Remember when the Cleveland Cavaliers were 3-0, the Denver Nuggets were off to a slow start and the James Harden-Christian Wood pick-and-roll was looking scary? No? That's probably because a zillion things have happened since then. After a profoundly strange 145 days, though, the 2020-2021 NBA regular season is over.
And you know what that means: It is time for awards! The CBS Sports staff picks were published today, and here James Herbert and Sam Quinn will go a bit deeper on all of the races.
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1. Nikola Jokic is the clear frontrunner for MVP for many good reasons. How close was the call for second place?
Herbert (picked Jokic, Stephen Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic): It was a closer call than the MVP race itself, but in the end I was completely comfortable picking Curry, who had one of the best seasons … ever? Every part of his case got stronger over the course of the season, and it is a testament to Jokic's greatness that the former No. 41 pick is going to get in the way of Curry, who averaged 32 points on .482/.421/.916 splits, winning his third MVP.
This might have been the most impressive regular season of Curry's career. He saw even crazier defensive coverages than he did in 2015 and 2016, a natural byproduct of playing with inferior scorers, screeners, passers and floor spacers, and yet he was able to lift the Golden State Warriors to relatively great heights when they weren't trying to integrate a 20-year-old big. In the 1618 minutes Curry played without James Wiseman, he averaged 36.3 points per 36 minutes (!?!?!?) on 66.9 percent true shooting with a 34.6 percent usage rate. The Warriors scored 117.9 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, with a plus-9.2 net rating, a better mark than their most-used starting lineup managed in the 2017-18 season. That lineup had Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson in it.
So, yeah, I don't feel like I'm slighting Antetokounmpo or Embiid here.
Quinn (picked Jokic, Embiid, Curry, Antetokounmpo, Chris Paul): Giannis was my No. 2 for most of the season, and he probably does the best job of splitting the difference between Embiid's two-way impact and Curry's (relative) durability. The three of them were very close, and I wonder if, a few years down the line, we're going to wonder if we perhaps judged Giannis on an unfair standard, but I think what happened when Jrue Holiday went out with COVID was telling. Milwaukee lost five in a row, including one to the Thunder without Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, which just hammered home how important team infrastructure is to him relative to Curry and Embiid.
Curry was winning games alongside G Leaguers. Embiid just got a No. 1 seed despite the awkward Ben Simmons fit. Milwaukee's poor depth impacted him more than it would have those two, I think, and while I flip-flopped several times, I gave Embiid the slimmest of edges primarily as a testament to Draymond Green. Curry has been stellar all season long, but Golden State won games largely on the strength of their fifth-ranked defense. That's Green's domain. Obviously, their offense collapsed whenever Curry sat, but everything the 76ers do on both ends stems from Embiid's brilliance.
Quinn (picked Ball, Edwards, Haliburton): This is going to sound simplistic, but the award is called Rookie of the Year, not Most Valuable Rookie. That suggests more leeway to pick the most outstanding rookie, even if he didn't generate the most value. I picked Embiid in 2017 for that reason, and it led me to Ball this time around. Years down the line, when I think of this rookie class, I'll remember Ball doing things with a basketball that I have never seen before, not Haliburton's steadier contributions or Edwards' scoring outbursts.
I leaned Edwards over Haliburton for similar reasons. If both played for contenders, Haliburton would certainly be more valuable. He was a winning player from the jump. But on the sliding scale on which we judge rookies, I'll remember the nights when Edwards looked like a future MVP more than the ones when Haliburton turned an 11-point Kings loss into a six-point Kings loss.
Herbert (picked Ball, Haliburton, Edwards): I can't dismiss the minutes thing as easily as Sam can, but I'm not as swayed as he is by Edwards' scoring explosions, either. Ball would've still been my pick if he hadn't come back for the final nine games, as long as we're assuming that Haliburton's late-season injury isn't erased in this parallel universe. Had Haliburton played 65 games to Ball's 41, I would've gone with Haliburton without much hesitation, for the same reason that I ended up putting him ahead of Edwards: He had a genuinely awesome first year, starting from Day 1.
Even judged against the small subset of rookies who are able to establish themselves as "winning players" right away, Haliburton stands out. The shooting -- 43.8 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s, 37.5 percent on pull-ups -- is obviously encouraging, but the appeal is so much more than that. He manipulates the defense with his jump passes, he makes every read in the pick-and-roll and his anticipation is off the charts on both ends. The case for Edwards is that young players with his talent don't come around often, and that's true. But rookies like Haliburton are extremely rare, too.
