Hey, congratulations! You’ve successfully maneuvered through the grind of the NBA Season. Yes, there are still potentially ten weeks of playoffs to come, and if you’re lucky enough you’ll have a team to root for in the coming weeks. But before we do that, it’s always a fun exercise to dole out fake awards to the most deserving players in the league. These are the dudes out there making highlight reels, leading their teams into battle, and conceptually shifting the paradigm in which we view basketball. This is more an article of opinion than a list of predictions, though for many it’s often tough to tell where one ends and the other begins with picks of this nature. More than anything this serves as a point of comparison in a much grander conversation, and hopefully another spark that ignites more healthy basketball debate.
MVP: Russell Westbrook
Yeeeeeeeessh this is tough, by far the closest race in eight full seasons. I mean, is there a right or wrong answer here? Is Harden and Westbrook winning as Co-MVPs too boring to be the right answer? Is that even fair to LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard? By nature, the Most Valuable Player title should only belong to one singular player. You can’t share being or having the “most” of something. It’s been hashed out through just about every analytical lens the Internet can conjure up.
On the one hand, Russ is probably a robot programmed to destroy every orange rim on the planet, and this dude is averaging a freaking triple-double. THAT’S ONLY BEEN DONE ONCE EVER! And it was done by Oscar Robertson, a legend who’s revered in the annals of basketball history. He’s also doing it while leading the NBA in scoring, averaging almost three more points per game than Harden, who’s in second.
In deep contrast to Russ’ gravity-defying blitzkrieg, Harden is smooth, subtle, sly and heavily bearded all at once. He juxtaposes Westbrook’s explosiveness as the calculated choreographer of a historically efficient offensive ballet. In his first year as the true point guard of Houston’s offense, he’s become the league’s assist leader without sacrificing his incredible scoring ability, and he’s helped turn Houston into a legitimate Western Conference threat. Both players require teams to alter their defensive schemes and both are impossible to guard at their best. But when it boils down to pure, unadulterated value, Russ is this year’s MVP.
Some people will argue that the triple-double is an arbitrary statistical cut off, which sure, technically it is. But it’s also been the statistical landmark basketball writers, fans and players have used to signify a brilliant performance for as long as the concept has existed. It’s silly and unfair to all of the sudden say that triple-doubles are arbitrary just because Russ figured out how to make them look easy. Not only is he the second player ever to average a triple-double in a season, but he also broke Oscar Robertson’s single-season triple-double record of 41, which stood unbroken for 55 years. In fact, maybe it’s not even arbitrary! The Thunder are 32-9 when Westbrook records a triple-double – roughly the equivalent winning percentage of the second-best-record-in-the-league Spurs – and a mere 13-24 when he doesn’t record one.
Statistically, Harden clearly makes a strong case; he’s a much more efficient shooter, third in three-pointers made, and most importantly, the architect of the offense that is going to shatter the all-time record for threes made in a season. Even still, Russ has the edge. He scores more, rebounds more, turns the ball over slightly less, fouls less, and gets more steals despite playing almost two fewer minutes per game. Russ also wins the advanced stats argument, ousting Harden in key categories like Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Rebound Percentage, Assist Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Box Plus/Minus (BPM) and Value over Replacement Player (VORP), per basketball-reference.com.
But wait, Harden’s team is better! True, the Rockets have won eight more games than the Thunder. The context there, however, is that Harden is objectively surrounded by better NBA talent. When he runs a pick-and-roll, the floor is spaced by some combination of Eric Gordon (fourth in the league in threes made), Ryan Anderson (10th), Trevor Ariza (12th), Patrick Beverly (39%) and Lou Williams (35%). Every night he gets to work with the best floor spacing this side of Golden State. Meanwhile, Russ is typically spaced by Victor Oladipo (slightly above average), Andre Roberson (so bad opposing teams want him to take threes), and a combination of Taj Gibson (this was his only three pointer as a member of the Thunder) and Enes Kanter, who has worse shooting numbers than Roberson. Harden’s backup is Lou Williams; Westbrook’s is Semaj Christon.
Per Dan Feldman of NBC Sports, the Rockets are approximately seven wins better with Harden. But the Thunder are thirty-four wins better with Westbrook. The Rockets could very well still be a playoff team without Harden; the Thunder are likely fighting for a top-five draft pick without Russ. And that’s why Russell Westbrook is this year’s MVP.
The Final List:
Honorable Mentions: Rudy Gobert, Isaiah Thomas, Kevin Durant, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, John Wall, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis
Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon
Just about everywhere you turn thinks Dario Saric should win this year’s Rookie of the Year Award. That’s fine. Saric will likely win, and he’s very deserving after stringing together a super impressive run since the All-Star break. The sentiment on Twitter is typically pro-Saric, as people often site him being “the more impressive player” in silly Internet debates. But what does “more impressive” really mean? And what are we really looking for in a Rookie of the Year candidate?
