We I don’t know yet if the 2019-20 NBA season is over. But if this is I thought it would be nice to take a minute to recognize the best of what we saw. I don’t have any cards for the NBA year-end awards. If I had, however, and if we had to vote based on about 80% of the season that we were able to see, here’s how I would have compiled it. We will review all the prizes this week, one post at a time, because we all have to do our part right now, and the least I can do is give you all the opportunity to roast for my choices.
So, without further ado, let’s give some hypothetical hardware. So far I have submitted my cards for Most valuable player, Beginner of the year, is Defensive player of the year. Next: the guys who are constantly improving (even when it can’t be worse).
Ask 10 different NBA fans how to define “Most Improved Player” and you could get 10 different answers. Improvement can take many different forms; this is what makes this prize my favorite to think about, but perhaps also the most difficult to choose.
Some argue that the minimum import price should go to someone who has gone from obscurity to a prominent rotating role. If that’s where you land, you’re probably opting for someone like Charlotte’s Devonte ‘Graham, who went from a marginal piece to a center apparently overnight after turning into an accurate high volume 3-point shooter (37.3 per one hundred out of 9.3 attempts per game, fifth in the league in both pull-up and triple triples) and an easy pick-and-roll facilitator who produced more points per possession on those played than artists of the caliber of D ‘Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Ja Morant and Jimmy Butler.
You could lean on Duncan Robinson, who was stolen in 2018 and spent last season in a two-way affair before becoming a key launching pin in Heat’s initial lineup. The 6-foot-7 striker set a new franchise record for most of the 3 pointers in one season (despite having only played in 65 games) and punched a glittering 44.8 percent of his long balls, the fourth best in the league. His off-ball movement and catch-and-shoot sniper helped heat the buzz, with Miami scoring 116 points for 100 possessions with Robinson on the pitch, and only 108.5 when he sat down, according to Cleaning the glass—From the difference between the second crime of the NBA and its 24th. Perhaps you would prefer Christian Wood, who has become the Pistons’ best player, his fifth team in four seasons, seizing an opportunity created by injuries and exchanges and putting up numbers per minute that evoke All-Stars and Hall of Famers.
Or maybe you think that going from “already in the mix” to “potential future star” is an even more impressive form of improvement. This could lead you to look at someone like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the jewel of Paul George’s trade last summer, who at the age of 21 emerged as the top scorer and defender of the most versatile perimeter in a surprisingly spicy Thunder team. Or Jaylen Brown, whose constant development across the board – as a complementary director, as a threat to the secondary score and as an excellent multi-position defender – helped the Celtics thrive after losing Kyrie Irving and Al Horford. Or Lonzo Ball, who remained a backcourt defender of the ace and a passerby who quickly replenished himself while making his shot from “haunted” to “almost in the league average”, and which fits perfectly close to Zion Williamson ( New Orleans has crushed opponents by 15.7) points by 100 when the two shared the floor) in a team of pelicans who have played a thrill of the ball for the past two months.
Myself? I tend to go for players who make an even bigger leap, from quite well to really well, from the starter to the All-Star, or close to it. Typically, the vote has had a similar trend in recent years. That’s why my ballot looks like this:
Most improved player
1. Luka Doncic, Mavericks
2. Bam Adebayo, warmth
3. (draw) Brandon Ingram, Pellicani and Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Yes, it’s true: a draw for the third. No, this wouldn’t fly if this were an official vote. Luckily that’s not it, but instead a theoretical exercise in a blog post two weeks after the league suspended operations due to a crippling pandemic!
Sion understandably sucked all the oxygen that surrounds the Pelicans after his debut, but we can’t take a brief look at what Ingram accomplished in his first year in New Orleans. While Williamson was injured, Ingram used his tight handle and improved sweater to comfortably slip into a new role like no. 1 option. He averaged 25.6 points per game before Zion’s arrival, commanding a share of a star’s offensive possessions (a usage rate of 29.2), dropping dimed on over 20 percent of his companions’ baskets as a team and still marking an elite level of efficiency (a. 601 percentage of real shot). Only 11 players have ever accumulated such numbers for an entire season, all MVPs and All-Stars.
Ingram’s individual scoring production declined somewhat as it made room for Williamson, but still had an average shadow of less than 23-7-6 for 36 minutes alongside Zion, and the two began developing a relationship directing before closing. After three seasons up and down in Los Angeles and a blood fright that raised questions about his career prospect, Ingram has established himself as a legitimate All-Star and building block – one almost certain to get the maximum extension of his contract from limited free agency rookie, either from pelicans or another suitor.
Tatum will also have one. It will come from the Celts. After what he’s done this season – especially in the past two months – he’s gone way they are letting him out of TD Garden.
