Monday, April 17, 2017
Awards and All-NBA Teams For 2016-17
This regular season has been called the greatest in NBA history by some. While that's probably an exaggeration to drive TV ratings that were going to be good regardless, this stellar 30-team, 1,230-game slate has left no doubt in my mind that we're currently in the midst of a golden era for pro basketball.
The league's top superstars are performing at an unbelievable level every single game, the style of play is fun to watch the vast majority of time, and team basketball generally rules the day. I've written a fair many words on this site in the past about how strong the state of the NBA is in this era, and this has been the most satisfying regular season from a day-to-day basis that I can remember, even if there is a clear - and expected - title favorite as we go into the playoffs.
And while you're not here to read me waxing on about how great the regular season was, I always view the hypothetical picking of the awards that follow a season as an encapsulation and celebration of the season that passed.
With that aside, let's get to quite possibly the most amazing MVP race that the league has ever seen.
1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
2. James Harden, Houston
3. LeBron James, Cleveland
4. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
5. Kevin Durant, Golden State
Before I start, let's all just take a couple deep breaths. In this MVP race, there are no wrong answers. I want to repeat that. There are no wrong answers. Well, there are, but only if you did something like pick Carmelo Anthony as your MVP. In that case, you need to stop writing or talking about the NBA. But I digress.
If you really wanted to pick Durant as your MVP, despite missing 20 games, for an even better shooting season than his MVP season in Oklahoma City, becoming a true two-way force and being the best player on the league's best team, I can't blame you. Of course, the conventional wisdom is that he's not even in the conversation.
Kawhi Leonard's season of averaging 25.5 points per game, 6 rebounds and 4 assists a game while being the best one-on-one defender in basketball looks like what an MVP season from an elite two-way swingman should look like. LeBron James has, somehow, after 1,200 NBA games including playoffs, had his second-best offensive season behind only his 2012-13 masterclass in Miami.
I still can't elevate those seasons above what we've just seen from James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
Harden, for me, has been the most fun player to watch from October through April this season. He's remarkably efficient for as much as the team counts on him, and Mike D'Antoni is absolutely the perfect coach for Harden to fulfill his destiny as both a great scorer and facilitator in a modern NBA offense.
The only possible demerit on Harden's resume is that he shot a career-low percentage from three-point territory (barely) on a career-high number of attempts. That's getting pretty nit-picky, though.
And I have to say, through most of March, I was about ready to say that Harden had locked up the trophy. Then, Westbrook went on an absolutely absurd run of seven consecutive triple-doubles, including two comeback wins on the road against Dallas and Orlando in which saying he carried the Thunder to those victories would be a massive understatement. That, coupled with Westbrook all but clinching the single-season triple-double average and Harden's slight struggle with a wrist injury that hurt his shooting form made it about even coming down the stretch.
Then came the final Sunday of the regular season. Russ put in a 50-point triple-double to break Oscar Robertson's record of 41 trip-dubs in a single season at Denver and hit a game-winning 40-footer at the buzzer, thereby ending the Nuggets' chances at the postseason. If that's not the work of an NBA MVP, I don't know what is.
The argument against Westbrook goes something like this: he uses the ball too much, he misses too many shots and his teammates haven't gotten any better this season. In some cases, Russ gets negative comments written about him for grabbing too many uncontested rebounds.
It's almost like people forget that Oklahoma City doesn't have any great offensive players besides Westbrook, and that they lost a dynamic, world-class shooter and offensive threat in Durant, and traded away an elite stretch four in Serge Ibaka. Of course his teammates don't look as good as 2016! They lost their whole ability to space the floor in an NBA where it's so crucial to success!
As for the rebound-padding, I'm wondering if people actually watch what can happen when Westbrook gets a rebound in space and just ... GOES. If you could race down the floor in four seconds and get to the rim, I don't know if you'd pass to the 24th-best shooting team (and worst three-point shooting team) in basketball, either.
Advanced stats like win shares, box plus-minus, PER and value over replacement player are wholly mixed on Harden/Westbrook, and are probably too catch-all and unintuitive to mean anything in an MVP debate that requires nuance and will probably come down to a few votes. But there's one number that passes the proverbial "eye test" and also provides a closing argument in favor of Westbrook.
When Westbrook is on the bench, the Thunder have an offensive rating of just 97.4 points per 100 possessions. That's not just bad for the pro game, it's putrid. It's about the level of offense that an openly tanking Sixers team put up for the previous two seasons before this one. Meanwhile, Houston is at 106.5 without Harden. That, while still being the lowest number of any Rocket, is about league average for an offense.
