I’d like to thank our old pal JJ Redick for beautifully summing up the challenge of award season:
JJ Redick: “You’re 1 of the 3 best players in the world, and so is Kevin [Durant].”— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 31, 2022
Joel Embiid: “Who’s the third?”
“He’s in the next group.”
“That’s a 2 time MVP, a Finals MVP!”
(Via @ProCityHoops, @OldManAndThree)
During a chat with Joel Embiid on his The Old Man and the Three podcast, Redick compliments his former 76ers teammate by naming him one of the three best basketball players in the world. JJ then taps Kevin Durant, long since stamped as a scoring god among mortals, for one of the other two spots.
Embiid, naturally, asks who’s third. Redick quickly replies, “It’s [Nikola] Jokic!”—reasonable enough, considering the dude won MVP last season. Embiid immediately responds, “Where’s Giannis [Antetokounmpo]?” Which, after a few seconds of stammering about tiers and groups, leaves Redick facing an inconvenient truth:
“It’s so hard. There’s too many good players now.”
There sure are! Man, it’s a good thing we don’t have to place them in order, have our preferences recorded for posterity, and have said preferences compose part of the final decision on who wins real-ass trophies that, decades down the line, will play a significant role in the legacies of the greatest players of their eras.
Alas! The decision-makers at the NBA have once again given me a real year-end award ballot—an honor I’m grateful for, a responsibility I’m not always super thrilled about … and a reason to do a lot of late-season homework.
This is going up a few days before the proper end of the 2021-22 regular season; as such, I reserve the right to make some changes before I submit my ballot ahead of the April 11 deadline. For the most part, though, here’s what my picks for the individual awards will look like. (I’ll hit the team awards—All-NBA, All-Defensive, and All-Rookie—tomorrow.)
We start with the most brutal decision of the bunch:
Most Valuable Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
2. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
3. Joel Embiid, 76ers
4. Devin Booker, Suns
5. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
I’ll get the plea-copping out of the way up top: I won’t bat an eyelash if Jokic goes back-to-back or Embiid becomes the first Sixer to win MVP since Allen Iverson in 2001. They’ve both somehow been even better this season than they were last, when they finished first and second on both my ballot and the final voting, and they’re both putting up numbers on par with—and, in some cases, exceeding—the greatest players in NBA history.
Jokic is averaging a shade under 27 points, 14 rebounds, and eight assists per game, which nobody’s ever done before, and leads the NBA in just about every advanced metric there is. Embiid has been there with him stride for stride all season, averaging better than 30 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists per game on .614 true shooting—something that only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had ever done before this season—while also anchoring the NBA’s no. 7 defense.
And yet, as I considered the candidates, I found myself coming back to the question Embiid posed to Redick: “Where’s Giannis?” The answer: right there with Jokic in virtually every advanced statistical category, right there with Embiid in the chase for the scoring crown, right there in the argument for his second Defensive Player of the Year trophy, and right there in the tangle of teams in the running for the East’s no. 1 seed.
The only reason the numbers—30 points to go with nearly 12 rebounds, six assists, and 2.4 blocks/steals in 34 minutes per game—don’t explode off your screen is because we’ve come to expect that from Giannis. It’s not just that he’s merely reproducing historically ludicrous production, though; it’s that he’s arriving at those numbers with even more precision, confidence, and force than ever before.
Antetokounmpo has made marked improvements in the accuracy of his passing, in how comfortably he steps into long jumpers, and in how often he nails them. He hasn’t quite conquered the free throw line, but he’s trending upward, shooting nearly 75 percent from the charity stripe since Christmas. He’s done all that while again serving as the linchpin of a defense that prevents points at a near-top-five rate with him on the court—despite spending much of this season not as a roving free safety on the weak side of the Bucks defense, but rather while spending a third of his minutes playing center with Brook Lopez injured.
