The Others: Predictions On NBA Awards Not Named MVP

This article was originally published in The Field at Scroll.in on April 6, 2017

There has been more than enough written on the race for this season’s MVP. Kawhi Leonard is making a valiant run at it. LeBron James has put up yet another monster season even by his lofty standards. The award, however, will go to either Russell Westbrook or James Harden.

Your vote depends on what matters to you. Do historically great numbers by an individual at the cost of his teammates matter? Or does a team’s success as a result of a historically great offensive season matter? Westbrook’s season has been beyond everyone’s wildest imagination. My vote, though, goes to James Harden, the player that makes his team better.

Then there are the other awards.

The executive mastermind that assembles the roster and staff to make the magic happen. The rookie that deals with newly found NBA riches, yet stays focused to put up solid numbers. The player who defies common perception about his ability and improves to deliver a breakout season. The defensive specialist, tasked with disrupting the opponent’s game plan. The team’s sixth man, who is tasked with the responsibility to hold fort while its stars rest. The coach, who deftly connects the dots, brings the wins and, hopefully, the championship.

They are not the stars. But they are vital ingredients to the NBA experience. Some we remember. Some we do not. But all are crucial.

Here are my picks for the awards:

Executive of the Year: Bob Myers, Golden State Warriors

There’s nothing easy about losing one of the ten greatest players to retirement and still tallying 60+ wins. That’s the mind of RC Buford.

Nothing easy about assembling the perfect team and coach around your star to unleash an offensive juggernaut. That’s the mind of Daryl Morey.

But.

Convincing one of the four best players in the NBA to join you, after your 73-9 record team has beaten him in an epic comeback from being 3-1 down, is near legendary. It can be, and often is, argued that this was entirely Durant’s decision. That would be too simplistic.

At no point in NBA history has a player of Durant’s calibre joined a rival at his career peak. Myers not only convinced Durant to move, he did so at the risk of gutting his roster of key contributors in the run up to the 2015 Championship and the 73-9 record. It is a General Manager’s duty to seek out the best mix of players and coaching staff in the pursuit of a championship. In that regard, Myers made one of the boldest decisions in NBA history. Either he’s a hero for going all in, or a villain for being too greedy. Either he’ll be vindicated with an NBA Championship, or be mocked for trying to game the system. Either ways, the Durant signing required a ton of courage. Something a great number of GMs sadly lack.

Runners Up: Daryl Morey (Houston Rockets), RC Buford (San Antonio Spurs)

Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Everything we saw this summer virtually guaranteed Ben Simmons would lock up the award. Joel “The Process” Embiid was pummelling his way through NBA defences early in the season. Both their campaigns, derailed by injuries, were not meant to be.

In their absence, their promising European teammate Dario Saric is leading nearly every pundit’s column for the the award. However, the impact Brogdon has had in Milwaukee cannot be overlooked. Overall, Saric has better numbers that will swing the vote in his favour. Brogdon, however, has firmly established himself as a threat on both of the floor. He is the only rookie who is a major contributor on a 40 win team.

Runners Up: Dario Saric (Philadelphia 76ers), Buddy Hield (Sacramento Kings)

Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

This is precariously close to a Bucks’ fan fest. Antetokounmpo’s improvement, however, cannot be overlooked. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, all career highs. He is stuffing stat sheets like very few before him have. This season, he’s tallied career-highs in points (41 vs. Lakers) and blocks (7 vs. Bulls). He has also dropped at least 30 points on both the Warriors and the Cavaliers.

Most importantly though, Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks to the third best record (15-7) since the All Star break. Despite losing key players to injuries during the season, the Bucks are taking care of business during the home stretch, quietly moving into fifth place in the East. Given a couple more seasons, the Greek Freak will lift himself out of this awards list into the conversation for MVP.

Runners Up: Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Otto Porter Jr (Washington Wizards)

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Gobert is a throwback to the old-school defensive big man. The 7’1” center has a 7’9” wingspan, the longest in the NBA. That wingspan is a big (pun intended) reason behind the Utah Jazz’ league’s best defence for most of the season. It’s only in the home stretch that the Jazz have fallen behind the Spurs and Warriors stifling defence.

Gobert leads the league averaging 2.7 blocks per game. Opponents are also making just 45.5% of their shots against him when within 10 feet of the rim, a league leading number. Both Leonard and Green have mounted considerable competition to Gobert’s campaign. While they are exceptional individual defenders, Gobert’s mere presence on the floor completely alters an opponent team’s game plan.

Runners Up: Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio Spurs), Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors)

Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

This will most likely be the easiest of awards. Gordon is head and shoulders above the rest of this sixth men this season. Despite his reduced role, he’s averaging 16.4 points, his best since the 2013-14 season. Thanks to Harden’s brilliance, Gordon is pulling up for 3-pointers 8.8 times a game, third in the league behind Harden and Curry. His biggest contribution is efficiently keeping the second unit in the game, allowing Harden to rest for extended periods of time, thus saving his legs for the playoffs. That alone should qualify Gordon for the sixth-man award.

