My first set of awards are here. Those were the easy ones. But alas, I’ve run out of time to reflect, ruminate, and come up with awkward metaphors. So here are the rest of my choices for Defensive Player of the Year, Most Valuable Player, Executive of the Year, and Clutch Player of the Year!
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Brook Lopez
The trapdoor spider hides in concealed holes in the ground, waiting for unsuspecting prey to wander near. The patient arachnid may go months between meals, but when the opportunity comes, it jumps out from behind its silken doors in a flash, dragging unfortunate insects to their doom.
Lopez is the world’s largest trapdoor spider (sorry for that mental image). He waits, and waits, until foolish opponents wander into his abode. Then, stillness turns to action in the blink of an eye:
Look again at how little wasted movement Lopez exhibits. It’s amazing. Again:
Splash Mountain moves about three inches during the entirety of this play, yet still swallows up Nic Claxton’s dunk attempt.
However, Lopez is a far more prolific eater than the trapdoor spider. Lopez contested 1,362 shots this season, almost 50% higher than second place, Claxton, who barely cracked 900. These aren’t casual handwaves, either: Lopez’s rim dFG% versus expected FG% was -13.4%, the second-biggest differential in the league.
That uncanny combination of volume and efficacy sums up Brook’s Defensive Player of the Year case.
Lopez might be only the fourth-best defender on his own team, but the entire defense is designed around funneling all action toward his painted lair. Draymond Green had a thought-provoking quote earlier this season about how the best defensive players can transcend the system; Brook Lopez is the system. When Lopez was on the floor, the Bucks allowed a 108.0 defensive rating, one of the best marks in the league.
Lopez ranks highly on all the usual catch-all defensive metrics, but his most impressive accomplishment might be avoiding fouls: despite all of those shot contests, he only averaged 2.6 fouls per game.
If you prefer Jaren Jackson’s visceral impact, Evan Mobley’s flexibility, or Draymond Green’s supercomputer processing speeds, I completely understand. But Lopez alters more outcomes more severely than anybody; he’s my Defensive Player of the Year.
2) Jaren Jackson Jr.
Despite all of Lopez’s success, Jackson was likely the most impactful defender on a per-minute basis.
Jaren was the league leader with 3.0 blocks per game, and Jackson had a defensive FG% differential vs. expected of -13.1%, almost the same as Brook’s number.
When he shared the floor with Steven Adams, Jackson was given the green light to roam around and cause havoc. As a center, Jackson’s had to play more traditional anchor defense. He’s excelled in both roles. Lineups with Jackson as a power forward allowed just 108.5 points per 100 possessions; with him at center, just 108.9.
That flexibility has proven even more useful than usual given normal center Adams’ injury. Jaren is one of the best bigs in the league at corralling the pick-and-roll ballhandler, and his long arms and decent foot speed let him keep up with even the speediest guards. He’s also big and bulky enough to stonewall traditional post players.
Jackson has made noticeable improvements reading and reacting to what’s happening around him. He’s quick to diagnose problematic situations and apply some salve. Here, Jackson traps De’Aaron Fox at the top, who passes to forward Harrison Barnes. Barnes is several steps ahead of Jackson with just puny Ja Morant between him and an easy bucket, but Jackson sees what’s coming and sprints full-tilt to make a strong rear-view contest, disrupting the shot:
Plays like that made it hard for me to put JJJ second. Halfway through the season, I had Jaren as the frontrunner, as it seemed he had finally cured the foul-prone ways that had dragged him down in the past.
Unfortunately, as the season went on, the fouls ticked back upward, limiting how much time he could spend on the court. After averaging fewer than 3.0 fouls in his first 20 games, he averaged nearly four for the rest of the season. His lack of availability became the tiebreaker.
But Jackson has gotten better every season, and he’d be a fine pick already. At just 23 years old, he could be a frontrunner for this award for many years to come.
3) Jaden McDaniels
McDaniels’ incredible defensive skill (and improving offensive assertiveness) was set to shine in the postseason, potentially making him a household name…until he inadvertently punched a concrete wall in frustration during Game 82, fracturing his hand and removing him from the team for the foreseeable future. It’s a bummer for all the reasons, and the injury will overshadow one of the best wing defensive seasons in recent years.
