Dan Feldman

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2017 PBT Awards: Most Valuable Player

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Kurt Helin

1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder

2. James Harden, Rockets

3. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

4. LeBron James, Cavaliers

5. Isaiah Thomas, Celtics

There’s a reason this was the most interesting and discussed MVP race in more than a decade — this decision was incredibly difficult. You can put the top three in any order and it will be defendable. I end up with Westbrook on top based on his value to his team and how much he lifted them up, and his clutch play. Also, Thomas just edged out the Greek Freak for that fifth slot.

Note: Helin has an official ballot this year.

Dan Feldman

1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder

2. James Harden, Rockets

3. LeBron James, Cavaliers

4. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

5. Stephen Curry, Warriors

I could build a compelling case for each of the top four candidates that, when presented on its own, would convince myself that player must be MVP. But when that happens four times, it doesn’t really work.

Russell Westbrook and James Harden separated themselves slightly from the other two with their other-worldly individual production. But did Westbrook contribute more to the Thunder or Harden to the Rockets? No matter how many different ways I slice it, it looks extremely close.

But here’s what I can’t get over: Westbrook was so much better in the clutch than Harden. Clutch stats are often overrated, small samples that aren’t predictive of the future. I’m not saying Westbrook will be clutch in the playoffs. I’m not saying he’ll be clutch next season. But he was clutch this year, turning numerous games in Oklahoma City’s favor that would have been losses if it weren’t for him. That’s on his record, whether or not it’s sustainable – and aspects look sustainable. Nobody can tear through a locked-in defense like Westbrook, and that allowed the Thunder to play defensive-minded players around him down the stretch. So, even though Westbrook is far from the best defender, his singular offensive ability helped Oklahoma City’s defense, especially late. Harden, who scored efficiently himself and created high-percentage shots for teammates, couldn’t quite match that.

Dane Carbaugh

1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder

2. James Harden, Rockets

3. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs

4. LeBron James, Cavaliers

5. Isaiah Thomas, Celtics

We’ve argued endlessly about this, but there’s no way around it: How would you feel if the best player on a playoff team averaged a triple-double for a season, broke the single-season triple-double record, and then DIDN’T win MVP? That’s where I’ve circled on this thing for months, and there’s just no way around it. Harden’s season has been incredible, and he’s helped Houston to a high spot in the West. But Harden’s also had more help, including a coaching system built for his game, two Sixth Man of the Year candidates, and Ryan Anderson. Westbrook is playing with Steven Adams, sometimes Victor Oladipo, and the kind of roster filler you put together for your franchise on NBA 2k17. The 2017 NBA MVP is Russell Westbrook, whether you or I like it or not.

Defensive Player of the Year candidate Rudy Gobert quietly excels offensively, too

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Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy raved about Jazz center Rudy Gobert earlier this season:

“There’s a couple things with Gobert. I think, obviously defensively, he’s really, really good. He’s got great timing. He moves his feet well on pick-and-rolls. He protects the rim. And then offensively, I think you’ve got to give him a lot of credit, too. He plays exactly the way they want him to play and exactly the way he needs to play for them to be successful. And if you watch, he is always in pick-and-rolls. So, they lead the league in pick-and-rolls per possessions, and a great majority of them are him. And he’s content to play that and role and just keep running pick-and-rolls. You don’t see him stopping down in the post and bringing the offense to a stop. He doesn’t get many post touches at all. But he’s content to play that way, and so their team plays really well. That guy is a winning basketball player. Quin and has his staff have done a great job developing him. He was obviously a great pick for them. And you’ve got to give him a lot of credit, because all he’s concerned about –.”

Van Gundy suddenly stopped himself.

“I don’t know the guy at all,” Van Gundy said.

But then the coach kept rolling.

“Just watching from the outside, all he’s concerned about is playing the way he needs to play for them to win,” Van Gundy said.

To watch Gobert is to believe you know him. He plays hard and selflessly with little fanfare. He’s the type of player coaches love and casual fans too often overlook.

This is the time of year someone like Gobert tends to get more credit. Everyone gets caught up in offense during the season, for the draft and in free agency. But even cursory consideration of Defensive Player of the Year or All-Defensive teams forces people to evaluate the other end of the floor, and Gobert shines there. He is – or at least should be – running neck and neck with Draymond Green for Defensive Player of the Year.

But don’t discount Gobert’s offense. Even though he averaged a modest 14.3 points per game, he contributes mightily on that end. He’s a compete player.

Just two players have ever surpassed Gobert’s 14.3 win shares in a season while averaging fewer than 15 points points per game: Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

“I wish more fans would know much more than just the points,” Gobert said. “But I’m happy that it makes us better as a team.”

So, let’s talk about more than just the points. Gobert helps the Jazz offensively in three primary ways:

Screens

Gobert is a relentless screener, on and off the ball. He ranks second in the NBA in screen assists, screens for a teammate that directly lead to a made shot by that teammate:

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But screen assists don’t fully capture Gobert’s value as a screener. He participates in pick-and-rolls that will never see him get the ball, but his roll to the basket collapses the defense and frees someone else.

