Who needs an MVP award when you can win a prestigious Most Washed trophy? Dan Devine named his winners for the actual awards that will be given out for this NBA regular season; now our full staff makes their picks for the awards that should be on the ballot:
Best Player in the World Belt
For the most dominant player in today’s game.
Justin Verrier: Even after James Harden won MVP last year, we hesitated to elevate him to the top of the best-player conversation. (ESPN ranked him no. 3 in preseason, Sports Illustrated no. 4.) Whether it was his defensive deficiencies, a recent history of playoff flameouts, or maybe the residual effect of coming up as a junior executive under Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, there seemed to be a ceiling on Harden’s standing. Best offensive player? Sure, OK. Best player? Eh, um, well, I don’t know.
But even if Giannis Antetokpounmpo wins this year’s MVP, this regular season should be remembered as Harden’s coronation. The offensive numbers remain outlandish—36.1 points per game (second only to Michael Jordan in the past 55 years), 13.2 3-pointers attempted per game (most in history), 40.4 usage rate (second highest in history). The defense has become credible. Most importantly, the thinking man’s hero ball that Harden has pioneered acquitted itself under extreme circumstances; surrounded by Guess Who cards at times because of injuries and Daryl Morey’s approach of slow-cooking the supporting cast, Harden ripped off 32 straight games of 30 points or more and saved the Rockets’ sinking season.
Still not convinced? How about this: If Harden is voted no. 1 or 2 in MVP this season as expected, it will mark his fourth top-two finish in the past five years; Steph Curry (two) is the only other player with more than one. Harden has quietly dominated for half a decade; his exploits this season are forcing us to give his mutant game its proper due.
Dan Devine: It feels weird to be doing this after picking Giannis Antetokounmpo for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, but I’m going to go with my gut here: If I need one guy for one game who can do anything and everything to put me in a position to win, I think I’m picking Kevin Durant first and sleeping pretty comfortably that night.
In a “down” season, Durant is still averaging 26.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, and a career-high 5.9 assists per game, remaining one of the sport’s most efficient high-usage scorers and versatile defenders while proving more capable as a point power forward when necessary. Giannis is undeniable. Harden is breaking the usage-efficiency curve and ascending to a whole new plane of individual offensive excellence. Stephen Curry is still the sport’s ultimate flamethrower. LeBron James, after it all, is still something very close to LeBron Goddamn James. But I don’t know that anybody aggregates and wields elite skills in the way Durant does; the whole is somehow greater than the sum of its remarkable parts, even if we now often tend to overlook their application until it’s time to name a Finals MVP.
John Gonzalez: I feel like this is a trap. Verrier reminded the group that LeBron James won this category in a landslide last year. James will not, of course, win in a landslide this year. It would be hard to have a pro-LeBron landslide after he got buried under his own words, failed to dig himself out, and then gave up before the season was over. It has become fashionable around these parts to wonder whether LeBron has entered the post-prime era of his career. And yet if the question is, broadly, who the best player in the world is, I would argue that the answer is the same as it’s been for a long while now. The King was not as in command on the court this season as he has been in the past, but he is still LeBron. There are lots of exceptional players, and someone not named James will rightly win the MVP award. But that is not what we are discussing here. Are we really going to declare anyone else to be the best player in the world when James is still living and breathing and (capable of) playing in that world? Like I said, this feels like a trap.
Jonathan Tjarks: Durant. Just because he’s not the most valuable player in the league doesn’t mean that he isn’t the best. Durant is one of the most well-rounded players in NBA history. There has never been a 7-footer who can do as many things as he can. I’ll always have love for a fellow Texas Longhorn, but you don’t have to like him as much as I do to appreciate his game.
Danny Chau: Steph Curry. This is a big admission for me; I’ve long been a Durant apologist. But we’re in Year 5 of the Warriors dynasty, and Steph’s numbers are eerily consistent with his averages spanning the past five seasons; his staggering efficiency has become white noise. Each season has brought its own hurdles, yet Curry has transformed the Warriors into the greatest offense in NBA history with his mere presence. Has the idea of one player being a system unto himself ever been more applicable in the modern age? His unique abilities have an unprecedented gravitational pull on defenses, but it’s not so much the gravity that he conjures, but the oxygen he spreads to the rest of his team. His only competition in the annals of history might be Bill Russell; with another championship, the Warriors will have won four championships in five years—a feat that has not been matched since Russell’s Celtics in the 1960s.
