I spent awhile staring at the screen, trying to figure out how to get my arms around what’s happened during the four-and-a-half-month fever dream that comprises the second-weirdest NBA season I’ve ever covered. (The one that had a four-month break for the end of the world in the middle still tops the ranking.) And then I found some peace, because I realized you’re probably not even reading this.
You’ve already skipped down to the subject heading for the first award so you can see who I picked. I could write anything right now, and it wouldn’t matter. If you trap Michael Cera under the light of the full moon and say his true name, the one the elder gods gave him, he has to grant you two wishes. I once set fire to an abandoned Radio Shack just to feel something. My 6-year-old asked me the other day whether Grimace—like, from McDonald’s—was “still alive,” and when I asked why, she said, “Because I want to hunt him.” (One of those is actually true.)
Anyway, the powers that be at the NBA gave me a real year-end awards ballot again, which remains both pretty awesome and pretty terrifying. Since this will go up a few days before the conclusion of the regular season, I reserve the right to make changes before I make my final submission on Monday. For the most part, though, here’s what it will look like:
Most Valuable Player
1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
2. Joel Embiid, 76ers
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
4. Chris Paul, Suns
5. Stephen Curry, Warriors
A few weeks back, the world of basketball punditry descended into spirited debate—occasionally very spirited—over the degree to which games and minutes played matter when determining a player’s value during a compressed, contorted funhouse mirror of a season. Everyone screamed and argued over whether, as the old saying goes, the best ability is availability, or whether, as the new saying goes, the best ability is ability.
Well, at the risk of being a truly revolutionary and iconoclastic thinker, one willing to boldly cut the Gordian knot at the heart of the discourse and, in so doing, deliver us all into freedom: Maybe the best thing is to be both always available and extremely excellent?
Like, say, what if you:
- Ranked first in damn near every advanced statistic in the sport
- Put up stat lines that only a handful of all-time greats have ever reached
- Led your team to a top-four seed—a 50-plus-win pace in a normal 82-game season—and a top-five point differential despite losing your second-best player for the final six weeks
- And played nearly 20 games and 850 minutes more than the similarly incredible colossus who was running neck-and-neck with you for top honors before he got dinged up
I mean, that seems to me like it’d be a good way to check every box—to show that you’ve been one of the league’s foremost individual scorers, rebounders, and playmakers; that, while so many other stars have missed time, you’ve been a rare dependable constant; and that you’re the stabilizing, energizing force that keeps your team thriving no matter who else is in or out of the lineup.
They have a trophy for guys like that. Jokic richly deserves this year’s.
Embiid slots in firmly at second place. He’s been arguably the most dominant two-way force in the sport, playing the best and most polished offensive basketball of his career—only James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo have scored as much, as efficiently, with as heavy a workload as Embiid is—while also serving as the centerpiece of a defense that ranks second in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
The Sixers have the point differential of a 68-win team with Embiid on the court. The way he has played this season makes me believe that he’s capable of not only leading Philadelphia to the Finals, but also of being the best player on the floor in that series. If all else were equal, he may well have topped my ballot. All else isn’t equal, though.
The bad vibes lingering from consecutive disappointing postseason exits made it all but impossible that Giannis would win a third straight MVP. There’s been an overarching sense all season of waiting to reserve judgment until the playoffs, and refusing to buy fully into whatever you saw before then, no matter how many games the Bucks won or what kind of massive numbers he put up.
While the NBA-watching world trained its gaze elsewhere, Giannis just went ahead and averaged a ho-hum 28.2 points, 11.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, and 2.4 blocks and steals per game on .631 true shooting, while continuing to profile as one of the most menacing and versatile weapons on a near-top-10 defense. (And one who, interestingly, might be coming around to the idea that he needs to be guarding the best scorer on the other team when it matters most.) That he could do that and have it kind of fly under the radar speaks both to just how incredible he was in each of the past two seasons, and to how we have held the Bucks at arm’s length all season. It’s not enough to vault over Jokic and Embiid for a historic third straight MVP award. It is enough, though, for a top-three finish.