Maybe you favor Jokic and Embiid because of the absences that have affected their respective teams. Denver has outscored opponents by 8.3 points per 100 possessions with Jokic on the floor and absolutely cratered without him—the largest on/off split among players who have played least 1,000 minutes. And it’s a similar story in Philly, where the Sixers have outpaced opponents by 7.7 points per 100 in Embiid minutes and fallen apart when he sits (though Harden’s arrival has stanched that bleeding somewhat, at least when Doc Rivers remembers he can stagger his stars).
Jokic carried Denver to seventh in offensive efficiency without Jamal Murray or Michael Porter Jr. for essentially the entire season; Embiid kept Philadelphia within hailing distance of first place in the East and within striking distance of a deal for James Harden, despite getting nothing out of Ben Simmons. But while their absences trump the loss of Lopez, that doesn’t mean Antetokounmpo should get docked because Milwaukee employs Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday. “The Nuggets and Sixers would suck without Jokic and Embiid, and the Bucks would be a playoff team without Giannis” sounds good. In reality, though, Milwaukee has gone 6-8 without Antetokounmpo this season, and has been outscored by 3.2 points per 100 with him off the court—virtually the same net rating as the lottery-bound Pacers.
Jokic deserves credit for maintaining unbelievable individual production, elevating teammates pressed into larger-than-expected roles, and keeping Denver afloat without two of its most important players. Embiid deserves credit for carrying the Sixers through the Simmons drama until Daryl Morey found the deal of his dreams. But Giannis, too, deserves credit: for not allowing the Bucks to fall prey to a post-title hangover; for keeping Milwaukee from cratering after losing its starting center on opening night; for enabling the introduction of a different (and successful) defensive style midstream; and for doing it all while being just as productive and more malleable than either Jokic or Embiid.
Jokic and Embiid are incredible. I just think Giannis has been a little bit better. Put the crown on him.
I thought about at least a half-dozen other players for the fourth and fifth spots. Had we cast our ballots a month ago, Ja Morant very likely would’ve taken one of them. He has been transcendent since the very opening moments of the 2021-22 season and has become the league’s most exhilarating performer. Heading into this season, only five players in NBA history had averaged 27 points, five rebounds, and five assists per game by their age-22 campaign: Oscar, Michael, LeBron, and Luka. Ja’s the fifth.
But Morant has missed more than a quarter of the season, and that matters when it’s time to split hairs. The same holds for Kevin Durant, who has scored more per game than Jokic with a higher true shooting percentage than Giannis or Embiid, yet will wind up playing at most 55 games, far enough below the other contenders that I felt more comfortable looking elsewhere.
Games missed don’t disqualify Chris Paul or Stephen Curry, necessarily: The fourth- and fifth-place finishers on my 2021 ballot will both wind up in roughly the same ballpark in terms of appearances and minutes as Antetokounmpo and Embiid. Their respective late-season injuries didn’t help, though; Curry missed out on the opportunity for a statistical rebound back to his peak levels after a midseason dip while Paul’s stint on the shelf didn’t torpedo his case as much as it helped bolster his teammate’s.
That left me with four names for two spots: Booker, Doncic, Jayson Tatum, and DeMar DeRozan.
Tatum and DeRozan have been iron men, ranking in the top four in the NBA in both minutes played and points scored. DeRozan has been a revelation in his first season in Chicago, reaching new levels as a half-court craftsman and crunch-time assassin for a Bulls team that has needed every last triple-tough dagger to survive a spate of injuries and hang onto a top-six spot. While DeRozan has been metronome-steady since seemingly the season’s opening tip, Tatum started slow as he and the rest of the Celtics struggled to find an offensive flow under first-year head coach Ime Udoka. As has become his custom, though, Tatum adjusted his shot selection and caught fire midstream, averaging 30-7-5 on 50/40/89 shooting during a 30-game stretch while also playing an integral role on a suffocating defense as Boston ascended to the top of the East before Robert Williams’s injury.
