Awards ballots for the 2019-20 NBA season were due on Tuesday night. The regular season feels like forever ago, but it was fun to look back at what was an incredible season up until the hiatus began in March. Here’s a full review of my choices and the decisions behind them:
Most Valuable Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. LeBron James
3. James Harden
4. Luka Doncic
5. Kawhi Leonard
Giannis is the best player on the best team and had one of the greatest statistical seasons in the history of basketball. LeBron also had one of the greatest seasons ever, because all of LeBron’s seasons so far are all-time greats, but he just wasn’t as dominant as Giannis was on defense.
Harden and Doncic are toss-ups for the third spot. Harden gets the narrow edge because he was a more efficient scorer (61.6 true shooting percentage for Harden to 58.4 percent for Luka) and he played more games and minutes. There should be multiple MVPs in Luka’s future, and one as soon as next season.
Leonard gets the fifth spot following the best regular season of his career; he got better as a passer and played better defense than he has since 2016-17. There were other candidates for the fifth spot that missed the cut but made my All-NBA teams:
C: Anthony Davis
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: LeBron James
G: Luka Doncic
G: James Harden
C: Nikola Jokic
F: Kawhi Leonard
F: Jayson Tatum
G: Damian Lillard
G: Chris Paul
C: Rudy Gobert
F: Pascal Siakam
F: Ben Simmons
G: Khris Middleton
G: Jimmy Butler
The top four in my MVP ballot are all obvious choices, but Davis gets the first-team spot instead of Leonard since we need to choose a center. Davis is the best big man in basketball. So much attention is given to his terrorizing defense that he doesn’t get enough credit for how special he is offensively. He just missed being on my MVP ballot.
Jokic is an easy choice for the second team. He’s the most talented passing big man in the history of basketball, a go-to scorer at the end of games, and a quality defender. The Nuggets are threats because of him. It’s almost unfair Gobert gets the third spot when Jokic keeps getting better defensively (his perimeter defense has taken a step up!) and he plays a vital offensive role as a screener.
Tatum got off to a rocky start offensively, but progressively got better and played like an MVP candidate in his final two months. He’s also one of the league’s best wing defenders. It didn’t take much thought to give Lillard and Paul spots on the second team, either. They were really spectacular this season. If the Trail Blazers were guaranteed a spot in the postseason heading into the restart, Lillard likely would have made my MVP ballot.
The challenge came in configuring the third team. Butler and Middleton both could have been listed as forwards, just as Simmons could have been listed as a guard. Miami’s Bam Adebayo and Philly’s Joel Embiid were heavily considered, but I wasn’t pulling Gobert for Embiid (or shuffling my first or second team to create space for another center); Embiid had some real lulls around midseason. And both Siakam and Simmons had better overall seasons than Adebayo. Siakam’s fast offensive start fizzled as the season wore on, but he was still great and an important cog for Toronto’s elite defense. More on Simmons below.
Other players considered include Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Paul George, Russell Westbrook, Donovan Mitchell, and Kyle Lowry. Not gonna lie, leaving Beal off here feels really dumb. Beal averaged 30.5 points and 6.1 assists with a 57.9 true shooting percentage this season; only Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, and Harden have ever exceeded those numbers in a season. But Beal was also a dud on defense, which wasn’t the case in 2018-19, when I did vote him for third-team All-NBA. Butler and Middleton were both tremendously better than Beal on defense and still played a significant role on offense. Butler had his best defensive season since he was in Chicago, and he racked up averages of 20 points, seven rebounds, and six assists.
Am I cheating by listing Butler as a guard? I don’t think so. What is a guard anyway? Butler possessed and passed the ball more than anyone on the Heat, per NBA Advanced Stats, and he’s listed as a guard and a forward. Same for Simmons and LeBron. Jokic logs more possessions and passes than anyone, yet he’s listed as a center and a forward—like Davis and other “bigs.” The NBA needs to just get rid of positions for the All-NBA teams. Why are we still doing this? It’s a positionless league nowadays, so let’s have the awards reflect our reality. Allowing voters to put certain players at different positions helps ensure the best 15 players get named to these teams, but it only further spotlights the fact that positions are archaic. Get rid of them.