Paolo Uggetti: Harden may not win the MVP, but his season is the culmination of his five-year ascent. Harden cracked the top five in MVP voting in 2013-14, vaulted to second the following season, and after another second-place finish in 2017, he won the award in 2018. After this season, he will have finished in the top two in four of the past five seasons. I refuse to understate the significance of that, even if some of his recent playoff appearances have been on the short side. Sure, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry both present good cases for this title, and Giannis will be able to soon, but Harden is molding the modern game right in front of us; it’s time to start focusing more on that and less on demeaning his style of play.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: The belt still belongs to James, but only because there isn’t an obvious successor. He’s on the edge, though. To be the best player in the world, you have to play, and James will have missed 27 games by season’s end. His absences—due to injury, load management, and a lost season—don’t automatically bump him from the top spot, but his playing most of the season in energy-saving mode (prematurely pulling up for 3s, resting on defense, watching the game play out while standing still) raises a lot of questions. The belt is still James’s, though because no player’s case is more convincing than what James has done in recent history.
The Most Award
For the player who was always doing the most this season.
Devine: Kyrie Irving. I’ve written about why I find Irving, his impact on the Celtics, and his place in the league’s firmament especially fascinating a few times this season. A lot of it comes back to his rocky journey toward becoming a leader, his insistence that we stop talking about his future while he constantly provides fodder for that conversation, and his commitment to talking about his experience using phrases like, “My Intuitive Truth: I am grateful for my time capsule on this Motherly Earth.” I’d be lying if I said I understood what Kyrie was saying or trying to do most of the time; he certainly does seem to be trying to say and do an awful lot, though.
O’Shaughnessy: Joel Embiid. Doing the most is taking four 3-pointers a game despite shooting them at a 30 percent clip, which Embiid does. Doing the most is calling yourself the most unstoppable player in the league, which Embiid did. Doing the most is seeking out confrontation while already having 14 active, equally heated NBA beefs, which Embiid will forever do.
Verrier: LeBron did less than ever on a basketball court, but still he managed to do a lot in his first season in Los Angeles. Statistically, he had one of the best Old Guy seasons in history; it was what James did in between a career-low 55 games, though, that earns him this honor. One wink-wink comment on a Tuesday in December set off a chain reaction that led to Anthony Davis’s trade request and, eventually, his being stuck in Pelicans purgatory for half a season; the firing of New Orleans GM Dell Demps; widespread alienation among the Lakers roster; a slapdash trade wherein the Lakers jettisoned a 22-year-old starting center; and a wasted year of James’s waning prime. And as he posted cheery Instagram photos of his individual accomplishments and moonlighted as Lorne Michaels, the franchise’s outlook started to look as bleak as the Washed Kobe era and the fan base began to openly pine for Kobe’s return. Get that money, LeBron … but maybe get back on defense, too.
Gonzalez: I have written and spoken a lot of words about Irving this season, most of them with my tongue pressed hard against the inside of my cheek. I get that some of you who pay attention to these things are probably tired of how much I have written and spoken about Kyrie. I am quite certain the editors here would prefer I write and speak about other things. But I cannot help myself. The man opens his mouth—often to the detriment of the Celtics and the dismay of Greater Boston—and his words enter my ears and my heart is filled with great joy. I am smiling even as I write this. In my perfect NBA, every player would be Kyrie, and they would be mic’d up always and forever.
Chau: LeBron. Pretty sure he has as many 2019 media ventures as assists per game.
Tjarks: Irving. The only thing you know for sure about Kyrie is that you are going to get a lot of good content. Whether he’s questioning media ethics, debating philosophy, or airing out his grievances with teammates, there’s always something viral that comes from a Kyrie interview. He never misses a chance to keep his name out there.
Uggetti: Embiid fits any interpretation of the word “most.” On the court, he helps turn the Sixers’ disparate talents into a cohesive force that can beat anyone on any night. Off the court, Embiid does even more. He took a shot at Boston’s Terry Rozier by tagging his location “Lametown;” posted a picture of his dog, who is named after Sam Hinkie; kept it real about Ben Simmons’s 3-point shot; and made a reference to Jimmy Butler’s explosive practice in Minnesota. As consumers of basketball content, we need Embiid as much as the Sixers do.
Skeleton Key Award
For the player who unlocked everything for his team this season.
Tjarks: Brook Lopez. There might not have been a bigger upgrade in the entire league than Milwaukee’s move from the platoon of John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and Thon Maker at center to Lopez. Their defense is built around his ability to drop back to the front of the rim and wall off the paint in the pick-and-roll, and their Giannis-centric offense needs a 3-point shooter at center to open up the paint. The history of the NBA might have shifted when the Lakers let Lopez go to the Bucks rather than pair him with LeBron James.
Chau: Pascal Siakam, who has undergone an NBA transformation as stark as any since Paul Millsap went from a rebounding fridge to one of the most versatile two-way bigs in the game. The Raptors knew they were upgrading their roster with Kawhi Leonard; there’s no way they were prepared for the kind of player Siakam—a springy energy player off the bench last season—would become. Siakam was the talk of training camp, and has quickly ascended to becoming the Raptors’ second-best player—no small feat when Kyle Lowry could arguably be considered the best player in franchise history. His rise has lent Toronto’s title hopes additional credence, and possibly another reason for Leonard to think long and hard before leaving.
