NBA Quarterly Report: First Quarter Honors and Dishonors
The NBA crossed the first quarter mark for the 2013-14 season this past Monday night, which is a great excuse to start discussing frontrunners for awards that won’t be given out for another half a year. In the following quarterly report, I give my picks for each of the NBA’s major awards, while also discussing which players, coaches, and executives represent the antithesis of these honors. These are, of course, my subjective opinions and are open to discussion. I back up most of my ideas with statistics, but in some cases, I just don’t like Rudy Gay.
Most Valuable Player
Winner: LeBron James
LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA and is playing on what is easily one of the best teams in the Association, ergo he is still the league’s MVP.
He’s leading the NBA in PER for the seventh straight year (28.9) and in nERD for the sixth straight (20.1) (I’m going to give you a second to read that sentence again and enjoy the fact that we’re witnessing this man’s career…ok, let’s continue).
He’s also leading the league in win shares (4.5) for the sixth straight year, and is having a historically efficient shooting season, with current percentages of .584 from the field, .433 from deep, and .783 from the line (numbers which no one in the history of the league has ever accomplished). He’s third in the NBA in both true shooting percentage (.672) and effective field goal percentage (.627). He puts up great all-around numbers, averaging 25.0 points (third in the league), 6.5 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.4 blocks, and 1.3 threes per game.
Listen, I could list the guy’s entire stat sheet for you, but you get the point. The Miami Heat are one of the top teams in the league at 16-6 (without really ever seeming like they’re trying that hard) and James is the alpha and the omega of what they do. The only way he loses this award is due to voter fatigue. I say throw previous winners out the window and give the King his crown yet again.
Honorable Mention: Kevin Durant, Paul George
The second and third players on our NBA Player Rankings are Kevin Durant (nERD of 19.8) and Paul George (19.5). Durant might go down as the best player to ever play the game and never win an MVP award because he’s playing at the same time as LeBron James. George has become one of the most elite players in this league and has led the Pacers to the NBA’s best record, but for now he’s still outside looking in at LBJ and Durant. I’ll talk about him plenty later, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Least Valuable Player
Loser: Rudy Gay
Rudy Gay hates stat sheets and has every reason to. Out of players that play major minutes for their teams across the Association, Rudy seems to be the one that makes the most negative impact with his. He’s 27th in the league in minutes per game (35.5) and sixth in usage rate (30.3), yet posts a horrible nERD of -7.1 (ranked 138th on our NBA Player Rankings). He’s sporting career lows in field goal percentage (.388), true shooting percentage (.468) and effective field goal percentage (.421) (third worst in all those categories among players averaging a minimum of 32 minutes per game). He takes the fifth-most field goal attempts in the league per game (18.6), while shooting the lowest percentage from the field out of the rest of the players in the top-50.
Maybe he can turn his fortunes around now that he’s been traded to the Kings, but the Raptors should be better now that they are rid of the league’s LVP and his constant iso-plays that often result in bricked jump shots from 19-20 feet.
Dishonorable Mention: Josh Smith, Gordon Hayward
The other two players that stand out as having particularly low nERD ratings among guys who play significant minutes for their respective teams are Josh Smith and Gordon Hayward. Smith plays 35.6 minutes per game and has a stinky -9.3 nERD (147th in the NBA), while Hayward plays 36.4 minutes per game and has an even more putrid nERD of -9.4 (148th). Both players have high usage rates (Smith 22.2, Hayward 24.6) and shoot over 14 field goal attempts per game, which makes their terrible shooting percentages (Smith .391, Hayward .396) a bitter pill to swallow. Hayward gets a slight pass for being thrust into the role of being the number one option on the worst team in the league, but Smith playing this poorly (he shoots 4.5 threes per game, despite only hitting on .272) after signing a four-year, $54 million contract with the Pistons this offseason is unacceptable.
