Yesterday, we previewed the close of the season for every team in the league, amongst whom all are now competing for a playoff spot or angling for draft position. Today, we’ll check in with all the individual honors as the league’s best and brightest compete for personal accolades to add to their resumés.
Last season’s NBA MVP race was truly one for the ages, pitting two former teammates against one another in a historic battle of statistical achievement. It was quite fun, for some, to watch Russell Westbrook ballhog rebounds and make a mockery of the team concept en route to the single-season triple double record while James Harden, just a few miles south, put up equally gargantuan numbers with a bit more grace, a lot more nuance, and on a slightly better team. For others, including myself, it was a basketball distraction, a product of the social media era, and an unfortunate narrative for the league universe to ride throughout the season… which is exactly why I’m intrigued by this year’s MVP race.
What started off looking like a wide-open field, anchored by early surprise leaders Giannis Antetokounmpo and then Kyrie Irving, has now been essentially dwindled down to a two-horse race between James Harden, engine of the best offense in the league, and Lebron James, doing insane things in his 15th NBA season at the age of 33. The odds for both (mybookie.ag):
Lebron James: Open +700 (Current +250)
James Harden: Open +800 (Current -350)
Harden is clearly the favorite here, as he probably should be. Even after considering the fact that Houston currently boasts the best record in the league and the best offense in league history (no, seriously), what makes Harden’s current campaign special is that he’s unquestionably the responsible party for both of those accomplishments. Say what you want about his inconsistent effort defensively, but Harden has proved over the past few seasons (and especially this year) that his skillset is uniquely tailored for the contemporary pace-and-space offense that Houston has mastered and the rest of the league is trying to mimic. He’s arguably the perfect modern offensive player — a package of exceptionally efficient scoring and elite offensive creation off the Pick and Roll for both shooters and lob-catchers. He can get to the rim on anybody and also make every single pass in the book with either hand. It’s uncanny.
For all the talk about Chris Paul being brought into to ease the ball-handling load on Harden, and as I mentioned on the podcast last week, Harden’s usage rate has actually leapt from 34% last year to 36%. He’s doing more than ever, yet his efficiency has skyrocketed. Per Basketball-Reference, Harden is just the third player player in the history of the league to post a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) above 30 with a Usage Rate above 35%. Frame that advanced-metrics picture within counting stats of 31, 9, and 5, on 45/38/86 shooting splits, and you have a fucking groundbreaking offensive season. The case for Harden is strong, and the Vegas odds rightfully reflect that.
All the numbers above, and general common sense, would say Harden is the obvious pick and the case for Lebron pales in comparison. Indeed, Cleveland has been a dumpster fire (and possibly still is) for large chunks of the season and Lebron bears a lion’s share of the blame for that. He’s also the leader of a far worse team and can’t compete with Harden in either advanced or traditional metrics. But yet, what if it really is just the year of the dog? Of course, if the season ended today, Harden would win in a landslide, yet I certainly wouldn’t want to lay -350 cash fading Lebron with 26 games to go, a million reasons to go hard as hell down the stretch, and a fresh group of guys whom he seems genuinely pumped to be around.
If Cleveland catches fire and Lebron does Lebron things on a 10-15 game win streak here down the stretch, the media might have too much trouble staying away from that narrative. Hell, without any games to cover early this week, they practically tried to coronate the dude as the greatest player of all time just because he copped another All-Star game MVP. Do not underestimate the “media narrative” angle of all of this. Cleveland has a great chance to be the site of the league’s most positive storyline the rest of the way, assuming Lebron looks happy and the rest of the new guys fit in gracefully. That might sway voters at the end of the day, especially if Houston slips behind Golden State again and chatter about them being a legit championship contender quiets down.
This should be fun to monitor the rest of the way as, if the dog does indeed come up with it, it will have meant we saw some truly truly historic play from Bron down the stretch. If Harden holds on, that likely means we’ll be entering a playoffs for the first time in years where the Western Conference looks truly up for grabs. Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of media narratives, both individual and team-wide, in shaping the discussion and outcome of the MVP award.
This only needs to be glanced over quickly as Harden has this locked up barring something insane happening. He’s averaging 31.3 PPG, a full handful above 2nd-place Greek Freak who’s going for almost 28 a night. Individual scoring numbers are weirdly a bit down this season, as you usually have at least a few guys up there around 30. This year, we’re just seeing a a whole cluster of guys around that 24-26 range. Regardless, Harden, who actually opened up as the scoring title favorite at +400 (betonline.ag), will cash here.
Rookie of the Year
Like its older brother the MVP race, the race for Rookie of the Year is a two-horse chase. I say chase intentionally because that’s what we’ve got: one guy way out front, still running solid, and a (bull)dog behind him doing absolutely everything he can to catch up. If you have a twitter account, you’ll know that the two guys I’m talking about are Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, both exceptional, yet very different players who have taken the league by storm en route to superb rookie campaigns. Philadelphia and Utah should both be ecstatic to have these guys leading their respective franchises, on team-friendly rookie contracts to boot.
