Moore: My NBA Awards Ballot at the All-Star Break

Moore: My NBA Awards Ballot at the All-Star Break article feature image
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Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA is in its stretch run. With the All-Star Break over, it’s time to look at where the various award races stand. Here’s what my ballot would be if the season ended today, factoring in injuries. (Get well soon, Andre Roberson.)

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Most Valuable Player: Harden’s Totally Surmountable Mile-Wide Lead

  1. James Harden, G, Houston Rockets (-270)
  2. DeMar DeRozan, G, Toronto Raptors (+3300)
  3. Steph Curry, G, Golden State Warriors (+2000)

Harden’s lead has swelled since he returned from a knee injury last month. A 60-point triple-double and a run to overtake Golden State for the No. 1 seed will do that for you. Even if Harden weren’t leading the league in scoring at over 31 points per game and second in assists at 9.4 dimes per game with 45-38-87 shooting splits, he’d still probably be leading on account of the “best player on the best team” requirement.

Rockets fans understandably feel that Harden has gotten the short end of the stick through the years. There was good reason to vote for Curry in 2015. In 2016, the Rockets really were a mess, and when that happens, the best player pays a price (which we’ll revisit shortly). In 2017, he lost out to a historic season, even if Harden was making more subtle, more impressive history with his numbers as well.

This year, you have to jump through a lot of hoops not to vote for him. His defense has been fine (as it was last year), so you can’t knock him for that. He has the most wins of any candidate, so the argument used for Kawhi Leonard last year doesn’t hold up. He’s not stat padding. He’s shown up in big games. The record is there.

Yet this doesn’t feel like a lock. Keep in mind, I think it should be. But for some reason, I still think a huge March by Curry could open up the conversation. Likewise if the Cavaliers make a huge run in the second half and LeBron James puts up historic numbers. I don’t know if it’s Mike D’Antoni, or last year’s playoff debacle, or what. But this doesn’t feel done.

DeRozan very much is worthy of more consideration. Just ask his coach Dwane Casey and best friend forever Kyle Lowry.

“He should be in the conversation for MVP,” Casey said at All-Star Weekend. “He’s given up the feeling of having to score and be a top-seven scorer, where his assists have gone up, and it’s made us a better team. His playmaking has gone up, and it’s made us a better team. That’s where the Most Valuable Player descriptor comes in. His 3-point shooting has improved. There’s a strong case for him to be the Most Valuable Player.”

“We’ve been successful because everyone’s been willing to sacrifice a little bit for the greater cause,” Lowry said, signaling out DeRozan not only for his playmaking but also for an improved effort defensively.

“We get caught up as fans or whatever looking at the numbers and not how important that player is when he’s on the court,” Casey added, “How he’s contributed to wins, and contributed to a great record.”

DeRozan’s willingness to adapt his game this season has made Toronto not just better in record but also more sound. This season marks the lowest the Raptors have ever been in free-throw rate, which sounds like a bad thing. But in years past, they’ve been reliant on getting calls to supplement their scoring. It’s efficient in the regular season and difficult in the playoffs. This year, they operate a much more balanced offense, and it’s paying off.

When the Celtics were dominating the Eastern conference standings thanks to defense and same-as-last-year Kyrie Irving, people couldn’t wait to get behind Irving for MVP. Now that DeRozan’s putting up comparable numbers for the East’s best team, he deserves the same consideration.

Curry hasn’t played in enough games to get him to the top, but he’s lurking. I’m also docking points for the Warriors’ malaise, because if the Cavs get dinged for underperforming so should the Warriors, even if Golden State’s problems are entirely the product of boredom and not incompetence. When Curry’s been his best this season, he might have been the best we’ve ever seen him in terms of flowing in an offense while maintaining his splash rating. If 2016 was comparable to Kobe Bryant’s 2006 onslaught of sheer absurd volume, this season is Bryant’s 2009 MVP campaign in which he played more in the process of the system, getting his without overshadowing anyone else.

So . . . LeBron James is not on this list. He’s fourth, if you were wondering. I just can’t justify having a player whose main team identity is not only best player but also unquestioned leader when his team has been an absolute chemical fire in the middle of a sewage field. Cleveland needed a Hail Mary set of trades at the deadline to save its season, and the Cavs are not even out of the woods yet. His individual numbers plummeted as the team spiraled, and he bears as much responsibility as anyone for the defensive problems. James has been the best player in the league every season since 2008, but he hasn’t had the best season every year. This season’s discord may have cost him his last real chance at matching Michael Jordan with five MVP trophies.