Rookie of the Quarter
Winner: Michael Carter-Williams
Michael Carter-Williams' rookie season began with a bang, as he posted 22 points, 7 rebounds, 12 assists, 9 steals, 4 three-pointers, and only 1 turnover in a win against the two-time defending champion Miami Heat (the only player in history to post at least those numbers). He has kept that impressive start going by averaging 17.7 points, 5.8 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 3.1 steals, 0.7 blocks, and 1.5 threes in 36.7 minutes per game since. He leads all rookies in each of those categories, with the exception of blocks (which he still manages to come in fifth). Oh, and the last (and only other) player to average at least 17 points, 5 rebounds, 7 assists, and 2 steals in his first season? Magic frickin’ Johnson. End of discussion.
Honorable Mention: Victor Oladipo, Trey Burke
Victor Oladipo started the season slowly and Trey Burke missed a dozen games with an early-season finger injury, but both have come on as of late. MCW has missed eight of his team’s 23 games so far this year due to random injuries (I think it’s safe to call a skin infection on his knee just that), so we’ll have to monitor if staying healthy is going to be a problem for the young phenom going forward. Every game he misses will give more traction to the idea that Oladipo or Burke might overtake MCW for Rookie of the Year honors before season’s end. Regardless, it’ll be a fun race to watch between these three young promising guards.
Anti-Rookie of the Quarter
Loser: Anthony Bennett
Anthony Bennett was the first overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, being selected before Oladipo, Burke, and MCW. He started the season going 0 for 15 from the field over his first four games as a pro, and that was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how terrible he has been so far this year. In 17 games, he has averaged 2.1 points, 2.1 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.5 steals, 0.1 blocks, and 0.2 threes. His current percentages are as bad as they come, currently at .237 from the field, .182 from deep, .375 from the line. Ugh, that’s hard on the eyes. His conditioning has been considered a big problem and he has yet to show any signs of having a legitimate future in this league.
Dishonorable Mention: Otto Porter, Alex Len
Third pick Otto Porter and fifth pick Alex Len have combined for 52 minutes, 7 points, 10 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, and 2 blocks. Just as a reminder, in MCW’s last game, he had 27 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists and 3 steals in over 46 minutes. That is all.
Defensive Player of the Quarter
Winner: Roy Hibbert
Roy Hibbert has made it clear that he wants to be the Defensive Player of the Year this season and there might be nothing we can do to stop him. He is first in the league in defensive rating (93.1), second in defensive win shares (1.7), second in block percentage (7.2), first in total blocks (66), and second in blocks per game (3.0). He throws in 9.0 rebounds per game to boot and is basically the reason we know what the heck the ‘verticality rule’ is. He is the defensive anchor on the NBA’s best defensive team, the Indiana Pacers, who allow only 93.1 points per 100 possessions (the lowest in the league).
Honorable Mention: Paul George, Andre Drummond
The winner of this award should almost definitely be a player from the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers have four players in the top five in individual defensive rating and defensive win shares. Their starting lineup is the best defensive lineup in the Association that has logged at least 100 minutes together this year, posting a defensive rating of 89.5 as a unit.
Paul George is a standout candidate after Hibbert in that lineup, currently sitting at fourth in the league in defensive rating (94.4), first in defensive win shares (1.9), fourth in total steals (46), and eighth in steals per game (2.1). Andre Drummond is a dark-horse candidate after that, being the only player in the NBA to rank in the top-20 in both steals per game (1.7, ranked 14th) and blocks per game (1.4, ranked 19th). A league-leading 22.0 total rebound percentage and 11th-best 1.2 defensive win shares doesn’t hurt his cause either.
Defensive Sieve of the Quarter
Loser: James Harden
The Houston Rockets are the league’s sixth-best defensive team, allowing only 100.0 points per 100.0 possessions. That is despite the team’s leader in minutes, James Harden, having an individual defensive rating of 106.0, the worst of players that have played at least 100 minutes for the Rockets this season. It doesn’t really require much more statistical analysis than that, as the eye test says it all. Seriously, just type in “James Harden defense” on YouTube and decide for yourself.
