This year's NBA season lent itself to awards debates better than any year in recent history. Top to bottom, cases can be made for multiple standouts in every category. The focus, of course, will be on MVP, where Russell Westbrook's triple-doubly fury competes with James Harden's explosive offensive numbers and Kawhi Leonard's all-around mastery.
But the arguments don't end there. Was Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green's defense more impactful this season? Which coach did the most with the least? And how many games does a rookie need to play for a season-ending distinction?
It's time for these debates to be settled once for all. The league won't reveal the real winners until the NBA Awards Show on June 26 (televised by TNT), but we couldn't wait. The Crossover's staff hands in its ballots for the NBA's 2016–17 season-ending awards.
Most Valuable Player
Ben Golliver: James Harden, Rockets
Despite Russell Westbrook’s epic closing push, James Harden continues to have the most complete MVP case. His stat line (29.3 PPG, 11.2 APG, 8.2) hasn’t been matched since Oscar Robertson in 1965. His combined total of points, rebounds and assists per game exceeds every MVP during the three-point era. He is the lone All-Star on one of the 10 most efficient offenses of the three-point era. He leads the league in Win Shares, assists and points generated by his assists. He’s carried Houston to the NBA’s third-best record, second-ranked offense and top-ranked three-point attack. His renewed commitment has helped the Rockets become the league’s top overachievers relative to preseason expectations. He ranks third overall in minutes played and missed just one game all season despite bearing the league’s third-highest usage rate.
Harden is 3-1 in head-to-head match-ups with Westbrook, he holds major advantages when it comes to True Shooting % (.613 to .555), team record (Houston is No. 3; OKC is No. 10), team point differential (Houston is No. 3; OKC is No. 11) and team offensive ranking (Houston is No. 2; OKC is No 16), and the Rockets have fared better against the league’s top teams than the Thunder. Harden’s “value” is felt across the board: his GM entered the season on the hot seat and is now a top candidate for Executive of the Year; his coach entered the season coming off shaky stints in New York and Los Angeles and is now a Coach of the Year candidate; and key teammates like Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have all thrived thanks to his playmaking ability. Simply put, Harden’s MVP case has it all: individual numbers, efficiency, team success, demonstrated impact on his teammates and organization, consistency, durability, cutting-edge play, overachieving and a strong portfolio of clear advantages over his top competition.
Russell Westbrook takes second thanks to his eye-popping individual numbers, including his vaunted triple-double mark, and his clutch play. Kawhi Leonard grabs third for carrying the Spurs to 60+ wins in the first year of the post-Duncan era, scaling his scoring and usage rate up to alpha dog levels, maintaining strong efficiency and impact numbers despite having less help than previous seasons, and logging a career-high in minutes played. LeBron James, who has posted career-highs in rebounding and assists while continuing to look like the best all-around player in the game, checks in at fourth due to Cleveland’s uninspired second-half play and unimpressive win total. With Kevin Durant missing a quarter of the season due to a knee injury, Stephen Curry rounds out the ballot. The two-time MVP’s “down year” saw him average more points than his 2015 MVP season, shoot 40+% on threes, and lead the league in plus-minus for the third time in four seasons while helping Golden State post the league’s best record and top point differential for the third straight season.
Andrew Sharp: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
The MVP award is only important for the story it will tell to fans years down the line. Even the now-maligned Derrick Rose MVP victory serves a valuable purpose—any time someone looks back on that award, they remember, "Oh, right, that was the year everyone hated LeBron." And that's exactly what future generations should know about 2010–11 NBA regular season.
So what should we know about the 2017 regular season? We should remember that a number of smart people wanted to vote for Kawhi in the closest MVP race of the millennium. Remember that Harden won almost 10 more games than Russ, with very similar numbers. Remember that LeBron is clearly one of two or three best players of all time, and he's had one of his best seasons ever. But then, remember that Kevin Durant left for the Warriors in the summer of 2016, and that's when Russell Westbrook lost his damn mind. He was so good and so pathological about winning MVP in response, he made it impossible to choose anyone else.
