With no end in sight to the coronavirus pandemic, the NBA season is at serious risk of being canceled, despite Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban’s hope that play could resume by mid-May.
More than a dozen players from a handful of teams have tested positive for COVID-19, and the league will wait at least two weeks to resume after assurance that everyone is clear of the virus. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said even that would require approval of public health officials. That is a massive undertaking, one complicated by criticism of the league’s access to testing.
Estimates of a drop-dead date for the Finals have ranged from July to August and Labor Day. There is still plenty of time to squeeze the playoffs in before then, even assuming players would need a window of time to recondition themselves for top-flight competition after a hiatus. But each passing week and the rising curve of the coronavirus bring us steps closer to a canceled regular season.
Obviously, there are greater concerns at play, but if you are looking for a welcome distraction, here is one ballot for who deserves the NBA’s individual awards if the regular season were to end today.
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers; Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
James’ late-season push made this race closer than we could have imagined at the midway point, but it’s still not all that close. Antetokounmpo has averaged 34.5 points, 16 rebounds and 6.7 assists per 36 minutes to LeBron’s 26.5, 8.1 and 10.9, and he has done so more efficiently. The Bucks superstar is better defensively at this point, and every all-encompassing advanced statistic also favors him over James. There is no case to make for James over Antetokounmpo individually.
Antetokounmpo’s team has also performed better on both ends of the floor and in the standings. Milwaukee has outscored opponents at a near-historic level. Antetokounmpo has enjoyed the best individual season for the best team in the NBA. The MVP seems like a fairly open-and-shut case.
The argument most often made (by Lakers fans) for James is the fact that the Lakers are outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and getting outscored by 1.4 points per 100 when he is sitting. It is a remarkable disparity, one slightly less than the spread of 12 points per 100 possessions between when Antetokounmpo is on or off the court. The Bucks are outscoring opponents by 16.1 points per 100 possessions with the reigning MVP on the floor, and there is a limit to just how dominant one player came make a team. Antetokounmpo is at that point.
Several other players could have been slotted third on this list, but Leonard got the nod over the likes of Luka Doncic, James Harden, Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis, if only because he is the best two-way player of the group and his Clippers sit second in the Western Conference. His load management has cost him 13 games, same as Doncic, but Harden rests on the defensive end and Jokic played himself into shape for the first month of the season. Leonard finished last season as unquestionably the best player in the NBA, and he deserves this respect until his performance suggests otherwise.
Defensive Player of the Year: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Runners-up: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers; Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
The Bucks own the league’s best defense by more than three points per 100 possessions, and they are five points per 100 stingier with Antetokounmpo on the floor, the best mark on the team. His length and athleticism allow him to guard any position — and sometimes two — anywhere on the floor, instantly closing gaps and masking mistakes. Neither Davis nor Gobert can make that claim.
Opponents are shooting 9.7 points per 100 possessions worse than their averages opposite Antetokounmpo, the greatest margin among all NBA regulars. They are shooting 19.5 percent worse inside of six feet, also the league’s best, and miles better than the rim protectors behind him on this list. Statistically, Antetokounmpo is also a significantly better defender against the pick-and-roll and in isolation, operating in space with a deftness not even a unicorn like Davis can match.
Any debate about Defensive Player of the Year balloting should not exclude Marcus Smart from consideration. The Boston Celtics guard has the skill to stop any ball-handler and the strength to match any post presence, only he is eight inches shorter than Antetokounmpo. If ever there were a player who could break the DPOY spell for guards since Gary Payton last won it in 1996, it’s Smart.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Runners-up: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans; Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
Make no mistake, Zion Williamson is the best rookie that took the floor for an NBA team this season, transforming the New Orleans Pelicans at age 19 in ways only superstars can, but he just did not take the floor enough. His preseason knee injury prevented him from making his debut until Jan. 22, and 19 games does not a Rookie of the Year campaign make, no matter how remarkable.
Morant is not the Malcolm Brogdon to Joel Embiid’s 31-game rookie season. The Grizzlies point guard would have been an All-Star if the West was not so loaded at his position. He is the primary reason Memphis far exceeded expectations and was in position to make the playoffs. Morant led all rookies in total points and assists by a mile. Eight rookies in history ever matched his 17.6 points and 6.9 assists per game, and only Magic Johnson did so while shooting as efficiently as Morant (56.8 true shooting percentage). Magic was also the only other one to do so for a playoff team, too.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Runners-up: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers; Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder
Williams is the two-time reigning Sixth Man of the Year, and he submitted another typical Lou Will season, averaging 18.7 points (on 42/36/86 shooting splits), 5.7 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 29.3 minutes per game for the second-place Clippers. Schroder posted similar offensive numbers (19-4-4 on 47/38/84 splits) while working in some of the league’s most efficient and clutch lineups.
