Here is my complete imaginary awards ballot for the 2009-10 season, compiled using a combination of observation and statistics--primarily my own WARP metric and net and adjusted plus-minus data from BasketballValue.com.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
I'm not even going to bother discussing the decision at the top of the ballot. LeBron James deserves to be a unanimous selection, and that's that. By sitting out the last three games, James did cost himself any chance at surpassing last year's total of 26.9 WARP, which was fifth in modern NBA history. James currently is sitting on 25.4 WARP this season.
The more interesting race is for second place. I think you could justify placing Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Dwyane Wade in any order. I went with Howard, my Defensive Player of the Year, in second because of his importance to the league's best defense and its second-best offense. Wade has used possessions at the league's highest rate (35.1 percent), and while his efficiency is down from a year ago, it's still incredible given how much he does. Durant, meanwhile, has become the league's best scorer and made dramatic strides at the defensive end as well.
Kobe Bryant's 2009-10 was down from his recent standard, in part because of his injured finger and in part because of his stubborn refusal to concede anything to his physical limitation. Bryant's unwillingness to defer to Pau Gasol more was a factor in the Lakers' major offensive slide. Yet Bryant was as good as ever defensively, and his net plus-minus (the Lakers were +12.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor) put him fourth in the league according to BasketballValue.com, behind three of the four players ahead of him on this ballot (Howard is the exception, but he has the league's best adjusted plus-minus).
1. LeBron James, Cleveland
2. Dwight Howard, Orlando
3. Dwyane Wade, Miami
4. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
5. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
G - Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
G - Dwyane Wade, Miami
F - Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
F - LeBron James, Cleveland
C - Dwight Howard, Orlando
G - Steve Nash, Phoenix
G - Deron Williams, Utah
F - Chris Bosh, Toronto
F - Josh Smith, Atlanta
C - Tim Duncan, San Antonio
Williams was the other guy who got serious consideration for the last spot on the First Team and my MVP ballot. He's been playing at an incredible level this season. WARP puts Nash a bit ahead of Williams for the title of the league's best point guard, but Williams' superior defense (he was one of the last cuts at PG for my All-Defensive Team honorable mentions) earns him that nod.
It still amazes me that Smith did not make the All-Star team. He is currently sixth in the league in WARP, and his total will probably end up the second best in the WARP era for players who did not make the All-Star team (Andre Miller, with 16.8 WARP in 2001-02, is the leader in that dubious category). Smith's net plus-minus is 16th in the league, and he's playing for a 50-plus-win team. I'm not sure I understand the argument against him.
G - Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
G - Rajon Rondo, Boston
F - Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas
F - Gerald Wallace, Charlotte
C - Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
So ... Manu Ginobili. Let's compare him to the other shooting guard who is a candidate, Portland's Brandon Roy.
Player Win% WARP TS% Usg Reb% Ast% Stl% TO% NetPM
Ginobili .684 11.9 .584 .261 7.7 7.9 2.5 12.7 +6.9
Roy .607 9.6 .568 .270 7.3 6.1 1.4 9.5 +2.8
Roy has his advantages--a slightly superior usage rate, his incredible ability to avoid turnovers and a higher minutes total (not shown). Pretty much everywhere else, however, Ginobili rates ahead of Roy, and the whole package is superior both by WARP and net plus-minus. Ginobili's excellent play over the last month and a half or so has drawn attention, but he wasn't exactly struggling before that.
Gerald Wallace was maybe the toughest choice. I also gave Carlos Boozer consideration, but Wallace's superiority at the defensive end outweighs Boozer's offense. Carmelo Anthony's numbers weren't good enough, either individually or team impact, to merit a spot in the discussion. Despite his injuries, Gasol still ranks far ahead of Amar'e Stoudemire in WARP; Stoudemire played so poorly (by his standards) prior to the All-Star break that his terrific run since then could not make up the difference. Andrew Bogut also has a case at center, but he just missed too much time.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
By WARP, this is a walkover--Tyreke Evans (7.2) is far ahead of Stephen Curry (6.2) and Brandon Jennings (4.7) isn't even in consideration. But I've been toying with an alternate version of the WARP formula that better rewards outside shooters for their ability to space the floor based on regression against adjusted plus-minus ratings. Using those numbers, Curry (7.4) shoots to the top and Evans (6.2) is in a heated competition with Jennings (5.7).
I don't think Curry really belongs first; individually, the three are all rated about the same as defenders, but he is something of a liability at that end (opponents have been 32.9 percent more efficient than usual against Curry, and that can't entirely be explained away by Golden State's team defense). I didn't mention Evans in my All-Defensive Team analysis, but his numbers aren't bad at that end of the floor at all.
What does plus-minus say? The Bucks are 3.4 points better per 100 possessions with Jennings on the floor; Curry's net plus-minus is +2.4 on a bad team and the Kings have actually been substantially better with Evans on the bench (-7.5).
So what do you make of all those data points? I'm not sure. The notion of a player with a .475 True Shooting Percentage as Rookie of the Year doesn't sit all that well with me, but the numbers show that Jennings has been able to overcome his inability to make baskets with excellent playmaking and, yes, by contributing at the defensive end of the floor. I also would say that Jennings has been somewhat less prone to the indiscretions of youth, while Evans can be baited into one-on-one battles at times to the detriment of the team.
1. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
2. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State
Fortunately, the All-Rookie Team is selected without regard to position, because otherwise I don't know what you'd do in a year that is so overwhelmingly guard-heavy.
