The flowers are beginning to bloom. Students’ attention spans are rapidly fading. Wisconsin weather is reaching its peak of unpredictable moodiness.
This can only mean one thing: it’s time for the NBA playoffs.
But before we get to feast on what is sure to be a postseason for the ages, it’s only fair we take some time to award the everyday warriors (seriously, no pun intended) of basketball’s regular season. And what a regular season it was! One of the Lakers, Knicks and Celtics finally worked their way back into basketball relevance (hint: it wasn’t the Lakers or Knicks), Blake Griffin broke his hand punching his ‘”friend,” and the long-limbed enigma that is point-Giannis was unleashed. Oh, and the Warriors (and Spurs, for that matter) stormed through the league, breaking just about every notion we had about untouchable basketball records. Truly a season to remember.
So let’s talk awards. No, unfortunately I don’t have a vote on this year’s ballot. But this is a fun exercise that creates plenty of healthy debate and makes us plebeians feel like our opinion matters even slightly. For reference, here are the Awards from my muse, NBA savant Zach Lowe, and from Paul Flannery and Tom Ziller over at SB Nation. Now, let’s Boogie.
Most Valuable Player
- Stephen Curry
- LeBron James
- Kawhi Leonard
- Kevin Durant
- Chris Paul
Honorable mentions: Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Damian Lillard, Paul Millsap
Unlike last year, easily the most hotly-contested MVP race in years, this one isn’t even close. Curry is this year’s MVP, and everyone knows it. Curry’s improvement is the most impressive part of his insane MVP campaign. Last year’s candidates are still playing at Hall of Fame levels, with Leonard and Durant replacing Harden and Anthony Davis on the short-list. And yet, Curry has surpassed them by a mile because he has somehow improved upon his best season, and he’s done so across the board.
He improved his scoring average by SIX FREAKING POINTS, from 23.8-30.1! He leads the league in steals per game! He’s second in three-point percentage to only JJ Redick, who shoots about five less threes per game than Curry does. Steph created the 50-45-90 club just when we were still freaking out about the 50-40-90 club last season. Only the Steves, Kerr and Nash, are a part of that club, and you can bet they didn’t take anywhere near 886 threes in a season. He’s rebounding the ball more than ever, getting to the line more than ever, and he’s shooting an absurd 63.0 effective field goal percentage on 20 shots a game. He also leads the league in free-throw percentage, just for kicks. Most impressively, his 31.5 PER is the 8th best single-season PER ever. Ever! MJ and LeBron have each only topped that number twice in a season, and just barely.
But what really sets Steph apart this year is the way he’s taken his three-point shot to another dimension. The previous single-season record for threes in a season was 286, set by Curry last year. This year? He made 402! For comparison, the entire Bucks roster made 440 this year. There is an endless list of crazy shooting stats to support his candidacy. He made 10 threes in a game four times this season; nobody else has done it more than once in their career. He made more threes in the last two season than Larry Bird did in his entire career. The list goes on. There is no point trying to comprehend his greatness anymore; just enjoy it.
You and I both don’t have time to acknowledge every player I mention, so I’ll just briefly go over the highlights of each category. LeBron is second in my book because his greatness has reached such a high level that it somehow feels mundane now. LeBron has surged up the all-time scoring list to 12th this season, and nobody has even batted an eye. He has the 12th most points ever and he’s only 31! He is on pace for, at the very worst, a top-six finish all time. And yet, nobody seems to care. LeBron has gotten so good that we’ve simply gotten accustomed to his greatness, which is an impressive feat in it of itself. He might no longer be peak LeBron, but he’s the best player on the best team in the East, and he’s still the best in the game when he wants to be. He still deserves an entire paragraph.
Kawhi has finally made it to MVP-caliber status, and I could not be more thrilled. His evolution under Popp is breathtaking to witness. Westbrook is a triple-double machine, but he’s playing with one of the most gifted scorers ever. Paul’s ability to keep the Clippers not just afloat but alive and well, without Blake Griffin, is the impressive story that nobody ever talks about. Paul Millsap is hands down the best, least-talked about player in the NBA.
Rookie of the Year
- Karl Anthony-Towns
- Kristaps Porzingis
- Devin Booker
- Nikola Jokic
Honorable mentions: Justise Winslow, Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell
This one might be even easier than MVP. Towns just had arguably the best rookie season since LeBron, and that’s going up against guys like Griffin, Lillard, Kyrie, D Rose, KD, Chris Paul and Lillard. Towns is the perfect center for today’s era of basketball. He can pass, handle the ball, score inside and out, and he already has the defensive versatility to protect the rim and defend point guards after a switch. He averaged 18,10,2, and 1.7 blocks as a rookie, and in my mind, he’s a legit candidate for Third Team All-NBA. And he’s 20! No other rookie was even close.