I felt pretty confident going in that those would be my top three. Nos. 4 and 5, though, took some more looking and thinking.
Former MVPs LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and James Harden were playing at top-of-the-ballot levels when healthy this season, but they didn’t stay healthy, and missed enough time to take them out of the running. Several “primary engine” types—Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, and yes, newly elected Mayor of New York Julius Randle—have had fantastic seasons leading playoff teams that desperately needed their volume scoring and shot creation, but they all felt a tier below some more efficient mega-usage scorers and playmakers. (I reserve the right to change my mind if Randle averages, like, 50-20-10 over the final few games to clinch the 4-seed for the reborn Knicks.)
Kawhi Leonard’s averaging 25.0 points, 6.5 rebounds, and a career-best 5.1 assists per game, and sitting just a few missed free throws and 3s away from the 50/40/90 club; he’s been the best player on the Clippers, who have the NBA’s second-best point differential and fourth-best record, and have been dramatically better whenever he’s on the court. Jimmy Butler has been as fantastic this season as he was in the bubble, pushing the Heat out of the play-in fray by reaching new levels as an offensive centerpiece and facilitator, all while playing arguably the best defense of a career that already includes four All-Defensive Team nods. They’ve both played more games and minutes than Embiid, so “missed time” isn’t a wholly defensible argument for docking them. Enter the squishiness of subjectivity: While Embiid’s level of dominance demands inclusion, the totality of the accomplishments of other players who haven’t missed a quarter of the season were enough to bump the two all-world wing destroyers out of my top five.
I thought hard about Rudy Gobert. His statistical profile is damn near bulletproof; he ranks in the top five of nearly every advanced metric that Jokic leads. He is once again the heart and soul of the NBA’s no. 1 defense, and also remains an integral cog in Utah’s top-five offense. Gobert is shooting a league-best 67.5 percent from the floor, and averages 1.33 points per possession finished in the pick-and-roll, a top-five mark among high-volume roll men.
The Jazz center may well be the most streamlined and optimized version of his type of player: an elite defense unto himself, pure finishing efficiency cut to the bone with all the fat trimmed away. But that’s also a type of player who doesn’t create offense in the same way or at the same level as the other top candidates. Since the 1977-78 season, which is as far back as Basketball-Reference can calculate players’ usage rates, the lowest rate of any MVP winner belongs to Steve Nash, who finished 20.5 percent of the 2004-05 Suns’ offensive possessions. Gobert uses just 17 percent of Utah’s possessions, and—no duh—doesn’t replicate the league-leading number of points that Nash created via assist. As incredible as Gobert is as an organizing principle, it just didn’t seem quite right to elevate him over players who can and do create so much more on what is, especially in the modern game, the more valuable half of the court. Maybe I’m falling victim to a bias that privileges what we can measure well over what we can’t. Nevertheless: He falls outside the top five.
Ultimately, the choice came down to two spots for four Western guards. Going through the exercise wound up clarifying how much I’m basing these decisions on rigorous statistical analysis, and how much I’m basing them on more amorphous vibes. (At this stage in both my basketball-watching life and professional development, reconciling the two feels important.)
I’m not sure there’s a cohesive statistical argument for picking Paul over Damian Lillard or Luka Doncic. The latter two are significantly higher-usage, higher-scoring, higher-volume primary playmakers who rank among the highest-impact offensive players in the league. The Blazers average 9.8 fewer points per 100 possessions when Dame sits, while the Mavericks score 8.5 fewer points-per-100 without Luka, which are pretty critical numbers for teams that win on the strength of their offense. Between Lillard’s incredible crunch-time performance and Doncic smoothing out the one rough patch in his offensive game—he’s shooting nearly 38 percent from deep since the start of February—both have been the reason their teams have survived injury, illness, and inconsistency to move out of the play-in danger zone.
But while Paul’s production—16.3 points, 8.9 assists, 4.5 rebounds, and 1.4 steals in 31.5 minutes per game—seems downright modest by comparison, I kept coming back to the notion that elevating a team from “pretty good and might make the playoffs” to “fighting tooth and nail for the best record in the NBA” matters a whole hell of a lot.
