I haven’t published a single NBA piece since October. I say published because I’ve had something else written since Thanksgiving, that’s unfinished, but I intend to publish at a later time. I could have written something during the All-Star break. Chose not to. No reason to. I’ve seen a LOT of basketball over the last 6 months. More than I’ve ever watched in my life. I’ve come to a conclusion on what it all meant.
The NBA is the best league in the world. Point blank. Period.
It’s unpredictable. The top two seeds in the Eastern Conference (Miami Heat & Indiana Pacers) missed the Playoffs. And, the Oklahoma City Thunder, in the NBA Finals two years ago, and Western Conference Finals just last year, have missed the Playoffs as well. Last two years, the Golden State Warriors have locked up the 6th seed in the Western Conference Death March. This year? No significant roster additions, and the 1 seed. And it isn’t even close. The Atlanta Hawks. Marred by racist ownership and management and the team up for sale, the team got Al Horford back and they’ve become dubbed the Spurs East. From 8th in a horrible Eastern Conference to 1st. And, like the Warriors, it isn’t even close.
Its athletes are the best in the world. And they’re in numbers. Right now, the NBA class is the most athleticism across 30 teams I’ve ever seen. Granted, I’ve not been alive as long as others. LeBron James, even at 30 years of age, is punishing opponents with his incredible athletic prowess. Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Blake Griffin, Russell Westbrook, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kyrie Irving, so on and so forth.
You can like NFL, NHL, Premier League, MLB or otherwise better. That’s fine. You’re going to like what you’re going to like. But you’re wrong if you don’t agree that the NBA is the best in the world.
Also, in the last 6 months, I’ve learned that making predictions is a dangerous because, as I said above, this league is unpredictable. And guess what I’m going to do now? I’m going to make predictions! The likelihood of me being right on any of these is very, very low. Let’s start with the awards and All-NBA teams.
Coach of the Year
You can go several ways on this one. There were some really good coaches this season. Honorable mentions before I tell the winner and the runner ups: Jason Kidd, Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Kevin McHale, Doc Rivers & Quin Snyder.
Runner Ups: 3. Mike Budenholzer, 2. Gregg Popovich
Winner: 1. Steve Kerr
Mike Budenholzer navigated the Atlanta Hawks to one of the better NBA regular seasons and finished well above the Cleveland Cavaliers who have destroyed through everyone who dare stand in their way since mid-January. Budenholzer, from Popovich’s school of Demented Coaches, has made sure that every single person who plays for the Hawks in a game has a role. Much like the Spurs, turning the sub-par into the excellent. All it took was the Hawks getting their star Center, Al Horford, back from the torn pectoral muscle he sustained last season. And even beyond that, the Hawks have faced adversity since the start of the season. Their owner claiming he said something racist and, essentially, said he’d sell the team he’s been trying to sell for the longest time. Then General Manager Danny Ferry hops on the racist train and berates Luol Deng (who was a Free Agency target of the Hawks before choosing the Miami Heat). Through everything, he managed to keep this team’s head on straight and ignore the racism — no matter how little the issue ended up becoming — and made it look insignificant by winning 60 games and hold the best record against the Western Conference of any team in the East. Job well done, Mike. Job well done.
What more can you really say about Gregg Popovich. He’s the NBA’s best coach by a thousand miles. He took on several injuries to Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter, Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard and still finished on fire in the NBA. They won 14 of their last 16 all anchored by Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard. Finished 2nd (behind Golden State) in Defensive Efficiency, & 7th in Offensive Efficiency. Not much left to say. He continues to coach these guys to success. By the way, the Spurs getting the 6th seed isn’t an indictment on Pop or the Spurs, it’s just that the Western Conference is pretty much a Hell in a Cell match. the winner escapes the cage and are bleeding all over with a belt that is seemingly meaningless, over their shoulder while the Eastern Conference is a simple, fixated Steel Cage match. Damage done, but you walk out relatively unscathed.