Rookie of the Year: This Is Going to Get Nasty

  1. Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz (+230)
  2. Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers (-275)
  3. Jason Tatum, F, Boston Celtics (+1600)

Oh, boy. If any Sixers fan has married a Utah fan, those nuptials are going into the shredder. Neither side can understand why this is a debate. For Jazz fans, Mitchell has been the most explosive rookie this season and is an identifiable rising superstar. Not star. Superstar. He makes huge plays and hits big shots. He’s tough, physical, explosive, a gifted passer, an incredible scorer, and tenacious as hell.

For Sixers fans, the Sixers are better than the Jazz, and Simmons is putting up historic numbers. He’s a more complete player, and his impact on the team is unquestionable. The argument for Mitchell is rooted in narrative. The argument for Simmons is rooted in cold hard facts.

Mitchell Simmons Advantage
Points Per Game 19.6 16.4 Mitchell
Points Per 100 Possessions 30.6 22.8 Mitchell
Assists Per Game 3.5 7.8 Simmons
Assists Per 100 Possessions 5.2 10.2 Simmons
Rebounds Per Game 3.5 7.3 Simmons
Rebounds Per 100 Possessions 5.5 10.8 Simmons
Field Goal Percentage 43.9 52.7 Simmons
3-Point Percentage 35.4 0 Mitchell
Effective Field Goal Percentage 50.9 52.7 Simmons
True Shooting Percentage 54.40% 54.20% Mitchell
PER 17 18.5 Simmons
VORP 1.3 2.6 Simmons
Win Shares 3.1 5 Simmons
ORPM 1.4 0.56 Mitchell
DRPM -0.38 2.29 Simmons
Raw On vs. Off Net Rating Differential -0.1 7.1 Simmons

That’s pretty hard to argue with. Now, some of Simmons’ advanced figures are impacted by playing next to Joel Embiid. The Sixers are actually a slight negative with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off, whereas the Jazz are a slight positive with Mitchell on and Rudy Gobert off. However, the Sixers are way better with those two on the floor than the Jazz are with Mitchell and Gobert.

So why exactly do I have Mitchell No. 1? I don’t. They’re tied, basically, and the process of doing this column basically swung the tiebreaker to Simmons. So let’s do the rankings again.

  1. Ben Simmons, G/F, Philadelphia 76ers
  2. Donovan Mitchell, G, Utah Jazz
  3. Jayson Tatum, F, Boston Celtics

Wait, hang on, I thought about it again, I want to switch. Wait, don’t make me move on, nooooooo . . .

Defensive Player of the Year: I Cry Over the Andre Roberson Column I Don’t Get to Write

It was Roberson. His case was unassailable. He was able to defend any player regardless of position. He was stellar in both individual and team performance defensive metrics. He bothered Harden and Curry in ways no one else can. Oklahoma City’s top-five defense before his injury was 12 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor. He had a 79th-percentile ranking in individual defense per Synergy and the No. 2 ranking in ESPN’s real plus-minus.

It was Roberson.

And then he got hurt.

So just know that whoever wins this is winning because Roberson blew out his knee. It shouldn’t take away from what was very obviously a brilliant defensive season, but it needs to be said that this was Roberson’s award.

Additionally, I find it interesting that there are no lines available for Defensive Player of the Year. Is the award that obscure?

Anyway . . .

  1. Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
  2. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
  3. Paul George, F, Oklahoma City Thunder

Horford’s the anchor of the best defense in the league, which Boston has had since the first week of the season. He’s done this despite playing with “Hey, he’s actually trying this year” Kyrie Irving and a cast of characters whose relative ages reflect upon them like Huey, Dewey, and Louie from DuckTales.

Horford is able to switch and contain guards, he’s done a great job contesting at the rim without having to be a block machine, and his craftiness guarding the interior makes a real difference. Without Horford’s defense, the Celtics are dreck at sea with Irving wildly firing flares into the sky. Their defense is why they win games, and Horford is why their defense is great.

