The N.B.A.’s 75th season began on Dec. 22 — and the chatter about individual award races began soon after. Some things, even in pandemic times, never change in this league.
The New York Times does not participate in balloting for such awards in any sport, but breaking down each of the six major races and who I would have chosen is always a good way to take stock of what we just saw.
Most Valuable Player
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Rest of the ballot: 2. Stephen Curry (Golden State); 3. Chris Paul (Phoenix); 4. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia); 5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee).
Preseason prediction: Luka Doncic (Dallas)
Jokic averaged 26.4 points, 10.8 rebounds, 8.3 assists per game and shot 38.8 percent on 3-pointers to deliver dreamlike statistical diversity for a big man, and rightfully ranked as the M.V.P. favorite for some time. He was also one of just 11 players this season to appear in all 72 games, dodging the injury hex and coronavirus intrusions that affected so many fellow stars, including the Nuggets’ Jamal Murray, in a season rife with postponements and challenges.
With Embiid missing 21 games, and Paul having a dramatic impact on a team that had missed the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons but without the accompaniment of gaudy statistics, Jokic appeared well positioned to become the lowest-drafted (No. 41 overall in 2014) M.V.P. in league history.
Then, in the season’s final days, I and many others got swept up in Curry’s remarkable ride to a scoring title (32 points per game) that made him the oldest player, at 33, to win one since Michael Jordan at 35 in 1997-98. Without the injured Klay Thompson on an otherwise offensively challenged team, Curry was swarmed by defenses like never before but still managed to sink a league-best 337 3-pointers and lead the Warriors to a 37-26 record (equal to a 48-win pace in a typical 82-game season) when in uniform.
If he prevails in the real-life M.V.P. race, Curry would be just the second player since Moses Malone in 1981-82 to win the award on a team that fell shy of 50 wins (or the shortened-season equivalent). Russell Westbrook was the last to do it in 2016-17, when he averaged a triple-double for the first time for 47-win Oklahoma City. Chances are Curry won’t finish higher than second because of Golden State’s struggles, but this race is as complex and layered as the season itself.
The list of worthy candidates is so long that Doncic, Portland’s Damian Lillard, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard, Miami’s Jimmy Butler, Utah’s Rudy Gobert and the Knicks’ Julius Randle are bound to be left off many ballots since there are only five openings.
Coach of the Year
Tom Thibodeau, Knicks
Rest of the ballot: 2. Monty Williams (Phoenix); 3. Quin Snyder (Utah)
Preseason prediction: Steve Nash, Nets
Philadelphia was the East’s No. 6 seed last season. The 76ers hired Doc Rivers as their head coach and, with a few notable roster tweaks, posted the best record in the conference for the first time since the Allen Iverson-led Sixers did so in 2000-1.
Rivers isn’t the only one responsible for Philadelphia’s rise, but the utter lack of buzz he is generating in this season’s coach of the year race shows the depth of the field. Thibodeau, Williams and Snyder all have tremendous cases, with Williams named on Monday as the National Basketball Coaches Association coach of the year in balloting by his peers.
I expect Thibodeau to (narrowly) beat Williams in the news media vote after achieving one of the hardest things in coaching in Year 1 at Madison Square Garden — changing the Knicks’ culture with his relentless drive and attention to defensive detail. Thibodeau backers like to amplify their support by pointing out how much the Knicks overachieved with such a star-shy roster, finishing fourth in the East, but Williams’ bid shouldn’t be downgraded, as some say, because he could lean so hard on Chris Paul. I contend that it strengthens Williams’s bid that his presence helped persuade Paul to push to be traded to Phoenix from Oklahoma City, rather than to the Knicks, so that he could reunite with Williams, who coached him in New Orleans.
There isn’t even room on the three-spot ballot to recognize the jobs done by Rivers, Memphis’s Taylor Jenkins, Atlanta’s Nate McMillan and Nash, who had his three best Nets (Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving) together on the floor for a whopping 202 minutes in his first year.
