NBA Award Races: A Decade Of Influence

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Back in September ’16 and roughly a month before the NBA regular season tipped, we sat down for just our Second ‘Four Thought’ Edition to make our very early predictions on the season. The individual award races are really starting to heat up and there are still some intriguing battles in just about every category. Injuries are throwing all kinds of variables into the mix and every NBA fan has a differing opinion on who should win what. It’s for this very reason, that I’d like to take a slightly different approach to working out who might win at the end of the regular season. These awards are subjective after all, whether that be to the official voters or casual NBA fan, and there are already (with many more to come) a vast amount of opinion pieces out there to read.

So whilst having a little fun assessing our predictions before the season began, I’d like to look at each of the six award races by analysing the last decade(s) of winners. We will look at the trends from the last 10 winners (20 in the case of MVP), come up with the ‘rules to winning’ and use that to best work out who the likely winners from this year will be.


rookROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Pre-Season Predictions: B.Simmons x 2, B.Hield & K.Dunn

Missed The Cut: J.MurrayJ.BrownB.Ingram & M.Chriss

In The Hunt: J.EmbiidD.SaricM.Brogdon & B.Hield

You will begin to see a theme among many of these awards. Scoring matters. It is no different when it comes to the Rookie Of The Year and how official voters decide. Over the last 10 years, the first year player who has put up the best Points Per Game total has taken out the award 9 times. The only exception to that rule is in 2008/09 when Derrick Rose won, despite being shaded slightly on PPG by none other than OJ Mayo. Rose is the only player on the list to contribute as a starter (not on this list but also did: Al Horford) for a playoff team in his first year. So it’s fair to say there needs to be a ‘Rose Rule’ factored in but outside of that, it really is as simple as most points in the season getting your hands on the ROY Award.

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Award Rules
1. Did a Rookie start on a playoff team and contribute 15+PPG? If yes, give them the award.
2. If no, give the award to whichever Rookie scored the most PPG this season.

Season 16/17 Candidates
There are a number of Rookies starting in patches this season but few are for a playoff bound team and even fewer are doing it in a meaningful way. Big men such as Siakam, Chriss, Sabonis & Maker have all started their fair share of games but will not qualify for Rule #1. Which takes us straight to Rule #2 and the top six Rookies in PPG.

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Top 6 Rookies in PPG – as of games ending March 3rd, 2017.

Looking at this on the surface, it seems a pretty clear cut race. Not only is Embiid blitzing the field in the stat that matters here, he is also putting up significant numbers in various other areas. However, with only 31 games played in what will eventually be an 82 game season there are legitimate questions marks over his eligibility. Not that there is any official criteria, but Embiid is 20 games shy of the minimum games played (11/12 – Irving) among the last 10 winners. Perhaps voters will overlook this in favour of how dominant he was on the court but if they cannot get passed it, then the race is WIDE open. Saric leads the way in the key stat, with Brogdon, Hield, Murray and Brown all to receive extra minutes in the final 20 games. It is likely a race in 1 or 3. Embiid wins in a landslide if voters deem him eligible but if they don’t, Saric and Brogdon figure to be the next in line.

Prediction: D. Saric. He gives the award to Embiid and says “Joel…you the real ROY”.


6th

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Pre-Season Predictions: A.Iguodala, B.Knight, E.Gordon & W.Chandler

Missed The Cut: L. Williams, J.Clarkson, T.Johnson & W.Barton

In The Hunt: E. Gordon, W. Chandler, Z. Randolph, E. Kanter

The Sixth Man Of The Year is yet another dominated by points per game totals but with a twist. Every award winner of the last decade has made the playoffs with their team, so voters clearly place a special value on those scoring for playoff bound teams. Seven of the last ten winners have been the league leading scorer off the bench, resulting in an easy award win. In the other three cases; 10/11, 14/15 & 15/16, some extra rules have been needed to split the lead pack. Lamar Odom was just 1.4PPG behind Jason Terry in 10/11, with both guys on Playoff teams but Odom with almost double the Win Shares. More recently, Isaiah Thomas lost out in 14/15 after spending most of the season on a non-playoff team and the Ryan Anderson/Eric Gordon/Will Barton trio all succumbed to the same fate last season despite better PPG totals than Crawford. Finally, Win Shares also look to have halted Crawford from a three-peat of the award in 14/15.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-6-03-38-pmAward Rules
1. Did a Sixth Man with the highest PPG out of all qualifying players make the playoffs? If so, refer to Rule #2. If not, refer to Rule #3.
2. If another player is within 1.5 points, use Win Shares to determine who gets award.
3. Give the award to the highest PPG player who made the playoffs, with Rule #2 still used for tie-breaks.