Herbert (picked Ingles, Thaddeus Young, Miles Bridges): Ingles' 67.4 percent true shooting percentage is literally historic, but I don't think he was always destined to become such a favorite among the internet intelligentsia. It only happened because Clarkson's numbers declined drastically. Anyone who watches the Jazz knows that Clarkson wants the ball when the shot clock is about to expire, and any self-respecting nerd understands the value of shot creation, particularly on the second unit. Clarkson could've overcome a significant gap in their shooting percentages, but the gap here has become more of a chasm. (Put another way: His whole thing is scoring, and he's just not scoring that efficiently anymore. Only 10 players attempted more than his 4.7 pull-up 3s a game, and he made just 33.3 percent of them.)
My case for Young, a League Pass favorite if there ever was one, is that no 6MOY-eligible player made more helpful plays this season. The Ringer's Dan Devine wrote that he "found new life as a down-market Draymond Green," and, while I am generally allergic to Draymond comparisons, my only quibble here is that Draymond can only dream of having Young's post-up game and touch around the rim. Young's defense gives him an edge over everybody else I considered, and the on/off numbers are just as ridiculous as Rose's. (According to Cleaning The Glass, the Chicago Bulls' net rating was 10.9 points 100 possessions better with Young on the court than off, the exact same differential as the Knicks' net rating with and without Rose.)
Bridges might not have had that kind of impact, but, like Young, he filled in all sorts of gaps for his team. Any argument for him must start with his 0.503/0.400/0.867 shooting splits and the fact that, out of nowhere, he made 43.8 percent of his pull-up 3s. He didn't shoot them with anywhere near the volume of someone like Clarkson, and he wasn't quite doing point-center stuff like Young, but he displayed more and more of his playmaking chops as the season went on, particularly when the Hornets were shorthanded. In the end, it felt weird leaving off Clarkson and Derrick Rose, and I strongly considered Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr., T.J. McConnell and Haliburton. You just don't find many players, though, who guard every position while shooting 72 percent at the rim and 40 percent from deep.
Quinn (picked Ingles, Rose, Clarkson): I think the nerd community is still feeling burned over all of the times Andre Iguodala was snubbed. The votership tends to reward a certain type of reserve -- the scoring guard -- because that's the image they have in their heads about what a sixth man should be when the truth is that not all teams need that kind of player. Many winning teams don't.
Sixth Man of the Year should go to the best basketball player that regularly came off of the bench, as Iguodala was for years. That was Ingles this season, based largely on the efficiency that James mentioned, and everyone else was fighting for second place. Rose got it for me because his impact on a miserable Knicks offense was more pronounced than what Clarkson could do for a loaded Jazz team or what players like Young or Bridges could give their teams.
The Knicks would be the No. 6 seed were it not for Rose. I can't say another non-Ingles reserve so tangibly impacted his team's positioning.
Quinn (picked Gobert, Simmons, Green): Defensive Player of the Year is a broken award because it rewards defensive steadiness more than anything else. Gobert is the most valuable regular-season defender because his absurd rim protection powers Utah's entire defensive scheme. It allows everyone else to stay at home on shooters. Opponents don't have time to game-plan against that in the regular season.
They do in the playoffs, though, when drop-coverage teams tend to struggle. Simmons and Green are scheme-proof and therefore more valuable in a postseason setting, but this is a regular-season award, and in the regular season, nothing gives a team a higher defensive baseline than elite rim protection. The Jazz wouldn't be the No. 3 defense with any other player in Gobert's place. He's the only player that can protect the rest of their roster, and that's what's going to win him this award. If I needed a single stop in a playoff game, though? Anthony Davis is the winner, followed by Green, Simmons, Kawhi Leonard and Holiday, in that order.
Herbert (picked Gobert, Green, Simmons): It's sort of impact vs. versatility, but that framing undersells Gobert a bit. As well as being the best rim protector in the league, he is also an excellent one-on-one defender and rarely exploited compared to other "must-drop" bigs. His presence has always deterred opponents from attacking the paint, and we shouldn't take for granted that the Jazz have once again built an elite defense around him, without another All-Defense candidate on the roster, in an era that is decidedly unfriendly to enormous, shot-blocking centers.
I don't think it's crazy to vote for Green or Simmons, but, as simple as it sounds, I couldn't get past the Jazz giving up just 101.3 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the court. Holiday and Capela have been transformative for their respective teams, and I'd call their seasons DPOY-caliber. It's just a crowded field.
