My writing on this NBA season has been about as consistent as an Andre Drummond free throw. Life happens, and unfortunately writing isn’t my full-time job…yet. This year provided as many locks for awards as I’ve seen in some time. Virtuoso performances that defied logic, young stars taking the next step, and familiar faces make for something special. I try to remove my Cavalier bias from these and look objectively as best I can. As usual this is totally based on a subjective view of what I’ve been able to watch. As with most things in life, I try to trust my initial gut reactions.
Steph Curry–Golden State Warriors
Russell Westbrook–Oklahoma City Thunder
LeBron James–Cleveland Cavaliers
Kawhi Leonard–San Antonio Spurs
Chris Paul–Los Angeles Clippers
Seeing a first ever unanimous MVP isn’t out of the question here. That sounds crazy in a vacuum, but let’s keep the perspective of “craziness” this year. This guy has made 400 3’s, invented the “50-45-90” club and has his team on track to break the one unbreakable record I figured remained for NBA teams. Much smarter men have delved into the Steph 2016 greatness and I urge you to look there for more (see ESPN’s Zach Lowe). Otherwise let’s keep the Curry erections in our pants.
The real battle is for the four remaining spots. I simply can’t ignore Russell Westbrook’s 18 triple-doubles. To surpass a number last set by Magic Johnson, you deserve due respect. He is the absolute war machine on an NBA court. Non-stop high-energy, relentless motor, just a pure freak of nature. I still need to see this guy live.
LeBron is having another LeBron season. He is up slightly in most statistical categories, despite most pundits pointing out his lowered 3 point FG %. His eFG% is up from last year (effective FG % analyzes all aspects of shooting), his rebounds have gone up, assists have improved and the team seems to be playing it’s best late in the season. All social media opprobrium aside, LeBron’s consistency is other-worldly, and it continued again this year. Not many can consistently carry teams to new heights on a yearly basis….this guy can.
Kawhi Leonard is another star that is launching into a new level. He is a freak of nature defensively (hint hint), and he continues to improve offensively–see his 3 point shooting this year. He is the unquestioned best player on a 65+ win team who brings each and every night. He absolutely never takes a play off, and he can be counted on to carry this Spurs franchise into another decade of relevancy.
The Blake Griffin mid-season debacle can’t be ignored. He is a top 10 player who put his team’s season in jeopardy. If it weren’t for Chris Paul’s consistency and leadership, this team was destined for a 40 win season. He makes DeAndre and JJ Redick the best basketball forms of themselves. Carrying this potential train wreck to a 50+ win season can’t be undersold. His 20-10-5 in another 75 games provided stability during a season full of turbulence. Something that the other names below can’t attest.
Others worth mentioning: Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, James Harden, maybe Kyle Lowry
Rookie of the Year:
Karl Anthony-Towns–Minnesota Timberwolves
Kristaps Porzingis–New York Knicks
As I prefaced in the introduction, I trust my subjective, gut-based opinion. While there are many others worth considering here: Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell, Nikola Jokic. Too many facts can’t be ignored. While a gifted low-post scorer, Jahlil Okafor exhibited some of the worst big-man defense we’ve seen in the league’s history, along with his hideously immature incidents that embarrassed the Sixers franchise in December.
D’Angelo Russell displayed a fantastic mix of play-making ability with a dash of showmanship that came into full effect late season–finally earning the trust of Byron Scott (but who wants that anyway). Only to have that trust disappear into thin air as he shattered the bro-code, and possibly any chance to have male friends the rest of his life.
Nikola Jokic is an underrated pick not known by the average fan. He has been a reliable presence inside for a promising young Nuggets group. He protects the rim at a high rate for a rookie, and is also a top 10 true +/- player–even residing ahead of DeMarcus Cousins on that list. Jokic will be an integral part of the Nuggets future, but he isn’t in the same ballpark as the next two.
Kristaps Porzingis has been an absolute unicorn on a basketball floor. We didn’t think something like him existed. He’s the stretch 5 every franchise should crave: 7’3, moves with a fluidity of a safety, shoots the 3 at an above average clip, rebounds, and protects the rim. As marketable as they come, the future looks bright for the Knicks built around “The Zinger.”
