It's that time of year again, if you write about the NBA you have to declare your season-ending award winners. I checked, if you don't do it they revoke your press credential and everything. I wanted to boycott these out of protest for Manu Ginobili not having won five Sixth Man of the Year awards instead of just the one, but then I realized I kinda want to watch playoff games in person, so sorry, Manu. As a point of reference you can check out the ballots cast by Zach Lowe (two parts), by Michael Lee of The Washington Post, by Paul Flannery of SBNation and Mike Monroe of the Express-News.
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry
Most people have this as a battle between Curry and James Harden and I don't think it's even close. Harden's shot 42.3 percent over the past three months, he's missed the second most shots in the league, he has fewer assists, fewer steals, he's the league-leader in turnovers, he has a worse PER, a worse WS/48, a worse Real Plus-Minus, and Curry's team has gone 4-0 head-to-head against the Rockets. What are we talking about here? Yes, it's true Curry has better teammates and that helps him look good, but it's just as true that Harden is compiling numbers because he's always got the ball and he plays more minutes. Russell Westbrook has a similar case, but at least he gives you some rebounds.
Bottom line, to me it comes down to this: With Curry defenses want to do everything possible to not let him shoot the ball, even if he's 30 feet out. With Harden you desperately want him to shoot, you just don't want to foul. One guy is a transcendent talent who can single-handedly break games open, the other has a neat parlor trick.
I think Anthony Davis probably has a better case than Harden, actually. He's the best two-way player in the league already, at 22. He leads the league in PER, is right there with Curry in WS/48 and has a freakishly low turnover rate, despite how much the Pelicans rely on him. The thing I can't get over though is the Pelicans have gone a non-disastrous 6-8 in his absence and won a couple more in games which "The Brow" played fewer than 10 minutes. Davis should be the favorite to win this award for the next few years.
Chris Paul has been fantastic and has come startlingly close to putting up a 50/40/90 shooting line while averaging over 10 assists a night, being one of the league's best defensive point guards and playing all 82 games. He has an outstanding case. He's probably been the NBA's best player since the All-Star break. He just didn't quite do enough for me the first three months.
Westbrook is a freak, and the numbers he puts up are jaw-dropping, but he's just too inefficient offensively and too out-of-control defensively to seriously consider. If only he had a coach he respected enough to cut out all the clutter in his game from the wild three-pointers to the unnecessary gambling on defense. He's his own worst enemy and he doesn't realize it.
It's a testament to LeBron James that he could have his worst season since 2007 and be even in the conversation for this, but that's as far as he'll go. Barely cracking 50 wins in the Eastern Conference isn't anything special.
2. Anthony Davis
3. Chris Paul
4. James Harden
5. Russell Westbrook
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins
It's been a weak class to be sure, but Wiggins gets the nod here over Nikola Mirotic for a few reasons. For one, he's actually a rookie, having entered the league at the tender age of 19, whereas Mirotic has been a pro overseas for years and is already a mature 24. Secondly, it might surprise people to learn, despite the narrative for Mirotic as a savior for the Bulls, that Wiggins has shot a much better percentage and that their three-point marksmanship (or lack thereof) are practically identical, 31.7 for Mirotic to 31.5 for Wiggins. Mostly I'm picking Wiggins because he projects to a future star, which is what you want your Rookie of the Year winners to be. Mirotic I don't think will improve much from what he is now, and his ceiling is a fringe All-Star, third-banana on a good team.
Nerlens Noel is slowly developing into the defensive force he was pegged as two years ago. His ability to be a dual-threat in terms of blocks and steals reminds me of the Hakeem Olajuwon/David Robinson days, though obviously his offense is not anywhere near their stratosphere. Still, he should've put up better numbers on a starless Sixers squad.
Elfrid Payton has flashed potential as a pass-first point guard with the size and athleticism to help out defensively and on the boards, but like everyone here he has to learn how to shoot.
2. Nikola Mirotic
3. Nerlens Noel
Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas
Another weak class, but Thomas is the cream of the crop here, having saved the Celtics season once they acquired him from Phoenix. His percentages aren't great, but Thomas is averaging an obscene 26.4 points and 7.5 assists per-36 minutes for Boston and they desperately need his offense and playmaking with that roster.
