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.
Click here for my write-up on the MVP and Rookie of the Year awards.
Defensive Player Of The Year: Rudy Gobert
Man these award races feel particularly close this year. Look, eventually Kawhi will get the LeBron treatment and stop winning the award because of how bored everyone will be. This one is basically a toss up between Kawhi, Draymond and Rudy Gobert, which may be the case for many years to come. Kawhi stakes his claim as the best perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen, a guy so good at defense that even LeBron gets upset when he comes on the court.
He’s also the best defender on the best defensive team in the league, which is all the more impressive when you consider the Spurs start Tony Parker and some combination of Pau Gasol and David Lee. Kawhi is so good at defense that teams will sometimes take his man out of the offense entirely and just play four-on-four, which is supposed to help his case until it doesn’t. But it’s rare for a wing player to win the award, let alone in three straight years, which will probably work against him.
Draymond makes a similar case as the defensive leader of the second best defense in the league. The Warriors are so close – only .3 points (per 100 possessions) behind the Spurs – that it’s basically a toss-up for which defense is better, especially when you consider the hectic pace of Golden State’s offense. Draymond is more than just a defensive leader, though; his defensive versatility and ability to switch on to just about any player in the league is one of the biggest reasons the Warriors turned from good to great. He’s second in the league in steals and 11th in blocks, joining Giannis as the only player in the top 20 on both lists. Impressively, Draymond is also in the top five in field goal percentage allowed at the rim, basically a tell-all rim protecting metric, despite standing at a measly 6’7″ and guarding guys that are often bigger than him.
Gobert rests his case as the scariest rim protector in the league, which bodes well for him historically. And considering that Utah is third in team defense and rates in the same elite tier as Golden State and San Antonio in just about every metric, the difference is minimal. Rebounding is a part of defense too, which tilts the math in Gobert’s favor as the fifth-leading rebounder in the league (and second in offensive rebounding). As the best rim protector and shot blocker in the NBA, the anchor of a top-three defense and one of the league’s best rebounders, Gobert perfectly fits the mold of what this award seeks to encompass.
Statistically, Draymond and Gobert have better cases. Kawhi is fourth in Defensive Win Shares and eighth in steals but averages less than one block per game. The Spurs are so solid defensively that Kawhi’s Defensive Rating is actually slightly below the team’s net defensive rating, partially because teams purposely scheme him out of the offense. Draymond leads the league in deflections and is second in DWS. He’s second in Defensive Rating in the league, as Golden State’s defense is two points better with him on the floor. And then there’s Gobert. The Frenchman leads the league in DWS (5.7) and blocks per game (2.7) and allows the second-lowest field goal percentage at the rim. The only player with a lower (which is better) Defensive Rating than Draymond is Gobert, who helps the Jazz allow 3.9 fewer points (per 100 possessions) when he’s on the floor.
Today’s game stresses versatility more and more every day, and for that reason Draymond might sneak by with the win. But players are afraid to even go near the rim with Gobert on the floor, and his presence tilts offenses in so many uncomfortable ways. With the best statistical case and the biggest net improvement on his team’s defense, the Stifle Tower will reign victorious for the first time.
The Final List
Honorable Mentions: Chris Paul, Patrick Beverly, Tony Allen, Myles Turner, Marcus Smart, Jimmy Butler, Dwight Howard, DeAndre Jordan, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I swear this list isn’t biased towards the Bucks. I yielded that Brogdon likely won’t beat Saric even though the numbers back it up. Here, Giannis is the clear winner by almost every metric and passes the eye test in literally flying colors. Every year Giannis’ game has improved across the board, but this year was his biggest leap, from intriguing point-forward to a fully-fledged two-way superstar. Milwaukee is going to make the playoffs despite not having Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker for a combined 82 games and sporting a below-average defense, and a lot of it is thanks to the way Giannis impacts the game on both ends of the floor. He’s finally making the game easier for his teammates, which is the true mark of a star.
Giannis’ biggest competition is probably narrowed down to some combination of Nikola Jokic, Otto Porter, Harrison Barnes, Devin Booker, Myles Turner and Karl Anthony-Towns. Jokic is the closest in my book and has a legitimate claim as the league’s most improved player; Denver has the best offense in the league since he took over as the full-time starter at center. He’s probably already the best passing center of all time and is a treat to watch with the ball.
But of that list, only Porter and (maybe) Turner are going to make the playoffs and at best they’re the third-option on their respective squads. Giannis wasn’t even the best two-way player on the Bucks last year, and now he’s an All-Star starter and a top-four player in the Eastern Conference.
Giannis’s statistical improvement is astounding. His name crops up in the top ten of almost every advanced stat available. He’s eighth in PER, ninth in free throws attempted, eighth in Win Shares, eighth in Box Plus/Minus and fourth in VORP. Check more basic surface-level stats and he’s 11th in steals, fifth in blocks, 21st in assists, 15th in rebounds and 20th in scoring. Oh yeah, and there’s this:
Towns deserves recognition as well, but he hasn’t made the defensive jump many were hoping for in his second year. Grading second-year players gets tricky; they’re naturally expected to improve with more game experience, more offensive opportunities and a full offseason of NBA workouts. Towns was already a top seven center as a rookie, so it’s hard to say he made a leap in the same way Giannis or Jokic did considering his team still won’t make the playoffs. Booker and Turner face the same conundrum. Booker might lead the league in improved scoring, and his 70-point game should get him a few votes just on merit. But he grades out poorly in most advanced metrics, has barely improved his other counting statistics and is still a net negative on defense. Turner has turned into an elite rim protector (fourth in blocks, second in block %) but he still needs to work on defensive positioning to defend the pick and roll better. He still doesn’t rebound enough and only plays 22 minutes per game as a result. Booker and Turner will likely be stars one day, but they still haven’t made that leap.
Barnes doesn’t even make the top five in my book. It’s been fun watching him prove he deserved a bigger role than he had in Golden State, but his only real statistical improvements are 7.7 more points per game and a PER that’s up by four points (to just above league average). But his usage rate is up almost 10% and he’s taking seven more shots per game, so he’s bound to score more. His efficiency is understandably down, and having him as the leading scorer hasn’t exactly worked out in Dallas’ favor. He’s actually declined in advanced metrics like Win Shares and VORP.
Here’s a chart for you visual learners out there. Green boxes indicate improvement, red boxes show decline, blue boxes display who improved the most in a specified category, and white boxes mean there was no significant change.
Giannis and Turner are the only players who improved across the board, but Giannis also improved the most in four categories. Giannis hasn’t just improved the most statistically, but he’s the best player of this group, sports the best numbers, and importantly is already one of the best defenders in the NBA. Only Towns and Turner saw their Defensive Plus/Minus improve along with Giannis, except that his improvement doubled their jump. From the second best player on his team to bonafide superstar, Giannis is this year’s Most Improved Player.
The Final List
Otto Porter Jr.
Honorable Mentions: Harrison Barnes, Jabari Parker, Myles Turner, Isaiah Thomas, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Wiggins, Gary Harris, Bradley Beal
Stay tuned, we’ll dive into picks for 6th Man of the Year, Coach of the Year and the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defense squads in the coming week.
Statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.