After a seemingly never-ending slog, the NBA regular season has finally come to an end. Sure there’s tons of playoff storylines, but we’ll get to those another day. Plenty of things need to be discussed now, though, that don’t involve the postseason. The Nets’ late-season run was stopped before they could truly jeopardize the Celtics future. The season couldn’t have ended fast enough for the Lakers, whose ill-advised hot streak nearly took them out of the bottom three records in the league, which could have disastrous results for them in the lottery. Tony Romo’s storied NBA career is coming to an end, so it’s important we remember his numerous contributions to the game. But most importantly, it’s time to hand out the awards for this season, and I’m willing to give you one more award prediction piece for you to read. For those of you with short memories, here’s where I thought things stood at the All Star break. Has anything changed? Or has it all stayed the same? Who’s making the All NBA Teams? Where do I stand on the Great MVP Debate? Patience, friend, we’ll get to it in time.
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
I just want to start this off by saying I spelled his name right by memory. Please hold your applause until the end of the show. There’s going to be a lot of words spent on some of the other awards, so might as well start with one of the easiest calls to make. Giannis turned 2016’s late season experiment into a season-long show. Surprisingly, a seven foot freak athlete with a 7’3′ wingspan, the biggest hands in the history of mankind, a point guard’s ball handling and decision making skills turned out to be a pretty good player. Imagine that. I know at least the Celtics didn’t expect that. Good thing the Celtics draft record is so spotless outside this one oversight. Got to love Danny Ainge! (*sobs inconsolably*) Listen, the guy lead the Bucks in pretty much every statistical category and has his team firmly in the coveted No One Wants To Play Us slot. Oh, yeah, he’s only 22 and hasn’t even learned to shoot yet. This won’t be the last award he wins in his career.
Apologies To: Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Otto Porter, James Johnson
Sixth Man of the Year: Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
It feels weird not to just give this to whatever microwave scorer had the highest scoring average amongst reserves, but no bench player was more valuable than Iguodala, and it’s about time he’s recognized for his years of consistent play. His numbers seem modest, but dig even a little deeper than his 7.6 ppg. Did you know he lead the NBA in assist to turnover ratio by a wide margin? From February 28th to the end of the season, a.k.a. without Kevin Durant, he averaged 11 points on 60% shooting (including 41.9% from 3), 4 rebounds, and 3.4 assists. He played his typical great defense, and no reserve in the NBA is asked to do more on a nightly basis. Whereas most bench players are just told to add instant offense, be the caretaker backup ball handler, or lock up on d. Well Iggy does all of that every night. He keeps the Pace and Space mojo going when Steph and Draymond are on the bench then guards the other team’s best perimeter player. Being on the best team in the NBA three years running doesn’t hurt things, either. Eric Gordon, my midseason pick, faded a little too much for my taste in the second half of the season.
Apologies To: Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Jamal Crawford
Rookie of the Year: Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
There were a lot of tough decisions to make this year. With so many great players, who makes the All-NBA teams? With so few good players, who makes second team All-Rookie? Who wins MVP or Defensive Player? But, to be honest, this was the award I had the most trouble with. The one I went back and forth on more than any other. Because the way I pick this award will have a ripple effect throughout everything else. Yes, believe it or not, Rookie of the Year, in a year with an historically weak rookie class, is the most important and far-reaching award. I had to decide, not only for this but for every award, if health and games played mattered. Make no mistake, Joel Embiid was the best rookie this year. Statistically, he’s one of the greatest rookies of all time. But he only played 31 games. He only played 786 minutes. There’s no rules to these things, but at some point, you have to reward the players that actually play every day. If you spend any time online reading other, inferior awards predictions, you’ll often come across the phrase “who did this season belong to”/”who had the most memorable season.” It’s the primary reason people pick Russell Westbrook for MVP, and it’s also the primary reason people choose Joel Embiid as Rookie of the Year. Well, how can the season belong to him if he played in less than 40% of the games and less than 20% of the available minutes? That doesn’t seem fair at all. You (hopefully) didn’t think Jeremy Lin was MVP after Linsanity, did you? It’s the same idea with Embiid. Then, once I had established those parameters, I had to change my pick again because I realized it would be hypocritical to name Buddy Hield RoY for his 37 game stint in Sacramento, easily the best stretch of games for any non-Embiid rookie, since that’s essentially doing the same thing as picking Embiid- handing out an award for a small sample of great play and ignoring the vast majority of the season where they didn’t play (I’m counting his Pelicans time as not playing. Actually, Embiid’s DNPs might have been more productive than Buddy in New Orleans) (I know you think you’ve caught me red handed because I used a 20 game period of time as a big reason for picking Iguodala as sixth man, but he was great in his role all season long, he just stepped his game up late) (because I’m so good at this, this exact reasoning will show up again). So, I had to go with my third choice. Among human (i.e., not Embiid) rookies, he’s number one in scoring, second in rebounding, and top ten in assists. Good enough for me.
