Holding Court: The best of the NBA season
About a week from now, the 2013-14 regular season will come to a close, and three days later on April 19, the playoffs will begin.
Except for the final playoff berth in the West, practically nothing of import has yet to be decided. The New York Knicks though still have a mathematical chance of catching Atlanta for the last spot in the East (though the wise money here is that they won’t), and defending champion Miami and Indiana have yet to finally determine who takes the homecourt advantage in the conference. Just like in the Knicks’ case, however, you may be well advised not to bet the rental on the Pacers, who may be pulling off the greatest version of a schizophrenic, bipolar, or Jekyll-and-Hide team ever witnessed in the league yet.
Just consider: At the All-Star break, the Pacers lorded it over the East with a 40-12 record, 2½ games ahead of the 37-14 Heat and just 1½ games behind Oklahoma City, which was then 43-12, for the league’s best record. They were 2½ games ahead of 38-15 San Antonio and 4½ up on both Houston and Portland, which were then tied for third in the West with similar 36-17 marks, as well as the 37-18 LA Clippers. Just seven weeks later, San Antonio and the Clippers have leapfrogged Indiana, and even Miami, before the Heat lost in Memphis this morning to give back the East lead by half a game to Indiana, appears to have the inside track for homecourt advantage throughout the East playoffs if Pacers coach Frank Vogel makes good his threat to go with his second-stringers the rest of the way.
Basketball writer Zach Lowe of Grantland has attributed Indiana’s hideous slide to offensive woes brought about, among others, by poor spacing that has curtailed its ability to get open shots as well as by the lack of a penetrator who can generate drive-and-dish baskets. He says that with Indiana having morphed into a ghastly ghost of an offensive team, where it has scored just 99 points per 100 possessions since early February, the worst in the league next only to Philadelphia, it has also scored 2.5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league’s overall average based on Basketball-Reference’s assessment. This is just like a death knell for the Pacers as a title contender, says Lowe, as only two out of the 136 teams that have reached the conference finals since the introduction of the three-point line in the 1979-80 season have finished that low in that department.
But we’ve digressed far enough here, and before we get totally lost, this piece is really about the best performers of the season, the players and people who have made it possible for their respective teams to perform as they have, the most deserving of the postseason awards in other words.
Here, we take a crack at who will most likely win these awards, guided by what they have done throughout the season short of a week, and why we think they deserve to win those awards. These are by no means written in stone, but let’s just see how close we’d get when the various honors are awarded in the course of the NBA playoffs.
Executive of the Year
This is one of the awards where determining the winner is sometimes difficult simply because you are not guided by numbers (save perhaps for the win-loss record of the candidates’ teams) unlike those given to players. Nonetheless, there are palpable metrics that may be used in trying to find out who did the best front-office job to have helped his team most in the playing court, starting with how the team compares to the previous year’s squad, and this is where it becomes a two-man race between Gary Sacks of the Los Angeles Clippers and Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets.
Sacks, contrary to the Clippers’ history of giving away talent in moves that earned a miserly reputation for owner Donald Sterling, broke tradition with the way he has built this Clippers team, starting with giving a hefty contract to Doc Rivers while making him senior vice president of basketball operations to pry him away from Boston and compensating Boston with an unprotected first-round pick in 2015. He then set out to build the talent pool of the Clippers, acquiring sharpshooter J.J. Redick from Milwaukee and forward Jared Dudley from Phoenix for Eric Bledsoe and Caron Butler.
The moves convinced franchise star Chris Paul the Clips meant business this time, and he signed a five-year extension worth $105.3 million shortly thereafter. But Sacks was not finished; he re-signed forward Matt Barnes to a multi-year deal after that and followed that up with the signing of free agent Darren Collison, aware that Paul needed a capable backup with Bledsoe now in Phoenix. Sacks capped his moves earlier this year by signing veteran free agents Danny Granger, Glen Davis and Hedo Turkoglu to provide the Clippers additional depth.
If there’s any doubt about the strides made by the Clips this year, Paul, Blake Griffin and company put that to rest with an emphatic 142-94 crushing last March 6 of the Lakers, the biggest winning margin in franchise history and the worst defeat ever suffered by their long-time crosstown tormentors.