In my opinion, the Thunder would look something like the Magic or Lakers with a better defense without Westbrook. The Rockets would likely hover around .500 and be a borderline playoff team without Harden. That's the difference I need to choose an MVP in this amazing season.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert, Utah
Others considered: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio; Draymond Green, Golden State
I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'll feel kind of ... sorry for Green if he doesn't win this award this season after two straight second-place DPOY finishes to Leonard the last two seasons. Draymond, despite having his worst offensive season of the 2014-17 Golden State "era," continues to be a master of defensive versatility, guarding anyone and everyone.
And yet, I can't rank him above Gobert here.
We've seen elite rim protectors like Gobert plenty of times in the past. But most of NBA history on offense has been about finding good shots close to the basket. That isn't the case as much in the pace-and-space era when nearly a third of all shot attempts are three-pointers. In theory, the evolution of the game should work against a defensive weapon like Gobert, but it doesn't here.
Not only is that not the case, since Gobert can cover so much of the lane that everyone on the Jazz can stay at home against shooters, but the Stifle Tower is also athletic and agile enough to guard the ball on switches on the perimeter.
Rookie of the Year
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee
Others considered: Dario Saric, Philadelphia; Joel Embiid, Philadelphia; Buddy Hield, Sacramento/New Orleans
This rookie class is so mediocre that it's not inconceivable that Yogi Ferrell, who was undrafted last year out of Indiana, and cut by Brooklyn in December before catching on in Dallas in late January, could make an All-Rookie Team due to his stellar work in 36 games with the Mavs.
Here, I've picked Brogdon to be the first second-round pick to ever win Rookie of the Year. It will also be an exceedingly rare instance of a player winning this award when he's not the actual best rookie player (that was Embiid when he was healthy/not being held out of games) and doesn't project to be much more than a second or third option in the NBA.
You know what? That's okay, because Brogdon is already a solid defender, a good playmaker, and shot 40 percent from 3 this season. It's a decent bet that Saric will end up as a better NBA player, but picking Saric for this feels like a Sixers consolation prize for the Croat picking up the scoring load as the season went on with Embiid out and Ben Simmons never taking part in action.
I didn't truly consider Hield like I did Saric and Brogdon, but go have a look at Buddy's splits post-All-Star Break after being traded to Sacramento. If he'd have shot like that all year, this award wouldn't even be a discussion.
Coach of the Year
Erik Spoelstra, Miami
Others considered: Mike D'Antoni, Houston; Scott Brooks, Washington
This was the last award I decided on, and it was to be a decision tree that said "If Miami makes the playoffs, then Spoelstra. If not, then D'Antoni."
Then, the Nets, who had already clinched the worst record in the league with no first round pick to tank for, inexplicably rested key players against the Bulls, who they had beat the weekend before, all but handing the 8 seed in the East to Chicago. I'm still picking Spo for this because of that infuriating situation.
Where do we start with the job Spoelstra did? There was getting the team through the Chris Bosh situation at the start of the year. Only having Justise Winslow, the Heat's top young asset, for 18 games this season. Rekindling Dion Waiters' career. Dealing with so many injuries that only one five-man lineup for Miami went over 110 minutes played. Coaxing a career year out of James Johnson. And certainly not least, guiding a team than was on pace for 60 losses on MLK Day to an even 41-41.
I wrote in January about the masterful job D'Antoni was doing in Houston, and very little has changed since. It's also quite preferable that a coach at least gets above .500 and makes the postseason to win this award, but Spoelstra pulled one of the greatest coaching magic tricks in history out of his hat this season.
Most Improved Player
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
Others considered: Nikola Jokic, Denver; Otto Porter, Washington; Isaiah Thomas, Boston; Myles Turner, Indiana
I wanted so badly to pick Jokic, who has now become my favorite young player after his excellent sophomore season in which he nearly led the young and super-fun Nuggets into the playoffs and produced amazing highlights like this.
But Giannis Antetokounmpo is other-worldly, and went from being "good young player with potential" to "budding superstar" these past six months. Giannis just got done putting up a 23-9-5-2-2 stat line on 52 percent shooting as a 22-year-old, and that somehow undersells how spectacular he can look on a nightly basis and his defensive influence. Furthermore, he didn't really ever play with a fully healthy team this season, as Jabari Parker tore his ACL the same game Khris Middleton returned from the torn hamstring that kept him out the first 50 games of the regular season.