Runners Up: Zach Randolph (Memphis Grizzlies), Enes Kanter (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

You you make a case for at least five, if not more, coaches here. D’Antoni has turned the Rockets into an unstoppable juggernaut, Snyder is working with a motley crew of individuals that quietly snagged the fourth seed in the West. Stevens knocked on the No. 1 seed in the East led by a 5’9” guard. Spolestra lost his championship winning trio in LeBron, Wade and Bosh over the course of two seasons and made the playoff despite starting the season 11-30. Give the award to any of these four, and you’d be justified. It is confusing. And when it’s confusing, give the award to Popovich.

In the face of having just one All-Star, losing his team leader to retirement and trotting out an aging roster, Pop has still managed to deliver the first back-to-back 60+ win season in the history of the franchise.

If he does wrap up this award, he will be the first NBA coach to have won it four times (he has won it in ‘03, ‘12, ‘14). Fitting for one of the three greatest NBA coaches ever.

Runners Up: Mike D’Antoni (Houston Rockets), Quinn Snyder (Utah Jazz), Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics), Eric Spoelstra (Miami Heat)

JR’s 2017 NBA All-Star Picks: No Durant, No Curry

This article was originally published in The Field at scroll.in on January 8, 2017.

Basketball purists scoff at its insignificance. Fans vote to watch all their favorite players on court at the same time. Coaches decide who makes the bench, but cannot vote for their own players. Players know it is entertainment and put on a show. Ah, the NBA All-Star Game is coming back.

Started in 1951, the NBA All-Star Game, which features the best players from the respective conferences, turns 65 this year. The annual extravaganza is undeniably the biggest marketing platform for the NBA, arguably bigger than the NBA Finals. Every year, hundreds of thousands of fans from both the USA and around the world descend upon the chosen venue city, all hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite players. Maybe even hoping to snap a last minute ticket, never mind if it were high up in the rafters.

Players, who often take this short break to catch their breath from the rigours of the first half of the season, usually give the fans what they came for. Audacious dunks, crazy layups, wild shots and cheeky passes, are all part of the three-hour entertainment bonanza. Admittedly, it isn’t as competitive as it used to be, but no one is really complaining.

While coaches and fans have always had a say, this year the NBA has included two more crucial stakeholders to the voting process. Players and journalists will get ballots to vote for each conference’s starters. And while I work towards earning that vote as a journalist, I placed my vote as a fan. Here are my starters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game.

Eastern Conference

The Eastern Conference was comparatively easier. Superstars have clearly emerged, leading their teams from the front to enviable records. Stars such as John Wall and Carmelo Anthony do not make the cut since their teams aren’t even in the top 8. Emerging stars such as Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid, who have been exceptional this season, have yet to earn more wins for their teams. Ageing stars such as Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose (injuries have added years to his body) have not done enough. And legit stars such as Kyrie Irving and Kemba Walker have been left out because I have only two guard spots. With that intro, here is my starting five for the Eastern Conference:

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers, forward: At 32, in his 14th season and fresh off his third championship where he led the Cleveland Cavaliers back from a 3-1 deficit, James has not lost a step. He is still averaging 26 ppg/8 rpg/8 apg, while shooting over 50% from the field. In fact, he has been so consistent over the years that every season henceforth will be a record-breaking one for him. He’s already passed Bob Cousy on the All-Time Career assists list, passed Moses Malone on the All-Time Career scoring list, and became the only player to tally 27,000 points, 7,000 rebounds and 7,000 assists.

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls, forward: Yes, we’re playing small ball. Nothing small about Jimmy Butler’s season though. The 27-year-old guard continues to find ways to get better in the quest to create his own legacy. He has clearly become an All-Star, breaking the ceiling of the role-player defensive specialist that was thrust upon him when he entered the league. This season, he is averaging a career-high 25 ppg while steadying the streaky Chicago Bulls, who are currently jostling with the Washington Wizards for eighth place in the East.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks, forward: Giannis is shy. Only off the court though. On court, the Greek Freak is tearing up the stat sheets like a 10-year veteran. He is averaging 24 ppg/9 rpg/6 apg, leading his team in nearly every statistical category, and along with Jabari Parker (also deserving of an All-Star spot) is primed to lead the Milwaukee Bucks past the first round for the first time since 2001. Giannis’s freakish athletic ability coupled with the mentorship of Jason Kidd, one of the greatest hybrid guards in NBA history, is assuring fans world over that the sport’s future (and Milwaukee’s) is in good hands.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors, guard: Every season, fans get to watch a fringe star elevate himself to be counted among the best players in the league. DeRozan elevated himself to be counted among the greats. Like it did for Butler, the Rio OIympics did more than just put a gold medal around DeRozan’s neck. It allowed both players (both Olympic rookies) get up close and personal with the league’s other biggest stars, taking home valuable lessons on what it takes to be counted as one of the greats. DeRozan, averaging 27 ppg while helping the Raptors sit pretty with the No. 2 seed in the East, is undoubtedly one of the 10 best players in the NBA right now.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics, guard: It’s a well known cliche that good things come in small packages. We’re sure no one imagined the package would be this good. While Westbrook and Harden run amok stuffing stat sheets, Isaiah Thomas continues to raise the ceiling for players not at least six-feet tall. He is the NBA’s most prolific and reliable scorer in the fourth quarter, which is saying a lot in a league that features the likes of LeBron, Harden, Westbrook, Durant and Curry. Thomas’s 28 ppg is fifth in the league and his 9.3 ppg in the fourth quarter trails only Westbrook’s 9.8.