McDaniels is a Bball-Index metric superstar: he’s at or near the top of the leaderboards for defensive matchup difficulty, ball screen navigation, and on-ball defense, and even in the 91st percentile for rim points saved (as I wrote in my All-Defensive Teams post, opponents are shooting just 53.5% against McDaniels at the rim, better than most centers).
His 1.6% block percentage is in the 96th percentile for forwards, and opponents are shooting a paltry 33.8% against McDaniels in isolation.
But it’s not just about the numbers: McDaniels uses his 6’10” snakelike frame to slither around screens and stay attached to his mark. His recovery time is outrageous for someone so tall. He has a very quick second jump that lets him gamble for blocks a little more than most players; if he’s pump-faked the first time, Spring-heeled Jaden can still get back up in time to contest again.
I would be remiss in not mentioning the Wolves’ remarkable marketing efforts in trying to rally votes for All-Defensive First Team (which I had him on!): their website features a cursor that turns into the faces of stars like Luka Doncic and Steph Curry, and anywhere you go, a Jaden McDaniels face will appear and gravitate toward the star, like Blinky chasing his elusive foe. I strongly recommend looking at it.
Honorable Mention: Evan Mobley, Jrue Holiday, Anthony Davis, Draymond Green, O.G. Anunoby.
I laid out the strongest cases I could for each here, so I’m not going to go over the statistical details again. Click that link for all the stats and numbers you could ever want.
Honestly, I’m rooting for Joel Embiid to win. I believe in spreading the wealth when the margins between players are this close. It’s going to be weird if Jokic or Giannis has three trophies, the other has two, and Embiid never gets one. A 2/2/1 split (with another MVP up for grabs next year!) more accurately showcases how dominant and how close these three have been for coming up on a half-decade.
I also think Joel will win. I think the narrative above, coupled with explicit voter reluctance to give Joker a third-straight MVP, will be enough to get Embiid over the finish line. That’s what I’m rooting for.
But my hypothetical ballot has to remain true to the spirit of the award, which is this year’s regular season. And in that, I believe one player has been more valuable than the rest… and it’s probably not who you think:
1) Giannis Antetokounmpo
This may surprise many of you since my love for Jokic’s game is well-known by now. But I gave Jokic a lot of credit for keeping his team afloat last season when they were decimated by injuries, and I want to be consistent. Giannis lifting his team to the best record in the NBA despite missing their second-best offensive player all season (Middleton has technically played 33 games, but he hasn’t looked great for most of them) is extremely impressive.
Giannis is also the best leader of the trio. He sets the tone by working his rump off every night. Embiid picks and chooses his spots, and while Jokic has vastly improved his body language over the years, he can still become visibly frustrated with teammates and refs. That’s never a question or concern with Giannis.
Antetokounmpo’s efficiency numbers don’t stack up to Jokic or Embiid, but part of that is because he has carried a heavier burden even than those two behemoths. He’s the best and most consistent defender of the trio, even in a somewhat down year, and despite his struggles shooting the ball from outside, I think there are some inherent halo benefits to his battering-ram playstyle. Opponents have to mentally prepare for Giannis steamrolling to the rim over and over. They wear down physically and mentally. It’s an MVP mindset.
I’m not usually a fan of the “best player on the best team” line of thinking for MVP, but it’s different when it’s the best player in the league leading his squad to the top through adversity. Giannis imposes his will on games in a way that would be awe-inspiring if we hadn’t grown numb to it.
“Best” and “Most Valuable” don’t mean the same thing, of course. But this year, they overlapped.
2) Joel Embiid
3) Nikola Jokic
As I stated initially, Joel is absolutely a deserving MVP, and I hope he wins. But the case for Giannis over Embiid, tight though it might be, is simple: Antetokounmpo has been a slightly superior passer and defender and led his team to a better record despite similar or worse surrounding talent (Bucks were 47-16 when Giannis played; Sixers were 43-23). Embiid’s superior midrange and free-throw shooting does not substantially overcome that, in my opinion. Most people disagree, which is great!
