“The NBA Season Just Started” 2019 Awards

I was really terrible at this for the first two years. All I ever wrote about were my picks and predictions. I didn’t know how to put images in for the posts. I misspelled everything. I even wrote about why I thought the Charlotte Hornets were becoming title contenders back in 2017. As I often say, I am an idiot.

One problem I often had is that I would say I’d keep to a consistent posting schedule or that a piece I realized was part 1 of x many, only to never follow up on those promises.

However, there was one column that I created in my first week of writing for this blog that I have written every single year without fail, and it’s back again now. That’s right this is the 4th annual, “The Season Just Started” NBA Awards.

In the past, I’ve written this on the literally the first Saturday of the season, when pretty much every team has only played one or two games. This year, the hypothetical committee of one decided that due to the massive change that’s taken place around the league in the past year, it was necessary to postpone the award ceremony for an additional week in order for more information to be synthesized and the selection more accurate.

In other words, I was busy and didn’t feel like writing it last week.

But don’t worry, because I’m making up for the delay with the best and most in-depth edition of the award selections to date. You’re not just getting my picks and thoughts, but also some contributions from other great NBA minds (aka my Dad and my brother, David). And just for kicks I dropped in the list of all the previous winners of the TNSJS (The NBA Season Just Started) awards.

Let’s get into it, building up from the lame awards (apologies to MIP and Coach of the Year) to the MVP.

TNSJS Most Improved Player

Previous Winners: 2016 – Harrison Barnes, 2017 – Nikola Vucevic, 2018 – Zach LaVine

Our Current Candidates: Malcolm Brogdon, Pascal Siakam, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Luka Doncic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Brandon Ingram

This award always has a plethora of options because the next generation of young stars often come into the new season having made the leap from promising to, “Holy crap, it’s happening.” I could honestly write an entire column about any of these guys, but I’ll condense for sanity’s sake.

Malcolm Brogdon is averaging 22 points, 11 assists, and even though I thought the Pacers would disappoint this year and are currently 2-3, Brogdon seems more fit to be a go-to-guy than I expected.

Jayson Tatum has upped his scoring average by 6.7 points and has gone bonkers from deep, shooting 48.6% from that range. I saw his game-winner against the Knicks live, and the way he backed up as soon as he released it, you could already tell that it was bona fide bucket.

I’ll talk a little more about KAT later on but he seems to finally realizing that perfect-modern-offensive-center potential.

My Dad picked Pascal Siakam to repeat with this award, and he would have had a really good argument had Siakam’s scoring average not dropped from 28.2 to 24.4 this very night after a 16-point outing.

Here’s David on Trae Young, “He went from a spotty and flashy scorer to a prolific one, and instead of being just a great shooter, he is starting to get some of that same craftiness that curry has, like how he is rejecting more screens because defenders are so eager to jump around a screen to contest his shot.” Trae has been amazing, but I can’t give it to him considering he’s missed two of the season’s five games.

And then there’s Brandon Ingram. I thought he was going to struggle this year, but he’s really the only one that’s lived up to the Pelicans’ way-too-high expectations. Unfortunately, he fell victim to the same curse as Siakam, and dropped from 26.8 points per game to 23.8 after he left tonight’s game with an injury. He’s been more aggressive and willing to shoot threes rather than shake mid-rangers.

Oh, and Luka might be one of the top three MVP candidates already. I’d say that’s an improvement.

Tough call. Any choice is defensible. I’m going with Tatum, because I really thought he might be turning into a good stats-bad team guy after the last year’s debacle. His play this year quickly dispelled that notion.

Winner: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics SF

TNSJS Coach of the Year

Previous Winners: 2016 – NA, 2017 – David Fizdale, 2018 – Mike Budenholzer

Our Current Candidates: Erik Spoelstra, Monty Williams, Ryan Saunders, Brett Brown, Doc Rivers

(Quick side note: It shows how far I’ve come that in TNSJS’s first edition I forgot about Coach of the Year altogether, and the second time through I picked a coach that was fired less than a month later. Thankfully, I came back stronger than LeBron’s hair line and selected  the coach that would proceed to win the less-prestigious full-season award in 2018-19).

