- The NBA season ends Wednesday and the annual awards balloting is now open. The Crossover presents its official vote, including the hotly contested MVP battle between James Harden and LeBron James.
With the 2017–18 season wrapping up on Wednesday, the NBA’s annual awards balloting is now open.
Here’s how The Crossover cast its official ballot for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year. Also included: an unofficial vote for Executive of the Year.
Factors that influence these picks include: a player’s stats, advanced stats, impact numbers, role and health. His team’s overall success, health, and performance relative to preseason expectations are also considered. All stats through Tuesday.
Most Valuable Player
- James Harden, Rockets
- LeBron James, Cavaliers
- Anthony Davis, Pelicans
- Damian Lillard, Blazers
- Kevin Durant, Warriors
James Harden’s MVP case isn’t perfect: The Rockets guard has missed nine games, the second-most for an MVP winner during the three-point era (only Allen Iverson in 2001 missed more). That blemish aside, Harden has accumulated so many superlatives that he deserves to win his first career MVP by a comfortable margin. Among players with at least 60 games played, Harden ranks first in scoring, usage, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus. That individual clean sweep is buttressed by his team’s steady dominance, as Houston leads the NBA in wins, point differential, offensive rating, and three-pointers.
To make a case against Harden, one must lean heavily on valiance. LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard have all performed admirably with supporting casts that are undoubtedly weaker than Harden’s squad. All three arguably have sexier narratives: James hasn’t missed a game while carrying Cleveland through an injury-ravaged and trade-altered rollercoaster, Davis posted mammoth numbers after DeMarcus Cousins suffered a season-ending injury, and Lillard turned it on down the stretch to make Portland one of the league’s biggest surprises.
But Harden has enough convincing counters that voters shouldn’t be swept away by his competition’s heroic stories. Don’t forget: He carried Houston to an excellent start despite Chris Paul’s extended injury absence. What’s more, his playmaking has served a central role in making his supporting cast look so good: His on-the-ball wizardry and superb passing sets up everyone—from Paul to lesser-known off-season acquisitions like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute—for success. And with help from GM Daryl Morey and coach Mike D’Antoni, Harden has spun 180 degrees since his ill-fitting pairing with Dwight Howard, transforming from an occasionally disengaged and unreliable teammate to the leader of a juggernaut that took pleasure in methodically ripping apart its opponents all season. Simply put, Houston’s lack of drama should be treated as a strength of Harden’s candidacy, not a weakness.
For voters insisting on a storyline, Harden offers two good ones: 1) He’s been the best player on the league’s winningest team, and 2) he’s been out for revenge. After finishing second to Russell Westbrook in the hotly-contested 2017 MVP race, Harden came back even stronger, posting a 30 PPG/ 8 APG/ 5 RPG stat line that has only been matched by Westbrook (2017) and Michael Jordan (1989) during the three-point era. This season, Harden has improved all of his major advanced stats and guided Houston to franchise records in wins (smashing the old mark of 58) and offensive efficiency (currently the 7th best ever).
In a hypothetical world without the recent Golden State dynasty, Harden’s individual campaign and Houston’s potent offense would draw far more attention and historical comparison than they have to date. Perhaps that’s the best closing argument: During a season in which most prognosticators assumed the Warriors would trounce all comers, Harden led a sustained, brilliant and awe-inspiring challenge that brought the Rockets far closer to their superteam target than most thought possible.
James, who said recently that he would vote for himself, has been spectacular, even by his own standard. At 33, he’s leading the league in minutes, averaging career-highs in assists and rebounds, and posting his highest scoring mark since 2010. His 27 PPG/ 8 RPG/ 9 APG line has only been matched by two players during the three-point era: Westbrook and Harden last season. Despite a cavalcade of injuries and trades around him, James has led Cleveland to a top-five offensive rating and a sparkling 30–15 record in close games (score within five points in the last five minutes) while ranking first in clutch points and second in clutch plus-minus.
While Harden holds slight edges over James in the major individual advanced stats, the gap between Houston and Cleveland is too vast to ignore. James bears some of the responsibility for that: Even though he has maintained the “Best player in basketball” title for another year, his effort has waned for stretches and the Cavaliers have posted an atrocious 111 defensive rating with him on the court. Houston has been excellent on offense and strong on defense with Harden; the same just can’t be said for Cleveland with James.
