1999 was an awesome year. The Matrix and Toy Story 2 debuted in theaters, the Back Street Boys made their hit song I Want it that Way, and everyone went ballistic with the anticipation of a new millennium. The 1999 NBA season did not contribute to this awesome-ness. The league had lost Jordan, over expanded too fast and left a third of the team bereft of talent, and the strike-shortened season resulted in rusty play by out of shape guys. It was a brutally awful transition year from Jordan and iso-ball to Duncan, Kobe, and team defense.
Transition years are usually not as awful as 1999, but they’re usually not always our best seasons. Well, the 2019 NBA season has been a transition year in my opinion. Again, that does not mean I thought this was a crappy season. The wackiness of this chaotic transition year gave us a plethora of great content. Just off the top of my head some of the headlines of this season were the Rockets-Lakers fight, Harden’s scoring streak, the two big Sixers trades, the Celtics continual disappointment, the Anthony Davis saga which coincided with the Lakers’ implosion, the emergence of the Bucks and the Nuggets, the Porzingis trade, the KD and Kyrie to New York rumors, and many more.
When I mean that the 2019 NBA season has been weird, I mean that I don’t know quite how to categorize this season in terms of NBA eras. If anyone is confused, here is a list of our recent NBA eras.
(2015-2018) – The Warriors Era + LeBron’s 2nd Cleveland Stint
(2011-2014) – LeBron in Miami
(2008-2010) – The Celtics and Lakers Revival
(2003-2007) – NBA realizes it’s getting too physical + Spurs semi-dynasty
(2000-2002) – The Shaq and Kobe Lakers
(1999) – It’s like season 8 of The Office. It’s not like it wasn’t funny or completely useless, but I’d probably prefer if it didn’t exist.
I think you get the idea.
What made this year strange was, simply put, the failure of LeBron. His success has been the one thing we’ve always been able to count over the last decade. Death, taxes, and LeBron in the NBA Finals. But this season, King James just didn’t have it. His body didn’t hold up. His effort didn’t hold up. His passive aggressive ploys for trades didn’t hold up. LeBron was just bad this season.
No worries, the Warriors will just have to fully takeover now … oh wait, they blew multiple games this year, sparked controversies, and didn’t seem like a transcendent team at all. Huh? To be fair, they probably would be a sixty team win had Curry not gotten injured, but that doesn’t make up for the glaring deficiencies in Golden State this year. Draymond’s shot is a shell of its former self, Boogie seems as excited to play defense as I am to mow the lawn, and their bench would not score over forty in a game against Texas Tech.
Our two constants have abandoned us. That’s why thinking about these award picks matters. Basketball is a sport where the best player almost always wins, because the best player can always control the ball and thus score the ball. These awards give us insight into what players shaped this season and will probably shape the league as the former alpha dogs pass on.
Let’s get into this now, my 2019 NBA Award picks. Man, I wish I had an actual vote.
The NBA’s 2019 Most Improved Player – Pascal Siakam (PF, Toronto Raptors)
Runner Ups: D’Angelo Russell, Buddy Hield, De’Aaron Fox
I know I just made a semi-joke about the Most Improved Player award, but man, every guy who I thought about for this pick was a guy I loved watching and that every NBA fan loves watching. Buddy and De’Aaron in one season changed the Kings from a go-to joke for NBA pundits into the league’s fast paced, thrill ride of fun basketball. D’Angelo changed the narrative surrounding his whole career. He went from “the horrible teammate who is never going to win anything” to being one of the league’s best closers for a real, competing team. However, Siakam is on a whole other level. Sure, D’Angelo got the All Star nod over him, but true NBA nerds know who the real future star is. Siakam has been so good that it’s almost as if the Raptors don’t need Kawhi. By March, the Raptors were 13-4 on the year in games where Kawhi did not play, mainly because they leaned on Siakam, who came through with some monster performances. This Siakam emergence gives Toronto a great rebuilding timeline when Kawhi likely leaves this summer, as they can move big contract veterans Lowry, Gasol, and Ibaka, and begin to rebuild around this young Cameroonian. His first two years, Siakam was nothing more than a high energy big with a couple flashes of brilliant defense. In his third year, Siakam is now a ball-handling playmaker, with an uncanny ability to glide down the paint with his defender all over him, yet, he does not rush himself, and can finish with a variety of spins and surprisingly graceful finishes. Not to mention, he’s also become a shooting threat, nailing 36% from behind the arc on nearly three attempts per game. D’Angelo, Fox, and Hield all deserve credit for how they ascended into the ranks of upper tier NBA guards, but their is a surplus of capable guards in the modern NBA. A versatile forward/center becoming the future of the franchise in just one season? Now that’s impressive.
