The NBA loves to hand out awards. The league has given out at least one award or honour to 38 different players for the 2019-20 season, doing a fantastic job of recognizing the game's greats for their regular-season accomplishments.
This is not a criticism of that.
Instead, I am arguing the league goes a step further by establishing an All-Playoff team. Considering all the ways the NBA goes above and beyond in honouring the regular season, it's rather remarkable there is just one individual postseason award: Finals MVP.
There is nothing wrong with Finals MVP, it is just inherently limiting. The award has been handed out 52 times in league history and not since Jerry West's inaugural win in 1969 has it gone to a player on the losing team. It's designed that way, but limiting recognition to just a single player lends itself to short memories and for incredible, honour-worthy performances getting lost to history.
Andre Iguodala, Cedric Maxwell and Chauncey Billups will be remembered forever because they are Finals MVPs but many equally incredible performances will slowly be forgotten as we have no capacity to officially recognize them.
This is not intended as a criticism of those players, nor one of LeBron James. His performance in these Finals was one of the greatest of his career. The voting was unanimous and deservedly so. LeBron earned Finals MVP, but recognizing the other stars of these playoffs in a different capacity by no means diminishes his accomplishments.
Many performances in the Bubble are worthy of individual recognition. We can see parallels between what they accomplished this season and with many players throughout NBA history. These playoff performances come in many forms but generally fall into these three distinct categories.
A Round Too Early Superstars
The most commonly forgotten playoff performances are from players whose incredible runs fell short in the Conference Finals. Players like Kevin Durant in 2014, Chris Webber in 2002 or Reggie Miller in 1995. While Durant's Thunder fell two wins shy of an NBA Finals appearance, Webber and Miller's teams would fall in seven games.
This year provided two perfect additions to this category. Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic had legendary playoff runs, the Nuggets just happened to be in the same conference as the Lakers.
Murray was the Bubble's best scorer and its most exciting player. It's difficult to describe his play without resorting to hyperbole but it was worthy of all the praise you could give it. He scored 50, 42 and 50 points in back-to-back-to-back games, the latter two to stave off elimination.
He and the Nuggets came back from 3-1 deficits twice and overcame adversity like few teams we've ever seen. No player changed their public perception in the Bubble more than Murray. He entered the Bubble an indisputably talented, though largely unproven, prospect and left it a star.
Jokic, on the other hand, was already a superstar. We knew he was one of the game's greats, but his dominance against the Jazz and Clippers cemented his reputation.
In Denver's seven elimination games, Jokic averaged 25.0 points, 11.6 rebounds and 6.7 assists - all on a 61.2 eFG%. Murray was the star in Denver's comeback against Utah, but Jokic was undeniably the hero against Los Angeles. He dismantled the vaunted Clipper defence, dissecting the title favourites while cementing his place as the best passing centre in league history.
Murray and Jokic have been home for weeks but that doesn't mean we should forget all they accomplished in these playoffs. Success isn't championship-dependent and Denver's stars deserve to be recognized for their performances.
Across the Court From a Title
This category is for players who valiantly led their team to the Finals, only to fall to a juggernaut. This is Allen Iverson in 2001, LeBron James in both 2015 and 2018 or Karl Malone in 1997.
The candidates from this season are clear. He may not be the first name that came to mind, but Bam Adebayo deserves mention.
The Heat would never have gotten to the Finals without Adebayo. He was Miami's key to stifling Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. He was the best player in the Eastern Conference Finals and pushed Miami across the finish line with a 32-point double-double in Game 6. The story of the Heat's incredible run would be incomplete without mentioning him, but the headline for this team will always be Jimmy Butler.
There were times when Butler wasn't in the spotlight for this team. That's how they thrived. Adebayo, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson and Jae Crowder all had nights when they were the star because, in many ways, this team was built to be star-less. Even as the spotlight frequently shifted to his teammates, though, Butler was always the unquestioned leader.
His performances in Games 3 and 5 will be eternal. 40 points, 11 rebounds and 13 assists in Game 3 gave Miami life in the Finals without Adebayo or Dragic. His second act of 35, 12 and 11 plus five steals as Miami faced elimination was even more historic. It felt like Butler was never going to let the Heat lose, even as it became overwhelmingly clear they were going to.
The parallels between Butler, Iverson and LeBron are clear. All three willed their teams to the Finals, stole a game or two with magnificent performances and were ultimately overwhelmed by a deeper, more talented team. The ending certainly doesn't diminish what Butler did in these playoffs and his play is undoubtedly worthy of recognition.
A Title's Second Superstar
The final example might be the clearest: superstars who won a ring but were overshadowed by a teammate. Think Steph Curry, Scottie Pippen or David Robinson. Think Kobe Bryant from 2000 to 2002 or Pau Gasol in 2009-10. Each and every one of them a Hall of Famer but none received an individual playoff honour.
No player more clearly exemplifies this than Anthony Davis.
Davis would be the unanimous Defensive Player of the Playoffs if that award existed. He was the most dominant interior playoff defender we've seen in years, altering nearly every shot when he was on the floor. You have to go back to a different era of basketball, one before the 3-point renaissance, to find an appropriate comparison to how dominant Davis was as a big man in these playoffs.
His offence came and went but there is no denying his overall dominance. He averaged 28.3 points for the playoffs on 57.8 percent shooting. When he decided to be aggressive, he was unstoppable. He got to the line 8.5 times per game in these playoffs and knocked down 83.2 percent.
Following in the footsteps of Curry, Pippen and Robinson, Davis had a legitimate case for Finals MVP but there was no surpassing James. He may have been the best overall player in these playoffs but the award only takes the final series into account. Davis will have a ring forever, but his individual performance in these playoffs merits an individual honour.
The list of players worth recognizing from these playoffs is long, longer even than the players mentioned here. Cutting the list down to five is brutal but, if the issue is that too many players are worth honouring, that's hardly a problem at all. These players deserve official recognition for what they accomplished in the playoffs, and it's time the NBA creates a way to do so.
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