Who Should Win the 2013 NBA Awards?Media members vote for every individual regular season NBA award except for the All-Defensive Team (chosen by the NBA head coaches) and the Executive of the Year (selected by NBA executives). Some media members seem to be swayed by certain narratives--either narratives that they created and thus do not want to contradict or else emerging narratives that they would like to promote--while other media members have been seduced by "advanced basketball statistics." Two years ago, I explained my philosophy about selecting NBA award winners:
I prefer to select award winners based on a logical analysis of all relevant factors, including statistics, observation of games (a heretical act according to at least some "stat gurus") and historical context; using logical analysis does not mean that I am always right or that I have successfully removed any traces of unconscious bias but it does mean that I value being right over being popular and that I have done my best to render unbiased judgments.
Here is my take on the 2012-2013 NBA regular season awards:
1) LeBron James
2) Kevin Durant
3) Kobe Bryant
4) Russell Westbrook
5) Chris Paul
This race may be the biggest landslide since Ronald Reagan obliterated Walter Mondale in 1984. LeBron James is by far the best player in the NBA; other players had MVP caliber seasons but no one matched James' productivity, versatility and efficiency. James has already won three regular season MVPs, so it is remarkable that he has continued to elevate his game. His skill set improvements--most notably, better shot selection, the development of a consistent outside shot and the refinement of his post up game--are significant but James' most impressive transformation is the way that he changed his mindset; James is much more focused and much calmer.
Kevin Durant is another great player who is improving; his shooting percentages and assist average went up, his rebounding remained steady and his turnovers declined slightly. Durant joined the exclusive 50/40/90 club, shooting .510 from the field, .416 from three point range and a league-best .905 from the free throw line. He failed to become just the third player in NBA history to win at least four straight scoring titles but he is still the most potent and versatile offensive threat in the league; Durant is a more efficient scorer than 2013 scoring champion Carmelo Anthony.
Due to the L.A. Lakers' disappointing season, Kobe Bryant may not finish in the top five in the official balloting but instead of penalizing Bryant for his teammates' shortcomings the voters should acknowledge that, despite his advanced age and his 50,000-plus career minutes played, Bryant had one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Bryant battled a host of injuries even prior to suffering a season-ending Achilles tendon tear but he still had one of his most efficient shooting seasons, he tied his career-high with a 6.0 apg average and he is still an excellent rebounder (5.6 rpg, ranking first among guards and topping most of the league's small forwards as well). Even though Bryant's defense is not as consistently great as it was during his prime, he showed that he can stay in front of younger, quicker point guards and that he can still play the passing lanes very well (1.4 spg). In a "normal" season--i.e., a season without James' superhuman performance and a season in which the Lakers posted their typical 50-plus wins--Bryant would be battling Durant for MVP honors.
Russell Westbrook may be the most underrated player in the NBA--and he is almost certainly the most underrated great player. Westbrook is a deadly scorer (he ranked sixth in the league in scoring with a 23.2 ppg average), an excellent passer (he ranked eighth in the league in assists with a 7.4 apg average), the best point guard rebounder (5.2 rpg) and an outstanding defensive player. He is fast and quick (there is a difference--the former refers to straight line speed, while the latter refers to the ability to deftly maneuver in short bursts in small spaces) and he is strong. Tim Grover thinks that Westbrook's best attribute is that he is "100% fearless." Westbrook is poised to inherit Bryant's unenviable role as the great player most likely to be senselessly criticized by the media; it will be very surprising if the voters are smart enough to place Westbrook in the top five in the MVP race.