No, CP3’s not the reason the Suns have been fantastic. Plenty of credit goes to All-Star backcourt partner Devin Booker, the ongoing growth of Deandre Ayton, the continued development of young wings Mikal Bridges and Cameron Johnson, and the steady stewardship of head coach Monty Williams. Paul’s an awfully big one, though—a force multiplier and accelerant who put his imprint on this team early.
Throughout Booker’s first five pro seasons, Phoenix got destroyed whenever he wasn’t on the court. (Things didn’t always go much better when he was on it, but that’s neither here nor there.) This season? Plus-5.2 points-per-100 in non-Booker minutes, the lion’s share of which have come with CP3 at the controls. The Suns have a top-10 defense for the first time in 20 years; they concede nearly four fewer points-per-100 with Paul on the court to organize the coverage, pester ball handlers, get his hands in passing lanes, and generally make life at least a bit more miserable for opposing offenses. They’ve vacillated between average and dire in close-and-late situations for the past decade; now, they’ve got the NBA’s second-best record in “clutch” games, with noted crunch-time assassin Paul ranking ninth in the league in points scored when the game’s within five points in the final five minutes.
Phoenix plays deliberately, ranking 26th in pace, and values possessions, turning the ball over at the league’s fourth-lowest rate. It executes with precision, routinely generating good-to-great looks; only the star-studded Nets and Clippers average more points per half-court play. The Suns play with discipline, poise, and tenacity for all 48 minutes, and have done so all season long. It’s inarguable that this is one Chris Paul–ass team. His arrival helped create the conditions in which all those improving young players could reach even greater heights than anticipated, all at the same time. Simultaneously raising a team’s floor and ceiling while helping reestablish a once-proud franchise as a viable championship contender—not just a cute feel-good story, but a real threat—merits recognition.
Curry ticks both the “stats” and “vibes” boxes. The loss of Klay Thompson and the relative lack of other capable scoring threats in Golden State have demanded that Steph shoulder a larger workload than ever, using a career-high 32.8 percent of the Warriors’ offensive possessions. He’s worn it well without wearing down, scoring a league-leading 31.8 points per game at near-peak efficiency: 48/42/92 shooting splits, good for a pristine .656 true shooting percentage despite taking nearly 13 3-pointers per game.
A half-decade removed from his back-to-back MVP seasons, Curry has nearly matched the historic output that eviscerated a century of conventional basketball wisdom, and has done so while propping up an otherwise underwhelming roster. The Warriors outscore opponents by 4.7 points-per-100 when Steph’s on the court, and get annihilated by 9.5 points-per-100 when he sits; among players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes this season, only Embiid and Draymond have more dramatic on/off splits, according to Cleaning the Glass.
If it’s a heads-up pick-’em between him and Dame, well, he’s been better than Dame. And as much as Luka’s elevated assist totals, improved defense, and superior team record matter, I decided that, to me, the degree to which Steph’s play just felt more special mattered more.
This season offered a reminder that Steph doing what Steph does resonates at a frequency that’s different than anything else in the league. Years down the line, when I think back on this season, I’m betting most of what rushes to the front of my mind won’t be all that pleasant. When I get to the silver linings, though, I feel pretty confident that Steph averaging like 38 a game for a month and a half will be high on the list, along with Jokic, Embiid, and
the Knicks winning the 2021 NBA championship the rest of the highlights. There’s value in that, too, I think. So I’m voting for it.
