Mid-Season awards

This season, the All-Star break marks the middle of the season, so it is the proper time to dish out my mid-season awards.

Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball

This is the easiest choice right now, and I believe it will stay that way until the end of the season unless LaMelo gets injured. Especially now that LaMelo has entered the starting lineup and I believe he will not move to bench again.

LaMelo looks like Dončić in his rookie season when he is on the court, he plays very mature and calm, without any hurry and has a couple of veteran moves. Also he is really skilled and fundamentally sound. He currently shares a creative role alongside Gordon Hayward which also suits him, as he sometimes still makes some rookie mistakes when passing.

But we knew he was going to be a good creator, what’s a huge plus is his shot, which is even better than expected so far. In the last 15 games since he became a starter, his shooting percentages are 46.4/44.9/84.6. Phenomenal numbers. He scored 20.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists at the time and added 3.3 turnovers per game which is a big number, but I believe it will be reduced with time and experience.

The underestimated side is the defense, in those same 15 games he had 1.9 steals per game, and has 3.2 deflections per game through the season (this is in the range of the rookie season of Ben Simmons, Mattisse Thybulle, Lonzo Ball - all great defensive players).

And yes, if you’re wondering if these are just empty numbers, definitely not. The “Eye Test””confirms these great numbers as he plays great defense off the ball and often reads passes in a timely manner or pokes the ball from players who drive to the hoop as a help defender. He shows off his basketball IQ on both sides of the floor.

Sometimes he struggles with faster players, but I think he could progress over time and he could be a phenomenal player on the defensive side as well.

The 2nd place in my selection would belong to Tyrese Haliburton, and 3rd place would already be tough to choose, although perhaps Edwards would prevail over Wiseman and Quickley.

6th Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson

While this may seem like an easy decision at first glance, there are a few more very good candidates.

Clarkson leads all the players from the bench this season and has 17.9 points. There are several other players with relatively similar numbers, such as Hardaway Jr., Ross (the three of them are basically identical players) and Harell, but also Dario Saric, who played some very good games after returning from injury.

But Clarkson is at different level this year, he has usage rate of 27.2% when on the floor, which is a truly HUGE number for a bench player, for example, it is equal to that of James Harden this season. With all that, he is not scoring empty points but he is pulling the Utah bench and is a very important wheel in the success of that team.

Another important thing, strictly related to him and the Jazzers, is that Clarkson completely transformed the Utah bench last year when he came through the trade from Cleveland. The Jazz bench has gone from one of the worst in the league to an average or perhaps an above average one, and this year it is one of the best in the league. They are in 7th place in the total number of points from the bench.

The Jazzers have a predictable rotation, and Clarkson almost always plays a longer period of his time on the field without Mitchell and Bojan, that is, he plays together with Conley or Ingles, which allows him to fully concentrate on scoring points, leaving the two to playmaking. This now explains the fact that Clarkson has a ‘usage’ of as much as 27%.

This award is one of the less important in my opinion, but it is very predictable as players of a similar style like Clarkson (and both Hardaway jr. and Ross) usually win. Clarkson has full authority as the main scorer and can only lose this award if he cools down completely by the end of the season.

I’ve already mentioned other players who are a good option here, I’ll just mention TJ McConnell who does a great job off the bench for the Pacers, and his impact is mostly seen through the passes and steals.

Most Improved Player: Jerami Grant

Honestly, I couldn’t decide between Christian Wood and Jerami Grant, I think they both deserve the award, but Grant still prevailed for couple of reasons.

Wood deserves it because, although he has been more off the court this season than on it, he is a player who uplifts his team. Ever Since he got injured, the Rockets have won just 3 games, transformed from 2nd best to 3rd worst defense, and their offense is by far the worst in the league. Of course, a lot of other things and injuries from all sides coincided, but this marks how important Wood really is to his team.

If we do not look at the success of the team, but the numbers and the role in the team only (which is what is important for this award, IMO), then the award goes to Grant. He doubled his points per game, added a few assists, his usage went up massively and has USG% of 26% (similar to Wood, but Wood had a higher USG% last season, which made it look more obvious that he’ll jump out). Grant did shine in the playoffs, but even then he was only the 3rd/4th option, behind Jokić, Murray and MPJ. In just one season, he moved from that role to team leader, which is truly impressive.

On the chart above you also can see a “Skill Curve” graph showing how Grant’s TS% falls as his role grows through the seasons. I came across this graph in a basketball book and on post on F5 Substack, so I decided to recreate it.

So, the conclusion would be: if we look at this objectively, Grant definitely deserves the award himself, purely because his breakthrough is astronomical.

Subjectively, I like Wood more because he had a bigger impact on his team’s game and reminds me a lot of AD. But you all know that I always look at things objectively ;)

The rest of the competition (though I think that Grant should be top candidate) consists of All-Star players Jaylen Brown and Zach Lavine (although they’ve already made significant strides last season as well), Malik Beasly, who played good towards the end of the season, similar to Wood; I’ll add also Dejounte Murray and De’Andre Hunter.

Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert

We can say that Rudy Gobert is not only a “Rim Protector”, he completely deters offensive players from the rim and completely changes the opposing team’s gameplan.

He allows only 42.6% of the opponent’s goals (out of 18 defended shots), the players who are better than him in that segment (and defend a decent number of shots) is only Myles Turner with 42%. We have a few more good players after them, but with less defended attempts, like Poetl (39% !!) and Wiggins, but Wiggins still doesn’t defend as many shots under the rim as the other mentioned players. There is a very close fight between Turner and Gobert and no one would be wrong to give Myles an award, in fact there is a very good chance that he will overtake Gobert by the end of the season.

But the reason I choose Gobert right now is that he is COMPLETELY changing the Jazz defense. Check the table above, which shows the proportion of opponents’ shots in Restricted Area when the player is on/off the court. So when Gobert is on the court, opponents take only 27.91% of all shots in the Restricted Area, and when he is off the court that number rises to 31.89%! That’s a difference of almost 4%, only Giannis is “somewhat” close with 2.32%. As you can see here I have singled out only the centers and, as they affect this the most.

Another thing that confirms his presence on the defensive side is the defensive rating of the team when he is on the field, and when he is off the field. Of some sound center names (and some DPOY candidates), he has by far the biggest impact on his team, his team has a lower defensive rating of 6.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court than when he’s off!

We can say that Rudy Gobert is not only Rim Defender, he completely deters offensive players away from the restricted area and completely changes the gameplan of opposing team. His very presence is already a huge factor in Jazzer’s defense, and his ability to interfere and block shots raises his defensive game to an incredible level.

Like any excellent player, Gobert (and thus Utah) has a weak point, and that is when the center stretches the court. It’s weird that they didn’t insert some form of zone yet (or I haven’t seen it yet?), because that’s how the 76ers won the game in overtime recently, and the Nuggets and Jokić played similarly against them. Purely to be clear, in 1-vs-1 duels he held both Jokic and Embiid to relatively okayish numbers.

Gobert could work on a lot of things on offense, but his so-called “Roll Gravity” is HUGE, that is, when they play pick and roll, defensive players have to choose whether to cover him, because he has an easy dunk, or guard the three-pointer, or guard the ball handler.

Of the other candidates, Myles Turner is in 2nd place, whom I really like to watch and who could very well overtake Gobert by the end of the season (as mentioned), because this season he raised his defensive game to a different level and leads the league in blocks. Behind him I would put Ben Simmons who does a great job in Philadelphia, he is one of the few players who can defend 1-5 positions today. Some other very good players would be Fred VanVleet, Giannis, Mitchell Robinsona and even maybe Embiid? Although Gobert, Turner and Simmons are the only ones in the discussion for now.

Most Valuable Player: Joel Embiid

Okay, this is the hardest decision though. As things currently stand, there are no serious candidates except Embiid and Jokic, but still, the remaining candidates must be named, and they would probably be LeBron, Kawhi, Giannis, Harden/Kyrie/KD, Dame, Doncic and Curry.

But let’s return to Embiid vs Jokic, as this is a really interesting debate.

Jokic has a historically crazy offensive season (and he has never looked so physically fit before), when he is in the game, his team’s offensive rating is better by 17.3 points per 100 possessions than when he is off the court. That is absurd. But Embiid is not that much behind him either, Phila is better by as much as 15.2 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. These are elite numbers and in fact, the two of them lead the league in this aspect. They’re in front of names like Curry, Lillard, Dončić, and they are all excellent offensive players who raise their team to a higher level.

Embiid is the among the best in the league this season in points per possession when it comes to possesions from Post Up, Jokic is also right there with him. I don’t remember when was the last season when the two top candidates for MVP were such a dominant post up players, maybe during Duncan, Garnett and Dirk time?

Here are a few more quick notes on how good these two really are: Jokic has perhaps the best passing season for a center. Embiid is perhaps the best mid-range scorer this season (if we look at both volume and efficiency). Jokic dominates inside the paint with his hooks. Embiid shoots over 85% at the free throw line! Also, Embiid is a HUGE plus on the defensive side, and Philadelphia looks significantly better with him on defense as well.

Net Rating (Off-Def) when Embiid is on/off the court: 11.1/-6.3 -> difference: 17.4!!! Net Rating (Off-Def) when Jokić is on/off the court: 8.3/-1.4 -> difference: 9.7

IMPORTANT: I ​​like to use these ratings as they are a very handy indicator of “usefulness”, but it is NOT an ideal metric, like any other metric (for now).

Embiid has played 30 of a possible 36 games this season. And in those 30 games with him, Phila has a score of 23-7, which is the best Win% in the entire league (better than Utah’s current score). Sure, this is a bit of “manipulating” the numbers, but the fact is that Embiid is taking his team to another level. The fact is that he is unstoppable on the offensive side, especially in a 1 on 1 game, such situations should not be allowed by opposing teams. Him and Simmons are perhaps the best defensive duo in the league right now, and they can lock any team. And here is another stat: Embiid allows 53% of the shots scored on the hoop (distance <1.8m/<6ft) which is only slightly weaker than Gobert, Turner, etc … Embiid is that X-Factor.

Let’s not fool ourselves, Jokić is the x-factor as well, but only on the offensive side, and his defensive role ultimately made me lean towards Embiid. The Nuggets hide Jokić in the pick and roll defense so that he hedges the screens and interferes with the ball handler while the other players rotate aggressively. Jokic allows whooping 63.7% at the rim, only Kanter is worse in that aspect than the starting centers, but not everything is so bad with Jokic on defense. He plays very well without the ball, reads “passing lanes”, has a lot of steals and deflections. I think the Nuggets are going to pull some trade move, but I don’t know who’s the odd man out for them now. The conclusion would be that at the moment Embiid’s defense somehow overpowers Jokic’s passes.

But I think the situation can really change here, because if I’m not mistaken, the Nuggets have a much easier schedule until the end of the season, and more wins can only help Jokic in his chances of winning. I think that the race for MVP has not this close for a long time and I am glad that there are two international players again.

Written on March 10, 2021