Anyway, enough rambling. On to defense.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Rudy Gobert
3. Anthony Davis
Let’s not overthink this. Giannis is the reason the Bucks have a historically great defense. He can do anything, and so Milwaukee puts him in a role where he has to do a little bit of everything. The Bucks play a drop pick-and-roll defensive scheme with their bigs and have their guards fight over the top of screens. The scheme is meant to influence opponents to take midrange jumpers or have poor shooters take 3s. But leaks happen. A player might penetrate to the rim, or a good shooter might get open for a 3. That’s when Giannis comes into play to plug every hole. He’s long enough to help far off his assignment, which allows him to close the gap on attempts at the rim in an instant. Opponents shot 12.5 percent worse from 2-point range than they normally do with Giannis defending them, per NBA Advanced Stats. That’s ridiculous. Giannis is also agile and long enough to step out to the perimeter to contest shooters or switch onto perimeter players. He can switch onto strong bigs and speedy guards, too. He defends them all well.
It’s understandable if Davis or Gobert gets someone’s first-place vote—they both had terrific seasons. Davis makes an impact all over the court and Gobert remains the league’s greatest interior defender. But when Brook or Robin Lopez are off the floor and Giannis plays center, Giannis shows that he can guard the pick-and-roll at an elite level, too. Gobert and Davis are unquestionably All-Defensive first-team members, but Giannis gets the edge for Defensive Player of the Year. Few others in league history could do what Giannis has done this season.
C: Rudy Gobert
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Anthony Davis
G: Ben Simmons
G: Kawhi Leonard
C: Brook Lopez
F: LeBron James
F: Jayson Tatum
G: Marcus Smart
G: Jimmy Butler
We’ve already discussed the frontcourt choices on my ballot. For the backcourt, Simmons is eligible at guard, so he’s a no-brainer choice. Simmons spent 16 percent of his defensive possessions matched up against a player who’s been named to an All-NBA team—that’s more than anyone else in the league, per BBall-Index data. Brett Brown relies on Simmons to guard anyone, and Simmons shines no matter the assignment.
That second guard spot could have gone to a lot of players. Leonard is eligible, and after coasting last regular season in Toronto as he worked through injuries, he’s back to his terrifying ways on defense. Bigger guys like Leonard inherently have more value than some of the smaller choices—Marcus Smart, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, Eric Bledsoe, Jrue Holiday, Kris Dunn, Eric Bledsoe, and so many others.
Smart is the best of that bunch, so he got the nod for the second-team guard spot; he’s stellar on the ball against quick guards and strong wings, and he’s a nuisance off the ball. Smart’s teammate, Tatum, was also eligible at guard but I gave him a spot at forward. Tatum is an unbelievable off-ball defender. Don’t pass the ball near him or he’ll get a hand on it.
It was difficult to choose the other positions. I was weighing Adebayo for the center spot, but ultimately landed on Brook Lopez, who is more limited than Adebayo on the perimeter but is a force in the paint, which is precisely what the Bucks needed to make their system work. Adebayo also could have been listed as a forward, but I felt Butler was the better overall defender this season due to his impact at the point of attack, his switchability, his help defense, and his communication. The Heat ranked 14th in defensive rating this season; it doesn’t feel right to reward both.
I gave LeBron the second forward spot, which might draw some criticism considering the plethora of other options—the aforementioned guards, Adebayo, P.J. Tucker, Royce O’Neale, OG Anunoby, and others. But LeBron was damn good this season. The chasedown blocks were back. He took charges. He dove for loose balls. He occasionally defended opposing stars instead of hiding off the ball. It got to the point that I wondered how LeBron could possibly keep up the intensity from March through June. The break might have helped him.