Lou Williams has been more consistent, but the Raptors have taken a tumble over the second half of the season and he's just as inefficient overall as Thomas has been, and a turnstile on defense. Toronto needs his scoring too, but at least they have others who can fill it up like Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
Dennis Schroder to me is a better choice than anyone on the Warriors. He's been the best backup point guard in the league by far and has forced Mike Budenholzer's hand often, playing so well that Bud has kept Jeff Teague on the bench. I'm still gonna give Mirotic the nod though, because the Bulls would've really struggled to stay afloat without him and also because there needs to be a guy taller than me on this list.
2. Lou Williams
3. Nikola Mirotic
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard
I know all the arguments for Draymond Green. He's played way more minutes. He's more versatile, able to guard anyone from centers to shooting guards, whereas Leonard pretty much guards just perimeter players. Green has been more consistent and his defensive scheme calls on him to do more, with all of Golden State's intricately choreographed switching. I get all of that.
I'm still going with Leonard. He just wrecks games by himself. I've never seen anyone like him. He simply plucks the ball away from the best ball-handlers in the league and does it without gambling or even lunging out of position. The old Michael Jordan "You reach, I teach," slogan just doesn't apply with him. Green is terrific, but Leonard is simply terrifying. Also, Leonard has more of an offensive role on the Spurs than Green has on the Warriors, yet he still finds the energy to shut down people in his own end.
I'm gonna give Rudy Gobert some love over other deserving bigs such as Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan and Anthony Davis and a non-deserving one in DeAndre Jordan. Since taking over the starting job in Utah, Gobert has turned the Jazz into a top-five defense despite not having many quality defenders around him. Bogut and Duncan can't claim the same.
2. Draymond Green
3. Rudy Gobert
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer
Many quality candidates to choose from here, but Bud gets my vote for doing the most with the least. He doesn't have the celebrated All-Star staff of assistants that Steve Kerr does and while he's got several good players, there isn't a single great one. Budenholzer has created a culture with the Hawks in less than two seasons, gotten everyone to buy in and kept what could've been a disastrous situation in the front office from being a distraction.
Kerr has been damn near flawless in his freshman campaign, getting the best out of Green, Klay Thompson and Marreesse Speights and convincing Andre Iguodala to accept a sixth-man role. He radically overhauled their offensive system practically overnight and the results speak for themselves. The Warriors look like a juggernaut.
Jason Kidd, Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich and Frank Vogel are all getting mentions for the third spot, but I'm surprised there hasn't been more praise for Kevin McHale. I admit to being a critic of his until this year --I actually predicted he'd be the first coach fired last September-- but he's done a fantastic job leading the Rockets to 55 wins with a constant changing cast of characters around Harden. They haven't had Dwight Howard or Terrence Jones for most of the year, they added a bunch of new guys in mid-season or later, and McHale's integrated all these new pieces seamlessly.
2. Steve Kerr
3. Kevin McHale
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler
Man, I really wanted to give this to Leonard. He's become the Spurs first option and has developed his game to the point where he can hit turnaround jumpers from either baseline, he can face people up from anywhere inside of 20 feet and can even run a competent pick-and-roll. I'll go with Butler though because he had less to work with in Chicago, he has a brutal workload under Tom Thibodeau and he rose from a true abyss last season, where he shot under 40 percent. It's closer than you think though.
Gobert and Hassan Whiteside are ineligible in my view because they've played so few minutes previously. Green and Thompson have good cases with the Warriors, but my third guy is Donatas Motiejunas of the Rockets, who was their unsung hero all year long, keeping Houston's back line from being a liability without Howard. Motiejunas wasn't a classic rim protector but his post defense held up and offensively he was the rare stretch four who can also bang inside.
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Donatas Motiejunas
First: C: Tim Duncan, F Anthony Davis, F LeBron James, G Chris Paul, G Stephen Curry
Second: C Marc Gasol, F LaMarcus Aldridge, F Kawhi Leonard, G James Harden, G Russell Westbrook
Third: C Al Horford, F Pau Gasol, F Paul Millsap, G Jimmy Butler, G John Wall
First: C Rudy Gobert, F Draymond Green, F Kawhi Leonard, G Jimmy Butler, G John Wall
Second: C Andrew Bogut, F Tim Duncan, F Tony Allen, G Danny Green, G Chris Paul
First: C Nerlens Noel, F Nikola Mirotic, F Andrew Wiggins, G Elfrid Payton, G Jordan Clarkson
Second: C Jusuf Nurkic, F Jabari Parker, F Bojan Bogdanovic, G Rodney Hood, G Marcus Smart
(I don't care that Parker only played 25 games. The rookie class was that bad.)