I like good sports documentaries. I like exploring the psychology of how individuals and teams work.
Back in November, a month into the NBA season, I went over some early front-runners for the NBA’s annual awards.
Since then, we’ve had one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. Teams such as Houston and Toronto appeared to take the next step towards becoming elite, injuries and internal turmoil revealed some cracks in the armour of finals favourites Cleveland and Golden State and star rookies led Philadelphia and Utah to surprising success.
Now that the playoffs are officially underway, it’s a good time to go back and see how the picture has changed over 82 regular season games.
In part one, I’ll go over MVP, ROY and MIP. I’ll present my top three candidates and then compare them to my initial list.
Most valuable player
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets PG/SG
This is an easy one. Before the season started, there were some questions as to whether the addition of Chris Paul would negatively impact Harden.
“There’s only one ball,” people said. “It’ll never work.”
That was a silly thing to be worried about, and Harden was silencing the doubters as soon as the season started. He ended the season averaging 30.4 points (leading the NBA), 5.4 rebounds and 8.8 assists per game and was dominant night after night.
Watching Harden go to work is always a treat. He plays with a sleepy style, slowly dribbling into rhythm before either crossing over and blowing by his defender or stepping back for impossible, demoralising three-pointers.
The aspect of his game that truly stood out this year was his isolation play. A whopping 35.1 per cent of his possessions came in iso, and yet he still managed 1.22 points per possession on those plays, best in the league among qualifying players.
No other team in the NBA averaged more than 1.12 points per possession on isolation plays. Let that sink in.
Harden was on another level this year, and this is the year where he finally sheds the runner-up label.
2. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers SF
In most other years, James would be a lock for MVP. In year 15 of his legendary career, he showed no signs of slowing down and turned in one of his best seasons to date, dropping 27.5/8.6/9.1 with one of his best three-point shooting performances ever.
He was particularly dominant since February as he led the Cavaliers out of the rut they had fallen into while Isaiah Thomas was playing.
However, an ugly run in January puts some distance between Harden and James. During the time, James looked totally disengaged, particularly on the defensive end, as the Cavs plummeted down the standings.
Harden’s consistency and success in leading the Rockets to the first seed in a more difficult conference give him the edge.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets PF/C
Despite the crushing injury to DeMarcus Cousins, it has been an excellent year for Davis and the Pelicans. Davis put the team on his back down the stretch, leading the team to a sixth-place finish in the West and their first playoff appearance since the 2014-2015 season.
He averaged 28.1/11.1/2.3 and has seemed to shed the inconsistency that has plagued him in the past as he was dominant on both sides of the ball to end the season. Davis has played well enough to insert himself firmly into the MVP discussion, even if he won’t win it this time.
If you believe that he keeps this recent performance up next season, Davis could be a trendy dark horse MVP candidate.
November’s top candidates
A month into the season, I had Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James, in that order. Antetokounmpo fell off a little bit as the season went on, but I’d still put him as the fifth or sixth MVP candidate. Davis’ second-half surge vaulted him from fringe candidate to one worthy of discussion.
Stephen Curry and DeMarcus Cousins were my honourable mentions, but both have missed too many games due to injuries to factor into the discussion at this point.
Rookie of the year
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers PF/PG
Let’s put an end to the debate right now. Ben Simmons is a rookie this season. Despite whatever your opinion on players essentially redshirting a year might be, we abide by the NBA’s rules. Donovan Mitchell can wear all the sweatshirts he wants, but it won’t change anything.
Donovan Mitchell’s hoodie though lmao ? pic.twitter.com/VFbeugz77i
— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) April 10, 2018
The Aussie easily surpassed the high expectations fans had for him coming into the year, finishing with a robust stat line of 15.8/8.1/8.2 while also contributing 1.7 steals per game. He made the most of his freakish physical tools, placing an emphasis on getting to the rim with his unique blend of size and speed.
His court vision and handles, so rare for someone at his height, have led people to label him as this generation’s LeBron James or Magic Johnson as he racks up triple-doubles in the point forward role.
The concerns about his defensive engagement in college at LSU were laid to rest as he was fully locked in once he stepped on an NBA court. Simmons was a plus defender throughout the season, able to present a challenge to players at multiple positions with his length and lateral quickness.
Concerns remain about his lack of a jumper, but it barely even matters with his skillset right now. At only 21 years old, he has plenty of time to improve. Just developing an average shot will make him impossible to guard, but we’ll have to wait at least a couple years to see if he can add that to his game.
His statistical profile, seamless transition to the NBA and major role in leading a surprising Philadelphia team on a historic win streak and the third seed in the East solidifies his candidacy for me.
2. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz SG
Back in November, I listed Mitchell among my honourable mentions and had this to say:
“I’ve been a huge fan of Donovan Mitchell since Summer League, and now that he is finally getting time in Utah the explosive athlete is looking like one of the steals of the draft. He’s getting run at the point and has the green light to shoot on a depleted Jazz squad, so we should learn a lot about him by the end of the season.”
Well, what have we learned?
Mitchell has superstar written all over him. If you took your glasses off and squinted, you’d think that you’re watching a young Dwyane Wade play for Utah.
Mitchell is already an excellent scorer, with explosive athletic ability that has led to more than its share of highlight dunks. He’s got the handles and crafty moves to get to the rim, where he is capable of gravity-defying, acrobatic finishes.
Unlike Simmons, Mitchell has range that extends well beyond the three-point line. In fact, he broke Damian Lillard’s record for most three-pointers made by a rookie with 186.
He ended the season with averages of 20.5/3.7/3.7, outscoring Simmons but lagging far behind when it comes to passing and rebounding. I give Simmons the edge due to the strength of his all-around game. While Mitchell is shaping up to be a perennial All-Star, Simmons looks like he’ll be a yearly MVP candidate.
Credit where it’s due though – Mitchell made the rookie of the year debate a lot closer than anyone could have imagined at the beginning of the season.
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics SF
The Boston Celtics are spoiled when it comes to young talent, and Tatum is the latest to join the squad. At just 19 years old, he came in looking like a five-year veteran, displaying a versatile game with few weaknesses.
His usage rate is lower than Simmons’ and Mitchell’s, and so he put up a less flashy line of 13.9/5.0/1.6. However, it’s easy to see how those numbers can rise with an increased role.
He’s an athletic finisher and a deadeye from long range, shooting an excellent 43.4 per cent from beyond the arc. His length also hints at the potential for him to develop into a lockdown defender, and he’ll only continue to grow under Brad Steven’s tutelage.
November’s top candidates
My initial top three was Simmons, Tatum and the Laker’s Kyle Kuzma. Kuzma still deserves a mention but has been firmly supplanted by Mitchell’s meteoric rise. A dark horse favourite of mine was Chicago’s sharpshooting forward Lauri Markkanen, but he ultimately missed a lot of games due to injury and the Bull’s tanking shenanigans.
Most improved player
1. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers SG
Where did this come from? After being traded for Paul George in the offseason, Oladipo leapt from solid starter to All-Star, raising his scoring by 7 PPG to finish with a line of 23.1/5.2/4.3.
I was still sceptical after the first couple months – after all, Oladipo’s explosiveness had offered glimpses of his potential, but he had never lived up to expectations. He never slowed down after his hot start, setting career highs across the board in areas such as three-point shooting percentage and steals per game.
He was thrust into the spotlight in a city desperate for a star to replace George, and responded with clutch performances game after game, leading Pacers to the fifth seed after some had wondered if they might miss the playoffs entirely.
He’s a lock for this award, and no one else has much of an argument.
2. Spencer Dinwiddie, Brooklyn Nets PG
What was initially looking like a promising season for the Nets quickly turned into a disaster as they lost Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell to long-term injuries within the first 12 games. Cavaliers fans rubbed their hands with glee as they envisioned the Nets draft pick, which Cleveland had the rights to, conveying in the top three.
But along came Dinwiddie, a 25-year-old point guard who had spent most of his career playing in the G-League. He played a number of games for the Nets last year, but only put up around seven points and three assists per game.
Thrust into a major role this season, he responded with a line of 12.6/3.2/6.6, almost doubling his output from last year. He was a steady presence at the point for the young Nets, providing a solid mix of dribble penetration and outside shooting along with a low turnover rate.
He also had his fair share of clutch baskets and helped the Nets scrape 28 wins – all in all, something that the fans should be satisfied with considering the adversity that this team faced.
3. Clint Capela, Houston Rockets C
Sometimes, a player is just a perfect fit for a system. Capela has reaped the benefits of playing alongside Harden and Paul, putting up 13.9/10.8/0.9 on a ridiculous 65.2 FG per cent.
Sure, he gets spoon fed a lot of easy dunks and layups, but there’s more to his game than that – Capela has excellent instincts, always knowing when to cut to the hoop when his point guard drives or when to slip a screen to catch the defence off guard.
His high energy playstyle makes him one of the best rim running bigs in the game, and he is a much bigger part of the Rockets’ success than he gets credit for.
November’s top candidates
Ouch. My top three initially consisted of Kristaps Porzingis, Jaylen Brown and Robert Covington, while Oladipo was among my honourable mentions. Porzingis was playing like a true superstar before having his season ended by injury, opening the door for Oladipo to surge up the rankings.
Meanwhile, Brown and Covington were spectacular on the defensive end but too inconsistent offensively to have a real argument.