When looking at the list of recent ROTY winners, there’s a pattern of exciting young players compiling statistics on bad, lottery-bound teams. The context for this makes sense, as the award is typically won by players drafted in the first ten picks, which means they were drafted to talent-deprived squads. This formula results in these rookies getting plenty of playing time and more opportunities to score than they would on even an average team. But what’s truly more impressive? A rookie tallying up empty numbers on a team headed for the lottery or a rookie who breaks that mold and is a key contributor on a playoff team? Brogdon doesn’t just deserve the award as the correct answer to that question, but he actually has better statistics than Saric!
Let that graphic marinate for a minute. Brogdon wins the statistical debate in almost every single category, and Saric’s edge in rebounds, blocks and rebound percentage is directly attributable to his height and time spent closer to the rim. Saric essentially scores more than Brogdon, though not a lot more, and he’s therefore “more impressive.” Saric leads all rookies in scoring, which is probably going to be what gives him the edge in winning, even though his average of 12.9 points per game would be the lowest by a winner in over 60 years. Does that even make sense to give Saric the award because he is ‘technically’ leading all rookies in scoring? Shouldn’t we look at every metric available when rookie scoring is historically low?
Saric may lead rookies in scoring, but Brogdon’s statistical case is stronger. He leads all qualifying rookies in three-point percentage, assists per game, steals per game, and is the only rookie under 6’7″ in the top ten in field goal percentage. In fact, the only other rookies ever to match his assists, steals, and field goal percentage numbers are Larry Bird and Steph Curry! But the numbers don’t have to end there. Brogdon has a better three-point percentage and assist/turnover ratio than Steph, Kyrie Irving, Isaiah Thomas and John Wall. Per NBA.com, Brogdon is in the top ten in the entire league in assists and steals in the fourth quarter, and he’s second in the whole stinking NBA in fourth quarter field goal percentage behind LeBron. It’s numbers of that caliber that led Brogdon to his best performance of the season, in which he scored or assisted on Milwaukee’s final 12 points en route to a stunning road upset against the Boston Celtics. His teammates trusted him to guard Isaiah Thomas down the stretch – who leads the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring – and run the offense while guarded by elite perimeter defender Avery Bradley.
Brogdon simply doesn’t fit the award pattern because he’s an incredibly unique rookie. Who’s to say that’s not a good thing? He’s a legitimate contributor on a scary playoff-bound team and the point guard of an offense that’s top ten in efficiency. His ability to run the pick and roll on the ball and act as a spot-up shooter off it perfectly blends with Giannis’ ball-needy skillset, which has helped take Milwaukee’s offense to a new level. He also takes on the responsibility of guarding elite point guards like Steph, Kyrie, Damian Lillard, IT and more, and he uses his length, strength, and instincts to disrupt their offensive flow. How many rookies earn themselves a six and a half minute defensive montage in their first season?
It seems much of the argument for Saric comes down to playing style. Supposedly, Saric is much flashier than Brogdon. He can pass and dribble exceptionally well for a power forward, is a decent spot-up shooter and has all sorts of little hook shots, fakes and floaters that are very tough defend. Brogdon’s game goes more unnoticed because a lot of what he does well – defend, make the right pass, good positioning – doesn’t even get recorded on the stat sheet. But is Saric really that much flashier than Brogdon? ESPN’s Zach Lowe, the best basketball writer on the planet, just aptly compared Saric’s offensive game to that of Boris Diaw. Meanwhile, Brogdon dunked on LeBron and Kyrie in the same game, dunked on D-Wade (3:19 mark), dunked on Paul Millsap and dunked on Nerlens Noel. How many players can make that claim, let alone rookies? And to top it off, he’s the only rookie to record a triple-double this season.
I read on Twitter that Brogdon’s injury – he’s missed the last three games – is really hurting his award chances during a crucial stretch. But is it possible it’s actually helping? Milwaukee has one of the best records in the NBA since the All-Star break, right around when Brogdon became a full-time member of the starting lineup. In the three games he’s missed, Milwaukee needed overtime to beat the struggling Pistons at home (and blew a huge lead), lost to the lottery-bound Mavericks at home (and couldn’t guard the pick and roll), and got absolutely destroyed by the Thunder on the road while barely managing 79 points scored.
Brogdon isn’t just some role player on a mediocre team, he’s a crucial two-way cog on the fifth-best team in the Eastern Conference and has been fundamental in getting Milwaukee back to the playoffs. He also DUNKED ON LEBRON which should be worth about 15 votes. It’s not even a debate: Malcolm Brogdon is this season’s Rookie of the Year.
The Final List
Honorable Mentions: Marquese Chriss, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray, Willy Hernangomez, Brandon Ingram
Stay tuned, Sunday we’ll dive into my picks for Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player.
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted. Stats are current as of Thursday night (4/6/17).