5. Should second- and third-year players be eligible for Most Improved Player? Should it ever go to a player who was already great? What if a player was pretty good two years prior, then had a down year, then had a career year? (Translation: Is Zion Williamson a legit candidate? What about Jokic and Embiid? Julius Randle was pretty good two years ago, wasn't he?)
Herbert (picked Randle, Jaylen Brown, Jokic): In a literal sense, if you're not a rookie then you're eligible. I understand the urge to exclude young players picked near the top of the draft, but Zion is a perfectly defensible choice to me, given the magnitude and flat-out unprecedented nature of his improvement. This is not a case of a player merely progressing "as expected" with more minutes and experience; it is a case of a player who produced like a star in Year 1 elevating himself to superstardom midway through his Year 2, while taking on a much more demanding role. Had he turned into an above-average defender, I would've definitely given it to him.
I thought Doncic improved more than anyone last season, and I came close to picking Jokic this time, ultimately holding back for a reason that sounds completely unfair: He was too good in the bubble. While Jokic's stats look way better this season, it felt more like an extension of what we saw after the hiatus than another giant leap.
Embiid had a career season, partially because he's in a much healthier offensive environment and partially because he came back a more deadly face-up player. The midrange jumper is terrifying, and all the talk about his improved conditioning is justified. We've seen most of what Embiid has done before, though, and the same isn't true of Randle, whose 2018-19 season was pretty good but absolutely nothing like this. I remain utterly blown away by his shotmaking from midrange and from deep.
Quinn (picked Randle, Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges): This is another award with frustrating semantics. Shouldn't the word "most" point us toward candidates who went from non-factors to high-level starters, like Devonte' Graham did last season? I tend to shy away from second- or third-year players, except in cases like Graham's, in which the improvement was not so expected. If he was that good all along, he wouldn't have been a second-round pick.
Bridges and Porter obviously weren't second-round picks, but there aren't such obvious candidates in that vein this year that I felt the need to exclude them. If anything, I think my distaste for such young players winning this award makes a compelling case for Randle. Yes, he's still young, but he didn't improve in the ways that young winners of this award typically do. His stats aren't all that different from where they've been in the past, but he's gone from a losing player to a winning one. That can't be captured in the box score, but it's a leap we should be encouraging.
It's good for basketball if more players improve in the ways that Randle has, whereas the growth of players like Williamson are usually sort of a given. I think shades of that sort of growth have been evident in Bridges especially, but Porter to an extent as well. As for Jokic and Embiid? My hot take is that they didn't *improve* all that much. Jokic has been capable of this for years, but Denver's roster forced him to play more aggressively this season. While I'm prepared to be proven wrong, I view Embiid's shooting as more of an outlier than something he has sustainably improved, at least to this level.
6. How would your Coach of the Year ballot change if you were voting based on which coach was your *favorite* this season rather than the one who did the best job?
Herbert (picked Tom Thibodeau, Quin Snyder, Monty Williams): It would be completely different. I couldn't possibly have more respect for the job Thibodeau has done -- I have so much respect for it that I'm absolutely beside myself! -- but, I mean, the Knicks' style isn't what I'd call aesthetically pleasing. James Borrego was easily my favorite coach this season, based on the Hornets' ball movement, transition play, aggressive defense and unconventional lineups. Had they stayed healthy and finished with a better record, he might've been on my actual (fake) ballot.
After Borrego, I'd have to go with Nash, another coach who has given his players freedom, rolled with the punches and gotten a bit weird. Michael Malone would finish third, but I'm probably selling him short -- the main difference between him and the first two is that we were all already used to the Nuggets' brand of basketball.
Quinn (picked Thibodeau, Steve Nash, Mike Malone): Borrego would be a three-time winner if it was my "favorite" coach of a given season, but I don't think that's an accident. I think coaches have more freedom to get creative with plucky, low-stakes teams than they do with contenders, and it's what makes what Nash has done this season so incredible. When was the last time the coach of a contender has invented a role in the way Nash has for Bruce Brown offensively?
Nash's personality-management has been his best trait as a coach, but his willingness to experiment is really commendable for someone in such a high-pressure situation. Borrego has always had that "let's get weird" energy, which I think leads to the best talent-to-fun ratio in basketball. I guess what I'm saying is: Any coach willing to play P.J. Washington at center is probably going to top my League Pass rankings.
7. Executive of the Year is a weird award because most decisions front offices make aren't purely about improving the team that season. Should this award -- in which the voters are not media members, but the executives themselves -- even exist? What was your criteria?