“There are some actions that we run that are literally worthless if Rudy is not screening,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said.

“We need to continue to reward him for his rolling.”

Scoring at the rim

It’s easier to reward Gobert for his Yeoman’s work, because he has become such an efficient scorer.

He shot 70.4% at the rim this season, up from 61% last year. And he’s doing it on a healthy seven attempts per game.

Though he has grown in many areas, this is the crux of Gobert’s Most Improved Player case.

Scoring at the rim isn’t just about field-goal percentage, because even most poor finishers are more efficient at the rim than players generally are from other areas on the court. Generating attempts at the rim is a skill, and Gobert has become stronger to get better position and developed his hands to catch passes inside.

Plotting all NBA players by shots at the rim per game and field-goal percentage at the rim shows Gobert with an elite combination:

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Maybe he should shoot more often.

“I can’t say enough about Rudy’s unselfishness on offense,” Snyder said. “And like I said, I think our players are aware of it. The more we can involve him and get him touches, we want to do that, too.”

Offensive rebounding

After setting so many screens and rolling so hard, once the ball goes up, Gobert tracks it. He grabbed 13.6% of available offensive rebounds, 12th in the NBA among qualifying players:

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That list contains many low-minute role players who expel all their energy chasing rebounds. This is only one of Gobert’s numerous responsibilities. And he handles them with aplomb – even if he doesn’t receive enough credit.

“People look at stats,” Gobert said. “Most people don’t watch the games. Only a few people watch the games, especially us, because national TV two times a year.”

The right stats show Gobert’s two-way effectiveness. His defense has become appreciated, but his offense remains underrated. The Jazz scored 4.1 more points 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor than off.

Part of that is Utah’s rotation. Gobert often plays with the Jazz’s talented other starters, including Gordon Hayward and George Hill (another underrated player).

But if you watch, Gobert wasn’t merely along for the ride. He helped plenty offensively.

Utah’s playoff games will be nationally televised. Watch and find out.

Raptors, Bulls, Clippers, Thunder big risers when adjusting for playoff rotations

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Kyle Korver played 894 minutes for the Hawks this season. Ed Davis played 789 minutes for the Trail Blazers. Lucas Nogueira played 1,088 minutes for the Raptors.

All three players factor into any season-long evaluation – including won-loss record and net rating – for those teams. But Korver (trade), Davis (season-ending injury) and Nogueira (fell out of rotation) won’t factor into those teams’ first-round series.

So, to account for rotation changes like that on every playoff team, I’ve found how many points per 100 possessions teams score and allow when five players projected to be in the postseason rotation are on the floor together.

This is hardly a perfect measure. Teams rarely announce their playoff rotations, so we’re left with my predictions of which players will receive regular playing time. The minutes distribution among players in the adjusted rating can vary from what it’ll be during the playoffs. This doesn’t take into account opponent quality. Some teams have larger samples than others.

But I find it useful, another data point among the many necessary to evaluate the upcoming playoffs. It shows how the players we project to see on the court for the next few months have played together, without someone else affecting the chemistry.

Here’s each team’s offensive, defensive and net ratings adjust from the regular season to counting only lineups that include five players projected to be in the play rotation (using nbawowy! to calculate):

Eastern Conference

3. Toronto Raptors

  • Offensive rating: 113.1 to 116.8
  • Defensive rating:  108.9 to 106.6
  • Net rating: +4.2 to +10.2

8. Chicago Bulls

  • Offensive rating: 107.8 to 116.0
  • Defensive rating:  107.3 to 109.6
  • Net rating: +0.5 to +6.4

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

  • Offensive rating: 114.4 to 118.0
  • Defensive rating:  111.1 to 112.1
  • Net rating: +3.3 to +5.9

4. Washington Wizards

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 116.5
  • Defensive rating:  110.0 to 110.7
  • Net rating: +1.7 to +5.8

1. Boston Celtics

  • Offensive rating: 112.4 to 114.4
  • Defensive rating: 109.8 to 109.2
  • Net rating: +2.6 to +5.2

6. Milwaukee Bucks

  • Offensive rating: 110.1 to 111.2
  • Defensive rating:  110.3 to 107.4
  • Net rating: -0.2 to +3.8

7. Indiana Pacers

  • Offensive rating: 109.3 to 110.3
  • Defensive rating:  109.5 to 108.2
  • Net rating: -0.2 to +2.1

5. Atlanta Hawks

  • Offensive rating: 106.5 to 108.0
  • Defensive rating:  108.2 to 106.3
  • Net rating: -1.7 to +1.7

Western Conference

1. Golden State Warriors

  • Offensive rating: 116.6 to 121.7
  • Defensive rating:  104.9 to 102.9
  • Net rating: +11.7 to +18.8