Chris Paul might finish as high as second in the MVP voting and he is an absolute lock for a top five slot. The narrative of Paul as a "culture changer" is irresistible for most media members--and the fact that Paul is a normal-sized person going head to head against giants probably also adds to his popularity. There is no doubt that Paul is a great player who had a great season but it is baffling that so many people rank him higher than great players who are significantly bigger. Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA and is not coincidental that Isiah Thomas is the only "small" player who led a team to an NBA championship. Paul is in many ways the 21st century Isiah Thomas but it remains to be seen if he can be the best player on a championship team. If Paul were swapped straight up for the four players listed above none of those teams would be better, while the Clippers would be at least as good--if not better--in such a hypothetical scenario. James and Durant are so much bigger and better than Paul that the comparison does not even make sense. Many people may assume that the Lakers would benefit from Paul's passing but even when Bryant went into full Steve Nash mode as a passer the Lakers still struggled because so many of their players missed wide open shots. Media evaluations of passing ability and unselfishness are laughably subjective; Paul is praised when Blake Griffin plays well but Paul is not criticized when Griffin has bad stretches, while Bryant and Westbrook are not praised when their teammates play well but they are criticized when their teammates play poorly. If Paul is largely responsible for Griffin's good performances then, logically, isn't Paul also largely responsible for Griffin's bad performances? NBA halftime shows are hilarious: if Pau Gasol goes 1-5 from the field in the first half then you can expect to hear a dissertation about Bryant's selfish gunning but if Blake Griffin goes 1-5 from the field in the first half then you can expect to hear that Griffin must be more aggressive and assertive.
Paul has better shot selection than Westbrook but Westbrook is bigger, more explosive and much more durable. I will be surprised if Paul wins more NBA championships than Westbrook--at least during the time frame when both players are performing at an All-NBA caliber level (there is no way to predict how many rings a player might win in the latter stages of his career if he accepts a reduced role).
Rookie of the Year
1) Damian Lillard
2) Anthony Davis
3) Bradley Beal
All of the Draft Day hype focused on Anthony Davis but once the season started it quickly became apparent that Damian Lillard is by far the league's best rookie. Lillard performed at an All-Star caliber level (19.0 ppg, 6.5 apg, 3.1 rpg) but it is very difficult for a guard to make the Western Conference All-Star team--particularly a first year guard on a non-playoff team. Lillard looks like a player who will become a perennial All-Star as his game matures and his team improves. The only other rookies who averaged at least 19 ppg and at least six apg are Oscar Robertson, Damon Stoudamire and Allen Iverson.
Davis is already a solid big man and perhaps he will develop into a dominant player but right now his statistics and impact resemble Dikembe Mutombo, not Bill Russell; it is not an insult to be compared with Mutombo, who had a long and distinguished career, but many commentators pumped up Davis as a multifaceted franchise player.
Bradley Beal improved throughout his rookie campaign and his numbers will continue to increase if he and backcourt mate John Wall both stay healthy next season.
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Roy Hibbert
2) LeBron James
3) Serge Ibaka
The first time that I saw Roy Hibbert play in person, I wrote, "Hibbert's game is eccentric: he has a big body and a soft shooting touch near the hoop but his moves are so mechanical and stilted that his lumbering gait reminds me of Anakin Skywalker taking his first halting steps after being entombed in the Darth Vader suit." Hibbert's offensive game is still awkward-looking but this season he emerged as a defensive force, ranking fourth in the NBA in blocked shots (2.61 bpg) and helping his Indiana Pacers lead the league in defensive field goal percentage (.420).
LeBron James is nominally a power forward but at this point his game defies conventional positional designations; my comments about LeBron James in last year's awards article are still valid: "LeBron James is the only player in the NBA who can defend all five positions. He excels as both a one on one defender and as a help defender. He has made huge strides since his early days as a subpar defensive player."
Serge Ibaka led the NBA in blocked shots (3.03 bpg) for the second year in a row and he led the league in total blocked shots (242) for the third year in a row. His paint presence is a major reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked second in defensive field goal percentage (.425).
Sixth Man of the Year
1) Kevin Martin
2) J.R. Smith
3) Jamal Crawford
After James Harden won the Sixth Man of the Year award last season he emerged as an All-Star--and likely an All-NBA selection--this season in Houston. Kevin Martin faced a lot of pressure stepping into Harden's shoes but neither he nor the Oklahoma City Thunder missed a beat; Martin more than capably filled Harden's role as a big-time scorer and the Thunder posted the best record in the Western Conference after finishing second in the West in 2011-12. J.R. Smith (18.1 ppg) and Jamal Crawford (16.5 ppg) scored more points than Martin (14.0 ppg) but Martin is a key contributor on a team that seems poised to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. Martin is a very efficient scorer: Martin ranked 10th in the league in three point field goal percentage (.426), he ranked fourth in free throw percentage (.890) and he had a better overall field goal percentage (.450) than Smith (.422) and Crawford (.438). Martin has averaged at least 20 ppg in six different seasons--although several of them were injury-shortened campaigns--so the difference between his scoring average and the scoring averages posted by Smith and Crawford does not really prove that Smith and Crawford are better scorers.