While all of the previously mentioned rookies have had great years, they all pale in comparison to what Karl Anthony-Towns is, and will become. He was a beacon of consistency at 18 & 10 every night. While those numbers are great and will earn him ROY alone, it’s his shooting percentages that make you see his value as a long-term star. He made 28 3’s this year, impressive for a post-centered big man. He shoots free throws at an 81% average. GM’s simply can’t find 7 footers who can run, rebound, rim protect, step out and shoot the jumper, roll to the rim or pick and pop out of P&R opportunities or handle a simple post up from either block. Only six NBA players since 1984 have averaged 18-10 with a 21 PER in their rookie year: Ewing, Hakeem, David Robinson, Shaq, Duncan, Blake Griffin and now Towns. Not a bad list to be included. He can truly do it all, and from everything I read and see… he will be a humble and well-liked star for Minnesota. Wiggins and Towns going forward……look out!
Others worth mentioning: Dante Booker, Myles Turner
Defensive Player of the Year:
Draymond Green–Golden State Warriors
Kawhi Leonard–San Antonio Spurs
Hassan Whiteside–Miami Heat
So this award settles into a clear two man race: two of the absolute nastiest junk-yard dogs the league can provide defensively. Although Hassan Whiteside is a rejection machine, he is 10th worst in terms of allowing defenders to score on him in the post. He allows a 51% shooting percentage to low post scorers, and while he does block shots at a high rate, he sacrifices elsewhere to do so. He isn’t in the league of these two for pure scope of what a player can do defensively.
Kawhi is clearly the better one on one defender here. He mirrors the basketball like few can, syncopating in rhythm with each bounce and movement of the offensive player, to the point they feel as though they are watching themselves in a mirror. He can overwhelm a player with his length and cat-like agility. At times I find myself thinking that for true punishment of NBA players who break a rule, one should have to attempt dribbling and scoring against Kawhi for extended lengths of time. Kawhi isn’t asked by Pop to guard 1-5 the way Draymond is by Kerr, but it’s not to say he can’t do it. Kawhi could very easily win this, but sometimes the best skill doesn’t always win the award. Kawhi humbles you as quick as any perimeter defender since prime Tony Allen and he is approaching prime Pippen on that end.
My choice for Draymond boils down to versatility. I’ve never seen a player that can truly guard 1 through 5 and do so while bringing it each and every trip down the floor. Sure, others have had this ability, but Draymond’s ferocity in doing so is unparalleled. Due to the inconsistency of playing time for Festus Ezeli and Andrew Bogut, he is the lone anchor defensively for a 73 win team and that can’t be overstated. Kerr asks him to do so much, yet he responds with nothing but the absolute best in terms of effort and results. His defensive season rivals that of Curry’s offensively. It may be trite, but defense wins you games, and hence the team’s 73 wins.
Others worth mentioning: Anthony Davis, Paul George
Sixth Man of the Year:
Andre Iguodala–Golden State Warriors
Jamal Crawford–Los Angeles Clippers
Will Barton–Denver Nuggets
By far one of the weirdest sixth man years in recent memory. There is no clear winner here. Typically we put this award there for gunners. Guys who play with second rotations that thrive as shot creators as the shot-clock dwindles–hence Jamal Crawford winning this award multiple times. You’d be surprised how often this happens, but a majority of NBA role players find themselves more defensively talented than offensively gifted. My winner had he been otherwise eligible was Hassan Whiteside. The Andre Iguodala injury late in the season opened the door for others to come in and crash the party, but I can’t deny the impact Iguodala has on these Warriors. When Iggy is coming off the bench playing his ball-hawking defense/point-forward while spotting up for corner 3’s in small ball with Curry the Warriors become almost unbeatable. The small ball lineup of death has died since Iggy has been hurt in March/April, and it has shown a chink in the Warrior’s armor. Iggy is to the Warrior’s small ball lineup what Dorothy Boyd is to Jerry McGuire. For that alone he is the best man off the bench for 2016.
A case can be made for Jamal Crawford in Los Angeles, but what he does on the defensive end is so flabbergasting that I can’t do it. Sure, his crossover barraging will make YouTube highlights galore, but you can’t deny the gifts he is given by running alongside Chris Paul and JJ Redick. He is the third player defenses prepare for at any one time on the court and that means something when you give up as many buckets as he does on the other end. What Iguodala does with that second group is much different. There’s more to basketball than shooting and scoring and what Iggy does in terms of playmaking and defense mean more here. Crawford is shooting at a 40% rate this year while Iggy is doing that from 3 alone. Crawford is huge part of what the Clippers do, especially off the bench where they get little to nothing from that group. Crawford is integral to Clippers, but not to the magnitude that Iguodala is to the Warriors.
Will Barton has a place in this discussion as well in the same gunner category we find Crawford. He has seen a tremendous career spike coming off the bench for Denver improving in almost all statistical categories. He is a rangy shooter who rebounds like a forward at times, and drives a productive second unit. Denver can now count on him being chaotic, running the wing and producing consistently. He just isn’t quite in the same conversation off the bench yet.