Dishonorable Mention: Everyone on the Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz have the NBA’s worst defensive rating at 108.3. The five worst individual defensive ratings in the league (minimum 10 games played, 25.0 minutes per game) are all members of the Jazz’s starting lineup (Trey Burke 114.2, Enes Kanter 111.7, Richard Jefferson 111.5, Derrick Favors 111.1, and Gordon Hayward 110.1). Pick your poison. They’ll all be in the running for this award throughout the year.
Sixth Man of the Quarter
Winner: Reggie Jackson
This award was shaping up to be someone else’s until a few days ago, but I’ll get to that in a moment. Another more-than-worthy recipient is the Thunder’s Reggie Jackson (maybe they didn’t need the defensively inept Harden in this role after all...are those crickets?).
Of every player that has come off the bench in at least half of their team’s games and played more than 10.0 minutes per game, Reggie Jackson comes in second in net rating with a ridiculous 16.2 (109.5 offensive, 93.2 defensive). He also leads that group of players with a +/- rating of 7.8, sixth in the whole NBA. In 24.9 minutes per game, Jackson is averaging 12.0 points, 3.8 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.7 threes.
Those raw numbers, while solid, might not be flashy enough for voters come award time, as this award often goes to players who lead the NBA in bench scoring (like Jamal Crawford or Rodney Stuckey, averaging 15.8 and 15.7 off the bench respectively this season). If the advanced stat nerds have their way, however, Jackson will be near the head of the pack for being such a two-way difference maker off the pine.
Honorable Mention: Isaiah Thomas, Ryan Anderson, Manu Ginobili
This award was Isaiah Thomas' until Greivis Vasquez got sent to the Raptors in the Rudy Gay trade and Thomas was named the Kings starting PG for the remainder of the season. IT2 leads all players who have played the majority of their season off the bench in nERD (6.3, 26th overall), points (18.3 per game), and assists (5.4).
Ryan Anderson is up to his old tricks as well. He missed the beginning of the season with a fractured toe, but averaged 20.7 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 4.0 threes in 31.2 minutes per game in his first seven games back coming off the bench. With Anthony Davis sustaining a broken finger that will keep him out for several weeks, Anderson has been thrust into a starting role, thus taking him out of contention for this award for a while.
Manu Ginobili, the prototype bench player and reliable spark off the bench, is still doing Manu things (leads all bench players with a 16.9 net rating) and is, therefore, still in contention for this award.
Least Valuable Bench Player of the Quarter
Loser: Amar’e Stoudemire
Amar’e Stoudemire's quick decline over the last few years has been painful to watch. He used to be the hope for the future in New York, now he’s just another example of a Knick whose usefulness-to-salary ratio is alarmingly low. In games that his health has actually allowed him to play (16 such occurrences this year), he has averaged career lows in minutes (16.9), points (7.3), rebounds, (3.4), and blocks (0.4). He has never been a great defender (defensive rating of 108.0 this year), but his usually fantastic offensive rating (career 114.0) has been a career worst 99.0. For the record, he’s making roughly $21.7 million this year and $23.4 million next year. Ouch.
Dishonorable Mention: Gerald Wallace, Jeffery Taylor
Gerald Wallace plays 22.3 minutes per game and has a net rating of -5.9. He also has a terrible turnover ratio for a forward, clocking in at 22.8. He’s a career .714 shooter from the line, but has only hit 12 of his 34 attempts so far this year (.353). Overall, he’s putting up his worst numbers in 10 years. Jeffery Taylor plays 24.6 minutes per game for the Bobcats and puts up ho-hum averages of 8.5 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.8 assists, 0.3 steals, 0.1 blocks, and 0.7 threes. The biggest problem is that he’s been terribly inefficient, shooting .391 from the field, .268 from deep, and .558 from the line. His net rating of -11.2 is one of the worst in the NBA for a bench player.
Most Improved Player
Winner: Paul George
There are several good candidates for this award, but I absolutely love the narrative of George being the first ever back-to-back winner (or the only player to ever win it twice, for that matter). There’s something very compelling about a player who has worked so hard to develop from a role player with potential, to an all-star, to now an elite superstar in just a couple of years.