Kudos to Davis for making this race a little more interesting down the stretch, as he has ripped off 30 PPG/ 11 RPG averages since the All-Star break to deliver on the Pelicans’ playoff mandate, even without Cousins. It’s strange that Davis doesn’t get more love in the “Best two-way player” conversation: His stats compare favorably to Shaquille O’Neal’s best work, he can score in every conceivable manner from every imaginable spot, and he is a game-changing presence defensively. Davis leads the league in blocks, covers tons of ground when helping and switching, and handles his business on the glass. If New Orleans had fully broken through the West’s crowded middle tier, he would have had a better shot at displacing Harden or James.
Lillard makes an unexpected landing at fourth due to sheer opportunism. The seas parted in the West standings—due to injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Jimmy Butler—and Lillard carried the Blazers through with another trademark late-season surge. His Stephen Curry-like numbers (26 PPG/ 4 RPG/ 6APG) are impressive, but the real progress has come on the defensive end and, as Lee Jenkins recently detailed, in his command of game flow. Lillard’s presence has markedly improved the Blazers’ offensive and defensive ratings this season, and that improved balance has the Blazers far exceeding preseason expectations.
The race for the fifth spot was thinned out by injuries to Curry, Butler, Kyrie Irving and Joel Embiid. Sadly, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s one-man army act was undercut by Milwaukee’s persistent mediocrity. Durant thus claimed the spot almost by process of elimination: The 2017 Finals MVP has “quietly” averaged 26 PPG/ 6 RPG/ 5 APG, nearly reached the 50/40/90 shooting club, and dominated at times defensively for a Warriors team that coasted to the league’s third-best record.
Defensive Player of the Year
- Rudy Gobert, Jazz
- Joel Embiid, Sixers
- Anthony Davis, Pelicans
This voter firmly believes in the adage that the greatest ability is availability when it comes to year-end awards. In most cases, a player that misses more than 25 games would not be considered.
Rudy Gobert, however, deserves to be one of the rare exceptions. The 2017 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up missed two long stretches this season, and Utah faltered without him. But when Gobert was on the court, he was a peerless defensive presence whose play translated directly to his team’s success. Gobert ranked first in Defensive Real-Plus Minus (by a mile), he placed among the league leaders in blocks (4th) and defensive rating (2nd), and Utah won games at a 55-win pace when he was available. The Jazz’s defense, meanwhile, is tied for the NBA’s best, and it would have comfortably led the league had Gobert enjoyed better health.
Even so, Gobert needed a little help to earn the top spot on this ballot given Embiid’s stellar season. Like Gobert, Embiid ranks among the league leaders in Defensive Real Plus Minus (5th among centers) and Defensive Rating (3rd overall). Like Gobert, his shot-blocking and paint presence helped Philadelphia achieve an elite team defense (3rd). And like Gobert, his team badly missed him when he was off the court.
Defensive Ratings (On and Off Court)
- Rudy Gobert: ON: 97.5 | OFF: 105.1
- Joel Embiid: ON: 99.7 | OFF: 104.5
Unfortunately, Embiid was also bitten by the injury bug and will finish the season logging 1,912 minutes, having missed nearly 20 games overall. Despite missing more games, Gobert should end the year somewhere around 1,800 minutes. Given that the quantity of their minutes will be roughly equal, Gobert’s superior quality of play and impact earned him the nod this year. Look for Embiid, 24, to be a factor in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation for the next half-decade.
Davis, as mentioned above, is still an underappreciated defender. His Defensive Real Plus Minus and Defensive Rating place him among the league’s leaders, while the “eye test” generates countless “wow” moments. New Orleans’s fast-pace style and lackluster roster often combine to put him in difficult spots, but Davis responds by making hard defensive plays look easy and by making impossible defensive plays look routine. His length is a weapon everywhere, whether he’s tracking ball-handlers away from the hoop, contesting jumpers, protecting the rim, or flying across the paint to help.
Rookie of the Year
- Ben Simmons, Sixers
- Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
- Jayson Tatum, Celtics
The rising tension around the Rookie of the Year race has been April’s best Basketball Twitter subplot. The first wave of takes, launched from Philadelphia and Utah, asserted that there was only one possible winner: Simmons or Mitchell. The second wave of takes, via scolding media members, assured everyone that the race was actually very close. The third wave of takes came from Simmons himself, who declared that he was “100 percent” deserving and that “none” of his fellow rookies had captured his attention this season, eliciting a sweatshirt clapback from Mitchell and passionate pushback from his supporters.