Smith will almost certainly be given this award by the media and a very good case can be made in his favor; he set career-highs in scoring and rebounding (5.3 rpg) and he played a major role in New York's rise in the Eastern Conference standings.
Crawford is the third leading scorer for the Pacific Division champion L.A. Clippers. He does not provide much playmaking or defense but he is very difficult to guard because he is equally adept at driving to the hoop and at firing away from long distance.
Jarrett Jack should receive some consideration; he is Golden State's fourth leading scorer (12.9 ppg) and second leading playmaker (5.5 apg).
Most Improved Player
1) Paul George
2) Jrue Holiday
3) Greivis Vasquez
Paul George elevated himself from solid starter to All-Star, emerging as the best player on a very good Indiana team. The same can be said of Philadelphia's Jrue Holiday but George gets the nod because he is a better two-way player while Holiday's impact is primarily felt on offense. Greivis Vasquez only started 27 games in his first two seasons but he started all 78 games that he played in 2012-13, ranking third in the league in assists (9.0 apg).
Coach of the Year
1) Tom Thibodeau
2) Gregg Popovich
3) Erik Spoelstra
The Chicago Bulls suffered a parade of injuries--2011 MVP Derrick Rose sat out the entire season, while Joakim Noah, Richard Hamilton and Kirk Hinrich missed significant playing time--and yet they still boasted a top 10 defense (ranking third in points allowed and 10th in defensive field goal percentage) and they still easily qualified for the playoffs. The injuries and the failure to re-sign key bench players like Omer Asik eliminated the team's depth but Tom Thibodeau's excellent coaching kept the Bulls in the mix and made them a dangerous team on any given night.
Gregg Popovich's record speaks for itself; he has won four championships and his Spurs always win at least 50 regular season games (even in the lockout-shortened 2012 campaign).
The Miami Heat are talented and deep but Erik Spoelstra has brought out the best in his players both individually and collectively. It is obvious that his players respect him because they consistently play hard and defend well.
New York's Mike Woodson, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks and Denver's George Karl also deserve mention.
Executive of the Year
1) Pat Riley
2) Masai Ujiri
3) Billy King
First Pat Riley assembled the "Big Three" and then he surrounded those stars with a well-blended array of three point shooters and defensive specialists. He also hired a great young coach and then stuck with that coach even after media critics urged/predicted that Riley fire Erik Spoelstra and take the reins himself.
Many NBA fans have probably never even heard of Denver's Masai Ujiri but he parlayed the disgruntled Carmelo Anthony into several very good players who have formed the nucleus for the squad that posted the best record (57-25) in the Nuggets' NBA history (the 1974-75 Nuggets went 65-19 in the ABA).
Brooklyn's Billy King re-signed Deron Williams and Brook Lopez and then added Joe Johnson to the mix, resulting in an improvement from 22-44 (.333) to 49-33 (.598), the franchise's best record since the 2005-06 team went 49-33.
Houston's Daryl Morey will receive a lot of votes and maybe he will even win the award. His Rockets went 34-32 in the lockout shortened 2011-12 season, which is equivalent to a 42-40 record in an 82 game season. In 2012-13, after the much celebrated signing of James Harden plus the acquisitions of Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik, the Rockets went 45-37. The Rockets are sporadic at best defensively and, because of the way the roster is constructed, they have to play an uptempo style that is unlikely to be effective in the playoffs. Morey's Rockets missed the playoffs each of the last three seasons but they squeaked in this season not so much because they have dramatically improved but rather because the Western Conference is not quite as strong as it has been recently; the Rockets' 2012-13 winning percentage would not have been good enough to qualify for the 2010 or 2011 playoffs and would have resulted in a dead heat for the eighth seed in 2012.
