Ballots have been distributed by the NBA to select media members for the usual round of regular-season awards, but we think they’re missing a few crucial categories. We made up six very important honors of our own and asked select Ringer NBA staffers to choose the winners.
The Skeleton Key Award
For the player who unlocks everything for his team.
Danny Chau: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. There were moments last season when I honestly wondered whether Mbah a Moute was the Clippers’ third-best player. For all his offensive limitations (which were overblown in relation to his role), he was as close as the team ever got to finding that ideal 3-and-D wing for the starting lineup—a white-whale search that feels at least a decade old. And then the Rockets signed him for next to nothing. In classic D’Antoni fashion, the Houston coach found ultimate utility in Mbah a Moute by ratcheting him up a position or two. Mbah a Moute’s ability and willingness to hold his own on defense against basically any center in the league is a godsend for a Rockets team that prides itself on versatility. The five-out lineups that the Rockets have played may come out in full force in the postseason. Among Houston’s endless array of 3-and-D polymaths, Mbah a Moute stands alone at the top.
John Gonzalez: For all the heat we give Tom Thibodeau about short rotations, lopsided minutes loads, and security-blanket attachments to certain players, he was right about at least one thing: Jimmy Butler makes his teams go. That’s as true now as it was in Chicago. Did you watch Minnesota last season? The Timberwolves won just 31 games. Have you watched them this season? They surpassed last season’s win total in late January and are now 44-35. So, what changed? They added Jeff Teague, but something tells me that’s not it.
When Butler went down with a meniscus injury in late February, the Wolves were 36-26. Since then, they’re 8-9 and have dropped from fourth in the Western Conference to eighth. With Butler on the court, the Wolves have a plus-7.8 net rating; without him, they fall to minus-5.1, per NBA.com/stats. Good thing he’s nearing a return. Otherwise, the Wolves might as well have tossed out those postseason plans.
Paolo Uggetti: Congrats to Steven Adams, who is also the winner of the very official award for Underrated Player Who’s Fun to Watch Do the Little Things (the title needs a lot of work, I know). The award was created to honor Mike Conley, who won his third straight last year.
Adams is a savant of the pick-and-roll, and he’s the perfect steady, guiding force to pair with a rampaging Russell Westbrook. Adams is shooting a career-high 62.7 percent from the field on a career-high nine shots a game this season, but scoring is not his forte. He’s a rebound hound, totaling 28 double-doubles this season—12 more than last season—and posting a career-high 16.6 offensive rebound percentage. Adams isn’t so much a glue guy as he is an oil guy who keeps the engine running, and for a team with three ball-dominant players, that’s incredibly valuable.
Justin Verrier: P.J. Tucker, the Round Mound of … Multiple Skills. Even as teams across the league try to crib from Golden State’s blueprint, the Rockets have somehow cornered the market on players with the profile of a wing but the glut and savvy to get in the mud with the bigs on the defensive end. I’ll go with Tucker over Mbah a Moute here because of his dependability (he’s appeared in 79 games, by far most on the team), his versatility (the way he utilizes his strength and low center of gravity to guard 5s is a master class in positioning), and the fact his pitbull attitude has finally given Mike D’Antoni a defense with some teeth.
T.C. Kane: Joel Embiid’s numbers back up his importance to the Sixers: Philly won 65 percent of the games he played in, a 53-win pace, and he has the fifth-highest net rating in the league. Embiid’s value to the team goes beyond his on-court contributions, though. JoJo’s outsized personality and impeccable social media acumen transform the Sixers from a young team with talent into the darlings of NBA Twitter. Give Philly an Embiid clone with Tim Duncan’s demeanor and we’d talk about them completely differently, and not nearly as much.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Funny you should ask! I wrote about Minnesota’s super glue guy, Taj Gibson, and his ability to connect the dots between their star talents by setting screens, grabbing boards, and running his 32-year-old ass off.
Most Washed Player
For the active player who is most washed.
Gonzalez: Jahlil Okafor. Is it possible to be washed without having a career in the first place? Can you come out of college as a top-three pick and be immediately washed? A few years back, I would have said no. But a preponderance of evidence has changed my mind.
