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.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
This is another tightly contested race in which nobody has truly stepped ahead of his competition, but Williams has been the most consistent bench player contributing at the highest level all season long. I’m sort of cheating here, because if I had a true vote it would be for Iguodala, who’s the best two-way bench player in the league and is a vital piece of Golden State’s continued success. But as we see with LeBron not winning MVP every year, and with Manu Ginóbili only winning this award once, being the best player in the running doesn’t guarantee the award.
It’s probably between Gordon and Lou Williams for this year’s trophy, and honestly, I really thought my answer was Gordon before I started doing my research. Williams is first in scoring with 17.7 per game, just ahead of Gordon at 16.3. In fact, despite averaging roughly seven fewer minutes per game than Gordon, Sweet Lou owns the edge in nearly every important statistical category:
Even Gordon’s advantages aren’t really advantages; the rebounds are negligible and Williams’ sports a usage rate 7% higher than Gordon’s to account for the turnovers. Both are below-average defenders. Lou is impressively 13th in the NBA in free throws made (16th in attempts) and 14th in free throw percentage, the perfect mix of volume and efficiency that brings value to his team. Interestingly, Lou’s numbers have actually dropped a bit since becoming Gordon’s teammate after a midseason trade, and yet they’re still clearly better.
Gordon’s supporters will hang their hats on the three-point prowess he’s known for. As one of James Harden’s best floor-stretchers, Gordon is currently tied for fourth in the league in made threes and is one of the more intimidating shooters in the game. But he’s also third in attempts and averages 37.4% on such shots, which is slightly above average but certainly not noteworthy. Does that total make up for every other way Williams brings value to his team? Besides, Williams is 21st in threes made, with more makes from deep than noted shooters Kyle Korver, Kawhi Leonard, Gordon Hayward and Devin Booker. It’s Lou’s award. With a clear statistical advantage and 13 fewer starts than Gordon, Lou Williams should become a two-time Sixth Man of the Year this season.
When you consider what an exciting, narrative-rich season it’s been, it’s not surprising that the competition runs deeper for most awards this year, and this is no exception. Despite it being a two-man race near the top, Iggy, Zach Randolph, Enes Kanter and Greg Monroe are all deserving of votes, and even that list doesn’t include valuable bench players like Tyler Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Patty Mills, James Johnson and more.
Iggy is constantly dogged by the scoring conundrum; he ranks 101st in points per game among qualified bench players. That’s behind players you’ve probably never heard of like Isaiah Whitehead, Troy Daniels, Shawn Long and Richaun Holmes. But Iggy only takes a measly 5.5 field goals per game, despite ranking 14th in minutes per game with just over 26. In fact, his per game stat line is solid if underwhelming: 7.6 points, 4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1 steal. But he shoots a high percentage on those limited shots (52.8% from the floor, 36.8% from three) and leads the league in assist/turnover ratio, an important stat that combines playmaking volume and efficiency.
In today’s era of advanced metrics, film study and defensive focus, doesn’t it feel silly that we’re still often giving these secondary awards to the guy who scores the most? Leading the league in bench scoring is clearly valuable and deserves merit, but there is so much more to an NBA game than scoring. Just ask the Denver Nuggets; they’re fourth in the league in offensive efficiency, the best by a mile since the All-Star break, and yet they’ll be on their couches next week just like you and me.
Iggy plays his role as well as anyone in the league; he pushes the pace, always looks for the right pass, doesn’t turn the ball over, shoots when he’s open and is a steady veteran presence. Importantly, Iggy is easily the best defender of any nominee, often guarding the other team’s best player to help take some of the heavy lifting off Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. He’ll likely never win due to his unglamorous role, but if I were building a team, Iggy would unequivocally be my first choice off the bench.
Randolph, Kanter and Monroe are pretty much neck and neck for fourth place. Both Monroe and Randolph have accepted their new bench roles with complete class, bringing steadying bench presences to second units that need one. Randolph is the best rebounder of the three and helped steady the ship when Mike Conley missed time with an injury. Kanter is a liability on defense, but he’s a good scorer inside and an elite offensive rebounder; he actually leads all the nominees in PER (Player Efficiency Rating). Advanced metrics like PER and VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) smile favorably upon Monroe, and he offers the Bucks an efficient scoring outlet when the shot clock is low. He’s an underrated passer and has noticeably improved on defense, ranking sixth among bench players in steals (1.2 per game) and is eighth among all big men in deflections.
The Final List
Greg Monroe/Enes Kanter
Honorable Mentions: Tyler Johnson, James Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Patty Mills, Tobias Harris, Jordan Clarkson, CJ Miles, Allen Crabbe, Marcus Smart, Will Barton
Coach of the Year: Mike D’Antoni
This is the idyllic award where opinion and prediction should finally enjoy a harmonious marriage. Well, sort of. D’Antoni figures to be the heavy favorite for the Coach of the Year and he’s probably the most deserving. But a part of me knows if I was lucky enough to have a vote, I’d have a tough time not voting for Gregg Popovich, the greatest coach of all time. We’ll come back to this.