All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Russell Westbrook
C Brook Lopez
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant
All-NBA Second Team
G Chris Paul
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony
All-NBA Third Team
G Tony Parker
G Stephen Curry
C Chris Bosh
F Blake Griffin
F David Lee
The NBA eliminated the center position from the All-Star ballot but, as far as I know, the All-NBA squad will still contain three centers. Brook Lopez is not a great rebounder but he is an excellent scorer and he has become a very strong defensive presence. Dwight Howard seemed to be operating at about 80% of his normal capacity for most of the season but he still finished first in rebounding (12.4 rpg), second in field goal percentage (.578) and fifth in blocked shots (2.45 bpg) while also averaging 17.1 ppg. It is tempting to place him on the First Team because there are no other dominant centers in the league but even though Howard's overall numbers are very good he had some clunker games and his lack of energy--ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy said that Howard and his teammate Pau Gasol played with a "deplorable" lack of effort early in the season--contributed to the Lakers' disappointing record. Chris Bosh's versatility at both ends of the court enables the Heat to employ the small lineup that causes fits for so many NBA teams. Marc Gasol had a solid season for a very good Memphis team but he simply is just not quite as productive as the three centers that I selected ahead of him. Here are the key numbers for the NBA's top four centers:
Brook Lopez: 19.4 ppg, 6.9 rpg, .521 FG%, 2.08 bpg
Dwight Howard: 17.1 ppg, 12.4 rpg, .578 FG%, 2.45 bpg
Chris Bosh: 16.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, .535 FG%, 1.36 bpg
Marc Gasol: 14.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg, .494 FG%, 1.74 bpg
James Harden had a very good season and he is going to be selected by the voters, probably to the Second Team--but even though the media is intrigued by his story and even though the "stat gurus" love Harden, his skill set is clearly not better than the skill sets possessed by Bryant, Westbrook, Paul and Wade. Add Tony Parker--a key player on the West's second best team--to the mix and there is only one guard spot left on my squad; I gave serious consideration to Harden--who I ranked ahead of Curry on my All-Star ballot--but Curry performed much better than Harden down the stretch so that became my tiebreaker in a close race.
All-Defensive First Team
G Tony Allen
G Thabo Sefolosha
C Roy Hibbert
F LeBron James
F Serge Ibaka
All-Defensive Second Team
G Chris Paul
G Russell Westbrook
C Larry Sanders
F Tim Duncan
F Paul George
This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. "Stat gurus" and media members often criticize the coaches' choices but it is reasonable to assume that the coaches know which players wreak the most havoc defensively (and the coaches are not allowed to vote for their own players).
My selections tend to foreshadow the coaches' picks; in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2012 I chose eight of the 10 players selected by the coaches, while in 2011 I "only" matched six of the coaches' 10 honorees.
Positional designations are supposed to apply but many players play multiple positions.
Avery Bradley is widely touted as a lock for the All-Defensive Team but he only played in 50 games this season and I hesitate to select anyone for a postseason award if he participated in fewer than 65 games. It will be interesting to see how the coaches handle this situation.
Marc Gasol is a very good defensive player who has been mentioned as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate but he is not quite the shotblocking presence in the paint that Hibbert and Sanders are, so Gasol just misses the cut here, much like he narrowly missed the cut for my All-NBA squad.
All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)
All-Rookie Second Team
"Early entry" has hurt both the college game and the NBA game; the University of Kentucky could have become a great dynasty but instead the Wildcats won just one championship before sending several players to the NBA; those players excelled in college but, until they mature physically and become fully accustomed to the NBA, they are not yet impact performers at the pro level.
Damian Lillard, who stayed in college for four seasons (he was a red shirt junior in 2011-12 after playing just 10 games in 2010-11), was the only exceptional rookie in 2012-13. Anthony Davis showed flashes of his potential but he is not yet a dominant player; it would have been much more fun to watch him lead a great Kentucky team than to watch him toil for a non-playoff team in New Orleans.
Previous NBA Award Articles
Selecting the 2012 Award Winners (2012)
Selecting NBA Award Winners: The Battle of Stats Versus Storylines Versus Logical Analysis (2011)
NBA Awards Season is Almost Here (2010)
An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race (2009)
Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season (2009)
Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners (2008)
posted by David Friedman @ 7:49 AM