Toughest Omissions: Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving

Western Conference

The Western Conference is loaded this year. So loaded that you could fill both teams with players from the Western Conference and no one would bat an eyelid. Personally, my votes have always gone to those who deserve to be on the starting five, and not the most popular player. I also avoid putting more than two players from a team (I sincerely believe this should be a rule). So that naturally left me with omissions that I still cannot come to terms with. How do Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, two of the five best players in the league, not make my starting five? How does the 2014 NBA Finals MVP and Tim Duncan’s heir-apparent, Kawhi Leonard, who leads the Spurs towards yet another (possibly deep) playoffs, not get to start in this annual celebration of the best? And how does Chris Paul, one of the greatest point guards of all time, still putting up All-Star numbers, not make the cut? I present my case(s):

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings, forward: This is probably my most controversial choice. How does one go from claiming “small ball” and avoiding All-Stars whose teams are not yet playoff-bound in the Eastern Conference, to selecting a big man who has difficulty switching on defense and has yet to push his team into the top 8 in the West? That is simple…without DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings would not even be in playoff consideration. Cousins is averaging a career high 28.5 ppg and added a potent three-point shot, which he is knocking down at 37.3% from the field. But what is even more remarkable is that, for someone who has a reputation of being a head case, Cousins continues to push himself to improve every single season despite the gross instability his organisation has saddled him with in terms of teammates and coaches. Simply put, Cousins is a phenomenal basketball player. And that is all that matters at the All-Star.

Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans, forward: This is the second player in a row to make the list when his team isn’t in the running for the playoffs. In any other season, I’d concede my lack of consistency. But it is hard to overlook the fact Anthony Davis redefining the forward/centre position. He is near unguardable, blowing past bigger defenders and bangs up against the smaller ones. And when his outside shot is falling, he just shoots over everyone. His evolution is astounding, even more so when you consider that this kid is just 23. There are already comparisons to Davis mirroring Kevin Garnett’s career, a once-in-a-generational star whose team failed to assemble the right pieces for success around him. Barring an untimely injury, look for Davis to finish his career as one of the greatest ever.

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors, forward: Another tough choice. When the team has Kevin Durant, one of the purest scorers in NBA history, and Stephen Curry, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history, and Klay Thompson, who dropped 60 points in a game, how does one ignore them all and pick Draymond Green. This is because without Green the Warriors aren’t well…the Warriors. His numbers may not show it, but his intangible worth to the team cannot be emphasised enough. Draymond is the catalyst that allows all the stars, rookies and role players to come together to create the juggernaut that is the Warriors. He fuels the team much like Steve Nash did with the Phoenix Suns in his MVP seasons. Make no mistake, while individually Durant, Curry, and Thompson are great, it is Green who is the Warriors’ most important and indispensable player.

James Harden, Houston Rockets, guard: What a joy it is to watch a happy James Harden wreck all kinds of havoc on the Rockets’ opponents this season. Not only Rocket GM Daryl Morey get him Mike D’Anotni, the coach most suited for Harden’s style of play, he also stocked up on two prolific shooters in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon to compliment Harden’s drive and kick style. Harden’s numbers are deliriously close to Westbrook’s in terms of dishing the ball and getting to the line. And much like everyone on this starting line up, he is the sole reason for his team’s success this season.

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder, guard: The Harden and Westbrook picks could not have been easier. Together, they altered the perception of what an NBA player ought to accomplish in a single game. Westbrook is still on pace to average the first triple-double season (31 ppg/11 rpg/10 apg) since Oscar Robertson did it in the 1961-’62 season. And despite the added workload (due to losing Kevin Durant) and the manic pace he is playing at, he is showing no signs of slowing down. There is the criticism that he has the ball way too much in his hands, but like Harden, he is the engine of this team. Without Westbrook, there would be no Thunder. Pun intended.