He's not perfect, the Thunder aren't title contenders with him, and I don't think he's the best player in basketball. But his season gave us moments that made logic irrelevant, and they came every week. This award should reflect that it was impossible to care about basketball this year without being amazed and stupefied by Russell Westbrook. When the MVP race got tight over the final six weeks, he only got more outrageous. Night by night, triple-double by triple-double, game-winner by game-winner ... I didn't even intend to vote for Westbrook, but if we're not going to commemorate seasons like this, why even have awards?
Rob Mahoney: James Harden, Rockets
There is no elegant way to whittle this list of four candidates down to one. Every voter who chooses is wrong because of those they leave behind; either you disqualify historic production, modern dominance, admirable balance, or the best player in the league. The result of my waffling came up Harden. The lengths he’s gone to generate optimal offense are unparalleled. We’ve just never seen a player produce quite this much streamlined scoring, between his assisting 4.6 three-pointers, 5.9 layups/dunks, and 1.0 fouled attempts per game—in addition to the 29.1 points he drops himself. Houston’s offense works because of Harden, and it works in a way that outclasses every other team in the league save the Warriors. That has to mean something, even in a year where one could so easily make a case for another candidate on fair grounds.
Rohan Nadkarni: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
I can’t deny Russ anymore. People have been overthinking this award all season long. Westbrook took a team that was almost quite literally left for a dead, and forced his square-peg teammates through every hole possible. This Thunder team could have easily missed the playoffs, but Russ simply wouldn’t allow it to happen. Westbrook owned this season every single night he took the court. That alone deserves recognition. The award may not be for most captivating, but it means SOMETHING that 50 years from now, we’ll remember Russ more than anyone else from this regular season. I really hope the NBA media (cough, Ben Golliver, cough) doesn’t get too cute.
Most Improved Player
Ben Golliver: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo has had a stranglehold on this award all season long, posting career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, FG%, 3P%, free throw attempts, minutes, PER, Win Shares, usage, offensive rating, turnover percentage, True Shooting %. Name basically any category that matters, and the 22-year-old Antetokounmpo has improved in it. That includes wins, as the Bucks have sealed up the first winning season of his four-year career. This decision looks like even more of a no-brainer once one considers that Antetokounmpo made his first All-Star Game—as a starter, no less—and carried the Bucks through injuries to Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker. Antetokounmpo has transformed from “budding star” to “bona fide franchise player,” a difficult leap that’s worthy of the hardware.
Like Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert (my runner-up) is a 2013 draft gem who has raised his game to new heights on both ends in year four. The French center has posted career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks, FG%, minutes, PER, Win Shares and usage while carrying the Jazz to 50 wins and the first playoff trip of his career. Best-known for his elite interior defense, Gobert has developed into a true offensive threat in pick-and-roll situations. While Isaiah Thomas enjoyed a strong breakout season to earn his first All-Star nod in 2015-16, Boston’s point guard made an even bigger leap this season. His defense leaves much to be desired, but Thomas bumped his scoring average to 29.2 PPG (up seven points from the previous season) and easily posted career-highs in PER, Win Shares and offensive rating. Without Thomas’s scoring instincts and closing ability, Boston has no shot at the East’s top seed.
Andrew Sharp: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
We knew Giannis would be good, and we knew he'd be better this year. But even the wildest optimists would not have imagined an All-NBA season in which he carried the Bucks to the playoffs almost entirely on his own. He led the Bucks in essentially every category that matters. He's been so reliably excellent that over the course of six months, he's made his own accomplishments routine.
The criteria for this award changes from year to year, so there plenty of different directions you could take this in 2017. Still, Giannis feels like the right choice. He put himself in an entirely different category this season. He entered the year safely on track to eventually make an All-Star team, he leaves the year safely on track to spend the next decade in the MVP conversation.
