Both will make a lot of ballots, and that’s fine.
A word on the Leonard-LeBron debate: LeBron at full throttle is the better player, and perhaps still the best player in the league. Curry has been the best and most valuable player in the NBA — a glitch in the system who transformed a sport. Without further ado:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
He’s not LeBron in those situations. He doesn’t snap at teammates or manufacture chaos with calculated, passive-aggressive social media fits. The better team usually wins a best-of-seven series, and the best teams with the best players win championships.
Porzingis can’t match Jokic’s advanced numbers, and he actually shot a tick worse from downtown. It takes nurturing over years. Iguodala laps the field as a playmaker and defender. He loosed Isaiah Thomas without worrying about his defensive limitations, encouraged Avery Bradley to chuck more 3s and pushed Jae Crowder to test his off-the-bounce game. Draymond Green
2. The NBA is considered the most predictable of the four major U.S. 1 — a jack-of-all-trades with the speed to extinguish pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the basket, glue-trap hands that rip more steals than almost any big man in league history, and the guts to initiate an airborne collision at the rim. Casey, Clifford and Stevens were the final, painful cuts; all of them have real arguments for the top spot.
So, screw it: I’m going with the blue-collar, unheralded Ed Davis — a journeyman who became essential for Portland, and has long slapped up per-minute numbers that blow away almost every other sixth-man candidate. The Warriors would have to reinvent their entire offense, and they might not be very good.
1. He doesn’t take possessions off.
The fully engaged Warriors are a perfectly coordinated swarm. He would be a star anywhere. Redick and Jordan. But no other candidate has done enough in every facet of the game to unseat him — especially given Golden State’s historic success.
Lowry became a superstar, always in hunched motion, waiting to spring into open space when you take a breath. The drudgery of travel and in-the-moment decision-making are big parts of coaching. For all the angst over whether Leonard can generate offense when everything else stalls out in crunch time, he ranks among the league’s best one-on-one scorers — from both the perimeter and the post, per Synergy Sports research.
He redefined the tone of the organization the moment he walked in the door. He might win, and he’d deserve it.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Clifford reimagined Charlotte’s offense as a high-octane triple machine without conceding an inch on any of his conservative (basketball) principles: low turnovers, fast-break paranoia, and killer defensive rebounding. He stabilized the team’s iffy defense with some key midseason tweaks, including a few that nudged players into uncomfortable new challenges. Popovich tweaks the stylistic fringes to fit every new cast, and that’s why this second-place vote isn’t just a lifetime achievement trophy. There is some merit to that. They don’t think of him much at all, really. He logs about 21 minutes per game, the same as Kanter, and half-dozen fewer than Tristan Thompson, his burlier doppelgänger in Cleveland, working the same role as a hybrid, rim-running big.
1. He’s like a five-tool center! If he’s not a top-15 player already, he’s going to be soon.
I lean toward Green because of his versatility — and especially his unique ability, at 6-foot-6, to credibly guard centers. Brutes with touch and the heft to get into Whiteside’s body have done damage on the block; opponents have hit 51 percent of their post-up shots against him, per Synergy Sports research, 10th worst among 72 defenders who have faced at least 75 post-ups this season.
The bedrock principles of San Antonio’s culture have been unassailable for 20 years. Patrick Patterson’s candidacy suffers from the same lack of raw production, but his 3-point shooting at power forward and ability to guard multiple positions make him a key part of almost every successful Toronto lineup. What a season.
Traditionally, this is an award for gunners. They respect Paul, but they don’t shudder at the possibility of him smashing through their entire team — and the concept of normal basketball — for two or three pivotal minutes.
The only drama comes in the last four spots, which means it really doesn’t matter much for historical purposes. 5 or No. Stephen Curry
2. He blew them away. Jahlil Okafor missed 35 percent of the season, played some of the worst big-man defense in NBA history and exacerbated an internal crisis with embarrassing off-court behavior. Kevin Durant
5. Green is the yapping nervous system of that defense.
1. Most of the Clippers’ bench mobs have stunk, anyway. Steve Kerr
2. Paul can’t match Westbrook’s gaudy triple-double numbers, or turn a game on its head with 45 seconds of snarling athleticism. Some smaller guys can fake it for a possession or two, provided some crisis — like a rebound bouncing in their direction — doesn’t happen. He has remade himself into a natural fit for Stotts’ catch-and-go system, and works hard on defense.