Rookie of the Year
LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
Rest of the ballot: 2. Anthony Edwards (Minnesota); 3. Tyrese Haliburton (Sacramento)
Preseason prediction: Deni Avdija (Washington)
Ball’s all-around play, for a team that unexpectedly contended for a top-six spot in the Eastern Conference until losing Gordon Hayward to injury, was the clincher. He averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game and, amid great skepticism regarding his shooting stroke, proved passable from the field (43.6 percent) and 3-point range (35.2 percent).
Ball then addressed the biggest hole in his résumé by returning from fracturing his right wrist on March 20 to play in Charlotte’s last 10 games, ultimately taking part in 71 percent of the Hornets’ season. Had he not returned, Ball would have played in only 57 percent of Charlotte’s games, which would have been the lowest availability rate ever for a rookie of the year. Patrick Ewing’s 60 percent (50 out of 82 games) for the Knicks in the 1985-86 season is the lowest.
The extra games can only help Ball in his bid to hold off Edwards. In the second half of the season, when the Timberwolves went 16-20 after a dreadful a 7-29 start, Edwards averaged 23.8 points per game and shot 45.4 percent from the field, inspiring loud support from fans who felt Ball was prematurely anointed the winner.
Most Improved Player
Julius Randle, Knicks
Rest of the ballot: 2. Michael Porter Jr. (Denver); 3. Jerami Grant (Detroit)
Preseason prediction: Christian Wood (Houston)
This is our one layup. Randle is unlikely to receive enough All-N.B.A. or M.V.P. votes to satiate rabid fans who suddenly see him as Knicks royalty, but he should be a runaway M.I.P. selection. He and Jokic were the only players to amass at least 1,600 points, 700 rebounds and 400 assists this season.
As covered in our recent piece on Randle, his jump to 41.1 percent on 3-pointers this season from 27.7 percent in 2019-20 — in his seventh pro season — has no N.B.A. precedent. Randle has likewise flourished as a playmaker whose decision-making and versatility have lifted those around him and enabled the Knicks to be just functional enough offensively to make the most of their fourth-ranked defense.
Porter Jr., Grant, Wood and Dallas’s Jalen Brunson made telling leaps, too, but the Knicks could have not have become as unexpectedly viable as they did if Randle didn’t first transform himself so dramatically.
Sixth Man Award
Joe Ingles, Utah Jazz
Rest of the ballot: 2. Jordan Clarkson (Utah); 3. Derrick Rose (Knicks)
Preseason prediction: Caris LeVert (Indiana; began the season as a Nets reserve)
In yet another anomaly in a season oozing with oddities, Utah (Clarkson and Ingles) and Dallas (Tim Hardaway Jr. and Jalen Brunson) each have two top reserves — possibly the four best reserves beyond Rose — to make settling on a top three trickier than usual.
Clarkson averaged a heady 18.4 points per game, but Ingles nudged into my top spot because of his combination of excellent shooting (48.9 percent from the field and 45.1 percent on 3-pointers), offensive versatility and success as a fill-in starter when Utah faced injuries.
Rather than trying to choose between the two Mavericks for one remaining spot, I went with Rose at No. 3 in a nod to the Knicks’ 24-11 record with Rose in uniform after acquiring him from Detroit. That also gave him the edge over the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, Chicago’s Thaddeus Young and Indiana’s T.J. McConnell.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert (Utah)
Rest of the ballot: 2. Draymond Green (Golden State); 3. Ben Simmons (Philadelphia)
Preseason prediction: Anthony Davis (Los Angeles Lakers)
Perhaps I am falling prey to recency bias, but I can’t remember a season when even the D.P.O.Y. ballot was teeming with this many options. Maybe it’s a function of how much attention league observers and curators of advanced statistics are paying to defensive matters these days, judging by the lobbying in recent weeks for Green, Simmons, Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Atlanta’s Clint Capela and Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday.
Yet this, once again, is Gobert’s domain; look for him to be named D.P.O.Y. for the third time in four seasons. While Coach Quin Snyder was revamping the Jazz’s offense to commit more to 3-point shooting, Gobert kept them in the league’s top three in defensive efficiency.
