Sam Smith's NBA Preseason Awards
Sixth Man, MVP, Most Improved: Sam looks across the NBA to pick the winners in each category
The Sixth Man is a glorious tradition in the NBA. It was a primary ingredient of the making of greatest dynasty in NBA history, the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and 1960s. Coach Red Auerbach suggested to one of his best players, Frank Ramsey, the team and he would benefit if Ramsey came off the bench. The Celtics thus would have a starting level talent facing secondary opponents, and then Ramsey would be fresher to close games.
The practice would continue with John Havlicek, who was Celtics' Sixth Man in seasons he was among the league's best players. And then came more championships with Kevin McHale off the bench in his first several seasons with the Celtics.
Sixth Man became such a fundamental part of the NBA that its winner is one of the most honored annually, along with Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved.
Which is why my preseason choice for Sixth Man winner is the Bulls Jabari Parker.
Now if Parker will only go along.
"Just accepting what anybody throws at me," Parker said before practice Sunday about his evolving bench role. "That's more my challenge. Whatever happens, happens. It just shouldn't dictate how I go. It's still improving for me, and I'll get there one day."
That sounded like another "whatever."
Parker clearly has not embraced coming off the bench even in his first season with the Bulls and less than a year after returning from a second ACL surgery. Still, Parker showed his worth in that role with a team highs of 19 points and six rebounds in the closing preseason game Friday, a 98-93 loss to Denver.
The Bulls open their regular season Thursday in Philadelphia. The NBA officially starts Tuesday with a double header featuring potential conference finals matchups of the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers and defending champion Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder.
But Parker as a Sixth Man figures to be one of the most important developments for the Bulls this season, especially if the team hopes to get a good start with Lauri Markkanen out injured until around Thanksgiving and Denzel Valentine questionable for the opener with a sprained ankle.
The Bulls appear to badly need Parker coming off the bench, and Parker, even if he hasn't seemed to welcome the assignment with much enthusiasm, likely will be a better player in that role.
It remains unclear if Valentine will be a starter or reserve once he returns. But after some shaky performances early in preseason, the Bulls starting five functioned best with the group of Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Justin Holiday, Bobby Portis and Wendell Carter Jr. That group was the most active defensively and performed with more of the pace and movement that coach Fred Hoiberg has sought.
Parker seemed to find the fit with that group uncertain, and it was understandable.
Parker clearly plays better with the ball in his hands making plays, a role he dominated in high school and college and was growing into with the Milwaukee Bucks before his double whammy of knee surgeries. Both Dunn and LaVine also like to control the ball, which left Parker wanting, the offense stagnant and the defense porous.
With the second unit, however, Parker has been able to ignite the offense. He's adept at pushing the ball, passing ahead and then finding space for a shot. He helps make the second unit move better. It's proven vital because with the loss of Markkanen and Valentine, the depth that seemed a strength suddenly has become a concerning weakness.
Cameron Payne mostly played poorly in the preseason, and it's possible he eventually is replaced by Ryan Arcidiacono. Also, Antonio Blakeney's shooting has been erratic. Injuries to either Dunn or LaVine would leave the Bulls with a major vacuum in the backcourt. You do not want to see a Payne/Blakeney starting backcourt? It's not also clear where the Bulls believe they are: Development or contention? If it's contention, then you'd say they could use a veteran backup point guard. But useable point guards are difficult to find. The Suns never could find even one, and the GM thus lost his job last week. Someone like Jamal Crawford?
That's where Parker can step in and become a leader of that second unit group and prominent playmaker and Sixth Man. Valentine has that playmaking ability, but he is not as proficient scoring as Parker and not as capable of finishing at the rim.
It's unclear if Robin Lopez as a veteran was just cruising through preseason or doesn't see a role for himself in this era that abhors non scoring centers. Rookie Chandler Hutchison, while competing hard on the defensive end, has been unsure and unsettled offensively at small forward. Bobby Portis had been designated for that bench leader role. But Portis isn't a facilitator and primarily a scorer when he gets the ball. He fits better with the first unit, and Parker seems almost a savior for that second unit with his ball handling and passing.
Now if he only thinks so.
Here's a look at my preseason awards ballot for the 2018-19 season:
- Jabari Parker, Bulls
- Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
- Tyreke Evans, Indiana Pacers
It's a deep category and has become a critical role in the NBA. Future Hall of Famers like Manu Ginobili have been vital to their team's success. Jamal Crawford has made it almost a 20-year NBA career. Toni Kukoc was one of the most important players for three Bulls title teams. Gordon, Crawford and Lou Williams have dominated the voting in recent years. Evans could move into that company this season. Someone from Boston who is very good will have to come off the bench; actually several. Marcus Smart? Jaylen Brown? Terry Rozier? Gordon Hayward? J.J. Redick fits the mold now with Markelle Fultz starting. How about Dirk Nowitzki in what we think is his final season?
