NBA Quarterly Report: Fourth Quarter Award Winners
At the first quarter mark of this NBA season, I handed out my way-too-early picks and explanations for the main NBA awards and their made-up negative equivalents. After the second quarter (or the first half, depending on how you feel about breaking down fractions), I used numberFire’s nERD metric to see what it would be like if we used an advanced statistic to select the East and West All-Star teams. When the third quarter came to a close, I took the opportunity to hand out some more made-up awards, this time to deserving teams instead of individual players.
Now that the fourth quarter of the NBA season has ended, I would like to take the opportunity to lap back around and discuss the awards again by filling out an imaginary ballot (although in the interest of being positive and not making this a 10,000-word article, I’ll stick to the honors this time around and leave the dishonors for some other negative nelly or nancy or what have you). Another slight change this time around, I’ve called on my fellow numberFire hoop-heads to help me with the selection process by all filling out ballots as well.
We each filled out the equivalent of a real NBA ballot, complete with first, second, and third place votes (where applicable). I tabulated the scores based on the authentic point system (5 points for first, 3 for second, etc.), and the results could be considered numberFire’s official ballot, as it represents the general feelings of the group as a whole. If anyone has any connections with Adam Silver, please let him know that we’d be happy to fill out one of these this way next year, as I can guarantee you that more thought and manpower went into filling ours out than some of what’s submitted (seriously, P.J. Tucker got a first-place Defensive Player of the Year vote).
Interestingly enough, the final cumulative results almost perfectly lined up with my votes anyway (I didn’t rig it, I swear!). Some votes were very close, while others had just one or two outliers who voted differently than the pack. With that in mind, I’ll justify my votes for the winners, but I’ll give my colleagues the chance to defend some of the other possible recipients of each award as well, so you’ll see their thoughts littered throughout this piece.
The first real-life award was announced on Monday when the NBA named Joakim Noah the 2013-14 Defensive Player of the Year and the good times kept rolling on Tuesday when Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich received his third Coach of the Year trophy for his magnificent 2013-14 season. For what it’s worth, those two honors lined up perfectly with our voting. Let’s see how many more we get right!
Enough explanations and digressions, let’s get down to business! Your 2013-14 numberFire NBA Award Winners:
Most Valuable Player
Winner: Kevin Durant
I’ve supported Kevin Durant as the MVP all season, as evidenced by the fact that I declared him as such back in late January (early, I know) and then reiterated his strong candidacy two months later. It’s no secret to anyone with a pulse and the slightest clue about NBA basketball that this was a two-horse race from the beginning. Considering KD has always lived in the shadow of the other guy, I’ll pay him the respect he deserves by not mentioning he-who-shall-be-named-in-the-next-section-by-someone-else and focus solely on how Durant won this award, not how the other guy lost it.
Because this isn’t voter fatigue. This isn’t Kevin Durant winning because some other better player was coasting. Kevin Durant represents numberFire’s only unanimous first-place vote getter in any award, and will likely win the real thing because he had a season for the ages and the best campaign of anyone playing in the league this year. Check the two links above for in-depth comparisons to the dude in Miami, but you can focus on Durant’s résumé alone and get all the answer you need.
He led the league in nERD (27.0), PER (29.8), win shares (19.2), and win shares per 48 minutes (.295). His .635 true shooting percentage was third best in the league, which is amazing when you consider the volume of shots and usage. He registered the most field goals attempted (1688), field goals made (849), free throws attempted (805), free throws made (703), minutes played (3122), and points scored (2593) in the whole NBA and topped everyone in usage rate at 33.0 percent. He led his team to the league’s second-best record of 59-23 in the hyper-competitive Western Conference without the help of his All-Star running mate, Russell Westbrook, for almost half the season. No one played better or shouldered a bigger load than the Slim Reaper.
Kevin Durant is this seasons MVP. Full stop.
Runner-up: LeBron James
Mike Comerford’s thoughts:
The MVP race this year really was about two players, Kevin Durant and LeBron James. Even though Durant's gross numbers in points and rebounds are slightly higher, James recorded more assists per game and shot six percentage points higher from the field. Both players led their teams to well over 50 victories and stabilized their respective teams in the face of key injuries to teammates.
The best argument for James, however, is that he just keeps performing at a level that is close to basketball immortality. Despite intense pressure as a two time defending NBA champion, James went out and averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists over 77 games while shooting .567 from the field (a true shooting percentage of .649, almost .015 higher than Durant). Night in and night out, James is arguably the best player on the planet, carrying the defending champion Heat. That equals MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Joakim Noah
This award seemed like it was Roy Hibbert's to lose back when I first tackled it. We could go so far as to say that he did just that, but I think we shouldn’t detract from the fact that Joakim Noah flat-out won it.
