Essay: The First Annual Shaky Ankles NBA Awards
On Christmas Eve, I previewed the season. Most of it was grossly incorrect, but today we turn a proud page on the past. Here are my awards and playoff predictions for the 2012 lockout abbreviated NBA season. Enjoy.
Most Enigmatic Player: Andrew Bynum.
It started at the end of last season, with him crumpling J.J. Barea up like a ball of tin foil and slamming him to the floor. Then there was the three-pointer, the “Zen” comment (which sounded like an 8-year-old girl with divorced parents telling her mom she’d rather live with dad because he lets her eat ice cream for dinner), the intentional cursing on live television, and him desperately trying to steal the ball from a teammate. The only player who brings more of a mysterious, unexplainable aura with him to the court is JaVale McGee, but due to the fact that he might actually have an undiagnosed medical issue, the award had to go to Bynum.
The jump Andrew Bynum made in his first fully healthy season as a professional basketball player was almost as enormous as his wingspan. On the offensive end, if he played for 29 other teams (ones that do not pay the egomaniacal Kobe Bryant) we’d be talking about him in an even brighter light. Apart from the disgustingly wide space his pivot foot is allowed to move, there are very little flaws in his ability to score, and when he catches the ball on the block there’s pretty much nothing that can be done. If Bynum wants to put the ball in the basket, Bynum puts the ball in the basket. But he’s not perfect. He remains tentative when double teams come and he struggles mightily with passing out of them. Actually, now that I think about it, maybe he doesn’t struggle passing out of double teams so much as he’s too stubborn in giving up the ball. (Do you see now why Andrew Bynum is the league’s most enigmatic player?) He’s way too slow guarding the pick and roll, and I don’t see how that ever improves. This is a MAJOR problem because it places strategic limitations on his own coach, and so Bynum is often forced to the bench when facing teams that have speedy point guards and big men who can shoot.
Trying to analyze the league’s most physically monstrous player is impossible. I read last year’s SI feature that portrayed him as an awe-inspiring outlier relative to his NBA peers—because he tinkers with watches and reads wordy books—but when you judge him as a human being, how is any of that behavior acceptable? I could care less what he’s reading before his head hits a pillow every night. Seriously, who cares?
Is it a matter of stubbornness or a natural lack of ability/drive when we look at him run back on defense or pass out of a double team knowing he probably won’t get the ball back. Is the only thing keeping Bynum from tip tip toeing on the tightrope of “superstar” status Bynum himself?
Here are few clips of Bynum “defending” the pick and roll. The result in all three of these clips is a mid-range jumper from an opposing big man, which normally is what the Lakers would want in those situations. But the way Bynum fails to offer a smidgen of resistance—instead choosing to sag back in the paint and hope the shot misses—is worrisome. These guys are WIDE OPEN.
Crossover Of The Year: With so many great ones to choose from, this category was truly the most difficult. My criteria for selecting a winner was “which crossover made me yell the loudest the very first time I saw it”. Admittedly, the grading system isn’t perfect, but still, pretty sure you can’t go wrong with the winner.
Most interesting trade deadline deal that didn’t happen: Celtics send Ray Allen to the Grizzlies for O.J. Mayo and a first round pick.
Despite all the wonderful statistical improvements and progress we’ve made as fans and students of the game throughout these last few years, we still have no way to measure the importance of chemistry. NBA players are professionals, but they’re not robots; numbers can not predict how a player will perform if the guy he regularly goes to dinner with on road trips is shipped halfway across the country.
When news broke a few weeks after the trade deadline that the Celtics had a deal in place to move Ray Allen for O.J. Mayo and Memphis’ first round draft pick, my interest was piqued. Without taking into account Allen’s lingering ankle injury, on paper the deal would have been phenomenal for the Celtics. Mayo isn’t as capable a three-point shooter as Allen, but he’s damn good (39.7% in his last 15 games) and already accustomed to coming off the bench. Also, he’s currently playing on an expiring contract which helps Boston keep their financial flexibility this offseason while employing a player who’d be interested in raising his own monetary value. One more thing: Mayo is 12 years younger than Allen.
The deal would give the Celtics three first round draft picks in a pool loaded with talent, ensuring an increased likelihood of staying relevant in the future. Sounds good, right? What isn’t taken into account is the locker room. Trading Ray Allen would effectively end the BIg 3 era, and speculating how that’d affect Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce is impossible, but there’s a good chance it wouldn’t be in a positive way. All in all, it’s good for both teams this one didn’t go down.
Most Disappointing Player: Tyreke Evans.
He entered this season healthy and motivated to reclaim position as one of the league’s most dynamic players, and left it a positional nomad who failed to improve as a point guard, shooting guard, or small forward. Once the cornerstone for a rising Kings organization (stop laughing), Evans is now one of the most attractive “high risk, higher reward, maybe” players on the trade market. A high fall it’s been in such a short time.
Before the season started I wrote that Sacramento and Boston should’ve pursued a Ray Allen + Draft picks for Tyreke Evans + Salary Filler deal. Evans needs a new environment. His points, assists, rebounds, PER, and usage rate were all dramatically lower than his rookie season two years ago, yet Evans is still only 22-years-old with an All-Star ceiling and a cloaked ability to take over games. But he spent an entire season not doing it, and in a league of great expectations—22 is the new 32—the result has been brutal disappointment.
