“Access main security”, Ray Arnold mumbles.
“Access main program grid.”
Cigarette drag after cigarette drag, living out his final moments in a cloud of second-hand smoke — drowning in the inevitable doom of password recovery.
Nuh uh uh, you didn’t say the magic word, trojan horse Dennis Nedry taunts wagging his index finger like Dikembe Mutombo just sent a weak layup into the mezzanine.
And just like that, Jurassic Park was offline.
We’re talking about a business with billions of dollars in private funding, an island licensed for use by the Costa Rican government, and the human + technological resources to harvest/reproduce/give birth to dinosaur DNA. But somehow, during a natural disaster which threatened the security of the park and consequently every human life on the island, not only did they fail to have an IT person on duty to troubleshoot a network access password — the password itself was PLEASE.
Not even a PLEASE123. Just PLEASE.
The moral of the story: don’t overthink things, because sometimes the answer is right in front of you.
A bunch of numbers on a spreadsheet or a dancing DNA cartoon doesn’t make them the smartest person in the room, nor does someone who only trusts their own eyes without checks & balances of factual information and human behavior.
There’s a reason for the trip down memory lane and all this preachiness: the trip we’re about to embark on requires subjectiveness. Usually, when making a decision to invest your hard-earned money, objectivity is the first prerequisite — but here: the NBA Awards are distributed based on opinions, thus, the interpretation of the play on the court is arguably more important than the play on the court itself when it comes to predicting results.
It’s not a popular hypothesis. It’s a large part of what makes consuming NBA content on the internet such a chore, that the audience holds the power of influence over the mindset of voters and said voters will sometimes surrender original thought to the mob before campaigning on an island by themselves publicly.
As a result: there is no formula for voting; votes can be distributed for a wide range of reasons — statistics, analytics, performances during nationally-televised games, playoff impact, their replacement value, and/or even basic media narratives.
If a candidate has a monster night the one time the voter is tuned in to watch them play during the regular season, that may end up being the only sample size they use to deliver their verdict — for all we know.
Yes, this has actually happened and it still happens regularly. It’s not meant to be shade, as voters have families, friends, lives, and responsibilities which prevent them from watching every dribble of Nuggets vs. Magic on a Tuesday night.
As a result: some will use highlight aggregation, postgame box scores, and advanced analytics to replace the vigorous, time-consuming grind of watching every game and defend those moments and numbers as their case for the MVP jury. The same way many of you scrolling this read Sparknotes in high school instead of reading the book itself. They’re not going to tell you that’s what they did, but the truth nonetheless.
Do not underestimate the power social media has forming echo chambers. The more a player is featured by major networks, the more-likely their achievements are to be exposed to this very subset of voters who play a vital role in determining these awards. Some players are better at getting their content out into the world than others. It’s not fair, it’s not right, it’s just the way it is. You have been warned.
Curry had arguably the best season of his career during the 2020–2021 campaign and finished third in the MVP voting. Nobody is going to feel bad for him, this is a former unanimous MVP, with three championship rings to his name, and is already considered to be the greatest jump-shooter of all-time.
So how exactly does someone of this caliber not win the NBA’s most prestigious individual regular season award after playing at the level Curry did?
Since LeBron’s first MVP win in 2009, the Maurice Podoloff trophy has been won by Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Nikola Jokic.
While every campaign is certainly unique, one constant among them all is their team finishing in the top four of their respective conference. The exception was Russell Westbrook, whose Thunder team placed 6th despite finishing an impressive 12 games over .500.
Stephen Curry didn’t win the 2021 NBA MVP because the Golden State Warriors finished 9th place in the West. You can vehemently deliver any counterpoint you so desire, of which includes Nikola Jokic’s brilliance that nobody can deny, but the equity Steph had with voters I crowdsourced during the ballot-submitting process suggests many of those Jokic first-place votes would have been given as second-place, with Curry filling the void, if the Warriors had finished in a playoff position above the play-in tournament cut line.
Having this knowledge in-hand, we must now discuss the most cringe narrative in MVP selection: will voters feel as if Steph is “owed” this year’s award if he qualifies?