Rob Mahoney: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Antetokounmpo has become a breathtaking creator faster than I had ever imagined. Milwaukee’s lineups are so frequently cramped that even getting to the rim becomes a problem. All one needs to solve it, apparently, is damn-near-unparalleled speed, agility, and coordination in a 6'11" frame. His burgeoning efficiency at a time when his role increased so substantially has been a revelation.
Rohan Nadkarni: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Giannis is a great choice for this award, but I prefer to reward the player who has, to some extent, come out of nowhere. Jokic’s passing ability from the elbow is the stuff of League Pass legend, and it’s hilarious to watch his looping tosses into the paint slowly break the will of opposing defenses. This award rarely goes to second-year players for reasons I can’t quite understand. Atentokounmpo is a great player, but I don’t find his rise to be particularly shocking after what we’ve seen early in his career. Jokic propelled an unheralded Nuggets team into the playoff race for much of the season, and for that he should be rewarded.
Sixth Man Of The Year
Ben Golliver: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Let’s forget the microwave scorers for one year and acknowledge the strong all-around work of Andre Iguodala, who played a key role in another phenomenally consistent Golden State season. An unselfish playmaker and reliable perimeter defender, Iguodala kept the Warriors’ bench clicking on all cylinders despite a host of off–season rotation losses and Durant’s extended late-season injury absence. While his per-game numbers are modest (7.6 PPG, 4 RPG, 3.5 APG), the 2015 Finals MVP led NBA reserves in plus-minus and ranked first in Win Shares among players with fewer than 20 starts. There’s no question he would be the first player selected in a draft of bench players if the goal was winning a title this season. What contender would pass up the chance at his basketball intelligence, on-court leadership, playmaking ability, multi-positional defense, and passable three-point shooting?
The rest of the ballot features two conventional candidates who happen to be teammates thanks to a midseason trade. Lou Williams, the Laker turned Rocket, averaged 17.7 PPG and 2.9 APG, ranking second in Win Shares and third in PER among players with fewer than 20 starts. The brightest light on a dismal LA team for much of the season, Williams’ three-point shooting and foul-drawing made for a smooth post-deadline transition to Houston. Eric Gordon, meanwhile, opened the season as a favorite for this award before cooling somewhat as the year went on. His complementary scoring and deep range (16.3 PPG, 37.4 3P%) were both vital to Houston’s outrageous offensive efficiency, and the oft-injured guard managed to log his highest minute total since his 2008-09 rookie year.
Andrew Sharp: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Eric Gordon had an excellent year in Houston, and his new teammate Lou Williams looks poised to eventually assume Jamal Crawford's title as Sixth Man of the Year Emeritus, but I'm choosing Iguodala. When Durant went down and the Warriors looked wobbly, Iguodala was every bit as important as Steph in stabilizing them. His numbers are fairly pedestrian, but he's the most valuable bench player in basketball, and he plays on the best team in the league. Give him this award, even if he doesn't really care about winning it.
Rob Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
None of this season’s cast of sixth-man scorers impressed nearly as much as the defensive-minded Iguodala. This was a renaissance campaign for Iggy at a time when—even early this season—it looked like his career might peter out. Instead he posted what is easily the best true shooting of his career (.624) behind some throwback offensive performances, all while scoring remained the least important part of his game. No other candidate for this award comes close when it comes to mustering a complete game. They get and they give, coughing up points to counterbalance those they help create. Iguodala, by contrast, ranks sixth in the league in plus-minus (just ahead of LeBron James) for the best team in the league.
Rohan Nadkarni: Eric Gordon, Rockets
Forgive me for getting sentimental here, but I would love to see this award go to Gordon, who has revived his career after some injury-laden years in New Orleans. Gordon’s three-point shooting is a critical part of the Rockets’ attack, and the volume of threes he’s connected on is staggering. Gordon’s subtle tactic of spotting up a few feet behind the three-point line has created even more space for his MVP-caliber teammate James Harden, and his off-the-bounce game has also seen a resurgence in some Harden-less lineups. Andre Iguodala would also be a fine choice for this award, though the consistency in his play was lacking for parts of the season. Can we at least agree to give Jamal Crawford a break here?