(I would’ve selected Lamar Odom for this award, but he doesn’t deserve to win anything—ever again.)
Defensive Player of the Year: LeBron James.
Who I’d like to see win and who I think will win are two very separate groupings for when I’m picking defensive player of the year. This award annoys me for the simple reason that its so heavily skewed towards big rim protectors who grab rebounds and block shots. After the rule change to prevent hand checking was instated by the league, perimeter defense was seen as a helpless venture. To use an obvious understatement, players in the NBA can be really fast while dribbling a basketball, and defending them is borderline impossible with no security blanket behind you. It’s for this reason—combined with the fact that those big guys usually don’t have to worry about their own man—that I think the guys who CAN guard players on the perimeter should be highlighted as the league’s best defensive players. Andre Iguodala, Avery Bradley, Chandler Parsons, and Tony Allen all work harder and are more active and involved throughout games to help their teams get stops.
If it weren’t for smaller players acting as elite first lines of defense, the center would probably foul out by the second quarter. It’s for this reason—along with incredible versatility and verbal communicative skills that help move one of the league’s best defenses on a string—that I believe LeBron James should be the defensive player of the year. He doesn’t just guard all five positions, he dominates them. Unfortunately, James probably will not win the award because of Tyson Chandler’s transcendent, franchise perception altering season.
It sounds weird, but based on the fact that he’s the league’s best overall defensive player, LeBron should be the prohibitive favorite to win this award for at least the next three seasons. He’s overly selfless, and has the physical ability to single-handedly turn his prophetic defense into instant points better than anybody in the NBA.
This clip personifies why James is the best defensive player on the planet. The Lakers use almost the entire shot clock trying to take advantage of Pau Gasol’s “mismatch”, but with LeBron fronting the seven footer in the post, they can’t even get him the ball.
Most Improved Player: Avery Bradley.
There are about a dozen deserving players up for this award, but only one has elevated his game to the point where his once left for dead team is now a certifiable championship contender. You can call Avery Bradley an X-factor, but that’d be a tad misleading. X-factors are unpredictable car bombs who possess dangerous highs and lows. They’re dependable only in the sense that if they play well, their team’s chance at winning greatly increases. On the other hand, Avery Bradley is a consistent player whose game appears to be expanding by the minute. He’s the best on-ball defender in the entire league, treating his duty of guarding the quickest players in the world with relative simplicity.
When we talk about Bradley and the rate he’s evolved, how do we discuss his ceiling? I was thinking about this after he nearly led a Celtics team that was lacking the Big 3 and Rondo to victory against a full strength Atlanta Hawks squad (in a meaningful game). Can he eventually make an All-Star team? Once Chris Paul and Deron Williams are out of the picture, will he have improved to the point where placing him on the 2016 Olympic team is a no-brainer?
No player is more utilized as a weapon than Avery Bradley, and his improvement from “scared rookie incapable of bringing the ball up the court”, to “fearless sophomore trying to throw down dunks on Josh Smith”, makes these two questions legitimate ones. Now that the Celtics are back for one last throw down, nobody’s individual improvement has had a bigger impact on the league as a whole. For Avery Bradley, the sky truly is the limit.
Sixth Man: James Harden.
Because…just because. Come on, people.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James.
Little has changed since I wrote about this a few weeks ago, so I won’t get too in-depth with why I think what I think. But here are a couple reminders. LeBron just had the most dominant statistical regular season since 1989, when Michael Jordan obliterated everything. He’s playing for the team Las Vegas believes will win the title. On the offensive end he’s made his game more efficient, taking his attack closer to the rim each and every night. On defense he guards anybody Erik Spoelstra needs him to, and does it really, really well. If there’s no LeBron James, the Miami Heat, even with Dwyane Wade, are an afterthought.
First: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
Second: Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum
Third: Rajon Rondo, Dwyane Wade, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol
All-Defense First Team: Avery Bradley, Tony Allen, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, Tyson Chandler
Second Team: Mike Conley, Dwyane Wade, Andre Iguodala, Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard
Third Team: Rajon Rondo, Courtney Lee, Shawn Marion, Josh Smith, Joakim Noah
Spurs vs. Jazz: Spurs (6)
Grizzlies vs. Clippers: Grizzlies (7)
Lakers vs. Nuggets: Nuggets (6)
Thunder vs. Mavericks: Thunder (7)
Bulls vs. Sixers: Bulls (5)
Celtics vs. Hawks: Celtics (5)
Pacers vs. Magic: Pacers (4)
Heat vs. Knicks: Heat (7)
Spurs vs. Grizzlies: Spurs (7)
Nuggets vs. Thunder: Thunder (7)
Bulls vs. Celtics: Celtics (7)
Heat vs. Pacers: Heat (6)
Spurs vs. Thunder: Spurs (7)
Celtics vs. Heat: Celtics (6)
Spurs vs. Celtics: Spurs (7)Follow @ShakyAnkles