmelo Anthony. Dennis Smith Jr. and Collin Sexton are advanced analytical nightmares.
But I went with Wall. Granted, he will sit the season and cannot actively contribute to his team’s on-court failures, but his contract is the NBA’s least trade-able, drowning the Wizards. Kevin Durant had already torn his Achilles when the Nets signed him to a max contract and others followed to Brooklyn.
The opposite is occurring in D.C., where the Wizards are in a catch-22. They cannot properly build around Bradley Beal because of Wall’s contract, and they probably cannot rid themselves of Wall’s contract without attaching Beal to the deal. As a result, the Wizards were a lost cause from the start.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Morant is not just good for a rookie. He is straight-up good, maybe even great. The 20-year-old is the leading scorer and playmaker for the NBA’s most surprising team. No one figured his Grizzlies would amount to anything this season, especially the Celtics, who own their top-six protected first-round pick, and Andre Iguodala, who sat in hopes of landing with a playoff team when he may already be on one.
Morant’s nightly averages of 17.9 points (on 49/41/81 shooting splits) and seven assists create 35.9 points in just 30 minutes per game, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. The next-highest total for a rookie is 24-year-old Miami Heat wing Kendrick Nunn’s 25.5. This, my friends, is not close.
Runners-up: Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies; Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat.
Veteran of the Year: Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Paul could have easily pouted his way through this season. The 34-year-old cannot have many high-caliber seasons left in him, and the Houston Rockets dumped him in favor of Russell Westbrook, sending him to a Thunder team that also just traded Paul George. Speculation ran rampant that OKC could swap him for even more draft picks for their rebuild. Nobody has come calling. In the meantime, Paul has become an invaluable contributor and mentor to a team that looks like a lock for the playoffs.
Paul’s usage is the lowest of his career, lower than teammates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schroder, and it is no surprise that the two young playmakers are enjoying career years under his guidance. No regular three-man lineup in the NBA is more efficient than when those three play together. The point guard trio is outscoring opponents by 31 points per 100 possessions over 290 minutes this season. No other team can claim a trio that is better than plus 20 points per 100 in that many minutes.
With respect to fellow veterans Goran Dragic, George Hill and Dwight Howard, who have all accepted diminished roles to contribute to winning programs, none of them could do what Paul is doing in OKC.
Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
This award pretty clearly comes down to three players — two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, 2018 First Team All-Defensive big man Anthony Davis and Antetokounmpo (a First Team selection last year) — unless you want to make an argument that Marcus Smart is pound-for-pound the best of the bunch. Davis has the counting stats (4.2 combined blocks and steals per 36 minutes), and Gobert alters the way teams attack the paint, but nobody is as versatile a defensive weapon as Giannis.
Of the three, according to Second Spectrum, Antetokounmpo has by far the best defensive field goal percentage at the rim (his assignments are shooting 43.5 percent against him) and overall percentage points difference (opponents are shooting 15.2 percent worse when he is defending). Likewise, with him on the court, his team has the top defensive rating of the trio (98.3 points allowed per 100 possessions, which would be the best team performance in history) and best opponents’ field goal percentage (40.5 percent, which would be the third-best mark ever). He also defends the widest array of positions.
Their performances against each other are a microcosm of the breadth of Antetokounmpo’s impact. On 38 possessions, Davis and Gobert scored a combined eight points on 12 shots, as their teams scored 0.78 points per possession. Giannis and Gobert scored 17 points on 12 shots on 41 possessions opposite Davis, as their teams scored 1.04 points per possession. Giannis and Davis scored 20 points on 15 shots in 37 possessions against Gobert, as their teams scored 1.21 points per possession.
Now, Gobert gets the short end of the stick here, since Giannis and Davis are more gifted offensive players, but the fact of the matter remains: The best possible player to defend Giannis is Giannis.
Runners-up: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz.
Least Defensive Player of the Year: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
Defensive real plus-minus can be a wonky stat, but it gets something right: Young and Washington Wizards point guard Isaiah Thomas belong in the bottom three. They are simply overmatched. Bradley Beal is the only player below them, which should be a sign to the Wizards that he has lost interest in his team. Beal is at least capable when engaged. Thomas was never too good on that end, and his hip injury has made it worse. Young is healthy and trying and still failing for more than 35 minutes a game. He gets blown by and shot over, and when the Hawks try to hide him, he still loses his man. It’s tough.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
You could give this award to Harrell, Clippers teammate Lou Williams or Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schroder, and nobody could complain. They all average 19 points per game off the bench and do so efficiently. Williams and Schroder create more with the ball in their hands, but Harrell’s off-the-ball work as a pick-and-roll partner is just as helpful. Per NBA tracking data, his screens directly create 7.7 points a game, to say nothing of the fact he is one of the NBA’s hardest workers on the offensive glass.
The biggest point in Harrell’s favor is his two-way value. He is the most vital paint protector on a title favorite, and his energy and athleticism often offset his limitations as an undersized center. The Clips may still need more depth at the position, but a Harrell injury would leave a gaping hole in the middle.
Runners-up: Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder; Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers.
15th Man of the Year: Tacko Fall, Boston Celtics
The 7-foot-6 Senegalian has played a total of 21 minutes in the NBA and garnered more fan votes for the All-Star Game than every center in the league but Joel Embiid and Nikola Jokic. Fall is averaging 29.1 points, 17.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per 36 minutes. Small sample size, but still: Legend status.