I want a public record of the folks who said that Steve Kerr was crazy for turning down the Knicks job. As you can see, he picked the better roster over long-term future. Although, NOBODY could have seen this kind of success. 67 wins as a rookie coach. It’s like Steve Kerr is on the Bulls all over again. 1st in Defensive Efficiency, and SOMEHOW, only finished 2nd in Offensive Efficiency (behind the Clippers). And yes, you could mount the argument that he hired Alvin Gentry as an assistant and Gentry had large success running a fast and gunning offensive system back when he was coaching Steve Nash in Phoenix, but Kerr has flipped the culture in that locker room. Mark Jackson did a serviceable job. But Bogut, seemingly now appears to have hated Jackson and along with that, Coach Jackson was pissing management off, and throwing assistant coaches to the file room and whatever. Kerr has made the locker room fun. No, we’re not in there, but you can tell by the way they play and the way Kerr rarely gets angry at anything his players do and his lax policy on resting players. There are several stats out there that show that the Warriors could absolutely dominate every one they play in the Playoffs. But the biggest one that shows their dominance? Steph Curry hasn’t played in the 4th Quarter, NINETEEN TIMES this season.
Most Improved Player
You can pick several players for this depending on how you define, “Most Improved”. I’m going to leave out Jimmy Butler and that’s awful because he was great until post-January. Also, I’m leaving out Draymond Green which hurts because he’s been an absolute freaking joy to watch this season. So here it goes:
Runner ups: 3. Harrison Barnes, 2. Rudy Gobert
Winner: 1. Hassan Whiteside
Yes, Harrison Barnes has great teammates. But he’s made a good amount of leaps towards improvement. Confined to the bench last season and not really a big player in Mark Jackson’s plan for the Warriors, he’s been aided by Steve Kerr’s vote of confidence by sticking him into the starting 5 and keeping him there despite Draymond Green’s surge and David Lee being the highest paid player on the team (yes, really).
2013-14 Season: 9.5 PPG, 4 RPG, 39% FG, 34% 3-Point FG, 105 Defensive Rating
2014-15 Season: 10.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 48% FG, 40% 3-point FG, 104 Defensive Rating
He’s likely to not get any run or consideration in Most Improved Player, but I mean, looking at those numbers on a team where it’s about Curry & Thompson, that’s pretty solid improvement, most of all in his shooting. There should be consideration at the very least.
Nobody had really heard of Rudy Gobert coming into this season. He was riding the bench behind Enes Kanter. Since then, he dominated and forcibly took Kanter’s starting spot from him (which also led to Kanter throwing a temper tantrum and forcing his way out of Utah to OKC), and also developed a sweet nickname: The Stifle Tower, because he’s French and what have you.
2013-14 Season: 2.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 0.9 BPG, 48% FG, 104 Defensive Rating
2014-15 Season 8.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG, 60% FG, 98 Defensive Rating
Unlike Barnes, Gobert is likely to get a lot of consideration. He played on a bad (but sneakily improving) Jazz team, & earned his starting spot by being leaps and bounds better at defense than Enes Kanter. Gobert has all the tools to improve on offensive and could likely be back in this conversation next year.
Hassan Whiteside’s story is nothing short of a basketball miracle. He was drafted in 2011 by the Sacramento Kings. After that, he floated around between the Kings and the Kings’ D-League Affiliate before falling out of the NBA altogether. His career looks like this:
Sacramento Kings, Reno Bighorns, Sioux Falls Skyforce, Rio Grande Valley Vipers, Lebanon, China, Lebanon, China, Iowa Energy before coming back to the NBA when, because of injuries, Pat Riley and company took a risk on a kid that had maturity issues and who’s skills lacked translation into the NBA. But again, because of injuries and because he was 7 feet tall. He got his shot to contribute to a bad Miami Heat team.
2013-14 Season: OUT OF THE NBA
2014-15 Season: 11.8 PPG, 10 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 62% FG, 97 Defensive Rating
This is an incredibly great story. Yes, people might vote elsewhere. Yes, people might vote elsewhere because Whiteside got into that brawl with Alex Len and got the cheap shot on Kelly Olynyk, but again, he’s still young and is looking like a generational big that the Miami Heat can build around going forward.