Either would be worthy selections. In the end, though, I went with Booker, the heartbeat of the NBA’s best team, and Doncic, who has essentially lifted Dallas into a fight for the West’s third seed in the past three months through sheer force of will.
I went long on Luka a couple of weeks back, but let me reiterate here that the results of the Kristaps Porzingis trade have been breathtaking, and have cast into relief just how special Doncic—averaging 32-10-8 on .601 true shooting and leading the Mavs to the West’s third-best record since the deal—can be when he’s flanked by shooters and playmakers he trusts.
Booker built on Phoenix’s 2021 breakthrough by turning in his best all-around season, gracefully toggling between finishing and shot-creation responsibilities and playing the best defense of his career. As important as Paul’s arrival was for the Suns, and as common as it’s become to credit his leadership for turning the franchise around, Booker deserves full marks for becoming a bona fide superstar in his own right—an evolution evidenced by the facts that Phoenix has outscored opponents by a very strong 7.3 points per 100 in the minutes that Booker has played without Paul, and that, during the month Paul missed with a broken thumb, Book cranked it up to average 28.2 points and seven assists per game on 52/40/90 shooting and lead the Suns to an 8-3 record.
That run of play—which Booker capped, by the way, with a 49-point, 10-assist outing in Paul’s first game back to beat the Nuggets—suggested that, in a different context, maybe he could put up the kind of eye-popping stats that tend to land you on these ballots. His willingness to sublimate that urge for the greater good of winning more games than anybody else in the damn league, though, lands him on mine.
Just missing the cut: Tatum, DeRozan, Morant.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Bam Adebayo, Heat
2. Marcus Smart, Celtics
3. Mikal Bridges, Suns
The first thing that jumps out is the name that isn’t there. Rudy Gobert ranks at or near the top of the NBA in blocks, defensive rebounding, and contested shots. He’s holding opponents to 50 percent shooting at the rim—sixth best out of 259 players to face at least 100 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum. And while the Jazz’s defense on the whole has dropped from first last season to 11th this season, that’s been more about how much things fall apart when he’s not around.
But while Gobert remains excellent, the blah overall nature of Utah’s season felt like an occasion to open the door to some new blood—and, with it, a consideration of different types of defensive value in 2022.
Reasonable people can differ on which perimeter defender is the NBA’s best, but Bridges belongs on any short list. I’m not sure anybody in the league equals his ability to battle top offensive threats (he ranks 13th out of 260 players to log at least 1,000 minutes in average defensive matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index’s defensive charting) and the availability to do it night after night (he leads the NBA in total minutes and is on pace to play in every game for the fourth consecutive season). His brilliance lies not in the traditional statistical markers of defensive success, but rather in the stuff that never makes its way to the stat sheet.
Bridges’s talent for tirelessly chasing the game’s best shooters and scorers all over the court, denying the ball, and plugging up passing lanes with his 7-foot-1 wingspan allows Phoenix’s bigs to focus on dropping back to smother the paint. His ability to slither around screens and stay connected to his man helps keep those bigs out of the kind of danger that can come with having to deal with both a driver and a roller barreling downhill at them. It allows aging genius Paul to roam off the ball, forever looming and ready to wreak havoc on the weak side of the action. It simplifies everybody’s else’s responsibilities and lets them just lock in on a smaller portion of the game plan with confidence that the other team’s no. 1 option is taken care of. Having an answer for the scariest perimeter question makes Monty Williams’s life a lot easier; it also makes Bridges the linchpin of the NBA’s no. 2 defense and worth every penny of the $90 million extension he got before the season.
Like Bridges, Smart operates as one of the NBA’s top perimeter stoppers; unlike Bridges, his impact is anything but quiet.
The 28-year-old is forever flying all over the floor in hot pursuit of another possession. Beyond the chaos he creates, Smart’s greatest value might lie in how his strength, length, intelligence, and tenacity allows him to guard players at all five positions; that enables the Celtics to both switch screens more often and allow fewer points per chance on switches than any other team in the NBA this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, a huge reason why Boston boasts the league’s stingiest defense.
