There is a reason why I always wait until the 82nd game of the season is in the books before deciding on my postseason awards choices. Three words: What’s the hurry?
This is a lesson I learned way back in 1999 when I was covering a late regular-season game at the Alamodome during the lockout-shortened 50-game season. There were still three of four games left, and I was sitting alongside a veteran reporter from USA Today and asked him which way he was leaning in the MVP race.
“I voted a few days ago,” he replied.
I was aghast.
Back then, I was writing for the Associated Press, which does not allow its writers to vote on awards because, like the New York Times, the company believes its reporters should report the news, not make the news. It’s a valid argument, although in the case of the AP it seems to fly in the face of what happens during the college football season when the AP’s Top 25 poll makes news each and every Monday.
Yesterday, I read an outstanding article by Howard Beck of Bleacher Report in which several writers revealed who they were voting for, and why. This is how we know that LeBron James is going to get at least one first-place vote.
Look, postseason awards recognize the accomplishments achieved over the course of an entire 82-game season. This season, there were six or seven players worthy of consideration for the five blank lines on my ballot. Kawhi Leonard of the Spurs would have been in one of those spots on my ballot if San Antonio had finished No. 2 in the West. The Spurs were 9-9 without him (hand injury) and 46-18 with him. He is the best two-way player in the league, and I say that with all due respect to LeBron James, who also gets it done on both ends of the floor more than he is given credit for.
But at the end of the night Wednesday as the regular season came to a close, Leonard’s Spurs were sitting in sixth place in the beastly Western Conference. I still like them to come out of the conference after an epic seven-game clash with the Golden State Warriors, but Leonard is getting squeezed off my ballot because, as I mentioned above, it has only five lines for MVP consideration. And there are five players whose efforts and accomplishments trump Leonard’s. (Twenty-four hours ago, I could not imagine writing that sentence. But as I said, there is a reason why I choose to wait until all 82 are played. A lot changed on the final night of the season, including my ballot choices.)
So let’s get on with it, with a note of thanks to the NBA for choosing me as a voter for the 10th consecutive year. It is an honor and a privilege, and I take it very seriously.
To me, one of the ways to take it seriously is to be patient, and to cast my ballot at the appropriate time. The season is in the books, so that time is now.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. James Harden, Houston Rockets. This choice was agonizing. It was a good agonizing, but agony is not something one wants to have too much of on a day-to-day basis. He ended the season with a triple-double, led the league in 30-point games, finished second in the scoring race and led his team to the No. 2 seed in the West despite long injury absences by Dwight Howard, Patrick Beverley, Terrence Jones and Donatas Montiejunas. He did it from Day One, he never let up, and he brought more “value” to his team than any other player in the NBA. As as I have said before, “value” is the operative word when choosing the Most Valuable Player. And “value” does NOT mean “Where would they be without him.” That argument holds true for every great player in the league. It means “What did he accomplish for his team.” In Harden’s case, the accomplishment is a No. 2 seed.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors. As of Tuesday afternoon, he was my choice for No. 1. An NBA record for 3-pointers (286), an unofficial record for most ankles broken, a franchise record 67 wins, an astounding 39 home wins. I believe he is going to win the award, probably drawing about 65 percent of the first-place votes. And he is certainly worthy of it. He is a pleasure to watch, as is his team. His numbers would be better is he did not sit out so many fourth quarters of blowout wins. He is a good citizen, a great shooter, a terrific playmaker … the list goes on and on. I hate it that I am putting him second. I absolutely hate it. But the NBA does not allow voters to split their votes. Life presents us with hard choices sometimes, and not voting him No. 1 is one of the hardest choices I have ever made as an awards voter. But did he bring as much “value” to the Warriors as Harden did to the Rockets. IMHO, in a photo finish, he did not.