Look no further than the NBA leaderboards, where Noah tops out two of the most telling defensive stats, leading the association in defensive rating (95.8) and defensive win shares (6.6). He was the anchor of the league’s second-best defense in the Chicago Bulls (allowing 100.5 points per 100 possessions), a team that held opponents to the fewest points scored per game in the whole NBA at 91.8. He threw in 11.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.5 blocks per game for good measure, while holding opponents to .468 shooting around the rim (sixth in the league). He won the award on Monday and we here at numberFire agree with the decision.
Runner-up: Roy Hibbert
Bryan Mears' thoughts:
Roy Hibbert has been a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate this year, despite what we all may think of the train wreck that is the Indiana Pacers right now. One thing people are quick to say about Joakim Noah is that “he’s been so good since the Luol Deng trade!” So, we can weigh one half of the season more for Noah but we can’t do the same for Hibbert? This is an example of Recency bias, and Hibbert is at the disadvantage because his stellar play is less recent than Noah’s.
Despite the Pacers woes, Hibbert still ended the year with fantastic defensive stats. He ranked fourth in the NBA in total blocks and blocks per game, ahead of Noah. He was also the best in the league this year in protecting the rim, something NBA statistical gurus increasingly say is the key to a championship-level defense. According to NBA.com, opponents shot a league low .414 at the rim when Hibbert was defending. Noah is no slouch at sixth in the league, but his .468 is still significantly higher than Hibbert’s, and attests to how good Roy is at perhaps the most important defensive quality, as mentioned above: protecting the rim.
Sixth Man of the Year
Winner: Taj Gibson
Of all the deserving Sixth Man of the Year candidates this year (and there are a few), Taj Gibson is the only one that showed up on every one of our ballots here at numberFire, whether it was for first, second, or third place. This award is usually reserved for the most prolific bench scorers, but this year Taj broke that mould by being a defensive difference maker off the pine and getting all of our attention in the process.
Gibson played in all 82 games for the Bulls this season, coming off the bench for 74 of them. He still managed to average 28.7 minutes per game from that position, due largely to the fact that his coach, Tom Thibodeau, trusted him more than starter Carlos Boozer. The big reason for that? His 96.9 defensive rating, including a clutch 98.9 rating during his 10.4 fourth-quarter minutes per game. His averages of 6.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game are tops among players coming off the bench in at least 50 contests, and his 13.0 points per game is in the top five. It won’t be long before he’s a regular starter in this league, but for now he’s our favorite for the 2013-14 Sixth Man of the Year.
Runner-up: Markieff Morris
Jonathan Martin’s thoughts:
As excellent of a year as Taj Gibson had, discounting the eight starts where he averaged a monstrous 19.3 points and 9.8 rebounds and his season stats become significantly less strong. In comparison, evaluating Markieff Morris' candidacy as a Sixth Man is easy: 81 games played, 0 starts.
Morris was the more efficient player and bests Gibson in nERD score, PER, estimated wins added and win shares. Even beyond the advanced stats, Morris was arguably the second most valuable member of a Suns team that exceeded preseason expectations by more than any other team in the league. In a very competitive category with a number of great contenders - Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobli also have compelling cases - no reserve player was a bigger part of his team’s success than Morris.
Most Improved Player
Winner: Goran Dragic
The Most Improved Player award is a strange entity, devoid of a true definition. Some people gravitate towards players who have upped their all-around averages over the previous season, but that usually comes as a result of increased minutes. Another winning formula is when a second- or third-year player makes the jump from bumbling rookie or sophomore to legitimate NBA veteran, but that’s often a result of standard, somewhat expected development that most young players go through.
The most interesting cases are the ones that come out of nowhere. There are probably 20-or-so deserving candidates for this award this year by most criteria, but the most interesting and surprising story is the rise of Goran Dragic to a near All-Star level playing for everyone's second favorite team this year, the Phoenix Suns. A former second-round pick and perpetual backup was thrust into a starting role for Phoenix last year after the departure of Steve Nash. He did an adequate job in the role, but he absolutely owned it this year. The stats speak for themselves:
Dragic averaged significant increases in points per game, field goal percentage, three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, player efficiency rating, nERD, and win shares per 48 minutes, posting what were easily career highs in each. The role and minutes stayed roughly the same, but Dragic was simply better at age 27 in his seventh season. He carried a team that no one believed in to 48 wins, mostly without the Suns other star, Eric Bledsoe, for most of the season. For all that, he’s our Most Improved Player this year.