There’s plenty of credit to go around in Boston: the emergence of spring-heeled big man Williams, the presence of a pair of excellent big wing defenders in Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the resurgence of Al Horford in his second tour of duty, the arrival of perfect-fit guard Derrick White, etc. All of it, though, traces back to the “stretch 6” who can not only bang with opposing bigs, but actually bully them.
Smart and Bridges recently made their DPOY cases by emphasizing the different and, to their way of thinking, tougher challenges that premier perimeter defenders face, such as staying in front of the league’s toughest covers and keeping them from getting to their preferred spots in the first place. Gobert and Embiid (another legitimate candidate for this award) made theirs by highlighting the global impact of a great defensive center—the back-line captains who see the whole floor, who call out the coverages, who dissuade drivers from even attempting a shot.
In presenting their arguments, though, they inadvertently made one for Adebayo—the player who does all of that better than anybody else in the league.
Miami ranks fourth in defensive efficiency this season, behind Boston and Phoenix, but the Heat crank it up when Bam mans the middle, with a mark nearly two points per 100 stingier than the Celtics overall. Crucially, though, Bam doesn’t stay in the middle: No screen defender switches onto ball handlers more often than he does, according to Second Spectrum, and few stonewall them more effectively.
Bright-eyed ball handlers who draw Adebayo and think, “OK, I’ve got a center, that’s a mismatch,” quickly find themselves disabused of that notion: He allows just 0.9 points per chance after those switches, 10th fewest of 181 players to log at least 200 switches. And trying to take him one-on-one is worse: He’s giving up just 0.74 points per isolation, according to NBA.com/Stats, 12th lowest among 112 players to defend at least 50 isos.
He handles his business without giving up the store inside, too: With him on the floor, Miami clears the defensive glass at a league-best level and prevents at-rim attempts at a top-10 rate. He can slide into the zones that Erik Spoelstra loves to deploy to short-circuit offenses, sink in a more traditional drop pick-and-roll coverage if the opponent calls for it, deny passes into the post against bigger and burlier threats, hedge at the 3-point arc or blitz the screen—you name it, he can do it.
The one knock on Bam’s case is missed games. Because of a torn thumb ligament earlier this season, he’ll wind up with fewer than 60 games and 2,000 minutes played. It doesn’t necessarily have to be disqualifying, though: Gobert’s first DPOY came in 2017-18, a season that saw him come in beneath those marks, too. In the absence of a no-doubt-about-it alternative, I feel OK going with a switch-everything swingman the size of Karl Malone, a legit shot blocker and paint patroller faster than most point guards—a dude who looks like the next evolution of NBA defense, and whose play will go a long way toward determining whether Miami can make their second Finals run in three seasons.
Just missing the cut: Jaren Jackson Jr., who exploded this year as the centerpiece of the NBA’s no. 5 defense by curbing his foul rate, leading the league in blocks, and holding opponents below 50 percent shooting at the rim; Williams; Embiid; Antetokounmpo; Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley, the dynamic duo behind Cleveland’s remarkable defensive turnaround.
Rookie of the Year
1. Scottie Barnes, Raptors
2. Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
3. Cade Cunningham, Pistons
This one’s damn near a coin flip.
Mobley has been sensational in Cleveland—a transformational figure whose ability to protect the rim, hold up on switches, serve as a connective-tissue playmaker, and look for his own offense when necessary has helped elevate the Cavs from perennial cellar dwellers to the heat of a playoff race. Rookie big men just don’t come into the NBA this ready to make a defensive impact from Day 1; they damn sure don’t enter the league with that kind of poise and the capacity to suddenly start shouldering a larger offensive load with a month left in the season when their running buddy (Allen) goes down with a fractured finger. And yet, there was Mobley, sliding over from the 4 to 5 after Allen’s injury and averaging 16.6 points per game on 54.5 percent shooting in a three-week stretch, helping the Cavs stay in the hunt for their first playoff berth since LeBron left for L.A.
