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Workin' on my free throws
Just kidding! Please keep in mind, as I share my faux awards ballot, that it's the NBA itself that says (for 40+ years) reporters covering #thisleague are the most qualified (and objective) voters
Maybe it's time, as Joel Embiid's personal trainer implored Monday on Twitter, to give the NBA's year-end awards balloting back to the "basketball people."
Go ahead. Take it from us press-row rubes.
Drew Hanlen has been routinely railing at various media members online who have published their ballots but had the temerity to vote for someone other than Embiid as regular-season MVP. Voters who choose Nikola Jokić or Giannis Antetokounmpo instead, Hanlen keeps implying, clearly know nothing about basketball.
Monday night's tweet was apparently inspired by my colleague Kevin O'Connor of The Ringer tweeting out his full ballot for the world to dissect — with Jokić over Embiid for MVP and Embiid relegated to the All-NBA second team. We've covered this ground extensively already, explaining at length that the All-NBA ballot, because of its limitations as currently structured by the league, has only one spot for a center on the first team and thus mandates voters to select Jokić or Embiid at a position he never plays just to wedge them both among the first-team five.
We never did that for Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, or Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, or any other combination of dominant centers you wish to highlight, but we're idiots now if we don't pretend Embiid or Jokić is a forward so both of them make it.
Look: The media covering the NBA is many rungs shy of perfect. Every single voter brings biases and shortcomings to the process beyond their limited ability to finish at the rim. The league office nonetheless continues to ask media members to do the voting because it's the league's view — what the NBA itself, not the reporters, has made its policy for more than four decades — that the press will bring the highest amount of credibility, transparency and impartiality to the process.
If making a left-handed layup or a free throw is better than the hours of study and care that I can only imagine an NBA obsessive like O'Connor poured into his ballot ... go for it. Take it back. Teach us.
My prediction: The masses would be clamoring for the media to reclaim its voting duties after one season.
When it comes to me specifically, as I've explained in recent years, I am no longer an official NBA awards voter — by choice. I withdrew from the process starting with the 2017-18 season, adhering to The New York Times' rules that preclude its writers from voting, and brought that policy with me when I launched this Substack in June 2021.
Yet I will continue to publish an annual ballot to reveal how I would have voted, because it's an excellent way to review the regular season and take stock of numerous key figures throughout the league as the playoffs begin. Holders of official ballots were required to turn in their votes by Monday night at 11:59 PM, which makes this Newsletter Tuesday an ideal time to uncork our selections.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Nikola Jokić (Denver)
2. Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
4. Luka Dončić (Dallas)
5. Jayson Tatum (Boston)
My preseason prediction: Antetokounmpo
Let me share some more voting insight after filling out NBA ballots from the league office for roughly two decades: Personal preference, at some point, is going to come into it when the call is so close. And that doesn't mean, if you disagree, that the voter is dumb or a hater or insufficiently athletic. When the résumés are all so compelling, how else do you decide without mixing in some subjective whim? There's no other way to separate such worthy choices like Jokić, Embiid and Antetokounmpo.
Some voters will disqualify Jokić because the Nuggets fell short of 50 wins. Some will penalize Embiid for Philadelphia's late-season losses to Brooklyn, Denver, Milwaukee and Phoenix … or the fact that James Harden arrived on Feb. 10 to share the load. Some will dock Antetokounmpo points for the way it seemed like the Bucks, at times, were saving themselves for the playoffs.
This is simply one of those seasons where you could choose any one of the three and confidently state that you got it right. I would argue that Dončić is equally deserving for his role in powering Dallas to the league's fifth-best overall record — after a 16-18 start — without anything close to a second All-Star at his side while doing the following:
My pal Howard Beck of Sports Illustrated wrote a great piece this week about how many zillions of layers there actually are to the MVP debate. Beck and I are in our 50s and both hail from the old school that makes a big deal out of the fact that we've seen only two MVPs from teams with less than 50 wins — Moses Malone in 1981-82 and Russell Westbrook in 2016-17 — over the past 40 years.