Most Valuable Player
- LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
- Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
James hasn't won in six years in a time period when he's been the only player to be in the Finals every season—other than James Jones?—and basically everybody's choice as the best player in the league. I know we like to say planet, but who knows who's in Afghanistan and North Korea. James won four MVPs in five years around Derrick Rose's season and media voters tend to be the most sentimental. They are the ones who like to see every kid on the soccer team get a trophy. So they like to spread the award around. I understand. I did it, also. I didn't vote for Michael Jordan every year even though he basically was that era's version of LeBron from 1990-1998 with a couple of potential baseball most improved in there. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone each got one in a Jordan-is-the-best season, and it wasn't unreasonable given those players were as valuable to their team as Jordan was to his; maybe more so. Kevin Johnson, after all, was no Scottie Pippen. Look, if LeBron also can keep Lonzo Ball's father invisible, as he so far has, that's a special league MVP award, too. It's, as we often are told, not the best player award. It's the most valuable to a sliding scale definition that generally becomes best player on the best team having the best season. Except when someone like Russell Westbrook breaks an unbreakable record. Your team generally has to be top three or four in the conference, which should eliminate Anthony Davis. I don't see a repeat for James Harden with the Carmelo Anthony effect. Teams usually get worse with him. Boston will be good, but with a lot of guys; and perhaps the same for the Warriors, though Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant really should be at least top three. But, you know, we like some variety.
Rookie of the Year
- Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- DeAndre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
- Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
It's a really good rookie class. It appears Wendell Carter Jr. is going to start at center for the Bulls. Though he probably won't have the offensive numbers to rival any of the above. Any of several other rookies likely will be able to make a case, like Jaren Jackson with Memphis, Collin Sexton with Cleveland and Kevin Knox with the Knicks. Doncic has an edge because he's been a pro. There's been a debate about whether players like that should qualify for the award, but it's the NBA rookie award, and he's an NBA rookie. It also helps that the Mavericks did a really good job throwing games last season and then were active in free agency. So they'll be a lot better with DeAndre Jordan and they still have a near All-Star in Harrison Barnes. Doncic should get opportunity and shows a wide ranging, skilled game. Phoenix' Ayton should put up huge numbers for a bad team; same with Young, who was dismissed after two poor summer league games, which is somewhat typical in this era. He's a really good passer who takes some crazy shots. He's not Stephen Curry. Perhaps more the Kings' Jason Williams, who was a rookie of the year runnerup.
Coach of the Year
- Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
- Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
- Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
Talk about your rosters without stars. OK, we sort of think Donovan Mitchell is one, though he wouldn't be able to take that many wild shots if someone else could shoot. The Jazz seem to do just about the most with the least, and this season they look like a top four team in that supposedly strongest conference. The Bucks didn't do that much in personnel, but landing Budenholzer is a huge upgrade. He somehow got 60 wins out of .500 Atlanta talent a few years back and now has a real star. He's one of those coaches who gets players to have a lot going on away from the ball, which was a Spurs specialty. The general consensus these days is Brad Stevens is the top young coach' and Stevens surely is very good. And, sure, Steve Kerr has more talent, which makes you a better coach. But even when things are going badly, Kerr's teams generally win the big final games and Stevens' teams generally lose them. Not an indictment on Stevens, but I'll take Kerr to at least fill out a ballot.
Most Improved Player
- Zach LaVine, Bulls.
- Josh Richardson, Miami Heat/Minnesota Timberwolves
- Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
This is generally the most difficult category to figure because, well, if they improve a lot it's a surprise to us, right? That's why they get the award. It's also a tougher award to define. It shouldn't really go high lottery picks because they were supposed to be good. So if they improve it's just to be back to where they were and were worse than they should have been. It should be more your Jimmy Butler, Aaron Brooks, Monta Ellis, Gilbert Arenas types. But Victor Oladipo made sense after a few trades. Some this season are suggesting Markelle Fultz, who could improve greatly. Of course, he was a No. 1 pick and basically didn't play for why no one is quite sure why. Lauri Markkanen had a chance here until he was hurt, though he was pretty good as a rookie and a high lottery pick. Of course, so was Ingram. So I'm sort of guilty of violating my own preference. Richardson has been rumored to be the main player in the Butler trade talk with Miami. Most believe a deal eventually will occur. If it does, second rounder Richardson could be a big scorer with the Timberwolves. Heck, he looks like he might be with Miami the way he's coming on. But I'll go with the homer pick and LaVine. He should have a big season the way preseason went and with Markkanen out. This award used to be Comeback Player, but the NBA changed it to Most Improved after the 1986 season because many of the winners were players who were coming back from drug clinics. The NBA didn't like the look. Then Alvin Robertson won the first Most Improved, and a few years later he was in prison for assault. Oh, well. It got better after that. LaVine is mostly coming back from injury, but he was widely dismissed last season and the Bulls were even questioned for matching an offer for him. But he seems on the way to an excellent return.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
- Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
- Avery Bradley, Los Angeles Clippers
Nothing personal against the center, but I prefer the guys who you don't want guarding you. Green is both. I really don't see who is close to him in the NBA as a defensive player given Green's ability to defend multiple positions and switch to smaller players. I understand rim protection and all that. Of course, it matters less in a league in which players now pass on layups for contested three pointers. I don't get the fascination for Rudy Gobert. He doesn't move that well and if you go into his body he doesn't even block your shot. Someone like Anthony Davis would be much better for his mobility. Statistics also are misleading on defense since James Harden usually is among the steals leaders and we know all he's stealing on defense is money. Same with Chris Paul, who usually plays defense from behind trying to flick the ball away after he's blown by. LeBron used to get the credit as top defender even though he only did it in spurts to save himself for chase down blocks. Now everyone knows that. Jimmy Butler used to defend, but he's also gone into saving himself for offense mode. Defense too often goes by reputation and first impressions. Both with good and bad defenders. It's difficult to shake the reputation for either no matter what you do now. I left out Kawhi Leonard because who knows what he'll be doing this season: In Toronto, off a season not playing, can't wait to get away from the Spurs, which no one ever says. P.J. Tucker is close. I'm assuming Bradley is healthy again, and Smart is one of those guys who you just hate playing against. But no one does as much as Green.
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