Sixth Man of the Year
This one is a fun conversation. It’s not a flame war where everyone is shouting that LeBron is better or Curry/Harden is great. This is a fun conversation. Who contributed most coming off the bench? It’s fairly obvious. I’m not exempting anybody because I feel like there’s only three true candidates here.
Runner ups: 3. Nikola Mirotic, 2. Andre Igoudala
Winner: 1. Lou (LOUUUUUU) Williams
Nikola Mirotic was called the LeBron James of Europe before finally coming over to the United States to play for the Chicago Bulls, who just happened to end up with his draft rights after being traded from the Rockets (who originally drafted him in 2011) and then from the Timberwolves and ultimately landing in Chicago. Mirotic hasn’t shown that great talent that he was known for during his time with Real Madrid in Spain, but his skills have translated better, probably better than most thought they would immediately. I guess it helped he had Spanish National teammate, Pau Gasol there to guide him and help him transition better. During times where Jimmy Butler, Derrick Rose & Taj Gibson were hurt, and Pau Gasol and Noah had run out of gas, Mirotic through the team on his back for the time being and erupted. He didn’t shoot particularly well, but he got the job done. What he’s gone through this season is something that’s rarely asked of rookies in the NBA.
Think about what I’m about to say from an outside perspective. You’ve never watched basketball before this year. Andre Igoudala makes $12.8 million dollars this year. You would think he’s a superstar player, right? Wrong. He’s adopted the bench and led the team whenever he’s been out there. He has provided a great amount defensive energy when needed and often times, when not needed. Took a hit in offensive numbers, but he’s been incredibly valuable to this franchise when they needed him most. Not many players making $12.8 million in a single season would be very willing to take that 6th Man role. Crazy thing is… Igoudala isn’t the only guy on that team you can consider for 6th Man of the Year. You could easily consider Marreese Speights and David Lee as 6th Man. But yes, Igoudala has been so important for the Warriors massive success and yields votes.
Lou (LOUUUUU) Williams has a reputation as a chucker. He’s like Kobe Bryant. He’ll chuck shots up because he has high confidence. However, I’ve seen enough Toronto Raptors games this season that if it weren’t for the bench contributions from one Lou Williams, the Raptors would have drowned. Not out of the playoffs completely — their talent level is way too high and the East is too bad — but at least fighting for that 8th and 7th seed. It’s been a year filled with high expectations for the Raptors. From the 3rd seed last season, to possible Eastern Conference Finals contenders, back down to possible 1st Round elimination. Lou has helped them a great deal giving a solid 15.5 points per game. He’s been so good for the Raptors this year that Raptors fan (since 2013-14), Drake, made a song about him. Lou is an Unrestricted Free Agent this summer and will demand a lot of money wherever he signs. If he stays consistent throughout the playoffs, or maybe even improve, the Raptors would be a fool to let him walk.
Defensive Player of the Year
This is quite simply, in the new age of analytics and basketball in general, the second most important award in the NBA. Even though, in the thick of things, these things don’t matter. Honorable mentions in this category: Rudy Gobert, Tim Duncan, DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, & DeMarre Carroll.
Runner ups: 3. Andrew Bogut, 2. Draymond Green
Winner: 1. Kawhi Leonard
97 Defensive Rating. Andrew Bogut is the defensive anchor for the Warriors. He gets injured, things don’t fall apart, but their defensive performance suffers. He, like Andre Igoudala, is massively important to the Warriors success. The success of a team doesn’t exactly hinge on the acquisition of a rim protector, but you might want to have one anyway. Teams like the Pacers and Spurs pride themselves on having rim protectors and use it to their advantage. Bogut’s defense has always been a strength of his. In fact, he’s so good, it doesn’t even matter that his offensive game is just decent at best. Provided he not get injured, he’s going to be of great help.
Draymond Green, starting from Game 6 and 7 of last season’s series against the Clippers, has emerged has one of the NBA’s biggest bargains. At a salary of $915,243 and a Defensive Rating of 97, he’s headed for unrestricted Free Agency this summer where he’ll end up with $13 million a year or more in pocket. He’s become one of the more defensively exciting players in the NBA and as a basketball nerd, I get giddy watching him at his best.