Verrier: Lopez is the man behind the unicorn. The good ol’ days of 20 points a night and All-Star consideration are long gone, but Lopez is still quite large, and he can now shoot consistently from range, and those two things are exactly what the Bucks need to clear a runway for Giannis to be great. Antetokounmpo wouldn’t dominate the paint like young Shaq or deter opponents from entering the paint on the other end if he didn’t have Splash Mountain soaking up space and attention.
Gonzalez: Kendall Jenner.
Uggetti: Siakam has made the leap from intern to boardroom executive in just one season. Toronto hummed its way to nearly 60 wins this season with Siakam pacing the team on both sides of the ball. While Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard missed games (17 and 21, respectively) due to injuries and load management, Siakam played in all but two. It’s not outrageous to suggest that Siakam has been the key for Toronto this regular season—when Siakam scores more than 25 points, the Raptors are 8-2; when he grabs 10 or more rebounds, the Raptors are 15-3; and when he’s on the court, their net rating goes from minus-3.8 to 10.8.
Devine: Lopez. The Bucks aren’t a four- or five-out spread-attack dynamo without his transformation into “Splash Mountain,” and they’re not the league’s stingiest team at the rim without his elite ability to wall off the area around the basket. Antetokounmpo will get plenty of awards recognition for Milwaukee’s rise. Coach Mike Budenholzer might, too. But the installation of Lopez in Bud’s scheme went a long way toward creating this season’s premier juggernaut.
O’Shaughnessy: Rudy Gobert. The combination of Gobert’s size—7-foot-1 with a 7-foot-9 wingspan—and basketball IQ affects change on the court. Gobert is the anchor of Utah’s top-two defense. He knows exactly when and where to go, and then his reach takes him there. On offense, Quin Snyder likens Gobert to a “prized left tackle” protecting the ball and ball handler through screens. Here, too, Gobert is the anchor. The left tackle stands firm to see the screen through before morphing into a wide receiver on his roll to the basket—taking contact then taking flight. Gobert leads the league in dunks and shooting percentage (67 percent) while taking the fifth-most shots on the Jazz.
For the active player who is clearly past his expiration date.
O’Shaughnessy: Isaiah Thomas. Thomas’s career is a series of what-ifs: What if he’d grown past 5-foot-9? What if the Kings had believed in him? What if the Celtics had kept him? What if the hip injury that caused Thomas to miss the final three games of the 2017 Eastern Conference finals never was? But some misfortune is irreversible. In the past, Thomas’s (literal) shortcomings fueled him. The hip injury was different. It drained the spark and speed that made Thomas so much more than a fun-size defensive liability. Without that zip, he’s unplayable.
Devine: It brings me no pleasure to say this, but: Pau Gasol. He logged just 330 minutes for the Spurs (during which they fared significantly better with him off the court) before San Antonio waived him, allowing him to catch on in Milwaukee, where he promptly suffered an ankle injury that will sideline him until well into the postseason. He can still hit a jumper and grab a defensive rebound, and he remains one of the sport’s smartest players. But age, injuries, and years of deep playoff runs have taken an awful lot of tread off the Spaniard’s tires; he might soon be singing his swan song. (I think it’s going to be the Fray.)
Uggetti: Dirk Nowitzki. I feel like I am committing basketball sacrilege, but I can’t think of a more fitting candidate. Dirk doesn’t have to retire; he’s earned the right to spend as much time grazing as he pleases. But turn on a Mavs game and it won’t take long to notice Nowitzki is spinning in the wash cycle.
Chau: Jose Calderon. Managing to sign a contract with the Detroit Pistons last summer was the most impressive thing the NBA’s most famous ham mogul has done in five years.
Gonzalez: There are so many candidates, and I love them all. Vince Carter is our Ringer teammate. He is also my age. I use my fingers to type words for a living and sometimes they cramp up after. I have no idea how he can still dunk. Dirk Nowitzki threw himself off balance last year with a celebratory finger wag. But I will go with Dwyane Wade. He got a rocking chair on his long retirement tour this season, which wasn’t nearly as big an indicator of his washed-ness as the fact that TNT chose to air a game between Boston and Washington rather than Wade’s last home game in Miami. When the Wizards (!) are a better show than your finale, it’s time to shut down your production.
Tjarks: Patrick Patterson. Everyone in the media thought the Thunder were getting a huge bargain when they signed Patterson, one of the linchpins of the Raptors’ bench, to a three-year, $16 million contract in the summer of 2017. It turns out that the league knew something we didn’t. Patterson can’t play anymore, and he’s part of a limited bench that has hamstrung OKC all season.
