NBA MVP and awards picks in the year of Giannis Antetokounmpo





Did you see that block Giannis Antetokounmpo had the other night? You know the one I’m talking about, when he snuffed Joel Embiid at the rim and started a Milwaukee fast break in the other direction. Actually that generic description doesn’t really do that block justice, so let’s rewind.

That’s Joel Embiid, all 7-feet and 250 pounds (plus) of him, rolling to the basket with a clear lane and an easy jam. And there’s Antetokounmpo, standing all the way across the paint. It takes him one step and a hop to cover that ground, and when he does, he’s ready to meet Embiid before he even gets to the paint.

Embiid sees Antetokounmpo coming and adds a little extra to his launch, but it’s already too late. Embiid goes high, but his opponent goes higher. Embiid brings down the hammer, but Antetokounmpo is too strong. He redirects the ball so that it glances harmlessly against the rim where it drops into his hands. As Embiid grabs his back in a heap on the floor, Antetokounmpo is off racing down the other end of the floor.

Antetokounmpo had four more blocks that night, all of them impressive. He had 45 points and 13 rebounds too. And six assists. And was a plus-9 in 35 minutes in a game the Bucks won by six on the road to clinch the best record in basketball. As closing MVP statements go, it was a hell of a finish.

All season long we’ve had moments and games like this. Antetokounmpo plays out of his mind one night and James Harden does him one better the next. Each night you think, well, there’s your MVP right there. And then the other one does something even better and your mind changes again.

Because he’s a scorer, Harden’s moments feel iconic. His shots literally win games down the stretch. Antetokounmpo’s moments are more sublime. A chase-down block here or a staggering Euro-step dunk in transition over there.

His moments are the reason his team wins games, but the Bucks don’t just win games. They blow teams out. A lot of Antetokounmpo’s best moments happen earlier in games mainly because his presence isn’t necessary down the stretch. The Bucks do their work and sit back and watch garbage time with their friends. They make it look easy when it’s not.

Harden’s Rockets have had to scratch and claw their way out of a hole since November, weathering injuries and the rugged Western Conference. It’s hard winning games that way and they’ve done it as well as anyone over the second half of the season because Harden is an offensive machine.

Harden’s had the second-best scoring season in 50 years as Matt Moore pointed out. He was the MVP last season and he’s been even better this season. His step-back is unstoppable. His floater is lethal. His playmaking is essential. He lives at the free-throw line. He’s unguardable, basically. And his defense is better than it has been, particularly in the Rockets’ scheme.

I voted for Harden last season and would have no problem doing so again this season. Except for Antetokounmpo.


NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Milwaukee Bucks

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not just that his Bucks have been the best team in the league. They’ve been the best team in the league by a significant margin and the primary reason for that is Antetokounmpo. He keys their top-ranked defense with his ability to cover ground and control the paint. Antetokounmpo is a completely different offensive player than Harden — apples and pomegranates — but he’s incredibly efficient.

Antetokounmpo put up 27.7 points points, 12.5 rebounds, and 5.9 assists while shooting 58 percent from the field. You have to go back to Kareem, Wilt, Elgin, and Oscar to find players who put up those kind of stat lines, and none of them shot 58 percent.

Harden’s scoring broke basketball. Antetokounmpo is dominance personified on both ends of the floor. They are both historic players and completely deserving of the MVP, which is a subjective award and ultimately up to the individual whim of the voter. So I keep coming back to this: Antetokounmpo made his team the best in the league because of his dominant two-way performance.

The rest of MVP ballot is fluid. For most of the season I’ve had Paul George penciled in third place. His late season slide caused me to reassess, but I’m sticking with him in that spot because of how great he was over the first five months.

I have Steph Curry fourth because we shouldn’t take him or the Warriors for granted just because we can. Fifth place could go in a number of different directions. I settled on Nikola Jokic just barely ahead of Embiid and Damian Lillard.

MVP

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee

James Harden, Houston

Paul George, Oklahoma City

Steph Curry, Golden State

Nikola Jokic, Denver

ALL-NBA

Why, yes, I do have LeBron James as a third-team forward even though his 55 games played gives me pause, as does the Laker second half collapse. The argument for James is straightforward: 28-8-8. Also, he’s freaking LeBron. Come on.

