The NBA’s coronavirus suspension has put a slate of on-court conversations on hold, including those surrounding the end-of-year awards races. LeBron James was trying to chase down Giannis Antetokounmpo for MVP, while Zion Williamson led a desperate charge at Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year. Both the Most Improved Player and Coach of the Year battles are filled with impressive candidates, with Toronto in position to steal both awards. If the world wasn’t in the midst of a pandemic, the end of the regular season would have provided great drama. A thrilling playoffs awaited.
We could still have a return to play for the 2019-20 season, but if we don’t get any more games, it’s time to hand out some hardware. Let’s dive into some end-of-season honors with The Crossover’s 2019-20 Alternative Awards.
Leap of the Year – Jayson Tatum, Celtics
The third-year forward is unlikely to win Most Improved Player, but Jayson Tatum’s leap for enticing scorer to near-superstar has been one of the key developments of the 2019-20 season. The Celtics stalled out in round two last year as Tatum and Jaylen Brown regressed, and swapping Kyrie Irving for Kemba Walker provided no guarantee of a return to the Eastern Conference finals. But with Tatum ascending to All-NBA status, the Celtics are now arguably the best threat to the Bucks in the East.
Tatum is shooting a hair under 40% from three this season, an impressive number considering his significant increase in attempts. But it isn’t just the percentages that separate this year’s Tatum from the 2018-19 version. Tatum’s free-throw rate has seen a solid uptick in 2019-20. 37.7% of his shot attempts are three pointers, up from 30% last season. The Duke product is an effortless scorer off the bounce, and his mid-range game is elite. There’s no need to eliminate that from his game. But Tatum has found a happy medium between comfort and efficiency.
Walker has been solid, and Brown is continuing an impressive trajectory. Yet at the end of the day, Boston’s hopes ride on Tatum. They’ll need him to play like a superstar to advance to the 2020 Finals. And even if this isn’t the year, Tatum and the Celtics should break through to the Finals early in this decade.
Top Deadline Addition – Robert Covington, Rockets
Daryl Morey received plenty of skepticism two days before the tradeline as he shipped Clint Capela to Atlanta in a four-team deal. The Rockets also dealt a first-round pick, and in return, they received forward Robert Covington. The Timberwolves’ wing is a quality player, but Morey’s move created a puzzling question. By eliminating their lone rotation center, how exactly did the Rockets expect to survive?
Houston quickly answered the bell. The Rockets defeated the Lakers on Feb. 6, then beat the Jazz on Feb. 22. 6’6” forward P.J. Tucker has served as an effective small-ball center, and Covington is a perfect running mate. He’s tallied 35 blocks and 15 steals in 14 games with Houston, wreaking havoc as a makeshift rim protector.
Russell Westbrook is thriving without a center clogging the paint, and Houston is now stocked with switchable wings. The Rockets remain imperfect, but if play returns, they remain a scary team to face in the Western Conference playoffs. Covington could be the deadline addition that swings a playoff series.
Reclamation Project of the Year – Dwight Howard, Lakers
Perhaps the derision that came with the Lakers’ re-addition of Dwight was unfair, especially considering his solid production in his last healthy season in 2017-18. Still, after four teams in four years and too many ugly exits to count, expecting Howard to be a quality contributor on a winning team originally registered as wishful thinking. But Howard has defied the critics this season. He’s thriving as the big man in Los Angeles’ bench mob, and as the Lakers cruised to a 49–14 record, Howard emerged as the feel-good story of the season.
And Howard is more than a nice story in 2019-20. He’s emerged as a legitimately impactful bench piece. Howard still pulls down 13.8 rebounds per 36 minutes, and Los Angeles is 6.8 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2019-20. Howard has an impressive pick-and-roll chemistry with LeBron James, and he remains a powerful finisher, albeit without a superhuman vertical. Howard snagging his first ring as LeBron wins his first title in Los Angeles could be a storybook ending to a tumultuous 2019-20 season.
Persistent Old Man Honor – Carmelo Anthony, Blazers
Carmelo Anthony could have won the previous award, but his story differs from Howard for one key reason: he wasn’t in the league on opening night. Anthony’s season is a story of persistence, one in which he almost left the game, but remained ready in the hopes of one final opportunity. The Blazers were hit by a slate of injuries and gave Anthony that chance in mid-November. The 10-time All-Star has largely delivered.
Anthony hasn’t been an All-Star by any standards in Portland. He’s shooting under 43% from the field, and Portland is just 0.3 points per 100 possessions better with Anthony on the floor. But the middling metrics don’t quite match the eye test. Anthony has looked downright spry for stretches this season, sporting a solid 37.1% mark from three while attacking isolations with a similar verve to his lone year in Oklahoma City. Anthony is imperfect, yet still effective. Let’s hope to see him run it back again in 2020-21, either in Portland or a new location.
Skeptic Beater Award – Russell Westbrook, Rockets
The Rockets may be relative longshots for the Larry O’Brien trophy, but they’ll exit our alternative awards ceremony with two pieces of hardware. Russell Westbrook joined Houston in July behind a wave of detractors, many of whom claimed the days of All-NBA Westbrook were a thing of the past. With seemingly-zapped athleticism and a broken jumper, Westbrook was looked at as more of a shaky sidekick than a co-MVP. Westbrook has turned back the clock of late.
Westbrook’s critics appeared to be vindicated early in the season. Westbrook and the Rockets failed to punish opponents from double-teaming James Harden, and Westbrook’s three-point volume remained far too high for his shoddy percentages. Perhaps swapping Chris Paul for Westbrook didn’t raise Houston’s ceiling at all.
But the turn to 2020 appears to have swung Houston’s season. Westbrook thrived as Capela faded from the lineup, with the dynamic point guard now free to attack the rim at will. The recent numbers are reminiscent of MVP Westbrook. He’s averaging 31.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game in 27 contests since Jan. 1, and Westbrook is shooting 52.7% from the field.
The 2016-17 MVP is playing some of the most efficient basketball of his career. Houston is back in the Finals conversation because of it.