My personal opinion is every season should be treated separately, but I, someone who has been in the trenches for years with media members submitting ballots AND is interested in profiting off of information precedent, knows this game all-too-well.
Karl Malone and James Harden are the two-most prominent “we owe him this one from last year” examples in which the player performed at an MVP level, but had the narrative propel their candidacy like a NOS cannon onto Dominic Terretto’s engine.
Knowing where voters stood on Steph last year, it would not surprise me in the least to see him complete this “owed” Mount Rushmore in June of 2022 if he is able to replicate anything close to 2021.
Now, the missing ingredient to this redemption arc is the Warriors returning to their dynasty form, or, at the very least: Top 4 in the West.
I’m going to give Klay Thompson the benefit-of-the-doubt and assume he will return from his two-year injury absence and still be at an all-star level talent. If he is so much as near one, this will bring Curry the much-needed relief from defenses interlocking arms and forming a ring of fire around him every time he crosses half court. That is what happens when Kelly Oubre Jr. is blowing kisses after making his first three of the season in February and Draymond Green is standing outside of the paint with his backpack on.
Between Wiggins, Wiseman, JTA, Otto Porter Jr., you would figure one of these guys has to land into their potential this season. Jordan Poole absolutely killed it during the preseason, showing off a variety of improved scoring abilities with-or-without the ball, and looks to be not only a mainstay in the rotation regardless of who’s active, but a legitimate contender for the Most Improved Player Award. Add in two Summer League standout rookies in Jonathan Kuminga + Moses Moody, and this Warriors cauldron is filled to the brim with all sorts of explosive talent again to draw the attention of the opposition.
Steph is going to put up the stats, that’s a given.
He’ll have the narratives, that’s a given too.
He’ll continue to have his “holy shit” moments which set the internet on fire, it’s not a matter of ‘if’ or ‘when’ but rather: ‘how many?’
And most importantly: he’ll be the nucleus of a team returning to its former glory in the standings.
The math of Steph’s MVP formula checks out, encompassing basketball comprehension by the voting proletariat on and off-the-court.
Narratives are fickle beasts. While the right mixture of events has the ability to propel a player to the forefront of the daily conversation, Dr. Jekyll can morph into Mr. Hyde quicker than you’d think.
You already know where I’m going with this…
Rudy Gobert is the most dominant individual defender in the NBA during the regular season in every facet of the title.
When you watch the Jazz play, he influences every shot within 10 feet of the rim whether he’s engaged in the on-ball assignment, or, just lurking on the block waiting to contest from the help-side. He causes dribble penetrators to look over their shoulders more than anybody in the league, and as a result: Utah was/is/and will likely continue to be a top-ranked NBA defense as long as he’s fit and able.
Amongst a plethora of advanced analytics, Gobert finished last season 1st in individual:
Defensive Win Shares
And the even crazier part is that he will probably do it again. In theory, he should win the award for the fourth time. But this is where the national media “narrative” may come back to bite him.
We all saw what the Clippers did to Gobert in the Western Conference Semi-Finals, and while the Defensive Player of the Year Award has nothing to do with what went down during that Game 6 in Los Angeles, I do anticipate voters experiencing fatigue in appreciating his accomplishments knowing they still don’t translate to the games that matter the most.
Layman’s terms: he will have to break multiple individual NBA defensive records to get the credit he deserves. Fair? No. Can he? Absolutely. I’m just telling you the way it’s going to be, especially since Utah rarely sees the light of day on primetime national television games post all-star break, and the bar to consider Gobert’s 2022 campaign a “success” will be higher than arguably ever before for a true center.
So where does that leave us? Ben Simmons, you’d figure, but the only court he may be stepping into this year is Judge Judy if his game of chicken holdout with the 76ers leaks well into the season.
With all of the ball-screen switching that occurs throughout a single game, in addition to the small ball revolution which has overrun the traditional 1-through-5 position strategy, the biggest men on the court are now required to expand their presence outside of the paint. They have to be able to guard positions 1–5 to survive in the year 2021. There’s no other way to put it. If you can’t, you get exposed — even the defensive player of the year himself.
So let’s do this: a schoolyard pick.
Every active NBA player is lined up against the wall, I want you to choose the players, in order, who meet the following prerequisites:
Can guard positions 1–5 effectively and seamlessly
Will play at least 75% of regular season games
That list starts and ends with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bam Adebayo.
Kawhi is likely out until the playoffs. Simmons, we’ve already discussed. Myles Turner, Joel Embiid, and Anthony Davis haven’t proved the ability to stay healthy enough to play 82 games. Matisse Thybulle and Jrue Holiday are phenomenal individual defenders but are facing load management or playing time limitations. That leaves the two men listed above.
It feels like an eternity ago, but Bam is still the same daunting presence who denied Jayson Tatum at the rim in the bubble. The Miami Heat are coming off a massively disappointing season and have reloaded with even more all-star talent in free agency. If the Finals hangover has finally been lifted from this team, you can expect them to finish Top 4 in the East with ease. At the forefront of the counterattack is going to be Bam, on both ends of the floor. The Heat run three-point shooters off the line regularly and funnel penetrators to their interior defense. Now that they have the horses in the stable to thrive off of turnovers, expect one of the NBA’s best on-ball defenders at any position to get plenty of attention as the Heat redemption story leads the ever-scrutinized media narratives.
The most important part of predicting the sixth man winer is remembering its one eligibility rule: a nominee must come off the bench more games than he starts.
Obviously, to be awarded this honor, the player has to have a great season. However, first impressions from the list of winners the previous 10 seasons: (James Harden, J.R. Smith, Jamal Crawford, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Montrezl Harrell, Jordan Clarkson) the majority of which have one underlying theme in common: buckets. Microwave scorers. The NBA’s best 6th men not starting has nothing to do with “they’re not worthy”, rather, they thrive in being the focal point of the offense with their bench unit and take advantage of the opposition’s second team defenses.
Enter: Patty Mills.
Mills was not only in contention for 6th Man last year on a mediocre San Antonio Spurs team, but proved to the world just how talented of a scorer he still is by carrying Team Australia to an Olympics bronze medal.
Now with the offensive juggernaut Brooklyn Nets, Patty is going to have all sorts of open looks while defenses are busy dealing with the Durant/Harden/Kyrie three-headed monster. I’m not saying Mills will be out there simultaneously with Brooklyn’s Big 3, but two things are true:
Mills is going to run 20–25 minutes a night on average
He will replace Kyrie’s USG% either in the starting lineup or off-the-bench when Kyrie is unavailable
Shooting volume and usage percentage won Jordan Clarkson 6th Man of the Year last season, and they are going to do the same for Mills. If he stays healthy, expect Patty to start a bunch of games alongside at least two of the game’s best offensive players ever. The nights which Bruce Brown gets the nod and Steve Nash has James Harden running point (what he should do, to be honest…), Patty will come in lighting up second unit defenses like he has been doing for more than a decade straight now.
Usage. Usage. Usage.
This award is going to come down to three players, assuming the entire class stays healthy: Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Scottie Barnes.
Evan Mobley may end up being a superstar center one day, but being paired with Jarrett Allen in Cleveland has me worried about his ability to average 20 points per game as the paint will be clogged like a public restroom next to Taco Bell.
I am all-in on Jonathan Kuminga and think he has a great chance of being the best player from this draft one day, but he too will fall victim to limited usage + play-time issues on a playoff-contending roster.
I’ll make the case for Green as opposed to giving you reasons why Barnes and Cunningham won’t win, because both will surely fill up the box score from start-to-finish.
The Houston Rockets are not only in complete rebuild mode, but have absolutely nothing to lose in running their franchise cornerstones 40 minutes a night.
With John Wall and the franchise in agreement for him to sit-out while they work on a trade, expect Jae’Sean Tate, KJ Martin, Kevin Porter Jr., Christian Wood, and Jalen Green to get the lion’s share of “starters” minutes. That won’t be the starting lineup, Daniel Theis is for some reason on this team and will probably get a ton of action early. The zombie corpses of Danuel House, Eric Gordon, and DJ Augustin are there too. But this team is going to lose and they’re going to lose a lot. When they fall out of playoff contention before the all-star break, I’d fully expect those five guys listed above to become the main rotation.