Porzingis tapered off after a hot start to the season, but he’s the best thing the Knicks have had to root for in a long, long time. He’s also 20 and he’ll give defenses fits when he fills out more and becomes harder to stop around the rim. Booker got started too late and was putting up somewhat meaningless numbers in Phoenix, but it’s already clear he’s their shooting guard of the future. He needs to improve a lot defensively, but his secondary playmaking abilities already surpassed expectations. Okafor missed too much time to be considered, and his rim-protecting concerns out of college are all too real. Russell has had to play against opposing teams and his own head coach while surrounded by very little talent. Off-court antics aside, he’s the real deal.
If you want to put Jokic ahead of Porzingis and Booker, by all means go ahead. He’s the best rookie that nobody is talking about. Do yourself a favor and watch some highlights. Dude can straight ball. He has great touch around the rim, good rebounding instincts, a very respectable outside shot, and he’s a very gifted passer for a center. It’s also hilarious that he surpassed Jusuf Nurkic in Denver as the better foreign big man with a name nobody can pronounce that has J & N as his initials. His numbers won’t wow you, mainly due to Mike Malone limiting him to 21 minutes per game. But don’t be fooled: his advanced numbers are tantalizing. Watch out for this dude.
My question to you is: If you consider Jabari Parker a rookie, where does he fit on this continuum? He’s still not ROY, but he might just sneak in ahead of Porzingis. Food for thought.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Kawhi Leonard
- Draymond Green
- Rudy Gobert
Honorable mentions: Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Tony Allen
This is often the toughest choice. I went with Rudy Gobert before the season, and he lived up to the prediction until injuries cooled him off down the stretch. Choosing between Leonard and Green is a toss up, but I’m giving Leonard the nod because he’s the best defender on one of the best defensive teams ever. He’s so damn fluid on defense that, like LeBron’s brilliance, you forget to notice how impressive he is to watch. He’s athletic enough to contest shots at the rim and guard point guards step-for-step on the perimeter, and he’s a great rebounder. I mean, how many dudes have a 10-minute highlight video of their defense? Seriously, just watch even the first clip and you’ll understand his versatility. He basically steals the ball from every major star in the NBA in that video. He’s unbeatable.
And yet, if you want to go with Draymond, I get it. He’s arguably more versatile, given that he’s 6’7” and capable of completely stonewalling seven-footers. Nobody has done that before. He’s a master at combining his footwork, wingspan and impeccable trash-talking into one blur of defensive fury that confuses the hell out of people. He’s the lifeblood of another top defensive unit who deserves just as much credit. Lo and behold, Green also has a 10-minute defensive highlight video (shoutout to YouTuber and defensive video specialist Evin Gualberto). Green fires this team up in the same way Kawhi cools the Spurs down. You can’t go wrong.
Sixth Man of the Year
- Enes Kanter
- Andre Iguodala
- Will Barton
Honorable mentions: Ed Davis, Jamal Crawford, Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Darren Collison, Ryan Anderson
There’s definitely no clear-cut winner this year, and if you ask the smart guys in the room, they’ll tell you it should be Iguodala. Iguodala is easily the best bench player in the league, capable of initiating the offense, hitting open shots and guarding LeBron freaking James in the NBA finals. He proved in those same finals that he’s every bit a starter as anyone in the league. So Kerr using him off the bench almost feels like cheating. The problem is, Iguodala missed time with an injury, and his traditional numbers aren’t award worthy. Or at least, not for this award.
Sixth Man is traditionally given to the best scorer off the bench across the league. It’s why Jamal Crawford, a great scorer, has more trophies than Manu Ginóbili, a potential Hall of Famer. So in that light, I have to go Kanter here. Kanter surpassed Serge Ibaka as OKC’s reliable third scoring option, and though defense is his biggest knock, he definitely got better and tried harder on that end this year. Having a guy average 13 and 8 (in only 21 minutes) off the bench while shooting efficiently from three, around the rim and at the line is something every team needs. He’s 28th in ESPN’s John Hollinger’s Expected Wins Added statistic, ahead of stars like Al Horford, Dwyane Wade and Draymond.
Barton had a nice season in Denver, but Kanter’s numbers are better in seven less minutes per game, and he’s simply more valuable as a contributor to the Thunder than Barton is on the Nuggets. Barton also had the opportunity to be the go-to scorer in Denver after Danilo Gallinari went down, and he notably struggled in the elevated role. Ed Davis is way too random and hustles way too hard to win such a statistics-driven award. Crawford is old news off the bench, and though he scores a lot, he does so inefficiently and his defense is atrocious. Holiday is the most deserving, but he started too many games and then missed too many from injury. Turner is the same type of do-it-all contributor that doesn’t win this award. Collison plays for the Kings, so that’s a definite no go.
Most Improved Player
- Draymond Green
- CJ McCollum
- Giannis Antetokounmpo
- Kemba Walker
- Jae Crowder
Honorable Mentions: Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Rodney Hood, Hassan Whiteside, Ian Mahinmi, Will Barton, Zach LaVine, Reggie Jackson
Draymond Green has been too damn good this year not to win a major award. It might seem unfair, but as the second best player on the best regular season squad ever, he’s a legitimate threat to win. The fact that he’s surpassed Klay as a more important asset to the Dubs is almost reason enough. Draymond has actually gotten so good this year that it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t even supposed to be the starter last year until David Lee got hurt in the preseason.