2019 NBA Sixth Man of the Year – Lou Williams (G, Los Angeles Clippers)
Runner Ups: Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Domantas Sabonis, Malik Beasley
Jamal Crawford has won an NBA record three Sixth Man of the Year awards. We’ve had that phrase drummed into our head around 80,000 times this season as everyone anticipates Lou Williams will tie Crawford’s record with his own third. But this is what we haven’t been told. Lou is for real while Crawford is an overrated, losing player. Crawford gets way too much respect for how his career actually want. He was always a “me-first” guy who was a gifted scorer, but so bad at literally everything else on the court that he had to come off the bench. There were legitimate reasons to why he won in 2010 and 2014, but that 2016 award is about as valid as Kyrie’s speech to Celtic fans before the season. That season Crawford only averaged fourteen points a game, shot 40% from the field (which is shockingly close to his career average of 41% from the field), and did not contribute significantly at all to a Lob City team that had a disappointing year (Of course the day after I write this, Crawford decides to drop fifty one points against Dallas, proving that I am an idiot for caring this much about the NBA). That 2016 award should have gone to Andre Igoudala, a reliable play maker and defender for the greatest regular season team of all time who was the key part of the “Small ball lineup of death”. Coming back from that tangent, Lou has been sensational for the Clips again this year, averaging twenty points per game and serving as the best late game closer in the league. He and Montrezl Harrell’s pick and roll combo is so devastating to opponents that this Clippers’ bench squad is the highest scoring bench of the last twenty years. You deserve a third sixth man of the year award when you’re so effective as a spark plug that you take a team without any true stars and elevate them into a legitimate playoff threat.
2019 NBA Coach of the Year – Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks)
Runner Ups: Doc Rivers, Mike Malone, Nate McMillan
Coach Bud should not have won coach of the year over Steve Kerr in 2015. I’ve always been of the opinion that Kerr is an all time great coach for how he immediately saw where the league was going and adjusted Golden State by putting Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes in the starting lineup over Iggy and David Lee. But winning an undeserved award in the past should not be factored into how the award should be handled in a future year. I just saw a Bucks vs Sixers game in person, and the difference that Budenholzer has given this team is palpable. They run a couple of genius sets to get looks for all their guys, and seem so much more calm and controlled now that they have a coach who actually knows what he’s doing. For the last three years, the Bucks were always the team that could be really good if they actually knew what they were doing. Well Bud certainly knows what he’s doing, and follows the archetype coach of the year winner as his team broke out to be title contenders.
Rookie of the Year – Luka Doncic (SG, Dallas Mavericks)
Runner Ups: Trae Young
Yeah that’s right. Luka and Trae have been so good that there is no point in putting anyone else on the runner up list. It would only be charity as I seriously did not consider anyone else besides these two. Luka had this award wrapped up before the all star break, as he proved nerds who said he should have been drafted number one correct (such as yours truly). He threw up a monster stat line of 21-7-5 and was leading a team bereft of talent into legitimate contention. Seriously, just look at that Mavs roster. When Dwight Powell is your second best player and is back up at center by 500 year-old Dirk, Ryan Broekhoff, and Maxi Kleber, it’s amazing that the Mavs won at all this year. But things changed during those vital weeks of February. The Mavs traded for Porzingis, and decided to tank the rest of the year, and gave Trae the opening he needed. Early on, Young looked like he might be a G-League player. He bricked just about every three he took, was simply not present on defense, and just seemed to have a cloud hanging over him as Hawks fans realized they had traded Luka for at the time a bust. But out of the all-star break Trae was re-born. He went from a 17-8-3 line on 31% from three to 25-9-5 on 36% from three. That’s insane! He’s had multiple game winners, scoring outbursts, and has elevated the play of his fellow young star John Collins. So that leaves the question: Trae or Luka. Luka’s play did significantly slip in the last month as he was bogged down by injury, and the Mavs have only won around five games since March started, while the Hawks keep getting friskier and even had signature upsets over the Bucks and the Sixers. However, Luka has still been very good in his “slump” to end the season, while Trae was so bad at the start of the season that you thought that you could almost see Hawks fans pass out in the stands as they had flashbacks to when they took Marvin Williams over Chris Paul. Case and point: as bad as the Mavs have been lately and how exciting the Hawks’ tear have been, the Mavs still have two more wins than the Hawks. Luka for life.