Jokic in third might require more explanation. The advanced numbers love Jokic, but part of that is due to the deafening loudness of his on/off stats, which reward Jokic for playing on a team without a viable backup center. Certain all-in-one numbers also overly reward assists from a big man, and as arguably the best passer ever (regardless of position), Jokic gets a big boost there. But that shouldn’t take away from his absolute domination this year.
Anecdotally, I was ready to crown Jokic the MVP in December. He was playing the best defense of his life, the team was running away with the West and in contention for top record in the league, and Giannis and Embiid were clearly a step behind.
But the latter two turned on the burners as Jokic started to recede defensively. Monster performances from both brought their advanced stats to within striking distance of Jokic’s, and their clear superiority on defense combine to put them slightly over the top.
Jokic is my favorite player to watch, and if he ends up with a third-straight MVP, I can certainly hold my tears back. But his total disinterest in the award almost seemed to impact his play down the stretch; certain corners of the Internet were alleging that Jokic was intentionally sabotaging his MVP case so as to avoid the media circus and repetitive, boring conversations that would come with another win.
Ja Morant didn’t care about the Most Improved award last year, and I didn’t want to give it to him. If a guy explicitly says he doesn’t want something, I’m fine going in a different direction.
Like everyone else, I’m excited to see how this shakes out.
4) Jayson Tatum
The Boston media ensures that no Celtic ever goes under the radar, but it does feel like Tatum’s 30-9-5 with nearly two stocks isn’t dropping enough jaws.
Tatum gets better and better every season. Where he once pirouetted, he now bludgeons, leading to the highest free-throw rate of his career by far. He finished 70% of his shots near the basket and mostly excised the deep midrange, long his bugaboo, from his shot diet, leading to the most efficient season of his career.
At just 25, Tatum is barely in his prime. The three candidates above him are all 28 or older, and they should start aging out of the MVP conversation right as Tatum reaches the peak of his powers. It’s a testament to Tatum’s skill and potential that even now, when he’s likely going to finish fourth in official voting, there are still several areas where he can noticeably improve.
5) Domantas Sabonis
Sabonis is a mini-Jokic; the Kings’ unstoppable offense is entirely built upon his ability to surgically operate from the elbow, slicing the defense with scalpel-sharp passes or chiseling his way to the hoop.
I can think of ten or fifteen other players that are better than Sabonis, but none that have been as important to their team’s success, particularly when Sabonis (79 games played) has participated in dozens more games than some of his competition.
Honorable Mention: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Jimmy Butler, Kawhi Leonard
Executive of the Year
1) Danny Ainge, Utah Jazz
Yes, it’s easier to tear something down than build something up. But Danny (and his second-in-command, Justin Zanik) managed to acquire a pirate’s booty of picks AND meaningful players while trading Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert at the peak of their value, and they made several moves on the margins that could pay quick dividends as the Jazz seek to get back to their competitive ways.
As much as I like both Gobert and Mitchell, it was clear that Utah was never going to reach the heights they wished with those two as the core, and the teardown commenced in earnest this year. In addition to All The First Rounders, Utah also nabbed new All-Star Lauri Markkanen, who at just 25 years old has developed into one of the most effective and versatile scorers in the league, and rookie Walker Kessler, who many think has emerged into a better player than Gobert right now. Another rookie acquired in the Cleveland trade, Ochai Agbaji, continues to impress in a 3-and-D role now that he’s getting extended minutes. Other veterans were later flipped into a top-four protected Lakers pick that may be juicy down the road.
The Jazz even found a potential rehabilitation candidate in Kris Dunn, a defensive-minded point guard who has shown off an improved shot in his 20 games here at the end of the season (I’ve always loved Dunn; this pickup was destined to put Ainge over the top on my ballot).
Lastly, coaching hires often go untalked about in Executive of the Year conversations, but Will Hardy has looked like an absolute gem. Hardy had a team of score-first veterans expecting to be traded buy into a pass-and-cut system. The Jazz were shockingly competitive all season long, and Hardy’s X’s-and-O’s and deft personal touch with players was a big part of that. Ainge and Zanik deserve credit for finding the right guy.