Embiid anchors the third-best defense in the league and acts as a monstrous deterrent to guards. Embiid himself has the second-best defensive rating of any player to average 30 minutes per game. Guards see him lurking inside, and they opt against driving into the paint. He switches effectively and closes out with intent on shooters. Oddly enough, his weak point has been defending at the rim. He’s been just mediocre to moderately above average at defending driving layups and post-ups on an individual level, but that ignores the very real effect he has on the floor.

If Steph Curry’s greatest asset is his gravity, his ability to pull defenders toward him, Embiid has the opposite polarization: He keeps the lane clear with his presence.

George leads the league in deflections. His ability to make reads, recover, and always attack the ball is incredible. It’s hard to give him credit because Roberson was a better defender, Steven Adams is vital, and the Thunder defense hasn’t been great without Roberson. However, George deserves a spot here.

Coach of the Year: Stevens’ to Lose, Right?

  1. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics (+135 5Dimes)
  2. Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
  3. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

Stevens had his team as the No. 1 squad in the league for half the season despite losing Gordon Hayward in horrific fashion in the first game. Granted, that’s pretty much the Brad Stevens M.O. at this point: Outperform expectations with a roster short on actual talent to the point that we consider the team to be an actual contender.

Still, there’s just no getting around how impressive the results have been. I did find it notable that the field is a favorite vs. Stevens at -175.

Casey, on the other hand, has the Raptors on pace for their best season in franchise history and has made them a more dangerous team despite the roster being set in its ways. They have the best bench in the league and the best balance, offensively and defensively, across the board.

Pop is Pop. No Kawhi. No Rudy Gay for most of the year. Roster half full of weapons. Gonna win at least 47 games. What’s weird is that 47 is fewer games than what we’d predict this team to win even given those conditions. That’s how great Pop is.

Sixth Man of the Year

  1. Lou Williams, G, Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Will Barton, G, Denver Nuggets
  3. Terry Rozier, G, Boston Celtics

This isn’t complicated. Lou Williams gets to shoot a lot for the Clippers, so he scores the most points, so he’s going to win this award. Lou has had a great season and has a career high in assists. The Clippers would be pretty garbage without him. It’s underwhelming to me, because I think we undervalue how important it is to be a guy who can come in and provide more than scoring as a role player in mixed lineups, but Lou’s numbers (23-5 on 44-48 shooting splits) are just outrageous for a bench player.

Barton has been tremendous for the Nuggets and had to play point guard for half the season because of how bad Emmanuel Mudiay was for Denver. His leadership and locker room presence go beyond his numbers.

It’s not stunning that Rozier is averaging 10-4-2 , but he’s been keeping the terrible Boston bench lineups intact, and he has stepped up when needed to as a starter.

It’s weird that I don’t have a single Toronto Raptor on this list considering they’ve been the best bench in the league. Speaking of the Raptors . . .

Most Improved Player: A Contrarian Take

  1. DeMar DeRozan, G, Toronto Raptors
  2. Victor Oladipo, G, Indiana Pacers
  3. E’Twaun Moore, G, New Orleans Pelicans

Dwane Casey says this might be insulting to DeRozan because he was already such a good player. But I really think DeRozan deserves it, and it shouldn’t be an insult. DeRozan was already an All-Star and a top-30 player in the league, at worst. (If you want to argue he was between 10 and 20 I won’t stop you.) He’s on a big-money contract. There was no real reason for DeRozan to reinvent himself.

But he did. He’s giving way more effort defensively. He’s a way smarter and more willing playmaker. He’s not as concerned about getting numbers. He’s playing more in a team concept. He’s made his squad better. DeRozan going from “good scorer on a playoff team” to “MVP candidate” is a jump that deserves more than a nod. That’s real improvement, which is more than most winners of this award actually take; the award usually just shows who gets more minutes and has gotten a year older.

Oladipo’s going to win, however. He’s the runaway. What he’s done with Indiana is phenomenal. He’s gone from role player to star player and made good on all the promise he showed as a prospect. Oladipo’s a quality defender, and while his 3-point shooting has fallen off a cliff since Jan. 1, what he’s done overall in making the Pacers a playoff team deserves recognition.

Moore deserves credit for stepping in as the No. 4 scoring option for a playoff team (now No. 3 after DeMarcus Cousins’ injury), and his defense has been on point as well.

Photo Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports