Beard: One voter’s picks for NBA’s top honors
Two weeks ago, the NBA Finals ended, with the Golden State Warriors doing what most thought they acquired Kevin Durant last season in free agency.
They leveled up from a good secondary piece, in Harrison Barnes, to Durant — the equivalent of a video-game cheat code — who earned the Finals MVP.
The end of the season seems so long ago.
That’s because it was.
The NBA finally will unveil its superlative performers Monday night at its inaugural awards show in New York — 14 days after the playoffs ended.
After all the hubbub and debate about the historic seasons of Russell Westbrook and James Harden produced, we’ll find out who won the award. Last year, the MVP was awarded on May 10, as Steph Curry was the runaway unanimous winner, but the NBA opted for an awards show — televised on TNT — to make the big reveal.
Among the awards voted on by the Pro Basketball Writers Association were the MVP, coach of the year, rookie of the year, defensive player of the year, sixth man and most improved player; the All-NBA teams previously were revealed.
As a member of the PBWA, I was one of the voters for the awards, so without further ado, let’s begin the award tour:
Most Valuable Player
Top contenders: James Harden (Rockets), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), Russell Westbrook (Thunder).
After Durant left the Thunder to form a Voltron-like squad with the Warriors, Westbrook channeled his energy, somehow focusing his anger on the rim for 81 games. What resulted was a historic season, where Westbrook averaged a triple-double: a league-best 31.6 points, with 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists — the first time it’s been done since Oscar Robertson in 1961-62.
I remember saying to January or February that if Westbrook averaged a triple-double, he’d unquestionably be the MVP. And he did it. But James Harden’s season was just as good: 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds and a league-leading 11.2 assists.
It’s hard to distinguish the two, but I gave the nod to Westbrook because Harden has a better team around him. One could argue that Harden lifted his team to a better record — and a first-round playoff win over the Thunder — but Westbrook did more with less. Victor Oladipo, Steven Adams and Enes Kanter are good pieces, but without Westbrook, that’s not even close to a playoff team. Without Harden, the Rockets still had Eric Gordon and Lou Williams, both top sixth-man candidates, Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverley.
Coach of the Year
Top contenders: Erik Spoelstra (Heat), Mike D’Antoni (Rockets), Gregg Popovich (Spurs)
Popovich — like LeBron James for MVP — could be on the list every year. In a year where the Warriors dominated the headlines, the Spurs played their typical background role — and notched 61 wins.
The Rockets had the third-most wins (55), as they melded to D’Antoni’s system with Harden as the sparkplug. They were the surprise team in the league and could be positioned to make another big step in free agency this summer.
The selection here is Spoelstra, who was overlooked in some years because he had superior talent, produced with a ragtag squad that started 11-30 and didn’t give up on the season. They followed with 13 straight wins and finished 41-41, missing out on the playoffs because they lost a tiebreaker with the Bulls.
Rookie of the Year
Top contenders: Malcolm Brogdon (Bucks), Joel Embiid (Sixers), Dario Saric (Sixers)
This might be a surprise, but it’s not going to be Embiid — at least not on this ballot. It’s not because he was taken in the 2014 draft and didn’t play until last year; it’s because he only played 31 games. The numbers are eye-popping: 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds — and anybody who can bring excitement to the moribund Sixers deserves some kind of award — but he has to stay healthy.
The vote goes to Brogdon, who played in 75 games and posted 10.2 points and 4.2 assists, including 28 starts. That’s outstanding production for a second-round pick who wasn’t expected to have a big impact.
Defensive Player of the Year
Top contenders: Draymond Green (Warriors), Rudy Gobert (Jazz), Leonard (Spurs)
Like the MVP voting, this could have gone a number of ways. Leonard has won the award the last two years — and deservedly so. Gobert’s league-high 2.6 blocks was a deterrent at the rim, as the Jazz could gamble more on the perimeter, knowing they had a 7-foot-1 shot-eraser behind them.
The nod goes to Green, though. His versatility to guard a variety of positions at 6-foot-7 is uncanny and one of the keys to the Warriors’ success as the best defensive team in the league. His contribution isn’t measured as much in numbers as it is by the MOET Index (My Own Eye Test).
Most Improved Player
Top contenders: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Gobert (Jazz), Nikola Jokic (Nuggets)
Gobert should garner a few votes and Jokic had a breakthrough year, but the runaway winner should be Antetokounmpo, who had an All-Star season: 22.9 points, 8.8 rebounds and 5.4 assists. The Greek Freak did a little of everything for the Bucks, who surged to the playoffs, where his numbers got even better.
Top contenders: Eric Gordon (Rockets), Andre Iguodala (Warriors), Lou Williams (Rockets)
The Rockets ended up with two of the candidates here, which is a testament to their talent level and a nod to Harden’s good year. They acquired Williams at the trade deadline and he helped propel them to the league’s third-best record.
The winner, though, should be Iguodala, who is an unsung cog on the Warriors’ second unit. He only averaged 7.6 points, 4 rebounds and 3.4 assists, but the 33-year-old wing did whatever the champions needed, including on the defensive end.
NBA Awards Show
When: 9 p.m. Monday
The skinny: In the inaugural show, the NBA hands out the top awards, plus some additional fan awards, to players, coaches and executives.