NEW ORLEANS — With the regular season ending — even if it seemed to end for many players and teams about a week ago when load management and fueling reached ridiculous levels — it’s finally time to make awards decisions. It’s a debate that seemed to start about five months ago. Remember when Jayson Tatum and Luka Doncic were clear favorites for those looking to debate the Most Valuable Player award after 10 games of the season?
I am happy to report that this is not a season where I received a ballot for the awards – to avoid the possibility of fans in Philadelphia, Denver or Milwaukee staging protests upon my arrival if I am at didn’t vote for her in the MVP vote.
So before I share my picks for the NBA awards season, a quick introduction to something closer to home — the players who earned honors in a Knicks-only vote.
Most Valuable Player: Even after ending the season with a sprained ankle, Julius Randle remains ranked 9th on NBA.com’s MVP ladder, and there’s certainly a case for him. But there’s no player who has placed more emphasis on turning the tide of the Knicks than Jalen Brunson. He came up with numbers, but it’s what he’s done for the culture of the organization that has really shown his value. The choice: Jalen Brunson.
Most Improved Player: Brunson was mentioned in league-wide polls for this award — maybe just to give him something for what he’s done. But he already reached that level last season. To see a real change, look at Immanuel Quickley and not his 40-point performance or his goalscoring, but the change on the defensive end. He became a stopper in a way he hadn’t come close to last season. The choice: Immanuel Quickley.
Defender of the Year: It’s actually a tough question because every time he’s absent, the Knicks see the importance of Mitchell Robinson as an anchor in their defense. But in his first full season as a starter, Quentin Grimes takes on the task of guarding the best perimeter threat each night — whether it’s a quick, undersized point guard or a dangerous 6-8 wing, Grimes has taken it upon himself. The choice: Quentin Grimes.
The NBA Awards:
MVP: I’m glad I’m not on the official ballot, but I’m not basing this pick on Joel Embiid sitting against Denver or a head-to-head game. The fact of the matter is that three players have MVP-worthy seasons, and if you have to pick one, I’ll go with whoever has a historic season on a first-place team – and is clearly taking their team there. The choice: Nikola Jokic from Denver.
MIP: Brunson will certainly be considered, if for no other reason than the idea that he should win something for what he did in New York this season. But he already made a big step forward last season and his game has been a continuation of rising numbers thanks to increased minutes and usage (21.9% last season to 27.1% this season). Lauri Markkanen may have made the biggest leap, but we’ll still give it to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who not only upped his game but his team, bringing a team that looked like a year away into the final days of the season keep an eye on a play-in spot. The choice: Gilgeous-Alexander.
sixth man: If you had told me a year ago that I would argue Immanuel Quickley’s case on the basis of his defense. . . but here we are. Quickley has always been a spark on offense and provided instant energy, but he’s become an invaluable rotation piece because when he’s on the ground, the Knicks are over 10 points a game better defensively. Malcolm Brogdon could win that honor and he’s been great for the Celtics, but Quickley’s leap this season made a much bigger difference to his team. The choice: Quickly.
Coach of the Year: It could be argued that Tom Thibodeau has done a better job this season than he did two years ago when he took a mediocre group to 4th place, keeping his team focused and ready every night through COVID-19. With rumors putting him in the hot seat early on, he did it his way, benching rotational pieces, shortening rotation and transforming the Knicks into a two-way unit that combines a hard-nosed defense with a relatively quick offense – and developed young players even though the critics wrongly begged for more minutes for Cam Reddish or Obi Toppin. Still, this time I’d put him in second place behind a coach who has turned an all-time lottery team into one of the best teams in the league. The choice: Mike Brown from Sacramento.
Beginner of the Year: Paolo Banchero, Orlando. Doesn’t really need an explanation. OKC’s Jalen Williams and Utah’s Walker Kessler in second and third.
Defender of the Year: It’s difficult to pick this one, especially since the best defender has missed a month and plays under 30 minutes a game – but he’s been so dominant it’s difficult to keep Jaren Jackson Jr. from top spot. Brook Lopez was solid but he also has Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jrue Holiday at his side. And it’s weird that Draymond Green has only picked up that honor once and still holds the Golden State’s defense together. The selection: Jaren Jackson Jr.
Five years ago, the NBA fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban $600,000 for admitting the team was tanking. It’s probably a good bet that Cuban will once again donate to NBA charities after the team — while still living for a playoff spot — shut down much of its roster and made a very ugly attempt to get out of the last play- in place to get out in the lottery. There they could hope not to have to give up their first-round selection to the Knicks.
NBA spokesman Mike Bass issued a statement Saturday, stating, “The NBA today opened an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding the Dallas Mavericks’ roster decisions and gameplay in relation to Friday night’s Chicago Bulls-Mavericks game initiated, including the motivation for these actions. ”
The Mavericks captured the tenth-worst record with their effort alone – I use the term loosely – in the home loss to Chicago by knocking out Luka Doncic in the first minute of the second quarter on Slovenian night. They could still fall off that pitch today with a win against San Antonio, which they seem to be doing everything they can to avoid.
Still, there is some justice if the Knicks miss a chance to snag the Dallas Mavericks’ first-round pick this summer.
Think of it this way — the Knicks got the pick when they dished out Kristaps Porzingis and completed a tank of their own to make room for the cap to hunt down free agents like Kevin Durant. And yes, Kyrie Irving.
The Knicks still have a shot at picking the pick, though the Mavs are fielding a pickup team at the track to try and hold on to the pick. But even with the 10th place, the election is only completed in the lottery. There’s a chance one of the teams behind the Mavs could jump into the top three in the lottery — talkathon.com estimates the chance of Dallas dropping out of the top 10 is 20.2%.
Randle was on track to play in all 82 games this season and in a battle for total minutes played in the NBA when he sprained an ankle with five games to go, highlighting just how tough it is today is to play every game. But the Knicks will have one player who does when they finish the regular season, and perhaps an unlikely one — Isaiah Hartenstein.
After Hartenstein joined the Knicks as a free agent, he struggled with Achilles issues early in the season, which also limited his game – opening him to the possibility of a DNP coach decision. But he managed to find his way to the finish for the first time in his career.
“I just kept pushing through and doing the little things to help your body,” Hartenstein said. “I think our staff have done a really good job of making sure I’m on the right track. … I have a lot of props to give to the training staff, they did a great job of making sure I did the right thing to rebuild the hamstring and play 82 games now. It’s something special. I also have to thank everyone around you, the coaches, the strength coaches, making sure my body can handle it.”
“I just think reliability is such a big part of this league,” said Thibodeau. “You want to be able to rely on people and I think that’s important for the team to grow. Julius would have been there if he had.” “I don’t get a sprained ankle and there’s nothing you can do about it. Injuries are part of it. But it says a lot when someone does that.”
Steve Popper covers the Knicks for Newsday. He’s spent nearly three decades covering the Knicks and the NBA, along with pretty much every sports team in the New York area.