Morey, meanwhile, may have made the biggest free-agent acquisition of the year by rescuing Dwight Howard from his purgatory in LA with the Lakers. The 6-foot-11 Howard supposedly wanted to play on a team that appreciated him more but it was Morey’s selling of what playing for Houston would mean for him that convinced Howard to sign a multi-year deal with the ballclub.
Morey also added more depth to his team by prying free-agent forward Omri Casspi from Cleveland and re-signing guard Francisco Garcia to a multi-year contract. In addition, Morey correctly resisted the temptation of dealing away former starting center Omer Asik despite his unhappiness with losing his starting spot with the Rockets as well as Jeremy Lin, who himself had been supplanted by defensive guard Patrick Beverly as a starter, with Howard andBeverly having been sidelined for a stretch with various injuries.
The Rockets have already surpassed last year’s record by a full nine games with four games left, and much of the credit should go to Morey and his excellent work at the front office.
Winner – Gary Sacks
Runner-up – Daryl Morey
Honorable mentions – R.C. Buford (San Antonio), Neil Olshey (Portland)
Coach of the Year
There are two ways of deciding who should win this award: look for the coach whose team most exceeded expectations, or find the coach whose team really played to its maximum potential and has done it so often people tend to take it for granted. In this case, we have to include Jeff Hornacek of Phoenix, Tom Thibodeau of Chicago, Dwane Casey of Toronto, Scott Brooks of Oklahoma City and Gregg Popovich of San Antonio on the list of legitimate candidates.
It’s not easy to ignore the job done by Jeff Hornacek as a rookie coach with the Suns. Taking over the helm of a 25-57 club that lost four of its top six scorers last season, Hornacek has steered them to an almost implausible 47-31 record. True, new GM Ryan McDonough (Boston’s former assistant GM) made moves that brought in Eric Bledsoe, Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee, Emeka Okafor and Leandro Barbosa, but these could be considered as lateral moves in the wake of the loss through trades of Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, Luis Scola and Shannon Brown, each of whom accounted for 10 points or more last season, and the season-long sidelining of Okafor due to a herniated disk in his neck as well as that of Bledsoe for much of the campaign. In short, Hornacek got more out of less from his men through a fast-paced style that took full advantage of their talent.
Thibodeau also got much more out of less in Chicago, particularly when Derrick Rose went down (again) for the season after just 10 games because of a torn meniscus in the right knee, and the trade to Cleveland in January of former All-Star Luol Deng. He has made up for these losses through a spread-the-wealth philosophy that’s enabled a diverse group of Joakim Noah, D.J. Augustin, Carlos Boozer, Taj Gibson, Jimmy Butler, Mike Dunleavy and Kirk Hinrich to share the load and, most of all, through that trademark of all Thibodeau-coached teams – a smash-the-mouth defense that ranks No. 1 in the league with just 91.6 points allowed.
Casey, on the other hand, has led Toronto to its second Atlantic Division crown even without its usual top scoring options following the trades of Andrea Bargnani prior to the season and Rudy Gay last December. Under Casey, DeMar DeRozan, a first-time All-Star this year, and players like Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas, Terrence Ross and Amir Johnson have blossomed, turning the Raptors into a solid club that was supposed to be in a rebuild mode into one that’s going into its first playoff in six years.
Brooks, of course, has steered the Thunder admirably into a second straight Northwest Division championship, despite the absence in considerable stretches of All-Star Russell Westbrook (right knee injury), Thabo Sefolosha (calf) and Kendrick Perkins (groin). OKC has had winning streaks of 10, nine and eight games this season, and while it may be true that any team with Kevin Durant will be competitive night in and night out, Brooks’ ability to tinker with his lineup and make adjustments has been vital to the Thunder’s not missing a beat.
And who can overlook Popovich? The 65-year-old Pops might have been 18 years in the Alamo and so has the advantage of familiarity, but even the staunchest of critics would admit this Spurs team has no business winning 60 games, as it already has, while losing just 18 all season long with its Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all pushing 50 (okay, that’s an exaggeration but it seems they’ve been there forever), and notwithstanding the addition of Marco Belinelli and the development of Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills. Why, these Spurs were even able to notch a club-record 19-game winning streak, attesting to the masterful way Popovich has pulled the strings with this squad.