Uggetti: Given expectations and age, it’s impossible to pick someone other than Carmelo Anthony, who is not fully washed, but is just … washed. Being on a much more competitive and polarizing team hasn’t done Melo any favors. He’s a black hole for offensive possessions and is getting dangerously close to a Can’t Play Kanter–level liability on defense. Teams are trying to target him on every possession, and that won’t change in the playoffs. And if it takes him multiple shots to get going on offense, is he even worth having out there? Melo, who is shooting a career-low 40 percent from the field, would be so much better this season as a second-unit scorer, but we know who we’re dealing with here:
Carmelo Anthony was asked about the possibility of coming off the bench and his reaction was hilarious. pic.twitter.com/NG3Hvv7s64— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) September 25, 2017
Verrier: Arron Afflalo. In a tradition like none other, the Magic signed a veteran guard clinging to the “They’ll pay me how much?” portion of his career in the offseason to provide some much-needed shooting. The good news is the team’s new front office avoided shelling out a premium for Afflalo (a veteran’s-minimum signing) like the franchise had in the past for the likes of Ben Gordon and Jodie Meeks. The bad news is Afflalo, in his 11th season, is unequivocally washed. The 32-year-old is shooting a respectable 38.5 percent from 3, but also has the fifth-worst player efficiency rating (5.55) of the 350 qualifying players on ESPN’s leaderboard. That he has still appeared in 51 games for Orlando isn’t a great sign for Frank Vogel’s future.
Chau: Luol Deng. He played 13 minutes in the first game of the 2017-18 campaign; hasn’t seen the court since. He’s healthy. He will have made $1,322,307.69 per minute played by the end of the season (well, much less than that, considering how brutal taxes are). What a life.
Kane: If you ever felt the inexplicable urge to look at the stats of the 24-54 Orlando Magic, and sorted their players by points per game, and scrolled to the bottom of that list, you’d see Afflalo’s name. Afflalo is only one season removed from making $12.5 million in Sacramento, and four seasons ago he was putting up 18.2 points a night for the Magic. This season, he’s at 3.3, and his most memorable moment was when he took an ambitious swing at Minnesota’s Nemanja Bjelica, whiffed, and got put in a headlock. At 32, Afflalo is not only thoroughly washed, but far too old to be looking like a younger sibling trying to let his big brother have it:
O’Shaughnessy: Jamal Crawford is the league’s poster-child journeyman. The 38-year-old has been beloved for years. Maybe that’s why we ignore his unmistakable decline. With Minnesota, a team especially lacking in reserve guards and outside shooting, Crawford is averaging 33.9 percent from deep. And it doesn’t matter whether he’s hot or having an off-game—he’s taking that perimeter shot. Crawford is like a timeshare—great to have every now and then when the 3s are falling, but just a commitment you made one summer that you wish you hadn’t.
Best Second-Banana Award
For the player who probably won’t show up on an MVP ballot but performed the best as a no. 2 (or even 3 or 4 or 5) option.
O’Shaughnessy: C.J. McCollum looked like he had regressed from 2016-17, his best season, in the first couple months of the season. But he’s played a crucial supporting role in Portland’s post-All-Star emergence and has always been a strong backcourt partner for Damian Lillard.
Gonzalez: Before the season, I wondered how Chris Paul would fit in Houston. CP3 has been the focal point of every team he’s ever been on in his entire life. The high usage rate and the ability to take over games late in critical situations are part of what helped make him the Point God in the first place. Which is why it was so hard for me to imagine him deferring to James Harden and D’Antoni’s system for the greater good. But that’s exactly what he’s done. While Harden became the runaway favorite for MVP, Paul has had a good but surprisingly quiet (for him) season in the service of the best team in the NBA. When your second banana is a future Hall of Famer, you’re in pretty good shape. But I should have never doubted Paul’s ability to fill this role—especially given his long history of banana-related experiences.
Chau: We miss you, DeMarcus Cousins!
Verrier: Jrue Holiday. The point guard hand-picked to complement the Pelicans’ future Hall of Fame big man was admittedly displaced upon the arrival of Cousins last season. But Holiday showed clear signals of a breakthrough as the roster refined its approach to Big Ball earlier this season (including a career-high 53.8 effective field goal percentage on the season), and he’s played some of the best basketball of his career since an Achilles tear felled Boogie for the season and moved him back to the second chair: 19.4 points, 7 assists, 4.7 rebounds, All-Defense team–caliber defense, and a plus-3.9 net rating. Davis will be the engine for New Orleans’ success, but Holiday has always been, and has continued to be, the necessary accelerant to bring Davis and the Pels to another level.