Crawford’s limitations on defense matter even more when he plays with those guys, since that means he’s probably also playing against opposing starters — lineups that might not offer him a safe hiding spot.
Confession: I had no idea what to do with this award once Iguodala started missing games — and with Whiteside ineligible.
Jabari Parker and Julius Randle are basically rookies. They’re going to win mega-awards, anyway, and one of them will likely snag the championship.. That is remarkable. He sure scored a lot, though! Devin Booker got started too late, defended air and finished with an ugly — if understandable — uptick in turnovers. We don’t do a good enough job noting the other three or four bets that come up snake eyes, leaving shooters open and hanging teammates out to dry. Westbrook’s decision-making at money time can be scattershot.
Stotts empowers players to stretch themselves in his whirring motion offense, knowing that if they feel involved on that end, they’ll buy into the grunt work. Chicago lost its way, and by the end of the season, the Bulls were just throwing crap against the wall on offense — lifeless possessions with no purpose. McCollum worked as Portland’s de facto backup point guard when Lillard rested, and the Blazers outscored opponents during those minutes, per NBA.com research. When two bets in a row hit, it looks spectacular, and we laud Westbrook’s ability to bend the game to his will. Thompson has been great, but the Cavs would have finished first or second in the East even if he had held out the whole season. Popovich re-centered his offense around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge without completely losing the pass-first mojo that powered the 2012-2015 versions of the Spurs borg; you especially see it on bench-heavy units. He’s just not as good as these other guys.
But he has developed into the keystone of the league’s stingiest defense since Jan. Ian Mahinmi
Below that stratosphere, team identity and culture are fragile. Leonard doesn’t think, or pass, two steps ahead of the defense, and he’s not strong enough to bulldoze his way to the rim every damn time. But you could imagine these Warriors playing good defense without Green; they did under Mark Jackson, using a more traditional scheme. No one else should get a first-place vote.
But from start to finish, Leonard had the better season, for the better team. Most of those chuckers can slide into a secondary role alongside starters in crunch time.
Choosing Millsap for the No. He became a different player.
He’s still bad on defense, but not as bad as he once was. The Blazers don’t rise from the ashes without McCollum maturing into a borderline star.
Davis’ 21 minutes drove Portland toward the unexpected. 2 slot. Some combination of injuries, infighting and confusion undid Washington, New Orleans and Phoenix. Their ascension is almost expected. They are active with such synchronization; you barely notice the activity. Gentle reminder: I consider every speck of information — game film, public stats, secret stats I wrangle up, exchanges of intel with team officials — and I don’t hate your team.
He’s also a better, more versatile defender — quick enough to guard any wing, and so long, he can dart in from the strong side to snuff a drive and veer back to a sharp shooter without conceding a thing. Terry Stotts
There are too many six-point, five-rebound nights for Davis to win this award, but he deserves a hard look. He can play with any lineup, and against any lineup. Karl-Anthony Towns
2. And alas, DeAndre Jordan is not quite as good as his reputation.
Mahinmi doubled his career assist total, nearly doubled his scoring average and obliterated almost every past statistical marker — all while maintaining his SMOTHERED CHICKEN presence around the rim on defense. No team plays, and lives, with a better spirit. The Magic still don’t know what in the hell they are.
This is why, as queasy as it makes me, I can look past the fact that serious health issues kept Kerr off the sideline for half the season. Davis has better stats across the board: 61 percent from the floor as a basket vulture, the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the league and much better rim-protection numbers.
But you can’t make a case based on a single, all-in-one stat, especially one questioned by team insiders with access to the real secret sauce: analytics derived from SportVU tracking data. Not here.
None of the league’s perimeter stoppers — including Paul George and Jimmy Butler — matched the consistency of these three studs.
COACH OF THE YEAR
That leaves an impossible choice between Westbrook and Durant — a choice that almost seems unfair given the Thunder’s hit-or-miss supporting cast. You could build an argument for James Harden, carrying the wheezing wraith of Houston on his back, but he showed up out of shape and played zippo defense for a would-be contender about to limp into the No. Towns kills by those metrics, sources tell me, and he laps the field by most other public statistical measures.