3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans. When you need to defeat the surging San Antonio Spurs in order to secure a playoff spot, and you make every single big play down the stretch to get that playoff berth, you are the very definition of the word “value.” There is not one single flaw in this big man’s game, and when it is all said and done, he will have won this award multiple times. He gets it done on both ends of the court, he will be dominant (in a relative sense) in the first-round matchup with Golden State, and he carried a team that was without Jrue Holiday for 42 games and without Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for 22 games apiece.
4. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. The most mesmerizing player to watch night after night from the All-Star game on, he became a triple-double machine and almost singlehandedly led the Thunder into the playoffs when they were missing two of their best three players. Watching Westbrook was like watching Kobe Bryant a couple years back. If you didn’t turn on your TV to see what he would do, you were depriving yourself of one of life’s simple pleasures. I have never seen a player do the range of things he did on a night-in, night-out basis since I was covering Michael Jordan during the Bulls’ second three-peat. Yes, the Thunder came up short. But it was not for a lack of effort, and the effort put forth by Westbrook, who won the scoring title, was simply astounding.
5. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. We shall be seeing him in the NBA Finals (against the Spurs, I predict), and the best is yet to come from The King. He was nowhere near as dominant as he was over the past two seasons with the Heat, but that had to be expected with the Cavs having to go through the learning curve that they did after their “fragile” start to the season. They ended up winning 20 of their final 21 home games, and they are going to sail through the Eastern Conference playoffs. Was he more valuable to the Cavs than Leonard was to the Spurs? That is debatable, but Cleveland fans are probably a lot more confident than Spurs fans heading into the postseason, and that is saying a lot.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors. To win 67 games as a rookie coach is beyond belief. And to do it in the West makes it even more unfathomable. I cannot wait to see what kind of a tactician he is during the closing minutes of tight games, and what kind of adjustments he will make in playoff games when an opponent finds a way to shut down Curry. His team led the league in point differential, and they will be a beast in the postseason. My big question: How will they handle the pressure of high expectations?
2. Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks. He won 60 games. He made the Hawks a hot ticket (even though those tickets are relatively inexpensive by NBA standards). He turned a collection of very good but not great players into a fantastic team. But he won seven fewer games than Kerr despite playing in a weaker conference.
3. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics. Another agonizing choice, though comparing the third-place COY vote to the first-place MVP vote does a disservice to the word “agony.” Jason Kidd is just as worthy of a candidate, but Kidd’s team did not close the season with the same type of finishing kick as Stevens’ team, which finished seventh in the East.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves. Wiggins scored in double figures in every game after the All-Star break, reaching 20 or more 15 times and averaging 20 points. Nikola Mirotic, Nerlens Noel and Elfrid Payton combined to 20 or more points fewer than 15 times after the All-Star break. He averaged 23.3 points in April when every opponent knew exactly who the Wolves would rely upon for their scoring. He will be playing for Canada this summer at the FIBA Tournament Americas, and I am so excited to see it that I am planning to drive from New York to Monterrey, Mexico, to cover it. Yes, drive. A nice long road trip with a beautiful traveling companion might just be my 50th birthday present to myself. Now, if I can just find the right wingwoman …
2. Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls. We have been touting this guy on this site for four years now, and I am certain that Bulls fans feel it was worth the wait for him to come over from Real Madrid. He had eight 20-point games in the month of March, then just one in April. Will be interesting to see how Tom Thibodeau utilizes him (or does not utilize him) in the playoffs before losing his job. I’d bet my bottom dollar that Thibodeau is coaching in Orlando next season.
3. Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers. He does everything, and he got better at doing everything as the season progressed. Imagine what he could do if he had a real point guard feeding him the ball? And no, I do not count Michael Carter-Williams as a real point guard. Shedding him was an act of brilliance by Sam Hinkie, who will one day be hailed as a genius rather than a mad scientist. That day is coming sooner than you’d think. My best guess is that Philadelphia drafts Emmanuel Mudiay.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers. Another tough choice, because I usually favor on-the-ball defenders who can guard multiple positions over big guys who rebound, block shots and do little more than dunk (or miss free throws) on offense. But every time I watched the Clippers this season, I saw opposing players hesitate when they drove the lane and saw this guy waiting for them. There should be a new analytic stat: Shots not attempted because of the fear factor.
2. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs. He will be a max player this offseason as a restricted free agent, and I think the Spurs are smart enough to offer him a five-year max deal at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, thereby locking him up and allowing themselves the opportunity to pursue Marc Gasol of the Grizzlies. Yes, the Spurs don’t like giving out max contracts. But the Spurs are no dummies, and they know the new NBA economics with the incoming TV deal forces them to change what has been a longstanding and effective team-wide salary structure culture.
3. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors. Not enough is made of the Warriors’ defensive prowess, and Green is a latter-day Tony Allen — a guy who locks you up, no matter what position you play, and lets the Warriors’ offensive players save some energy for what they do best — score points. He is the x-factor for the Warriors in terms of whether they make it to the NBA finals.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
1. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls. If you told me before the season he’d average more points per game (20.0) than Pau Gasol or Derrick Rose, I’d have tilted my head like a puppy listening to an accordion. He, too, is a max player. And like Leonard, he made the right move by turning down an extension at less than his true market value. If the Bulls don’t offer him the max at 12:01 a.m. on July 1, they’ve lost their minds.
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz. When it is all said and done, the kid from France will have more career blocked shots than Mark Eaton. The Jazz are a team on the rise, and if they can find themselves a shooting guard who can be a 20-point threat night after night, they will be a playoff team next season.
3. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors. He upped his points per game (21.6 from 18.4), field goal percentage (.463 from .444) and 3-point percentage (.439 from .417), scored 37 points in one quarter and 26 in another and became an All-Star for the first time. He was already a very good player. He is now a great player.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
1. Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors. How many bench players are consistently the No. 1 option on offense in the closing seconds of tight games. Williams was that player for the No. 4 seed in the East, and he was a rock during injury absences for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan for the franchise that coined the expression “F*ck Brooklyn.” He will be a key factor when the Raptors kill the Wizards in the first round. Yes, kill.
2. Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics. This guy is the main reason why there will be playoff basketball in Boston this April. He averaged 19 points per game and 5.4 assists in green, and it is no easy thing to come to a team at midseason and be the linchpin behind such a strong turnaround. There is a strong case for making him No. 1, but Williams gets my vote because he did it for the Raptors all season, whereas Thomas played only 21 games for Boston after being traded by Phoenix on the day Lon Babby lost his mind.
3. Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. Led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring before getting hurt, and the Clippers went 12-5 without him. Wanted to find space on my ballot for Marreese Speights of Golden State, but be finished a close fourth in my mind.
F-LeBron James, Cleveland
F-Anthony Davis, New Orleans
C-DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento
G-Stephen Curry, Golden State
G-James Harden, Houston
F-LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland
F-Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
C-Marc Gasol, Memphis
G-Russell Westbrook, LA Clippers
G-Kyrie Irving, Cleveland
F-Pau Gasol, Chicago
F-Blake Griffin, LA Clippers
C-DeAndre Jordan, LA Clippers
G-Chris Paul, LA Clippers
G-Klay Thompson, Golden State
Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota.
Nikola Mirotic, Chicago.
Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia
Elfrid Payton, Orlando
Jordan Clarkson, LA Lakers
Jusuf Nurkic, Denver
Bojan Bogdanovic, Brooklyn,
Zack LaVine, Minnesota
Marcus Smart, Boston
T.J. Warren, Phoenix
F-Draymond Green, Golden State
F-Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
C-DeAndre Jordan, L.A. Clippers
G-Jimmy Butler, Chicago
G-Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
F-Tony Allen, Memphis
F-Tim Duncan, San Antonio
C-Rudy Gobert, Utah
G-Stephen Curry, Golden State
G-Chris Paul, LA Clippers
Chris Sheridan is publisher and editor-in-chief of SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.