Season 16/17 Candidates
By definition, a sixth man just has to come off the bench more times than he starts in any given season. Therefore, despite the season having several games to run we can use the same logic in order to rate who qualifies for the award. Adding our own rules to the mix means a front runner is cut before we even start; Lou Williams. Despite moving to a playoff bound team, the current leading bench scorer has played the majority of the year for a poor team (LAL) and much like happened to Thomas in 14/15 (which ironically resulted in Williams first win), this won’t be received well by voters.

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Top 4 Sixth Men in PPG – as of games ending March 3rd, 2017.

That leaves Gordon, Chandler, Randolph & Kanter as the next best four and all of whom appear to be playoff bound currently. Chandler is the only one who has started a significant amount of games but will still qualify even if he starts in all of Denver’s remaining games. The real key here though will be if Gordon can hold onto his PPG lead, which currently should hand him the award. There is of course only a small sample size (IT pun intended) on the Lou Williams scenario and voters could easily go the other way there too. However, if Williams is left out of the equation and the points race pulls within 1.5 points across all four candidates then the Win Shares totals come into play. Currently, Kanter (4.5) leads the way there in front of Randolph (3.3), Gordon (3.2) and then Chandler (2.7).

Prediction: 
E. Gordon. If Gordon can continue to score, he should add his 2nd award for the season to his trophy cabinet.


mip

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Pre-Season Predictions: J.Parker, S.Adams, K.Towns & M.Kidd-Gilchrist

Missed The Cut: J.Parker, B.Beal, I.Thomas & G.Hill

In The Hunt: G.AntetokounmpoK.Towns, H.Barnes & D.Schroder

If the Rookie Of The Year is dominated by points and the Sixth Man Of The Year is dominated by points, then what do you expect the Most Improved Player Award to be dominated by? You got it, points! Each winner from the last ten years has managed to increase their points per game by 5+ and move their total average to 16+. Looking at the Top 3 vote getters each year over the last decade, the categories for winning the award become pretty clear. The above point criteria is needed to get into the conversation and winners are chosen based on three main categories. Firstly, with the exception of Durant in 09/10 (see ‘Durant Rule’ below), players like Jimmy Butler and Danny Granger (beating out another All Star in Devin Harris*) have made their first All Star Game whilst winning the award. Similar point progression over the age of 27 has also won the award, in the form of Hedo Turkoglu and Goran Dragic. In both circumstances, winners have beaten out other candidates with larger differentials. In the absence of either the above scenarios, the player with the largest Point Differential generally wins out.

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Award Rules
1. Players must score minimum 16 PPG and have a differential of 5PPG+ to qualify.
2. Did a player qualify and make their first All Star Game in the process? If so, give them the award. Premium on team wins if two players achieve this*.
3. If not, did a player 27 or over qualify? If so, give them the award.
4. If not, give the award to whichever player qualifies and has the largest PPG differential.
Exceptions: The ‘Durant Rule’ disqualifies a first time All Star from winning if his previous season total was already over 20PPG.

Season 16/17 Candidates
Using Rule One narrows the field of candidates down to a clean Top 8. First we have to deal with those who missed the cut, all of which were for vastly different reasons. Sadly, Jabari Parker (+6PPG) is the first to miss due to his season being cut short. Isaiah Thomas (+7.2) is the next to go, due to already being an All Star the previous year and there being no precedent for a win in this scenario. After those disqualifications, Hill (+5.5) and Beal (+5.3) are the last two to be cut due to owning the lowest differentials remaining. Hill would have been an interesting test for the 27+ rule but his PPG total from last year was significantly lower than his career best season, so it was not the same sort of improvement as other 27+ winners; Turkoglu & Dragic.

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Past 10 Winners vs. Top 8 Candidates. PER/PPG from winning/eligible year & year prior.

Disqualifications excluded, the remaining four candidates have the highest differentials in the group. We have a first time All Star in Giannis (+6.3), a franchise cornerstone in Towns (+5.7) and two young players with the usual increased role/increased production narrative; Schroder (+6.4) and Barnes (+8.4). Simply put, if it wasn’t for Giannis’ overriding feat then we would have three other worthy candidates, Barnes obviously winning out with an impressive rise that only a handful of players in the last ten years can compete with.

