Tuesday 29 October 2013

PFP's First Annual Arbitrary Awards Forecast

Kevin Durant will begin the season without his All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook.
Basketball is approaching us. Mere hours away from the tip-off for the 2013-14 NBA regular season, one last matter needs to be attended to. In the contemporary climate, the orthodoxy of being a basketball nerd dictates that one must actively speculate over the outcomes of end-of-season award voting. What remains a relative mystery, and apparently continues to elude popular fan consciousness, is the true structure of NBA award voting. Currently, the voting process (spanning across All-NBA team and individual honours) is shared across a panel of select media members and league head coaches, whereby media alum bear the majority of the responsibility and swaying power. Separate from the alleged expertise of those entrusted with selecting the NBA's foremost honourees is the glaring lack of transparency within the system, as those who tangibly apply their opinion are afforded complete anonymity, removing any possibility of post-award critiquing and/or debate. Pundits and general basketball enthusiasts have often been left confounded by the release of voting tallies, such as with David Lee's third place vote in the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year ballot, and in 2011, when guard Josh Selby surfaced in the Rookie of the Year voting despite having only made 28 regular season cameos that year. There may be deep flaws in the nature of award distribution, yet that shouldn't discourage the common practice of attempting to telepathically foresee the allocation of said accolades.

It is best to begin with the titles regularly flooded in vagueness, in both worthiness and voting, and undertake this naturally trivial task in ascending order, with the league's Most Valuable Player being perceived as the highest honour.

Most Improved Player - Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Leonard, the rangy, athletic wingman of the reigning Western Conference champions, arrived in San Antonio as the product of a draft day trade, following his selection as the 15th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft. Leonard, coming off a season in which his minutes and production were boosted, is now entering his third NBA campaign, and will be hoping to stave off injury concerns and further accelerate the speedy development of his young career. The Spurs managed to win 74% of the 58 regular season bouts that Leonard played a role in, with the 6"7 forward holding very healthy percentages of 49.4% of his field goals, and stroking 37% of his shots from the outside. Without doubt, San Antonio will rely upon the versatile, two-way small forward, seek a further minutes increase, and anticipate their fledgling star to soak up some of the lost production from the rapidly waning game of the ageing Manu Ginobili. Ginobili, the ever-reliable Argentinian whom the settled Spurs have so often turned to for clutch play and ingenuity, witnessed a sharp decline in his performance during the postseason - only managing to make 39.9% of his playoff field goal attempts, and drifting further and further away from the basket with his shot distribution.
Continued progression and fine tuning will be the key to another prosperous season for Leonard.
Health permitting, Kawhi Leonard is on the cusp of a certain spike in shot volume and his usage of San Antonio's offensive possessions - this, on the heels of a season where the former San Diego State Aztec approached two of the three marks required to join the prestigious 50-40-90 club. The Spurs' famed Duncan-Ginobili duo shared the court for just 55 games in 2012-13, a number destined to decrease, leaving Leonard in the wings (no pun intended), ready to formally ascend to star status. Indicative of the flow of the trademark Spurs offense, Leonard been plugged in smoothly, and deliberately, with a noteworthy 98.5% of his 65 three pointers being directly assisted. This should not be viewed as an indication of his inability to create his own shot off the bounce, but to the contrary, as tributary to the refined mechanics of a San Antonio scheme that has borne sweet, juicy fruits over a remarkably lengthy period. That being said, the Spurs' brass would surely not oppose an added aggressive streak and/or creative tendencies, that would merely serve as added, complimentary bows to the analytics idol's already-comprehensive arsenal. San Antonio's #2 comfortably floated on the perimeter during the regular season, with 33.1% of his FG attempts coming from behind the three point line (a cosy fit for this well-oiled offense), yet he was able to up his minutes from 31 to 37 per contest in the playoffs, while honing his True Shooting percentage to a hearty 61.1%, per NBA.com stats.

The criteria for the player deemed to have displayed the greatest 'improvement' in his game is not always clear or forthcoming, and San Antonio's swingman is bound to confront competition in this inevitably obscure category, however, with the organisation expecting a version of Leonard more closely associated to his proficient postseason outings than that from the 82 game schedule, the sound, ever-productive 3-man is a near-lock to factor in the conversation for the league's Most Improved Player.