After an often frustrating second year season in which he often settled for bad shots, Tatum swapped a group of long midrangers (from 22 percent of his shooting diet last season to 13 percent this season) with more than 3 pointers ( from 28 percent of his attempts last season to 34 percent this season), who recorded a 39.8 percent clip. He also started attacking the basket more often and more effectively, averaging almost three more units per game in the last two months of the season, improving his finish in the restricted area by over 8 percentage points and reaching the line free throw two times a game.
These advances have combined to make Tatum one of the most dangerous three-tier markers of the second half. It also made him one of the most balanced players in the league: Tatum systematically monitors multiple high-level positions and played the most minutes on the defense of the Celtics fourth place (which allowed 5.2 points less than 100 when he played compared to when he was off the pitch). He also finished eighth in winning defensive action and 15th in real plus-minus defensive. The version of Tatum we saw in the first half of the season was good enough to be an All-Star; what we saw in the second half was undoubtedly one of the top 10 players.
Speaking of players with a crazy positive side, let’s move on to an athletic wonder whose marriage of brutality with blunt strength and refinement as a director was one of the most stunning revelations of the season.
Adebayo has been impressive in his first two seasons in Miami, contributing to a backup role behind Hassan Whiteside and showing signs like a man diving in spring heels, a rebound that protects the edges and a defender with quick feet that can pass to the guards. When Heat swapped Whiteside in the mega four team deal that brought Jimmy Butler to South Beach, I expected Adebayo to step forward while taking on the initial job. I did it not they expect him to start throwing passages across the court like a Nikola Jokic carved in granite. Bam noted an assist on 23.6 percent of his teammates’ baskets – only 15 other top men have ever experienced such a high assistance rate.
The defense of Heat has slipped as the season progresses, but Bam’s individual effort and impact as background captain have not diminished; Miami allowed 2.2 points less than 100 with him on the field. With its combination of size, strength, length, speed and will, Adebayo is able to defend anyone: silver point protectors, smart wing markers, bruising great men and even the MVP of the league:
Adebayo has cemented himself this season as defending candidate of the year is a directing center on an eighth offense. He has already become a special player, one who, at 22, has swept away pre-draft expectations of what he might become.
By the way …
In the end, I went back to what I felt after the first quarter of the season: impressive and valid like all the other improvement brands, and difficult as all these jumps have to do, there is nothing more impressive or difficult than becoming one of the top five players in the league. As I ended up leaving Doncic just outside my top five in the MVP vote, he was on the thinner side; it’s fucking unreal, in a way that even the first heady days of the “Halleluka” ad campaign haven’t fully projected.
This season, Doncic has become only the fifth player to have averaged 28 points, eight rebounds and eight assists per game, joining Oscar Robertson, James Harden, Michael Jordan and Russell Westbrook. He has driven not only the number of this season. 1 offense, but statistically no. 1 NBA crime neverand it did so by combining efficiency of use and scoring at a level equal only to Harden and Giannis. The Mavericks set their defenses on fire at 118.5 points per 100 possessions with Doncic on the field, and did so largely on his ability to stretch opponents with the threat of his jumper, manipulate helping defenders with his eyes, fire shooters with both hands, or blow past the first line of defense to get into the paint for a layup, float, or drain for a big man on the prowl. It was an unsolvable equation, but it wasn’t just the natural progression of his first year.
Doncic clearly got in shape, allowing him to deal with his gigantic workload more skillfully without wearing himself out. He got stronger, which helped him end up in traffic; after shooting 62% on the edge like a rookie, he converted 73% of his attempts within 4 feet of the basket this season, placing him in the 94th percentile of all the wings of the league. He worked harder on the glass, accumulating nearly a quarter of the available defensive rebounds, an elite number for one wing, and this helped Dallas get off guard and put the defenses on his heels, with the Mavs averaging 11.7 more points per 100 passes play with Doncic on the field than when he was off the field.
He squeezed the handle and refined his decision-making process; while he has made more sales per game this season, his turnover percentage has actually decreased compared to his beginner campaign, and he has released the third best percentage of assistance in the league. And as John Hollinger observed AtleticoDoncic also worked diligently to improve his left hand, opening the corners that the defenses were able to close to attack, probe, pass and shoot. Now, the whole plan is unlocked and opponents have to fear that Doncic will choose them from all parts of the field.
No league player has made a bigger or more significant leap in Doncic’s season. He returned to Dallas to play the playoffs, teaming up with Kristaps Porzingis, side-team genius Rick Carlisle and a deep list of complementary role-playing players to create an offensive juggernaut, one that promises to become even more frightening as Doncic continues to work on the his jumper. If the offense of Luka and Mavericks is already This well as he shoots 31.8 percent from 3, what new hell can he unleash if he follows Harden’s footsteps and reaches 35 or 36, or even higher?
I guess opponents aren’t too eager to find out. I also suppose, based on the pace and extent of the improvements Doncic has made so far, that we may not have to wait that long before they do.