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NBA sub-MVPs: Tyrese Haliburton, Jalen Brunson, Domantas Sabonis headlining consolation winners


In general, we have the distinctions in place to recognize, in descending order, the best players in the league. We have the top of the food chain, the legitimate MVP candidates. We have the all-NBA guys, who aren’t quite MVP material but are better than just an All-Star. And we have the All-Stars. 

But this season, three guys are standing out to me who don’t exactly fit cleanly into any of these categories. I’m going to call them my sub-MVPs in that their value to their respective teams is up there with just about anyone in the league, but in the same breath it isn’t even a lock that they’re going to make an All-Star team, let alone All-NBA

They are as follows. 

Indiana had to give up a really good player in Domantas Sabonis (who you’re going to be hearing about shortly) to get Haliburton, but what a deal it has already turned out to be. Haliburton should surely be an All-Star, but start running down the guards in the East. It’s not a guarantee. 

Whether he makes it or not, Haliburton’s value to the Pacers, one of the league’s two most surprising teams (along with the Kings), feels much greater than your normal All-Star. This year was supposed to be a wash in Indiana. Instead, they’re just one game back of a top-six seed. 

Indiana operates on tight margins. Only two teams have played in more clutch games (within five points inside the final five minutes), and when Haliburton has been on the floor, they are 15-10 in such contests. We tend to think of the best clutch performers as bucket-getters like DeMar DeRozan, but Haliburton continues to create for his teammates in crunch time; his 18 clutch assists trail only Nikola Jokic and Luka Doncic

Indiana’s hope meter has skyrocketed with Haliburton at the helm. He’s second in the league at 10.2 assists a night. He’s first in total assists, fourth in total steals and 10th in total 3-pointers made. No other player is top 10 in all three categories. You could, in fact, cut Haliburton’s assists all the way down to five per game, and he would still be the only player in the league averaging at least 20 points, five assists and 1.5 steals on at least 39 percent 3-point shooting. Forget about that funky form; this dude is cash. 

Haliburton’s joy factor is off the charts, too. That matters from a vibe standpoint, which bleeds into your on-and-off-floor products. Aaron Nesmith said “this is the most fun I’ve had playing basketball in a very long time,” and why not? Haliburton is a willing wizard; he has to drop more no-look dimes than anyone not named Nikola Jokic. He gets in the air with the ball, which is supposed to be a big no-no, but consistently delivers dishes on time from twisting and turning positions. This is a point guard that guys want to play with. For a small-market/non-free-agent-destination team, that is a big asset come recruitment time, if only for the right role players. 

To me, if Haliburton doesn’t make the All-Star team it will be a joke. I can’t imagine that he won’t. But that distinction alone doesn’t do enough justice to what he’s come to mean to this franchise in such short order. He’s not an MVP candidate. But he’s sitting on top of my sub-MVP list. 

Brunson has turned the Knicks into … wait for it … an absolutely competent basketball team. They don’t often beat themselves. They average the fourth-fewest turnovers and shoot the fourth-most free throws. Brunson is behind both those numbers. His ability to get into the paint (18.9 drives per game, fourth-highest in the league) opens everything up for what had, prior to his arrival, been an arrhythmic New York offense. 

Brunson’s footwork near the rim is elite. Pivots. Spins. Up-and-unders. Fade-aways. No guard in the league has made more shots in the paint than Brunson, who is so patient when he comes to a stop, never sped up, a smaller chip off the Luka Doncic block. He has already registered four 40-point games this season, the same amount he tallied over four years in Dallas. With greater opportunity, it is apparent that Brunson is the single-most valuable player the Knicks have had in a while. 

Everything is so much more organized with Brunson in control. Julius Randle is no longer miscast as a primary initiator, and when deployed properly, you’re seeing how good he can be. There is a dependability about the Knicks, who have the sturdiness of their prized offseason pickup to lean on, particularly down the stretch. Only two players have scored more than Brunson’s 95 clutch points, and he’s converting at over a 55 percent slip in those situations. 

Defense has been at the heart of New York’s recent winning ways, and Brunson doesn’t play much part in that. In fact, statistically, he detracts from the efforts. I don’t care. Brunson is the heartbeat of what feels like a significant Knicks movement, and a starting lineup that, with Quentin Grimes in the fold, is outscoring opponents by 11 points per 100 possession, per Cleaning the Glass. He might not make the All-Star team. Doesn’t matter. His value is worth more than that distinction anyway. 

De’Aaron Fox could easily be the Kings player we highlight here, but I’m going with Sabonis. When the Kings traded for him, they became a real team. Entering play on Saturday, they are No. 4 in the West. That feels crazy to even write. 

Sabonis is a Jokic-lite. His 48.1 front-court touches per game rank third in the league, behind only Jokic and Joel Embiid. He is the hub around which the Kings’ third-ranked offense revolves — dribble-handoffs, screens, high-post passing, pop jumpers, Sabonis is a master of it all. He’s shooting 50 percent between the restricted area and the 3-point line. He’s nearly 40 percent from 3. 

And that’s all before he gets close to the basket, where he’s impossible to deny. Sabonis is making nearly 70 percent of his shots inside five feet. He leads the league in rebounding. He draws a foul on over 20 percent of his shot attempts, same as Embiid, who draws fouls as effectively as anyone in the league. 

This, along with the improved shooting of Fox and the spacing benefits of guys like Kevin Huerter and Keegan Murray, is a big reason why the Kings aren’t just a pace team, but one that ranks third in half-court offense, per CTG. Sabonis is a good bet to make the All-Star team, maybe even a better one than Fox for positional purposes, but he actually should be getting some fringe MVP talk. 

I’m not saying legitimate talk. He’s not in that category. But a name mention here and there, more than just a guy on the All-Star cut line, because, in the context of an organization that hasn’t made the playoffs in 16 years, there aren’t more than a handful of guys who have meant more to their teams this season. 





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