That's Pretty Interesting: Introducing the alternative NBA awards
Nikola Vucevic and Justise Winslow won't win any real end-of-season awards, so we have honored them in a different way
It's awards season, but I refuse to make my picks yet, particularly when it comes to the contentious and confusing Most Valuable Player debate. If you think Giannis Antetokounmpo's historic season is more worthy than James Harden's historic season, I will not argue with you, and the same is true if you prefer the beardy candidate. What follows are my alternative awards, in which I have given myself an excuse to write about a bunch of players who have absolutely no chance of winning the real awards but, in my view, should be acknowledged for the roles they played in making the regular season memorable. We'll start with an unlikely first-time All-Star.
Alternative Most Valuable Player: Nikola Vucevic, the Orlando Magic center whose breakout -- at age 28, in his eighth season, after years of trade rumors -- has blown my mind in all sorts of ways. Two years ago, Vucevic came off the bench for 20 games so Orlando could start Bismack Biyombo next to Serge Ibaka. He was considered something of a relic then because of his ground-bound, post-oriented game, but now he can score from anywhere on the court, create easy opportunities for teammates and adequately contest shots at the rim. The Magic have played like a 52-win team with Vucevic on the court and a 22-win team with him on the bench, so I'd say he has been pretty dang valuable. Another measure of this: the contract he will command this summer, perhaps after leading Orlando to its first playoff appearance since the Van Gundy-Howard era.
Alternative Most Improved Player: The healthy and happy Justise Winslow. Statistically, the Miami Heat (point) forward's biggest improvement is his usage, which jumped from 15.7 percent to 20.5 percent. He also drastically increased his assist rate and his volume of 3-point attempts. There is no number, however, that can fully capture how he has changed. In January, the Miami Herald's Anthony Chiang spoke to the 22-year-old Winslow and those close to him about the "dark times" he went through before this season -- he was stressed, sleep-deprived and unsure about his place in the league. With the ball in his hands, full confidence in his shot and a secure, prominent role, Winslow has been a totally different player. The best part about the new Winslow is that, in realizing some of his potential, he has made it clear that he has so much more upside.
Alternative Rookie of the Year: Jaren Jackson Jr., who is out of sight but should not be out of mind. The last game he played was the Rising Stars challenge, but the Memphis Grizzlies big man earned a spot in every NBA nerd's heart -- and a Kevin Garnett comparison from his coach -- before his quad injury. Seemingly a million figurative years ago, Memphis started the season trying to make the playoffs. It was not a particularly young team, and Jackson earned his starting spot by showing that he could help them win. His tools suggested he could do everything you want from a modern big -- stretch the floor, protect the paint, defend on the perimeter, score on the block -- but watching him do it all at 19 years old was remarkable. He displayed a certain star quality, sometimes simply by covering ground more gracefully than someone his size reasonably should.
Alternative Defensive Player of the Year: Robert Covington, the victim of an unfortunately persistent bone bruise. Like Andre Roberson last season, the forward had a decent chance of winning the award before the injury, but he only appeared in 22 games for the Minnesota Timberwolves, the team that acquired him in November. In those 22 games, Minnesota played its best defense of the Tom Thibodeau era -- with Covington on the court, it held opponents to 105.5 points per 100 possessions, a mark that would rank fourth in the league. On the season, the Wolves have allowed 111.8 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 24th. In a universe in which they made the trade before training camp started and Covington remained healthy, I'd love to know how the season would have turned out.
Alternative Sixth Man of the Year: Davis Bertans, who has cooled down a bit lately but is still fourth in the league in 3-point percentage (43.8 percent) and is so crucial to the San Antonio Spurs' success that it is kind of funny. Sixth Man of the Year never goes to players who average just 7.9 points, but Bertans' 7.9 points mean more than other players' 7.9 points. The Spurs will make the playoffs largely because their bench destroys opponents' benches, and Bertans holds their second-unit lineups together. San Antonio has been 11.1 points per 100 possessions better with Bertans on the court than off it, a differential that you usually don't see with anyone other than superstars.
Coach of the Year: Kenny Atkinson, for keeping the Brooklyn Nets steady when it seemed like their season was falling apart and for the foundation-building work he has done over the last few years. Regardless of what happens as Brooklyn completes a hellish final portion of the regular season, its massive improvement is a reflection of Atkinson's philosophy and his staff's player-development program. Atkinson has put players not only in a position to succeed, but in a position to grow, and that was the case long before the Nets were consistently winning games. Having a league-average defense isn't usually something to celebrate, but when you consider the roster and how they've fared in that department in recent years, it feels like a minor miracle.