So why does Jokić deserve to be the third? He led Denver to 48 victories — just three shy of Embiid's 76ers — despite playing without his two most accomplished teammates (Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.) for all but nine games while becoming the first player in league history to amass the ridiculous array of 2,004 points, 1,019 rebounds and 584 assists and compiling the highest Player Efficiency Rating (32.9) in league history. It is a statistical résumé akin to the historic triple-double Westbrook averaged to win his polarizing MVP award after leading the Thunder, fresh off losing Kevin Durant in free agency to Golden State, to 47 wins.
Yet I could argue just as fiercely for Embiid, who became the first center to win the scoring title in nearly a quarter-century and averaged a rather ridiculous 30.6 points, 11.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game himself. The same holds for Antetokounmpo, who bumped his once-suspect success rate from the free-throw line to 72.2% while becoming an even more complete all-around force than he was last July when he won NBA Finals MVP after leading Milwaukee to its first title in 50 years.
We could continue to brawl about the fourth and fifth slots, with countless howls surely forthcoming from the desert if Devin Booker doesn't claim one of them. I tend, like Beck, to see the Suns as a sum-of-their-parts success story, much like Sacramento's glory-years teams starring Chris Webber, Peja Stojaković, Vlade Divac, Doug Christie, Mike Bibby and Coach Rick Adelman, and tried to cushion the blow of having Booker sixth on my MVP list by giving him a spot on the All-NBA first team below.
I’m realistic, though. I’ve long since come to understand that yelling is the default response to any single ballot in the social media age. Some quiet time in the gym to work on my free-throw stroke actually sounds pretty good after putting this piece together.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Scottie Barnes (Toronto)
2. Evan Mobley (Cleveland)
3. Cade Cunningham (Detroit)
My preseason prediction: Jalen Green (Houston)
This is such a great problem to have: A rookie class so good at the top that, just like with the MVP award, you could make a passionate case for anyone in the top three and feel good about the choice.
Mobley is a future Defensive Player of the Year who played a massive role in Cleveland's rise from No. 25 to No. 5 in defensive efficiency. He likely would have run away with the ROY trophy if the Cavaliers could have avoided the 9-17 nosedive that followed their 35-21 start.
Cunningham has averaged 21.1 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game since the All-Star break. Pistons fans are fuming that Detroit's 23-59 record is being held against him, but there's no getting around it: Team success is going to factor into such a close race. (I’m not sure where the notion originated that team success is somehow not applicable when doing ROY calculus. Maybe it’s not as crucial as it is to the MVP math, but why would we ignore it?)
For most of the season, I had Mobley as uncatchable, but the Raptors’ surge up the standings and Barnes’ sizable role at both ends swayed me. Factor in his ultra-mature game and the responsibility Barnes was immediately forced to assume in Toronto to fill the Kyle Lowry void — and how well he coped with that assignment in helping the post-Lowry Raptors rise to No. 5 in the East — and I couldn’t resist.
That said …
I hope that Barnes and Mobley somehow wind up in a Grant Hill/Jason Kidd-inspired tie in the official results, because choosing either one inflicts the voter with an unmistakable sense of snubbery. Can’t wait to see how those with ballots line these three up.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Taylor Jenkins (Memphis)
2. Monty Williams (Phoenix)
3. Ime Udoka (Boston)
My preseason prediction: Nate McMillan (Atlanta)
I can feel the heat from seething Suns fans all the way here at Stein Line HQ in Dallas. A second straight second-place COY finish for Monty Williams, when Phoenix is the lone 60-win team in the league, is harsh and not fair (to put a twist on one of my favorite British-isms).
But Jenkins, to me, really does have an even stronger case. The Grizzlies posted the league's second-best record (as predicted, unlike the Suns' success, by no one) and a glittering 20-4 record when Ja Morant was sidelined by injury. The Grizzlies also join Phoenix as one of the just two teams in the top six in both offensive and defensive efficiency when, again, this team hardly carried juggernaut status into the season.