Just missing the cut: Luka, Dame, Jimmy, Kawhi, Randle
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
2. Ben Simmons, 76ers
3. Clint Capela, Hawks
There will be those who see Gobert at the top of the list and immediately reach for a recent lowlight:
Booker got the Stifle Tower LEANING pic.twitter.com/gN4TjuTxcC— Matt Petersen (@TheMattPetersen) May 1, 2021
In fairness, though, Rudy’s not alone in the “on the receiving end of a Devin Booker highlight” department:
This is just elite shot-making from Devin Booker. Ben Simmons can't really do much more here. pic.twitter.com/u8OdUs9aRa— Tom West (@TomWestNBA) February 13, 2021
Booker causally pulling up in Dort’s face pic.twitter.com/V6ajkfu5zD— Off the Glass (@otgbasketball) August 10, 2020
Devin Booker putting Bam Adebayo in the torture chamber pic.twitter.com/VpMmtSpTVf— Andrew (@AndrewLeezus) March 24, 2021
What this tells us—well, beyond the fact that Booker’s cold as hell—is that judging a defender’s value based on an individual possession probably doesn’t make as much sense as considering his entire body of work. And nobody’s been more impressive or effective over the course of the season than Gobert.
The league’s best defense is built entirely around his ability to impact every possession at a cellular level. The Jazz prevent attempts at the basket and from the short corners at elite rates because drivers don’t want to test him in the paint, and because his presence allows Utah’s perimeter defenders to play tighter on their assignments and keep them from getting free. When they do test him inside, he shuts them down with extreme prejudice, leading the league in total blocks and holding opponents to just 50 percent shooting at the rim, sixth best out of 228 players who’ve defended at least 100 up-close shots.
And as much as he is criticized for being unable to switch onto smaller guards and defend in space, Gobert’s become pretty damn good at reading offensive players, anticipating their movements, and using his sideline-to-sideline length to turn what look like blow-bys into contests and swats:
Gobert has broken 4 def impact records ( - , - , - , - ) held by Wallace, Mutombo, Howard, is #1 in total blks, rebs, D-Win Shares & has #1 Def Rtg swing on NBA’s #1 defense.— Jake Lee (@JakeRexLee) May 4, 2021
Here’s a vid for ppl who don’t know how to count. pic.twitter.com/gEzkHZnfp2
Most teams struggle when they lose their leading scorer and top source of shot creation. Utah, on the other hand, is 11-5 without Donovan Mitchell this season, and has all but locked up the West’s no. 1 seed with its star guard on the shelf for much of the past month. The Jazz are outscoring opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions with Mitchell off the floor, due in large part to the steady backbeat Gobert lays down as the league’s premier rhythm section.
Simmons works the other side of the elite defender street, guarding top options of all shapes and sizes—from Giannis, LeBron, and Kawhi to Dame, Book, and Kyrie—and consistently tamping down on them.
Only seven players to log at least 1,000 minutes have spent a larger share of their defensive possessions guarding an opponent’s highest-usage option, according to The BBall Index’s matchup difficulty data. At 6-foot-11 and 240 pounds with catlike quickness and tremendous defensive instincts, Simmons is the rare specimen who actually can guard all five positions on a given possession. No matter who he’s checking, he wreaks havoc, ranking third in the NBA in deflections per game, tying for sixth in steals per game, and holding his assignments to just 40.8 percent shooting, the seventh-lowest mark out of 280 players who’ve defended at least 300 shots this season. If I had to build my franchise’s defense around one player, it’d probably be Gobert. If I had to get one stop on one play to win a game and I didn’t know which offensive player would have the ball, I’d probably tap Simmons.
Rounding out my ballot is Capela, who bounced back from a disappointing 2019-20 season—one that saw him limited to just 39 games by a heel injury and plantar fasciitis, and during which the Rockets jettisoned him in favor of playing full-time small ball—by turning in the best season of his career and completely transforming an Atlanta defense that had ranked 28th or worse in defensive efficiency for three of the past four seasons.
From a distance, it looks like he didn’t have that much of an impact; after all, the Hawks still sit in the bottom 10 in points allowed per possession. That’s only because the 26-year-old big man can’t play all 48 minutes: Atlanta concedes 9.3 fewer points-per-100 when Capela’s manning the middle, one of the largest defensive differentials in the league. Hawks opponents shoot less frequently and less accurately when Capela’s patrolling the paint; he’s been one of the league’s premier erasers at the rim, holding opponents to 52.9 percent shooting on up-close attempts, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. He’s been everything the Hawks could’ve hoped for when they traded for him last February—a safety valve and security blanket for Young and the rest of Atlanta’s still-developing offense-first types, the kind of stabilizing force that turns a collection of disparate talents into something more unified and potentially dangerous in the postseason.
