Saturday, April 16, 2016

2016 NBA Regular Season Wrap Up

It's just about playoff time, but I wanted to put a bow on the regular season with my two cents on the potential award winners before making some predictions on the first round.

Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry
A repeat is almost a forgone conclusion.

The reigning MVP probably won't win the award unanimously, but he should. To go along with leading the defending champs to a record setting 73-9 season despite having a target on their backs every game, Curry accomplished the following personal feats:
  • Led the league in Player Efficiency Rating (31.5), Win Shares (17.9), scoring (30.1 points per game) despite sitting out 19 fourth quarters, steals per game (2.1), and total steals (169).
  • Became just the 7th player to record a 50/40/90 shooting season and had the highest scoring season of anyone in that club.
  • Broke his own record for most 3's in a season from last season, 286, with an eye-popping 402. J.J. Redick's incredible 47.5% 3 point percentage may have beaten Curry's 45.4%, but he made less than half the total number of shots with 200. Just an insane stat.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard

Another repeat winner from last year, he again edges out Draymond Green for me, and it's more deserving now than when he missed 18 games last season. It's almost a coin flip between the two since Green's versatility to basically guard 1 through 5 unlocks so much for the 73 win Warriors, but I decided to go with the spearhead of the best defense in the league. The Spurs won 67 games in their own right, and they gave up 2.2 points per 100 possessions fewer than the second best defense.
Towns will pick up a lot of hardware in his career.

Rookie of the Year: Karl-Anthony Towns

This one should be unanimous, as well, as Towns won Rookie of the Month all 6 times. I had no doubts about him as the top pick in last year's draft, but I had no idea he'd be able to be this good this fast. He's also seems like such a good kid that I view him like a better shooting Tim Duncan, which is incredible praise, but I think Bill Simmons captured his style better as a combination of Chris Webber and Rasheed Wallace.

Sixth Man of the Year: Andre Iguodala

Missing a sizable portion of the season near the end hurts his case, but last year's Finals MVP should be recognized for his defense, passing, and overall smart play that may not translate into traditional stats. The fact that he closes games for the best team in the league tells the story, and he doesn't have strong competition for the award as Enes Kanter often gives up almost as much as he contributes, Will Barton inflated his stats to a certain extent on a lottery team, and Jamal Crawford's efficiency plummeted to go along with his usual lack of defense. Ed Davis can make a strong case as he finally got the consistent role he deserved with his impressive production, but in the end, I'm rewarding winning.

Most Improved Player: C.J. McCollum

The award with the most vagueness within its criteria is always difficult to narrow down, and this year is no different. You could argue that making another leap once you're already a good player is the most difficult thing to do, such as Curry taking his game to a new level of superstar, but he was already the MVP. Likewise, Green lived up to his new contract with improvements across the board to become a bona fide All Star, but he was already viewed as a borderline max player. Giannis Antetokounpo putting his tools together to become the star everyone envisioned him as is a huge accomplishment, but unfairly or not, it's hard to give him an award for improvement after his team had a huge drop out of the playoffs. 

Barton also has a case here like with the Sixth Man, but it's hard to differentiate whether players like him, Rodney Hood, and Allen Crabbe had significant improvements or simply got more minutes. However, maintaining production with an increased workload is noteworthy in itself, and McCollum increased his responsibility the most out of these types of players while also improving his numbers on a per minute basis. After showing flashes of being a capable 6th man last year, he did well to play off of Damian Lillard as a starter and then shift over to leading the offense when playing with the second unit en route to a surprising 44 win season and 5 seed in the West.

Coach of the Year: Steve Clifford

Charlotte had a great year without any All-Stars.
Probably the toughest award to pick due to the overwhelmingly strong field of candidates, I ended up going with Clifford since his Charlotte team seemingly came out of nowhere to tie for the East's third best record with 48 wins thanks to smart style changes with new personnel. I'd have no problem giving it to Gregg Popovich since he's the most consistently great coach out there or to Steve Kerr, who should have won it last year still had a strong influence early but wasn't actually coaching the team for the first 43 games when they went 39-4 under Luke Walton. Terry Stotts, Brad Stevens, Dwane Casey, Dave Joerger, and others are all worthy of votes for the way they brought their teams together, as well, but I'm leaning towards Clifford's job of getting this under the radar roster to be 9th in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Executive of the Year: R.C. Buford

I was close to giving Masai Ujiri the nod for his tiny tweaks that helped bring Toronto together or Neil Olshey for his shrewd summer deals to reload on the fly despite such roster turnover, but I decided to stick with the guy who poached LaMarcus Aldridge from Portland. Buford always deserves recognition with the way he makes moves along the margin that pay dividends down the line, and this year's salary cap mastery to have the space to sign Aldridge before re-signing Leonard, Danny Green, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobli may finally put him over the top. He was fortunate that David West left so much money on the table to sign, but Boban Marjonovic and Jonathan Simmons were diamonds in the rough to help fill out the roster on the cheap for this 67 win squad.

First Team All-NBA: 
Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, and DeAndre Jordan

Curry and Leonard are locks, and although Chris Paul had an incredible year to keep the Clippers afloat, Westbrook had a record breaking season with his 18 triple doubles to go along with the third best PER and Win Shares total. It seems that most people are automatically tabbing LeBron James for the other forward spot, but as Royce Young pointed out, a blind comparison of their seasons tells an interesting story:

The top player is Durant, and he also leads in PER and Win Shares as he's second in both categories behind only Curry. Cleveland may have won two more games than Oklahoma City, albeit with a lower point differential, in the easier conference, but James' inconsistent effort, particularly on defense, has led to bouts of turmoil that included a coaching change.

Lastly, it's rather thin pickings for the center spot unless you place Green there like the Warriors do in their Lineup of Death. I opted against that route since that only consists of a portion of his minutes, and Jordan has had a pretty good season in his own right. His defense is at a consistently high level these days with better positioning to go along with blocks, and the threat of his roll to the rim offensively has a huge boost on offense.

Second Team All-NBA:
Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, LeBron James, Draymond Green, Al Horford
Can't go wrong with these 23's on either All-NBA team.

Lowry joins Paul as a dynamo of a point guard leading the charge to a top five offense while also remaining a pesky defender. James and Green are obviously in the discussion for the first team, as mentioned above, and the difficulty with the center position leads me to Horford, who still helped anchor Atlanta to the #2 defense despite his rebounding being down. He also added 3's to his arsenal as he suddenly launched over three a game at a 34.4% clip to go along with his top notch passing. 

Third Team All-NBA:
Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Paul George, Paul Millsap, DeMarcus Cousins

It pains me to leave John Wall off in favor of Lillard, but his shooting and defense took a hit as he had to carry a disappointing Washington team amidst a lottery season while Portland rallied around its lone holdover in the starting lineup. In the same vain, James Harden may have had career highs in scoring, rebounding, and assists with a 29, 6.1, and 7.5 line, but he also set a modern NBA record with 374 turnovers as he logged the most minutes in the league. While it is commendable that he carried such a load, he was a big part of the problem for an even more of an underachieving Houston team that simply lacks effort on defense and got its coach fired at the beginning of the year. 

Meanwhile, Thompson provides stellar defense for the 73 win Warriors to go along with his dangerous shooting, making this a pretty simple call for the last guard spot. George went through some shooting slumps but overall had a tremendous first full year back from his broken leg and remains an elite perimeter defender. Millsap is the other part of the equation with Horford for the success of the Hawks, and although his shooting suffered a decline this season, his defense went up to another level with a career high in defensive rebounds and blocks. Lastly, I went back and forth on the last center before settling on Cousins over someone like Andre Drummond or Tim Duncan despite his 17 missed games and team record. He brings a little bit of everything on offense, with the turnovers you have to live with, and when he's locked in defensively, he makes a lot of plays on the ball. He deserves some of the blame for Sacramento's situation, but he also hasn't been put in a position to succeed.

First Team All-Defense:
Chris Paul, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert
These near teammates are perimeter stoppers.

I'm pushing the limits with the positions here since George is really a small forward, but he guards any kind of wing, which is part of what makes him so great. You could talk me into bumping Paul down to the second team, but the other four are the elite of the elite, including the Stifle Tower who protects the rim better than anybody.

Second Team All-Defense:
Ricky Rubio, Avery Bradley, Jimmy Butler, Paul Millsap, DeAndre Jordan

Again, I'm taking advantage of Butler's flexibility here to make the pieces fit, and I wouldn't argue too hard if you wanted to make a change as he did seem to conserve the slightest of energy as he took on more responsibility on the offensive end. Rubio and Bradley take advantage of their length to force a lot of turnovers at the point of attack, and I've already discussed Millsap and Jordan. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Granger, and Iguodala would likely be the perimeter defenders next up for me if a change were to be made. I was close to edging Jordan out for Tim Duncan or Hassan Whiteside, but I'd say he's the happy medium between the two as the future Hall of Famer is slowing down while the rising star is still too eager for blocks and out of position at times.

First Team All-Rookie:
Devin Booker, Justise Winslow, Nikola Jokic, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns

Positions don't seem to be as important for the rookie teams, but I tried to stick with two perimeter based players and three frontcourt players. Porzingis is the main threat to Towns for any ROY votes as he showed off his unicorn skill set with his rebounding, blocks, and shooting, although he did slow down towards the end. Jokic was a revelation as a draft and stash in the second round of the 2014 draft, and he flashed a 3 point shot along with some impressive passing as a big man. Winslow came out just like we expected as a ready-made defender with a developing offensive game, and Booker initially seemed like the typical shooter he was projected as before growing into a solid playmaker with an increased role. 

Second Team All-Rookie:
D'Angelo Russell, Josh Richardson, Myles Turner, Willie Cauley-Stein, Jahlil Okafor

Russell showed his potential whenever Bryon Scott was smart enough to let him play and should continue to emerge as a young playmaker and shooter. Richardson proved to be an amazing second round pick who is locked up on a team friendly contract, and his shooting is incredibly valuable to Miami in multiple positions. Turner and Cauley-Stein were shuttled in and out of their lineups and missed some games, but both proved to bring some nice skills to the table that can be used in multiple ways. Okafor still isn't my cup of tea but has proved to be able to produce points for a horrible offense, so he can provide value if he improves his defense and rebounding. I could have bumped him for any number of players as this deep rookie class saw contributions from Emmanuel Mudiay, Trey Lyles, Frank Kaminsky, Bobby Portis, Norman Powell, Cameron Payne, and more.

Round 1 Predictions

Things are mostly straightforward in the first round as the only real intrigue is with the middle seeds in the East, so I'll keep my thoughts brief along with the usual stats on point differential and points per 100 possessions.

#1 Warriors, 73-9 +10.8. Offense: 1st (112.5)/Defense: T-4th (100.9)
#8 Rockets, 41-41 +0.2. Offense: 8th (105.5)/Defense: 20th (105.6)

Golden State in 4. This shouldn't be as close as last year's Western Conference Finals that the Warriors won in 5 as Houston isn't nearly as disciplined now. The Rockets backing into the playoffs must be at least somewhat bittersweet since they lost their lottery protected first round pick just for the right to play a record breaking team.

#2 Spurs, 67-15 +10.6. Offense: 3rd (108.4)/Defense: 1st (96.6)
#7 Grizzlies, 42-40 -2.2. Offense: 21st (102.6)/Defense: 19th (105.4)

San Antonio in 4. Coach Joerger deserves a ton of praise for keeping this team above water despite the reliance on so many D-League call ups due to injury, but Memphis is simply undermanned against a juggernaut.

#3 Thunder, 55-27 +7.3. Offense: 2nd (109.9)/Defense: 12th (103.0)
#6 Mavericks, 42-40 -0.3. Offense: 10th (104.8)/Defense: 16th (104.3)

Oklahoma City in 6. Dallas is starting out with a large disparity in talent, but Rick Carlisle is a maestro going up against a rookie head coach in Billy Donovan. That could be worth a close win or two, but the Thunder's raw ability should continue to roll.

#4 Clippers, 53-29 +4.3. Offense: 6th (106.5)/Defense: T-4th (100.9)
#5 Trail Blazers, 44-38 +0.8. Offense: 7th (106.1)/Defense: 21st (105.6)

Los Angeles in 5. Blake Griffin is finally back in the lineup, and that big lineup will be difficult for Portland to handle since they shifted former Clipper Al-Farouq Aminu to a small-ball 4 with the addition of Maurice Harkless to the starting lineup. For as good of a year as the Blazers had, I don't see their defense holding up here.

#1 Cavaliers, 57-25 +6.0. Offense: 4th (108.1)/Defense: 10th (102.3)
#8 Pistons, 44-38 +0.8. Offense: 15th (103.3)/Defense: 13th (103.4)

Cleveland in 4. I originally had 5 games down, but Reggie Jackson's abdomen issue gave me pause. If he was fully healthy, Stan Van Gundy's squad could make the Cavs work, but they're still a bit too green against a team with Finals aspirations.

#2 Raptors, 56-26 +4.5. Offense: 5th (107.0)/Defense: 11th (102.7)
#7 Pacers, 45-37 +1.7. Offense: 23rd (102.4)/Defense: 3rd (100.2)

Toronto in 6. Dwane Casey and his core may have had their playoff hiccups the last couple of years, but this is their opportunity to prove they deserve to be in the Finals discussion. Even if Indiana lacks firepower, Frank Vogel will have them prepared to make it a fight, so this could be a nice first step in Toronto's playoff growth.

#3 Heat, 48-34 +1.6. Offense: 12th (104.2)/Defense: 7th (101.5)
#6 Hornets, 48-34 +2.7. Offense: 9th (105.1)/Defense: 9th (101.8)

Miami in 7. I've gone back and forth and feel like I should pick Charlotte in 6, but Miami's pedigree keeps drawing me back, especially since Pat Riley worked his magic again in the buyout season to replace Beno Udrih with Joe Johnson and still somehow remain under the luxury tax. That extra shooting with the flexibility to move Luol Deng from the 3 to a small ball 4 helped them pick up their pace, and in the end, I think Whiteside's athleticism might put them over the top. That's to take nothing away from Charlotte as I love the makeup of their team with multiple bodies to throw at Dwyane Wade, Marvin Williams as a glue guy matching up with Deng, depth in the frontcourt, and Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin generating good looks. I'm just going with the more battle-tested team and home court advantage.

#4 Hawks, 48-34 +3.6. Offense: 18th (103.0)/Defense: 2nd (98.8)
#5 Celtics, 48-34 +3.2. Offense: 13th (103.9)/Defense: T-4th (100.9)

Atlanta in 7. Like my reasoning above, I'm going with experience and home court in a tight one, but I definitely think that Boston can win on the road. Their guards can match up with Atlanta's and try to turn them over, and they can pound the offensive glass. However, Millsap is a tough matchup, and the Hawks have a variety of looks themselves if the Celtics go small. Brad Stevens is everyone's favorite young coach, but Mike Budenholzer is no slouch and will have his team ready.

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