I just can’t shake the feeling that—especially lately—Barnes has been just as excellent in an even larger, more diverse role for a Toronto team that has overtaken the Cavs in the Eastern standings.
Barnes fits perfectly into a Raptors team that prizes length, athleticism, and adaptability above all else. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s got the size and skill set to guard across the positional spectrum, and Nick Nurse wasted little time in enlisting him to do just that: Barnes leads all players who’ve logged at least 1,000 minutes this season in defensive versatility, according to The BBall Index, spending nearly equal amounts of floor time checking opponents at all five positions. He’s not getting easy assignments, either: Barnes’s most frequent matchups include elite wings like Tatum, Harden, Durant, Doncic, LeBron, and Jimmy Butler, and during recent high-leverage games, Nurse has also slotted him onto elite big men like Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns.
He’s assumed a larger offensive role than expected, too, scoring 15.5 points and dishing 3.5 assists per game while averaging more touches a night than any rookie besides Cunningham and Josh Giddey—a pair of point guards.
Which is fitting, I guess. Barnes has spent a bunch of floor time in gigantic Raptors lineups featuring zero conventional point guards, in which Nurse enlists one of Toronto’s many huge dudes to bring the ball up the court, initiate sets, run pick-and-roll, hunt mismatches, and attack their own if they get one. Barnes has proved a quick study at that, eminently capable of finding the soft spots in defensive coverages and leveraging his size, quickness, and vision to generate good looks for himself and others. He’s broken through the rookie wall, too, playing his best ball of the season when it matters most—just under 18-8-4 on 53 percent shooting since the All-Star break—as the Raptors chase the fifth seed down the stretch. What do you call a 20-year-old who can guard every position and play every offensive role on a high-40-win team in the heat of a playoff chase? Well, “Rookie of the Year” has a nice ring to it.
An ankle injury cost Cunningham the start of the regular season and put him behind the eight ball once he did make his debut, as he barely made one-third of his field goal attempts through his first 15 professional games. Once he got healthy and got some reps under his belt to start processing the speed of the pro game, though, the no. 1 overall pick course-corrected in a major way, averaging just under 18-6-6 in 2022 and scoring 20 or more in 13 of his 19 appearances after the All-Star break. Barnes’s and Mobley’s advantages put them ahead of Cunningham in the ROY running; it wouldn’t shock anybody, though, if the silky smooth 6-foot-6 table-setter vaults himself into All-Star consideration as soon as next season and puts himself in position to be just as significant of a difference-maker.
Just missing the cut: Franz Wagner, who averaged nearly 15-5-3 on efficient shooting as an every-night stalwart in Orlando and looks like he can be, at worst, a fantastic role player on a good team; Josh Giddey, an awfully impressive table-setter who’s a jump shot away from being a truly dangerous complement to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the Oklahoma City backcourt; Herb Jones, who went from the second round to the starting lineup of a play-in team on the strength of some of the best damn perimeter defense in the NBA.
Coach of the Year
1. Monty Williams, Suns
2. J.B. Bickerstaff, Cavaliers
3. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies
As impressed as I’ve been by the work of Bickerstaff, Jenkins, and a number of other head coaches, I don’t think anything holds a candle to the absolute machine that Williams has built in the desert. He topped my ballot last year, for getting his suddenly-Chris-Paul-infused roster to buy into his vision of a team built on hard-nosed defense, exacting offensive execution, and a commitment to quality control across all lineups in every circumstance … and all he’s done this year is do all of that even better.