Winner – Gregg Popovich
Runners-up – Jeff Hornacek, Tom Thibodeau, Dwane Casey
Honorable mentions – Scott Brooks, Doc Rivers (LA Clippers), Kevin McHale (Houston)
Most Improved Player
This is a wide-open field, with any of the following players being worthy of the honors if he gets picked: Anthony Davis of New Orleans, DeAndre Jordan of the LA Clippers, Lance Stephenson of Indiana, DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry of Toronto, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic of Phoenix, and Reggie Jackson of Oklahoma City.
Davis, the Pelicans’ first-time All-Star, has improved so much from his rookie year that he’s being touted as the next great big star, literally and figuratively. The 6-10 Davis has averaged 20.8 points, 10.0 rebounds and a league-leading 2.82 blocks for the rebuilding Pelicans, whose loss through much of the season of Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson due to injury has set them back considerably.
Jordan, meanwhile, has also stepped up for coach Doc Rivers, raising his scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and floor-shooting averages to 10.4 points, a league-best 13.8 rebounds, 2.45 blocks and a league-leading .674 clip. The 6-11, 265-pound Jordan has provided the size-starved Clips a much-needed inside presence.
Stephenson, on the other hand, also improved considerably from last year, nearly making it to this year’s All-Star game with averages of 13.8 points, a team-high 4.5 assists and, surprisingly, also a team-leading 7.2 rebounds. The league’s leader in triple-doubles with four, the 6-5 Stephenson has provided Indiana the much-needed toughness in the face of its terrible slide of late.
DeRozan, also a first-time All-Star like Davis, has become the Raptors’ undisputed leader on the court and off as he has come up with norms of 22.8 scores, 4.4 boards, 4.0 feeds and 1.13 steals. His backcourt partner, Lowry, has also come up big with averages of 17.4 points, up almost six over last year’s norm, 4.8 rebs as well as 7.6 dish-offs and 1.58 steals, both team highs.
The 6-8 Green, who as recently as two years ago was on the verge being out of the league, has been one of the bright spots on a resurgent Suns squad, norming 15.8 points, up almost nine from a year ago, 3.4 boards and 1.5 assists while shooting .445 from the floor (.398 from long range) and .840 from the stripes.
The Suns’ top scorer and de facto leader, Dragic, has continued to amaze skeptics with averages of 20.5 points (up almost seven from last year), a team-high 5.9 assists, 3.2 rebs and 1.33 swipes while compiling shooting clips of .508, .417 and .760.
Jackson, a largely overlooked three-year veteran, filled in admirably during Russell Westbrook’s absence as the Thunder continued to roll despite missing half of their 1-2 punch. The 6-3 Jackson has normed 13.3 points, up eight over last year’s norm, 4.2 assists and 4. 0 caroms while shooting .897 from the line, third in the league.
Winner – Anthony Davis.
Runners-up – DeAndre Jordan, Lance Stephenson, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Gerald Green, Goran Dragic, Reggie Jackson.
Honorable mention – Markief Morris (Phoenix), DeMarcus Cousins (Sacramento).
Defensive Player of the Year
This has been a tossup between Joakim Noah of Chicago and Roy Hibbert of Indiana through most of the season, and although guys like DeAndre Jordan of the LA Clippers, Serge Ibaka of Oklahoma City and, believe it or not, Tim Duncan of San Antonio have been solid in their own right, nobody can match the overall effect of Noah and Hibbert on the defensive play of their teams.
Hibbert, before the Pacers’ late-season swoon, had led the Pacers to a league-best 93.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. His team still leads the league in defensive field goal percentage at .419, and is just behind Chicago in points allowed per game at 92.2. The 7-2 Hibbert also ranks fourth in shot blocks with 2.28 per game and is regarded as the top interior defender today despite that Indiana slide, holding opponents to just over 41 percent shooting in almost 10 attempts at the rim per outing based on NBA.com’s Sport VU stats. Hibbert, in addition, has a defensive rating of 98 percent and a defensive win share of 4.9.