Rookie of the Year - Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic

Joining the Orlando Magic as the 2nd overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Oladipo is a slender 6"5 guard who flourished in a three year career with the Indiana Hoosiers. Having spent the overwhelming majority of his NCAA life as a defensive-oriented, slashing two-guard, Oladipo comes into the Orlando picture (somewhat) oddly slated to play big minutes at the point guard position. A combination of depth issues, developmental experimentation, and a desire to test the ceiling of a youthful core, the Magic will almost certainly spot Victor Oladipo at both guard positions over the course of his rookie year. The former Big Ten prodigy departed Indiana with 104 games to his name, as a 2013 Consensus All-American, with a junior season defined by a truly remarkable 59.9% field goal conversion rate. Competition for, and public interest in, this award could very well be slim - with #1 overall selection Anthony Bennett fighting conditioning issues, and a host of other lottery names lodged in positional battles with their respective teams. Oladipo momentarily experimented with point guard duties over the 2013 Orlando Summer League, how he fares over the rigours of the 82 game stretch against established All-Stars and wily veterans, though, is another matter. Ideally, he will seek to replicate the wonders of his final collegiate season, in which he showcased a PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 28.9, and drilled the long range ball at a more than sustainable clip of 44.4%. Volume and a distance adjustment figure to skewer his prowess from downtown, and as with anything, his maiden voyage in the league will be a learning curve. Watch for Oladipo to seize the abundance of NBA minutes at his disposal, and fashion a balanced, complex game that will lay the foundations for a lengthy career.

Sixth Man of the Year - Andrei Kirilenko, Brooklyn Nets

Curiously declining a $10M player-option for the upcoming season and opting for free agency, Andrei Kirilenko, the Russian veteran, chose to instead accept the Nets' mini-mid level exception of $3.1M, joining a bold new cast in Brooklyn. Kirilenko's decision may have drawn the frustration and bemusement of opposing front offices and league officials, who meticulously scrutinised the finer details in the event that Kirilenko hadn't been privy to under-the-table agreements with quirky oligarch and fellow Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, yet it is one that has positioned him for an instrumental role on an aspiring contender. In his lone season in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, the briefly tenured Timberwolf reminded fans of his menacing defensive capabilities, reverting to a level of focus that allowed him to poach 2.3 steals per 48 minutes, while dismissing 1.5 shots by the same measurement. The long, gaudy international slotted nicely into Rick Adelman's offense, often negating back troubles, and constantly exhibiting a unique understanding of spacing, angles, and all forms of basketball geometry. Kirilenko put up 68 of his perimeter shots for Minnesota on the right side of the floor, where he registered at an above-average rate. The crafty Russian is far from renowned for his outside touch, and his role on a recently renovated Brooklyn roster is likely to be one of a part-time facilitator and periodical lock-down defender, in carefully managed court time. At 6"9, he brandished bountiful percentages up tight and in-close, making 217 of his 347 attempts from 8 feet and in, good for 62.5% and well above league average. It is this succinct, targeted offensive mindset that will prove a bonus for the Brooklyn bench, bolster their seeding and playoff hopes, and neatly nestle Kirilenko into the frame for the Association's premier performer off the pine.

If Andrei Kirilenko is able to adeptly massage his niggling injury concerns and properly place himself as a staple of the Nets' nightly rotation, his production in reserve minutes could not only be a notable difference maker, but act to strike fear into the eyes of opposing bench crews.

Coach of the Year - Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers

As a well-travelled assistant and video coordinator of the NBA's coaching ranks, Frank Vogel's comparatively brief stint as the coach and schematic architect for the Indiana Pacers has been synonymous with two words - 'defense', and 'playoffs'. A two and a half year window on the job has seen Vogel lead Indiana to three straight playoffs, steadily increase their win total, and firmly affix themselves as the league's stingiest defensive output. According to NBA.com/stats, Vogel's Pacers held opponents to a mind blowing 42.0% field goal percentage, while conceding a pace setting (again, no pun intended) average of 90.7 points per game. The metrics overwhelmingly measure up well for Indiana, who also affirmed their status as the preeminent rebounding roster in the NBA in 2012-13. More specifically, Vogel combatted Danny Granger's season-ending knee injury outstandingly, masterminding a five man unit of George Hill, first-time starter Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert, that bore the heavy onus of 19 minutes per game playing together, and was predominantly responsible for the team's dominance on the defensive end.

The team from the Hoosier state was able to capitalise on the absence of Derrick Rose from a key division rival, claim 49 victories, and clinch the Central Division championship for the first time since 2004. Expect Vogel, the New Jersey native, to once again lean on the devastating defensive one-two punch of Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the pair who enjoyed a +/- of +7.5 points per 48mins, and swallowed approximately 74.5% of the team's high defensive rebound totals while playing together. In the 33 month period since Frank Vogel rose to the lead role, everything for Indiana has been incremental - wins, internal player development, defensive adjustments, rotational changes - all while subtly and sneakily rounding out the roster. Adhering to the recent successes and simplicity of this equation could be the path to a bump in the standings, and a necessary step toward formal, league-wide recognition for Vogel's vintage style and coaching vernacular.