Defense is about so much more than what you see in the box score (blocks and steals) or in the advanced tracking stats (deflections and charges taken). We get so obsessed with the numbers, but you can’t put a number on a player’s voice. LeBron communicated better than just about any other defender this season, helping keep that unit at an elite level. He called out rotations; he’s partially responsible for some of the steals or batted passes that his teammates are credited with. Basketball is a sport of nuance. If we don’t consider the immeasurable, then I’m not sure what we’re really doing.
Most Improved Player
1. Luka Doncic
2. Trae Young
3. Jayson Tatum
Only seven of the league’s 34 winners of this award were second-year players. It’s a shame that they aren’t more seriously considered for this award. Sophomores don’t always get better. Giving opponents a full year of film can easily lead to a sophomore slump. The past three years, the most deserving candidates have been older players: Pascal Siakam, Victor Oladipo, and Giannis. But I also put then-second-year point guard De’Aaron Fox third on my ballot last season, and I’ve always said I’d happily vote for a second-year player. That time is now.
Doncic made the toughest leap any player can make at any age by going from great to elite. He’s averaging 28.7 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 8.7 assists while captaining one of the most efficient scoring offenses in league history. Luka could have seen his numbers dip due to increased defensive attention and a heavier offensive workload, yet he still got better with new dribble maneuvers, improved at-rim finishing and foul drawing, and an even greater feel for picking apart defenses with his pass.
Luka’s improvement echoes the leap LeBron made from his first to second season, but LeBron lost MIP that year to Bobby Simmons. In fact, Simmons had more combined votes than LeBron and Dwyane Wade, who went from good to great—just like Trae Young did this season. Young is one of the best playmakers in the league despite sharing the floor with a bunch of other young guys who haven’t made the type of progress he has. Trae has proved he is special, and if he makes another leap next year he could actually win this award.
Most players win the award in their third or fourth season, and the vast majority of candidates this season fall into that category: Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram, Bam Adebayo, Jaylen Brown, Domantas Sabonis, Siakam, and so many others. You could make three All-Improvement teams out of the players deserving consideration. Here’s what mine would look like:
Ultimately, Tatum gets the edge for the third spot. I reported a story about his development earlier this year, and one of my favorite stats from that piece is that Tatum went from attempting more than half his shots from midrange in isolations and pick-and-rolls last season to less than one-third this season, per Synergy Sports data. Tatum was a guy who settled from midrange, and he now drains 3s off the dribble or gets to the rim. I heavily considered Brandon Ingram, who I have long loved as a player; his progress as a scorer was a joy to witness. But Ingram didn’t get better at one thing: defense. In fact, he got worse. Ingram was a better defensive player the past two seasons for the Lakers than he was for the Pelicans. Tatum not only took the leap from good scorer to great scorer (with signs of being elite during the final month before the shutdown), he also became one of the league’s best wing defenders.
Rookie of the Year
1. Ja Morant
2. Zion Williamson
3. Brandon Clarke
Morant averaged 17.6 points and 6.9 assists, and played 59 games for a Grizzlies team that has a chance to make the postseason. I’m not sure what else there is to say here.
I plugged in Morant’s teammate, Clarke, for the third spot. Fun fact: He scored 1.2 points per possession this season, which ranks in the 98th percentile of all players, per Synergy. He’s an elite rim runner and constantly a lob threat. You won’t find many rookies as good defensively as him, either. The Grizzlies are set up to have success for a very long time.
Zion got the second spot because his 19 games were so otherworldly. I wouldn’t fault anyone for leaving him off their ballot in favor of someone who played significantly more games and minutes.
This was a weird rookie class. Aside from Zion and Ja, Hachimura is the only top-10 pick here, and he got my final spot on the second team. Rookies either seemed to be in poor situations that hurt their production (hello, RJ Barrett; I hope Leon Rose and Tom Thibodeau help you in New York) or were lost defensively (hello, Coby White). Instead, on the first team we have Kendrick Nunn, a former undrafted G Leaguer who was an energizer of Miami’s offense. Then there’s Warriors big man Eric Paschall, a second-round pick whose development was weirdly overlooked this season. Paschall is an active defender who hits 3s and makes smart passes—isn’t that exactly what you want next to the Warriors’ stars?