C - DeJuan Blair, San Antonio
G - Darren Collison, New Orleans
G - Stephen Curry, Golden State
G - Tyreke Evans, Sacramento
G - Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee
G - James Harden, Oklahoma City
C - Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City
F - Jonas Jerebko, Detroit
G - Ty Lawson, Denver
G - Marcus Thornton, New Orleans
Thornton and Blair were about a coin flip. Apologies here to Chase Budinger, Jrue Holiday and Reggie Williams, who would have made it had the Warriors called him up about a month earlier. I don't believe a D-League call-up has ever been All-Rookie before.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
As I wrote yesterday in picking All-Defensive Teams, Howard is the obvious choice here, but the complete ballot:
1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee
3. Andrei Kirilenko, Utah
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Technically, the three highest WARP totals among eligible players belong to Ginobili, Lamar Odom and Kevin Love, but I'm not considering any of them because two of the three are starting now (Odom has started 36 of 80 games, which leaves him just barely eligible) and Love started much of the year.
Ultimately, my choice came down to two very different players--Atlanta's Jamal Crawford, the near-certain winner, and Cleveland's Anderson Varejao. Varejao boasts the higher WARP total, but Crawford moves ahead when we properly value three-point shooting. Crawford can boast catalyzing Atlanta's improvement this season, but even accounting for the difference between the Hawks' first and second units, his adjusted plus-minus is unspectacular. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have been a significantly worse team without Varejao (+12.2 net plus-minus). Ultimately, I lean slightly toward the Sideshow Bob lookalike.
1. Anderson Varejao, Cleveland
2. Jamal Crawford, Atlanta
3. Jason Terry, Dallas
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
No selection. I'm giving up on this award. Besides being hopelessly confusing in how it is executed, I'm not even sure it makes sense conceptually. Part of the implication, if you're looking at actual improvement as opposed to merely playing more minutes, is that the player wasn't all that good beforehand. So receiving it is something of a double-edged sword.
COACH OF THE YEAR
All too often, I think the Coach of the Year debate gets bogged down into which team overachieved expectations the most. Sometimes, that's a coach's doing. Sometimes, the players were underrated. Sometimes, the predictions were just plain wrong. Actual, you know, coaching seems to get ignored. Here's a question I think ought to be asked as part of the discussion: If your life depended on winning on game, what coach would you want on the sideline?
Now, it's possible--probable, even--that your answer to that question will be the same year in and year out (I know Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich would be near the top of my list), and it's silly to just vote for those coaches every year (especially since Jackson in particular deserves to be dinged for the sloppy way the Lakers have finished up the season). But elements of that question--managing playing time, defensive schemes, offensive execution--should be part of that discussion.
With that in mind, I still think there are a number of outstanding candidates this season. Oklahoma City's coaching staff (and this includes Ron Adams prominently, as well as Scott Brooks) has dealt with a young roster phenomenally and put together an outstanding defense. I was down on Nate McMillan, at least relatively, most of the year, but the last two Portland wins (beating the Lakers in L.A. and Oklahoma City without Brandon Roy) have reminded me of McMillan's ability to keep his teams confident and cobble something together in seemingly the most desperate of circumstances. Stan Van Gundy has taken a backseat this season because the Magic is no longer sneaking up on anyone, but he has helmed the league's best defense and has Orlando peaking at the right time.
In the end, Scott Skiles was the choice for me. He took a Bucks team that had a history of being one of the league's worst defensive squads for nearly a decade and turned it into an elite defensive unit (third in the league) within two years. Skiles deftly managed the loss of Michael Redd, successfully using Jennings and Luke Ridnour together in the backcourt, and his faith in Jennings was rewarded by the rookie. I'd at least know that the team playing for my life would work hard and be strong on defense in Skiles' hands.
Utah's Jerry Sloan continued to demonstrate his knack for successfully plugging in lightly regarded pieces by replacing Ronnie Brewer and Eric Maynor with undrafted rookie Wesley Matthews and journeyman Ronnie Price when the more talented players were dealt for cap purposes. If Sloan keeps plugging away, he may just may make something of himself and win Coach of the Year one of these seasons.
Lastly, Charlotte's Larry Brown is a more difficult choice because he falls short in some of the categories above. Brown let lottery pick Gerald Henderson rot on the bench, and the team's short-minded in-season deals for veterans have his fingerprints all over them. At the same time, Brown engineered a major defensive turnaround. Believe it or not, the Bobcats-Bucks game a few weeks ago in Charlotte also stood out as featuring some of the crispest offensive sets I saw all season, despite the fact that it was between teams who rank 23rd and 24th in the league in Offensive Rating.
1. Scott Skiles, Milwaukee
2. Jerry Sloan, Utah
3. Larry Brown, Charlotte
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
Note that the media does not actually vote on this award--it is presented by The Sporting News and selected by the league's executives themselves. Nonetheless, it seems appropriate to make a pick, and mine means a sweep of the management awards--Milwaukee's John Hammond. Hammond took a major risk in drafting Jennings in the lottery and saw it pay off handsomely. His deal for John Salmons at the trade deadline was also a home run that set up the Bucks to be very dangerous in the playoffs prior to Bogut's untimely season-ending injury. Lastly, Hammond acquired key rotation players Carlos Delfino and Ersan Ilyasova on the cheap in free agency. All of this was done while keeping Milwaukee under next year's luxury-tax limit (thanks to offloading the onerous contract of Richard Jefferson) and maintaining cap space for the summer of 2011.
There's also a strong argument to be made for Oklahoma City's Sam Presti. Last week's columns showed that the Thunder's playoff season is unusual both for the team's age (third-youngest in modern NBA history) and a payroll below the league's salary cap. However, much of the heavy lifting was done before last summer, and that's all I'm counting in selecting this year's Executive of the Year. Phoenix's Steve Kerr deserves mention for bolstering the team's bench while lowering its payroll, Portland's Kevin Pritchard made two excellent moves in adding veterans Andre Miller and Marcus Camby and Sacramento's Geoff Petrie had as good a draft as anyone.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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