2) Monte McNair, Sacramento Kings
McNair’s splashiest move happened at last year’s trade deadline, when he acquired Domantas Sabonis to pair with quicksilver guard De’Aaron Fox. But since then, McNair has made several moves to fit pieces around that core, and the results speak for themselves.
First, McNair deserves praise for hiring the likely unanimous Coach of the Year, Mike Brown. Known primarily as a defensive-minded coach, Brown brought over Golden State’s motion-based offense and welded it to Domantas Sabonis’ high-post playmaking to create the league’s most unstoppable attack.
McNair also picked up three players who perfectly fit that philosophy. He traded for Ronald Threesley (Kevin Huerter), signed bench spark plug Malik Monk in free agency, and drafted sweet-shooting Keegan Murray (a somewhat controversial move at the time, as many preferred combo guard Jaden Ivey).
Huerter didn’t miss a shot for the first third of the season, and he and Murray (who set the record for most threes by a rookie) combined to become just the second pair of teammates in league history to both hit 200+ threes on 40%+ shooting from deep (you can guess the other pair). Monk, meanwhile, has emerged as one of the best reserves in the league.
We don’t know how the Kings will hold up in the playoffs, where they have the misfortune of playing defending champs Golden State in the first round. But just ask any Sacramento fan how they feel about the team, and you’ll get nothing but ringing endorsements. McNair deserves mention for nailing all the little things around Fox and Sabonis this year.
3) Koby Altman, Cleveland Cavaliers
Adding Donovan Mitchell, an ascending superstar still in his prime, is almost always worth the cost. Doing it in a market like Cleveland when other, ostensibly more fashionable teams were in the bidding war is even more impressive.
Mitchell joins Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley to create arguably the most promising quartet of young players in the league. Re-signing good-vibes king Ricky Rubio in the offseason pays off in ways outsiders can’t fully understand. And don’t look now, but Danny Green (remember him?) just dropped 21 points in a tune-up for the playoffs!
Altman deserves all the shine. Superstars as young as Mitchell rarely hit the trade market, and snagging him without having to give up any of their core is a massive win. Many advanced metrics believe the Cavs to be championship contenders as soon as this year; I’m not quite there yet, but I believe they’ll be fighting for the East’s crown sooner than later.
Honorable Mention: Calvin Booth (had him third initially, but some poor decisions at the trade deadline —Thomas Bryant?? — bumped him off my list), Daryl Morey, Brad Stevens, James Jones, Rob Pelinka (superb work at the trade deadline, but hard to reward him too much for cleaning up his own messes), Leon Rose
Clutch Player of the Year
This is the first year of this award (DeMar DeRozan is shaking his head sadly somewhere), and I’m sure my philosophy on how to pick down-ballot clutch players will evolve over time. But for this first season, at least, the most important decision was simple. It’s worth noting that on the NBA website, “clutch” situations are defined as a game being within five points with five or fewer minutes remaining. Most stats you see that talk about crunch time, both here and elsewhere, will defer to that definition.
1) De’Aaron Fox
The Kings add another trophy to go with Mike Browns’ COTY. Fox will be a massive and deserving winner in this category. He averaged the most points in clutch time on 53% shooting from the field and made numerous strong defensive plays down the stretch of close games, too. The Kings, not for nothing, went 22-17 in close games.
2) Jimmy Butler
If we want to narrow down “clutch” time to even hairier circumstances (within three points with two minutes or fewer left), Butler’s 18-12 record with 2.1 points on 60% FG% pops. He facilitated for teammates (especially Tyler Herro, another player I considered here), got tough stops on the opposing stars, and almost always made the right plays. The Heat were in an absurd number of close games this year, and Butler is the reason they came out on top more often than not.
3) Joel Embiid
Embiid ranks second in Inpredictable’s “clutch win probability added” metric, and he had an outrageous +31.0 net rating in clutch situations, the highest of any star. Embiid hit several silky game-winners and go-ahead shots this season, too, which counts for something.
Honorable Mention: AJ Griffin (two legit game-winners as time expired at the start of the year!), Bradley Beal (shot an outrageous 60% from the field and 44% from deep in clutch situations), DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Jokic, Kevin Durant (would be on the ballot with more close games played), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, LeBron James, Tyler Herro, Tyrese Haliburton