Quinn (picked Sam Presti, Daryl Morey, Sean Marks): Executive of the Year voting should be done five years after the fact. For all we know, Rafael Stone's Harden trade was a stroke of genius. Even if he builds a contender with those picks, he won't be recognized until years after he set the franchise up for success.
Personally, I try to take myself out of the moment and judge executives based on the expected long-term value of their moves. I don't care if Presti's moves are years away from bearing fruit. He did the best job this season. He nailed every single move.
I'm not voting for James Jones on the basis of a 50-win season when he took Jalen Smith over Haliburton. Team-building is a long-term process, and that should be acknowledged. As for Marks, I'm not crazy about giving executives credit for superstars wanting to play together in their city. Kudos to Marks for setting the table properly, I suppose, but if there's an executive of the year to be named in Brooklyn, it's Kevin Durant for recruiting Harden.
Herbert (picked Marks, Morey, Jones): I am not convinced we need an Executive of the Year award. You can't judge the vast majority of decisions on a one-year timeline, and I have no idea how one would go about comparing, say, Sam Presti's recent moves to Tim Connelly's. For this exercise, I essentially just looked at teams that are going for it and the moves they've made since the end of the 2019-20 season. Marks got the nod as much for the Harden trade as for the series of transactions that have resulted in this team being deep and versatile, despite having to consolidate the roster to get Harden and having a midseason addition unexpectedly retire after five games.
8. What's the wildest pick you thought about making before you chickened out?
Herbert: This is probably a tie between Jokic for MIP, Williamson for MIP and Young for 6MOY. I came closest to actually picking Jokic, but I just kept thinking about how he played in the bubble. It's sort of like Wood's MIP case -- the sample size was bigger, but he produced like a star when the Pistons finally featured him last season.
Quinn: I thought there was a genuine case for Frank Vogel to win Coach of the Year up until a week or two ago. How their defense remained atop the league without their two best players, I will never understand. He's hardly a perfect coach, but he's juggled 13 rotation-caliber players as well as could be expected and kept the Lakers afloat when they probably should have sunk.
9. If you were granted the power to remove an award, which one would you choose?
Quinn: I'd love to change the name of "Sixth Man of the Year" to "Reserve of the Year" just to remove the preconceived ideas people have about what constitutes a great bench player, but if we're removing an award entirely, I'm somewhat uncertain of why Most Improved Player needs to exist. It essentially rewards players for either being young or bad in the previous season. Maybe it could be amended into something like "Surprise Player of the Year" to give the voters a bit more clarity, but in its current incarnation, it seems rather arbitrary to me.
James: I'd get Executive of the Year out of here. Most Improved Player is definitely the most annoying one to talk about, though, because of what Sam mentioned: A lot of the time, you end up making a case for a guy by emphasizing how terrible he was the previous season, which means you're punishing other guys for not having been terrible enough. Everyone's been doing the former to Randle, and I just did the latter to Jokic and Wood!
10. Make a pick for at least three of the following hybrid awards: Most Improved Coach, Defensive Coach of the Year, Rookie Coach of the Year, Defensive Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Rookie, Defensive Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Sixth Man, Most Improved Executive, Rookie Executive of the Year.
Herbert: I can't believe how easy this was for me. With apologies to Thad, I'd like to congratulate Matisse Thybulle on winning Defensive Sixth Man of the Year in a landslide. Rookie Coach of the Year comes down to Nash vs. Chris Finch for me, and I'm giving it to Nash, a genuine rookie in that he'd never coached at any level before this season. Finch played an important role, though, in unlocking the clear Most Improved Rookie -- I can't recall my opinion of a player swinging as wildly in such a short period of time as it has with Edwards in just a few months.
Quinn: Is it too early to call Mike Budenholzer the Most Improved Coach? He's actually deviating from the system this season! The most important schematic trait a coach can have is adaptability, and he's finally displaying a modicum of it, so I'd love to recognize him for that. Vogel is the Defensive Coach of the Year by a mile. Nash and Finch have been great for entirely different reasons, but tie goes to the winner, so Nash is my Rookie Coach of the Year.
Edwards is the easy choice for Most Improved Rookie, but let's shout out K.J. Martin as well. He had 23 total NBA points entering March. He had that many in a game three times in the final two weeks.
Thybulle is the obvious Defensive Sixth Man of the Year, followed by Alex Caruso in second. Most Improved Executive goes to whoever convinced Orlando's ownership that it was finally time to tank.