The talk last year was whether or not George would lose minutes when Danny Granger returned from injury, but now we’re discussing him in the same breath as LeBron and Durant for MVP and looking at him as a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate as well. Isn’t it wild to think that he’s in contention for three major awards this year? His PER has jumped from 16.8 to 24.5 (eighth in the NBA), his nERD from 5.9 to 18.7 (third), his scoring average from 16.7 to 24.2 (fourth), his offensive rating from 104 to 114 and his defensive rating from 97 to 94 (fourth). This award usually goes to someone who simply puts up numbers in line with their previous per-36 averages when given more minutes. George has done all this in less time, averaging 36.8 minutes per game, compared to last year’s 37.6. He's still slightly outside MVP and Defensive Player of the Year talk, but this one is his to lose.
Honorable Mention: Lance Stephenson, Wesley Matthews, Anthony Davis, Arron Afflalo, Eric Bledsoe
There are several other excellent candidates for this award. Lance Stephenson is averaging career highs in almost everything, and currently leads the league in triple-doubles. Wesley Matthews has been ridiculously efficient through 22 games, leading the league with a .649 effective field goal percentage and a 129.0 offensive rating. Anthony Davis is hurt, but has turned a few extra minutes per game into an increase in almost every conceivable stat category, including a league-leading 3.6 blocks per game (up from 1.8 last year) and 9.1 block percentage (up from 5.1).
Arron Afflalo has increased his scoring average in every single one of his seven NBA seasons and is currently 11th in the league at 21.9 points per game (not to mention posting career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, and threes). Eric Bledsoe has also made the leap, increasing his scoring average from 8.5 last year to 18.6 this season, to go along with career highs in rebounds, assists, steals, and threes (his jump in production is mostly due to a hefty minutes increase, but his .522 effective field goal percentage, up from his career .469, shows undeniable improvement).
Most Declined Player
Loser: Ersan Ilyasova
Earlier this season, I discussed Ersan Ilyasova as a notoriously slow starter. Well, we’re still waiting (im)patiently for him to flick the switch this year. He has plummeted in most major categories, despite playing close to the same minutes (27.6 per game, down to 26.8 this year). His PER has fallen from 18.3 to 10.3. His nERD was 5.4 last year and is -5.5 this year. His averages have dropped in scoring (13.2 to 8.8), rebounding (7.1 to 4.7), threes (1.3 to 0.5), field goal percentage (.462 to .415), three-point percentage (.444 to .250), and free-throw percentage (.796 to .750), while his turnovers have increased (1.0 to 1.7). He has shown in the past that he can turn these slow starts around and the reeling Bucks could really use that right about now from their second-highest paid player.
Dishonorable Mention: Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett
It’s heartbreaking to watch such notable superstars fall off a statistical cliff, but that’s exactly what has happened to future hall-of-famers Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. It was only a few months ago that the two of them were top options on a playoff-bound Celtics team, then they were looked at as key championship-or-bust acquisitions by Brooklyn this past offseason. Now, they’re both averaging career lows in most statistical categories, most notably a complete implosion in efficiency. Pierce’s effective field goal percentage is currently at .408 (down from a career .498), while Garnett’s is at an unsightly .371 (career .502). Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
Coach of the Quarter
Winner: Frank Vogel
As previously mentioned, Frank Vogel’s Indiana Pacers are the NBA’s best defensive team, posting a team defensive rating of an incredibly stingy 93.1. Their team offensive rating of 102.2 is serviceable, giving them an elite 9.1 net rating, second only to the Spurs.
They hold the league’s best record at 19-3 and have beaten formidable opponents like the Heat, Clippers, and Spurs in the last two weeks. Vogel has got his team firing on all cylinders as a defensive unit, has helped Paul George develop into an elite player, has turned Lance Stephenson from a knucklehead into an important cog on a contender, and has skillfully integrated an almost entirely new bench. The Spurs’ Greg Popovich is always a threat to win this award and the Heat’s Erik Spoelstra is admittedly due, but for now this award belongs to Vogel.