Prediction: G.Antetokounmpo. It’s pretty clear cut, the All Star nod wins out in a very impressive player pool this season.


d

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Pre-Season Predictions: D.Green, D.Jordan, H.Whiteside & K.Leonard

Missed The Cut: H.Whiteside, D.Howard, A.Davis & D.Jordan

In The Hunt: A.Drummond, R. Gobert, D. Green & K.Leonard

The Defensive Player Of The Year remains one of the hardest to predict for a number of reasons. Part of this remains due to defensive impact still being much harder to put down to single measurements and overall defense still needing the “eye test” in order to properly evaluate how a player stacks up. The beginning of the last decade, season 06/07, started with a mistake. A mistake that perhaps was the end of days for the big man with the most blocks per game, receiving the DPOY award. Taking nothing away from Marcus Camby and his 3.3 blocks per game (he actually had 3.6 in 07/08) but his stats just did not match up to Tim Duncan’s that year, who led the league in both Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares. For the remainder of the decade when that same feat was achieved, the player (Howard & Noah) won the award. When the double wasn’t achieved, it has been a bit of a lottery draw. However one thing has been for sure, the eventual winner is from a Top 2 Defensive team in the league. Unless of course you are Tyson Chandler, who rode a narrative wave taking the 21st rated Knicks to 5th in the league in one season. Good enough for DPOY but not good enough for First Team All Defense in 2011/12.

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Award Rules
1. Did a player come first in both Defensive Rating & Defensive Win Shares? If so, give them the award.
2. If not, expect a tight race for the award with the winner coming from a Top 2 D in the NBA.
Exceptions: A media narrative on a single players D impact CAN overrule both Rules 1 & 2 dependant upon how strong the push is. Just ask Camby & Chandler.

Season 16/17 Candidates
Looking at the voting over the last decade, there is generally a tighter race in the top 3 positions for DPOY, compared to the clear cut winners from other awards. It is much harder to be sure of how the race might turn out because of this. Taking into account our rules from above, there looks to be four clear cut options at this stage. Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green & Andre Drummond all have the opportunity to finish first in both key metrics.

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Top 4 Defensive Candidates Advanced stats – as of games ending March 3rd, 2017.

Kawhi Leonard looks as though he won’t be able to achieve the same feat, yet is still in  the hunt if none of the others can clinch the award with the “double”. The Spurs remain a Top 2 Defense and if things remain open, Leonard could clinch his third straight award as the best player in that area on his team. The Jazz and Warriors could still also finish Top 2 defensively which further increases both Green & Gobert’s chances for the award through either Rule 1 and/or 2. It’s fair to say Drummond is a long shot who is included out of respect for his stats in key D areas but his team performance and overall eye test, mean he is starting from a fair way back. Speaking of a fair way back, the narrative for Green and Gobert started long ago and it matters.

Prediction: R.Gobert. Expect Rudy to rise to the number one spot in the two crucial markers and leave no doubt.


coach

COACH OF THE YEAR

Pre-Season Predictions: S.BrooksB.StevensD.Fizdale & T.Thibodeau

Missed The Cut: B.Stevens, S.Brooks, Q.Snyder & D. Casey

In The Hunt: S.KerrG.PopovichT.Lue & M.D’Antoni

The Red Auerbach Trophy is one of the easier awards to break down when looking at the recipients since 06/07. It is basically reserved for existing coaches who take a similar team much further than the previous season or given to the Head Coach with the best record. In the last 10 years, the award has been given to a coach 5 times for drastically improving roughly the same team on last season’s results. The other half of the time when that hasn’t occurred, voters have defaulted to giving it to the Head Coach with the best record. Other dramatic improvements that could be seen as desperately unlucky, were new coaches Eric Spoelstra (08/09 – MIA) and Clifford (13/14- CHA) as well Stotts (13/14 – POR) who had the sophomore rise of Damian Lillard and other additions.

screen-shot-2017-03-05-at-4-12-26-pmAward Rules
1. Did a non-first year coach improve a similar looking team by 17+ wins and a much improved playoff position? If yes, give him the award.
2. If no, give the award to the coach with the most wins for the season.