The Greek Freak did all this while still only shooting 32 percent on all jumpers and 27 percent on threes. What if he ever develops a shot? Is he going to win multiple MVPs? Who knows, but it should be a blast to watch.
Sixth Man of the Year
Andre Iguodala, Golden State
Others considered: Eric Gordon, Houston; Lou Williams, Houston/LA Lakers; Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City; Joe Ingles, Utah; Pau Gasol, San Antonio; Greg Monroe, Milwaukee
I like what basketball writer/analyst Sam Vecenie said about this award on Twitter on Friday. Iguodala, everything considered, is the best player in the NBA that does not start.
That said, I was ready to pick Gordon for this a month ago, and then Iguodala stepped up big time in Kevin Durant's absence, helping turn an initial 2-4 stretch without KD into a 14-game winning streak that locked up home-court throughout the playoffs. In that meantime, Gordon's shooting numbers cooled off some, and his counting stats suffered. That's all the daylight I needed to pick Iggy.
Executive of the Year
Daryl Morey, Houston
Others considered: Dennis Lindsey, Utah; Bob Myers, Golden State
Get off my back, Rockets fans! I'm picking you for an award. If you'll remember, last summer, Morey was almost uniformly panned for hiring D'Antoni when he did nothing of note with the Knicks or Lakers, and questioned when signing Ryan Anderson to $20 million per year and Gordon, who had consistently battled injuries the last five years in New Orleans.
It wasn't long after the season started that we realized Morey had made the right call on all three, and that the Rockets, shooting a league-record 40 threes per game, would be a force.
G - Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
G - James Harden, Houston
F - Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
F - LeBron James, Cleveland
C - Anthony Davis, New Orleans
G - John Wall, Washington
G - Stephen Curry, Golden State
F - Kevin Durant, Golden State
F - Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
C - Rudy Gobert, Utah
G - Isaiah Thomas, Boston
G - Damian Lillard, Portland
F - Jimmy Butler, Chicago
F - Gordon Hayward, Utah
C - Marc Gasol, Memphis
Others considered: Chris Paul, LA Clippers; Klay Thompson, Golden State; DeMar DeRozan, Toronto; Kyle Lowry, Toronto; Paul George, Indiana; DeMarcus Cousins, New Orleans/Sacramento; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota; DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers; Nikola Jokic, Denver
Quick aside: it's probably time to add a Fourth Team All-NBA, right? There's been three end-of-season teams since the 1988-89 season, when there were only 25 total teams in the league. Goodness knows there's enough talent. One of DeMar DeRozan or Damian Lillard missing All-NBA should not happen, but has to this year with the talent at guard.
The First Team here was as straightforward as you can get, with the only real choice of what to do with the center position. I give it to Anthony Davis because he played most of his minutes at center, and he just completed the first 28 and 12 season since Shaq in 2001. That's a First Team All-NBA performance, regardless of team success.
John Wall on the Second Team is the only thing I feel like I have to defend, and he did tail off toward the end of the season, and Washington's slow start made people wonder if a Bradley Beal trade was inevitable. My goodness, was he ever fantastic that middle 70 percent of the season, though.
From January onward, I found myself gravitating towards Wizards games on League Pass mostly so I could watch Wall pass and handle the basketball. Beal's shooting stroke and Otto Porter's improvement didn't hurt, either.
On the Third Team, Jimmy Butler might deserve to be a team higher for dragging a dysfunctional Bulls team that can't shoot worth a damn and has a bad coach into the playoffs, but he's not better than Durant and the Greek Freak.
I wanted to make room for DeMarcus Cousins, as he probably had a better year than last year when he made the Second Team, but the forward spots were too locked in with Butler and Gordon Hayward, and it would be a bit...off to have two centers on these teams who currently play for the same actual team that couldn't make the playoffs. By the way, you probably didn't realize it since the Pelicans were so bad right after trading for Boogie, but Cousins' efficiency numbers and rebounding were actually up in New Orleans, and the team went 10-6 in March.
Towns and Jokic were significantly better than Gasol the last few months of the season, but Towns started slow in comparison to his rookie year, and Jokic wasn't even starting until six weeks into the season. Plus, Gasol at 32 and in his ninth NBA season, added a three-point shot to his game, had his best scoring season yet and somehow got even better at passing for a Grizzlies team that's going to be hamstrung by the Chandler Parsons albatross in coming years but still won 43 games with an aging core.