He has also played 900 more minutes than Jokic, the equivalent of 19 full games, while shouldering a much heavier load; Jokic averages a hair fewer than 10 points per game, and sometimes looks reluctant to assert himself. Who doesn’t?
Even so: There are matchups that trouble him. Isolating a coach’s work from Halloween through tax day is a strange conceit.
Advanced stats wonks have argued he should win the award, and he has a strong case to leapfrog Porzingis for the No. Crowder and Whiteside are matching what they did last season in more limited runs in Boston and Miami, respectively.
You could give the third slot to at least two-dozen guys, but I’m going with Mahinmi, Indy’s only source of reliable front-line play over the full season. Players embraced those challenges, in part because they thought their coach and their superstar had already embraced them.
This is like choosing between Elastic Man and a fire-breathing version of The Thing. The first type is packed: Gary Harris, Doug McDermott, Clint Capela, Rodney Hood, JaMychal Green, Jerami Grant and many more. McCollum
2. 3 spot will raise some eyebrows, especially in Miami, where Hassan Whiteside rejected everything in sight. You trust Stevens’ play calling a bit more than Casey’s in crunch time.
Walker vowed for years he would do this. Jokic has more competition for minutes and touches, but it’s not as if he’s stuck in a loaded roster; the Nuggets are only four games ahead of Minnesota, and Jusuf Nurkic, one of Jokic’s main competitors for playing time, spent half the season injured and in Mike Malone’s doghouse.
Walker reinvented only one part of his game, but that single change — morphing into an above-average 3-point shooter — transformed everything for the Hornets. Do that now, and Walker is roasting you from deep.
1. LeBron can be the fastest all-court defender in the league when he wishes; remember, he outperformed computerized ghost defenders programmed to be perfect!
Westbrook remains a manic gambler who submarines too many possessions with reckless choices. Only Rick Carlisle, a confirmed warlock, and perhaps now Kerr can touch Pop’s in-game strategy and lineup optimization.
I understand if some readers might not be able to identify Jokic if he walked by them. He’s a slick passer from the post, the elbows and in transition.
The Blazers snagging the No. No one is. He has been a two-way force with the inside-outside skill set a big-man star needs in the modern NBA. Jokic leads all rookies in adjusted plus-minus by a mile; he’s ninth in the whole stinking league, right ahead of DeMarcus Cousins! He’s an intuitive, nasty defender — better than you’d guess, given his ho-hum athleticism.
Additional apologies to: Crawford, Turner, Patterson, Thompson, Mirza Teletovic, Jeremy Lin, Shaun Livingston, Dennis Schroder, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Manu Ginobili, Bismack Biyombo and Matthew Dellavedova.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Somehow, it’s already time to hand out regular-season awards. Other teams fear Westbrook. Green and Curry lean on each other, and lift the team together, but the value gap between them is large enough to shove Green off this ballot.
Still: Kanter gives back a lot of points, and the Thunder will have to cut his minutes against elite postseason offenses who target him like chum.
Whiteside doesn’t, though he has found another gear over the past three months. It’s a big reason Charlotte gradually found its footing in those minutes when Walker leads the offense without Nicolas Batum as co-pilot.
The Warriors’ offense falls apart without Curry, and for the second straight season, opponents outscored Golden State — by a huge margin — with Curry on the bench. Nikola Jokic
D’Angelo Russell combined hot shooting with beyond-his-years playmaking after finally earning Byron Scott’s trust, only to betray Nick Young’s and deflate the Lakers’ locker room.
This was just a brutal category.
Now, he’s doing stuff like this:
That left Durant, Westbrook and Paul for two spots. You cannot imagine Golden State with a league-average point guard in Curry’s place. He is much better than his traditional numbers suggest. He finally made good. It’s a little corny how Boston’s Stevens talks about wanting players to “soar with their strengths,” but he lives up to the motivational mantra. Paul Millsap
This is partly a multiyear achievement award for Kerr and Popovich, and it should be. Kristaps Porzingis
3. If you’re looking for a high-volume chaos engine, this is your guy.
But Curry and Leonard were already so damn good, they had only so far to leap. When Stotts asked Davis to defend power forwards so that Leonard could hang closer to the hoop against centers, Davis accepted the shift out of position — and busted his butt to make it work.