Apologies To: Joel Embiid (I hope no voters put Embiid second or third on their ballots. If you’re ranking him at all, that means you think he should be considered, and if he should be considered, you damn well better think he should win), Buddy Hield, Malcolm Brogdon
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
This is actually kind of a stacked category, too, but I’m going with my guy Brad. Sorry, any time you turn a team of castoffs, young guys, and players drafted ahead of Giannis Antetokounmpo, all lead by someone 5’9″ (I repeat: the Celtics best player is 5’9″), into the number one seed in the East, you’re coach of the year. Sure, they’re one of the weakest one seeds ever and literally no sane person in the world thinks they’ll beat Cleveland, but they’re still the one seed. They had a better record than the defending champion, more stacked 1-12 than the Warriors, LeBron-led Cavaliers. This team is held together with rubber bands and scotch tape, and he helped absolutely every player maximize their talent. Just think what he’ll do with one of the studs in this year’s draft (assuming they don’t get screwed/Ainge doesn’t try to outsmart everyone only to make a fool of himself. Both are big asks).
Shoutout to the somehow equally publicly praised and overlooked Gregg Popovich, who pretty much did the exact same thing as Brad Stevens, but he has Kawhi and I’m a Celtics fan. Mike D’Antoni is a bona fide genius, and his coaching job didn’t get any worse than it was when I named him my midseason Coach of the Year. Eric Spoelstra will get some votes for miraculously turning the Heat around midseason, but not mine.
Apologies To: Pop, D’Antoni, Spoelstra, Scott Brooks
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
On the surface, this might seem like a coin flip between Draymond and Rudy Gobert. Both have great cases- Draymond leads the league in steals, is second in deflections and averages a block and a half per game for the league’s second best defense. Gobert leads the league in blocks, is fourth in the NBA in rebounding (legitimately so, unlike some other players in the league), and is the anchor of the league’s third best defense. Both completely shut down opponents at the rim. Gobert might be the most intimidating player in the league, with his block numbers not really reflecting his true impact. But Draymond is just so versatile. He literally guards everybody. If he has to guard the perimeter he’s impossible to get around and gets his hands on every errant pass or careless dribble. He’s a brick wall down low and will instantly erase any post up attempt or drive to the rim. Outside Kawhi and maaaaaaaaaybe Giannis, he’s the only guy I’d trust to “guard” LeBron with the game on the line. How many people can guard James Harden and Dwight Howard effectively? Probably only Draymond. He’s been a defensive force for years, now, and it’s about time he gets recognized.
Apologies To: Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard, Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside (haha, just kidding)
I know you thought you were getting MVP next, but I have to save the main event for last. This is one of the places where the aforementioned importance of health plays a role, because Kevin Durant is obviously a first-team talent, but missing 20 games is missing 20 games, doesn’t matter who it is.