He also missed only one game in a season in which Utah, because of long stretches without Donovan Mitchell and Mike Conley, needed his durability to finish with the best record in the league for the first time.
The Scoop @TheSteinLine
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You ask; I answer. Every week in this space, I’ll field three questions posed via email at [email protected]. Please include your first and last name, as well as the city you’re writing in from, and make sure “Corner Three” is in the subject line.
(Questions may be condensed or lightly edited for clarity.)
Q: Good player, many clutch moments, seems like an awesome guy — and incredibly fortunate to have played with great players and for great coaches. All that can be true, while still recognizing that Robert Horry is not a Hall of Fame player. — @MikeMcCullochAZ from Twitter
Stein: During his Hall of Fame induction on Saturday night, the longtime Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich lobbied for Robert Horry’s enshrinement. I posted Rudy T’s plea on Twitter and there was no shortage of resistance to the idea, because Horry averaged just 7 points and 4.8 rebounds per game in his 16 N.B.A. seasons.
Horry’s case, though, cannot be so readily dismissed. He amassed seven N.B.A. championship rings, with three franchises, as one of the finest role players in league history. Those who played with and coached him, like Tomjanovich, insist that he delivered so much more than the two mammoth 3-pointers he is best known for, which essentially made two of those titles possible: a buzzer-beater for the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2002 Western Conference finals against the Sacramento Kings that kept Los Angeles from a presumably fatal 3-1 series deficit; and a 3-pointer for the San Antonio Spurs in overtime of Game 5 of the 2005 N.B.A. finals to seal a series-turning victory against Detroit.
After that masterpiece against the Pistons, I wrote a column proclaiming Horry to be the No. 1 role player in league history. He hadn’t scored in the first half but finished with 21 points, mitigating the damage from the six consecutive free throws that Tim Duncan, who just entered the Hall of Fame alongside Tomjanovich, clanked in the fourth quarter.
Almost every year, there’s a discussion about how Rajon Rondo becomes Playoff Rondo after sleepy regular seasons. Although he has his own catchy moniker, Big Shot Rob, Horry was Playoff Rondo years before anyone was clever enough to use a nickname to spotlight the tendency. In 1994-95, he averaged 10.2 points per game during the regular season but 17.8 points and 10 rebounds per game in Houston’s four-game finals sweep of Shaquille O’Neal’s Orlando Magic.
Ben Wallace, announced on Sunday as a member of the Hall’s 2021 class, won the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times but was passed over for induction until his fifth year of eligibility, likely because of his minuscule career scoring average of 5.7 points per game. Apart from a spot on the 1992-93 all-rookie team, Horry’s Basketball Reference page is far more barren than Wallace’s when it comes to individual honors. Perhaps he will never overcome the pedestrian nature of his career statistics to get that Hall of Fame call, but know this: Tomjanovich is far from the only one of Horry’s former colleagues who thinks he belongs in Springfield.
Q: If more than one team finishes the season with the same record, do they have the same odds in the draft lottery? For example: If four teams tied with the league’s worst record, would they all have the same odds to land the No. 1 overall pick? — Chezky Krasner (Jerusalem, Israel)
Stein: No. The league conducts tiebreakers, via a drawing overseen by a representative from Ernst & Young, when teams finish with identical records. The winner of the tiebreaker gets the higher draft pick or the higher placement in the lottery standings. The draft is July 29.
There are several ties that the league will need to break in this manner, most crucially between Cleveland (22-50) and Oklahoma City (22-50) to see which team will have the fourth- and fifth-highest odds in the June 22 draft lottery. The Cavaliers and the Thunder will each get 115 number combinations, with one chosen at random to break the tie.
Also to be decided in tiebreakers that are scheduled for May 25:
Chicago (which owes its first-round pick to Orlando as part of the Nikola Vucevic trade) finished in a three-way tie for the No. 8 overall selection with New Orleans and Sacramento at 31-41.