Forgive me for not having the exact statistic, but since the San Antonio Spurs traded for Kawhi Leonard on Draft Day 2011, the Spurs have only lost NINE times when Kawhi is in the starting lineup. Zero chance that a player who has done all this, is a product of the Popovich system.
Season stats: 16.5 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.3 SPG, with a 96 (!!!!!!) Defensive Rating.
It’s not crazy to say that Kawhi is the best perimeter defender in the NBA right now. He’s playing out of his mind defense right now and aside from shooting percentage, he’s posting career high’s in all categories. While they’re not the best defensive duo in the NBA (Bogut-Green, Hayward-Gobert, Gortat-Wall, are better but not by much), but when Duncan and Kawhi are on the floor at the same time, their defensive rating is 97.4.
While defenders are getting better and better every year in the NBA, it’s amazing that the Spurs are still among the best examples when it comes to defense.
Rookie of the Year
This year’s rookie class were all demolished with injuries. Jabari Parker looked to begin to be running away with this award before tragically tearing his ACL. He was doing everything right on that young Bucks team and the game had slowed down for him. While this draft class was touted as the best draft class since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade & Carmelo Anthony draft, only 3 of the Top 10 picks managed to impress this season due to either injuries or growing pains and in some cases, both. The three rookies that impressed from the ’14 class: Elfrid Payton, Marcus Smart & Andrew Wiggins. My honorable mentions will fall onto Elfrid Payton & Marcus Smart.
Runner ups: 3. Nikola Mirotic, 2. Andrew Wiggins
Winner: 1. Nerlens Noel
Drafting a European player and stashing him away for when he’s ready to come over to the NBA is a high risk. Doing this as an executive, you have to have an astounding amount of patience, a little luck and a set of balls. Especially when you’re trying to build for the future. So in 2011, when the leading voice for analytics, Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, drafted Nikola Mirotic, had to think something good would come of this whenever Mirotic would decide to enter the NBA. However, he didn’t wait that long. He flipped his draft rights to the Minnesota Timberwolves to acquire, now useful big man, Donatas Motiejuanas. Then disgraced Timberwolves General Manager, David Khan, didn’t even wait that long. He flipped the draft rights to the Chicago Bulls. That was all in the same year. So while the Bulls were building and marching towards an NBA Finals appearance while rivaling the Miami Heat, little did they know, that the draft stash guy they traded for was a gem, waiting in the wings. Yes, the Bulls failed miserably in trying to rival a LeBron James-led team, and still failing, by the way, but Mirotic choosing to come over this year couldn’t have worked out better for the Bulls. He’s been available and ready at every angle.
Season stats: 10.2 PPG, 5 RPG, 40% FG, 31% 3-point FG, 111 Offensive Rating.
LeBron James came home and decided that he gets to run the show. He preached patience from the fans because building a Championship team would be process with Dion Waiters, Kyrie Irving & Tristan Thompson. He decided to forgo practicing what he preached and got right in the thick of things by trading Andrew Wiggins to the Timberwolves for, then, unhappy Kevin Love. He had built, what he thought, would win now (before going 19-20 and eventually trading for JR Smith, Iman Shumpert & Timofey Mozgov). Andrew Wiggins then developed a chip on his shoulder. A Kobe Bryant sized chip. Flip Saunders, while criticized as a coach, has done a low key solid job as an executive. He’s drafted well thus far (Dieng, & LaVine) and got significant return for Kevin Love in Andrew Wiggins. Unfortunately, Flip Saunders’ plan to at least contend for the playoffs didn’t play out as he thought. Injuries quickly ravaged the team and everything fell apart. But for Wiggins, it was an opportunity for him to play extended minutes to show what he can do. He managed well. He didn’t do some things well, but that’s why he’s a rookie. He showed more promise than expected.
