Long ago, in a regular season almost forgotten, NBA media members voted on the individual awards that will be presented — more than two months later — Monday night in Santa Monica, California
The most valuable player, rookie of the year and coach of the year are among the coveted awards that fans long have since forgotten about, because the league has pushed the awards presentation beyond both the NBA Finals and the draft.
Both are high-water points that keep the NBA conversation going and dovetails nicely into free agency, which begins Sunday. That’s why having the awards show this week is so bad.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is likely to win the MVP, but what he did during the regular season has been jettisoned out of most folks’ minds, similar to how the Bucks were dismissed by the Raptors on the way to the championship. The aftermath of last week’s draft, along with juicy free agency rumors percolating, has all eyes are looking forward to next season — and having awards from last regular season feels more like ill-placed reminiscing than a timely celebration.
Having an awards show for regular-season honors two months after the season makes as much sense as the NFL having its Pro Bowl during the week between the conference title games and the Super Bowl.
It lessens the impact of the honor due the players, who worked hard for their achievements. The simple solution is to go back to the old way, when the MVP got his trophy during one of the home games in the playoffs — and got immediate fan adulation that meant something. Getting a lesser version of that from an assembled crowd in late June doesn’t have the same feel.
Here are the votes from my media ballot for the NBA individual awards.
Most Valuable Player
► Finalists: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Paul George (Thunder) and James Harden (Rockets).
► My pick: The way Antetokounmpo elevated his game to help the Bucks earn the best record in the NBA was worthy of the award. His offensive numbers were very good: 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists, but his defense elevated him to the next level. Team achievement and two-way play are the slim difference in him getting the nod.
Harden had a historic season, with 36.1 points, 6.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists. Even with an improved roster and those ridiculous stats, the Rockets only got the fourth seed in the playoffs, with much grousing about how Harden’s style was ruining the game. Numbers are numbers, but there was something off-putting about Harden’s assault on the isolation game.
Rookie of the Year
► Finalists: Deandre Ayton (Suns), Luka Doncic (Mavericks), Trae Young (Hawks)
► My pick: Doncic had a better season overall, but Young’s second half made me look twice. Both players became nightly must-watch options, but doing it for the span of the season gives Doncic a little more juice. Ironically, they were traded for each other on draft night last season, so to see them both excel is refreshing.
The better question is how they’ll build on a solid rookie season to help their teams get out of the lottery and into respectability.
Coach of the Year
► Finalists: Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), Michael Malone (Nuggets), Doc Rivers (Clippers)
► My pick: Budenholzer worked wonders with a Bucks squad that had underachieved before his arrival. He made them a cohesive group and led them to the best record, not just in the East, but in the whole league. They got some help from the front office, who added the pieces to stock the roster, but Budenholzer will be challenged to make another run with the Raptors dominating them in the playoffs.
Rivers is somewhat a surprise in this group, but what he did in making the playoffs with a decimated roster deserves this acknowledgement.
Defensive Player of the Year
► Finalists: Antetokounmpo (Bucks), George (Thunder), Rudy Gobert (Jazz)
► My pick: Gobert is going for his second straight award, and it’s well deserved. He changes the game in the paint whenever he’s around, and he has helped elevate the Jazz to one of the better teams on that end of the court, with 2.3 blocks per game.
Antetokounmpo has a similar impact with a more athletic presence and George’s on-ball defense and versatility is among the best in the league.
► Finalists: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers), Domantas Sabonis (Pacers), Lou Williams (Clippers)
► My pick: Williams should win his third award in the past five years. He’s a classic example of an indispensable reserve who could be starting, but his impact off the bench is too great. With 20 points and 5.4 assists, Williams’ impact on the Clippers success can’t be understated.
Sabonis was very good for the Pacers, but this may be the easiest choice of all the awards.
Most Improved Player
► Finalists: De’Aaron Fox (Kings), D’Angelo Russell (Nets), Pascal Siakam (Raptors) ► My pick: Most will look at Siakam’s performance in Game 1 of the Finals as his hallmark, but he had been doing that for much of the regular season as well. While Kawhi Leonard has missed more than 20 games in the regular season, Siakam already had turned himself into a major contributor.
Russell should get some consideration here as well, but he’s been an under-the-radar player for years without the recognition.