Rookie Of The Year
Ben Golliver: Joel Embiid, 76ers
It’s time for the NBA to consider killing the Rookie of the Year and replacing it with a Rising Stars Award that recognizes the best age-22 or younger player (ideally, no player could win the award more than once). If the Rising Star award started this season, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Nikola Jokic, three franchise players who are having major impacts on their respective teams, would all be strong candidates. Instituting this new award would make for a strong, lively debate about their futures and some trickle-down love for the likes of Myles Turner, Kristaps Porzingis, and Gary Harris.
Instead, the league is left with a Rookie of the Year award field that lacks a truly deserving candidate. As hard as it is to rationalize giving the honor to Joel Embiid, who missed his first two rookie seasons due to injury and held up for just 31 games this season, the Sixers center was leaps and bounds better than anyone from the 2016 draft class. He paced all rookies with at least 300 minutes played in PER, averaged nearly twice as many points as Malcolm Brogdon, shot better than 40% on threes, posted a sterling 99.1 defensive rating, and led Philadelphia to a 13-18 record while in the lineup (compared to 15-35 when he sat). It’s tough to get too worked up over the possibility of snubbing Brogdon (10.3 PPG, 4.3 APG), who led all rookies on Win Shares, given that he’s already 24, started fewer games than Embiid and filled a narrow role for a good-not-spectacular Bucks team. Third place goes to Philadelphia’s Saric (12.9 PPG, 6.4 RPG), who picked up his numbers down the stretch in Embiid’s absence and is one of only two rookies to log at least 2,000 minutes (through Monday).
Andrew Sharp: Joel Embiid, 76ers
Don't tell me he didn't play enough games! First of all, there are no rules for any of these awards—we're not electing Joel Embiid to Congress (but should we? can we?). Second, Embiid is quite literally the rookie of this year. In two weeks or 20 years, if anyone talks about rookies who emerged in the 2016-2017, the conversation will begin and end with the player who played 31 games. I like Dario Saric and I've liked Malcolm Brogdon since the draft, but they're not in the same category.
When Embiid was healthy, he was the most effective rim protector in the league. He had the Sixers—the Sixers!—working with a positive net-rating with him on the floor. He put up Wilt Chamberlain numbers. He was the biggest story in the league a few months into the year, and he actually made the Sixers a good team for a not-insignificant period of time.
It's not to say that his injury is meaningless. Of course it matters that Embiid missed a little more than half the season. But he was so much better than every other rookie in an underwhelming draft class, he should win anyway. Even if we decide his season is 62% less impressive because of the 62% of Sixers games he missed, it's still more memorable than 100% of his peers. Again, these awards are only valuable for history's sake. History should reflect that even 37.8% of Joel Embiid had a bigger impact on the league than any other rookie we saw this year.
Rob Mahoney: Dario Saric, 76ers
Joel Embiid deserves joint custody of this award—one that would have been his if he could only stay healthy. Every voter has their arbitrary thresholds and 31 games played with 786 minutes just isn’t enough for me when solid candidates have logged more than double the minutes. Of them, I like Saric. It’s hard to work as a versatile, playmaking big on a team that lacks for order and spacing. Saric found his lane. Brogdon’s season undoubtedly meant more considering that he plays for a more competitive team, but Saric’s edge in productivity and successes in spite of an uphill grind endear me to his case.
Rohan Nadkarni: Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
Give me Brogdon, who has played a significant role on a playoff team. The Embiid situation is the elephant in the rookie room, but I just don’t feel comfortable giving a year-long award to someone who only played 31 games. We’re splitting hairs, but the award is not for most talented rookie. From start to finish, Brogdon has had a solid if not spectacular rookie campaign. Embiid will be up for many awards throughout his career provided he’s healthy enough to take the court. Availability is important, and Brogdon has earned the distinction of Rookie of the Year.
