This Is Who Should Win the 2018-19 N.B.A. Awards
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As the 2018-19 regular season dribbles to a close, with just two nights and 22 of 1,230 games to go, voters leaguewide are finalizing their year-end award ballots in six major categories.
I am no longer one of them, because The New York Times does not permit its reporters to vote for such awards, but it’s still a useful exercise as we take stock of the season to break down each race and who I would have picked.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
Official selections are due Friday night and there is simply no wrong answer when choosing between Antetokounmpo and Houston’s James Harden for the top spot on the five-man M.V.P. ballot.
I have always approached this category by trying to identify who had the best overall season — based on a subjective and imprecise mixture of individual and team success — rather than paying attention to the noise about which player is most widely regarded as the game’s best … or the best two-way player … or any other such designation.
So who had the better 2018-19 season? I would go (ever so narrowly) with Giannis. On top of all his individual superlatives, Antetokounmpo has been the face and chief culture-setter in the Bucks’ transformation from 44-win underachiever to the best team in the league (regular-season edition). And his candidacy gets bonus points on our scorecard because Milwaukee, for Eastern Conference supremacy, had to beat out a trio of worthy challengers who were all projected as superior before the season.
Harden would be tremendously unlucky to finish second in M.V.P. balloting for the third time in five seasons, but I think that’s where this is headed. He is going to be the first scoring champion (36.1 points per game) to win the scoring title by more than eight points per game since Michael Jordan did over Dominique Wilkins in 1986-87. And I tend to agree with Houston Coach Mike D’Antoni’s contention that Harden is the only player capable of hauling the injury-riddled Rockets to 53 victories out of the 11-14 hole they were in. Harden simply has the misfortune of doing all that damage in a season that belonged to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
It feels as though I have been writing and tweeting about Doncic and his Atlanta Hawks counterpart Trae Young all season. I suspect I will be writing about the two of them for the next decade-plus. And I’m fine with that.
Doncic has had the start-to-finish stronger campaign and continued to look like a franchise player even though the Mavericks steadily increased his Year 1 workload after trading away four-fifths of their starting lineup in February. The trade brought in Kristaps Porzingis and better positions Dallas to build out a supporting cast tailored to their electric European import.
Young has delivered even more impressive post-All-Star break production (24.9 points per game and 9.1 assists per game) for a scrappy Hawks team with a passable record of 23-29 since its dismal 6-23 start — and an increasingly bright future.
Doncic is going to win the race, but Young overcame his own worrisome launch to make it a competition — and a rivalry that should have staying power — with his second-half surge.
Doncic will be remembered as the only rookie in N.B.A. history not named Oscar Robertson to average at least 20 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists. And Young can take solace in being almost as unfortunate as Harden if he doesn’t win the hardware. It’s quite a compliment when you think about it.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks)
Had the Indiana Pacers won 50 games in a season in which Victor Oladipo was healthy enough to play only 36, Nate McMillan would have the résumé to deny the Bucks’ Budenholzer. I’m not sure McMillan is miles off with 47 wins.
Doc Rivers of the Los Angeles Clippers, like McMillan, is another victim of bad timing. Rivers hasn’t had a team overachieve like these starless Clippers since his rookie season on the bench with Orlando in 1999-2000 when the Magic won a wholly unexpected 41 games in a season billed as a placeholder before a splashy free-agent summer that ultimately landed Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in the Magic Kingdom.
But Milwaukee’s improvement in Budenholzer’s first season has been so dramatic that I can’t see how he doesn’t win his second Coach of the Year trophy. Perhaps some voters will try to convince themselves that the Bucks would be getting too much love if they vote for both Giannis for M.V.P. and Bud for this honor. But we’re talking about the league’s only 60-win team … and the runaway champions in average point differential for the season (+9.1) … and the only team in the league to rank in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Antetokounmpo is the biggest reason all that is possible. General Manager Jon Horst is likewise on an impressive run of roster moves. But Budenholzer’s impact has been undeniable.
Honorable mentions, along with McMillan and Rivers: Denver’s Mike Malone, Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson, Portland’s Terry Stotts, Orlando’s Steve Clifford, Detroit’s Dwane Casey, Golden State’s Steve Kerr and, of course, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich.
Sixth Man Award: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers)
Manu Ginobili, who just had his familiar No. 20 retired by the San Antonio Spurs, used to be synonymous with sixth man excellence to me. Ditto for Jamal Crawford.
Yet I’d say Williams wears that crown now.
The Clippers’ designated scorer won this award last season and stands as a huge favorite to join Crawford as the league’s only three-time winner — despite the challenge he’s getting from teammate Montrezl Harrell.
Someone from the Clippers has to win some year-end recognition in light of the Cinderella season they’ve assembled. Williams makes the most sense over a quality field that also features Harrell, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, New Orleans’ Julius Randle and San Antonio’s Davis Bertans.
Most Improved Player: Pascal Siakam (Toronto Raptors)
As the self-proclaimed overseer of the All-Lefty Team, it pains me to snub both D’Angelo Russell of the Nets and Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox in this category.
But I’ve been saying for years that ultra-high former draft picks like Russell and second-year players like Fox are not going to be Most Improved candidates for me. Russell made a tremendous, inspiring leap to All-Star status in Brooklyn this season, but the wow factor partly stems from the fact that he fell so far short of expectations in his first three seasons. Fox, meanwhile, made the sort of Year 1-to-Year 2 leap Sacramento was counting on from someone it billed as a franchise cornerstone.
No one expected Siakam to become an impact player at both ends and a borderline All-Star who helped the Raptors to post 57 wins amid the 22 games Kawhi Leonard missed for various reasons of injury and precaution.