Nunn’s teammate, Herro, is deserving of a spot. He faded a bit toward the end of the season, but made a strong impact early and still shot the lights out throughout the season.
Washington was overlooked in Charlotte this season, but he’s rock solid on both ends of the floor. Kudos to him for extending his range to hit 3s.
Davis played only 17 minutes per game but was an efficient spark-plug scorer and a good defender. Uh, why did NBA teams let him go undrafted again? And how do the Raptors keep finding these guys?
As for Thybulle:
Let me revise: Matisse Thybulle is immediately gonna be one of the league's best defenders. https://t.co/mIBLB9COlm— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) October 8, 2019
I’ve been wrong plenty of times this season, but I got that right. I’ve never seen a better defensive rookie, and it won’t shock me if he’s in the All-Defensive team conversation in the near future.
I considered plenty of others, including the Cavs’ Darius Garland and Kevin Porter Jr., Thunder starting wing Luguentz Dort, and Suns sharpshooter Cameron Johnson. Unfortunately, they didn’t make the cut.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Dennis Schröder
2. Christian Wood
3. Montrezl Harrell
Schröder was central to the devastating three-guard lineup that Oklahoma City used to close games and steal wins. He had the best defensive season of his career; for the first time, he looked like the hard-nosed, versatile guard that many scouts expected him to be when he was a draft prospect. He initiated actions in the pick-and-roll, hit spot-up 3s, and helped keep the team afloat when Thunder head coach Billy Donovan had to sit one of the other guards.
Those second and third spots could have gone to a lot of players, depending on your view of the award. Lou Williams got left off my ballot because his impact was less significant this season now that Leonard and George handle the ball so much. Harrell did sneak into the third spot though; after finishing off so many Lou passes, the big man found another pick-and-roll partner in Kawhi. He’s an explosive rim-runner who sets bone-shattering screens, and he offers some versatility on defense that helps the Clippers close games.
Wood got the slight edge over Harrell for the second choice, though. What a story, too. The Pistons are his fifth NBA team after he went undrafted in 2015. He’s an elite ball-screen threat because of his ability to roll and flush lobs or pop to drain 3s. On defense, he’s a big body who blocks shots. If he makes improvements as a perimeter defender and plays more minutes next season, he’ll be in the conversation for Most Improved Player.
Special shout-out to Williams, Clarke, Maxi Kleber, Larry Nance Jr., Mikal Bridges, and Goran Dragic. Your contributions off the bench were inspiring.
Coach of the Year
1. Nick Nurse
2. Billy Donovan
3. Doc Rivers
Nurse is the best coach in basketball. There is no one more adaptable, no one more willing to try new stuff to see whether it works. Usually, it does work. The Raptors change defensive schemes more than anyone else, and I can’t help but chuckle when they go zone, seemingly out of the blue. The Raptors lost Kawhi, yet they’ve remained a contender largely due to Nurse’s ability to change on the fly. They play fast and smart, leaning into their strengths that were apparent when Leonard was off the court last season. Siakam deserves 99 percent of the credit for his development, but the coaching staff has empowered him by providing the right role to nurture his skills.
Billy Donovan overhauled Oklahoma City’s system following the departure of Russell Westbrook, and the team has gone from last in the league in passes per game to the middle of the pack. It’s still not exactly what Donovan envisioned when he got hired—at Florida, he ran a motion offense with constant ball and player movement. But what he’s done has worked to keep the Thunder in the postseason. He gets bonus points for developing some of the younger guys on the squad by giving them minutes.
Rivers is my third choice among many other deserving candidates. I thought he handled the transition to a reshaped roster, along with all the players going in and out of the lineup because of injuries, very well. Mike Budenholzer, Erik Spoelstra, Michael Malone, Frank Vogel, Nate McMillan, and Taylor Jenkins were also considered. Leaving Budenholzer off feels like I’ve sinned; the Bucks coaching staff pulled all the right strings to finish the regular season with the league’s best record. But now it’s on to the seeding games and the playoffs. Let’s cherish these next three months, my friends.