Defensive Player Of The Year
Ben Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
With all due respect to the MVP debate, this might be the toughest call on the ballot. Rudy Gobert earns the nod because he’s done the most with the least: The shot-blocking center has led the Jazz to a top-three defense despite too many major injuries to count. Gobert leads the NBA in blocks, Defensive Real Plus Minus, and Defensive Win Shares while also ranking second in Defensive Rating and sixth in defensive rebounds. Utah’s defensive rating is 7.4 points better with him on the court, and he’s a major reason why the Jazz rank second in opponent FG% on shots taken from within five feet of the rim. Gobert dissuades attacks, blocks shots, cleans the glass and does a reasonable job of stepping out to defend smaller players on the perimeter. Thanks to his near-perfect health, he’s been the backbone for a 50-win team that would have been completely lost without him.
Snubbing Golden State’s Draymond Green, the back-to-back runner-up for this award, isn’t a good feeling. The league’s most versatile defender has kept the Warriors near the top of the defensive efficiency charts despite the offseason departures of Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli, and the extended absence of Kevin Durant. Green makes Golden State’s defense more than five points better when he’s on the court, he defends the rim at an elite level, he leads the league in deflections, and he ranks in the top three in Defensive Win Shares, Defensive Rating and Defensive Real Plus Minus. There’s next to nothing separating his candidacy from Gobert’s, and votes who favor Green for his versatility and Golden State’s record can’t be blamed.
While it’s hard to leave off Kawhi Leonard, the back-to-back award recipient, given San Antonio’s stellar team defense and his sky-high individual ceiling, Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson deserves some love for his commitment to thankless tasks, his discipline against elite scorers, and his valuable combination of length, strength and quickness. In a more just world, one that valued offense and defense more evenly, Roberson would be viewed by the masses as a game-changer rather than a liability.
Andrew Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
The Jazz have shuffled players in and out of the lineup all year long, and they sit on the brink of 50 wins regardless. That's a credit to Gobert. Watching the ground he covers and how many shots he alters makes defense way more entertaining than I ever imagined it could be. More importantly for Utah, he's been the one constant—he's played 79 games so far—and he's the cornerstone of a defense that has suffocated offenses since October, and allowed this team to thrive despite a new injury every other week.
For the record, Draymond Green deserves a first-place vote as well. Still, Gobert's defense is more valuable to a team that would be in the lottery without him, so he gets the nod in a tiebreaker. Draymond will have to settle for a third straight Finals trip.
Rob Mahoney: Draymond Green, Warriors
The razor-thin margin between Green and Rudy Gobert can really only be decided as a matter of taste. I prefer Green for the sheer variety of hats he wears: drive container, shot contester, post barricade, rim protector. It’s because of Green that the Warriors’ defense (ranked second in the league this season) seals up tight and that so many of the opponent’s pivotal actions never come to bear. Another part of the tiebreaker for me: How well Green and the Warriors defended even after Kevin Durant, who had quickly established himself as a defensive centerpiece in Golden State, went down with injury.
Rohan Nadkarni: Draymond Green, Warriors
I expect Rudy Gobert to actually win this award, but Green is the linchpin of the NBA’s second-best defense, and his versatility is unmatched across the league. Watching Green harass centers in the post and then lock down perimeter stars—often times within the same quarter—is an underrated joy of watching the Warriors. Green’s defensive ability—he’s probably the only player in the league aside from LeBron who can credibly guard one through five—is a huge reason for the Warriors’ unprecedented success over the last three years. And if it weren’t for Green’s play on the defensive end, we may have never known what it was like to witness the Death Lineup.
