Who the 2016-17 NBA Award Winners Should've Been
The inaugural NBA Awards show happened last night and it contained enough interesting moments -- Drake's opening monologue was pretty funny, Bill Russell told a bunch of other NBA legends that he'd whoop them, and Russell Westbrook gave an emotional speech after winning MVP -- that the format has a good chance of sticking.
Since every single award was announced in just one night instead of the usual slow-drip method of the past, we have a lot to digest today. Old, seemingly dead debates about these awards (reminder: the regular season ended two whole months ago) have been reignited, so we're here to weigh in.
Here's a look at how our proprietary metrics say the awards should've gone down. In each case, we'll be focusing on either Player nERD (which measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency) or Team nERD (a ranking that is predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage).
Rookie of the Year
This wasn't a very stellar rookie class outside of Joel Embiid showing brief signs of potential superstardom, but a lot of people had trouble voting for him because he only played 31 games (and he was even on a minute restriction for those contests). Malcolm Brogdon (-0.2 nERD) ultimately won, edging out other nominees Embiid (0.7) and Dario Saric (-7.4), but our pick would be Willy Hernangomez of the Knicks.
Willy led all rookies with a 1.2 nERD this season, largely based on his rookie-leading 56.4% true shooting percentage (with a 52.9% mark from the field and 72.8% from the line). He played 18.4 minutes per game over 72 contests for the Knicks, with per-36 averages of 16.0 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.0 block. He wasn't even a nominee for this award, but at least he deservedly received First Team All-Rookie honors.
Sixth Man of the Year
Our metric completely disagrees with the selection of Eric Gordon (-1.8 nERD) for this award over Lou Williams (4.4) and Andre Iguodala (5.5), since he was the only player of the three to post a negative nERD this season. What's more, our numbers liked Enes Kanter (5.9) as the best reserve in the league over all three of 'em.
Kanter has always been a bit of a nERD darling because of his solid efficiency (59.9% true shooting percentage) and high rebounding rate (17.4% total rebound percentage). He averaged 21.3 minutes played over 72 games off OKC's bench this year, and put up pretty monstrous per-36 numbers at 24.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.8 steals, and 0.9 blocks.
His defensive flaws remained a liability for the Thunder (they were 4.5 points per 100 possessions better on that end when he was off the floor), but he was instant offense and boards for them whenever he got on the court and deserved a deeper look for this award.
Most Improved Player
Giannis Antetokounmpo was a fine selection for this award over Rudy Gobert and Nikola Jokic, but we give Gobert the slight edge and here's why.
|Player||2015-16 nERD||2016-17 nERD||Difference|
Gobert's jump in nERD from 2015-16 to 2016-17 was the biggest in our database (slightly edging out Giannis) and it helped him finish second overall in our Player Power Rankings. Second!
The big guy saw bumps in his points per game, rebounds per game, blocks per game, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage this season. He led the league in defensive win shares (6.0) and true shooting percentage (68.2%), turning into an absolute force on both ends of the ball -- also evidenced by his finishing third in both offensive rating (129.0) and defensive rating (99.2). He went from earning a modest 6.4 win shares last season to coming second in the entire Association this year with 14.3 (trailing only MVP candidate James Harden's 15.0).
Antetokounmpo's leap to superstardom was phenomenal, but Gobert may have done the same darn thing without hardly anyone noticing.
Coach of the Year
Mike D'Antoni of the Houston Rockets won Coach of the Year over Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra after completely changing the culture in Houston and guiding them to far exceeding most people's expectations. It was a good narrative and it's hard to fault his selection for the honor too much -- even if Popovich is still arguably the best coach in the sport -- but our metrics would pick a guy that wasn't even nominated: last year's recipient, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.
We like Steve if for nothing else than the fact that his team finished with an astonishing 82.7 Team nERD, the second highest ever recorded in our database (dating back to 2000), trailing only the 2007-08 Boston Celtics (82.8). Sure, it helped that he had Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson on his roster, but he managed to make that combination of players click faster than just about any superteam has in the past, all while getting major returns out of cast-offs (JaVale McGee, Zaza Pachulia) and relative nobodies (Ian Clark, Patrick McCaw).
Kerr didn't get consideration this year because of his historically stacked roster and "drop-off" from a 73-win season in 2015-16, but he still pulled the strings for one of the best teams in NBA history and that should count for something.
Defensive Player of the Year
We don't have our own metric that focuses solely on defensive impact, but most of the numbers that we love and trust say our boy Rudy Gobert should've gotten this award over winner Draymond Green and other nominee (and two-time recipient) Kawhi Leonard.
Gobert led the league in defensive win shares (6.0), defensive real plus-minus (6.02), blocks per game (2.6), block percentage (6.4%), and defensive field goal percentage at the rim (43.8%), while coming in third in both defensive rating (99.2) and defensive box plus/minus (4.5).
Green is a deserving recipient (he came first or second in all of the aforementioned categories outside of blocks per game and block percentage), but Gobert's overall impact as our second-ranked player by nERD at 17.8 gives him the edge in our books (as compared to Green's 32nd-ranked finish at 6.0).
Most Valuable Player
Russell Westbrook won the 2016-17 MVP Award over nominees James Harden and Kawhi Leonard (and the snubbed non-nominee and still best player in the league, LeBron James), but our nERD metric says it should've been Kawhi all the way.
This was a compelling four-man race all season long, but Kawhi was the closest thing to a perfect candidate.
Westbrook's team didn't win enough games, Harden wasn't a good enough defender, and LeBron's team fell off quite a bit down the stretch of the regular season. Leonard's Spurs, on the other hand, improbably won 61 games in the first season of the post-Tim Duncan era on the strength of Leonard's nearly flawless season on both ends of the floor.
Kawhi averaged 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals, and 0.7 blocks per game while shooting 48.5% from the field, 38.1% from long range, and 88.0% from the free throw line. He was the only player in the NBA to finish in the top-six in both offensive (8.9, 6th) and defensive (4.7, 6th) win shares and he was tops of the four MVP candidates in win shares per 48 minutes at .264.
Two of the top comparable seasons in our database for the year Kawhi just put up are LeBron James' first two MVP seasons in 2008-09 (93.37% match) and 2009-10 (90.95% match). For what it's worth, LeBron's 2008-09 nERD of 30.1 still stands as the highest we've ever recorded and Leonard's season was a statistical match by nearly 94%.
While most people were joining up on either #TeamWestbrook or #TeamHarden, we may have just overlooked one of the best seasons of the modern era by Kawhi Leonard.