On the surface, Draymond has increased his scoring from 11.7 to 14.00 (+2.3), his rebounding from 8.2 to 9.5 (+1.3), his assists from 3.7 to 7.4 (+3.7, that’s double!!), and he’s shooting 4.7% better from the field, 4.9% better from three, and 3.7% better from the line. Those are hard numbers to top, and that’s without noting his improvements in PER, win shares, Box +/- and Value over Replacement Player. Draymond turned from important role player to, I think, second team All-NBA in one season. He doesn’t score like McCollum, but if that isn’t the biggest improvement this year, I’d like to know.
Then again, maybe I’m wrong. McCollum went from averaging 7 points to 21 points a game in one season! That’s amazing. To be fair, I still think McCollum will win this, and he deserves plenty of credit for Portland’s success. I don’t even think Portland’s upper management knew how good McCollum was going to be this year. He’s the ideal second option, someone who can score inside and out, create for himself, but also lead the second unit when the first option (Lillard) sits. He shot a blistering 42% from three while launching 6 threes a game, and though he’s undersized as a two, he works his tail off defensively. Advanced stats don’t love him like they love Draymond, but they like him, and he doesn’t have the luxury of being on the best team ever. He’ll probably win, and nobody should be upset if he does.
If post-All-Star break Giannis had been full-season-Giannis, he wins this award in a landslide. His second half surge as Milwaukee’s gyro-stepping, windmill-dunking point guard could still be enough to net him the award, though I think he still falls short. Nobody knows what Giannis is going to be yet, and that should be the consolation prize for every Bucks fan. Based on his career trajectory thus far, if he develops a jumper, this award is his to lose next year.
Curry winning would just be unfair, so let’s move on. Kawhi too. Crowder is arguably Boston’s most important two-way player, and he should an ability to create offense for himself that we’d never seen before. But he missed a chunk of the season, and his leap wasn’t as big as the guys ahead of him. Kemba is in that murky territory where he went from good to reeeeally good but still arguably not great, so he’s similarly hard to judge. Still, the progress of his three-point shot completely changed Charlotte’s offense.
Middleton and Whiteside were too good last year to really be considered. Hood, LaVine and Barton still have big jumps to make with their respective games. I didn’t even know Mahinmi was a candidate until Lowe pointed it out. This will be a fun one.
Coach of the Year
- Terry Stotts
- Steve Kerr
- Gregg Popovich
- Rick Carlisle
- Brad Stevens
Honorable mentions: Dwane Casey, Steve Clifford, Dave Joerger, Quin Snyder, Erik Spoelstra, Mike Budenholzer
This is arguably the toughest one yet; so many of these coaches are deserving. The fact that I’m not giving the award to the coach of the best regular season team ever or the single best coach ever should tell you all you need to know. For me, this award isn’t just about regular season success, but success in comparison to expectations. The Warriors and Spurs were at the top of everyone’s preseason rankings, and though they still somehow exceeded our expectations, they only had so much room to grow. What Stotts has pulled off in Portland this year is downright remarkable.
The Trailblazers lost 4/5 of their starting lineup and somehow ended up fifth in the loaded Western Conference. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, thought they would be a decent team, let alone one in the thick of the playoff race. I’m ashamed to admit I had them ranked 25th in my preseason power rankings, though I wasn’t alone in thinking that. If we’re comparing regular season success in relation to preseason expectations, Stotts is easily the most qualified to win.
Rick Carlisle did the exact same thing, just with higher preseason expectations and a slightly worse finish. He’s a goddamn genius at reconfiguring the system to his players, and it’s incredible that the Mavericks managed to hold on to a playoff spot amidst a litany of injuries. Stevens has unlocked Isaiah Thomas’ potential, not to mention that of other players like Crowder and Avery Bradley. Any of these top five guys could win and I wouldn’t blink.
And there’s so many more qualified candidates! As always, click on Zach Lowe’s article if you want more depth on each. But Clifford and Casey have also exceeded expectations by a long shot, and their teams are legitimate contenders in the East as a result. Joerger worked similar magic to Carlisle, but he had a bigger head start to begin with. There are some really, really good coaches in the NBA. Can’t we spare the Kings one?
And just for kicks, here are my All-NBA teams, because why not. Deal with it.
First team: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, DeMarcus Cousins
Second Team: Kyle Lowry, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant (I KNOW, I’M SORRY), Draymond Green, Al Horford
Third Team: Damian Lillard (unfair, I know), James Harden (sorry Kemba), Paul Millsap, LaMarcus Aldridge (sorry PG13), DeAndre Jordan
First team: Chris Paul, Avery Bradley, Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert
Second team: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Tony Allen, Paul George, Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside
First team: Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Justise Winslow
Second team: D’Angelo Russell, Jahlil Okafor, Willie Cauley-Stein, Myles Turner, Emmanuel Mudiay