Season stats: 16.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 43% FG, 31% 3-point FG
On most draft boards coming into the draft of 2013, Nerlens Noel was #1 or #2. Didn’t quite turn out that way. He fell to 6 overall and got picked up by the New Orleans Hornets. We all thought the Noel/Davis pairing would be great and exciting. Didn’t work out that way and needless to say, the Philadelphia 76ers, got lucky. The Hornets, soon to be Pelicans, wanted to skip further rebuild and build around Anthony Davis, fast. So New Orleans management found the package that would entice the Sixers. They received Jrue Holiday and Noel was headed to Philly. The Sixers, as a whole, were going to begin to undergo a painful rebuilding process that consisted of tons of patience, stock piling draft picks (in both rounds), and drafting smartly. Sam Hinkie is no idiot, and while the franchise currently has no direction, it looks like Noel and Embiid are the guys Hinkie wants to lead the way.
Season stats: 9.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 46% FG, 99 Defensive Rating
Most Valuable Player
Finally. You happy now? The only award you’re reading this for. I’d say the majority of people who watch the NBA, don’t care about any awards that’s not the MVP. I’d say it’s 52/48 of people who care about the MVP only vs people who like to see who wins other awards. There are only 5 legitimate cases for MVP. And all 5 of them could be MVP. Even my honorable mention could have won MVP if that unfortunate thing called not making the playoffs happened. And yes, my honorable mention is Russell Westbrook, the 2014-15 NBA scoring champion.
Runner ups: 5. LeBron James, 4. Chris Paul
3. Anthony Davis
2. James Harden
Winner: 1. Steph Curry.
First, Season splits:
LeBron James: 25.3 PPG, 6 RPG, 7.4 APG, 48% FG, 112 Offensive Rating
Chris Paul: 19.1 PPG, 10.2 APG, 48% FG, 126 (!!!!!) Offensive Rating, 105 Defensive Rating
Anthony Davis: 24.3 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 1.5 SPG, 2.9 BPG, 53% FG, 122 Offensive Rating, 100 Defensive Rating
James Harden: 27.4 PPG, 7 APG, 5.7 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 44% FG, 37.5% 3-point FG, 118 Offensive Rating
Steph Curry: 23.8 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2 SPG, 48% FG, 44% 3-point FG, 122 Offensive Rating, 101 Defensive Rating
Chris Paul is an underrated name, but considering how he put the Clippers on his back when Blake Griffin went out with a staph infection, and still put up consistent assists and points, is great. That stretch without Blake is what gives CP3 all of the consideration. LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA and that, ALONE, gives LeBron consideration. But when you start to throw out his numbers, they’re still really damn impressive and he, and Kyrie to a degree, saved the Cavs season from complete calamity.
Anthony Davis was simply a beast. I don’t think it’s crazy to put him as one of the 5 best players currently in the NBA. This playoffs is a coming out party for Anthony Davis. There’s a good chance he captures America’s Heart. And it helps he’s incredibly likable, has that unibrow AND is the underdog. Good person, unique look & underdog. All checks off. That’s the formula to be loved in sports.
James Harden vs Steph Curry is the analytical, nerd speak, 2015 equivalent of Kobe Bryant vs Steve Nash. You have the elusive point guard who has a smooth, beautiful shot and can do amazing things on the court and puts up impressive numbers. Then you have the volume scoring Shooting Guard who can get his own shot and drop 50 points on any given night. There’s one glaring difference between James Harden and Kobe Bryant. Harden passed the ball more. There’s one glaring difference between Steph Curry and Steve Nash. Curry plays really good defense. However, there’s an argument that James Harden should get MVP simply because he led the Rockets to greatness when the Rockets lost Dwight Howard for most of the season because of a knee injury, and that if you put Curry on the Rockets, the Rockets would fall to the 6th, 7th, maybe 8th seed and if you put Harden on the Warriors, the Warriors are still the #1 seed in the West. That’s simply not true. There’s a statistic that destroys that argument completely: The Warriors are +11 when Curry is on the floor, while the Rockets are only +6 when James Harden is on the floor. If you don’t know what that means, basically, what I’m saying is… Curry is more valuable to the Warriors than Harden is to Houston in most overall statistics. This doesn’t discredit what Harden has done, because holy crap has he been great. When talking about Steph Curry, you’re talking about the man who has been the best player on the best team, consistently all while being more VALUABLE. Which is the name of the award.
