I wrote on Tuesday that there was – surprisingly – still some drama heading into the NBA’s final regular season night. Well, two days later and I still have yet to process everything. Golden State not only broke a seemingly unbreakable record, but also made sure Steph Curry hit those round numbers. Just as importantly, the Warriors assured victory quickly enough to allow me (and countless others) to switch over to the Lakers’ game, in time to witness Kobe’s last hurrah. It was the rare storybook night, with two games that one day, I will be proud to say I witnessed live.
And with the playoffs tipping off at 12:30 ET tomorrow, it is finally time to hand out the individual awards.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Stephen Curry
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Lebron James
4. Chris Paul
5. Kevin Durant
Not much more needs to be said about Curry. On Wednesday, he capped the best offensive season ever with another three point barrage. Steph hit 402 threes this season, clearing the 400 threes benchmark before anyone else has even made 300 in single campaign. He entered the 50-45-90 club while scoring 30 points per game. He averaged 5 made threes per game. And his team won 73 games. Everything that makes the Warriors an incomparably efficient team can be accredited to his shooting. This should be a unanimous vote.
It’s the next four spots where the drama ensues. In addition to the players listed, Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green have the two most compelling cases for a vote.
Green is the vocal leader of a 73 win team, a defensive stopper who doubles as the center in the greatest lineup of all time. His unmatched versatility and passing genius have accelerated Golden State’s ascent to the top. They are a top-five defense, and Green’s on/off numbers display his vital role in that achievement.
With him on the floor, Golden State’s allows a stingy 97.5 points per 100 possessions. That jumps to a ghastly 109.5 pts/100 poss when Green leaves the court, which would be the worst figure in the NBA. While that shift is partly due to Golden State’s subpar bench unit, Green’s absence is most sorely missed on defense.
Those who point to his unique role alongside Steph and question whether he could succeed elsewhere are wrong. His positionless nature, playmaking in the pick-and-roll, and defensive prowess would make him a star on any team. But in the debate of “most valuable,” his candidacy hits a snag. Using a classic test from Bill Simmons’ Book of Basketball helps illustrate this point.
Green derives much of his value from his defense, yet Golden State could probably play respectable defense with a league-average defender in his place. After all, they were third in defensive rating in 2013-2014, when he was a sparsely used reserve. Switch Curry with a league-average point guard (George Hill?) and the Warriors would be likely to win around 55 games. So much of what they do comes from Steph’s massive gravity on the court.
Draymond is probably the most valuable defender (we’ll get there) in the league, but his contributions to Golden State’s 73 wins are outweighed by Curry’s. While the duo have a symbiotic relationship, it’s an unbalanced one. Considering Draymond’s competition for the last couple of spots, this was enough to keep him from receiving votes.
The real debate came down to Durant, Paul and Westbrook. Looking at the resumés of the two point guards, there is little overlap. Westbrook’s scoring dipped late in the year, but his triple-double dominance still gives him the massive edge in counting stats. He outpaced Paul in points, rebounds, assists, and virtually tied with him in steals. Not that any of those achievements actually mean anything.
Paul’s value comes from his consistent excellence this entire season, especially without Blake Griffin whose injury left the Clippers without a secondary playmaker. JJ Redick has had a great season, but is loath to dribble the ball much, let alone create his own shot. And while Jamal Crawford has generated some sixth-man hype down the stretch, he’s an inefficient scorer and is hardly known for his passing.
That left Paul as the lone creator for the Clippers. Because of him, they are still 6th in the league in offensive rating, and have dropped by just 3.3 points/100 poss off their league-leading mark from last season. Paul is nearly as indispensable to LA’s offense as Curry is to Golden State’s. Their offensive rating drops from 111.9 to 98.1 when he leaves the floor. He’s managed a sterling 112.0 offensive rating without Griffin.
While it’s easy to get taken with Westbrook’s once-in-a-generation athleticism, there shouldn’t be much debate in the argument of ‘most-valuable.’ I actually put Westbrook over Paul for All-NBA first team because in an NBA vacuum, Westbrook’s skills and athleticism make him more productive than Paul, independent of any teammate or scheme. Pretty much every time, the better player also ends up being the more valuable one. But in the context of this season, Paul deserves outsize credit for guiding the Clippers’ ship through injury and off-the-court drama. He’s the pick here.