The field was so stacked that just choosing between Boston's Udoka and Dallas' Jason Kidd for third, after both did the steering for teams that zoomed from sub-.500 to a top-six win total leaguewide with their respective 2022 surges, was agonizing. This likewise implies that Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, whose Heat posted the best record in the East amid nonstop injuries and tension, can land no higher than fifth … which also feels extremely wrong.
Allow us to re-review all of the names we're snubbing along with Kidd from this recent TV essay on the very crowded COY landscape for Bally Sports Southwest.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
1. Dejounte Murray (San Antonio)
2. Jordan Poole (Golden State)
3. Jalen Brunson (Dallas)
My preseason prediction: Poole
Regular readers know my stance on the MIP trophy by now. Ultra-high lottery picks like former No. 2 overall pick Ja Morant are never considered for the award on this ballot — no matter how brightly they shined. Ultra-high lottery picks are supposed to keep improving and developing to reach their projected high ceilings.
I am always going to be drawn to someone like Murray, who was drafted No. 29 overall in 2016 and only emerged as an All-Star for a team that badly needed one in his (whoa) sixth season.
Poole (who averaged 20.8 points and 4.2 assists per game in 51 starts) was so good compensating for the perimeter offense lost when either Stephen Curry or Klay Thompson was out injured that he still might end up winning this thing and making at least one of my October attempts at prescient prognostication come true.
Brunson, meanwhile, merely cemented himself as the Mavericks' most reliable player not named Luka Dončić and put himself in line for a likely four-year offer in free agency in the $80 million range — not too shabby for Dallas' top second-round pick the same year Dončić was drafted. Of course, just to snag No. 3 on this list, Brunson had to be that good to edge out the likes of Memphis' Desmond Bane, Philadelphia's Tyrese Maxey, Boston’s Robert Williams and Portland’s Anfernee Simons.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
1. Kevin Love (Cleveland)
2. Tyler Herro (Miami)
3. Cameron Johnson (Phoenix)
My preseason prediction: Patty Mills
Miami's Herro has been regarded as the 6MOY favorite for months and averaged 20.7 points per game on 39.9% shooting from 3-point range for the East's No. 1 seed.
I'm nonetheless going the sentimental route with my selection, rewarding Cleveland's Love for embracing a bench role few anticipated he would stomach and flourishing both statistically (averaging 13.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game while shooting 39.2% on 3s) and as a leader for the young upstarts from Cleveland.
Love's reputation rebounded to the point that he is one of 12 finalists for the league's Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year award. To get anywhere near the list of nominees represents a massive turnaround from last season, when Love was routinely painted as one of the league's most disgruntled former All-Stars.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis)
2. Rudy Gobert (Utah)
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
My preseason prediction: Gobert
A cocktail of Gobert fatigue, Utah's second-half struggles in spite of Gobert's individual defensive dominance and Draymond Green's injury-ravaged season in Golden State has opened up the DPOY chase to new prime contestants.
Jackson (who keyed Memphis’ rise to the top six in defensive efficiency) and Antetokounmpo (taking on more defensive responsibility than ever with Brook Lopez sidelined for so long) were the standouts for us in addition to Gobert … helped along by the fact that I found it difficult to zero in on one Celtic between Williams and Marcus Smart.
I will confess that this category has become the most taxing struggle, because easily comprehensible defensive data for us nerdy free-throw clankers is hard to come by. Miami's Bam Adebayo might have won the award if he played more than 56 games, while Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, Phoenix's Mikal Bridges, Mobley, Dallas' Dorian Finney-Smith and the Philadelphia duo of Embiid and Matisse Thybulle are bound to get their own fistfuls of DPOY votes. Many different outcomes seem possible here.
