NBA season superlatives: Celtics’ Jayson Tatum, Lakers’ Dwight Howard highlight our alternative awards

Traditional NBA awards tell you only so much about a season, so let’s invent more of them. In 2018-19, I picked alternative winners for each of the major categories; this time, I’ve added 10 additional awards to honor players who won’t get actual hardware. 

Some of these players are legitimate stars, and some of them are role players. All of them stood out if you made League Pass a regular part of your pre-quarantine evenings. 

(Related: Here are CBS Sports’ picks for the real NBA awards, and our All-NBA, All-Defense and All-Rookie picks. And yes, we are aware that the 2019-20 season isn’t officially over.)

Most Improved Player, in-season

It is one thing to arrive in training camp a different player. It is another to make a leap from fringe All-Star to all-around superstar a few months into the season. After establishing himself as a premier defender and shoring up his shot profile, Tatum transformed into the Celtics’ clear-cut No. 1 option, a devastating scorer who understands how to attack within their offensive system and break away from it when necessary.

Runner-up: Russell Westbrook

Most Improved Most Improved Player

It was seen as somewhat of a risk when the Raptors signed Siakam to a four-year, $130 million contract extension in October. Then he started the season on a rampage, hunting the shots that opponents dared him to take mere months earlier. His scoring and usage increased for obvious reasons, but what stands out is the 3-point volume — Siakam shooting six 3s a game and making them at a decent clip is monumental, considering where he started. 

Runner-up: Technically no one, but both Montrezl Harrell and John Collins qualify in spirit

The Shane Battier award for no-stats All-Stardom

If Tucker wasn’t able to make up for his 6-foot-5 stature by being a brick wall, getting his hands in passing lanes and somehow never running out of energy, the Rockets would never have been able to try the whole we-don’t-need-centers thing. Luckily for them, Tucker still hasn’t slipped, even with his 35th birthday coming up. His 8.6 percent usage rate was the lowest of his career, but imagine if there were a stat that captured his activity on the other end. 

Runner-up: Royce O’Neale

The John Salmons award for post-trade production

Beasley gets buckets, and Denver did him a solid by trading him to a team that had a bucket-getting deficiency. All Minnesota needed to give him was playing time and a green light. The result: 20.7 points on 59.1 true shooting in 14 games, a stretch that will make him a much richer man when he signs his next deal. 

Runner-up: Juancho Hernangomez

The Carl Landry award for rookie-season efficiency

I kept thinking it couldn’t be sustainable, but Clarke will go down as one of the most efficient rookies of all time. You’re not supposed to shoot better than 50 percent on floaters and midrange jumpers, nor are you supposed to finish your first season with a 67 percent true shooting percentage if you’re not exclusively dunking. It was a bit rude of him to make all of it look so easy. 

Runner-up: Michael Porter Jr. 

The ‘… but I was playing so well!’ award

Either something clicked for White after the All-Star break or he just happened to be on a massive hot streak. In his last nine games, he averaged 26.2 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds and shot 43.2 percent from deep, a stretch that earned him a spot in the starting lineup. Unfortunately for him, the season shut down a day after his first start.

Runner-up: Collin Sexton

Defensive rookie of the year

Typically, when players look back on their first-year selves, they say they had no idea what was going on defensively. Even those who look the part tend to have trouble adjusting to the speed of the game. Thybulle is different. He has the long arms and the quick feet but he also has the anticipation that allows him to make defensive plays most players wouldn’t even attempt. Sometimes that gets him into trouble, but he’ll figure it out. 

Runner-up: Grant Williams

The Jermaine O’Neal late breakout award

Any team could have had him, and soon several will be bidding against each other to get him. Wood had played productive minutes in the NBA before, but he had never earned a coaching staff’s trust, made 3s consistently or had a featured role. Even this season, he got a few DNP-CDs. The Pistons had a miserable season, but seeing him blossom — first as a reliable reserve, then as something of a star — was a legitimate bright spot. 

Runner-up: Richaun Holmes

The Jeremy Lin award for coming out of nowhere midseason

Let’s say I traveled back in time to October and told you someone would score 39 points on 14-for-20 shooting in a Clippers-Sixers game televised on ABC. How many guesses would it take before you landed on Milton? Brett Brown moved him into the starting lineup in late January out of necessity, and it almost immediately became clear that he needed to play real minutes even if Philadelphia was at full strength. 