By the way, you know what that rotation can do? SCORE. Defense optional, but SCORE. Porter Jr. and Jalen Green are going to go bezerk in the box scores playing together, and I expect their talent to shine every night regardless of the final tally. Contrary to the MVP: the “but the team isn’t that good!” narrative doesn’t really work here for the devil’s advocates, as the most-talented rookies are mostly drafted by the worst teams at the top of the draft.
Green is a special, special talent. That stepback jumper needs to be trademarked before kids start replicating it. Size, durability, skill, and most importantly: the damn ball in his hands. He has the highest ceiling of anyone in this draft, and he’s about to show you why.
If you’re still reading this, you’ve likely heard me rant about this award in one way or another. I’d like to take this time to re-publish my stance on the definition of “Most Improved”: It’s the NBA’s most difficult award to predict because nobody can ever agree what “most improved” actually means, that’s why this year’s odds-on-favorite is listed at +1100 (Michael Porter Jr.).
I am of the belief that the award should be given to the player who travelled the most “improvement” distance from their previous season to the current campaign. Someone who was irrelevant in terms of production and usage storms onto the scene in a major, eye-popping way.
Others value the jump from potential to fulfillment.
It’s all good; but let’s take a look at the nine most-recent recipients, shall we?
Julius Randle (2021)
Brandon Ingram (2020)
Pascal Siakam (2019)
Victor Oladipo (2018)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (2017)
CJ McCollum (2016)
Jimmy Butler (2015)
Goran Dragic (2014)
Paul George (2013)
Once again: every single one of these players was already “good”. The season in which they won the award, they took the step from “already good” to “without a doubt.”
The ‘distance’ traveled here is significantly shorter than the obscurity-to-relevancy mindset I use to narrow down nominees, but, it could be argued it’s more difficult to make the leap from bonafide starter to all-star. These nine winners are the billboard of it.
As much as I want to make the case for guys like Chris Boucher, Keldon Johnson, Jaren Jackson. Jr., Rui Hachimura — the reality is: it’s a long shot.
I’m now going to make my boldest prediction of the season: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander will make the all-star team. It will likely take a player dropping out due to injury, but it will happen as a replacement.
The Thunder are an afterthought in most mainstream sports fans’ minds, however, I promise you Gilgeous-Alexander is doing things in Oklahoma City worthy of your attention. His command of the offense as a floor general gets better every game, he can score any time he damn well pleases, and he doesn’t need someone else to get him open — he can initiate offense by himself — all while having a Kyle Anderson-esque slow motion feel to his play.
The team won’t be winning many games this upcoming season, but almost every single one they do will be a result of Shai’s brilliance. He checks all the boxes of Most Improved winner’s recent precedent with the voters, and you will all thank me later after taking the time to watch him play.
The Pacers are actually good.
Like, Top 4 in the East good.
Let me reiterate what this starting lineup would look like in a perfect world:
Malcom Brogdon, TJ Warren, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner
That’s as good as it gets, but, they can’t stay healthy … and as a result: they never get to play together to develop chemistry or fulfill their potential.
Speaking of chemistry, there was no love lost between the Pacers players and former head coach Nate Bjorkgren. He’s gone, and the man responsible for taking the franchise to the Eastern Conference Finals in his first season — is back on the bench.
I’d be lying if a little nostalgia didn’t influence my thought process, but it would be quite the story if Carlisle turns things around again in his first season — wouldn’t it?
At the very least, I expect him to extract every drop of potential from this talented group of fringe all-stars — and most importantly, their desire to play as a team. Something we haven’t seen from the Pacers in nearly a decade.
If anyone can do it, it’s Carlisle.
Look for the Pacers to finish Top 5 in the East, and to fly under the radar all the way until the second round of the playoffs. They’re built for success, and now they finally have a captain worthy of steering the ship.
Did he loan Kyle Lowry a ring like he did to Chris Bosh?