Season 16/17 Candidates
At first glance, it appears as though we will be going straight to Rule #2 for the award this year. A very even season with roughly the same playoff participants as last year, means this race is certainly one to the top. Despite what appears to be a better looking team in Washington this year, Brooks will likely fall down to the ‘New Coach Rule’ and what appears to only be roughly an 8 game increase on last season. Similarly, D’Antoni won’t reach the 17 game threshold and also is in his first season with the Rockets.

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East/West Top 4 seeds – as of games ending March 3rd, 2017.

However, he is still a chance to record the most wins in the league and is therefore a chance for the award. Just as Thibodeau achieved in the 2010/11 season in his first year. There are no other big win movers, season on season, therefore the coach with the most wins after 82 will likely get the nod. With the injury to Kevin Durant, the Warriors appear to be catchable which leaves Kerr, Popovich, Lue & D’Antoni all still with a chance. 

Prediction: G. Popovich. The Spurs will finish #1 and he will add much deserved number 4.


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MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Pre-Season Predictions: L.James, R.Westbrook, C.Paul & K.Leonard

Missed The Cut: K. Durant, S.Curry, I.Thomas, G.Antetokounmpo

In The Hunt: L.James, R.Westbrook, J.Harden & K. Leonard

Last but certainly not least, the Most Valuable Player Award. The absolute cream of the award crop deserves it’s own special rules and make no mistake, it needs them too! To begin with, the past decade is being replaced by the last 20 years of data. This perhaps clouds things a little further but it is important to illustrate the unpredictably that this award can bring. In the last 20 years, if a player manages to finish first in both PER and Win Shares (called the 1&1 from here on out) they will win the MVP 66% of the time. The third of the time that they didn’t? Well, I will leave it to you to judge where the Iverson (Shaq), Rose (LeBron) and dual Nash (Garnett/Dirk) MVP’s rank among the worst MVP’s of the last 20 years. Only three season’s in the last decade haven’t had a ‘1&1’ candidate but it was much more common in the ten years prior. While LeBron James secured all his MVP’s with the ‘1&1’, Tim Duncan and Karl Malone won the other way. With no consensus ‘1&1’ in eight other years, the best player on the best team won the MVP five times. The other three were Malone in 96/97 (UTA 2nd), Duncan in 01/02 (SAS 2nd) and one to add to the worst MVP pile; Kobe Bryant in 07/08 (LAL 3rd).

Screen Shot 2017-03-06 at 11.35.16 pm.pngAward Rules
1. Did a player achieve a 1&1 season? If so, give them the MVP or risk history not looking too favourably on who you choose.
2. If not, give the MVP to the best player on the best team if their own PER/WS rankings are worthy.
3. Additionally, the last 20 years dictates minimums of 55 wins in a full season and no lower than 4th in the final standings. 

Season 16/17 Candidates
Simply looking at the ‘1&1’ rule, PER and Win Shares dictate that only eight candidates from this season would be a chance to achieve the feat with some luck. Giannis, Thomas and Curry are in the ballpark but simply not a chance. Durant though is an intriguing candidate. If not for the knee injury forcing him out for the remainder of the regular season, it could be quite easily argued that he should take his ex-teammate’s spot in the Final Four. Not only was he performing as the best player on the current best team but Durant was also faring very well in the ‘1&1’ stakes. He currently sits second to Harden in Win Shares (11.4) and third in PER (27.6), not too far from Westbrook and Leonard. If you are drinking something while reading this article, pour just a smidge out for Durant missing out on his chance at a second MVP.

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Top 4 MVP Candidates – as of games ending March 5th, 2017. Added columns: PER Rank, WS Rank, Projected Wins & Current Wins Rank.

So then there were four. Harden, James, Leonard and Westbrook have roughly another 20 games to miraculously secure the MVP via the ‘1&1’ rule. Failing that, we get to more unfamiliar territory where the best team may not have a suitable best player candidate should the Warriors remain on top. Does that open the door for Westbrook? He has had an unbelievable season and perhaps an open race will lend itself to voters leaning towards his possible historic triple double average season. Harden has been just as impressive statistically though and currently fits within the realms of possibility, also known as, winning 55 games and finishing in the top four teams. As will LeBron and Leonard, who haven’t had as sexier season’s but find themselves in the thick of the factors that seem to truly matter.

Prediction: K.Leonard. Taking nothing away from Westbrook, Harden or even LBJ but Kawhi has the best shot at the 1&1 and/or being the best player on the best team.


All stats and info courtesy of basketball-reference.com.

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