Lowe: LeBron vs. Giannis, Ja vs. Zion and the big awards debates


Remember the regular season? It was a thing, I swear. Here is the first part of my official NBA awards ballot for that season.

Most Valuable Player

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
4. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
5. Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers

A few media members picking LeBron have invoked the MVP races in 1993 and 1997 — when Charles Barkley and Karl Malone, respectively, unseated Michael Jordan. The implication is obvious: You are about to vote the inferior player just because his story is better.

The difference is that in 1993 and 1997, it was easy to make a statistical case for Jordan. He led Barkley in almost every category. The numbers were closer in 1997, but Jordan led several categories.

There is no statistical case for James. Pick whatever numbers you want: counting stats, rate stats, nerd stats with weird acronyms — Antetokounmpo leads in everything but assists and 3-point shooting. Antetokounmpo is averaging 30 points per game in 31 minutes, one of the most efficient scoring seasons ever, and he might win Defensive Player of the Year. On the few occasions when anyone unfurled a two-way season even approaching that neighborhood, there has been little MVP debate.

LeBron boosters have marshaled evidence the Lakers are much worse when he’s off the floor. They’re right! Opponents have outscored the Lakers by 1.4 points per 100 possessions when LeBron rests. They are plus-10 per 100 with LeBron on the floor.

LeBron carried that burden in the tougher conference. He was surging when the season stopped. Antetokounmpo was about to miss time because of a knee injury. The door was opening. Unfortunately for the human race, that alternate reality never happened.

Milwaukee outscored opponents by four points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo rested — a strong number. When he played, the Bucks obliterated victims by 16 points per 100 possessions — almost like playing full time with the old Golden State Warriors Death Lineup.

I’m not sure taking an average team and making them great is more “valuable” than taking a solid team and making them into some historical juggernaut. The Bucks might be deeper, but the Lakers have Anthony Davis.

If we’re being honest, the case for LeBron really comes down to: You know he’s better. Who do you trust with an NBA Finals game on the line? LeBron is probably still the right answer — on offense. (What if the answer is actually Leonard?) Antetokounmpo has something to prove on the biggest stage.

But that is not what the MVP is. I understand it as: Which player was most valuable — overall and within his specific roster context — over these specific 82 (or in this case, 65-ish) games? The answer is Antetokounmpo.

MORE: Rosters, schedules and standings projections for every team

As to the rest of the ballot:

• There were eight leading candidates for five spots: these five, plus Luka Doncic, Nikola Jokic, and Davis — with a small gap before another set of reasonable names, including Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and a couple of others.

Harden was a pretty easy choice for No. 3 — the league’s leading scorer, perhaps its most devastating standalone offensive force. He slumped toward the end as Russell Westbrook soared, but he is always Houston’s keystone — a magnet for double-teams who creates almost everything for everyone, including Westbrook’s mega-wide driving lanes. He led all eight leading candidates in minutes; he logged almost 450 more — the equivalent of nine full games — than Doncic.

• The name that will draw ire is Lillard at No. 4. Portland is 29-37, and there are voters who disqualify players from mediocre teams. That’s fine. I wouldn’t put any such player above No. 4.

But the word “valuable” nudges voters to consider roster context, and injuries decimated Portland; the Blazers played almost the entire season without their projected three-man starting frontcourt. Lillard within that MASH unit averaged 29 points and eight assists. Doncic, the most notable omission here, checked in at 29 and 9 — a wash. Doncic doubled Lillard in rebounds. Lillard lapped him in 3-point shooting: 39.4% on 10 (!) attempts per game, to 31.8% for Doncic. (Doncic closed the shooting gap some by hitting 57% of his 2s). They are both minuses on defense, though Doncic has the edge because of his size and rebounding. Advanced numbers overall lean Doncic — barely.

Dallas enjoyed mostly good health until Dwight Powell‘s injury. The Mavs are deeper, and outscored opponents by almost the same amount regardless of whether Doncic was playing. The Blazers were roadkill without Lillard. These were his game-by-game scoring totals from one scintillating two-week stretch starting in mid-January: 34, 34, 61, 47, 50, 36, 48, 51. No voter should penalize Doncic for having a better, healthier roster around him, but I feel OK rewarding Lillard for carrying a busted one.