There was a small “Miami is the 3rd best team in the East” hype train that started brewing in the preseason. After a 4-1 start, the train is rolling out of control without any brakes, and our only hope of stopping it is a glorious hijacking from the deceased Waiters Island.

Other coaches might have been intimidated to play veterans like James Johnson and the aforementioned Waiters, but Spo has leaned into the youth, and it has paid dividends. Justise Winslow has been given the car keys to the offense and is averaging a 15-8-7 stat line. Tyler Herro’s dynamic shot-creation has lit NBA Twitter on fire. Bam Adebayo was one of the committee’s considerations for early Eastern Conference all-stars. Kendrick Nunn is a flaming torch who you’re going to read more about very shortly.

The Heat had a contingent of pundits that believed they could do this, compared to the Suns, who I openly said that I hated in my season preview, and I don’t think I was alone in that feeling. Yet here they are, with a 4-2 record and the league’s only win over the Clippers when Kawhi is present. Even more impressive, they somehow escaped an all-time unintentional comedy moment by not falling a part after DeAndre Ayton was suspended for substance abuse.

My Dad’s choice was Brett Brown, but as a Sixers fan, I have to disagree. I get the whole best regular season team equals best coach argument, but just about any coach not named Luke Walton could have guided the Sixers to their 5-0 record. The offense is still clunky, and there is an alarming amount of Furkan Korkmaz, so as committee overlord I have to disagree (Update: Don’t think I’m not proud of myself for reverse-jinxing Furkan into hitting that game-winner).

Doc Rivers was David’s choice. He cited the team’s impressive defensive coordination and the ability of Doc’s plays to always get a good look for his best shooters, particularly Lou Williams off of ball screens. I’d choose him before Brett Brown, but then again, it doesn’t take a genius to say that you should run a ton of pick and rolls with the Clippers’ roster setup.

My personal favorite is Ryan Saunders. The Wolves are 4-1 and have finally rid themselves of their anti-analytical ways. They’re shooting 40.3 threes per game, up from 28.7 per game last year, and OH MY GOODNESS KAT IS LEADING THE LEAGUE IN THREE POINTERS MADE PER GAME!!! Sorry, that can’t control myself when talking about modern basketball brilliance. Seriously though, Saunders is running KAT off pin downs and has empowered him to shoot step back threes. He’s turned into the offensive dynamo he always should have been. Even if Embiid and Simmons totally won that fight.

Winner: Ryan Saunders, Minnesota Timberwolves

TNSJS Sixth Man of the Year

Previous Winners: 2016 – Jonathan Simmons, 2017 – Eric Gordon, 2018 – J.J. Redick

Our Current Candidates: Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic

David asked me what he should do for this award, because it’s really hard to determine this one in particular. My response: Just go with Lou Williams.

He’s averaging 20.8 points per game and, even on a team with Kawhi Leonard, still the go-to-scoring option in crunch time scenarios for one of the best teams in the league.

My Dad went with his pick-and-roll counterpart Montrezl Harrell, and I too considered ‘Trez, who’s averaging just under 20 a game and is a much better defender than Lou. However, I feel like Lou kind of makes ‘Trez who he is. It’s Lou’s gravity that frees up his wild charges to the rim, and without the runaway that comes from those rolls, he really can’t do much else in on-ball scoring opportunities.

Derrick Rose came off the bench for the Pistons’ first four games and averaged the same amount of points as Lou. He won’t be in contention for sixth man of the year anymore with news breaking that he’ll be starting for the foreseeable future after Reggie Jackson went down with an injury. I also can’t give it too him over because Lou’s points actually contribute to winning basketball, whereas Rose is putting up empty stats on the definition of a meh team.

I also had to give Goran a shoutout, who has accepted his new bench role with grace and does an amazing job conducting the Heat’s second units.

But in the end, this was Lou’s award, and it wasn’t even close.

Winner: Lou Williams

TNSJS Defensive Player of the Year

Previous Winners: 2016 – Kawhi Leonard, 2017 – Kevin Durant, 2018 – Anthony Davis

Our Current Candidates: Rudy Gobert, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Matisse Thybulle, Ben Simmons

Giannis and Gobert are tops in the league in defensive points added, per NBA Math, and it makes sense that the top two finishers in DPOY last year are in the race again. They both anchor stout systems too, as the Jazz and the Bucks are 2nd and 5th in total defensive rating, respectively.

Who is first you might ask? Well it is my Philadelphia 76ers (given I wrote this before the 126 point total that Portland hung on them was factored in, so this is probably a lie, but whatever).

After four games, Matisse led the league not only in steals per game but also in deflections per game. Sure, he’s an absolute zero on offense right now, and every once in a while he can give up a bucket by going in too hard for a steal, but those are unnecessary nitpicks. He’s an octopus on that side of the court, poking balls away from unsuspecting players, and fluidly bounding across the court to cut off passing lanes. NBA writer Zach Lowe said that he’s the best rookie defender since Kawhi, and the reality of that notion is qualification in itself.

However, the one part of the Sixers’ defense that people aren’t talking about his Simmons. He’s been great keeping other teams’ guards at bay, and after re-watching some of the Minnesota game, he was flat out bodying KAT in the post, using that incredible frame to hold his ground and deny post passes before the Wolves knew what hit them. As of November 3, 2019, he’s overtaken Thybulle as league leader in steals at over three per game, and he also serves as a hellacious weak side rim protector, swatting away the layups of bewildered guards cutting through the paint.

David went with Gobert. I really wanted to with my Dad and say Thybulle. But man … I really think it’s Ben Simmons right now.

Winner: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers G/F

TNSJS Rookie of the Year

Previous Winners: 2016 – Joel Embiid, 2017 – Ben Simmons, 2018 – Luka Doncic

Our Current Candidates: Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Ja Morant, RJ Barrett, PJ Washington, and My Beloved Son (i.e. Matisse Thybulle)

Last year’s historically great rookies weren’t a surprise. The 2018 draft class had long been pegged as an all-timer. However, the initial production from the 2019 class, which people like me projected as the weakest since 2013 outside of Zion, has been a pleasant surprise.

RJ Barrett has thrown up a 17-6-4 line while averaging nearly 40% from three. He’s played with more discipline than I would have predicted and Fizdale would be wise to give him the reins to the offense. PJ Washington, an iffy shooter at Kentucky, is shooting an incredible 52.3% from three, already has the best hook shot in the league, and has made the Hornets borderline watchable (key: borderline). Random tidbit: I tweeted about how much I liked him, and his Dad like my tweet. That’s bonus points baby.

Ja Morant is also a part of the shooting the three much better in the NBA than he did in college club, and he already went head-to-head with Kyrie Irving and won. I’m still not sold on Herro, but I can’t ignore a guy whose averaging 16.4 points for a good team. I still need to be hosed down from that Matisse Thybulle breakdown in the above section.

Those are all great, but this is Kendrick Nunn’s award and it’s not even close. A 24-year-old rookie that’s averaging 22.4 points per game, 48.4% from three on high volume, fakes defenders out of there shoes with his hesitation dribble, and is already a gritty Miami-esque defender? Who is this guy? Why did the Warriors let him go from their G-League roster? Are we sure Steve Kerr won’t try to physically harm Bob Meyers for that decision considering the state of the roster?

All three of us picked Kendrick Nunn, and if he keeps up his current pace, he’s not only going to be the first ever undrafted Rookie of the Year, but a perennial all-star for years to come.

Winner: Kendrick Nunn, Miami Heat SG

TNSJS Most Valuable Player

Previous Winners: 2016 – Russell Westbrook, 2017 – Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2018 – Steph  Curry

Our Current Candidates: LeBron James, Luka Doncic, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, Anthony Davis, James Harden

This is an overload of great players, so I’ll narrow the field as quick as possible.