After leading the Suns to their first NBA Finals appearance since 1993, Williams refused to allow any regression, shepherding the ongoing development of an excellent young core while leading the Suns to the league’s best record and no. 1 net rating, and maybe the franchise’s best chance ever to win the NBA championship. (They hoist the Larry O’B in 29 percent of The Ringer NBA Odds Machine’s simulations—tops in the league.) If you find yourself wondering why Phoenix never seems to buckle or blink, take a look over at Williams on the sideline—never too high, never too low, always preaching persistence and precision—and remember that attitude reflects leadership.
No coach outperformed expectations this year quite like Bickerstaff has in Cleveland. Heading into the season, the sharps in Vegas pegged the Cavs’ over/under at 27.5 wins, tied with the post-Harden-rebuild Rockets for the fourth-lowest total in the league. They cashed the over nearly a month before the All-Star break, thanks in large part to Bickerstaff’s ability to get a young, seemingly somewhat oddly constructed roster playing together and moving in the right direction.
He put together a snarling defense that ranks sixth in the NBA in points allowed per possession by going against the grain, playing huge up front—starting Allen, Mobley, and Lauri Markkanen together, leaning heavily on Kevin Love and Dean Wade off the bench—and daring opponents to find airspace and clean looks amid all the tall timber. He empowered young point guard Darius Garland to expand his game and take ownership of the offense, especially after injuries removed Collin Sexton and Ricky Rubio from the cupboard; the third-year playmaker flourished in the newfound freedom, blossoming into an All-Star. He had Cleveland in the mix for a top-four seed until Allen’s fractured finger represented one injury too many to deal with; even with all the missing firepower, though, he’s shepherded them to the franchise’s best non-LeBron season in nearly a quarter-century. After years spent rebounding from the King’s exit, the Cavs finally seem to have the makings of a team built to last; and after years of interim gigs, short runways, and false starts, Bickerstaff finally has the opportunity to see the construction project through.
It’s fair to credit Memphis’s rocket-ship ride to the ranks of legit title contenders primarily to the individual leaps taken by so many young Grizzlies and to the fantastic work that Zach Kleiman’s front office has done in building the NBA’s deepest rotation. But Jenkins deserves plenty of praise, too. He’s gotten the league’s second-youngest roster to completely buy into the value of getting stops; teams relying so much on players with such little experience don’t typically crack the top five in defensive efficiency. Part of the reason for that? Jenkins spreads the wealth, frequently going nine or 10 deep and giving his young charges actual run; 14 Grizzlies are averaging at least 10 minutes per game this season, and only Morant averages more than 30. When you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready, and Jenkins’s gift for keeping his whole roster engaged and on the same page has helped the Grizz keep the pedal pressed squarely to the metal, no matter who is or isn’t on the court.
Just missing the cut: Chris Finch, who helped unlock Karl-Anthony Towns and get the Wolves back to the postseason; Erik Spoelstra, who’s weathered a ton of injuries to have the Heat at the top of the East despite his four best players sharing the court for only 110 minutes; Jason Kidd, who overhauled the Mavericks defense, doubled down on Luka, and has Dallas looking really dangerous entering the playoffs; Ime Udoka, who navigated a rocky start to his head coaching career to turn the Celtics into the NBA’s most menacing defense and, if healthy, a legit championship contender; Ty Lue, who was without Paul George for nearly four months and hasn’t had Kawhi Leonard at all, and still has the Clippers hovering around .500 with a top-10 defense.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Tyler Herro, Heat
2. Kevin Love, Cavaliers
3. Cameron Johnson, Suns
Herro grabbed this award with both hands from the opening tip, scoring 20 or more off the bench in seven of his first 11 games. He never let it go, cementing himself as not only the NBA’s premier second-unit scoring threat—his 20.9 points per game leads all reserves—but as a vital source of pick-and-roll playmaking and dribble penetration for a Miami offense that can bog down in the half court and that needs every possible ounce of shot-making and creativity.