Lillard also logged about 350 more minutes than Doncic. That’s a lot. Availability matters. Lillard led the league in minutes per game. He is one of its steadfast cultural touchstones.

• The last spot came down to Leonard, Doncic, and Jokic. You have to split hairs, and the Lakers’ struggles when Davis played without LeBron left him a hair — exactly one hair — below these three.

Jokic started the season out of shape and indifferent. Doncic was fantastic start to finish but played 54 games — only three more than Mr. Load Management.

The minutes gap is larger; Doncic logged about 150 more than Leonard. That is something, but it’s not the chasm between Lillard/Harden and some other candidates. Doncic nips Leonard in counting stats. Advanced metrics are indistinguishable. They are not comparable on defense, to be polite.

Look, this is the No. 5 five spot — a footnote. Their statistical cases are about equivalent. In the end, I asked myself: Who’s better? Right now, I’ll take the two-time Finals MVP. Doncic is going to win this award someday. Really, you could put any of these guys — plus Paul — at Nos. 4 and 5.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Antetokounmpo
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
3. Davis

The race for spots two and three is murkier than usual, but the winner was easy. We have so much information now — including all that fancy tracking data — you can almost always find one weak spot in a player’s defensive dossier if you look hard enough. The Lakers gave up more points than you’d expect on pick-and-rolls when Davis switched onto guards, per Second Spectrum. On the paltry number of possessions when teams dared post up Leonard — 34 in total — they scorched the Clippers.

Antetokounmpo has no weak spot. He pops up toward the top of damn near every category. He can guard all five positions. He envelopes smaller players, and uses his ridiculous length to bother behemoths. He executes drop-back coverages like a veteran center, feinting at drivers and baiting them into shooting before swallowing the ball.

The only hole to poke is that Antetokounmpo by virtue of defending lots of power forwards is not as involved in the central action as someone like Davis, Gobert, and three other big man candidates: Joel Embiid, Brook Lopez, and Bam Adebayo. Tracking technology recorded Antetokounmpo as the closest defender against about 15.5 opponent shots per 100 possessions — compared to 20.5 for Davis and a league-high 29 for Gobert and Lopez. Gobert defended the screener on almost 2,100 pick-and-rolls, compared to about 700 for Antetokounmpo.

But 700 is still a lot — a top-65 number, only about 200 fewer such plays than Davis faced. And no defender — not even Leonard — inspires more fear away from the ball than Antetokounmpo. He lurks as a fearsome shot-blocker. Opponents hit only 41.8% of shots at the rim with Antetokounmpo nearby, by far the lowest figure in the league, per NBA.com.

When he’s on the wing, knees bent and arms spread, it can appear to an opposing ball handler as if Antetokounmpo takes up an entire half of the floor. That has a powerful deterrent effect: drives not ventured, passes not made. The shot clock ticks. We look at defense as stopping things that happen. We can see that. Cameras can track discrete events, and count them. But defense is also preventing those events from happening at all.

Leonard inspires that same panicked hesitation. You see ball handlers turn the corner on the pick-and-roll, load that crosscourt pass to the corner, and then pull it back when they realize Leonard is the weak-side defender. The next read is to the big man rolling to the rim, but Leonard is a threat to that pass, too.

Leonard eased into things, but by midseason, he was approaching prime San Antonio sharktopus mode. By the end, he was the second-best defender in the league on a possession-to-possession basis — yes, better than Davis. Davis started out smothering everything, and that image of him as implacable all-court destroyer stuck. In reality, his impact waned a bit.

But he logged about 250 more minutes than Leonard. He worked as a small-ball center for about one-third of those minutes, one reason he ended up challenging hundreds more shots than Leonard and corralling hundreds more pick-and-rolls.

And when he’s more off to the side — as he is within the Lakers’ starting five — Davis carries the same “whoa, he’s everywhere” deterrent effect as Antetokounmpo and Leonard. Leonard’s best was better, but between minutes and opportunities, Davis (to these eyes at least) brought slightly more cumulative value.

Davis brings the league’s second-most potent combination of rim protection and perimeter ubiquity. He is one of only two players (along with Jonathan Isaac, coming for one of these spots in his next healthy campaign) to average 1.5 steals and at least two blocks this season. He can switch in a pinch.

That versatility is why Davis edges Lopez and Ben Simmons for the final spot. Lopez has one main job, and does it as well as almost anyone. Gobert does it a bit better, and without the aid of any teammate within spitting distance of this conversation. He is a one-man defensive architecture, and is a little faster and more comfortable scrambling with opposing ball handlers on the perimeter. (One data point: Opponents averaged an embarrassing 0.688 points on 177 isolations against Gobert, the lowest figure in the league among all defenders who faced at least 100 isos, per Second Spectrum. Opponents squeezed out just over one point per play in 100 isolations against Lopez.)

Simmons was tireless hounding whatever opposing player Brett Brown assigned him. Embiid is the single biggest defensive force in the league, but he missed 21 games and sulked through half the ones he did play. That every metric paints him as an elite defender anyway is a testament to how dominant he can be. It will be a disappointment if Embiid doesn’t win this award multiple times.

Gobert also went through mini-funks, and that’s enough for him to cede his throne to Antetokounmpo.

Rookie of the Year

1. Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
2. Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat
3. Brandon Clarke, Memphis Grizzlies

Had the season continued, Zion Williamson would have appeared in a maximum of 37 games and logged about 1,100 minutes. That would not have been enough to usurp Morant, even if Williamson had powered New Orleans past Memphis for the West’s No. 8 seed. Morant is not some winner-by-default. He is one of the transcendent rookie guards of the past 20 years — combining craft, athleticism, and bravado at a position that overwhelms most rookies. He drives winning now. He lifts teammates now.

Williamson in that alternate reality — New Orleans in the playoffs — would have presented an interesting case for spot No. 2 or 3. In this reality, with only 565 minutes in 19 games, putting him on the ballot felt like a cop-out. If you’re considering Williamson that seriously, you should probably give him the award outright; he was the best rookie on a per-minute basis. (I took the same all-or-nothing approach in 2017 with Embiid.)

At first, I had Clarke at No. 2 — a result that would give Memphis the first-ever 1-2 finish. The numbers — advanced and otherwise — aren’t close between Clarke and Nunn. Clarke is nimbler on defense, and a malleable fit on offense. He inflicts damage diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls with dunks and silky floaters — his signature shot, and perhaps already the league’s signature floater. He was money spotting up around the arc. (Clarke is a sneaky Sixth Man of the Year Candidate.)

One big number favored Nunn: 1,846 minutes to Clarke’s 1,086. Some of that is due to Clarke playing behind two capable bigs — Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas — and it can be unfair to punish someone for having good teammates. But Nunn has good teammates, too. He started 62 games and averaged almost 16 points for a strong playoff team. He held his own on defense across two positions, shot decently from almost everywhere, and dished 3.4 dimes per game as an important secondary creator.

There are a bunch of guys who put up semi-comparable counting stats — PJ Washington, Eric Paschall, Coby White, RJ Barrett, Tyler Herro, Rui Hachimura, maybe a few others — but they mostly did so as backups or on awful teams (or both). Terence Davis did winning things for a winning team, but Clarke was better.

Coach of the Year

1. Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors
2. Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City Thunder

Budenholzer should probably be more co-favorite than he appears to be. The Bucks morphed from “chaotic but intriguing” to 60-win-good upon his replacing Jason Kidd, and took another leap this season — the hardest leap to make — to “historically great.” Budenholzer now has a claim as the best coach alive if you want to win as many games as possible. He milks every efficiency hiding in plain sight. Having Budenholzer is like starting every game up 5-0.

I get nervous when he blames high-stakes postseason eliminations largely on unlucky shooting streaks, but he’s not entirely off-base about last season’s conference finals. Milwaukee went ice cold from 3, including on wide-open catch-and-shoot looks. It got lost as the Toronto Raptors snatched control, but Milwaukee had chances to win Game 3 in regulation, overtime, and double overtime — and to take an insurmountable 3-0 lead.

It’s just that many of the Bucks who bonked those looks don’t have track records as above-average 3-point shooters. A few of them suffering ill-timed slumps was not shocking. The Bucks didn’t have any fully formed Plan Bs.

Do they now? Budenholzer and his staff largely doubled down on what made Milwaukee great last season — and improved all of it. They have shown glimpses of the strategic flexibility they need to navigate four playoff series. They might do player development better than any team, and that starts with Budenholzer.

The Thunder underwent a dramatic stylistic shift, and yet it still doesn’t feel as if we know what Donovan stands for as a coach. But maybe that’s the answer: adaptability and consistency. There is value in grasping the preferences of your roster — especially of your stars — and allowing them to do what they do best.

Donovan managed with limited depth. He promoted Luguentz Dort over former first-round picks, and let loose with a triple-point-guard lineup that emerged as one of the very best in the league.

But Nurse and his staff get the nod for reinventing the Raptors in the wake of Leonard’s departure, and somehow emerging with a team just as good — at least in the regular season. Without a slow-it-down go-to guy, Nurse leaned into the strengths of the roster Leonard left behind: pace, unselfishness, and creativity. In the half court, he let Siakam grow into Leonard’s scoring role.

On defense, Nurse toggled matchups and schemes with a calculated unpredictability that flummoxed slack-jawed opponents. He leveraged Toronto’s length and versatility — from Siakam and OG Anunoby, to Chris Boucher and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson. None of it works without some of the NBA’s savviest players, but Nurse maintains the ecosystem.

As always, there are painful omissions — starting with Frank Vogel. Vogel dismissed murmurs that he was a coup victim in waiting, and guided the Lakers to the West’s best record amid the most tumultuous season in memory. Erik Spoelstra blended system and star, and let Adebayo test the limits of his game. Rick Carlisle outthinks almost everyone. His Mavs are ahead of schedule, comfortable in their identity.

No team is further ahead of schedule than Memphis. Taylor Jenkins imported some of Budenholzer’s ideals while etching his own imprint.

All the Pacers do under Nate McMillan is get into your jersey and win games. Doc Rivers, Quin Snyder, Michael Malone, Brad Stevens, and Mike D’Antoni hum along. All are worthy choices.

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Montrezl Harrell, LA Clippers
2. Dennis Schroder, Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Lou Williams, LA Clippers

Williams — three-time winner, including the past two — is less central to the Clippers’ offense with Leonard and George aboard, and he didn’t boost his efficiency in a smaller role. The Clippers can craft crunch-time lineups without him, and probably should if they have a lead. That was unimaginable over the prior two seasons.

Even with Ivica Zubac‘s emergence, Harrell feels more essential as LA’s go-to center. He leads the Clippers in crunch-time minutes. He’s undersized, but he works on defense and offers some schematic flexibility — including the possibility of switching. Opponents hit just 51% of shots at the basket with Harrell nearby, a stingy number.

He is a roaring rim-runner on offense with some spinny post-up touch and passing ability. The Clippers’ scoring margin maintained with Harrell on the floor — an achievement considering their starting five with Zubac destroyed opponents. He has the best advanced stats among all candidates.

Beyond the numbers, there were a lot of games when Harrell’s ferocity — his screaming hunger to bend the rim and humiliate suckers — awakened a Clippers team in coasting mode.

Schroder outdid Williams at the perimeter sparkplug role, and logged almost 2,000 minutes — more than any serious candidate. He posted (by far) the best shooting season of his career, and was a secondary driver of Oklahoma City’s insane crunch-time success; Schroder hit 24-of-47 in the last five minutes of games when the score was within five points, per NBA.com. He recommitted to defense.

The Thunder struggled when Schroder manned the ship without Paul, but that isn’t surprising considering the talent gulf between Oklahoma City’s starters and its non-Schroder bench. He would be a deserving winner. The Thunder have two other point guards. The Clippers have no one like Harrell. In making an impossible choice, Harrell’s uniqueness on his roster wins the day.

Embarrassing admission: I had Norman Powell No. 3 before realizing he started in two more games than he came off the bench, rendering him ineligible. (Serge Ibaka barely misses for the same reason.)

I defaulted to Williams. Two other candidates from winning teams — Goran Dragic and Jordan Clarkson — were slightly lesser (or less important) versions of the same bench scorer archetype. Derrick Rose had a similar season for a horrible team, and his 3-pointer fell off. Williams’ games had real meaning. Rose’s did not. Seth Curry was splendid, but he’s a tick below this crew.

For someone from a bad team to win, his case has to be overwhelming. Davis Bertans started fires on offense and defense for a bad Washington team. I thought hard about Mitchell Robinson; he boosted the Knicks on both ends, and hit 74% from the field — busting Wilt Chamberlain‘s all-time single-season record. But 9.7 points per game for a 21-45 train wreck isn’t trumping Williams.

Christian Wood came closest. He was putting up regular 20-10 lines before the season stopped. The 20-46 Pistons somehow outscored opponents with Wood on the floor. But he began the season in a teensy role, and played zero minutes with real stakes.

George Hill and Donte DiVincenzo are the photo negative of the Williams/Jamal Crawford type: solid two-way cogs who rarely run the machine. Neither cracked 10 points per game. Hill barely cracked 1,100 minutes. (Williams approached 1,800.)

Voting has historically been biased against what we might call bench role players — two-way guys who aren’t alpha-ish scorers. Andre Iguodala should have won at least once in Golden State. Guys like Hill, DiVincenzo, Jerami Grant, Larry Nance Jr., Maxi Kleber, and Mikal Bridges should get more of a look.

But that bias is rooted in something at least approaching reason. The prototypical sixth man replaces one offensive star, and replicates that role well enough for his team to buy time. They are good enough at the on-ball stuff to start, but starting them would create redundancies. Even in Milwaukee’s gorgeous, whirring system, Hill and DiVincenzo often need a ballhandling centerpiece. Williams can be the centerpiece.

He still played that role a lot for the Clippers. Leonard and George appeared together in only half of LA’s 64 games, leaving a lot of heavy lifting for Williams. He’s an underrated playmaker — a career-high 5.7 dimes per game in 29 minutes — and supplier of easy Harrell baskets.

Most Improved Player

1. Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
2. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
3. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

My initial pass unearthed 40-ish semi-plausible candidates. I narrowed that to a dozen or so — all fine choices depending on your taste. Some essentially didn’t play last season: Wood, Duncan Robinson, Markelle Fultz, Devonte’ Graham, and DiVincenzo. I never know what to do with guys who start from a baseline of zero. They obviously improved, otherwise they wouldn’t be playing, but that improvement happened offstage. They are almost rookies.

My finalists included high-profile second-year players: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Trae Young, and Doncic. I don’t know what to do with Year 2 guys, either. If players don’t get better in their second seasons, something is wrong. These guys exceeded even the most optimistic expectations, but we knew they were good — and that Young and Doncic were poised for stardom.

That left these three, plus Siakam, Powell, Jaylen Brown, De’Anthony Melton, Anunoby, and a few other fringe guys. Siakam is one of the greatest development stories in league history: from 7.3 points per game two seasons ago to almost 24 this season as an All-Star and All-NBA candidate.

But he dipped a bit after a scorching start, and (understandably) sacrificed a little defense and efficiency in exploring life as the first option. Powell almost doubled his career scoring average. He has learned to modulate his head-down, full-speed-ahead style. But in broader form and substance, he is the same player enjoying a bit of an outlier shooting season and logging a ton more playing time.

You can’t go wrong with Ingram, Tatum, or Adebayo. Tatum’s first three months were scattershot, leaving people wondering if the leap was coming at all. And then it came, all at once, in a month-long cascade of pull-up 3s and twisting drives. He is already one of the league’s best wing defenders.

Adebayo projected as a fast, ultra-switchable center. He showed glimpses of advanced big man passing last season. But nothing portended his emergence in Year 3 as a legit offensive fulcrum and secondary scorer.

Ingram didn’t reinvent himself. He just got a little better at everything. He scored much more often, and much more efficiently, a tough double to pull off. A lot that was tripling his 3-point volume — mostly by swapping out midrangers — and draining 39% from deep. Was that a fluke? We’ll see. (He still can’t hit pull-up 3s.) Ingram canning 86% from the line after falling short of 70% in prior seasons is encouraging.

You can nitpick the non-scoring aspects of Ingram’s game, but averaging an efficient 24 points in the NBA is no joke.

Ingram just looked more confident — more in command. He approached the rim with more determination, understanding how his length allows him to finish over and around defenders. He added more change-of-pace craft on the pick-and-roll. And even while migrating away from the midrange, Ingram unveiled new, varied methods of generating clean looks from there when the Pelicans needed them — pump-fakes, fadeaways, step-backs.

Ingram still has room to grow as a passer and defender. He might have scored too much this season. Williamson’s presence should reorder the Pelicans in a way that is healthy for Ingram (and everyone else). But Ingram would be a deserving winner.

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