While I was cleaning myself off from the vegetables thrown at me and putting a bandage over my eye to cover the shiner from the shoe thrown at me, I had a period of brief reflection.
Do I really want to release the second part of my 2016-2017 NBA Awards after the response from part one — which released on Total Sports Live, yesterday? Do I want to endure the wrath of more groups of NBA fans?
Of course, I do. I will be a willing target for folks that come to Total Sports Live for the witty, thought-provoking columns and stay for the opportunity to peg columnists with either rotten vegetables, footwear, or a nasty/poorly constructed tweet directed at me. (The latter of which is the simplest and most frequent choice of folks.)
I’m coming prepared, this time. My shield is in hand, and I’m definitely wearing riot gear.
Let’s upset the masses with more awards!
NBA Defensive Player of the Year
My Pick: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Runner-up: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Honestly, this selection was a lot easier than I thought.
Why is it easy, you ask? How can a person vote for Gobert over Draymond Green — a player that defends multiple positions for a 67-win Golden State team?
Here’s how. Gobert ranks tops or very high in the following categories:
Defensive Win-Shares (1st)
Defensive Box Plus/Minus (2nd)
Blocks and Blocks per Game (1st)
Block Percentage (1st)
Defensive Rebounds (5th)
Gobert is also first in the league in terms of “Best nickname that is representative of what he’s best known for”. Seriously, “The Stifle Tower” is brilliant on so many levels.
Keep in mind that Gobert is the centerpiece of a Utah Jazz team that is the best in the league in opponent’s points per game allowed (96.8 OPP ppg). That and Gordon Hayward’s ascension are why the Jazz are a 51-win fifth seed going into the playoffs, who will give the Los Angeles Clippers all they can handle and then some. (Jazz win the series in six games, by the way. I’m calling it, now.)
Green makes a fine case for the Defensive Player of the Year award (2nd in defensive win shares, 1st in defensive box plus/minus), but Gobert checks way too many more boxes in my view to not give him the award.
(SIDE NOTE: I have a friend whose family has origins in Paris. When I told her about Gobert, who is from Saint-Quentin, her response was something to the effect of, “Wow! I didn’t know we grew them that size.” I’m tempted to get her an oversized Gobert jersey for comedic effect, but she’s more into fellow Frenchman and Sixers guard Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, anyway.)
NBA Coach of the Year
My pick: Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards
Runner-up: Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
Your confused looks are noted, and your Scooby-Doo like “huh” reactions are loud and clear. Brooks for the Coach of the Year award over Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich whose teams have 67 and 61 wins respectively? Yes. Scott Brooks.
Brooks signed a five-year, $35 million contract from the “Ex-Bullets” this past offseason after being fired by the Oklahoma City Thunder in April of 2015. Even I have to be honest when I said I was unsure if Brooks would make it through his first year. That possibility was looking more and more likely when Washington was only 19-19 in mid-January.
The Wizards went 30-14 the rest of the way, including winning 15 of 18 from Jan. 14 to Feb. 24. At one point, the Wizards won 17 straight games at home before they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Feb. 6 by five points in overtime.
John Wall and Bradley Beal being healthy for a change definitely helps (Beal especially). Brooks has also helped turn Otto Porter, Jr. — the third overall pick in the 2013 draft — into a worthy third scoring option to Wall and Beal and someone who may just get a max contract this offseason. Porter leads the team in VORP and has career highs in points, three-point shooting, and ORtg, which he also leads the league in.
Most importantly, Brooks steadied a ship that looked dead in the water back in January to one that you could see pulling into the port of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. (I’m not saying it will happen, but it would not surprise me.)
D’Antoni’s Rockets have had an excellent season winning 55 games, but there’s a “chicken and egg” debate to point out. Should D’Antoni get the Coach of the Year award because he’s a good coach, or is he the Coach of the Year because he coaches a team assembled by my Executive of the Year, Daryl Morey?
Morey constructed the perfect team for D’Antoni by not re-signing Dwight Howard (thankfully), adding Eric Gordon in free agency, and trading for Lou Williams at the trade deadline. I’m inclined to say D’Antoni benefits from the fruit of Morey’s labor and not the other way around. Steve Kerr coaches the Warriors who have Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, etc., and Popovich has toys like Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, and a resurgent Manu Ginobili. Brooks has done more with less, and for that reason, he’s my pick for this award.
Before I hand out my final award, let me don my flak jacket. Folks may get violent.
NBA Most Valuable Player
My Pick: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Runner-up: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Alright, let’s do this.
To begin, let me do my full MVP rankings:
1. James Harden
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. (tie) LeBron James
3. (tie) Russell Westbrook
That might upset some folks — particularly in the Oklahoma City area — but that’s fair in my eyes. (I only have Westbrook below LeBron because “J” comes before “W” when it comes to alphabetical order by last name.)
You could vote LeBron for the MVP award simply based on the fact that he’s the best player on planet earth right now. LeBron’s 2016-2017 season was more business as usual from a statistical standpoint (26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 8.7 assists, .619 TS%, 12.9 WS, .221 WS/48). Any other year, LeBron is first or second in MVP voting.
This year is not one of those years, so let’s go in-depth on the other three.