The center spots were the toughest to pick. As with the MVP vote, I have Jokic barely over Embiid. The third-team center spot is brutal, but I’m going to reward winning and pick Rudy Gobert. Karl Anthony-Towns is one of the 15 best players in the league and even though I could make him a forward, we all know that he’s not.

I’m fully aware that voting, or not voting, for Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal impacts their chances at getting supermax contracts in the offseason. I don’t like it, and I wish the NBA would separate contractual matters from media voting. I can also say with confidence that neither situation influenced my vote.

In the end, I slotted Russell Westbrook into the third team and voted for Walker ahead of Beal. May they both find themselves in better situations than what they had this year. If you want to know if I considered somebody not mentioned below, the answer is yes. Of course I did.

First Team

Guards: James Harden, Steph Curry

Forwards: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George

Center: Nikola Jokic

Second Team

Guards: Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving

Forwards: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard

Center: Joel Embiid

Third Team

Guards: Russell Westbrook, Kemba Walker

Forwards: LeBron James, Blake Griffin

Center: Rudy Gobert

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Over the weekend I constructed arguments in my head for the following players: Gobert, Antetokounmpo, and Paul George. I would have made one for Embiid as well, but he’s played fewer games than the others and that has to matter.

PG spent most of the season atop my unofficial DPOY list, but his late-season slide caused me to reassess the field. George is a steals and deflection machine, whose strong on/off splits highlight his importance on one of the top defensive teams in the league.

Gobert is Gobert. He’s a defensive system just by taking the floor and he makes everyone around him better. Look at the defensive metrics of players like Derrick Favors and Joe Ingles, fine defenders who look like Ben Wallace and Sidney Moncrief next to Gobert.


Portland Trail Blazers v Utah Jazz

Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images

Antetokounmpo is the linchpin for Milwaukee’s top-rated defense. The Bucks famously protect the rim by dropping center Brook Lopez back into the paint and being smart enough to understand who should be taking 3’s, and who shouldn’t. It’s a terrific scheme, turned into a great one by the constant presence of Antetokounmpo.

You can’t go wrong with any of these players, but I’m going with Antetokounmpo because he protects the paint and patrols the perimeter. He’s also a force in transition — witness his chasedown blocks — and a monster on the boards. This is the season of Antetokounmpo and maybe the dawning of a new era.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee

Rudy Gobert, Utah

Paul George, Oklahoma City

ALL DEFENSE

These are always the hardest to compile because as much as we can track defensive impact, NBA defense is complex and team dependent. I’ll reiterate my case that these teams should be chosen by video coordinators, who watch way more basketball than any human ever should.

Of note: I have Pascal Siakam ahead of Kawhi Leonard. In a vacuum I’d take Kawhi if I had one possession and my season depended on the outcome. In this season, Siakam has played a bigger role in Toronto’s stellar defense.

Also, there’s not enough room for Myles Turner who has been one of the top five defenders in the league. Positions are passe, but rules are rules.

First Team

Guards: Eric Bledsoe, Danny Green

Forwards: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George

Center: Rudy Gobert

Second Team

Guards: Patrick Beverley, Marcus Smart

Forwards: Pascal Siakam, Draymond Green

Center: Joel Embiid

COACH OF THE YEAR: Mike Budenholzer

In Year One of the Coach Bud era, the Bucks improved from 44 to 58 wins. They also improved their defensive rating from 19th to first. Bud’s imprint on the Bucks was so apparent that most analysts had already engraved his name on the Auerbach trophy by December. It’s tempting after a long season to consider the alternatives, but this is a no-brainer.

Bud’s Bucks have the best record in the league and the top point differential. Point guard Eric Bledsoe has enjoyed a career season under Budenholzer and Brook Lopez has revitalized his career. It’s no coincidence that Antetokounmpo, my choice for MVP and DPOY, has been the best player in the league in Bud’s system.

That’s not to say there haven’t been other outstanding coaching jobs this season. Nate McMillan weathered injuries to Victor Oladipo and kept the Pacers competitive with a smart, disciplined defensive style. Michael Malone’s Nuggets finally took the leap from playoff contender to top-2 seed in the West with a commitment to defense despite numerous injuries.