Executive of the Year: Tim Connelly, even though the Nuggets brought back almost entirely the same roster. Finding Nikola Jokic at No. 41 in the 2014 draft is the steal of a lifetime, and nabbing Monte Morris No. 51 in 2017 represents another unbelievable theft. Denver could have made major changes after missing the playoffs by one game two years in a row, but the front office elected to re-sign their guys and trust that the team could improve internally if it committed to defense. This has worked beyond anybody's wildest dreams.
Alternative All-NBA First Team, with no explanations necessary:
G: Trae Young
G: De'Aaron Fox
C: Brook Lopez
Skepticism follows players with mighty stats on terrible teams. The questions are usually:
- Would any winning team allow this guy to play a similar role?
- Would he be effective in a smaller role?
Or, more crudely:
- Does his production mean anything?
Take Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton, who has averaged 20.7 points while shooting 48.1 percent and 44.8 percent from 3-point range since the All-Star break. His usage rate (24.7 percent) is high for a 20-year-old, but not high for a starting point guard, and his efficiency in the last seven weeks or so has been a revelation -- if you have been paying attention. The Cavs are a putrid 19-56, though, and no one should be blamed for ignoring them.
The significance of Sexton's recent individual success is muddled further by his rough start. Before the All-Star break, he had a true shooting percentage of 48.9 percent; since then, it has been 60.0 percent. In a recent story about poor rookie seasons, Cleaning The Glass' Ben Falk used Sexton and New York Knicks forward Kevin Knox as his case studies, describing them as "inefficient-non-passers who didn't defend." ESPN's Kevin Pelton has cautioned that, from a statistical perspective, a full season's worth of rookie stats tend to have more predictive value than late surges do.
As far as late surges go, though, Sexton's has been dramatic. He has undeniably improved, at least on the offensive end. I don't always love his shot selection, but he is hunting for 3s more aggressively, driving more frequently and trying to avoid long, contested 2s.
Sexton's 41.3 percent mark on 3s is second among rookies this season, a stunning development considering there were serious concerns about his range a few months ago. He didn't make his first 3-pointer until his seventh NBA game, and he didn't attempt more than three 3s in a game until his 26th. These days he regularly launches six or seven; last week against the Pistons, he went 5-for-6 from deep, with one giving Cleveland a crunch-time lead and another sealing the victory:
The shooting matters for obvious reasons, not the least of which is its effect on the rest of Sexton's game. On draft night, Cavs general manager Koby Altman raved about his competitiveness, pointing to the game in which he had to play 3-on-5 when several of his Alabama teammates were injured and ejected. Altman also described him as an explosive playmaker, and Sexton said he wanted to emulate John Wall, Russell Westbrook and Eric Bledsoe. Imagine if any of those guys shot 3s as accurately as Sexton has.
In the restricted area, Sexton shot just 50.4 percent before All-Star and has shot 59.3 percent since. He is sometimes a little too ambitious on his drives, like when he challenged Giannis Antetokounmpo …
… but that ambition sometimes pays off spectacularly:
I love that Sexton plays with a seemingly limitless reserve of energy and has yet to miss a game. I do not love his shooting form, but I appreciate the results and that he has grown more comfortable letting it fly. Against Detroit, fellow rookie Bruce Brown blocked his shot a couple of times, but Sexton did not get discouraged. He is one of the few floater artists audacious enough to take them from as far as the foul line:
On a better team, Sexton wouldn't have been able to play through months of inefficiency or have this much freedom to make plays. Cleveland deserves credit for prioritizing his development, as does he for sticking with it. For all of the progress he's made, though, Sexton has a long way to go as a passer and a defender. I can't conclusively say what his production means, only that I think much more highly of him now than I did in January. On this rebuilding team, the bigger questions can wait.
The mixtape: Funky Bojan
Who knew Bojan Bogdanovic had this in him? With Victor Oladipo sidelined, the Indiana Pacers routinely call on the 29-year-old wing to bail them out in short-shot-clock situations. They put the ball in his hands at the end of quarters. He still makes his timely cuts and knocks down spot-up 3s, he also runs pick-and-rolls, posts up smaller defenders and drives by big guys. He takes the tough 2s that everybody hates, and he swishes them.
The numbers are bonkers: Since Oladipo's injury, Bogdanovic leads the Pacers in scoring (21.5 points per game, up from 18 before the injury), shot attempts (15.3, up from 12.9) and usage (25.7 percent, up from 19.2). In that same span, he has averaged 8.3 drives per game, per NBA.com -- Oladipo averaged 9.5. Bogdanovic has never been more efficient in his career, shooting 49.9 percent and 42.9 percent from 3-point range on the season, and appears to be in line for a massive raise in free agency.