But no reserve was more vital to his team’s success than Harrell. He played the majority of center minutes for a contender that needed one capable of defending in space to field many of its most versatile and brutal lineups. He plays as hard as anyone defensively and ranks among the league’s best roll men on the offensive end, scoring 1.31 points per possession. His scoring production (18.6 points per game) is on par with Williams and Schroder, the 7.5 points his screens create per game offset any edge the two guards gain as playmakers, and his defensive energy puts him over the top.
Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
Runners-up: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Ingram realized the potential he entered the league with as the No. 2 overall pick in 2016, submitting career highs in every statistical category and scoring with great efficiency. His nightly 24-6-4 on 47/39/86 shooting splits made him an All-Star for the first time, and he made similar improvements on the defensive end, where his length allows him to defend multiple positions.
Tatum entered this season more accomplished than Ingram, but after leveling out last season from a promising rookie campaign, the third overall pick in 2017 made the leap to bona fide future superstar (and perhaps even All-NBA selection) this year. His 23.6 points (45/40/81 splits), 7.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 2.3 combined blocks and steals per game do not even do his season justice, as he is arguably the league’s most underrated defender and lifted his offensive game several levels since learning of his first All-Star selection in January. He looked like a future MVP.
Luka Doncic and Pascal Siakam can make similar claims, having leaped from very good to elite this year.
But no one made a bigger jump from last season to this than Adebayo. Once the promising and productive per-minute backup for Hassan Whiteside, Adebayo became one of the rare prospects whose per-36 production not only translated to increased minutes but vastly improved. Capable of running the offense and manhandling opponents, Adebayo has averaged 16.2 points, 10.5 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in 34.4 minutes a game. We thought these versions of Ingram and Tatum were in there somewhere, but never saw this Adebayo coming.
Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
Runners-up: Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers; Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder
It is preposterous that the Raptors lost Leonard — the Finals MVP who submitted one of the most impressive playoff performances in history — and stood to finish with a better regular-season record without him this season. The Raptors play smart and sound basketball with the purpose of a team that knows how to win together, and just about everyone on the roster demonstrated year-over-year improvement. Even 34-year-old All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry looks as invested as ever.
There was no championship hangover in Toronto. The Raptors entered this season convinced they were worthy of defending the title without Leonard, and that alone is a feat for Nurse. They also play a smart offensive system, make sharp defensive rotations and adjust in game as well as anyone.
As much credit as Vogel warrants for getting everyone on board for the Lakers, especially on the defensive end, and as much praise Donovan deserves for turning the losses of Russell Westbrook and Paul George into another competitive season, nobody listed the Raptors among the favorites to emerge from the East again. Quite the opposite. Many had them selling off assets by midseason.
Executive of the Year: Lawrence Frank, Los Angeles Clippers
Runners-up: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder; Pat Riley, Miami Heat
Frank succeeded in his yearlong quest to steal Leonard away from the Raptors, and pried Paul George away from the Thunder to get the deal done. It seemed only the Clippers’ front office even knew George was available. It took a boatload of assets, but Frank smartly amassed them. He secured the final piece of the puzzle by working himself into the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade deal this past summer, nabbing a first-round pick from the Heat and Mo Harkless for straight cash.
Frank re-signed all his pressing free agents, including Patrick Beverley, who garnered plenty of interest elsewhere. He built arguably the deepest roster in the league entering the season, and then packaged Harkless in a deadline deal for Marcus Morris, signed Reggie Jackson on the buyout market and added free-agent center Joakim Noah on a 10-day deal just before the hiatus. The Clippers are best equipped to play any brand of basketball if the playoffs ever resume in 2020.
Presti should be lauded for leveraging George and Westbrook into a massive haul of future first-round picks, budding star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the surprisingly unwashed Chris Paul and one season of Danilo Gallinari, who appears open to re-signing with Oklahoma City this summer.
With no cap space, Riley convinced Butler to join the Heat in a sign-and-trade. He signed Nunn off the scrap heap and drafted Tyler Herro with the 13th pick. Both are key rotational players. Then, Riley added Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill for the stretch run while clearing tens of millions of dollars of future cap room and prying open a potential 2021 free-agency bonanza.
But neither built their borderline playoff teams into a title favorite this season the way Frank did.
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