It’s tempting to chalk the fact that Herro leads Miami in shot attempts per game and usage rate up to hubris—the unshakable confidence that has propelled him from Wisconsin prep hoops to a pivotal role on a team with championship aspirations. In this case, though, form follows function: Spoelstra has tossed Herro the keys because he’s proved a steady hand at the wheel, posting career-best true shooting and assist percentages despite the dramatic uptick in offensive responsibility. He can threaten defenses in multiple ways—attacking with a live dribble, working either end of a pick-and-roll, sprinting off screens away from the action, spotting up on the weak side—which makes a sometimes staid Heat offense much more versatile and dynamic. It’s no coincidence that the Heat score at a top-five rate with Herro on the floor and are nearly a bottom-10 offense with him off of it, or that he’s a mainstay in Miami’s closing lineups, leading the team in crunch-time scoring. For the Heat to make another Finals run, they’ll need to break down and break through some of the NBA’s nastiest defenses; Herro is their locksmith, their best hope of making something out of nothing when it counts, and the best reserve in the NBA.
Love’s (admittedly remote) chances of catching Herro tailed off as his shooting did; after posting 44/40/87 shooting splits through the first three months, he’s dropped to 40/36/78 for the past two as the injury-stricken Cavs have staggered toward the finish line. On the whole, though, it’s been a hell of a return to form for the finally healthy five-time All-Star. As it turns out, a high-IQ big man who can play the 4 or 5, clear the defensive boards, organize and run the second-unit offense, and space the floor to the tune of 38.5 percent from deep on a career-high 10.2 attempts per 36 minutes is a pretty valuable piece to have … provided, of course, he’s able to make peace with moving to the bench after a decade spent in starring roles. Love got comfortable with it; the result has been the best ball he’s played in a half-decade, helping Cleveland have its best season since LeBron left town.
Man, we are a loooooong way from joking about Cam Johnson being a Reed Richards–ass reach at no. 11 in the 2019 draft, huh?
I’m sure some of the players picked after him—say, Herro, PJ Washington, Matisse Thybulle, or Brandon Clarke—would’ve shined in Phoenix, too. But I’m not sure any of them would’ve been quite as perfect a fit for the Suns as Johnson has proved to be: an elite long-range sniper (tied for second in the NBA in 3-point accuracy) who also finishes nearly three-quarters of his tries at the rim, who can comfortably defend 3s and 4s (and can even hang with most guards in a pinch), and who’s shown improvement as a playmaker while carrying one of the lowest turnover rates in the league. Phoenix scarcely loses anything when Johnson checks in for Jae Crowder; he’s been dynamite across the board all season long, earning both Monty’s trust and, like 3-and-D “twin” Bridges before him, possibly an awfully big contract when he becomes extension-eligible this summer.
Just missing the cut: De’Anthony Melton, Tyus Jones, and Clarke, the linchpins of a Memphis second unit that’s arguably the best in the NBA; Jordan Clarkson, last year’s winner, who’s continued to put up buckets in bunches to keep the Jazz bench afloat; Kelly Oubre Jr., forever in attack more and firing away in Charlotte; Luke Kennard, leading the NBA in 3-point percentage and anchoring the reserve corps of the supremely scrappy Clips; Pat Connaughton, having a career year from deep as the most trusted reserve wing on the defending champion Bucks; Grant Williams, now a dependable stretch big and ace defender off the Boston bench; Bogdan Bogdanovic, whose midseason return to the bench helped the Hawks right the ship and get turned back toward the postseason.
Most Improved Player
1. Ja Morant, Grizzlies
2. Darius Garland, Cavaliers
3. Dejounte Murray, Spurs
As contentious and open to interpretation as “valuable” is, “improved” might be an even more slippery term in the annual awards debate. Should you highlight players who rose from the fringes of the league to rotation roles? What about players who show enough growth to move from the second team into the starting five, and perform well enough once they get there to mark themselves as potential stars in the making? We typically expect players to get better from Year 1 to Year 2; does that mean that, outside of rare cases, sophomores who make leaps should be excised from the candidate pool?