Just missing the cut: Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, Miami’s saving graces; Myles Turner, who led this race in the early going and has blocked more shots per game than anyone, but whose 22 missed games hurts here; Draymond Green, the genius-level anchor of a Warriors team that has no business boasting the NBA’s no. 5 defense; OG Anunoby, maybe Simmons’s closest analog as an elite five-position defender who routinely checks brutal matchups, and in whose minutes the haunted Tampa Raptors have guarded at a top-five level; Joel Embiid, the back-line threat underpinning Philadelphia’s top-flight D; Matisse Thybulle, one of the most preternaturally gifted perimeter disruptors in recent league history.
Rookie of the Year
1. LaMelo Ball, Hornets
2. Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves
3. Tyrese Haliburton, Kings
Edwards’s explosion in the second half—especially after Karl-Anthony Towns returned to the lineup and Chris Finch replaced Ryan Saunders on the bench—has been incredible. He’s averaging 22.8 points, 5.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists, and 1.5 steals in 34.7 minutes per game in that stretch, nudging his early-season offensive inefficiencies toward a more profitable shot profile, and looking for all the world like the kind of supernova shot-creating talent who might finally help change the fortunes of one of the league’s most moribund franchises.
But while Edwards did yeoman’s work to turn this into a bona fide race as Ball spent more than a month on the shelf with a fractured right wrist, LaMelo’s across-the-board impact on winning still carries the day for me. Ball leads all rookies to play at least 750 minutes in value over replacement player, box plus-minus, and player efficiency rating. Charlotte’s been about a point per possession better with Ball on the court than off it—no small thing considering he’s a 19-year-old in the heat of a playoff race.
He immediately proved to be not only one of the league’s most advanced passers and playmakers, but also an intuitive and disruptive defender, quickly earning heavy minutes and eventually a starting job in a crowded and talented Hornets backcourt. His jumper, once a cause for concern, has translated; he’s drilling 38.6 percent of his 3-pointers as a starter. He’s on pace to be the fifth rookie ever to average at least 15 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game with a true shooting percentage of .550; the other four were Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and Ben Simmons.
Also, he does this:
Again: stats plus vibes. I think there’s a real chance Ant becomes a superstar. This season, though, LaMelo’s been the best freshman.
Haliburton takes a gentleman’s third place for doing his damnedest to help put out the perpetually raging tire fire in Sacramento, averaging 13.0 points, 5.3 assists, and 3.0 rebounds in 30.1 minutes per game while shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range on high volume with a rock-steady 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. (One fun stat: Haliburton had more combined steals and blocks than total turnovers.) Whether Vivek Ranadivé and Co. can build a consistent winner remains very much an open question, but it sure seems like the unassuming and smooth combo guard out of Iowa State has what it takes to be a big part of the solution to what’s long ailed the Kings.
Just missing the cut: Immanuel Quickley, a lightning bolt off the bench for the resurgent Knicks; Jae’Sean Tate, an absolute bear of a defender and one of the brightest spots in a down season in Houston; Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart, a pair of instant-impact rookies who established themselves as bankable pieces in Detroit’s rebuild; Desmond Bane, a 3-and-D prototype who’s carved out an important role on the play-in-bound Grizzlies.
Coach of the Year
1. Monty Williams, Suns
2. Tom Thibodeau, Knicks
3. Nate McMillan, Hawks
It was clear in the bubble, when the young Suns went 8-0, that Williams had gotten Phoenix to buy into his idea for how it should play: tough defense, patient offense, sharing the ball, and constantly revving motors. The arrival of Paul, with whom he developed a strong relationship during their time together in New Orleans, only fortified the approach, leading to a rocket-ship ride up the rankings on both sides of the ball, consistent development for all of the franchise’s most important young players, and the Suns’ best regular season in more than a decade.