Simmons perhaps has an unfair advantage in that he’s not a true rookie. He was actually the first overall pick in the draft two seasons ago, only to miss all of last year due to an infamous “Jones Fracture” in his right foot. Some will say that the added experience of spending an entire season in an NBA locker room around NBA guys and an NBA coaching staff renders him more of a second-year guy than a rookie. I tend to agree with this objection, yet only to a certain extent, as I also tend towards the side of “who gives a shit” because he’s going to be considered for the Rookie of the Year award whether we like it or not. And his candidacy is pretty damn strong. Along with his comrade Joel Embiid, Simmons is the baby that was birthed by the process, a prototypical “creator” for the modern NBA offense. Standing 6 foot 10 with the vision of an elite point guard, Simmons is already one of the 5-10 most versatile guys in the league. ESPN Fantasy Basketball lists him as a PF/PG, the only player distinguished as such in the player database. The counting stats of 16, 8, and 7 make you drool and the defense is already, in year 1 (or year 2 if you prefer), leaping off the screen at times. He’s presently elite.
While questions about the jump-shot remain — he takes over 75% of his shots within 10 feet of the hoop and less than 1% of his shots from 3-point range — these are hardly qualms to knock him in a Rookie of the Year race.
If you want the case for Simmons in a nutshell, here it is:
- The complete list of guys to average at least 15, 7, and 7 in their rookie season: Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Benjamin Fucking Simmons. Good company, to say the least.
- The Sixers will probably make the playoffs.
- I’m not sure I needed #2 to convince you.
You can probably tell I love Simmons. The truth is, I love Donovan Mitchell too. I actually met the guy at Summer League in Vegas and he really is as quality of a character as everyone seems to say he is. He gave firm daps to me and my friends without thinking twice, thanking us for coming out and showing love. For reference, Bam Adebayo wouldn’t even give me the time of day. Granted, I was relieving myself at the urinal next to Bam — which is a surprisingly unique experience. His shoulders are entirely too broad to fit within a single urinal, so he has to stand a couple feet back, behind the dividers, in order to go ahead and take care of business. No wonder Pat Riley drools about his “NBA Body”…
Donovan Mitchell is having one of those seasons. Praised across the board by current and former league legends, it took him just about 40 games to become “the guy” in Utah. And the guy has lived up to his new role. Arguably the central catalyst for the Jazz’ current 10-game winning streak and ascent up the Western conference standings, Mitchell has taken on primary ball-handling responsibilities and has responded with a scoring pop quite rare for a rookie. Combining out-of-this-world bounciness with elite shooting, Mitchell has proven he can score the ball on just about anyone. What I love most about Mitchell is that he’s averaging 20 points per game in one of the league’s more democratic offenses, and his team is still winning. This isn’t some bullshit stat-line on a tanking team where the opportunities are endless, the green light is always on, and accountability is minimal — this is 20 points, 4 boards, and 4 assists on a fully competitive and veteran-laden team fielded by one of the league’s most disciplined and fundamentally sound organization. Mitchell wouldn’t be in this type of spot if he wasn’t for real. That’s just not the way things work in Utah, let alone on a team that’s now 30-28 and entirely in the playoff mix. Just like some endorsements matter more than others in a political campaign, consider Quin Snyder’s minutes- and usage-based endorsement of Mitchell as worthwhile to consider in your thought process. Gordon who, you asked?
For me, Simmons is still the guy. He’s a 3-point jumper away from being one of the 10 best players in the league. Mitchell, on the other hand, is still a ways away from being one of the central figures in the league, and it likewise isn’t clear exactly what he needs to do to go from great to elite. “Just keep doing what you’re doing, except better and more of it,” would be my advice, I guess.
This will tighten up pending how high the Jazz can keep climbing, especially if that climb continues to take place largely on the shoulders of Mitchell. The media will eat that up. I still can’t see them getting higher than the 7-seed that Philly currently occupies across the Mississippi, however, so if things hold elsewhere both stat- and standing-wise, Simmons is likely a lock.
Can’t wait to see what’s in store for both of these guys down the line.
Other Picks (Presented without odds. If you can find ’em, you’re a better internet scavenger than I am.)
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens. Lost Hayward, had to reconfigure things around Kyrie, and still has this franchise two to three years ahead of schedule.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid.
7 feet tall. Stays in front of Paul George on an island the size of Hawaii. Block party. U N I C O R N. Also a fan of taco bell, apparently.
6th Man of the Year: Lou Williams. He already got paid with a nice extension for the Clippers and damn, does he deserve it. Averaging by far a career-high 23 points per game, he’s been everything for the Clippers as they’ve managed to stay competitive without Blake Griffin.