TODAY'S PAPER
82° Good Afternoon
82° Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsSteve Popper

Steve Popper's NBA - and Knicks - end-of-season awards

In averting our eyes from the Knicks' 17-65 player development season, we try to enjoy games between teams trying to win, and saw plenty of amazing performances in the NBA this season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the NBA's

Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to the NBA's best record this season while posting MVP-caliber stats. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

It’s not easy to get a feel for a league-wide award column when you cover the Knicks because: (1) Everyone looks good against the Knicks; (2) the best players often sat out much of the game because their teams were up by 30 points early; and (3) you can start considering bench players from those teams for MVP because they look great against the Knicks, too.

Still, in averting our eyes from the 17-65 player development season, we try to enjoy games between teams trying to win, and saw plenty of amazing performances in the NBA this season. 

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: GIANNIS ANTETOKOUNMPO

Runner-up: James Harden

The new coach has done a great job, and the players around him have flourished and deserve plenty of credit, but no one deserves as much credit for the success of the Milwaukee Bucks as The Greek Freak. He has become a versatile offensive talent, a nearly unstoppable combination of strength, speed and skill around the rim and increasingly useful outside the arc. And he has a good argument to be the defensive player of the year. A complete player on the best team in basketball is worthy of the honor. 

Sure, Harden put up crazy scoring numbers, and that streak of 30-point games was remarkable, but 30-point games took a little hit as we watched Allonzo Trier, Emmanuel Mudiay, Dennis Smith Jr. and Mario Hezonja put them up for the Knicks this season. He carried the Rockets when Chris Paul was sidelined, but it’s still a difficult style to watch — maybe even for his six-seconds-or-less coach, Mike D’Antoni — and it leaves opposing defenders arguing with referees, to no avail, about the legalities of his skill set. 

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: LUKA DONCIC

Runner-up: Trae Young

Perhaps if Young had reversed his season, putting up the crazy second-half numbers he did at the start, it would have made him the winner of this award. Instead, we seek out his flaws — still a slightly-built defensive liability. But he certainly is fun to watch. Still, Doncic did it all season, and if you want an indication of what he is and you’re in New York, all you need to know is that the Mavs are his team, not placing Kristaps Porzingis as the franchise centerpiece.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RUDY GOBERT

Runner-up: Myles Turner

Like the MVP race, perhaps the most interesting part of this is that LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard are not in the running. Gobert remains the most accomplished rim protector. Turner led the NBA in blocks per game this season, and Knicks rookie Mitchell Robinson was second. Gobert’s numbers may diminish because he deters so many as he anchors the Jazz defense.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: LOU WILLIAMS

Runner-up: Domantas Sabonis

Really, no explanation necessary here. As usual, it’s not close. 

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF THE YEAR: PASCAL SIAKAM

Runner-up: D’Angelo Russell

While Leonard never played a back-to-back set of games, resting and easing his way through the season, Siakam emerged as, well, Leonard. He improved almost nightly on offense and continued to be a whirling dervish on defense. Russell became an All-Star two seasons after the Lakers gave up on the former No. 2 overall pick.

COACH OF THE YEAR: DOC RIVERS

Runner-up: (tie) Mike Malone, Kenny Atkinson, Mike Budenholzer

It’s my list, my rules, so yes, I’m going with a three-way tie for second and could make a good argument for any of them to win it. But Rivers did the unthinkable with a team that was on the bubble of the playoffs and then went into what looked like rebuild mode — trading away its best player, along with two veteran rotation pieces, and on most nights putting two or three rookies in the starting lineup. The result? The Clippers surged to 14 games over .500 and the No. 8 seed in the West.

AND THE ANTI-AWARDS

If we didn’t see many award-worthy performances from the Knicks this season, there still were some noteworthy performances:

STRANGEST MOMENT OF THE YEAR

Enes Kanter decides to skip the trip to London in January, declaring, “Sadly, I’m not going because of that freaking lunatic, the Turkish president. There’s a chance that I can get killed out there. So that’s why I talked to the front office. I’m not going. So I’m just going to stay here, just practice here. It’s pretty sad that just all this stuff affects my career and basketball. because I want to be out there helping my team win. But just because of that one lunatic guy, one maniac or dictator, I can’t even go out there and just do my job. So it’s pretty sad.”

QUOTE OF THE YEAR

“I guess, so they don’t have to get a point guard, right? Kyrie, right? Yeah, that’s me now” — Mario Hezonja after putting up a triple-double in his first start at point guard on April 5. Addendum to this: The Knicks were down by 42 at one point in the game.

MOMENT OF THE YEAR

Hezonja heads downcourt on a fast break in the opening minutes at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 2, and as Antetokounmpo chases him down, Hezonja throws down the dunk just in time and Antetokounmpo falls to the court. Hezonja steps over him and prods the Garden fans to get on their feet. This inspired Antetokounmpo’s quote, “Oh, yeah. I’m going to punch him in his [groin] next time.”

DEFENSIVE PLAY OF THE YEAR

It would be easy to give this to Robinson for one of his blocked shots, but the biggest blocked shot belonged — like most things, oddly — to Hezonja. On March 17, Hezonja smothered LeBron James' shot at the buzzer, perhaps summing up James' season for all of us.

QUOTE OF THE YEAR, VERSION II

“What are we going to do, lose more games?” — David Fizdale, when asked if Kanter was becoming a distraction.

QUOTE OF THE YEAR, SOCIAL MEDIA EDITION

“Distant, committed to work, and refusing to react to my desperate cries for attention. Is that you, Dad?” — Luke Kornet's Twitter post of a picture of a Buckingham Palace guard while the Knicks were in London.

QUOTE OF THE YEAR, BREAKUP EDITION

“The city deserves better than that . . . My suggestion for knicks fans is to STAY WOKE!! Peace.” — Kristaps Porzingis’ cryptic message on Instagram after he was traded to Dallas.

BETTER DAYS

The last time the Knicks had luck — well, luck if you don’t believe the conspiracy theories — in the NBA Draft lottery was 1985 when they landed the No. 1 pick and selected Patrick Ewing.

Hoping to recapture some of that magic, the Knicks announced that Ewing will represent the team at the 2019 NBA Draft lottery in Chicago on May 14. 

“Patrick is a huge part of our team’s history and we’re thrilled to have number 33 represent the franchise at this year’s draft lottery,” said Steve Mills, President, New York Knicks.  “Patrick’s connection to the lottery is well documented, and we’re proud to have one of the all-time Knicks greats sit on the dais on behalf of the team, the city and the fans.”

Comments

We're revamping our Comments section. Learn more and share your input.

New York Sports