I tend to subscribe to the theory that the hardest improvement to make—the one that matters the most—is going from pretty good to really good, from starter to All-Star and/or All-NBA. That’s why I voted for Luka in 2020, why I voted for Julius Randle last season … and why I’m voting for Ja this year. (Even if he’d prefer I vote for another Grizzly.)
It’s impressive enough that Morant is averaging 8.5 more points per game than he did as a sophomore, but the fact that he’s doing it more efficiently while also making a quantum leap in workload—only Luka, Embiid, Giannis, and Trae Young have a higher usage rate—and turning it over on a lower share of his possessions makes it downright staggering. Already one of the league’s most jaw-dropping aerial artists, Ja has become a better interior finisher while also shooting just under 34 percent on a steadier diet of pull-up triples. (If he gets above league average on those, forcing opponents to press up on him above the arc, the only way you’ll be able to defend him is with a baseball bat.) He made quieter advancements, too, like making a more concerted effort to pitch in on the glass while kindly bulldozer Steven Adams boxes the world out.
Morant has become one of the league’s most explosive and overwhelming point-producing engines, the lifeblood of the NBA’s no. 4 offense. He’s gone from just outside the All-Star conversation to starting in the main event, and from off the All-NBA ballot entirely to meriting strong consideration for a spot on the first team. Morant hasn’t elevated Memphis all by himself; he’s had help. He’s done the heaviest lifting, though, making the Grizz both must-see TV and a real-deal title contender to boot.
Like Morant, Garland made the leap in his third season, setting career highs in virtually every statistical category en route to All-Star honors. His production and command of the game have been breathtaking: The only other players ever to average 20 points and eight assists per game while shooting this efficiently this young are Magic Johnson, Chris Paul, Kevin Johnson, Luka, and Trae.
After a lone college season curtailed by injury and two up-and-down campaigns on bad Cleveland teams, Garland gained full control of his powers this season, weaponizing his quickness off the dribble, his dead-eye accuracy off the bounce, and his one-step-ahead court vision to keep defenses perpetually off balance. And when a raft of injuries left him as just about the only Cavalier who could handle the ball, he just kept delivering, helping lift Cleveland back to the postseason and stamping himself as one of the brightest young playmakers in the sport.
I’d understand if you arch an eyebrow at Murray’s name, considering he’d already made several brick-by-brick progressions—deep bench to rotation, reserve to starter, complementary piece to secondary scorer—throughout his first four seasons in San Antonio. This year, though, he made that most difficult jump: to no. 1 option. He’s borne the full weight of Gregg Popovich’s expectations lightly, making a massive leap as a playmaker—fourth in the league in assists per game, fifth in assist percentage, with one of the best assist-to-turnover ratios of any starting guard—while averaging a career-high 21.2 points per game and still leading the league in both steals and deflections. He’s finishing better and pulling up more confidently, seeming fully at ease with the mantle of leadership and equal to the task of pushing the Spurs from the lottery to the play-in and, in the years to come, hopefully beyond. This is Murray’s fifth year, but it’s the first in which he’s assaying the role of The Man. It suits him.
Just missing the cut: Desmond Bane and Tyrese Maxey, who built on impressive rookie seasons to establish themselves as full-fledged members of Big Threes on title hopefuls; Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson, who’ve broken out of the 3-and-D mold to become increasingly dangerous all-around performers in Phoenix; Miles Bridges, who proved he’s a hell of a lot more than a lob threat, becoming one of just 14 players to average 20 points, seven rebounds, and three assists per game; Anfernee Simons, who did one hell of a Damian Lillard impression after the genuine article got injured, and turned himself into a core piece in the process; Jordan Poole, who, ditto, but swap in “Stephen Curry” for Lillard; Robert Williams III, who emerged as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate before getting hurt; Wendell Carter Jr., a two-way bright spot in another tough season in Orlando.