Award season is here! Here’s what my ballot for every major end-of-season award would look like, if I had a vote.
Most Valuable Player
1. James Harden
2. LeBron James
3. Kawhi Leonard
4. Russell Westbrook
5. Isaiah Thomas
It can’t be stressed enough, but we’re splitting hairs among the top four. All are worthy of winning the league’s most important award, and the pros and cons for each candidate have been dissected ad nauseum over the past couple months.
I guess I’ll start by saying Westbrook is having one of the most memorable individual seasons in a long time. There are times when he looks like a NASCAR car circling five tricycles. He leads the league in scoring, assist rate, usage percentage (the highest in league history) and PER. His defensive rebound rate is 10 points higher than it was last year and, not to bury the lede, but he set an NBA record for most triple-doubles in one season.
But all that comes with a cost. Not only is Westbrook inefficient, but his team’s offense doesn’t even rank in the top 10 when he’s on the floor. And a huge part of any player’s value is their ability to make teammates better. Westbrook tallies assists, but key parts of Oklahoma City’s future (like Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo) have shown little progress in part because Westbrook absorbs all the sunlight; it’s hard to develop on a team when one player is responsible for nearly 40 percent of his team’s shots and points.
Meanwhile, Harden is a catalyst for one of the best offensive seasons in NBA history. He leads the league in Win Shares and visibly makes life easier for teammates who, admittedly, complement his strengths like few others can. Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player alive on a 61-win team and LeBron James is LeBron James. Yes, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving are his teammates, but those two combined for zero playoff appearances before they became his teammate.
Leonard, Harden and LeBron all lead a serious championship contender. That’s not Westbrook’s fault, but how valuable can one player be if his team isn’t favored to win a playoff series?
Rookie of the Year
1. Dario Saric
2. Malcolm Brogdon
3. Joel Embiid
4. Buddy Hield
5. Jamal Murray
Ben Simmons’ broken foot submarined a rookie class many expected to be terrible — and it was terrible. But these five provided some genuinely enjoyable moments.
Most Improved Player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Isaiah Thomas
3. Rudy Gobert
4. Jimmy Butler
5. Otto Porter
In my humble opinion, this award isn’t for rookies who make a natural leap forward in their second year. It’s for veterans who boost their game with notable improvement, or expand their skillset in a larger role.
Giannis finished third last year, when his PER increased by four points and his True Shooting percentage went from 55.2 to 56.6. He wasn’t good enough to play in the All-Star game, lead his team to the playoffs or sniff an All-NBA team.
This year, his PER and True Shooting percentage are 26.2 and 60.1, respectively. Milwaukee’s clinched a playoff spot and he’s virtually guaranteed a spot on the second or third All-NBA team. In short, Antetokounmpo went from a top-75 player to borderline top-10.
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Eric Gordon
2. Andre Iguodala
3. Patty Mills
4. Greg Monroe
5. James Johnson
Apologies to Lou Williams — who may actually win this thing — and Enes Kanter, but defense matters; those two aren’t just bad, they’re total liabilities. Gordon is the shot-creating three-point marksmen who’s complemented Harden all year long.
Iguodala and Mills rank second and third in net rating among all bench players who’ve appeared in at least 60 games. It’s impossible at this point to disentangle their individual success from their respective organization’s altruistic culture. Both are 99 percent awesome basketball player, 1 percent mascot.
Both impact the game without scoring/needing the ball in their hands. Both play defense. Both are great teammates and removing them from the rotation would result in a miniature Jenga collapse.
Monroe has quietly been the most consistent Milwaukee Buck outside of Giannis, and deserves credit for transitioning to the bench in a reduced role that allows him to be successful in a league that’s rapidly wiping out his species.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Draymond Green
2. Rudy Gobert
3. Andre Roberson
4. Kawhi Leonard
5. DeAndre Jordan
There’s a universe where Green is a two-time defending Defensive Player of the Year. He finished second the past two years, and actually received more first-place votes than Leonard in 2015.
This year it’s all him. Green isn’t only the best all-around defender in the NBA, he’s almost single-handedly transcended how valuable versatility can be. He can switch onto all five positions, rebound and protect the rim. Among all players who average at least 20 minutes and have appeared in 60 or more games, nobody has a lower defensive rating than Green’s 99.3.
Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes are no longer around, and Kevin Durant missed about 20 games with a leg injury, yet Golden State’s defense never stopped being a brick wall thanks to Green’s chameleonic tendencies.
These past three years have established him as one of the greatest help defenders in NBA history, a brilliant swivel from the weak side who’s always in the right place at the right time. He gets his hands on so many passes, and getting all the way to the basket when he’s in position to rotate over and make a play almost never works out well for the ball-handler.
But choosing Green wasn’t easy. Gobert is the best rim protector in the NBA and the Utah Jazz play like the league’s best defense when he’s out there as an anchor. He also ranks first in Defensive Real Plus-Minus (Green is second).