Others worth mentioning: Enes Kanter, Tristan Thompson, Jeremy Lin, Victor Oladipo
Most Improved Player:
CJ McCollum for Kevin Love. This was a trade being thrown around in mid-January as a plausible answer to the Cavs always capricious issues with Love. Think about that statement. You hear that exact statement last year and you can’t help but scoff. Hear it in January of 2016 and you can be talked into it. With the mini-overhaul in Portland: losing Aldridge, Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum, McCollum has taken his game to the next level this year. He always had very solid per minute stats (a decent way to gauge those who don’t play a high volume of minutes each night–can also be misleading based on padding during garbage time). Typically when we see a player take on a larger role like McCollum did this year, running alongside ball-dominant Damian Lillard, the numbers per minute decrease. Except we didn’t see that. He maintained those numbers while simultaneously proving to Portland and the rest of the league that he is a viable 2nd option for Portland and a potential star in the making. He can shoot well both set and off the bounce, a natural fit for Stotts offensive style. Portland doesn’t hang around this year without a rise in production like this from McCollum.
Kemba and Giannis have both profited from higher usage rates for their teams. Kemba has led a team most predicted to be a bottom-feeder into a formidable 6 seed who can do some damage. He is non-stop working on the court. Constantly winding around picks, working off the bounce or attacking the rim. What he does driving Charlotte offensively has been impressive. He’s just become more efficient in that system this year under Clifford, and he’s no slouch defensively. Giannis has shown signs that he may end up reaching the potential we all see for him. In the second half of the year he seemed to really buy into what Jason Kidd envisioned for him in his role. He began using the P&R, finding open teammates and quit settling for jumpers. When Giannis is attacking, there aren’t many like him. He can stride like a gazelle from one end of the floor to the other. He started putting together some triple-double efforts in 2016, and should he continue on this path in his role with the Bucks, then improvement will happen for this franchise.
Others worth mentioning: Will Barton, Zach Lavine, Kent Bazemore, Hassan Whiteside
Coach of the Year:
Gregg Popovich–San Antonio Spurs
Rick Carlisle–Dallas Mavericks
Steve Kerr–Golden State Warriors
Terry Stotts–Portland Trail Blazers
Brad Stevens–Boston Celtics
As most award races have been either locked up by January or lacking high-quality candidates, this category is absolutely loaded. I tend to push for the less obvious choice. Most writers and analysts will pick Steve Kerr, and for obvious reasons. I have no problem with Kerr winning the award, I just think somebody deserves it more. Kerr has had an amazing two year stretch, but he missed such a large portion of this year I can’t fathom giving this to him.
The pillar of success that Gregg Popovich has established in San Antonio is unmatched. Many consider the NBA to be the most predictable of the four major sports we have. It’s a league where the team with the most stars generally win and those with the greatest blending of those stars typically win titles. Variables always alter those predictions, but for the most part we don’t see teams lacking stars winning the NBA Finals. Each franchise has had its run in one form or fashion. Typically these runs last from 6-8 years as their best players reach their pinnacles. Popovich has been able to take this team from its last leg to a new generation of talent. He was integral in convincing LaMarcus Aldridge to sign, and he has been nothing less of miraculous in developing the Spurs newest star Kawhi Leonard. Lost in the translation of this NBA season of records is the Spurs 40-1 mark at home–matching only the 1985-1986 Celtics for the best home record in a single season in NBA history. Sure this is a bit of an award for longevity but this season garners an award in itself.
Speaking of amazing culture, there’s Rick Carlisle in Dallas. He has had my heart since knocking off the 2011 Heat. Carlisle gets the absolute most out of his players dating back to his early Pacer days. The rotation he carried via offensive spacing, tricky rotations and effort have led a team that should’ve been closer to below 30 wins, instead sits at 42 with a 7th seed in the west playoffs. Carlisle got the most out of rotations consisting of JJ Barea, Zaza Pachulia, Old Deron Williams and David Lee….what a miracle this man pulled.
Terry Stotts, Steve Clifford and Brad Stevens fall into a final grouping for me. They’ve all done a fabulous job taking teams from lower expectations to playoff surprises. I’m sure more can be written about these guys, but in a year of peak Pop, Kerr/Walton’s 73 wins, and Carlisle pulling a rabbit out of a hat…they never seriously contended. Nonetheless what an amazing group of young coaches and talent the NBA contains. One of the many reasons I love this league.
All NBA, All Rookie and All Defensive Teams coming this weekend. Stay tuned!