Most Improved Player: Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Luka Doncic and returning Most Improved Player Pascal Siakam have taken leaps from borderline All-Stardom to MVP consideration, and a change of scenery helped Brandon Ingram realize his potential, but few people even knew who Devonte’ Graham was last season as a rookie second-round pick.
Graham quadrupled his scoring output from 4.7 points per game last year to 18.6 this season, and his 7.7 assists per game rank sixth behind four All-Stars and Ricky Rubio. Only four players attempt more threes per game than Graham’s 9.4 — James Harden, Buddy Hield, Damian Lillard and D’Angelo Russell — and none approach his 39 percent marksmanship. And he has been as efficient a pick-and-roll ball-handler as LeBron James, scoring 0.92 points per possession on 9.5 such plays per game.
Were it not for sharing backcourt usage with Terry Rozier, Graham might be an All-Star this season. You had an idea Doncic, Siakam and Ingram would be good. No one saw this coming from Graham but him.
Runners-up: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks; Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans.
Least Improved Player: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
Simmons is one of the best and most versatile defenders in the NBA, an elite playmaker and a lock to make his second straight All-Star Game. He has also done nothing to improve the shooting that could elevate him to an MVP and his team to a title. Even the threat of a mid-range jumper could drastically raise Philadelphia’s ceiling. Simmons is shooting 63 percent on 438 attempts inside of eight feet and 19 percent on 58 attempts outside of eight feet. He is essentially the same player he was upon entering the league, and it is the primary reason his partnership with Joel Embiid has not proven dominant.
Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers lost five of their top seven players in total minutes from a team that won 48 games last season, returning only Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, two seemingly misfit bigs who McMillan has seamlessly sewn together. All-Star playmaker Victor Oladipo has yet to play a game this season, and yet Indiana is on pace to win 53 games, currently three losses out of the East’s second seed.
Teams like the Lakers, Heat, Mavericks and Thunder have also exceeded expectations, but people at least expected them to be improved this season. Nobody figured the Pacers would be better without Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic — their two leading scorers in 2018-19 — through the first half of this campaign. I was among those who declared them dead after they sandwiched a pair of losses to Detroit around one to Cleveland to start the season, but McMillan has developed Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon into All-Stars and turned a bunch of castoffs into a deep rotation with a top-10 defense.
Runners-up: Taylor Jenkins, Memphis Grizzlies; Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat.
Worst Coach of the Year: John Beilein, Cleveland Cavaliers
In his first four months on the job, anonymous Cavaliers have outed Beilein for calling his players “thugs” and losing his locker room. He apologized effusively for the former, saying he meant to say “slugs,” and several players defended him against the latter. It is unclear whether the players who publicly backed Beilein are the same ones who backstabbed him, but the damage was done.
Beilein and Tristan Thompson engaged in a shouting match on the court, reportedly over Collin Sexton’s shot selection, and Kevin Love showed up Beilein and his entire team during a game. The Cavs are 12-32 in the East, a couple losses away from the conference’s worst record. Other than that, everything is going just fine for Beilein in the first season of a five-year contract with the Cavaliers.
Executive of the Year: Lawrence Frank, Los Angeles Clippers
Frank’s front office all but stalked Kawhi Leonard throughout his only season with the Toronto Raptors. Not only did Frank get his man, but he got Paul George to join him and built a title favorite overnight. As Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka publicly pined for Anthony Davis, throwing every available asset on the table for the All-NBA big man, reportedly with little regard for salary cap space that could have secured a third star, Frank operated in the dark to score George with three years left on his contract.
Frank also retained free agents Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green and Rodney McGruder, three guys he creatively brought into the fold last season. He re-signed Patrick Beverley when it seemed as though the All-Defensive guard might head elsewhere for more money. He scored Mo Harkless and the last first-round pick necessary to secure George simply by facilitating Jimmy Butler’s sign-and-trade to Miami. And he lured Patrick Patterson for the minimum to round out one of the NBA’s deepest rosters.
Not every move has panned out, but the Clippers have the second-most wins in the West while keeping Leonard and George rested for a combined 30 games, and they are the team best built for the playoffs.
Runners-up: David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans; Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder.
Worst Executive of the Year: Steve Mills, New York Knicks
Mills’ NBA calendar year began by losing Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency to the crosstown Brooklyn Nets, issuing a statement to their “disappointed” fans, and then amending that statement to include the young Knicks in their plans to win a title “through both the draft and targeted free agency.”
He then targeted four free-agent power forwards and a point guard who would take minutes from the point guard they drafted with a top-10 pick and the point guard they acquired by trading the most promising Knicks player in decades. To bring this full circle, Mills dealt Kristaps Porzingis last January to create the cap space he used to sign Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Taj Gibson and Marcus Morris.
Of that group, only Morris has met his value, and rather than turn that good fortune into an asset for the future before he can potentially walk in free agency, Mills is reportedly considering keeping the 30-year-old who will be well past his prime by the time the Knicks get good. If they ever do. Outside of Mitchell Robinson and whatever lottery picks they will get under Mills’ watch as a result of their ineptitude, a cornerstone franchise in the NBA’s biggest media market does not have a single asset of much value.
Oh, and let us not forget Mills made David Fizdale his scapegoat in December by firing the coach he hired 19 months earlier. The hot seat in New York is a trash fire.
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