Then there’s Doc Rivers who guided the Clippers to the postseason even when they had little organizational incentive to make it, and even when they traded their best player at the deadline. We tend to forget what makes Doc such a good coach during his early days with the Clippers, but turning a team into more than the sum of its parts is how he made his name in Orlando all those years ago.

I have Doc second and Malone third on my ballot, which means I don’t have a vote left for McMillan. That’s a shame. Gregg Popovich, Mike D’Antoni, Kenny Atkinson, Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford, and Dave Joerger have also all done excellent work this season.

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee

Doc Rivers, Los Angeles

Michael Malone, Denver

You’d be hard pressed to find two more different types of Sixth Men than Lou Williams and Domantas Sabonis. One is a bench scorer supreme. The other is a versatile big who impacts the game on both ends. Both are capable of turning around games when they come on the floor.

This is a tossup, but I’m going with Williams because he’s often on the floor in crunch time while Sabonis sits for Myles Turner. Fellow Clipper reserve Montrezl Harrell is third on my ballot. Maybe that makes Trez the league’s best seventh man?

Lou Williams, Clippers

Domantas Sabonis, Indiana

Montrezl Harrell, Clippers

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Pascal Siakam

In 2018, Siakam averaged 7 points and 4 rebounds off the bench for the Raptors, displaying a high upside as a multi-positional defender. In 2019, Siakam averaged 16.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in a starting role and was often the best player on the floor for a Toronto team that won 58 games. Throw in vastly-improved 3-point shooting and Siakam is the very definition of improved.

There’s been some weird pushback that Siakam is merely benefitting from a bigger role but that’s wrong on two levels. First, the per-36 numbers bear out his scoring surge. Second, his defense has been outstanding. Finally, he wouldn’t have a bigger role if he didn’t improve so much.

Making the most of your minutes is one thing. Earning a bigger role on a contender is what separates Siakam from the field.

De’Aaron Fox rebounded from a poor rookie season to have a strong second season. As a top-5 pick he’s supposed to make big strides in his second season. But Fox improved across the board to the point where if we held a 2017 redraft right now he might go number one overall. I was late coming around on D’Angelo Russell but the fourth-year guard has grown on me during his breakthrough season.

I’m not averse to voting for stars who make significant leaps like George and Antetokounmpo, but the spirit of the award lies with those who take that initial step.

Pascal Siakam, Toronto

De’Aaron Fox, Sacramento

D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn

Doncic was anointed the league’s top rookie back in November and here’s another award where voters have perhaps grown bored with the status quo. After a shaky start, Atlanta’s Trae Young has enjoyed a remarkable season. Jaren Jackson was just ready to make a big push when he got hurt. Phoenix’s Deandre Ayton has also been quietly strong. They’ve all provided quality competition for Doncic.


NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Atlanta Hawks

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s also true that Doncic struggled a bit down the stretch after injuries and trades began to peck away at the rookie’s supporting cast. At the same time, Young blossomed into a potential All-Star with the Hawks. And yet, Doncic’s numbers still compare favorably to Young’s and he’s been surprisingly serviceable on the defensive end. That’s a far cry from Young who is, frankly, a liability at this stage of his career.

My hunch is that Jackson will eventually emerge as the top player in this class, but for now, it’s Luka.

Luka Doncic, Dallas

Trae Young, Atlanta

Deandre Ayton, Phoenix

ALL-ROOKIE

What a great rookie class. The top four spots on the first team are fairly obvious. I’m giving Shai Gilgeous-Alexander the other spot given how much he impacts winning.

Collin Sexton sure can score. He gets a second-team nod along with Marvin Bagley (another potential All-Star) and Mikal Bridges, who is everything he was supposed to be coming into the draft. The Knicks may really have something with Mitchell Robinson.

The last pick came down to Landry Shamet or Kevin Huerter. Shamet is the better shooter and defender. Huerter has a better all-around game. Shamet’s done his work for playoff teams, so he gets the slight edge.

First Team: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

Second Team: Marvin Bagley, Mikal Bridges, Collin Sexton, Mitchell Robinson, Landry Shamet.





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