Runner-up (tie): Chris Chiozza, John Konchar

The Dennis Rodman in Chicago award for getting back on track

Howard finally did it. He played 19 minutes a game, almost never posted up, stopped messing around with midrange jumpers and became a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Other former stars should take note: Amazing things are possible if you decide you want to be an awesome role player. 

Runner-up: Carmelo Anthony

The ‘look what I did when I was healthy!’ award

Isaac was on his way to an All-Defense berth before a knee injury ended his season on New Year’s Day. He had added the strength he needed without sacrificing the lateral quickness that allows him to defend the perimeter. His upside remains ridiculous, and he’d be so much more hyped if he were on a big-market team. 

Runner-up: Malcolm Brogdon

Alternative MVP

It’s not just that Paul stayed healthy, returned to his normal (i.e. elite) level of efficiency and dominated in crunch time, though he did all those things. It’s that, after landing on a team that is transparently focused on the future, he played as if he were competing for a title. This was not his best individual season, but in a team context it is as impressive as anything he has ever done. Paul elevated a shallow team by creating high-percentage shots, and, crucially, giving the Thunder’s other guards room to operate. 

Alternative MIP

Middleton was already an All-Star, and players making more than $30 million are generally not a part of the MIP discussion. This season, though, Middleton appeared to find his version of basketball nirvana, finding a perfect balance between creating his own offense and taking easy shots generated by the Bucks’ system. Per 36 minutes, he went from averaging 21.2 points to 25.2, and his true shooting percentage jumped from 55.8 percent to 61.9 percent. This happened not in spite of him taking more long 2s than he did last season, but because of it — Middleton knew precisely how to get to his spots, and his coach didn’t stifle him.

Alternative ROY

One of many reasons the Raptors had a better winning percentage than they did in their championship season: Every team is desperate for multipositional players who can shoot, and they found one who went undrafted. Davis wasn’t the most consistent rookie, but he was one of the most efficient, helping Toronto outplay opposing bench units even when it was banged up. 

Alternative DPOY

You can’t pick a duo for a real individual award, but that’s the beauty of fake ones. Tucker and Covington might not even make All-Defense, but their work together should not be ignored. Most of us experienced Houston’s no-center experiment as interesting in a theoretical sense — it was bold, it was risky, it would inspire copycats if it worked, etc. — but in the real world its success hinged on a pair of forwards competing like maniacs every night. Covington somehow turned into a 6-foot-7 Dikembe Mutombo, and when the two shared the court, the Rockets allowed 107.4 points per 100 possessions, the equivalent of a top-six defense. 

Alternative 6MOY

Hill was excellent in last year’s playoffs, but no one saw this coming. At 33, he had by far the most efficient season of his career, going .53/.48/.83, and his per-minute numbers rival his best years in Indiana and his fantastic-but-injury-riddled season in Utah. Sixth Man of the Year usually goes to instant-offense types, but Hill deserves consideration for the real award because of his defensive versatility and the fact he never seemed to miss. 

Alternative COY

Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks 

Not enough has been made of the Mavericks having the BEST OFFENSIVE RATING IN NBA HISTORY. Luka Doncic is the primary reason this happened, but Carlisle deserves credit for letting Doncic run the show and managing the Kristaps Porzingis situation. The latter was a delicate dance, as the Mavericks were asking a 24-year-old to play a supporting role months after he signed a max rookie extension. It’s also worth noting that Dallas’ bench was awesome yet again.

Alternative EOY

David Griffin, New Orleans Pelicans

Griffin won’t win this award, and it’s not as if he should be rewarded for taking over the team that happened to win the draft lottery. The Pelicans’ offseason, however, should be judged in the context of how good they looked when they were healthy: They were seventh in net rating from Zion Williamson’s debut onward, and their weak late-season schedule would have given them a chance to sneak into the playoffs. Brandon Ingram made the leap, Lonzo Ball made a leap and Derrick Favors and JJ Redick tied the room together. The pieces fit, and all those picks they got from the Lakers still look nice. 

Alternative All-NBA first team

No explanations necessary:

(You can make Sabonis a forward and Adebayo a center if you’d prefer. I usually consider them centers, but they both played a ton of minutes next to another big.)

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