Barton and Enes Kanter might represent superior versions of the classic Crawford candidacy. Everything about the Warriors — their style, their identity, their strut — emanates from his historically unprecedented shooting.
The final spot came down to a bunch of guys whose teams play together, play hard and know who they are: Stotts, Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Steve Clifford, Erik Spoelstra, Dave Joerger, Quin Synder, Stan Van Gundy, Mike Budenholzer and Carlisle. C.J. He had never started more than 12 games, and he entered this season with 107 career assists; ask him to throw a quick-hitter on the move, and he was more likely to fling the ball five rows deep in the stands.
Towns should win unanimously. Andre Iguodala
2. Myles Turner is coming off the bench again.
But on a night-to-night basis, Paul is the more calming, precise player, and he has to be on the ballot after keeping the Clippers afloat amid Blake Griffin’s injury melodrama.
Also: Win 72 games — and maybe 73! — and I break my long-standing rule of voting for Popovich every season.
He likes to hang back on the pick-and-roll, inviting disaster against sharpshooters like Curry and Damian Lillard, who need only a sliver to unleash pull-up 3s upon turning the corner. Crawford thrives with Paul, J.J. Chris Paul
But Crawford is barely shooting 40 percent from the floor. Whiteside has been more diligent taking an extra step out toward such players over the past 40 games, but he’s wobbly — and vulnerable to blow-bys — outside his comfort zone.
There is more to winning basketball than shooting and scoring. Ed Davis
Durant gets the nod by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. Barton outshot Crawford despite a late-season slump, revved up Denver in transition, rebounded like a power forward and defended more reliably across both wing positions. There was almost nothing in Mahinmi’s dossier to suggest he could work as the dive man in a semi-functional pick-and-roll offense. An MVP sharpening skills-within-skills to transform into an historic superstar might be the hardest advance, and certainly the most unusual. Pair him with a drive-and-kick star like Westbrook or Durant, and Kanter morphs into perhaps the league’s pre-eminent scoring mooch — gobbling up drop-off passes and offensive rebounds when his man leaves to help on a Thunder stud.
Coming later this week: my picks for All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defense.
I haven’t wrapped my head around what to do with the second type — notably Curry, Green and Leonard. Post-up brutes do better against backups; dump the ball to Kanter against some second-unit sad sack, and he’s eating buckets. That culture of openness and community held up as Kerr recovered. He also absorbed a larger burden during Griffin’s absence.
He has been Portland’s best big man; he plays a lot of crunch time, and has stepped into an even more important role with Meyers Leonard hurt and Noah Vonleh fading. Millsap is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, by far a career high, and he’s the only rotation player in the league topping 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per night.
Westbrook is incredible, and he might finish in the top three once the votes are in. He empowered Curry to test the limits of his revolutionary game, sold stars on passing and cutting, convinced big names to sacrifice and gave everyone a voice in choosing strategies. A lot of bench-heavy units are light on shot creators and need someone, anyone, to chuck when the shot clock dwindles. The bigs who might normally displace him have battled injuries, or slipped a bit from peak form: Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis and a few others. But Kerr was very much present during his absence, especially when the Warriors were at home.
He gets those numbers without gambling, and he can guard any position in a pinch. He’s a horse on the glass, always does his job in transition and plays hard on every damn possession.
There isn’t a case for anyone else. Kanter is trying harder this season, and he can usually survive if the other team plays at least one traditional big man.
1. But he’s plenty good, with a jumper that clicked as LeBron’s broke apart, and he has been the league’s second-best player.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
That is why Jamal Crawford is a two-time winner and such a popular candidate as he finishes this season with a flourish of crossover goodness. 8 spot with a win over the tanking Kings.
I have an official ballot again this year, so these votes count. People don’t think of Millsap as an elite defender. Both guys can defend up a position, but Durant sliding to power forward opens more lineup possibilities than Westbrook muscling a shooting guard.
Green is the firing brain circuitry of perhaps the greatest team ever, nearly as important to Golden State’s top-five defense as Curry is to their all-time offense. Remember: I was touting Whiteside early in the season when commentators who didn’t bother digging into even one layer of context would robotically recite the stat showing the Heat defended better with Whiteside on the bench.
But those teams had more continuity in talent; we knew most of them would be at least decent. He envelopes opponents, and he’d be the captain of my Mirror Guy team for defenders who move in such exact sync with a ball handler, it almost appears as if the ball handler is dueling with a reflection.