2019 NBA Defensive Player of the Year – Giannis Antetokoumnpo (F, Milwaukee Bucks)
Runner Ups: Rudy Gobert, Myles Turner, Paul George, Joel Embiid, Jrue Holiday
Undoubtedly the hardest award to pick. So difficult that I listed an absurd five runner ups because I actually did think all of them could win the award. But Giannis, oh Giannis. When I saw him in person last week, I was simply in awe. He just has complete command of the court with his combination of long limbs, bulky strength, and elite quickness. He’s reason number one for why the Bucks have the best defense in the league. He can fight to keep opposing big men out of the paint and gobble up rebounds. He can switch onto quick perimeter guys and hound them into throwing away possessions. Most impressively, he has completely grabbed the torch from LeBron as the guy who can come out of nowhere and punch layup and dunk attempts off the backboard like he’s Thanos punching Iron Man. Last week when I witnessed him swat Embiid four times, what stuck out to me was that Embiid changed what he was doing to account for this. And sure, Embiid’s adjustment was effective, nailing multiple hooks and jumpers over Brook Lopez and DJ Wilson, but the very fact that Embiid, a 7’2″, near 300 pound force of nature that doesn’t back down from anyone, realized that he just couldn’t overpower or out maneuver Giannis, that says something. The other candidates are worthy. Holiday is the best perimeter defender in the league, Paul George is a deflection monster, Embiid and Turner protect the rim better than anyone, and above all Rudy Gobert is still possess the most potential night to night to wreck a team’s offensive game plan with his length and instincts. But even Gobert shows weakness, as he was famously forced off the court when he was destroyed by Golden State’s small ball lineup. Giannis has no weakness at this point. He’s a defensive alpha dog that dictates what the opposing offense is allowed to do and what he will reject. Hats off to the Greek Freak.
Before I get to the player award we’ve all been waiting for, here are my choices for the All NBA Teams.
2019 All-NBA First Team
Stephen Curry, James Harden, Giannis Antetoukoumnpo, Paul George, Nikola Jokic
2019 All-NBA Second Team
Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Joel Embiid
2019 All-NBA Third Team
Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Karl-Anthony Towns
2019 NBA All-Rookie 1st Team
Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
2019 NBA All-Rookie 2nd Team
Collin Sexton, Marvin Bagley, Landry Shamet, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox
2019 NBA All-Defense 1st Team
Jrue Holiday, Paul George, Giannis Antetokoumnpo, Myles Turner, Rudy Gobert
2019 NBA All-Defense 2nd Team
Eric Bledsoe, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Mitchell Robinson, Joel Embiid
A couple of brief explanations on my team choices: Curry, Harden, and Giannis were all locks, with the two debates being PG vs KD and Joker vs Embiid. I thought I was going to pick KD after PG slumped this last month, but George had superior stats and I thought it meant more considering how bad of a season Westbrook had (just wait). As for the centers, I actually had Embiid written down as my first team selection for a week, but just hours before I posted this, I read Zach Lowe’s award picks, which included his reasoning for picking Jokic over Embiid. A lot of it was the same stuff I’ve heard, that the Joker elevates his team’s play to a better level, that his assist numbers are unprecedented for his position, and that he lets the team offense flow, not needing to force shots like Embiid. I had convinced myself that Embiid’s vastly superior scoring, rebounding, and defense was simply too much for any of the pro-Jokic arguments to overcome. But then, Zach mentioned that Embiid has missed eighteen games on the season compared to Jokic only missing three. That fifteen game difference matters. Both the Sixers and the Nuggets have been competing for the top playoff seeding in their respective conferences all year, and Jokic’s durability compared to Embiid’s is the difference between the Nuggets being a two seed in the West and the Sixers being a three seed in the much weaker East. Embiid was more efficient in terms of value per game, but Jokic was productive enough that he surpasses him in terms of total value brought to the team over the season. In all honesty, I’m completely fine with either being named first team.
I think the only point of debate for my second team is why I put Blake Griffin over LeBron and Kawhi, but I think my explanation is pretty rational. LeBron flat out quit on the season, so no matter how good the stats, third team is the highest award I can give to a quitter. As for Kawhi, he sat out over twenty games this season, and the argument that Pascal Siakam is more valuable is not crazy (okay, maybe you think it’s crazy, but I don’t). Meanwhile Blake’s stats are just barely below Leonard’s, he has only missed six games due to injury, has nailed the third most step back threes in the league behind Luka and Harden, and carried a team that starts Reggie Jackson and Bruce Brown to the playoffs (which is like winning a NASCAR race with your mom’s mini-van).