Verrier: Rajon Rondo. It says a lot about the Lakers’ season that Rondo had his worst season to date and yet he’s one of the few teammates James is said to like. Rondo was hurt for nearly half the season, so perhaps the 33-year-old deserves some benefit of the doubt here. On the other hand, he has the worst net rating among Lakers regulars; ESPN’s real plus-minus rates him as one of the worst point guards in the league, behind the likes of Isaiah Thomas and Brandon Knight; and his defense somehow got worse. Sheesh, indeed.
Scottie Pippen Memorial Second-Banana Award
For the best no. 2 option this season.
Gonzalez: All of the Pacers. When Victor Oladipo went down, I expected Indiana to fall off completely. I still have no idea who the second-best non-Oladipo player on Indiana is. It changes from night to night. To be sure, the post-Dipo Pacers haven’t played nearly as well as they did with him. They fell in the Eastern Conference standings, and, as the 5-seed, will head into the first round without home-court advantage. The schedule-makers did them no favors there—for the second straight year, the Pacers had a late, long, and brutal road trip tacked on to the back end of their season—but despite the slip it’s still pretty impressive that they fought for as long as they did and stayed in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack. The Pacers are a fine bunch of bananas.
Verrier: Jrue Holiday. The ideal second banana is skilled enough to be a first banana in certain situations, yet willing to defer for the benefit of the team. Well, Holiday spent the first half of the season putting up career highs virtually across the board and blanketing opponents with All-Defense-caliber wing defense; then, when Anthony Davis revolted, Holiday rallied New Orleans’s band of misfits for a trio of thrilling victories, including against the Lakers, all while remaining neutral in the standoff between Davis and the franchise. Pretty solid bananaing.
Tjarks: Kevin Durant or Steph Curry. It just depends on the night. This question puts the whole MVP race in perspective. The only way to get a fair fight against the Warriors would be if Harden and Giannis were on the same team.
Chau: Durant—but for how much longer?
Uggetti: The entire Clippers roster. I don’t know what’s more impressive: that the Clippers are going to the playoffs despite trading away their best player the past two seasons, or that they’re doing so without a clear-cut best player to fill the void. Doc Rivers’s team has made self-awareness its elite skill—no one player is elite at anything, but they all accept it and play their roles to the best of their ability.
O’Shaughnessy: Chris Paul. Maybe he came to mind because I associate him with the Banana Boat, or maybe because he’s long played around other superstars who are younger than him. But even in the shadow of James Harden’s historic season, Paul is the reason the Rockets go from a souped-up version of the 2016-17 Thunder to a team that looks more and more like it could contend with Golden State. He’s the same CP3—quick and furious, happy to assist but just as proficient scoring—but his value has been heightened in a new context; Paul has added a midrange game to an offense that previously thought it could live without one.
Devine: Is it cheating if I pick the same guy that I just gave the Best Player in the World Belt? As tremendous as Durant is, he’ll never get top billing in the Bay—that belongs to Stephen Curry, now and forever, amen—but KD makes a nigh-on-indestructible no. 2. (And that, by and large, describes what’s been going on in the NBA for the past three years. Goodnight, everybody!)
Beyond KD, how about Russell Westbrook? He became the no. 2 man on his own team, thanks to the emergence of MVP-caliber Paul George and his historically woeful shooting season, yet is on pace to average a triple-double for an unprecedented third straight season and can bend the game to his will like few players ever before.
OK, fine. If we’re looking for guys who haven’t won MVP before, I’ll cast my vote for Jusuf Nurkic. Dude played the best ball of his career in Portland this season, emerging as a defensive monster and Damian Lillard’s primary pick-and-roll running buddy for a team that blew away its preseason win projections en route to a top-four seed in the West. His devastating leg injury ended his season and might have scuttled the Blazers’ chances of making real noise come the playoffs, but he cemented himself as the foundational frontcourt complement for which the franchise had been searching.
Moment of the Year
For the most memorable scene of the season.
Ladies and gentlemen, your 2018-2019 Los Angeles Lakers pic.twitter.com/vFsx0dJ6tD— Steven (@SotoHive) February 26, 2019
Every time, I think I’ll be able to keep it together once the recorders kick in. Every time, I’m wrong.
This is what the NBA looks like in 2019. It rules.
I do not have children, but I am available to tell yours about being in the building on the night Rajon Rondo and Chris Paul punched each other.
This was taken during the worst loss of James’s career, a 42-point defeat to the Pacers. It’s unclear whether history will remember 2018-19 as the season the Lakers ruined for James, or as the season James ruined for himself, but the season was ruined. This picture perfectly represents that.
Anything involving Dallas and The Ringer is going to get my vote.
This is better than any manufactured farewell moment Wade could have asked for.
Verrier: Pitbull, play us off to hell: