We, sadly, do not get an official NBA media ballot here at Mystery Ship Studios, but if we did, you can bet we wouldn’t make head-up-the-rear-end decisions on who to give the major NBA awards to.
Which, besides being a “shut up about Donovan Mitchell” argument, informs the philosophy behind this not-at-all-slapped-together completely personal-bias-laden seriously I’m a Pacers fan and if you haven’t figured that out by now you will before we’re done here list of the 2018 NBA awards.
Where applicable, these will be as they are presented on NBA.com/official. Meaning top 5 for the MVP and top 3 for other media-voted ballot items. My All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams are presented as-is.
Now, the first thing I’ll say here is that I agonized over the LeBron vs. Harden argument. Harden was the best player on the best team, but LeBron was the heart and soul of the Cavaliers, played all 82 games, and had one of the best seasons of his career statistically. After 15 seasons in the league and over 50,000 minutes in regular season and playoffs, oh by the way.
The Cavs wouldn’t be in the playoffs without LeBron. The Rockets would be a Chris Paul-led Very Good Team, possibly even a top four seed, without Harden (assuming Eric Gordon took his starters’ minutes.)
Seriously, LeBron just had his best scoring season since 2010, most rebounds and assists ever, fourth-best shooting percentage and third-best three-point percentage, led the league in Value Over Replacement Player for the first time since 2013, put up his third-best True Shooting, highest assist percentage, and exceeded his career PER.
If the Greatest of All Time at better than his career average after 15 years all while leading the freaking Canton Charge to the 4 seed isn’t MVP-worthy, then I give up.
Sorry, James Harden. LeBron is the MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
Drummond gets penalized because as good as he is (he led the league in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares), Utah’s improbable run to the 5 seed (and falling just one win short of third) was made possible by Gobert’s impenetrable rim protection; even though Gobert missed 26 games, that only served to underline just how critical he was to the league’s second-best defense.
Gobert is everything you want a four-out big man to be in today’s NBA. He doesn’t need to range out to the perimeter. He blocks shots, grabs rebounds, and changes the timbre of the other team’s offense, forcing them to try and fight a range war.
Simmons, meanwhile, gets third place because the Sixers were fourth in the league in defense and Simmons had an astonishing statistical season that doesn’t get near as much credit because of his being a walking triple-double and the next Magic Johnson.
The Celtics had the league’s top defense, but no one guy on their team jumps out with an eye-popping “Wow!” factor the way Gobert does in Utah.
Rookie of the Year
Simmons is a triple-double waiting to happen. He impacts games without having to shoot the ball. He grabs rebounds, plays lockdown defense at any position on the floor with his 6’10” body, and he’s only just begun to show us what he can do.
I will say this over and over until people understand it: Ben Simmons is the evolution of Magic Johnson. To diss him for Rookie of the Year is to have to explain yourself when he’s giving his Hall of Fame speech in 20 years. He is a once-in-a-generation talent, a guy like LeBron James or Michael Jordan or Johnson or Wilt Chamberlain.
Mark my words, Simmons is a Hall of Famer.
Donovan Mitchell is a volume shooter who puts up big counting stats by taking lots of shots. Every good player has one. He’s Eric Gordon or Victor Oladipo or DeMar DeRozan or C.J. McCollum. He’s very good. He’s going to continue to be very good. As his shot improves he might win some scoring titles, and if Utah wins a championship, he and Gobert will be discussed in the same glowing terms as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.
But Donovan Mitchell is not Kobe Bryant. He is just a very good player with a very good NBA skill who is on a very good NBA team.
I am not saying Mitchell sucks. I am saying Ben Simmons is transcendent.
As for Tatum, as Brad Stevens himself said, “we threw him to the wolves”…and considering that, Tatum’s rookie season was very good indeed. It’s just not on the level of Mitchell’s season…or Simmons’ season.
Most Improved Player
You really have to give this to Oladipo. It’s not even a contest. He went from 15.9 to 23.1 points per game, 13.6 to 23.1 PER, made his first All-Star team, went from 0.4 to 4.5 VORP, led the Pacers to their best record since 2013-14 (when they made the Eastern Conference Finals), and had everyone in Indianapolis forgetting all about Paul George.
This is the easiest vote in the league.
Sabonis, in similar fashion, went from one of the worst players in the entire league statistically in 2016-17 on the Thunder to one of the better off-the-bench guys, a guy who many in Pacerland feel should be starting over Myles Turner, went from 5.9 to 11.6 points per game, 6.9 (!) to 17.5 PER, and -1.2 to +0.8 VORP.
In other words, Sabonis went from “he sucks, holy hell, he SUCKS!” to “he’s great, he should be starting!” in one season and one change of scenery.
And Brown? Well, just like Tatum, he was thrown to the wolves on a suddenly youth-oriented Celtics team and improved his scoring from 6.6 to 14.5 points and his PER from 10.3 to 13.7. His VORP was another “from sub-G-League to NBA-quality in one year” -0.7 to +1.0 leap, but unlike the two guys in front of him, his advanced stats just don’t square with the counting stats.
And he’s not on the Pacers and I’m biased.
Coach of the Year
D’Antoni is a mad genius. He finally figured out how to get the collection of parts Daryl Morey cobbled together to work as an actual free-flowing NBA team. He got an assist-hungry James Harden to share the passing duties with equally assist-loving Chris Paul, he turned Clint Capela into a better version of DeAndre Jordan, and he navigated the Rockets through a slew of injuries and brought them out the other side at 65-17.
Mike D’Antoni deserves a lifetime achievement award just for inventing modern basketball. He singlehandedly ended the NBA Dark Ages with his innovations (yes, guys like LeBron and Dwyane Wade helped, but we could just as easily have seen Carmelo Anthony lead a new Dark Age of volume shooters taking bad shots late in the shot clock like in 1999-2003 if D’Antoni hadn’t been there in Phoenix showing the league a better way and paving the way for Eric Spoelstra to coin the term from which this very site takes its name.)
Stevens, meanwhile, gets serious ups for coaching the Celtics to a season that wasn’t total garbage after losing Gordon Hayward on the first day of the season and Kyrie Irving toward the end, but he coaches in the Eastern Conference and you get the feeling he’s headed for another playoff collapse, the coaching version of the Chris Paul curse, and it just doesn’t feel right awarding him an accolade with that hanging so heavily over his head.
Oh, and Dwane Casey gets a third-place vote because he managed to cure his case of Scott-Hollins Syndrome. Any coach who does that, we approve, and besides, it was him or Nate McMillan and the Raptors won 59 games.
Executive of the Year
Pritchard knew what nobody else in Indiana seemed to. He saw the potential in Oladipo and the spark of a good player in Sabonis. He built a team that lost the vast majority of the previous season’s roster into something better from the ground up.
And besides, Pacers basketball is fun again. The Paul George/Monta Ellis teams were a drag to watch, playing with no heart, no fire, no love of the game. That in itself should be enough to put Pritchard over.
Ainge, meanwhile, continues to play the long game; besides the Hayward acquisition, which he gets credit for even in injury, he got Irving for a pick that’s looking like it’s going to go eighth in the draft, not exactly what Cleveland was hoping for out of that 2018 Nets pick. He swapped a troubled Markelle Fultz for Tatum, almost as if he’d put a hex on Fultz’s jumper. He just has layer after layer of chessmaster’s wizardry in Boston; Ainge is a madman and a genius and a mad genius.
Ujiri, meanwhile, only built a 59-win team, the unsung heroes of the Eastern Conference. You get points for that.
Coming soon: All-NBA, All-Defense, All-Rookie Teams.