Kane: It may not be the flashiest pick, but Kyle Lowry deserves some recognition for helping the Raptors to the 1-seed in the East. DeMar DeRozan has been rightfully praised for adjusting his game, and the Raps bench has been out of this world, but without Lowry canceling out opposing point guards every night Toronto would likely have fallen into the middle of the pack. The key for Lowry will be to keep up that level of play into the playoffs, where he’s traditionally performed less like a second banana and closer to something like a seventh or eighth banana.
Uggetti: Nothing puts a damper on action-packed NBA basketball quite like the words: “Al Horford screens.” But, c’mon—this kind of handiwork is bliss even for non-basketball nerds:
Horford began the season as a third banana, but when Gordon Hayward went down, he became the second option next to Kyrie Irving. Except, he kept playing like a super role player, screening for rookies and anyone else and helping the Celtics develop a defensive identity that has powered them to a top-two seed in the East. Even now, with Kyrie out for the rest of the season and postseason, Horford won’t tap into some hidden offensive prowess to carry the Celtics. That’s not his game. He’ll just keep being Horford, and that’s more than enough.
The Who the Fuck Is That Guy? Award
For the favorite obscure player in your life who saw live action this season.
Chau: I would like to give this to two players: The Hawks’ Tyler Cavanaugh and the Knicks’ Luke Kornet. I participated in a 20-person fantasy basketball league this season where every team drafted 25 players. That’s 500 players drafted, which is effectively as large as the league’s entire talent pool. How quickly both Cavanaugh and Kornet were snatched off the waiver wire after one good performance would astound you.
Gonzalez: Oh man, late-season NBA is great for this. The Nets played a dude named Milton Doyle the other night. The Magic, being the Magic, had Jamel Artis and Rodney Purvis on the floor in the same game. And the Suns, being the Suns, went with Alec Peters and Davon Reed. But my favorite to date was Julyan Stone, who did not take a shot in 16 minutes in a recent loss to the Sixers. I had never heard of him until I got a text from my buddy Stehle: “Who in the flying 747 fuck is Julyan Stone?” It’s like Stehle knew we were going to do this post.
Verrier: The 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks are truly a gift to the NBA Anonymous account. In Thursday’s 29-point loss to the Heat, the Hawks trotted out a starting backcourt of Isaiah Taylor (um) and Damion Lee (ummmm). On the bench were Cavanaugh and Andrew White III, Tyler Dorsey and the maybe-create-a-player Antonius Cleveland. There’s also Jeremy Evans (hey, I know him!) and a Plumlee. But my personal favorite is Josh Magette: a 28-year-old rookie from Alabama-Huntsville (sure) who has somehow played in 18 real, live NBA games and looks like the cloned version of head coach Mike Budenholzer:
Uggetti: You may not know Tyrone Wallace because he spent the first half of the season and a big chunk of the second half of the season in the G League with the Agua Caliente Clippers. At this point, you might be saying, “So he didn’t play in the NBA at all?” Wrong. Wallace has played 26 games this season and he’s started 17 times for a Clippers team clinging to the fringes of the playoffs. Look, that’s not a lot, but watch any game and it’s clear that Wallace has not just the energy of a guy trying to stick in the league, but the athleticism and the production (he’s averaging 16.6 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 4 assists per 100 possessions). Wallace’s quickness puts him in a great position to be a good off-ball cutter, while his lengthy frame already allows him to be an impact defender on the perimeter. He can also pull this out of his bag of tricks:
O’Shaughnessy: Guerschon Yabusele. A quick summary on one of my favorite players to watch this season (maybe ever; time will tell), the Dancing Bear: 22 years old, French, 6-foot-7, power forward. Yabu has logged only 182 minutes as a rookie with Boston, but he’s made them memorable:
That’s the point-and-dab, his celebration of choice after connecting from 3 … which he has done a grand total of 10 times. Yabusele has his moves down, though the rest of his game is very raw. But watching the beefy 260-pounder with quick feet make athletic moves is incredibly entertaining. And if nothing else, he’s a good influence on other rookies.
JAYSON TATUM DOING THE YABU DAB!! pic.twitter.com/71uZhpKeTp— John Karalis (@RedsArmy_John) April 4, 2018
Kane: The Celtics’ Daniel Theis has to be the runaway winner of this award, because he’s the ultra-rare Who the Fuck Is That Guy who actually happens to be good. Before a meniscus tear ended his season, Theis was playing 15 minutes a night for a contender and putting up 17.7 points and 14.7 rebounds per 100 possessions. The best thing about Theis, though, is that every time he stepped on the court there was a split second when it looked like a random tall dude from Southie had tricked security into thinking he was an NBA player.