Third team guards have been widely discussed over the last month, but I chose Kemba with the same rationale I gave to Blake (career year, crappy team), and Klay because he’s been scorching hot since January and plays better defense than the runner ups of Beal, Westbrook, and even Conley. I don’t want to hear any Westbrook complaints. A point guard who shoots below 30% from three on almost six attempts per game, zones out on defense, and consistently lets his emotions get the best of him is not a top fifteen player. Triple doubles are overrated.
I feel very confident about my all rookie picks, with the only decision I questioned was Mitchell Robinson over Kevin Huerter. It’s hard to not give an award to the wonderfully pale red mamba, but Robinson is blocks per 36 monster that can’t be ignored. This will be okay when I vote for Kevin Huerter to be 2020 NBA MVP.
Last of all, I know I cheated on the all defense teams by putting Myles Turner and Mitchell Robinson as power forwards, but it was more important that I reward the league’s best defenders, and out the ten best, four were centers. Who cares, I can live with it and so should you.
And now for the moment you’ve all been waiting for …
2019 NBA Most Valuable Player – Giannis Antetoukoumnpo (F, Milwaukee Bucks)
Runner Ups: James Harden, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid
Back in September, my Dad and I did an NBA over/under wins podcast. On that pod, I went back and forth for a solid ten minutes debating whether I should pick the Bucks or the Pacers to go over, with both listed around 48.5 wins. I really wanted to take the Pacers. They were enjoyable and well-coached, while the Bucks were the team that everyone always said might breakout but instead was a perpetual let down. However, I just couldn’t ignore the savory potential of Giannis with a real coach, so I picked the Bucks over the Pacers with caveat that if the Bucks don’t pan out this year, I am officially out on ever believing in them again.
Good thing I took that risk. I could have believed that the Bucks would be good, but I didn’t know that it would be the year of the Bucks. 2015 was our last transition year, when the Warriors emerged under Curry and Kerr to revolutionize basketball and establish their dynasty. This year, with LeBron leaving for LA, a power gap was left in the East, begging for someone to fill it, and the Bucks took advantage. More importantly, Giannis took advantage.
It might seem annoying that I keep coming back to that Sixers vs Bucks game, but basketball is a sport where being at the game gives you a better perspective, an appropriate feel for what’s actually happening. Giannis has always been a raw, athletic freak, but the things he was doing on the court were LeBron-esque. He knew where everyone was, what he had to do, and communicated to the Sixers that he could score at any time he wanted to and there was nothing they could do. He bullied inside, flew above for finishes, and even hit mid range fade aways and pull up threes. As you know, I also picked him for DPOY, and you can read above for why he deserved that.
All year I thought I was going to pick Harden. I kept saying, “This is like ’06 Kobe, don’t overthink it. This is a transcendent shooting guard putting up unreal scoring numbers in order to save his team from a disaster of a season. I thought his MVP moment was that famous game at Golden State, where he hit the pull up three over Draymond and Klay to shock the Warriors. But the last two weeks, I thought about is some more. It’s true that offense just matters more in the NBA. You affect the game the most when the ball is in your hands. But defense still matters, and as much as Harden has improved, he’s still somewhat lazy and is in no way a rim protector like Giannis. Giannis is such a great force that he’s formed the Bucks into the league’s most terrifying defense. That gap is significant. And on offense, Harden might be better, but that doesn’t necessarily lead to more wins. Giannis’ overall control of the flow of the game forces wills the Bucks into dominant wins as they simply overwhelm teams. At the end of the day, most valuable means you created the most wins, and I truly believe Giannis created more wins for the Bucks than Harden did for the Rockets. Curry is not just a token mention either. Prior to his November injury, he was the front runner, posting his best stats since his last MVP year. The missed games coupled with a sub-par Warriors season killed his momentum, but Curry has proved this year that he belongs in the basketball pantheon of greatness. This column is already long enough, so I’ll save you all from my Curry tangent, but I’ll just say he’s solidified himself as a top fifteen player all time.
And here we are. With no assurance that LeBron will be on a contending team ever again, or that the Warriors will remain intact following July’s free agency, 2019 might be remembered as the year we transitioned into Giannis era of NBA history. The only question left is if the Bucks’ transition year begins with a title as the Warriors did, or do the Dubs still have enough left in the tank to win one last title? The playoffs start on Saturday.