Toughest Omissions: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Marc Gasol

When The Freak Met The King: Giannis’ Rise In LeBron’s League

This article was originally published on The Field at scroll.in on December 04, 2017

Earlier this year, ESPN’s True Hoops’ Kevin Arnovitz attempted to make sense of the freak of nature that is Greece’s best import to the NBA this far, Giannis Antetokounmpo (pronounced Yah-niss Andh-deh-toh-koon-boh). He succeeded. Somewhat.

Now the league is attempting to make sense of “The Greek Freak’s” numbers.

As of the date of writing this article, Antetokounmpo is averaging a beastly 22.8 points per game 8.5 rebounds per game, 6.1 assists per game, leading his team to wins in half their games this far in a young season. He is also firing away at 52.5% from the field, second only to Kevin Durant’s 57% for players who attempt at least 16 shots a game. What’s more, all that offensive efficiency does not hamper Antetokounmpo’s production on the defensive end where he averages 2.1 steals (sixth in the league) and 2.1 blocks (seventh) per game.

Let’s add some more perspective by comparing his numbers to Player X.

  • GA: 22.8 points per game / 8.5 rebounds per game / 6.1 assists per game / 2.2 shots per game / 2.1 blocks per game
  • Player X: 23.5 points per game / 8.1 rebounds per game / 9.3 assists per game / 1.1 shots per game / 0.5 blocks per game / 49.8 Field Goal percentage

Oh yes, Player X is LeBron James, a four-time NBA Most Valuable Player, three-time NBA Champion and is seriously knocking on Michael Jordan’s legacy as the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time).

Most basketball fans would deem it blasphemous placing James, with just three Championships in seven Finals trips, alongside Jordan’s six Championships and perfect Finals record. James’s fans will rightly feel the same way about placing Antetokounmpo in the same conversation as the King just yet.

Yet, against Cleveland on Tuesday, that is exactly what Giannis attempted to prove. That he deserves to be considered the Heir, the Prince, if you may.

“He’s getting better with hard work,” Bucks’ coach Jason Kidd said after the win against Cleveland “He was going against the best player in the world.”

And make no mistake, Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play.

Antetokounmpo matched his career high 34 points shooting a blistering 68% from the field, pulling down 12 rebounds and dishing out 5 assists finishing with a +/- rating of +20. But his most important contribution came at the defensive end, where in addition to stealing the ball five times (also a career high) and blocking the ball twice, he orchestrated the dance of the defensive hydra that is the Milwaukee Bucks’ defence.

Under Kidd’s guidance, and led by the freak-of-nature force that is Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have carved themselves into a match-up nightmare on defense, and the numbers or the past two weeks stand as evidence this rise.

The rise of the Bucks

En route their 4-2 record since November 19, Bucks have allowed teams 101.3 points per game (eighth in the NBA) on just 42.5 FG% (fourth). They have dominated a paint-snatching 75.4% of defensive rebounds (third) while allowing teams only 37.7 points per game in the paint (fourth) and blocking 5.7 shots a game (ninth). They have bullied teams at the half court game by forcing their opponents into committing 15.5 turnovers a game (eighth) and stealing the ball 9.3 times a game (second).

“You can’t simulate how long they are in the passing lanes,” LeBron James said after the loss.

This top-10 defensive grind does not compromise their offence where, in the same two weeks, the Bucks have shot 48.2% from the field (fifth), scoring 107.7 points per game (eighth), and those points coming as a result of 25.3 assists per game (fourth). They are also firing away at 38.7% from beyond the arc (sixth in the NBA), which if adjusted to include teams that attempt at least 26 threes a game, ranks them third behind the San Antonio Spurs (41%) and the Toronto Raptors (48.6%). All these numbers balance out to a healthy +6.3 plus-minus rating (fourth)

But what does all this have to do with Antetokounmpo?

‘The Greek Freak’

No one will readily admit it, but this is undeniably his team. Offensively and defensively, the Bucks look to him for leadership and he, with a calm demeanour and resilient play, shoulders this responsibility, leading the Bucks in nearly every traditional and advanced stats category, both offensively and defensively.

Jason Kidd, a 19-year veteran, accomplished stat sheet filler, and an NBA Champion who finished his career, ranked second all-time in career steals assists, said, “You have special players that we come across, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan. You’ve got different players that are rare and I think Giannis is one of those rare birds that we’ll be able to enjoy for a long time.”

Kidd may be biased, though. He is after all Giannis’ coach. So let us give the last word to a 20-year veteran, five-time NBA champion and one of the 10 greatest NBA players ever?

Here’s what Kobe Bryant had to say: “He has the potential to be a great player. He has the physical tools, the intelligence. Now it’s just a matter of believing in himself and going after it. He has the talent to be a great player.”

And if anyone knows anything about why talent should work hard, it is Kobe Bryant.