Thibodeau’s case is very similar. (One could argue it’s stronger, given that Williams’s locker room now includes two All-Stars to Thibodeau’s one, but getting all the way up near the top of the West still earns Monty the nod for me.) A veteran coach with a history of encouraging young teams to play defense and trust one another comes into a dispiriting and dysfunctional situation. He starts the process by installing a more organized style of play that insists on effort, execution, and discipline. An immediately clear improvement in overall quality of play gets those inside and outside the locker room believing that better things are possible; that belief, paired with more effort, execution, and discipline, produces even better results.
Repeat, repeat, repeat until more than a decade of sadness begins to dissipate. In its place: a top-flight defense, a top-four seed, across-the-board improvement, a reason to both enjoy watching basketball again and hope that even brighter days might lie just ahead, and cause—even if it still doesn’t feel totally natural—to smile.
**Thibs smile alert**— Mike Vorkunov (@MikeVorkunov) January 5, 2021
A question about Immanuel Quickley literally put a smile on Tom Thibodeau's face last night https://t.co/Ze6UzJy8dw pic.twitter.com/24cuTLuIPQ
Good job, Thibs.
If you think that McMillan is a reach given that he’s been the Hawks’ head coach for only a little more than half of the season, I won’t argue. But what he’s pulled off in that half-season, though—an institution of structure that has Atlanta running as a top-10 offense and a near-league-average defense since the start of March—ranks among the most impressive coaching jobs in the league.
Yes, the healthy returns of players like Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, who had missed a ton of time in the portion of the season overseen by Lloyd Pierce, helped a ton. But McMillan’s decisive moves to simplify and organize the Hawks’ style and approach helped them weather a spate of midseason injuries, too, and win more than two-thirds of their games since he took over. Now Atlanta is in line for a 4-5 matchup in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs and has a real shot of advancing in the postseason for the first time in a half-decade.
Just missing the cut: Quin Snyder, whose systematic approach on both ends has had the Jazz at the top of the West all season.
Most Improved Player
1. Julius Randle, Knicks
2. Jerami Grant, Pistons
3. Kyle Anderson, Grizzlies
MIP is a love-hate situation for me. As much as I enjoy poring over lists of players who have grown and evolved, I also get a sinking feeling in my stomach every time I try to discern precisely what sort of player most improved should reward.
In the past, I’ve tended to lean toward players making the leap from good to great, or from great to elite—last year, I voted for Luka, with Bam and eventual winner Brandon Ingram rounding out my ballot—but it always feels at least a little bit wrong to cast aside the players who go from the fringes of the league to a rotation spot. This time around, I’m going not with young players making a leap, but rather veterans who have unlocked new skills and new aspects to their games.
Apologies, then, to a handful of youngbloods who’ve taken major steps: flamethrowing Nuggets scorer Michael Porter Jr., who’s more than stepped into the void in Denver’s offense left by Jamal Murray; Cavs point guard Darius Garland, who’s displayed great court vision and playmaking touch to go with a quick-trigger release off the bounce; rising New York wing RJ Barrett, already the second-best player on a playoff team in his second season; Luguentz Dort, who went from anonymous two-way signee to bubble folk hero to All-Defense consideration; and Zion Williamson, whom Stan Van Gundy unleashed this season as a holy terror of a point forward, and who’ll be a top-10 player very soon … if he isn’t already.
Randle has run away with the award in the second half of the season. A long offseason of devoted work on his body, jump shot, and playmaking has turned the 26-year-old into an absolute Terminator, equally comfortable bulldozing his way to the rim, jab-stepping his way into a midrange jumper, pulling up from beyond the arc, or driving and kicking to a waiting shooter on the perimeter. He’s shooting 41.5 percent from 3-point land after having never cracked 35 percent before. He has nearly doubled his previous career high in assists per game and dropped his turnover rate from last season despite shouldering the largest offensive workload of his career. He’s leading the league in minutes and playing a vital role on the NBA’s no. 4 defense.