There are seven candidates for the last four spots: the four listed, plus Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green. Kemba Walker
3. Cousins could crack this ballot if he tried hard all the time. Opponents for years clogged Charlotte’s dreary offense by ducking under screens against Walker, walling off his driving lanes and leaving the Bobcats/Hornets heaving up junk late in the shot clock. LeBron James
4. By some measures, the dude is wrapping up one of the best all-around seasons ever for a rookie center. Being a low-key dude in Utah and Atlanta will do that.
1. Kawhi Leonard
3. He can slide more easily between the two big-man positions, hang with guards on switches, and swat damn near everything around the basket.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kanter might win the damn thing, and I’d have no problem with that. Stotts placed cast-offs and unknowns around Lillard and forged a playoff team in Portland.
Additional apologies to (deep breath): Barton, Crowder, Capela, Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Zach LaVine, Allen Crabbe, Evan Fournier, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lance Thomas, Khris Middleton, Marvin Williams, Reggie Jackson and many other nice people.
I gravitate toward the squishy middle — mid-career guys who make an overall leap, or hone one key skill that unlocks other parts of their game. Kawhi Leonard
3. No one watches the Nuggets — not even in Denver. Even piss-poor bench lineups relying on such tough jumpers can redistribute some of those shots to other players, and not lose much. Durant seized more possessions, dished more dimes and drove Oklahoma City to a better scoring margin in his non-Westbrook minutes than in the opposite scenario, per NBA.com research.
Leonard might be an even better one-on-one defender, though, and he could toggle between positions more often if Gregg Popovich demanded it. 6 seed after losing four starters is perhaps the happiest story of the season. Much of that gravitates from Stotts. Leonard and Green are the two most important, cruelest, most unfair defenders in the league, and it isn’t close. They help in one spot, bend away from another and return there before the offense even realizes anyone was open. LeBron resides in another universe as a passer. Evan Turner fills every gap for the Celtics.
Two broad player types give me trouble here: the second-year guy who thrives with increased playing time, and the superstar who somehow becomes even better. A lead ball handler polishing his long-range shot is the rare isolated skill development that ripples across an entire roster. Gregg Popovich
3. But Porzingis logged nearly 400 more minutes and did heavy lifting as the No. It’s like a 60-win team pushing for 70 the next season.
Defenders have to chase Walker over picks, and that means he can ankle-break his way into the paint — drawing help and opening up 3-point looks for Charlotte’s army of shooters. Young players get better with experience, and they get to play more.
Creating a cohesive ethos that sticks is a rare thing. The Raptors love Casey and play hard for him. He works as a co-point guard off the bench, defends the other team’s best wing players, drains 40-plus percent of his corner 3s when Curry is on the floor and shares a genius-level defensive mind-meld with Green.
He didn’t just maintain his per-minute stats over triple the minutes. He’s already a bright, shining plus at everything: post scoring, jump shooting, passing, defending the rim and scampering around in space. McCollum is really a Category 1 type on a one-year delay, but unlike a lot of young guys thrust into larger roles, he’s pulling this as the second-best player on a playoff team. There isn’t much difference between them statistically, and Durant reclaimed some control of the Thunder offense once Billy Donovan started staggering the Westbrook/Durant minutes in February. Will Barton
3. 2 option for the Knicks. Houston found something last season as a carefree, go-go outfit, brought back the same cast and fell apart amid chemistry issues, laziness and a staleness of spirit. pro sports leagues, and at the top, that’s true. He hit 3s at nearly a league-average rate, led fast breaks and assisted on 18 percent of Denver’s buckets while on the floor — the fifth-best mark in history for a rookie big. They switch and re-switch without cracking open even the teeniest lanes. Both engineer decent shots from nothing, but only LeBron can steamroll to the rim almost whenever he wants. He isn’t the only one responsible for building it, but he was the driver, and he’s one of the few who’s powerful enough to undermine it if he ever chose.
Millsap’s comfort zone extends across the full court, and every playing style. Green can play up a position for entire games if need be, and that is the launch code to basketball’s nuclear bomb: the Death Lineup, with Green as a sneering, rampaging, fast-breaking center, and shooters raining death around him.
Yeah, Iguodala will end up missing 25 percent of the season
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