Runner(s)-up: Lots of people
Brett Weisband’s thoughts:
Anthony Davis notably became a superstar this season, DeAndre Jordan upped his rebounding rates by a significant amount and became a defensive force while finally getting fourth quarter minutes, and Gerald Green became a supercharged offensive weapon as both a starter and reserve in Jeff Hornacek’s system.
But with the vague criteria of the Most Improved Player award, we should look north for two deserving candidates. DeMar DeRozan went from solid to All-Star this season. He shouldered the heaviest load of his career (28.0 percent usage rate) while maintaining efficiency, distributing the ball more than ever (18.9 assist rate) and becoming a strong team defender. Much of the improvement came when DeRozan had to shift his role mid-season when Rudy Gay was shipped to Sacramento.
DeRozan’s teammate, Kyle Lowry, also had a career year, registering career highs in nearly every category, both basic and advanced, but his biggest improvements came in other regards. While he’s always had the talent, Lowry’s issues in the past were mainly attitude related; this year, he put all of that aside and focused on being a leader for the Raptors, with wildly successful results.
Rookie of the Year
Winner: Michael Carter-Williams
Michael Carter-Williams put the league on notice that he would be vying for Rookie of the Year honors when he exploded out of the gate with 22 points, 4 three-pointers, 12 assists, 7 rebounds, 9 steals, and only 1 turnover in his first professional basketball game (a win over the defending champion Miami Heat, no less). He has faltered at times and his team has been historically awful, but this draft class has been mostly lousy and he still stands out as the best candidate for the award.
His 16.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.9 steals per game were all league-leading marks among first-year players. His .405 shooting from the field, .264 from deep, and 3.5 turnovers per game were an eyesore, but you’ll have a hard time finding another rookie who found the balance between the good and the bad to pick over him. I know this isn’t the most ringing endorsement, but the vast majority of our writers agree, MCW has been the Rookie of the Year for 2013-14.
Runner-up: Victor Oladipo
Brandon Gdula’s thoughts:
Brett Oswalt does a great job explaining the numbers involved in the Rookie of the Year race here. However, a quick glance outside the numbers makes the race a little tighter. Victor Oladipo didn't get drafted into a role as ideal as Carter-Williams in the tank-ready Sixers. Oladipo wasn't even the obvious starter at his position as the Magic already had Arron Afflalo.
Oladipo was forced into playing point guard at times and he struggled. He shot .289 from three in his first 40 games but shot .371 in games 41-80. This helped him improve his true shooting from .501 to .524 and his effective field goal percentage from .401 to .466 over those periods. In fact, Oladipo trumped MCW in every shooting percentage: field goals, three-pointers, two-pointers, free throws, true shooting, and effective field goals. His turnover struggles were problematic all season, but Oladipo has shown growth after being forced to play an unfamiliar position at the highest level and deserves to be considered the best of his class in year one.
Coach of the Year
Winner: Gregg Popovich
One could argue that Michael Jordan should’ve won the MVP award almost every year he played in the league, and he probably would have if it weren’t for the fact that narrative and voter fatigue tend to sway the results quite a bit during award season. The same could be said about the Coach of the Year award and Gregg Popovich, a man that has coached the Spurs for 18 seasons, leading them to 15 straight 50-win seasons (or 17 straight if you extrapolate the 1999 lockout year), four NBA Championships, and a winning percentage of .686 over 1,410 regular season games and .618 over 217 games in the playoffs.
He deservedly won his third Coach of the Year award on Tuesday and our voting agreed with the decision. This year’s Spurs came within one win of a franchise record by finishing 62-20 on the season (the top mark in the whole NBA this year), while posting the league’s seventh-best offensive rating (110.5), third-best defensive rating (102.4), and second-best nERD (70.0) in the process. Pop monitored minutes and preserved his seasoned vets masterfully, with not one player playing 30 or more minutes per game (the first time that’s ever happened in NBA history) and not a single player topping 17 points per game. His team was poised and balanced, as they adjusted to 89 missed games from their projected starting rotation and sixth man. With the Spurs having what could arguably be considered the best of many superb seasons, Coach Gregg Popovich is both your NBA and numberFire Coach of the Year for 2013-14.