Players don’t get this much better in their seventh seasons. Randle has, and it’s driven the most surprising turnaround in the league.
It’s tempting to discount Grant’s candidacy as merely contextual: a player went from a smaller role on a good team, which affords him fewer shots and playmaking opportunities, to a featured role on a bad one, and the green light that entails. But Grant’s production in Detroit this season never really felt like that to me; it seemed less like someone greedily trying to slake his thirst for numbers and more like a player trying to expand his game and see just how far he could push his talents.
Placed in a primary role for the rebuilding Pistons, Grant diversified his offensive diet beyond spacing the floor and cutting off the ball; suddenly, he was running off screens, operating in the pick-and-roll, curling around dribble handoffs, and getting a steady stream of chances to isolate, drive, and attack. The results were pretty promising: 22.3 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 2.8 assists in 33.9 minutes per game, shooting 35 percent on 6.1 3-point attempts per game and 84.5 percent on 6.4 free throw attempts a night. He needed to create, and he did; 35 percent of his field goals were unassisted, a career best, and a direct result of his burgeoning ability to get to and convert his own shot. He did it while continuing to match up against some of the toughest wings the league has to offer, and while playing hard for a Detroit defense that Dwane Casey has had looking respectable for most of the season. Grant proved this season that he’s better and more skilled than a lot of observers thought.
With my third slot, I’m showing love to SloMo in recognition of his concerted work to turn what was a weakness—a jumper so tetchy that it often left him unwilling to even look at the rim—into a strength. Through his first six seasons as a pro, Anderson was 82-for-264 (31.1 percent) from 3-point range. This season, after getting healthy following shoulder surgery and putting a lot of work into his long-range game, he’s 90-for-253 (35.6 percent).
“Just south of league-average 3-point shooting” might not sound like much to write home about, but it opens up so much for him and the Grizzlies. The willingness to fire off the catch and the ability to make enough to keep defenses honest has allowed Taylor Jenkins to confidently play Anderson as a playmaking 4, which helps Memphis stay afloat and field consistently solid starting lineups even without injured starter Jaren Jackson Jr. Jenkins has rotated through wing options all season, but whenever Anderson is there with bruiser Jonas Valanciunas to stabilize things next to Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, the Grizz have been damn good, outscoring opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 with that quartet on the floor. What do you get when you take a good defender and solid playmaker and boost the sliders on his shooting, confidence, and scoring acumen? A 27-year-old playing maybe the best ball of his career as the unsung hero of one of the league’s best young teams.
Just missing the cut: The aforementioned young dudes; Capela, who, like Randle and SloMo, is playing the best ball of his career in Year 7; Thaddeus Young, who found new life as a down-market Draymond Green; Christian Wood, who showed (when healthy) in a larger role in Houston that his per-minute production as a Piston was no fluke; Chris Boucher, who somehow wound up being the Raptors’ most reliable big man; Terry Rozier, suddenly the leading scorer and crunch-time linchpin of the play-in-bound collection of misfit toys in Charlotte; Miles Bridges, another Hornet who seems to have gotten at least a little bit better at everything under James Borrego; Jaylen Brown, already an All-Star-caliber player, but now a legit 25-point-per-game scorer and secondary shot creator; T.J. McConnell, who all of a sudden also shoots almost 60 percent from 2-point range with a 3.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and has become one of the league’s most relentlessly larcenous souls.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Joe Ingles, Jazz
2. Jordan Clarkson, Jazz
3. Jalen Brunson, Mavericks
If we’d voted at the All-Star break, I would’ve gone with Clarkson. Not only was he the league’s highest-scoring reserve, but he’d also rolled up his 17.9 points per game on sparkling 45/37/97 shooting splits, and Utah’s offense was scoring a couple more points per 100 with him on the court than off it; everything was working more or less exactly the way the Jazz drew it up when they re-signed Clarkson to a four-year, $51.5 million contract during the offseason.