Honorable Mention: Terry Stotts, Jeff Hornacek
Vegas set the over/under for wins for Terry Stotts’ Blazers at 38.5 before the season began. The Blazers, currently at 18-4, have a team nERD of 65.6, which projects them to finish with a record of 54-28. Jeff Hornacek’s Suns, perhaps even more surprisingly, have a record of 12-9 and our algorithms give them a nERD of 55.9. The resulting projected record of 46-36 would more than double their initial over/under for wins of 19.5. Hope you bet the over on these two squads, because their coaches have them exceeding all expectations.
Anti-Coach of the Quarter
Loser: Jason Kidd
I talked about all the reasons Jason Kidd has been terrible as a coach so far this year in my breakdown of the hapless Atlantic Division. The DUI, intentionally spilled drink, and reassignment of Assistant Coach Lawrence Frank to be an excessively high-paid report writer are reason enough, but a team with a league-high $103.1 million payroll and a combined 35 all-star appearances between its five starters should be better than 7-14.
Our algorithms have the Nets on pace to go 24-58, based on a 27th-ranked team nERD of 29.7. Vegas set their over/under at 52.5 this past offseason, a number that many considered low at the time. Now they need to go 46-15 just to hit the over. Yikes.
Dishonorable Mention: Mike Woodson, Mike Brown, Larry Drew, Ty Corbin
There are so many candidates for this award, particularly in the Eastern Conference, where there are currently two teams over .500. Some coaches get a pass for having limited talent, but a team like Mike Woodson’s Knicks should be an automatic playoff team, Mike Brown’s Cavs should be on the rise, and Larry Drew’s Bucks should at least hover around the middle in such an awful conference.
Instead, the Knicks are in last place in a historically awful Atlantic Division at 6-15, the Cavs have been a mess at 8-13, and the Bucks have been atrocious at 5-17. More dishonorable mention goes to Ty Corbin and the Jazz out west, who have the NBA’s worst record at 5-19. I could spew stats about horrible defensive ratings, etc., but I’ll save you the nausea. They’re bad. Really bad.
Executive of the Quarter
Winner: Masai Ujiri
Reigning Executive of the Year, GM Masai Ujiri, has taken practically no time making his mark on the Raptors since joining the squad this past summer. He has traded the team’s two worst and most untradeable contracts in Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay (this quarter’s LVP) for a handful of decent role players, expiring contracts, and draft picks. Either the moves make them better and they can contend for a playoff spot in the lowly Eastern Conference or they’ve gotten worse and have a shot at a top lottery pick in what promises to be the deepest Draft in decades. Either way, Ujiri is a winner.
Honorable Mention: Larry Bird, Neil Olshey
Larry Bird’s Pacers and Neil Olshey’s Blazers both had glaring deficiencies in the form of their benches last season. They both went out and addressed those issues and now stand atop their respective conferences, the Pacers at 19-3 and the Blazers at 18-4. Well done, gentlemen.
Anti-Executive of the Quarter
Loser: James Dolan
James Dolan is a weird dude. He has a guy follow Coach Mike Woodson around, he gave J.R. Smith’s brother Chris Smith a contract, his big offseason moves were trading for Andrea Bargnani and signing Metta World Peace, he’s trying frantically to move one of his best young players in Iman Shumpert for no discernable reason, he recently banned Woody Allen from his a restaurant over a disagreement, and he guarantees wins for his 6-15 Knicks during blues shows that he plays with his band, JD & the Straight Shot. As for positive things that he has done for the Knicks franchise recently, well...um...
Dishonorable Mention: Billy King, Mitch Kupchak
As previously mentioned, Nets GM Billy King is currently paying $103.1 million for a 7-14 team. Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has a comparably high payroll and just signed a 35-year-old Kobe Bryant coming off an Achilles injury to a two-year, $48.5 million contract, effectively taking away any chance of them putting together a contender for the next two years. These two teams are a combined 17-25. ‘Nuff said.