G- James Harden, Houston Rockets
G- Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
F- LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
F- Kawhi Leonard- San Antonio Spurs
C- Anthony Davis- New Orleans Pelicans
G- Steph Curry, Golden State Warriors
G- John Wall, Washington Wizards
F- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
F- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C- Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
G- Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics
G- Demar Derozan, Toronto Raptors
F- Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
F- Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors (couldn’t leave him out entirely)
C- Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
G- Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
G- Danny Green, San Antonio Spurs
F- Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
F- Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C- Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
G- Patrick Beverly, Houston Rockets
G- Tony Allen, Memphis Grizzlies
F- Andre Roberson, Oklahoma City Thunder
F- Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
C- Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks
Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings
Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets
Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers
Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics
Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers
Yogi Ferrell, Dallas Mavericks
Tyler Ulis, Phoenix Suns
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (it’s one thing to keep him off first team, but there’s no way in hell I’m going to try and say there were actually 10 rookies who played over 31 games that were better than Embiid)
Most Valuable Player:
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Before we really get into this, I need to say I’m sorry. I’m sorry Kawhi and LeBron, but for me this is a two horse race despite both of you having unreal seasons. I’m sorry reader who undoubtedly wanted to read about how great Russell Westbrook is, but I can actually think for myself. And I’m sorry Russell Westbrook, because a lot of what I’m about to say might seem like hate, but I don’t hate you at all, I just hate anything that everyone else loves. I just want to get this mini-rant out of the way first, but I’m so sick of the Westbrook dick-ridng that the Internet does everyday. If he goes 2-35 with 14 turnovers but has a triple double it’s “wow Russ (if you want to seem cool you have to call his Russ) so amazing. Triple double crazy no one else can do it.” If he says he’s going to murder Kevin Durant’s entire family and his future children it’s “lmao Russ is the best so petty lolololol.” I don’t get why he’s still holding on to this facade that he doesn’t think about Kevin Durant all day everyday and everything he does he does for the sole purpose of showing Durant that he doesn’t care about him, but whatever, everyone eats it up anyway. We get it, you love Russell Westbrook and think he’s the greatest and you hate KD and all that, but that doesn’t make him MVP. Liking someone more doesn’t make someone MVP. I’m not the biggest LeBron guy, but I’ll always say when he’s MVP. Yes, if LeBron didn’t exist Westbrook would be the greatest athlete to ever play in the NBA, but he’s not MVP. I’m sorry (not really though).
Now, onto my case. Everyone is losing their minds about Westbrook’s stats, and rightly so. There’s a reason no one has averaged a triple double in 50 years. But there’s not really a huge difference between his stats and Harden’s. First, we have to throw out rebounding, because we shouldn’t care about rebounding with these two because they’re both guards and rebounding doesn’t matter for them anyway, but still. Guess who leads the league in uncontested rebounds? If you said Westbrook, you’re right! 8.5 of his 10.7 rebounds per game are uncontested, i.e., he forced his teammates to box out really hard so he could chase triple doubles. But 6.4 of Harden’s 8.1 rebounds were also uncontested. You’re telling me Harden couldn’t have gotten up to 10 rebounds a game if that’s all the Rockets cared about? Neither guy was exactly banging down low fighting for loose balls. They both got typical guard rebounds, they both just got a lot of them. Moving on, Westbrook averages 31.6 points to Harden’s 29.1. But Westbrook takes five more shots per game than Harden. Harden’s true shooting percentage, which incorporates free throws and adds weight to three point shooting, is 61.3% compared to Westbrook’s 55.4%. Harden’s shooting efficiency is vastly superior, even with Westbrook unexpectedly shooting around league average from 3. Assuming he kept the same percentage, if Harden shot two (2) more times per game, he’d average more points than league-leading scorer Russell Westbrook. Harden comes out on top in playmaking, too, which is something that does matter for guards. Now, it would be irresponsible to leave out the fact that Harden set the record for most turnovers in a season. No one has ever turned the ball over more than Harden this year. Well, if Harden wasn’t around guess who would have the record? Westbrook from this year! Both of them turn the ball over way too much, but both of them have the ball the entire game and set up absolutely everything for their teams, so that’s a wash. Harden averaged 11.2 assists to Westbrook’s 10.4. Not a huge difference. But, when you look at assist points created, Harden is ahead of Westbrook by over three points per game. When you add their scoring numbers to the assist points to see how many points per game they’re responsible for, it’s 56.2 to 55.4 in favor of Harden. So for all the fawning over Westbrook’s scoring, Harden creates more points and is more efficient while doing so. Neither one is particularly good on defense, but Westbrook will certainly get the benefit of the doubt over Harden, who has improved/tried a little this season.