It came down to the two Thunder teammates for the final spot. For much of the season, it seemed as if Russ would end up higher than Durant in MVP voting. He actually still might. When they shared court time, Westbrook’s sheer ball-dominance allowed him to overshadow Durant. Once Billy Donovan started staggering lineups in February, Durant started thriving.
With KD running the offense without Westbrook, he played similarly to his role in his 2014 MVP season. His usage rates tell the story. Before the All-Star break, he had a 29.9% USG. That jumped to a 32.8% USG mark following the break.
Assists are also a fairly good litmus test for one’s involvement on the offensive end. They are far from perfect, but at least somewhat indicate the extent to which a player is facilitating the offense. Durant’s assists spiked to 6.5 per game during March, and his assist percentage went from 20.4% pre-All Star, to 28.2% after the break.
Durant also gets the edge defensively. He can switch anything, and uses his length well to challenge outside shots. An underrated shot-blocker, he does a great job sliding into the paint to contest layups. Westbrook’s steal numbers overstate his defensive ability–albeit not the extent that they do Curry’s. His style of defense is reflective of his game as a whole; incredible at times, but can veer towards recklessness.
As for LeBron and Kawhi, their respective votes will be an interesting reflection of voting trends. LeBron is still the better player overall, but did not contribute as much as Kawhi over the entire season. His bad habits on defense became well-known this season, and he can slack off entirely during games.
I would still rather have LeBron in the playoffs, knowing his defensive ability is tied to his effort. He’ll never be the defender Kawhi is – few are – but LeBron’s standard level of defense will be a massive improvement from the regular season. When he tries, he can still guard every position and cover vast amounts of space as fast as anyone.
LeBron is still unstoppable in transition, leading all players with over 250 such possessions in transition scoring. He can pretty much get to the line at will, a valuable trait in an offense that stagnates as often as Cleveland’s does. Kawhi’s percentages crush LeBron’s, and he does a decent job of conjuring up offense in isolation. But he falls short as a passer, and cannot get to the rim at will – as LeBron can.
Momentum is certainly with James on this one. He has looked unbeatable at times in the past month, punctuated by his destruction of Atlanta earlier this week. He’s now a viable shooter from deep, which is more than enough. As long as teams have to run over screens to guard him, he’ll remain in this form. Anecdotally, it also seems like he has found a way to harness the turmoil surrounding the Cavs, and use it to help his game. He’s thrown down vicious dunks and finished fast breaks with extra ferocity.
But over the course of the season, Kawhi emerged as his team’s premier offensive threat, maintained his All-World defense, and guided the Spurs to 67 wins. While LeBron’s defense faltered, his ratcheted to another level. And he never called out his teammates, got Popovich fired, or posted subtweets about LaMarcus Aldridge. That has to count for something.
Honorable Mention: Russell Westbrook, Draymond Green, Kyle Lowry, Paul George, James Harden
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Draymond Green
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Paul George
At the end of the day, I don’t have particularly strong feelings about who wins this award. Both Kawhi and Draymond have exemplary cases, and also happen to play for the two best teams of perhaps the last decade. It's a privilege to choose between these two defensive powerhouses.
I chose Green because of his positional versatility, especially his ability to guard centers for long stretches in Golden State’s Death Lineup. It’s unprecedented for a player of Green’s stature be able to start and play whole games at center, yet still be able to switch on every pick-and-roll.
When Miami experimented with LeBron at the 5 a few years ago, it brought into focus how difficult it is for a forward to move up to center. They lose their legs, concede rebounds, and can get bullied in the post. Draymond is able to avoid these obstacles with reasonable success, and still serve as a playmaker in the Warriors’ offense. He even has similar rim protection numbers compared to contemporary Warriors centers Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Draymond faces 6.4 shots at the rim per game, and allows a 46.6% FG% on these shots. Compare that to Bogut, who also faces 6.4 FGA/game and allows a 45.2% FG%.