Defensive Player of the Year - LeBron James, Miami Heat

What can one say that hasn't already been penned? James, fresh from the Heat's royal heist of the 2013 NBA Championship, is the holder of four regular season MVP's, two consecutive NBA championships and NBA Finals MVP's, and two Olympic Gold Medals. Having featured on five All-Defensive teams, there stands a single, esteemed, elusive honour for the man so regularly thrust into historically comparative debates in the mainstream media - a Defensive Player of the Year award. Aside from the absurdity of '1 on 1'-style debates and frivolous comparisons, the lone, dusty shelf in LeBron James' trophy cabinet is being maintained for future DPOY recognition, the solitary prize that distinguishes the astute and obsessively competitive James from the career of Michael Jordan (DPOY in 1987-88). In addition to amassing 1.7 steals and 0.9 blocks per game and intimidating opposing perimeter players on a nightly basis, James recorded a net rating (Offensive Rating - Defensive Rating) +14.1, while solidifying a 20.8% defensive rebounding percentage. This consistency of effort was enough to earn the MVP eighteen first-placed votes and a second overall finish in last year's DPOY ballot, an outcome that will only require stability and perhaps a minor uptick in the volume of his frightening defensive presence in order to push him over the top in the category. Moreover, in game situations identified by league statisticians as 'clutch' - in this instance, +/- 5pts with 1min remaining - LeBron's net rating, as measured per 100 possessions, skyrocketed to an astonishing +48.6. On the eve of a season with a running storyline of a quest for a third straight championship (and possibly a third MVP in as many years), LeBron James has the capacity to cement his legacy, and attach the moniker of 'LeBron James, 2013-14' to the folklore of the NBA's greatest ever individual seasons.

Most Valuable Player - Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

Starkly chosen as the player 2nd to James in 2012-13's MVP race, Durant is neatly placed for yet another insane statistical season. Durant capped off a fine year, missing only 1 regular season game, and gaining admission into the aforementioned 50-40-90 club, with a breakdown of 51.0% from the field, 41.6% from downtown (at a clip of 1.7 made per contest), and an ever-efficient 90.5% at the charity stripe. Narrowly out-jostled in the season-long scoring duel by fellow forward Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant will rebound from a stretch of 'second-best''s in a reality where his All-NBA sidekick Russell Westbrook is sidelined for at least the first 4-6 weeks of the regular season schedule. 12 months removed from the organisation's controversial decision to ship prolific scorer James Harden to Houston, and following an offseason where 2012-13's primary bench weapon for OKC fled for Minnesota, Durant will be looked to - now more than ever - to carry the offensive load and steer the Thunder to sustained success. He endured struggles in the postseason in the wake of Westbrook's absence, undergoing dips in all three primary shooting measures, and flinging typically-automatic jumpers, and even free throws, offline against a feisty Memphis Grizzlies outfit. Westbrook's career has been one of incredible durability, having appeared in 394 straight regular season tussles prior to going down in the first-round series of the 2013 playoffs.

Don't anticipate Kevin Durant to battle without Westbrook to the same extent in the regular season, with the injury and Kevin Martin's departure opening up an average of 29 extra field goal attempts per contest that need to be occupied by Oklahoma City's current roster. Durant is sure to enjoy a bolstered usage rate, up from 29.7% of last year, while his minutes may experience another bump in average, and he is likely to see further decline in the percentage of his baskets that come off teammates' assists - 50.8% in 2012-13, per HoopData.com. Discretely blending efficiency and opportunity will be an ongoing task for the skinny, smooth-shooting swingman, as he experiments with the burdens of further offensive responsibility. NBA.com stats reveal that per 48mins in 2012-13, Durant put up 35.1 points and held a +/- of +11.1, stats that could quite realistically be more symptomatic of his per-game numbers in the approaching season. He ranked second (only to LeBron James) in the PER department, recording a measure of 28.47, also courtesy of HoopData.com. Meanwhile, observers can prepare for a re-allocation of shots and a refreshed distribution, with Durant likely to viciously attack the rim at an unprecedented level, reducing the quantity of perimeter shots, refining the deep ball and weaving a scattered array of destructive outside weapons through his polished play. Openings from 22 to 23 feet are likely to be sparse and unavailable as a result of a subpar supporting cast and a lack of collective creativity and fluidity, hence, Durant's approximate rate of 22% of his shots arriving from the top of the key (behind the line) and on the wings could suffer.
An overview of Durant's shot distribution throughout the 2012-13 regular season, via NBA.com/stats.
Mostly, though, analytical experts and casual fans alike are aware of the vacuum of scoring output in Oklahoma City, one that leaves behind a cavernous divide, needing to be addressed. Don't be shocked if, in Russell Westbrook's vacancy, Durant catches fire in the opening months and gradually nudges the 35 point-per-game mark. Whether or not this can be managed without severely harming his trademark efficiency levels is yet to be seen, however. Oklahoma City fans are craving another Top 3 finish in the West, a feat near-impossible without this kind of heroism from the idiosyncratic Durant. The casual, contented position of reigning champion Miami, and the marked malaise that hovers over Kevin Durant's mindset and OKC's unsettled roster, have the potential to fuel an unholy cocktail of rage and individual brilliance from the perceived inconspicuous, milquetoast All-NBA figure. Kevin Durant is going to put the Western Conference, and the Association, on notice, and claim his inaugural Most Valuable Player award.

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