The Most With Less Award
For the player who performed the best in spite of a lacking roster.
Verrier: Victor Oladipo. The Pacers were projected to win 31.5 games coming into the season after assembling a who’s who of C-list NBA starters: There’s Bojan Bogdanovic, a sixth man on last season’s underachieving Wizards team; Thaddeus Young, a Model T stretch-4; Darren Collison, a 30-year-old who’s had a long career as mostly a last-resort starter at point guard; and Myles Turner, the presumed first option who has taken a half-step back this season while battling through injuries. But Oladipo, a lawn ornament in Russell Westbrook’s triple-double show last season, has emerged as a surefire All-NBA selection while pushing Indiana to the precipice of 50 wins, a benchmark the franchise has met or surpassed only twice since the turn of the century.
Gonzalez: I wouldn’t have given this to Anthony Davis earlier in the season. Tough to do so with DeMarcus Cousins by his side. But since Boogie went down, AD has somehow kept the Pelicans relevant while elevating himself into the MVP conversation. And I know what you’re thinking: But what about Jrue Holiday?! Yes, yes, fine. He’s been really good this season. But even if you spot AD a healthy Holiday, the rest of that roster is an abomination. They’re starting Emeka Okafor most nights. Rajon Rondo is forced to play heavy minutes because they don’t have enough warm bodies. Cheick Diallo doesn’t know enough to just get out of the damn way. And every time E’Twaun Moore jacks up another late-game shot in a critical situation, poor New Orleans native Micah Peters bellows whyyyyyyy. Otherwise, the Pelicans’ supporting cast is grand.
Chau: LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having the best season of his career at age 32, serving as a pillar of stability in the strangest Spurs season of the Popovich era. The Spurs won’t reach 50 wins for the first time since time immemorial, but the Spurs’ prescribed second option has led a colony made up entirely of players whose ideal role is probably eighth man to what looks to be San Antonio’s 21st straight postseason. It’s a testament to Pop, but it’s the players who play the games. No one on the Spurs has come even remotely close to Aldridge’s production.
O’Shaughnessy: Davis. New Orleans’s supporting cast, especially Holiday, has been one of the pleasant surprises of the season. So this is less a knock on them than it is an appreciation for the Brow (who, despite Red Bull’s tomfoolery, is still the Brow), and his effort to fill DeMarcus Cousins’s enormous shoes. Since Boogie tore his Achilles, Davis has averaged 30.3 points, 12.1 rebounds, three blocks, two steals, and 2.1 assists. The Pelicans will likely make the playoffs even without Cousins, who was playing the best basketball of his career.
Kane: The Pacers have been the surprise story of the NBA season, and Oladipo has them in the playoffs despite the fact Indiana’s roster is completely devoid of star power. Oladipo, Kyrie Irving, and LaMarcus Aldridge are the only 20-point-per-game scorers without a teammate that averaged at least 15—and the other two have the benefit of being coached by basketball sorcerers. After a year in Oklahoma City serving as a pawn in Westbrook’s “He had no help!” MVP campaign, it’s ironic that Oladipo has had his best season in a similar predicament.
Uggetti: Davis. The Pelicans signed Jordan Crawford on Thursday. They needed Jordan Crawford. That tells you all you need to know about how much Davis has carried NOLA since Boogie went down. I expected them to drop out of the playoffs. Instead, Davis has resurrected the team—and a whole lot of people’s jobs within the franchise—by putting together a second half that would win any MVP on any planet that didn’t also inhabit James Harden.
The Best Player in the World Belt
For the player you’re picking ahead of anyone in the league right now.
Chau: LeBron James until at least 2021. We’ll see where biomechanical engineering is by then and reassess.
O’Shaughnessy: LeBron. Age is just a number.
Gonzalez: This is a question we’re honestly considering?
Uggetti: Insert paragraph espousing and repeating the ways LeBron has proved to us this season that he’s still the best player in the world at 33 years old.
Or just read Zach Kram on how LeBron just had one of the five best stretches of his career.
Kane: As praiseworthy as LeBron’s numbers are for his age and mileage, more impressive still has been his propensity for making highlight-reel plays. There was the behind-the-back dribble through his teammate’s legs, the sassy no-look, the Exorcism of Jusuf Nurkic, and my personal favorite, when he made the Wolves fold their entire franchise in just five seconds:
Verrier: LeBron. This question needed to be asked for posterity!