It’s impossible to separate Green’s defensive excellence from the success of the Death Lineup. The lineup is practically a cheat code late in games. Golden State has a defensive rating of 83.8 in clutch situations (last five minutes of 4Q or OT, game within five points).
Playing their switch-heavy, swarming style of defense, they rely on Green to serve as their communicator. And with Draymond at the helm, the death lineup bashes opposing offenses into oblivion, and the Warriors outscore opponents by 44.4 pts/100 poss while the lineup is in.
Kawhi is probably the better defender in isolation, and would be the preferred pick to shut down LeBron or Durant in a playoff series. He is rarely asked to guard multiple positions, but could easily do so if needed. Embarrassing vines aside, he certainly has the lateral quickness and defensive instincts to guard point guards. His ability to shadow a ball-handler the entire length of the court is pretty amazing. Any subpar dribbler taking the ball up against the Spurs does so at his team’s risk. Kawhi’s gargantuan length and superb instincts leads to plenty of backcourt steals when San Antonio applies pressure.
At the third spot, George is hardly a lock. Hassan Whiteside may very well place third for his gaudy block numbers. As another premier perimeter defender, Jimmy Butler has a similar case as George does, but has played about 350 fewer minutes. Playing time also keeps Rudy Gobert and Tim Duncan out of consideration. And if there was a “Most-Improved” category for defense, it would almost certainly have to be awarded to Paul Millsap, who morphed from a dominant rebounder into a multi-dimensional force on the defensive end.
Heading into the preseason, George had played just 91 minutes of NBA basketball since his grotesque knee injury that occurred on August 1st, 2014. There was essentially a 14 month gap in his NBA career, yet he has not missed a beat this season. Even more impressively, he’s done so at a new position. After never playing power forward in 2013-2014 (per Basketball-Reference), he has played 46% of his minutes this season at the 4.
His 6’10’’ frame allows him to switch everything, and he is still a lockdown on-ball defender. The 2015-2016 Pacers are hardly recognizable from their 56 win team in 2013-2014. Roy Hibbert, David West, Lance Stephenson, and even Luis Scola are gone. They went from a plodding pace of 94.9 poss/game to 99.0, good for 10th in the league. Yet their defensive identity is still there. After ranking first in defensive rating in 2014, they barely slipped with George back in the lineup, finishing third in 2016.
Honorable Mention: Paul Millsap, Ian Mahinmi, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Avery Bradley
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Karl-Anthony Towns
2. Nikola Jokic
3. Kristaps Porzingis
Much like MVP, this vote should also be unanimous. Towns has been incredible in his opening season, and is a big reason for the optimism surrounding the young Wolves.
Towns’ year belongs amongst the best rookie seasons of all time. He stacks up with the best debuts, from the well known rookies (Griffin, Duncan, Shaq, Webber) and lesser known campaigns (Elton Brand, Larry Johnson). And all of those players had more than one year of college experience.
Coming out of the All-Star break, Towns played like a dominant veteran. His minutes and usage both increased, and he began cutting down on his mistakes. Towns’ assist/turnover ratio went from 0.69 to a sprightly 1.19 following the break. His averages improved as well, with his pts/game jumping from 17.1 to 20.8. His diverse offensive game opens up the offense for Wiggins and Lavine. He’s a efficient scorer in the paint and the midrange, as his shot chart below indicates (data from NBA Savant)
As a team, the Wolves drastically improved offensively once Zach Lavine got inserted into the starting lineup. That lineup of Rubio - Lavine - Wiggins - Dieng - Towns played the seventh-most minutes of any five-man combination, and had an offensive rating of 113.5.
Towns is still dependent on Ricky Rubio for much of his offensive production. Without Rubio on the court, Towns’ offensive rating falls to a round 100.0. His outside shot is still coming along, and he needs to cut down on his charging fouls (second-most in the league). But he exhibits a soft touch both in the post and away from the basket, and his ball-handling abilities are amazing for a center. He’s nearly a star already, and should challenge for All-NBA first team next season.
Placing Jokic over Porzingis is sure to raise some eyebrows, and will draw the ire of Knicks fans. But on a per-minute basis, the advantage is clear. Jokic is a favorite of real plus-minus, finishing first amongst centers. He’s actually a slight better three point shooter than Porzingis, and a far more advanced passer.