All NBA Teams
Time to figure out who the best players in the NBA were this year. This is also fun.
All Rookie 2nd Team
G Marcus Smart
G Langston Galloway
F Rodney Hood
F Bojan Bogdanovic
C Jusuf Nurkic
All Rookie 1st Team:
G Jordan Clarkson
G Elfrid Payton
F Nikola Mirotic
F Andrew Wiggins
C Nerlens Noel
All Defensive 2nd Team:
G Chris Paul
G Danny Green
F Tony Allen
F Anthony Davis
C Rudy Gobert
All Defensive 1st Team:
G Steph Curry
G Jimmy Butler
F Kawhi Leonard
F Draymond Green
C Andrew Bogut
All NBA 3rd Team:
G Kyrie Irving
G Jimmy Butler
F Paul Millsap
F Blake Griffin
C Al Horford
All NBA 2nd Team:
G Chris Paul
G Russell Westbrook
F Kawhi Leonard
F LaMarcus Aldridge
C Marc Gasol
All NBA 1st Team:
G Steph Curry
G James Harden
F LeBron James
F Anthony Davis
C Tim Duncan
4,000 some words later and here we are at the Prediction part of the column. The playoff match ups are interesting to say the least. The two most interesting: Spurs vs Clippers; Mavericks vs Rockets. Every thing else falls short of exciting. But it doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting. All playoff games are watchable except, of course, Nets vs Hawks (lets pray Hawks end that series in 4 games).
Things to look out for: Damian Lillard, Playoff Rondo, and how many almost fights happen.
Eastern Conference – Round 1
1 Hawks vs 8 Nets – Hawks in 4
4 Raptors vs 5 Wizards – Wizards in 7
2 Cavaliers vs 7 Celtics – Cavaliers in 5
3 Bulls vs 6 Bucks – Bulls in 6
Western Conference – Round 1
1 Warriors vs 8 Pelicans – Warriors in 5
4 Grizzlies vs 5 Blazers – Blazers in 6
2 Rockets vs 7 Mavericks – Mavericks in 7
3 Clippers vs 6 Spurs – Clippers in 7
Eastern Conference Semi-Finals
1 Hawks vs 5 Wizards – Hawks in 5
2 Cavaliers vs 3 Bulls – Cavaliers in 5
Western Conference Semi-Finals
1 Warriors vs 5 Blazers – Warriors in 5
3 Clippers vs 7 Mavericks – Clippers in 6
Eastern Conference Finals
1 Hawks vs 2 Cavaliers – Hawks in 7
1 Warriors vs 3 Clippers – Warriors in 6
Hawks vs Warriors – Warriors in 6
My pre-season predictions were terrible. My original prediction of Bulls vs Spurs is still in play, I might add. But I had Blake Griffin as pre-season MVP. And while nobody will ever get all their picks right in this league, it doesn’t really matter. It’s been an absolute joy to watch this season thanks to League Pass. Crazy how none (except one) of the best games of the year took place on national TV this season. That Mavericks vs Bulls Double OT thriller is the one that sticks out in my head right now.
It was reported today that the NBA salary cap, in Summer of 2016, will shoot up from $67.1 million to $89 million and then Summer of 2017, could reach up to $108 million. All the thanks to the new NBA TV deal that was finalized earlier this season. Add that along with the new jersey deal that’s rumored to be completed soon with Nike, and the business of the NBA is strong at the moment. Owners and players alike are just diving in cash. This isn’t especially good for the small market teams of Utah, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Orlando, etc. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers, who have been trying to spend big to rush their rebuild, will love this news as it gives potential free agents something to think about when picking a new location to play. A condo on Manhattan Beach, tapped with management that will take care you, if you take care of their needs. That’s, obviously, not the only example, because there’s also another good team in Los Angeles called the Clippers.
Enjoy these playoffs. Like every year, they have the potential to be an all-time classic. The greatest game I ever saw was Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. That one will stick with me for a while. Or maybe until this year when one game captures the moment better than that game did. All the awards have been decided. Now all that’s left is to figure how who’s going to be the NBA Champion.
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