Pascal Siakam – To be fair, my Dad picked him before his scoring average dropped, and I think he’s reached this level too. But no, not happening yet.

James Harden – I just wanted to mention him because he is averaging almost 37 points per game. He’s also shooting 20% from three, 36% from the field, and the Rockets are 3-2. Happy trails.

Giannis Antetokounmpo – He’s actually posting insane stats (25-14-8), but the media doesn’t like his narrative right now, as he’s fouled out in two bad losses for the Bucks.

Anthony Davis – Again, the counting stats are insane (29-12-3), but LeBron’s explosion has stolen the spotlight, so I’m removing Davis from the conversation.

That leaves us with four. LeBron and Luka had an absolute duel the other night, posting joint 15-assist triple-doubles, and trading step-back threes and gorgeous skip passes. I just love Luka. He’s almost averaging a triple-double and has the Mavs at 3-2, looking like not only a playoff team but maybe a contender. You realize how much value he has when you look up and down that roster to see overqualified role players and a “I’m worried he’s never going to be the same” guy in Porzingis. However, as great as he is, LeBron out dueled him, which means he’s on top in the hierarchy.

Let’s talk about the King. That opening game against the Clippers was troubling, sure, but man has he turned it on since. The Lakers sit atop the conference at 4-1, and LeBron is the locomotive powering their explosive capabilities. What separated him from Luka in that game is quite simply his athletic ability. LeBron can still burst to the rim with this sense of unstoppability that Doncic hasn’t mastered yet, and that ability to score inside at will opens up everything else.

I’ve also thought a lot about giving the award to Karl-Anthony Towns. The Wolves are tied with the Lakers for the conference lead, and KAT’s stats are just ludicrous. 27.5 points per game, 11.5 rebounds, 4 assists, 53% from three and an offensive rating of 128 points per 100 possessions. Um, what??? If the MVP was purely a statistical value award, Towns would be the pick. However, I can’t get the fight out of my head. It happened because Joel Embiid and the Sixers were absolutely owning the Wolves, and if you’re an MVP, you don’t get destroyed by your rival and let them get in your head.

And so, I landed on Kawhi. I was dumb enough to say I thought we were overrating him in my season preview, and I’ve already flipped on my opinion. He’s averaging 29 points per game, has displayed a new knack for LeBron-like bounce passes, and set the tone for the season on opening night. He announced to the world that he is the new standard by which we measure competitors in the NBA, fully grasping the mantle away from LeBron. He is that guy we saw in the playoffs last year, and that guy is the best player in the league.

Winner: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers, SF

BONUS CONTENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So after that crazy Mavs-Lakers game, I called David to cool down/rehash how amazing it was. These are the all-star teams we decided based on what we’ve seen so far, and it was originally going to be a podcast, but I screwed up the recording (once again, I’m an idiot), so here is our list. Enjoy and comment!

East All-Star Starters:

G – Trae Young

G – Kyrie Irving

F – Giannis Antetokounmpo

F – Pascal Siakam

F – Joel Embiid

Bench:

Ben Simmons

Kendrick Nunn / Kyle Lowry

(Explanation: David and I settled on Kendrick Nunn in our discussion, but as I was editing, I couldn’t help but think we dismissed Lowry too early. After a 36 point outing against Milwaukee, his scoring average is up to 24 points per game, and given how much he already means to Toronto in terms of leadership and unselfish play, I feel like he’s more deserving than Nunn to this point. I’d also hear the argument that we should take Tatum off the list and keep Nunn and Lowry, but for now I have Nunn as the odd man out).

Kemba Walker

Jayson Tatum

Malcolm Brogdon

Andre Drummond

Bradley Beal

West All-Star Starters:

G – James Harden

G – Luka Doncic

F – Kawhi Leonard

F – LeBron James

F – Karl-Anthony Towns

Bench:

Anthony Davis

DeMar DeRozan

Donovan Mitchell

Nikola Jokic

Russell Westbrook

Damian Lillard

Brandon Ingram

 

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