The nostalgic sap in me, truth be told, wanted to go with Minnesota’s resurgent Derrick Rose. But D-Rose only wound up being healthy enough to appear in 51 games — and as a former M.V.P. he’s more of a Comeback Player of the Year than a Most Improved candidate. The N.B.A.’s specific instructions in this category read as follows: “This award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. It is not intended to be given to a player who has made a ‘comeback.’ ”
Siakam, in other words, is perfect. He’s a former No. 27 overall pick who zoomed from role player to foundational player — either beside Leonard or in a post-Kawhi world should Leonard flee Canada in free agency this summer.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert (Utah Jazz)
Antetokounmpo is a leading candidate here, too, as is Oklahoma City’s Paul George and Indiana’s Myles Turner. But the Bucks, at least on this mythical ballot, will have to settle for two of the six top prizes.
Three would have been too many. Especially since Utah’s Gobert remains such a dominant deterrent at the rim in his role as the anchor for a defense that officially ranks No. 2 but is essentially on par with Milwaukee’s.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. (Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure the subject line reads “Corner Three.”)
Q: Deandre Ayton hasn’t had a terrible rookie year, but it has paled in comparison to what we’ve seen from Luka Doncic and Trae Young. What do you think Ayton needs to improve on — and will he ever match Luka or Trae’s potential? — Henry Roth (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
STEIN: It speaks to how far the Suns have faded from prominence that Ayton, as the No. 1 overall pick last June, got so little attention given the numbers he posted (16.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game).
The leaguewide fascination with Doncic and Young is also a factor, as you mentioned, but Ayton was overlooked in the extreme this season. Suns fans should be hoping that the snub helps motivate Ayton in Year 2, because consistency and sustained energy have been issues for him so far.
From a technical standpoint, Ayton has to develop into more of a rim protector. With his mobility and athleticism, Phoenix should be able to build a defense around him. He’s not close to elite yet at that end.
But it would also be unfair to ignore that Ayton was frequently forced to start alongside two other rookies on a squad that still doesn’t have a starter-level N.B.A. point guard.
Q: Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t come out and said he is retiring, but everyone else seems to be saying it. At first I didn’t believe Adam Silver would have put Dirk in the All-Star Game if he didn’t have it on good authority that Dirk would soon retire, but could this actually not be his final year? It looks like Dirk’s ankle has finally recovered from surgery and he’s moving a lot better. Why not play one more season with Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis and try to go out with a playoff berth? — Sharad Acharya
STEIN: This much I can tell you: Dirk joining Dwyane Wade in the All-Star Game as a so-called “commissioner’s pick” has nothing to do with Nowitzki’s retirement plans. As Dirk stated before, during and after his trip to Charlotte, this was his All-Star swan song no matter what, even if he decided to play next season.
I think there have been times since the All-Star break when an encouraged Nowitzki has imagined himself carrying on. He’s been a huge Porzingis fan for years and would naturally love to experience the Doncic/Porzingis tandem. But the reality is that season No. 21 has been a bigger challenge physically than he ever imagined.
Is it really worth putting his body through the rigors of yet another nine-month ride? The case against coming back is much stronger than the case for it, which is why you’ve heard the likes of Mark Cuban and Steve Nash give interviews in recent days that make it sound as though the end is near.
Q: I’d like to hear your thoughts on how Stephen Curry makes everyone else on the floor better and how that may not necessarily be the case with Kevin Durant? — Michael Dortheimer
STEIN: Anyone who believes this must not have watched the last two N.B.A. finals.
Steph is Golden State’s No. 1 playmaker and a true revolutionary when it comes to the way his seemingly limitless shooting range bends defenses.
But there’s a reason Durant has won back-to-back M.V.P. trophies in the finals. He’s the best finisher in the game and was the best player on the floor on the game’s grandest stage two years in a row.
The Warriors are 32-6 in the playoffs since Durant arrived. Who would dare say he doesn’t make all of the other Warriors better just by being out there?
Curry has the ball in his hands more, which surely fuels the perception you describe, but Durant commands more double teams than any other Warrior and is a great passer both out of the post and in pick-and-roll situations. There is no shortage of coaches and scouts around the league who regard him as an elite playmaker.
This is the fifth time in the Knicks’ 73-season history that they’ve had the league’s worst record. The first three times, there were fewer than 10 teams in the league: 1960-61 (21-58 in an eight-team league), 1962-63 (21-59 in a nine-team league) and 1964-65 (22-58 in a nine-team league). The Knicks were also at the bottom of a 23-team league in 1985-86 at 23-59.
At 16-64 so far this season, the Knicks will post the lowest win total in franchise history unless they win at least one of their final two games.
Utah’s Rudy Gobert is poised to finish this season with more dunks than anyone else, with 301 dunks to Antetokounmpo’s 279 for Milwaukee. Gobert, though, has played in all 80 of Utah’s games this season. Antetokounmpo has missed 12 of the Bucks’ 81 games to date.
Antetokounmpo’s Bucks finished 18th in defensive rating last season. They’ve climbed 17 spots this season to rank No. 1 overall entering Tuesday’s play, allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions.
Jason Terry’s 590 regular-season games alongside Dirk are the most of any teammate in Nowitzki’s 21 seasons in Dallas. J.J. Barea ranks second (and No. 1 among active Mavericks) with 543 regular-season games. The Mavericks say Nowitzki has had 197 teammates.
This is the 39th consecutive season, according to the peerless data maintained by Basketball-Reference.com, during which the average height of N.B.A. players is 6-foot-7. The last season that featured a different figure was 1979-80, when the average height of N.B.A. players was 6-foot-6.
Marc Stein is a sports reporter specializing in N.B.A. coverage, with occasional forays into soccer and tennis. He spent nearly 15 years at ESPN before coming to The Times. @TheSteinLine • Facebook
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