The Coach of the Year award is more nuanced and contextual than the other awards. As always, stats matter. Some of the best measures of successful coaching are improved winning percentage, the number of wins versus the projected number, and a team’s net rating. Often, the coach who beats expectations the most and pilots a heavily successful team is the winner. But context is incredibly important. What does the roster look like compared to last season? How long has the coach been with the team? How does a coach simultaneously manage strong NBA personalities, adjust offensive and defensive schemes, and fine tune lineup rotations throughout the year? These questions matter too, and they help paint the blurry picture of how much value a coach truly brings to his team.
Let’s start with D’Antoni, who is certainly deserving in his own right. Despite having a perennial MVP candidate and another star on the roster last season, the Rockets slogged their way to 41 wins and barely squeaked into the playoffs as the eighth seed. They lost to the Warriors in five games, but more importantly struggled with glaring on- and off-court chemistry issues all season long.
Meanwhile, D’Antoni had a tarnished coaching reputation. He hadn’t coached since 2014, two years removed from the “Dwightmare” season in which the Lakers only won 27 games. Over his last six years of coaching, his squads had made the playoffs twice (both first round losses) and averaged a winning percentage of .428. His teams weren’t necessarily loaded with talent, but he still had the likes of Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and JR Smith. Nine years removed from the “Seven Seconds Or Less” Suns, it was reasonable to think his best coaching days were behind him.
Fast forward three years, and many agree D’Antoni deserves this year’s award. As of this writing, the Rockets have recorded 13 more wins than last season and leapt to third in the talent-rich Western Conference. They’ve gone from barely a playoff team to one of the only teams potentially capable of knocking off the Warriors. Before the season, Vegas put the Rockets win total over/under at 41.5 games, which they’ve absolutely crushed. Beating preseason projections is one of the best ways to win the award, and no team has overachieved like the Rockets.
D’Antoni gave Harden the point guard keys to the offense and the team hasn’t looked back. Houston ranks second in offensive efficiency (behind the Warriors) and already shattered the league record for most threes made and attempted. Harden is having undoubtedly the best season of his career, the prodding maestro of a historically elite offense, and D’Antoni deserves loads of credit for realizing he is really a point guard trapped in a shooting guard’s body. Just like he did in Phoenix, D’Antoni is helping sketch the blueprint of what efficient offense will look like for years to came.
Pop is the LeBron of coaches; he’s the best in the league and already one of the best of all time, but his continued greatness gets overlooked because of how boringly consistent it is. There’s nothing exciting about LeBron winning MVP or Pop winning Coach of the Year because we’ve become so damn accustomed to them winning. Pop’s so consistently successful that we’ve already forgotten Tim Freaking Duncan, the best power forward of all time, retired in the offseason. He wins so often that nobody is making a peep about the team’s TWENTIETH STRAIGHT PLAYOFF BERTH. That streak can legally drink next year! Even Pop has outdone the Spurs preseason projected win total by 5-6 wins (depending on tonight’s result against the Jazz) and has now won at least 60 games in a season seven times. Pop pulls talent out of nowhere, turning Jonathan Simmons from an undrafted dunker into a legitimate 3-and-D wing, resurrecting David Lee from the scrap heap, and making me wish the Bucks signed someone named Dewayne Dedmon this offseason.
Pop helps run the best defense in the league while giving heavy minutes to notorious sieves Tony Parker, Pau Gasol and David Lee, and the Spurs pass-and-move ethos is one of the prettiest offensive displays in the league. Oh yeah, he also helped turn Kawhi Leonard into a top-five player in the NBA and didn’t let the Spurs miss a beat after the best player in franchise history retired. Everyone is so immune to Pop’s 60-win seasons that he might never win the award again, but make no mistake, the Spurs are gunning for this year’s championship with Popovich at the helm.
Scott Brooks deserves loads of credit for righting the ship in Washington in his first season, helping lead the team to at least a 6.5 game improvement from the team’s projected win total (not including tonight’s game against the Heat). He’s gotten career seasons out of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter Jr. and somewhat helped save his coaching brand as well. He’s a legitimate candidate and would probably win if D’Antoni didn’t come to the Rockets this year. The Heat started out 11-30, battled injuries all year long, and yet Erik Spoelstra somehow still has them fighting for a playoff spot. He’s similar to Popovich in that he’s gotten career years out of James Johnson and Dion Waiters and turned Rodney McGruder into a solid NBA wing. But the Heat still might not make the playoffs, which hurts his chances. Brad Stevens out of Boston and Utah’s Quin Snyder both deserve a look for excellent seasons, but their team’s win totals are actually right in line with Vegas’ preseason projections.
D’Antoni will likely win for numerous reasons. Not only has he completely saved – and probably even improved – his coaching reputation, but he patched the chemistry issues that plagued the Rockets all of last season. Houston is the sneaky team that could absolutely beat anyone in a playoff series, and D’Antoni is at the center of it all. Redemption stories are fun and winning the award will be a nice consolation for the Rockets if Harden doesn’t capture MVP. Still, if you ask me, I gotta have my Pops.
The Final List
- Mike D’Antoni
- Gregg Popovich
- Scott Brooks
- Erik Spoelstra
- Brad Stevens
Honorable Mentions: Quin Snyder, Rick Carlisle, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue, David Fizdale, Jason Kidd
Stay tuned next week when we’ll break down the picks for the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive teams.
Stats courtesy of basketball reference, ESPN and NBA.com