Charlotte and San Antonio (33-39) will have a tiebreaker draw if both teams lose this week in the play-in tournament.
The Knicks and Atlanta (41-31) will need a tiebreaker to determine the Nos. 19 and 20 picks.
There is a three-way tie for the No. 21 draft slot between the Los Angeles Lakers, Portland (which owes its first-round pick to Houston as part of the Robert Covington trade) and Dallas (which owes its first-rounder to the Knicks as part of the Kristaps Porzingis trade).
Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers (47-25) will need a tiebreaker to determine the Nos. 25 and 26.
Q: Your recent commentary on the play-in round almost persuaded me, but I can’t help but be very sympathetic to No. 7 teams whose records are quite a bit better than the other teams in the play-in round. Your point about how No. 7 seeds don’t win N.B.A. championships doesn’t change the fact that fans of those teams deserve to see their teams in the playoffs even if they have minimal hope of winning it all. — Simon Rosenblum (Toronto)
Stein: This is a common retort to those, like me, who love the play-in concept. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing, but I just don’t see the No. 7 seed in either conference as some sacred thing we have to protect.
The No. 7 seed, even in a scenario like you describe with a record far superior to Nos. 8 to 10, gets two chances to win one play-in game to claim a playoff spot. The system still skews heavily in No. 7’s favor, while also making the regular season infinitely more interesting and competitive as teams strain to finish no lower than No. 6.
As for this season, injuries are the only reason that the defending champion Lakers slipped to No. 7. Anthony Davis missed 36 games, and LeBron James missed 27 after the shortest off-season (71 days) in N.B.A. history. I expect no one outside of Phoenix will pick the Suns, one of just two 50-win teams in this 72-game season, to beat the Lakers in the first round if the Lakers beat Golden State on Wednesday to get the seventh seed.
Judging by what the oddsmakers in Las Vegas are saying, they will be the scariest No. 7 seed in N.B.A. history, rather than a team at risk for an unjust early exit this week. Only the Nets have shorter championship odds.
Home teams won 54.4 percent of the time this season, going 293-247 (.543) in the East and 294-246 (.544) in the West. It’s the lowest success rate for home teams in league history, dipping below last season’s 55.1 percent.
This was the eighth consecutive season in which home teams won less than 60 percent of the time, according to Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press.
The empty arenas and reduced crowds mandated by league health and safety restrictions have been regularly cited as contributing factors in the further erosion of home-court advantage this season. But as the season progressed, home teams gradually got better at dealing with the baseball-style series in which teams hosted the same opponent in two consecutive games to reduce travel.
Home teams won both games 27 times in 84 such series, lost both games 16 times and settled for a split 41 times, according to Ben Falk of Cleaning the Glass. Of the 41 splits, home teams won the first game and lost the second 17 times, and won the second game after losing the first 24 times. Additional time in one city and the increased familiarity resulting from two consecutive games against the same foe were expected to greatly help visiting teams in this scenario.
Two teams posted a losing record at home and a winning record on the road: Indiana (13-23 at home; 21-15 on the road) and San Antonio (14-22 at home; 19-17 on the road). Memphis nearly joined them but rallied to win its last four games at FedEx Forum to finish 18-18 at home compared to 20-16 on the road. The Toronto Raptors, in their temporary home in Tampa, Fla., because of Canada’s pandemic restrictions, were in a category by themselves. They were 16-20 in Tampa, and 11-25 on the road.
Phoenix fell one game shy of the league’s best record, going 51-21 to Utah’s 52-20, but the Suns went 27-11 against .500-or-better opposition to lead the league. Seven other teams had winning records against .500-or-better foes: Utah (24-14), the Nets (23-13), Dallas (22-16), Denver (21-17), the Los Angeles Clippers (21-17), Philadelphia (19-17) and Milwaukee (19-17).
Hit me up anytime on Twitter (@TheSteinLine) or Facebook (@MarcSteinNBA) or Instagram (@thesteinline). Send any other feedback to [email protected].
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