What Westbrook has done this season is incredible. He averaged a triple-double over the course of an entire 82-game NBA season. That’s something that has not been done in the league in 55 years. Ignoring that is an incredible disservice. What Westbrook did is no parlor trick. Westbrook is absolutely an NBA first team guard (more on that in a future column).
Westbrook leads the league in points per game (31.6), box plus/minus (15.5), usage (41.7 — a number that may not be reached again ever), assist percentage (57.3), and PER (30.6).
However, there are two things that are pretty big knocks on Westbrook for MVP. If Westbrook wins the MVP Award, he’ll do so shooting 42.5 percent from the field. That’s not just from three. That’s on the entire basketball court. That would be the third lowest in the history of the NBA, and the lowest since Allen Iverson in 2001 (42 percent). Voters will vote for Westbrook, and there is nothing wrong with that. My vote will not go to a player who does not shoot at least league average from the field.
The second knock on Westbrook is something that James Harden pointed out a few days ago:
I think that’s the most important thing. I thought winning is what this is about — period. I’m not going to get in-depth with all that, but I thought winning was the most important thing. If you set your team up in a position to have a chance, at the ultimate goal, that’s the most important thing.
Oklahoma City finished with 47 wins. Houston finished with 55. (I know. Kawhi and his Spurs finished with 61.) Harden is 100 percent correct, though. Wins matter. As good as Westbrook was this season, some would argue that he cost the Thunder more wins than they could have had.
Again, averaging a triple-double is amazing, but Oscar Robertson did not win the MVP award when he averaged a triple-double. I am not about to be a prisoner of the moment, nor am I falling for the banana in the tailpipe. Sorry, Russell. I’m not doing it.
Kawhi Leonard is the best player that most pay little attention to. One of my new favorite NBA writers, Shea Serrano of The Ringer, said on a podcast that Kawhi Leonard is the MVP for people who “say they read a lot of books, when they don’t really read a lot of books”. Take that quote however you will, but Leonard does play for the San Antonio Spurs — who are always seen as “boring” despite having four 60-win seasons since the 2010-2011 season.
As boring as the team may be, good God, Kawhi Leonard has been great this season. Leonard averaged a career-high in minutes per game (33.4), points (25.5), and offensive win shares (8.9). He’s kept up with his TS% (.611) and his three-point shooting (38 percent), and he’s still a monster on defense (102 DRtg, 4.7 defensive win shares).
Leonard is the second best two-way player in the league next to LeBron. He’s the best player on a team that won 61 games, and he’s taken over the franchise as the face of the A.T.D. era (“after Tim Duncan”). Like LeBron, Kawhi would be first or second in any other year of an MVP vote.
This year is not that year. This year was the “Year of the Beard”.
James Harden has been bonkers this season. He wasn’t the kind of Bonkers like that short-lived Disney cartoon in the mid-90s nor was he the kind of Bonkers like that disgusting candy.
Harden was the most positive definition of bonkers you can give.
When I heard that Harden was dumping Khloe Kardashian, that should have been everyone’s first indicator that something magical was going to happen. (The “Kardashian Kurse” is a thing, you guys. Look it up.) Secondly, Mike D’Antoni revealed when the season started that Harden was going to be the point guard in his offense.
There was doubt. There was disbelief in D’Antoni’s plan.
2nd in points per game (29.1)
1st in assists and assists per game (906/11.2 apg)
2nd in assist percentage (50.7 — which is up from 35.4, by the way)
1st in free throws and free throw attempts (746/881)
6th in minutes per game (36.4)
1st in offensive win shares (11.5)
1st in total win shares (15.0)
2nd in VORP (9.0)
21 triple doubles
.613 TS% (vs. Kawhi’s .611, LeBron’s .619, and Westbrook’s .554 (!))
Like I said: BONKERS! Remind me never to doubt Mike D’Antoni again — at least until I see the team construction, anyway. D’Antoni’s Rockets are the number two scoring offense in the league, and Harden is the reason why.
Harden has all the numbers an MVP award winner needs, but he has something else which is incredibly important. Harden makes his teammates better.
Clint Capela is averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, and field goal percentage. Ryan Anderson, the original “stretch-four” shot 40 percent from three for only the second time in his career. Lou Williams has averaged a career-high in points per game and shoots 43 percent from the field. Last but not least, Eric Gordon has seen a career renaissance.
Gordon signed a four-year, $53 million deal last summer. James Harden performed a resurrection of Eric Gordon’s career (16.2 ppg, 37% from deep). Who saw that coming? Whatever demons Harden exorcised from Gordon’s body to make him capable of the impressive 2016-2017 season he’s had makes Harden the MVP on general principle.
The final check mark on the Harden MVP award goes back to wins. They matter. They should not be the most important thing, but they encompass a lot of the pie. At the beginning of the season, the Rockets were projected to win an over/under of 41.5 games. They finished with 55. Harden and the Rockets exceeded expectations by almost fifteen games!
For comparison’s sake, the Thunder were projected at 45.5, and they finished around that number (47). Kawhi and San Antonio’s was 56.5 and won 61. Cleveland with LeBron was also 56.5, and they surprisingly came up short on that (51). If one player is the catalyst in exceeding expectations by 14 games, he’s the MVP.
Long live “The Beard”.