Over the past couple of months, though, Clarkson’s shooting efficiency has waned—even after his 41-point explosion against the Warriors on Monday, he’s still shooting just 39 percent from the field and 31 percent from deep since the break—and Utah’s offense, while still quite good in Clarkson’s minutes, has been 1.4 points per 100 better when he’s off the floor. He’s still a really important part of what’s made the Jazz so tough to stop this season; he just hasn’t felt like the most essential second-unit piece of that meat-grinder offense lately.
Ingles has. He’s been absolutely lethal from long distance, both off the catch when a teammate finds him (49.3 percent, fifth best out of 308 players who’ve taken 100 such shots) or pulling up off the bounce (42.4 percent, best of 58 players with at least 100 pull-up triple tries). He’s a savvy pick-and-roll playmaker, with the patience, touch, and vision to deliver every pass; that he maintains a near 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio indicates he’s also got the sense to know when not to try. He’s not a lockdown stopper, but at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds with great hands and a competitive streak, he’s a useful piece on defense, especially against the bigger wings that tend to bedevil Utah.
He always seems to be moving a half step ahead of the action on offense, whether he’s running into the catch to gain a half step on a drive, getting a defender leaning just enough to open a window for a pocket pass in the pick-and-roll, or readying to throw an extra pass that’ll produce an even more open 3; it feels like the Jazz are the best version of themselves when Ingles is on the court. I’m not sure that’s necessarily what Sixth Man of the Year has typically rewarded, but celebrating Ingles for his consistently excellent across-the-board complementary contributions while still recognizing the value of Clarkson’s pure scoring and shot creation feels like an appropriate way to celebrate one of the league’s deepest and most punishing offensive teams.
Brunson gets the third-place nod for a dynamite third season that saw him take a big step forward as a shooter, finisher, and complementary creator alongside Doncic. The Villanova product has lived in and around the lane, taking more than 52 percent of his shots in the paint; he’s converting a blistering 71.2 percent inside the restricted area, which is the 25th-best mark in the league among players with at least 150 shots at the basket. Reminder: He is 6-foot-1. But he’s like a boulder rolling downhill, able to bounce off shot-blockers and create space to finish, which he does with great craft and touch:
Incredible drive and finish by Jalen Brunson. pic.twitter.com/KGh0G86JB7— Bobby Karalla (@bobbykaralla) February 15, 2021
My favorite play from Brunson tonight. Great patience and even better finish against contact #MFFL pic.twitter.com/Ab1gJPUI6k— Mavs / Magic Draft (@MavsDraft) April 6, 2021
He’s paired that north-south component with great touch on his jumper—shooting 51 percent from midrange and 39.8 percent from 3-point land—and a deft hand in the pick-and-roll. He’s producing 1.1 points per possession he finishes as the pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy’s game charting; among players who have run at least 150 such plays, only Steph, Kawhi, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander have been more efficient and effective in the two-man game. He can beat drop coverages with the pull-up, bulldoze his way to the rim, or collapse the defense and kick the ball out to teammates.
He’s a net positive with or without Luka next to him; he can kick the starting group up a notch or help keep the offense viable while Rick Carlisle buys some time with his superstar on the bench. Brunson’s ability to chip in whatever the Mavs need at a given moment—penetration, facilitation, spot-up shooting, sound team defense, whatever—has been imperative to their success.
Just missing the cut: Derrick Rose, who has completely transformed the Knicks—they’re 22-11 with him in the lineup, outscoring opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 with him on the court—but who falls short due to missing a quarter of the season; Montrezl Harrell and Kyle Kuzma, putting in hard-hat work for a Lakers team that’s needed all hands on deck; Bobby Portis, a key source of frontcourt offense in Milwaukee; Thad Young, basically a point center for much of the season in Chicago; Miles Bridges, about five free throws shy of 50/40/90 to go with all the heart-stopping highlights; Tim Hardaway Jr., a high-scoring sharpshooter who’s helped keep Dallas afloat when Luka sits; T.J. McConnell, a constant source of light for Pacers fans and a constant source of stress for Pacers opponents; basically the entire second units of the Suns and Grizzlies.