Roberson has spent more minutes-and done a better job-guarding the opposing team’s top scoring option than anyone else. Even Leonard strays off certain marquee assignments for rest while Danny Green gets the nod every once in awhile. That doesn’t mean Leonard isn’t great, because he could easily win this award three years in a row and nobody could complain.
Coach of the Year
1. Mike D’Antoni
2. Erik Spoelstra
3. Gregg Popovich
4. Brad Stevens
5. Scott Brooks
Even though Houston’s personnel was perfectly designed to fit his system, D’Antoni gets the nod for successfully implementing it without any hiccups. The Rockets maxed out Harden’s ability, and found perfect roles for Gordon, Anderson, Clint Capela and just about everybody else.
(Also, for a team everyone expected to finish near the bottom in defense, Houston is about league average on that side of the ball. Much credit belongs to D’Antoni’s assistant, Jeff Bzdelik, there.)
Spoelstra would win if the Heat were a lock to make the postseason, but awkward stumbles down the stretch and an inability to overcome Dion Waiters’ ankle injury hurt him. Popovich is a legend. Stevens’ steered a team with one 5’9″ All-Star to (possibly) the best record in the Eastern Conference. Brooks turned things around after an abysmal start to the season.
All-NBA: First team
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: James Harden
Forward: LeBron James
Forward: Kawhi Leonard
Center: Anthony Davis
This team is fairly obvious, with the possible argument that Davis belongs at forward instead of center. According to Basketball-Reference, Davis spent 95 percent of his rookie year at power forward. That number dropped to 36 percent this season. He’s a face-up big with guard skills and a smooth jumper, qualities that normally wouldn’t align with a five, but in 2017 a center can be whatever you want it to.
Davis is averaging 28 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game. Nobody’s made more shots inside the three-point line this season and he’s the first player his size to post a usage rate above 30 and turnover percentage below 10 (in at least 2500 minutes). He’s a phenom, even though he plays for a sullied organization that can’t get out of its own way.
Guard: Steph Curry
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Forward: Kevin Durant
Center: Karl-Anthony Towns
If not for Westbrook’s savage journey to average a triple-double, Thomas’ transformation into fourth-quarter atom bomb would be the most significant storyline of the 2016-17 season. Opposing teams threw kitchen sinks at Thomas and he repeatedly responded with off-balance pull-up threes, a dead-eye mid-range game and some of the craftiest drives to the cup ever seen.
Thomas attacks relentlessly with spins, hesitation moves and a turbo button. He feels like the best offensive player on the floor every time he steps on the floor and more often than not, he’s correct. Look how his campaign compares with Steph Curry’s first MVP season. Thomas is the single most important piece on one of the five best teams in the league; Boston’s defense is putrid whenever he sits. His degree of difficulty was unparalleled.
Curry was Curry, albeit with slightly-reduced responsibilities compared to the past two seasons. The Warriors were dominant with him on the court, whether Kevin Durant was by his side or not.
Speaking of Durant: He only played 60 games but leads the league in Win Shares per 48 minutes and made blending into Golden State’s offense look less complicated than a microwavable pizza. He’s one of the three best two-way players in the world and one out of every 10 of his made shots were dunks (a career high).
Giannis was Must-See-League-Pass all season, with strides that could cross the English Channel, Antetokounmpo trashed the league without a three-point shot-basically impossible in today’s NBA. He’s a pseudo-MVP candidate who’ll probably be the best player in the world in 2020.
Despite growing pains on the defensive end (that didn’t show in-season improvement) and a disappointing campaign from his team (which in hindsight was based on unreasonable preseason expectations), Towns averaged 25 and 12 and might already be the most skilled and devastating low-post scorer in the league. (According to Synergy Sports, only two players who logged at least 200 post-up possessions were more efficient than Towns this season.)
Guard: John Wall
Guard: Chris Paul
Forward: Draymond Green
Forward: Jimmy Butler
Center: Rudy Gobert
There are no 100 percent agreeable answers for this team, thanks to the collection of uber-talented honorable mentions cited below; they make this year’s All-NBA selection process particularly subjective.
Draymond is a lock because he’s the best defensive player in the league and nearly averages a triple-double despite having a down shooting year. Wall could be on the second team and deserves MVP consideration for averaging 23 and 11 with the most steals in the league.
Butler made a massive leap as a go-to guy, despite teammates who restrict his room to operate, and I went with Paul over Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson and Mike Conley because, despite missing just over 20 games, he’s had the best shooting/rebounding season of his career. That can’t go unrewarded.
Honorable mentions: Gordon Hayward, Paul George, Damian Lillard, DeAndre Jordan, DeMarcus Cousins, Nikola Jokic, Mike Conley, Klay Thompson
All-Defensive: First team