Runner-up: Jeff Horancek
Sam Hauss’s thoughts:
I feel that Hornacek deserves this award slightly more than Popovich because of how thoroughly the Suns shattered preseason expectations. Coming into this season, the Suns roster was considered to be so terrible that many experts went as far as to suggest that management was tanking the season for a top draft pick. Instead, the Suns won 48 games, which is 23 more wins than last season and the franchise’s most since 2009.
What Hornacek was able to accomplish with a roster that many thought was among the worst in the league was nothing short of spectacular, and he did so by leaning on his young talent. Goran Dragic, Markieff Morris, Gerald Green and Eric Bledsoe have all taken huge steps forward on both sides of the ball this season. In fact, since Hornacek took over as head coach, the Suns team as a whole has made huge strides on both the offensive and defensive ends. This season, the Suns improved their offensive rating by 8.3 points, their defensive rating by 1.4 points and their Simple Rating System score by a whopping 8.77. No team surpassed expectations like the Phoenix Suns, which is why Jeff Hornacek should be Coach of the Year
Executive of the Year
Winner: Ryan McDonough
As Sam mentioned, the Phoenix Suns had everyone believing that they would finish last in the Western Conference this year, but GM Ryan McDonough clearly saw something the rest of us didn’t. The team finished 48-34, only barely missing the playoffs in the fierce Western Conference. They also finished 10th in our NBA Team Rankings with a nERD of 57.7, ahead of seven playoff teams.
They did this with a roster of other people’s flotsam. Seven of their main eight rotation players posted career highs in PER and nERD. The only one that didn’t was Channing Frye, and the fact that he played and started in all 82 games for the Suns this season after missing the previous year and having his career threatened by an enlarged heart is good enough to put him in with that group anyway. One player having a breakout year is one thing (see Dragic’s blurb above), but when all of the players on a team have a career year, their GM must be onto something special.
That’s all without mentioning that he hired standout rookie coach Jeff Hornacek (who finished second in Coach of the Year voting) and has amassed four first-round draft picks for the loaded 2014 NBA Draft (although one will be deferred). The present has certainly been bright and the future could not be brighter for our 2013-14 Executive of the Year, Ryan McDonough.
Runner-up: Masai Ujiri
Mike Hurley’s thoughts:
One year removed from winning NBA’s Executive of the Year award as the Denver Nuggets’ General Manager, current Raptors GM Masai Ujiri was up to his old tricks again. The guy just gets it done, and his teams have strong regular seasons and playoff berths to show for it. This year, the Raptors returned to the postseason and won their second Atlantic Division title, but not before some impressive roster tweaking by Ujiri.
During the offseason, the Raptors dumped Andrea Bargnani on the Knicks and squeezed a first round pick out of them. He didn’t stop there. Well before the trade deadline, Ujiri engineered a trade that sent Rudy Gay’s massive contract to the Sacramento Kings for John Salmons, Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and Chuck Hayes, all whom are playing key reserve roles on the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. It was interesting to see Gay moved again, especially considering the size of the max contract, but Ujiri is a miracle worker and these moves sparked this entertaining Raptors team to a franchise-best 48 wins. I can’t wait to see what kind of madness Masai Ujiri pulls off next year!
There are 15 very deserving players on our three All-NBA teams, but also a couple that didn’t quite make it. It’s a bit crazy to think that players like Carmelo Anthony, Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, and Anthony Davis aren’t there, but the field of forwards has simply gotten too loaded for everyone to receive their proper accolades. Same goes for Tony Parker, DeMar DeRozan, and Damian Lillard, who are all having stellar seasons at the guard position. It’ll be hard to please everyone when these lists are released, but I stand behind the results of our in-house vote.
28 different players got votes for All-Defensive honors when I tallied up the numbers on our ballots. The criteria for what constitutes a good defender is, of course, different depending on who you talk to. Does a given player play for a good defensive team? How does he protect the rim as a big or the perimeter as a guard? Are steals and blocks a good way to measure defensive prowess or do they not tell enough of the overall story? Regardless of how you slice it, there’s no denying that these ten guys are deserving of some recognition for their defensive skills.
As mentioned in the Rookie of the Year section, this was a particularly weak class of first-year players. That’s not to say that we won’t see some of these guys develop into competent basketball players with long careers, just that very few of them had notable rookie years. Just to give you an idea of how much of a crapshoot the NBA Draft was this past year, only 5 of the 14 lottery picks made our teams, and 3 of them came from the top 10 picked. The majority of our writers admitted to me during this process that picking 10 rookies to “honor” in this section was one of the hardest parts of the voting process. First-overall selection Anthony Bennett's name never came up once, not even as a pity Canadian solidarity vote from yours truly. Yeesh.