"I'm just praying we don't lose him," Indiana assistant coach Bill Bayno told The Athletic's Bob Kravitz.
Bogdanovic doesn't have fancy handles, but he's much more competent creating offense than he ever showed before this season. He is not all that fast, but he changes speeds well, loves hesitation moves and has a knack for flipping in bank shots from difficult angles. He is particularly effective coming off screens with an advantage. In a way, he is the perfect go-to guy for this old-school Pacers team, which should be allowed to play home games with a red, white and blue ABA ball.
And, thus, he deserves a mixtape, set to Jimmy Scruggs' 1970s-era Pacers theme song, which opened the team's radio broadcasts on 1070 WIBC:
Checking in on … Danuel House
The highest compliment I can give Danuel House is that I trust him. The Houston Rockets have experimented with various G Leaguers, rookies and buyout guys this season, and House is the one I am sure will be in their playoff rotation. In seven games since his two-way contract was converted, he has averaged 12.9 points in 30.1 minutes while shooting an unsustainably hot 51.7 percent and 50 percent (24-for-48) on 3-pointers.
For the most part, House sticks to his role, defending multiple positions and spacing the floor. In the second quarter against Milwaukee on Tuesday, though, he busted out a James Harden impression:
If you have made a habit of watching the Rockets in garbage time, then you might have seen House do this before. In New Orleans on Sunday, House hit a shot that made Houston play-by-play announcer Craig Ackerman exclaim, "James Harden!" as the ball fell through the basket:
Finally, here he is pulling up from deep against the Hawks last week:
If you're an NBA-caliber wing, you are probably capable of doing more than Houston asks from its role players. We're all so used to watching James Harden, Chris Paul and Eric Gordon (and, sometimes, Austin Rivers) make all of the Rockets' plays that it's a little startling when something different happens. These 3s are particularly notable, though, because of their sheer degree of difficulty. Maybe this is what a green light in the G League will do to a person. Maybe House, who was waived by the Warriors in the preseason, has more potential than anyone realized.
HMMMM: Looking forward with Barnes and Sacramento
"It's been great," Barnes said, via the Sacramento Bee's Jason Anderson. "The community, they show a lot of love. I remember my first game in Sac against Miami. The atmosphere was like a playoff atmosphere. People were so passionate about the game of basketball, so into the game. Obviously, I was always on the opposing side, so now to be on the home team, it's great to receive that love and I'm definitely looking forward to my wife and I getting involved in the community there."
Barnes was obviously not going to say anything negative, but, given that he has a decision to make about his $25.1 million player option, he didn't have to wax poetic about looking forward to his future there and the roster's "crazy" potential.
As the Bee pointed out, the Kings are expected to try to work out a new deal with Barnes in the offseason. I am not sure what kind of starting salary Barnes would command on the open market, but would be shocked if it was close to that $25.1 million figure. How much of a pay cut would he be willing to take next season in exchange for long-term security on an up-and-coming team? How sure is Sacramento that Barnes is the right fit for this group and the best use of its resources? I wonder if an agreement is a foregone conclusion, particularly because I am not convinced that it should be. ESPN's Zach Lowe used the phrase "irrational win-now exuberance" to describe what opposing teams hope will hinder the Kings' ascent, and deciding to offer Barnes a hefty, lengthy contract could fit into that category.
Regardless, Barnes' averages in the last 14 games have been exactly what Sacramento hoped for: 17.1 points and 5.9 rebounds on 53-percent shooting, including 47.1 percent from 3-point range.
10 more stray thoughts: The Magic will not die … I have no idea how much it matters that the Jazz are blowing out so many bad teams … Cool to see Eric Bledsoe get some overdue love after the Bucks beat Houston … I am still not over Jeremy Lamb's lucky, dumb, hilarious, beautiful buzzer-beater … I understand that the Lakers desperately needed something to celebrate, but Lance Stephenson's "crossover" was a great big lie …Speaking of the Lakers, I hope Lonzo Ball has found someone to have the extremely important post-"Us" conversation with him by now … I don't care how clear it is that the Celtics still haven't figured it out; I just can't dismiss them … Congratulations to the playoff-bound Clippers, who are simply the coolest … Chris Bosh should follow his former teammate Shane Battier's lead and join the Washington Speakers Bureau … Pay attention to Seth Curry.
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