Coach Of The Year
Ben Golliver: Mike D'Antoni, Rockets
There are Coach of the Year cases to be made for a long list of candidates. Quin Snyder got the Jazz to 50 wins despite injuries up and down his rotation. Erik Spoelstra pulled the Heat to make a dramatic and completely unexpected run at the East’s final playoff spot. Steve Kerr won 65+ games for the third time in three seasons, overseeing a culture and system that attracted Kevin Durant in free agency. Gregg Popovich, coaching without the benefit of Tim Duncan for the first time since for the first time since 1997, pounded out another 60-win season despite leaning heavily on multiple contributors who are well past their primes. Brad Stevens unleashed Isaiah Thomas, kept his group going despite some early injuries, improved his win total for the fourth straight year, and now has the Celtics in position to win the East. And Scott Brooks overcame a treacherous 3-9 start, some apparent personality conflicts and a weak bench to claim Washington’s first division title since the 1970s in his first season in DC.
Still, nothing quite tops Mike D’Antoni’s comeback tour in Houston. The “pace and space” godfather nailed the big stuff: he connected with James Harden and empowered him, he let major contributors like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson do what they do best, his system helped Clint Capela transition into life as a productive full-time starter and delivered surprisingly quality minutes from the likes of Nene, Montrezl Harrell and Sam Dekker. Add up those individual successes, and Houston wound up finishing with an historic offense, a much-better-than-expected defense, and the league’s third-best record. Back in September, 54 or 55 wins seemed almost inconceivable given that this looked like a transition year following a summer in which Dwight Howard left for nothing and GM Daryl Morey spent big on Gordon and Anderson, two injury-prone pieces. Although Houston has sputtered somewhat lately and D’Antoni is sure to face significant criticism if his approach fails to hold up in the postseason again, his 82-game body of work remains worthy of his second Coach of the Year award.
Andrew Sharp: Mike D'Antoni, Rockets
James Harden deserves a massive amount of credit for everything that's happened in Houston this year, but so does D'Antoni. Aside from weaponizing Harden's skills to a historic extent, he's revived the careers of role players like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, extended the careers of very-close-to-washed-up veterans like Nene and Trevor Ariza, and helped weave in younger reinforcements like Montrezl Harrell, Clint Capela, and Sam Dekker.
D'Antoni's Coach of the Year buzz has fallen off as Houston's struggled down the stretch, but I'm not sure that's fair. A Rockets team that was pegged for 41 wins to start the year is headed for a three-seed in the West, and they've done it by perfecting everything everyone's always enjoyed about D'Antoni's offensive pyrotechnics.
Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich, Dwyane Casey, Erik Spoelstra, and Scott Brooks all have compelling coach of the year cases, but we shouldn't overthink this. Even without his Pringles mustache, nobody's had a bigger impact than D'Antoni.
Rob Mahoney: Gregg Popovich, Spurs
I’ve yet to find a cogent explanation for how a team that features Pau Gasol, David Lee, Tony Parker, and a 39-year-old Manu Ginobili could finish with the league’s best defense beyond the brilliance of Popovich and his system. This is beyond even Leonard’s considerable talents; it’s yet another year of perfectly balancing starters and reserves, building lineups more stout defensively than they have any right to be. Popovich has had many great coaching seasons. Yet to guide this particular roster to 61 wins in the year following Tim Duncan’s retirement might be his most impressive yet.
Rohan Nadkarni: Erik Spoelstra, Heat
In the middle of the season, Pat Riley rather bluntly told Heat fans his team was playing for the future. It was a nice way of saying Miami was looking ahead toward the draft and free agency as opposed to trying to win games. Erik Spoelstra simply would not let that happen. After injuries ravaged Miami en route to an 11–30 start, Spo turned the ship around to put the Heat on the brink of a playoff berth. He’s helped resurrect the careers of James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington and others. Somehow, Spo brainwashed a group of castoffs on a one-year deal to buy in to his team concept, and he turned the Heat into one of the NBA’s best teams for most of the second half of the season.