4. Los Angeles Clippers

  • Offensive rating: 113.5 to 120.7
  • Defensive rating: 108.8 to 107.0
  • Net rating: +4.7 to +13.7

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

  • Offensive rating: 109.4 to 113.8
  • Defensive rating:  108.6 to 104.2
  • Net rating: +0.8 to +9.6

3. Houston Rockets

  • Offensive rating: 115.5 to 118.5
  • Defensive rating: 109.7 to 109.5
  • Net rating: +5.8 to +9.0

2. San Antonio Spurs

  • Offensive rating: 111.7 to 115.4
  • Defensive rating: 104.2 to 106.9
  • Net rating: +7.5 to +8.5

5. Utah Jazz

  • Offensive rating: 110.7 to 112.5
  • Defensive rating:  106.4 to 107.2
  • Net rating: +4.3 to +5.3

7. Memphis Grizzlies

  • Offensive rating: 108.8 to 114.3
  • Defensive rating: 108.1 to 109.3
  • Net rating: +0.7 to +5.0

8. Portland Trail Blazers

  • Offensive rating: 111.2 to 121.0
  • Defensive rating: 111.7 to 116.1
  • Net rating: -0.5 to +4.9

Observations:

  • All 16 teams improve with the adjustment, which is logical. When teams tighten their rotations, they’re left with only better players.
  • The Clippers (nine points per 100 possessions better) make the biggest jump.
  • This model predicts two first-round upsets: Bulls over Celtics and Thunder over Rockets. In fact, Chicago (Wizards or Hawks) and Oklahoma City (Spurs or Grizzlies) also rate ahead of either potential second-round foe.
  • The Warriors were better than everyone else in the regular season, and that advantage is only amplified with the adjustment. And I set their playoff rotation 11 deep, more players than any other team. If they need to pare down, they’d get even more dangerous.
  • I projected 10 players in the Cavaliers’ rotation. If they tighten that, they too could get better.
  • Are the Raptors the top team in the East now? They played very well after the trade deadline with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker providing toughness – all while Kyle Lowry was out. Now that Lowry is healthy, this could be a complete team, which the adjustment indicates. However, because of the mismatched availability (Lowry in the first of the season, Ibaka and Tucker in the second half), Toronto’s sample size is relatively small.
  • Likewise, I’m not convinced the Bulls’ adjusted rating is reliable. It too stems from a relatively small sample, and because all Taj Gibson lineups are removed, time after the trade deadline weighs heavily. So, that includes Nikola Mirotic‘s hot stretch and Rajon Rondo‘s resurgence – which both came with Dwyane Wade out. Now that Wade is back, can Chicago put everything together the way these numbers suggest?
  • The Wizards would’ve rated better, just ahead of the Bulls for second in the East, if Ian Mahinmi were healthy.
  • I don’t know whether the Bucks will use Michael Beasley, Mirza Teletovic or Spencer Hawes as their backup stretch player. I guessed Beasley, who conveniently produces the middle mark in adjusted net rating among the three.
  • The Clippers would have fared a little worse, though still would’ve ranked second in the West, if I included the injured Austin Rivers. That’s not because Rivers is bad, but because excluding any lineups that include him emphasizes L.A.’s powerful starting lineup.
  • I gave the Thunder a narrow eight-man rotation that includes neither Doug McDermott nor Alex Abrines. If Oklahoma City needs one of those wings – and it might – its adjusted net rating would suffer.
  • Deep teams like the Celtics and Spurs aren’t rewarded here. When gluing lesser players to the bench in a stretch of the season with no back-to-backs, other teams can catch up.

Ben Simmons wrecks Knicks kid (video)

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Ben Simmons is healthier — which was bad news for Lil Derrick Rose here.

76ers:

Report: Rob Hennigan took photo of Magic whiteboard that became public

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Patricio Garino’s agent tweeted a photo of Garino signing a contract with the Magic. The problem: The photo also included of a whiteboard in the background of the Orlando office that appeared to show players the team was targeting.

 

That incident embarrassed the Magic, including now-fired general manager Rob Hennigan, but perhaps we didn’t realize how deeply.

 

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Near the end of the season, Hennigan inadvertently took a photo of the Magic’s internal plans on a white board while snapping a photo of a player signing a contract. Once that photo was posted on social media – and the fallout from the information made public began to hit the franchise – Hennigan had to suffer one more indignity on the job.

Nevertheless, the Magic had already decided to dismiss Hennigan, league sources said, and the instance had no ultimate bearing on his future.

Just because the agent posted the photo doesn’t mean he took it. Did Hennigan actually click the button? That’d be a stunning aggravating factor in what was already a blunder. But I wonder whether Wojnarowski is just confusing the details. He doesn’t cite anyone, anonymous or otherwise, on this aspect of the story.

Even if Hennigan didn’t take the photo himself, he never should have allowed a player or an agent into a room with that kind of information. The question isn’t whether Hennigan should look bad in this, but just how bad.