On the other hand, Noah’s recent surge in the conversation is anchored on the Bulls’ more impressive play of late as Chicago turned its defense up a notch, giving up less than 96 points per 100 possessions and allowing a league-best average of only 91.6 points per outing while ranking just behind Indiana in defensive field goal percentage at .429. While Noah is not the shot-blocking force that Hibbert is, notching a relatively modest 1.49 blocks per game (12th in the league), he makes up for it with his all-court peskiness that limits rivals to just a .384 floor shooting percentage. His holding opponents down to about 45 percent shooting in more than seven tries at the rim, plus his defensive rating of 96 percent and 6.1 defensive win shares, also makes the 6-11 Noah a big pain on that end.
No less an authority than Houston coach Kevin McHale has said that Noah is worthy of the league’s top defensive honors. “He’s played very well,” said McHale, a six-time member of the league’s All-Defensive Team as an All-Star player with Boston. “He should be Defensive Player of the Year. He’s done a great job with these guys. They’ve been winning a lot just on his energy and effort, his kind of determination and toughness. Those are all qualities everybody appreciates.”
Winner – Joakim Noah
Runner-up – Roy Hibbert
Honorable mentions – DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Tim Duncan, LeBron James (Miami), Paul George (Indiana), Anthony Davis, Dwight Howard (Houston), Chris Paul (LA Clippers)
Sixth Man of the Year
This is not as wide open as the Most Improved Player race, but there are enough candidates to make it competitive enough. Andray Blatche of Brooklyn, Jamaal Crawford of the LA Clippers, Manu Ginobili of San Antonio, Reggie Jackson of Oklahoma City and Taj Gibson of Chicago obviously stand out not only for their work off the bench but also for how that work has helped clinch playoff berths for their respective teams.
Blatche, who will be a naturalized Filipino citizen shortly to enable him to help the Gilas Pilipinas team in its FIBA World Cup quest in Spain later this August, must make his Filipino supporters feel proud for the job he’s done in the NBA this season. Drafted in the second round out of high school by Washington in 2005, the 6-11 power forward has been instrumental in the comeback staged by the Nets since the start of the year where they’ve posted a 33-13 record, averaging 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in 22.2 minutes and shooting .476 from the floor and .735 from the stripes while filling in for an injured Kevin Garnett.
Crawford, meanwhile, has done a lot of filling in of his own particularly when Chris Paul missed 18 games earlier in the year with a shoulder injury. The 6-5 Crawford, runner-up last year to J.R.Smith of New York for the same award, leads the league in points off the bench (18.6 ppg) and also chips in 3.2 assists and 2.3 boards, and he jacked that up to 22.0 points and 5.0 assists during Paul’s absence.
Ginobili, of course, has been his usual efficient self, providing the league-leading Spurs steady offense off the bench in norming 12.5 markers, 4.3 handoffs and 3.0 rebs while submitting shooting clips of .472, .351 and .851.
Jackson, as earlier mentioned, stepped up when Russell Westbrook was injured, and he now gives the Thunder a reliable playmaker off the bench whenever Westbrook takes a breather.
The 6-9 Gibson, meanwhile, is a member of the Bulls’ tag team that has contributed in a large way to Chicago’s resurgence despite losing Derrick Rose and Luol Deng one after the other, chipping in 13.2 scores and 6.9 rebounds on shooting norms of .483 and .747.
Winner – Jamaal Crawford
Runners-up – Manu Ginobili, Reggie Jackson, Andre Blatche, Taj Gibson
Honorable mention – Jeremy Lin (Houston)
Rookie of the Year
The 2013 draft class may be the worst in history, worse than even the class of 2000 where Mike Miller won top rookie honors almost by default and Kenyon Martin was the top pick, and this is reflected in the paltry list of candidates that include Michael Carter-Williams of Philadelphia, Victor Oladipo of Orlando and Trey Burke of Utah and not anyone else.
Carter-Williams, of course, would almost be the winner here by default, judging from the individual stats the three candidates have put up, if not their teams’ win-loss record, which in this case wouldn’t even qualify as a yardstick. Just look at this: The Sixers are 17-61 and at one point tied the league’s longest-ever losing streak of 26 games, the Magic are 23-55 and the Jazz are 24-54, all of which are among the league’s five worst marks.
