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NBA PM: A Season Of Career-Years

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As the regular season winds down, the debate over regular season awards heats up. These discussions draw together members of the media, casual and hardcore NBA fans and even the players themselves. In some years, certain players will be viewed as the consensus choice for a specific award and there won’t be much discussion or debate. This season, there is no clear favorite for several awards, including Most Valuable Player, potentially Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year.

This year, several players are having a career-year based on statistics and overall impact. While many candidates for the major awards are earning praise and attention as part of the collective debate, there are many more players having career years that are not getting enough attention. Here, we will look beyond the lead candidates for these awards to recognize a few other players who are having impressive seasons, which may go unrecognized when the regular season awards are handed out.

Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz

In a number of ways, this has been a spectacular year for the Utah Jazz. The team has not made it to the postseason since 2011-12 and is now settled into a first-round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers. If not for a recent loss to the Portland Trail Blazers, the Jazz would still be in possession of the fourth seed and home court advantage. Home court or not, Utah is thrilled to return to the postseason despite being plagued by injuries all season. Starting power forward Derrick Favors and starting point guard George Hill have missed significant time this season (31 and 33 games respectively) due to various injuries.

In their periodic absence, forward Gordon Hayward has stepped up and is having a career-year. Hayward was rewarded earlier this season by being named as a first-time All-Star. Hayward has maintained his excellent play since All-Star Weekend and has been a key contributor for Utah.

In 72 games, per Basketball-Reference, Hayward is averaging career highs in points (22), rebounds (5.4), free throw percentage (84.4) and is posting overall strong shooting numbers, including a career-high true shooting percentage (57.8). Hayward has been able to reach many of these career highs (and more) by being the featured player on offense with a career-high usage rate (27.7 percent) and a career-low turnover percentage (9.4). Simply put, Utah’s offense revolves around Hayward more so than in past seasons, which plays a major role in Utah’s excellent play this season.

In addition, Hayward is setting new personal bests in advanced statistics such as value over replacement player (VORP), box plus-minus (BPM), win shares (WS) and player efficiency rating (PER). Of course, these advanced statistics can’t be solely relied on to show how effective Hayward has been this season, but they in effect confirm what is apparent to anyone who has watched Hayward play this season.

One area where Hayward has thrived is in the pick-and-roll (P&R). As the P&R ballhandler, amongst qualifying players, Hayward is scoring .98 points per possession (11th in the league), which places him ahead of P&R maestros like Clippers point guard Chris Paul and Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving. In addition, Hayward has maintained a 49.1 effective shooting percentage in P&R play (top 25 in the league).

Hayward is having a career-year for Utah at the right time. The roster has grown and developed together for a few seasons, several players are in or just hitting their respective prime years and the team now has some veterans to stabilize the team in high-pressure situations. Hayward has been great all season for Utah and now has a chance to show off his play in the postseason against the Clippers.

John Wall – Washington Wizards

John Wall and guard Bradley Beal (discussed below) are at the forefront of the Washington Wizards’ success this season. The team is in position to potentially make a run in the playoffs as they are the fourth seed and are set to play at home against the erratic Atlanta Hawks in the first-round.

Wall, currently in his seventh NBA season, is having a career-year and has been at the center of Washington’s success this season. Wall is averaging a career-high in points (23.1), steals (2.1), assists (10.7), free throws and free throws attempted, field goal percentage and PER (23.2).

In addition, Wall’s usage percentage (30.6) and his assist percentage (46.9) are career-highs while his turnover percentage (16.2) is the second-lowest of his career. Essentially, Washington’s offense runs through him more now than in past seasons and he accounts for nearly half of all assists to his teammates while he is on the floor (while limiting his turnovers). Quite an accomplishment.

Digging deeper, Wall is experiencing career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS. Simply put, Wall has been better than ever this season.

Wall credits head coach Scott Brooks with helping him improve this season.

“[Brooks is] like, ‘With your speed you settle for too many jump shots – you can get past people, you need to attack a little bit more,’” Wall explained.

This season, Wall has thrived by attacking the rim and passing on mid-range jump shots. With speed, athleticism and great body control, Wall is utilizing his best assets while passing on less efficient shots, which is paying off in a big way for Washington.

Wall has always been one of the fastest players in the league and is now exploiting that more often and more effectively than in past seasons. Amongst qualified players, Wall is ranked ninth in transition frequency (22.4 percent) while maintaining a 60.3 effective field goal percentage. Wall is a one-man fastbreak and is consistently generating easy scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Wall isn’t a candidate for any major award this season, but he deserves recognition for having a career-year and more importantly leading Washington to the playoffs.

Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards

Like Wall, Bradley Beal is having a career-year and has been crucial to Washington’s success. Coming into this season, Beal had yet to sufficiently answer two crucial questions that have plagued him for years. After averaging 62 games a year due to injuries, could he stay healthy? Earlier this season, Beal acknowledged that issue had bothered him.

“You want to be that guy that shows up each and every night, regardless of what ailments you may have,” Beal stated.

Also, after rumors of discord between the pair, could Beal and Wall co-exist successfully? In his fifth year, Beal has been able to answer the above questions with a resounding yes.

Wall set the record straight earlier this season and recently addressed the on-court relationship with Beal.

“I normally have the ball. I’m going to get my shot whenever I want to. But my job is to get him going. That’s where we are a better team,” Wall said.

In a career-high 76 games this season, Beal is averaging a career-high in scoring (23), assists (3.5), free throw shooting (82.2 percent), effective (56.4) and true shooting (60.2) percentage, three-point shooting, as well as minutes per game (34.9). Like Wall, Beal’s usage percentage (26.4) is at a career-high, as well as his assist percentage (16.1), PER (19.9) and he is maintaining a near career-low turnover percentage (9.7).