G: Luka Dončić (Dallas)
G: Devin Booker (Phoenix)
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
F: Jayson Tatum (Boston)
C: Nikola Jokić (Denver)
G: Ja Morant (Memphis)
G: Stephen Curry (Golden State)
F: Kevin Durant (Brooklyn)
F: DeMar DeRozan (Chicago)
C: Joel Embiid (Philadelphia)
G: Trae Young (Atlanta)
G: Chris Paul (Phoenix)
F: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers)
F: Pascal Siakam (Toronto)
C: Karl-Anthony Towns (Minnesota)
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What was intended to be a brief scoot back to the East Coast became a four-day stay last week thanks to storms Thursday night that grounded my flight home from LaGuardia.
I’ve done enough whining about the travel disruption, so I wanted to use this space to find my inner Mark Followill, who lives not far from me in Dallas as the Mavericks’ play-by-play broadcaster and who, like me, loves to post pictures highlighting the food he is privileged to try and savor on his NBA travels.
Getting stuck for two extra nights in Manhattan, while pricey and disruptive to my pre-playoff workflow, provided ample opportunity to find some memorable dining consolation. I must be missing España more than usual, because I hit the epic Mercado Little Spain complex at Hudson Yards twice in a short span to enjoy some of my favorite classics.
Well-executed simplicity can be as good as the extravagant when it tastes like this meal did: Extra crispy pan con tomate for starters, followed by perfectly broken huevos rotos over delightfully crispy papas fritas, capped by a strong cafe con leche.
We need a Mercado in Dallas! I’m sure Real Madrid export Luka Dončić would agree.
A league-record 605 players logged at least one minute of playing time this season.
The total was obviously padded by the frenzy of players called up on 10-day hardship deals in December and January in the throes of the Omicron variant and the havoc it wreaked on rosters leaguewide.
A new record, not surprisingly, was also set for G League callups this season: 117 players earned a total of 164 callups to help nudge that number of players to appear in regular-season action beyond the 600 mark.
A gem unearthed by my trusty researcher pal Justin Kubatko as the Kings embark on a search for yet another new coach: The franchise endured 15 consecutive losing seasons (two in Kansas City before the move West) leading into Adelman's reign of eight straight playoff seasons with a winning record. The Kings have missed the playoffs for the last 16 seasons in a row since Adelman's ouster following a first-round exit in 2005-06. Thirty-one consecutive losing seasons sandwiching Adelman's tenure? His Hall of Fame induction in 2021 was truly long overdue.
Phoenix's Mikal Bridges logged a league-high total of 2,854 minutes during the regular season. No. 2 in total minutes played? Charlotte's Miles Bridges with 2,837 in two fewer games.
The aforementioned Mark Followill, Dallas' tireless play-by-play man, has been keeping track of this one for us: Only five players this appeared in all 82 games. Washington's Deni Avdija, Detroit's Saddiq Bey, Phoenix's Bridges, Golden State's Kevon Looney and Dallas' Dwight Powell — just 1½ seasons from a torn right Achilles — comprise the fivesome.
The Lakers' LeBron James has missed an average of 26.5 games over the past two seasons — his 18th and 19th. James appeared in 45 of 72 games last season and 56 of 82 games this season. He also missed 27 games in his first season in Los Angeles after never missing more than 13 games in any of his first 15 NBA seasons in Cleveland and Miami.
Kawhi Leonard, Jamal Murray, Ben Simmons, John Wall, Zion Williamson and James Wiseman … pretty much an All-Star team’s worth of players who did not play at all during the regular season. (Wiseman, true, isn’t there yet, but he is a high-profile recent No. 2 overall pick)
Stephen Curry (18), Klay Thompson (50) and Draymond Green (36) combined to miss 104 games this season, but the Warriors still posted the league’s third-best record at 53-29. Mark down Steve Kerr as yet another coach who is unlikely to factor into the Coach of the Year voting in any significant way despite an excellent coaching job in the face of injury adversity.
The emails formally announcing the dismissals of the Lakers’ Frank Vogel and the Kings’ Alvin Gentry landed in my inbox exactly one minute apart Monday.