In fairness though, Carter-Williams (16.7 ppg, 6.3 apg, 6.1 rpg, 1.91 spg, .399 FG shooting), Oladipo (14.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 4.2 rpg, 1.53 spg, .417 FG pct., .790 FT pct.) and Burke (12.6 ppg, 5.5 apg, 3.0 rpg, .890 FT pct.) have shown a lot of promise. Hopefully, that will one day turn into something more special to make anything of this class, whose top pick Anthony Bennett doesn’t even start for his Cleveland ballclub.
Winner – Michael Carter-Williams
Runners-up – Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke
Most Valuable Player
Now you’re talking. As dreary as the race for top rookie honors is, this year’s MVP contest is something out of which battles royale and the stuff of legends are made, even if, honestly, there are just two legitimate candidates for the most prestigious of all individual honors given out by the league – Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and Miami’s LeBron James.
But this battle between basketball’s uber stars may be enough keep everyone involved in the league eager, if not totally excited, at finding out whom the basketball gods will reward for his magnum opus this year.
Statistically, the 6-9 Durant may have the edge this time, albeit by a wee bit of a margin. The Thunder superforward is on the way to annexing his fourth scoring title in the league – which would make him only the fifth player to do so after Wilt Chamberlain, George Gervin, Michael Jordan and Allen Iverson – with an average of 32.1 points, which is 4.6 points more (the third-largest gap ever) than the man who supplanted him in the scoring ladder last year, Carmelo Anthony of New York. He’ll just miss a second straight 50-40-90 season with his shooting clips of .507 from the floor, .404 from three-point zone and .876 from the line, and is set to post a career high in assists (5.6 apg) while averaging 7.6 rebounds and 1.31 steals.
The 6-8 James, on the other hand, has been his usual transcendent self with norms of 26.8 points (on .568, .376 and .748 shooting), 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 1.59 steals. When James exploded for a career-high 61 points, making 22 of 33 shots, in a 124-107 rout of Charlotte last March 3, people thought he was about to make the MVP race even tighter. But the Heat would quickly lose five of their next six games, with James going through some cold shooting and showing some wear and tear.
More than a contest to win for James, it became a battle to lose for Durant, who is, not surprisingly, leading the league in player efficiency rating, a system measuring a player’s all-around efficiency and contributions to his team, with 30.4 to James’ 29.2. Durant also leads the league in win shares, win share per 48 minutes as well as usage rate, an advanced metric that measures the percentage of possessions a player “uses” per game.
While James has undoubtedly carried his team on his shoulders despite some pain in his back with his chief second, Dwyane Wade, having missed 26 games because of various injuries, Durant has also had to carry his own club on his back with his sidekick, Russell Westbrook, having been out for 34 contests due to knee problems and with guys like Thabo Sefolosha and Kendrick Perkins also having had to miss some time. And he has also been asked to help on defense and shut down opposing teams’ best scorers.
Durant’s value, of course, comes first on offense, where he’s had no peer with his long limbs stretching out like an octopus’ tentacles. LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers put it best when he said, “(Durant) is the single most difficult guy to defend (in the NBA). I’ve said that for three years… and even when you defend him well, in most cases, he just missed the shot. He’s unique. I guess if you gave George Gervin five more inches, he’d be similar. But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a Durant. He’s Kevin Durant.”
When Durant’s streak of 41 straight games with 25 or more points ended in a 107-92 victory in Sacramento last Tuesday, April 8 (Wednesday, April 9 in the Philippines) – the third-longest such streak behind only Wilt Chamberlain’s 80 in 1961-62 and Oscar Robertson’s 46 in 1963-64 – as Durant sat out the fourth quarter of a won game, a common occurrence this season, the seven-year veteran expressed relief that more focus would now be placed on the team. “I was getting so many texts after every game. I’m glad that’s over with and we can just focus on the team,” said Durant, who shot 8-for-13 in 31 minutes. “If we played well and I had 25 points, that took away from how well the team was playing, so I didn’t like that. If we lost, it was all about me scoring 25 points and I didn’t like that either. I’m glad we can just talk about the team now.”
Of course, Durant has to understand that the Thunder’s season has been all about him anyway, and that will be confirmed once he wins his first MVP trophy this year.
Winner – Kevin Durant
Runner-up – LeBron James
Honorable mentions – Blake Griffin (LA Clippers), Joakim Noah (Chicago)
Next issue, we’ll come up with our All-NBA Teams as well as with the All-Defensive and All-Rookie Teams. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.