Another thing floating around is that Westbrook closed the season so well that you have to give it to him. Sure, in March and April he averaged 32.7, 10.7, and 10.7 with slightly better shooting. So, his season long numbers. Yes, he hit a buzzer beater against the Nuggets and had some huge games. But didn’t we establish earlier that a 20 game stretch doesn’t make a season? Statistically, he was minimally better than he was the entirety of the season down the stretch, where Harden either at or slightly below his season long form during that same stretch of time. So Harden was better than him all season, but during the big stretch of time where everyone wants to point at and say “Russ was so much better!” Harden was actually still better. Weird. Westbrook has been devastating in the clutch, that’s undeniable. But it’s not like Harden is some wallflower in close games. And, of course, the Rockets had a significantly better record.
Everyone will try to act like Westbrook is dragging a group of 8th graders to wins while Harden is working with the ’86 Celtics, but that’s not true whatsoever. Look at the Rockets’ roster and tell me how many sure things they had before the season. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Patrick Beverly are frequent injury risks. Nene was washed up in Washington. Clint Capela was unproven and thrust into a huge role. The only guys where you could say “I know what I’m going to get out of this player” are Trevor Ariza and Lou Williams, and Lou Williams wasn’t on the roster until February. When healthy, it looks like the Rockets have the superior roster, but that’s just because it was perfectly built to compliment James Harden’s skill set and Harden brings out the best in them. The Thunder roster was perfectly built to compliment Westbrook and Durant’s skill sets, but when Durant left, it became perfectly built for Russell to chase triple doubles. The Thunder’s only goal this season was for Westbrook to average a triple double, whether the other players liked it or not. The Rockets’ goal was shoot a million 3s and try to game the system. And it shows in their records. Personally, I’m not thrilled about having the MVP on a 6 seed. The Thunder’s winning percentage was .573 this year. The last MVP whose team had a lower winning percentage was Moses Malone in 1982. So, for 35 straight years winning a lot of games has mattered in the MVP race, but now that a player who had a teammate leave in free agency is having a huge season it doesn’t mean anything anymore? Should Mo Williams have won the MVP LeBron’s first year in Miami? Should Chris Bosh have won MVP LeBron’s second first year with Cleveland? No. Kevin Durant leaving should have nothing to do with this, but it invariably will. Does it suck he left? Yes. Does it suck he went to the Warriors? Yes. Would I feel the same way if he came to the Celtics? No. But that doesn’t make someone MVP. When movies cast Daniel Day-Lewis as a mentally challenged man who paints with his feet, we roll our eyes for the blatant Oscar chasing. But when the Thunder dedicate their entire season to inflating Westbrook’s stats and allowing him to unabashedly gun for the MVP, we embrace it? It’s almost cynical how un-transparent Westbrook’s MVP case is. The Rockets built their team to get Harden MVP, too, but they did so under the guise of trying to win. Once Durant left, everything the Thunder did was to try and ensure Westbrook could average a triple double and try to get MVP, just so he could show Kevin Durant just how little he cares about him. And all of you are falling for it. Almost every aspect of Harden’s season has been better than Westbrook’s. I hope everyone else realizes that, too.
Apologies To: Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Steph Curry,
Carmelo Anthony Isaiah Thomas