The National Basketball Association has only seen four players win back-to-back Most Valuable Awards since the turn of the century.
Last week, I went over some candidates for the NBA’s yearly awards and compared them to my initial list from November, a month into the season.
That piece addressed most valuable player, rookie of the year, and most improved player.
Now, we’ll finish up with defensive player of the year, sixth man of the year, and coach of the year.
Sticking with the format from last week, I’ll give my top three candidates and then do a quick comparison to the list from early in the season.
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz C
I was disappointed when Gobert went down with a knee injury earlier in the season as he was a strong contender for the award from the start.
Luckily enough for him, an injury to Joel Embiid allowed Gobert to close some of the gap in games played and launched him back into the conversation.
Sure, he only appeared in 56 games, but he showcased his value in every single one, putting up solid though not eye-popping counting stats – 13.5 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists to go along with 2.3 blocks per game.
The best way to measure his impact is to see how the team performed with him off the floor. For example, with him on the court, opposing teams scored 8.8 fewer points per 100 possessions and shot 3.3 per cent worse in eFG percentage (shooting adjusted for the extra point from threes), putting him in the 96th and 93rd percentile league-wide in those categories.
His impact was the greatest in the paint, and opposing teams were so worried about his presence that they took 6.2 per cent fewer shots at the rim (defined as within four feet of the basket) with him on the court, placing him in the 98th percentile there.
Utah’s second-half surge to claim the fifth seed in the Western Conference can largely be attributed to Gobert’s return from injury, which turned the Jazz into one of the league’s strongest defence down the stretch. They finished the season with the second best defensive rating in the league, at 101.6, just a hair behind the Celtics’ 101.5.
Gobert has clearly been one of the most impactful players in defence this season, and deserves the award.
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers C
Embiid was finally unleashed this year without minutes restrictions and displayed his incredible two-way ability as the 76ers posted a defensive rating of 102.0, good for third in the league. Opposing teams managed 7.4 points per 100 possessions fewer with him in the game and shot 7.3 per cent worse at the rim – excellent numbers all around.
It’s easy to overlook his defence in favour of his crafty post moves or deadly jump shot, but Embiid’s greatest asset is his ability to control a game on the defensive end.
Had he played around 70 (or more) games instead of 63, I might’ve given him the edge over Gobert. As it stands, however, Gobert was more crucial to altering his team’s identity and the Sixers were much better without Embiid than the Jazz were without the Frenchman.
Embiid is undoubtedly a much better basketball player than Gobert is and almost certainly will bag a couple DPOY awards in the next five years, but it’s not his for the taking just yet.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans PF/C
The Pelicans were another team that surged down the stretch – and have shown no signs of stopping, as their sweep of Portland indicates – and Davis deserves a lot of credit as another spectacular two-way menace.
As the most athletic of the top three candidates, Davis is the most exciting to watch and turned in the most highlight reel plays, flying all over the court to record blocks and contest shots at the rim.
As good as he is, Davis just isn’t quite the defensive deterrent that Gobert and Embiid are – the Pelicans posted a decent defensive rating of 105.6 (13th in the NBA), which doesn’t quite stack up to the level of Utah and Philadelphia.
Part of that stems from him not having teammates as defensively capable as some of Gobert’s (think Ricky Rubio) and Embiid’s (Ben Simmons and Robert Covington), but you just don’t quite fear Davis at the rim as much as you do the others.
The fact that a player mostly known for his offence is even in this discussion is a big achievement for him, and he has made major strides defensively over the past two seasons.
November’s top candidates
My initial top three was Paul George, Embiid, and Al Horford, with Gobert as an honourable mention as he had already suffered an injury at that point.
George and Horford were both excellent on defence all season and anchored top ten defences, but Gobert’s return and subsequent dominance give him a clear edge.
Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers PG/SG
It was an easy one this year, with Williams, who has been a staple in these discussions over the past four years or so, clearly the most deserving candidate.
He was incredible off the bench for a Clippers team that lost both Chris Paul and Blake Griffin to other teams by the end of the season.
His career averages are 13.7-2.1-3.1, but he exploded for 22.6-2.5-5.3 this year. Lethal from all spots on the floor, it was a joy to see him provide a spark every time he checked into the game.
A couple stats jump out.
First, the Clippers were an astounding +11.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, good for the 98th percentile in that category.
Second, his passing was much improved. 5.3 APG is easily a career high for him, and he did a good job setting his teammates up and taking fewer terrible shots than he did in previous years.
He may be a substitute in name only, as he did play major minutes every night, but he only started 19 games and therefore qualifies for the award. In the end, no one else came off the bench and led an offence as well as Sweet Lou did.
Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets SG
Last year’s winner is right back in the conversation again with another strong year, recording a stat line of 18.0-2.5-2.2.
Part of Houston’s success this season was their ability to still perform at a high level with one of either Chris Paul or James Harden on the bench, and Gordon was a major factor in making that possible.