Inconsistent playing time makes his candidacy trickier, as Jokic logged about 300 fewer minutes than Porzingis. Additionally, Porzingis had a much tougher role in the offense as the no. 2 option. Jokic was rarely the focal point of the defense, and never had to create his own shot the way Porzingis was forced to.
I don’t blame Jokic for his lack of minutes. Most of the blame lies at the feet of Mike Malone, who messed with Denver’s rotation of bigs all season. With Jusuf Nurkic injured, and then getting DNP-CD’s, it’s surprising Jokic did not log more minutes. But he certainly showed flashes of what he could do given a larger workload.
Jokic’s game log is almost jarring to look at. His minutes can go from 34 to 21 to 5 to 34 again, all in consecutive games. But when given the chance, he often contributes. He had 27-14-4 line against Toronto, and a 20-9-3 against when he faced Porzingis in Denver. With consistent playing time late in the year, he averaged a combined 11.2-9.4-3.5 line during March and April.
The margin is razor-thin, but the Serbian edges out the Latvian for runner-up status.
Honorable Mention: Devin Booker, Justise Winslow
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
1. Andre Iguodala
2. Ed Davis
3. Will Barton
Always a strange award to give, this year the race seems especially wide-open. Iguodala is the logical choice given that he is an indispensable piece of the best lineup of all time, but he scores just 7.0 PPG.
All too often, this award devolves into “which guy scored the most off the bench?” That is not as bad as it sounds, given that there’s a clear niche for a ball-dominant player who can serve as a catalyst for offense-starved second units.
But the choices this year who fit that archetype seem especially weak. Jamal Crawford is probably the favorite, but when he plays without Chris Paul, the Clippers offense is awful. Most of their bench units have been putrid, which can be at least partially accredited to Crawford. He's the best player of a weak bench, but still shoots only 40%, and could hardly be described as a plus defender.
Enes Kanter is another offense-only guy who has played well off the bench. His efficiency numbers are great, and he’s actually improved on defense. He’s still not close to league average, but still well above where he was last season. And his counting stats, shooting splits, and efficiency metrics all reflect offensive dominance against second units.
I’m still not sold on Kanter. He gets a lot of his points on easy buckets created by Westbrook and Durant, and his defense is still terrible. I can’t justify putting him above Iguodala, or even Ed Davis. Both of those guys are viable in the playoffs, and in Iguodala’s case, much more valuable. Kanter on the other hand, is pretty much unplayable against Golden State and San Antonio. Even Dallas will probably find a way to punish Oklahoma City anytime Kanter is on the floor.
Barton has just as compelling a case for Most Improved as he does Sixth Man. He deserves a ton of credit for improving his shot, while still playing league-average defense across multiple positions. Still, he went on a horrific slump late in the year, once Danilo Gallinari went out. It’s also a bit concerning that he couldn’t start over JaKarr Sampson at small forward, although that could be another piece of Mike Malone chicanery.
In Portland, Ed Davis has taken a massive leap forward this season. Whenever I watch the Blazers, he seems to be in the thick of things. He is a formidable offensive rebounder, and his defensive prowess keeps him on the court in crunch time. The Meyers Leonard injury could have proven disastrous for Portland’s frontcourt depth, but Davis has proven himself more than capable of increased playing time. His per-minute numbers and defensive impact give him the edge over Barton, Kanter, and guys like Patrick Patterson and Tristan Thompson.
I have my doubts that Iguodala will win, but he unquestionably deserves it. He was the Finals MVP last year, and has not slipped in play whatsoever. Golden State was 59-6 when Iguodala played, and his presence was sorely missed on their bench units. He served as the primary facilitator for the backups, and as a jack-of-all-trades with the starters.
His pairing alongside Draymond makes for a fearsome Warriors’ defense. Their two-man lineup has a 95.1 defensive rating, and a ridiculous +25.6 net rating. Iguodala is a catalyst on a 73 win team, someone whose contributions do not manifest themselves in the box score, but are awfully clear on the court.
It was unclear whether Iguodala was the right choice for Finals MVP last season. In this race, there is no such doubt. He deserves this.