Simply put, Beal is playing more games, more minutes per game and has still been more efficient. In addition, he has career-highs in VORP, BPM and WS (8.2, doubling his previous high of 4). Basic and advanced statistics indicate this is his finest campaign yet.

One of the biggest improvements for Beal has come from his shot selection. Wizards fans will recall that Beal would often pass up open three-point shots inexplicably. Not anymore. This season, 41.9 percent of Beal’s shots are coming from three-point range (by far a career-high) and his three-point percentage (40.6) is essentially tied with his prior best marks. Cut out the low-percentage mid-range floaters and replace them with high-percentage three-pointers and this is what can happen for a player like Beal.

Like Wall, Beal does a lot of his damage on the fast break. However, unlike Wall, Beal doesn’t thrive on volume but is instead much more efficient in fewer opportunities. With a lower transition frequency (17.5 percent, compared to 22.1 percent for Wall), Beal scores 1.33 points per possession in transition, good for fifth in the league amongst qualifying players, and shoots a higher effective field goal percentage (68.7 to Wall’s 60.3). With both guards attacking in transition, Washington features a dangerous transition game that can be difficult for any opponent to deal with.

This has been a breakout season for Beal. Injuries haven’t been an issue and he has tailored his game in such a way that makes him even more effective for Washington than he has been in previous seasons.

Isaiah Thomas – Boston Celtics

Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas is the unquestioned leader and best overall player for Boston. Until a few months ago, his name had even been in the discussion of potential MVP candidates. Although arguably no longer the case, we should recognize how tremendous Thomas has been this season.

Celtics general manager Danny Ainge, who is seemingly always stockpiling assets, has long sought to acquire a superstar to lead Boston. Although the search goes on, Thomas has emerged as a homegrown superstar for the Celtics this season.

Thomas has achieved a dramatic increase in scoring (a career-high 29.2, up from 22.2 last season). He is also posting career-highs in free throw shooting (90.9 percent), effective (54.8) and true shooting percentages (62.7) and a near career-high in assists. Thomas is sporting an incredibly high 34 percent usage rate while maintaining nearly a career-high in assist percentage (32.5) and a career low in turnover percentage (10.6). Finally, Thomas has hit career benchmarks in VORP, BPM and WS.

Thomas has been very good individually and is a principal reason that the Celtics hold second-place in the Eastern Conference. Thomas has been able to achieve many of the above results by playing as efficiently as possible by attacking the rim and hitting three-point shots.

What has also set Thomas apart has been his incredible play in fourth quarters. Earlier this season, his clutch scoring earned him the Game of Thrones inspired nickname, “The King in the Fourth.”  As of April 10, Thomas is averaging 9.8 points in fourth quarters, second only to Oklahoma City Thunder guard and MVP candidate Russell Westbrook.

Thomas has been able to hit this level of success despite his diminutive size (5-foot-9) and despite opposing defenses focusing their attention on him (without much success).

Jimmy Butler – Chicago Bulls

The Chicago Bulls are teetering on the edge of playoff success or doom. After a loss on April 9 to the New Jersey Nets, the Bulls are tied for the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Bulls’ management has been criticized for failing to properly surround Jimmy Butler with players that compliment his skill set. Specifically, the Bulls added ball-dominant veteran guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, as well as recently trading away three-point threat Doug McDermott. With little spacing and erratic play from several players throughout the season, Chicago has failed to maximize Butler’s considerable talent.

Despite the mismanagement, Butler is averaging a career-high in points (24), assists (5.5), rebounds (6.2), free throw shooting (including a career-high 86.4 percent) while maintaining a near career-high shooting percentage from the field and a career-high true shooting percentage (56.6). Butler has done this with career highs in usage percentage (26.6), assist percentage (25.1) and his third lowest turnover percentage (9.4). Additionally, Butler is posting career-best marks in VORP, BPM, WS and PER.

Butler is dominating the ball while scoring efficiently, making plays for others and keeping his turnovers down. In a season where he has been surrounded by overlapping talent, been involved in locker room drama and been the subject of significant trade rumors, Butler has managed to carry his team and post career-high marks in several statistical categories.

C.J. McCollum – Portland Trail Blazers

Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum forms the second half of another brilliant backcourt pairing. Like Wall and Beal, Damian Lillard and McCollum are the collective engine that makes their respective team run. Behind Lillard, and the career-year of McCollum, the Trail Blazers recently clinched the final playoff spot in the West and are set for a rematch against the Golden State Warriors as the eighth seed. The spotlight tends to shine brightest on Lillard, who has posted several great seasons. With this in mind, let’s focus on McCollum’s career-year.

McCollum’s most successful campaign is marked by career-highs in points (23), blocks, rebounds, free throw shooting, both effective (54.4) and true shooting (58.5) percentage, three-point shooting (42 percent), as well as minutes per game (35). Like the players above, McCollum is posting a career-high in usage (27.5 percent) while achieving his lowest turnover percentage to date (9.9). He is both scoring and serving as a secondary ball-handler, which is a nice luxury for Portland. Finally, his PER (19.9), VORP, BPM and WS ratings are all at career-highs.

Overlooked in this career-year is how effective McCollum’s scoring has been in the fourth quarter. In fourth quarters, McCollum is shooting 41.7 percent from three-point range and has a 54 percent effective field goal rate, both of which outpaces Lillard comparatively. Again, Lillard is the face of the Trail Blazers, but McCollum is arguably just as important to the team’s overall success – especially this season.

*****

Honorable Mentions include Lillard, Miami HEAT center Hassan Whiteside, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan and Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol.

Players purposely omitted since they are leading candidates for the major regular season awards include: James Harden, Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green.

 

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About James Blancarte

James Blancarte

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.