Best known for his long-range shooting, he played well off the ball and hit plenty of big shots – including an early season game winner against the 76ers – while putting in solid enough effort in on defence.
His consistency allowed Houston to power through injuries to some of their key players. We can see an example of his importance right now in the playoffs, as his struggles against the Timberwolves are factoring into some uncharacteristically poor offensive displays by Houston.
However, he loses out to Williams as the Clippers star performed better with more of an offensive load.
Will Barton, Denver Nuggets SG
One of the league’s more underrated players, Barton played a major role in Denver’s strong season, even if they did miss the playoffs by one game. He had a career year, posting 15.7-5.0-4.1 in 81 games.
He started 40, so he just barely qualifies for the award. With Gary Harris missing a good chunk of the stretch run, Barton stepped into a starting role to close out the year and turned in a flurry of quality scoring games to keep the Nuggets in playoff contention until the final day.
Those final few games may have opened people’s eyes, but he was a consistent performer all season and should remain in the 6MOTY conversation.
November’s top candidates
Jonathon Simmons, Tyreke Evans and Rudy Gay, with Eric Gordon as an honourable mention (he had started too many games due to Paul’s injury). Evans had a fantastic year but ended up starting too many games and then got shut down early by the tanking Grizzlies. If he had remained in a bench role, he might just have got the edge over Williams.
Simmons had a nice season but also started too many games. Gay played solid basketball but didn’t have the chance to put up a great stat line as he only played 21 minutes per game.
Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
This was such a tough decision, with at least five deserving candidates this season. Ultimately, Stevens, one of the league’s brightest young coaches, got the most out of his team.
Just one day into the season, he was facing an uphill battle as the Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to a season-ending injury. This messed up Stevens’ wing rotation, forcing him to give more minutes to young players like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Kyrie Irving also dealt with injury issues and eventually was shut down for the year, robbing the team of their last true offensive threat.
Despite these challenges, Stevens guided his young team to a 55-27 record, good enough for second in the East. This was largely due to Stevens’ excellent defensive system, a disciplined, switch heavy scheme that yielded the league’s best defensive rating at 101.5.
He squeezed production out of unheralded players such as Shane Larkin and Terry Rozier (who might deserve some most improved player consideration) during a roller coaster ride of a season that saw the Celtics go on a massive win streak and battle back from multiple huge deficits to snatch improbable victories.
If Stevens can lead a team to 55 wins under these conditions, I’m almost afraid to see what he’ll do with a healthy squad next season.
Brett Brown, Philadelphia 76ers
During the preseason, most people would have tabbed the 76ers as a 47-win team at best – sure they had young talent, but inexperienced teams rarely realise their full potential from the start.
Fast forward to now, and the Sixers secured third seed in the East on the back of 52-30 record.
Brown deserves a lot of credit for this success. He’s managed a bunch of young talent, incorporated veteran acquisitions like Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova, and put together a beautiful motion offence that flows seamlessly and moves the ball well.
On top of that, Philadelphia put together one of the league’s top defences.
It’s been incredible to watch the 76ers grow over the course of the season and see them holding their own in a physical playoff series against the Heat.
We’re splitting hairs between Stevens and Brown, and I have no issues with anyone picking one of these two coaches over the other. I give Stevens the edge as he dealt with a more depleted squad.
Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Snyder – there are quite a few members of the Jazz organisation showing up in the discussion for these end of year awards.
In a season full of surprises, Utah bouncing back from the loss of Gordon Hayward to go 48-34 and snatch the fifth seed over the likes of New Orleans, Minnesota and San Antonio was one of the least expected – many people predicted that they would miss the playoffs entirely.
Despite some early struggles, Snyder kept his team organised and made good calls night after night, eventually leading the Jazz on a massive late-season surge that propelled them into the playoffs with a good chance to advance to the second round.
They simply kept winning games despite lacking an established superstar player, combining a stifling defence with crisp ball movement.
It’s time that Snyder gets the respect he deserves as one of the league’s top coaches.
November’s top candidates
Stevens, Gregg Popovich and Stan Van Gundy, with Dwane Casey as an honourable mention. Aside from Van Gundy, whose Pistons fell off a cliff as the season progressed, I’m happy with those picks.
Casey finally got around to tweaking the Raptors’ offence, and it paid off as they secured the first seed in the East. He deserves real consideration for the award, but he did benefit from a veteran team that largely remained healthy. That being said, having him outside my top three might be disrespecting him and I can see the arguments for him being the top candidate on the list.
It’s been talked to death at this point, but Popovich deserves so much respect for everything he’s dealt with on and off the court this season. We’re lucky to have him be one of the faces of the league.
In closing, I also must mention a few others – Nate McMillan of the Indiana Pacers, Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans and Terry Stotts of the Portland Trailblazers. All these coaches led their teams to much better seasons than anyone could have hoped for and deserve to be recognised for their performances.