Honorable Mention: Patterson, Kanter, Crawford, Evan Turner, Cory Joseph, Ryan Anderson, Mirza Teletovic, Jeremy Lin
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Steve Kerr
2. Gregg Popovich
3. Steve Clifford
If you really think about it, this award is a bit paradoxical. To isolate a coach’s performance in the context of one year does not reveal the scope of his accomplishments, or shortcomings. Beyond rotations, resting players, in-game adjustments, and coach-player relationships, it falls at least partially the coach to create a culture.
Popovich has obviously done that in San Antonio, with the help of Duncan and Spurs’ management. He is the de facto “best coach in the NBA,” not only for his strategic acumen, but also for the culture he has imposed. No one complains about being rested, or having their role changed. The players he has brought in have developed beautifully. Even the supposedly moody LaMarcus Aldridge has thrived with the Spurs. They won a franchise record 67 games this year, and nearly went undefeated at home. Pop is still the man.
So why am I giving the award to Steve Kerr?
For starters, the Warriors won 73 games. Sure, he was only tangentially involved for nearly half the season. But beyond the raw accomplishment - breaking the Bulls’ record - Kerr deserves credit for the culture he created. It’s facile to say anyone could win with this team. Mark Jackson didn’t, and the personnel was largely similar.
Under Kerr’s reign, the Warriors have averaged 70 wins a season. They’re 78-4 at home, and 16-5 in the playoffs. Kerr was the guy who let Steph Curry shoot 11 threes a game, changing basketball as we know it in the process. Kerr (somewhat accidentally) began playing Draymond Green at the 4, and later the 5. Kerr was able to convince Andre Iguodala to not only come off the bench, but to cede nearly all of his scoring duties to other players.
Golden State won 73 games without turmoil. They openly talked about going for the record. They actively tried to get Curry to 400 threes in their final game. Conventional wisdom leads elite teams to shy away from statistical records, and never talk about chasing the Bulls. The Warriors eschewed convention, and were confident enough to go for any record. That transparency and ambition has not been entirely cultivated by Kerr, but he has had a hand in it.
As for third place, there's a surplus of qualified candidates here. Clifford is my pick, but he edged out Mike Büdenholzer, Rick Carlisle, Dave Joerger, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, and Terry Stotts.
Carlisle was the toughest omission, especially after he won six straight to push the Mavs into the playoffs. Despite injuries to Deron Williams, and then JJ Barea, Dallas found ways to win. Most impressively, their stretch run came with Dirk Nowitzki mired in a shooting slump.
The other coach I most considered was Stevens. He’s probably the best in-game coach in the league in terms of rotation adjustments and ATO’s. He never uses the term himself (he prefers ‘player-enhancement’), but his player-development has been exception this year. Jae Crowder stands out, but Isaiah Thomas has also made the leap to becoming an All-Star caliber guard.
I opted for Clifford, the man behind Charlotte’s 15 win improvement. I have already discussed how Kemba Walker’s improved deep ball helped open up the offense, but Clifford made massive scheme changes to fit the personnel. He upped the pace slightly, but mainly he utilized Nic Batum and Marvin Williams to their full potential.
Batum had a wonderful bounce-back year after a nagging wrist injury plagued him in 2014-2015. He served as the secondary facilitator in Charlotte’s offense, as well as a long-range sniper. Having spent the last few years playing alongside two ball dominant players in Portland (Lillard + Aldridge), Batum flourished given increased responisibilites as a facilitator. After a terrible season in 2015 (the first of a two-year contract), Williams turned into a plus defender and an elite stretch big this year.
Last season, Charlotte shot a league-worst 31.8% from three, and made just 6.1 threes/game. This season, they upped those numbers to 36.2% and 10.6, respectively. Clifford was able to revamp the Hornets’ offense without sacrificing their mistake free, rebound-heavy identity. Charlotte finished with a league-fewest 12.7 turnovers/100 poss, and also led the league in with a 79.8% defensive rebound rate.
He fostered improvement in key areas without allowing the Hornets to regress elsewhere. I even picked Charlotte to beat Miami in their first-round series. Clifford has had quite the season, and deserves this spot on the ballot.