Here’s the real takeaway: This fierce debate easily beats splitting hairs between Malcolm Brogdon and an injured Joel Embiid, or feigning excitement over unpolished past winners like Andrew Wiggins and Michael-Carter Williams. Even better, this Rookie of the Year race will be relitigated during the playoffs and for years to come, as both Simmons and Mitchell have looked like budding superstars.
Simmons won on this ballot. It was close—but not agonizingly close. For starters, complaints about Simmons’s redshirt status are rubbish; Both he and Mitchell are 21 years old and both are eligible for selection. Both players also largely cancel each other out when it comes to team success and their ability to withstand key injuries to teammates. Philadelphia and Utah are both among the league’s biggest overachievers, and both Simmons and Mitchell played key roles in carrying their respective teams during injuries to Embiid and Rudy Gobert.
Although Mitchell has been a superior individual scorer, a much more effective shooter, and an incredible late-game performer, Simmons has simply been the better overall player. His package of skills—speed, size, power, ball-handling, finishing, play-making, vision, feel—draws comparisons to all-time greats for good reason. Head to head, Simmons has outpaced Mitchell in assists, rebounds, steals, blocks, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus.
Simmons has improved Philadelphia’s offense by nearly seven points when he’s taken the court and has established himself as a major plus defensively. He might not be the ideal candidate to take a three-pointer or a free throw with the game on the line, but he’s so special at everything else that it would be foolish to define him by his poor jump shooting. To be clear, saying that Simmons is better than Mitchell across many elements of the game is hardly an insult: There are only a handful of players who can pick apart a defense as well as Simmons, and his 16 PPG / 8 RPG/ 8 APG stat line puts him in a rare class alongside LeBron James and Magic Johnson.
In some years, Tatum’s season (13.9 PPG/ 5 RPG) would had been good enough to claim Rookie of the Year honors. Alas, he seems destined to finish third despite an effortless transition from Duke to the pros. As injuries claimed both Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Tatum displayed great flexibility on offense. He opened the season as a knockdown three-point shooter and dutifully ramped up his creation as it became necessary. Perhaps most impressively, he established himself as a plus defender for one of the league’s top defenses thanks to his work ethic, focus, awareness, and good frame. Tatum’s two-way impact made him a clear choice over Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, whose scoring acumen far exceeds his defensive ability and awareness.
Most Improved Player
- Victor Oladipo, Pacers
- Jaylen Brown, Celtics
- Jamal Murray, Nuggets
There are obvious contributing factors that help explain Victor Oladipo’s meteoric rise since joining the Pacers, but the breadth and scope of his improvement is nevertheless inexplicable. At 25, he transformed from a twice-traded complementary player who was invisible in the 2017 playoffs to an All-NBA level guard making star-like contributions on both sides of the ball. Last summer, his “Indiana homecoming” seemed like wishful and overly optimistic spin in the wake of Paul George’s moody exit. Now, he’s one of the most beloved franchise players in the league, and deservedly so.
If anyone was going to seriously push Oladipo (23.1 PPG/ 5.2 RPG/ 4.3 APG), it would have been Kristaps Porzingis, who opened the season on a scoring tear. That chase ended when the Knicks’ budding unicorn suffered a season-ending knee injury, and Oladipo has a decent shot at winning this award unanimously. After all, he’s posted career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, steals, Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, and True Shooting %, and he’s carried the Pacers to 16+ wins above their preseason over/under.
As second-year players who made great strides, Brown and Murray both possess textbook Most Improved Player cases. In year two, Brown (14.5 PPG/ 5 RPG) has erased pre-draft questions about his shooting range, meaningfully improved his offensive assertiveness, and solidified his standing as a future All-Defensive selection on the wing.
Murray (16.7 PPG / 3.4 APG), meanwhile, seized control of the Nuggets from Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson. While that wasn’t exactly the world’s greatest accomplishment, the Canadian scoring guard has established himself as a long-term core piece in Denver. Already a threat to go off on any given night thanks to his three-point shooting and crafty on-ball presence, Murray would be receiving far more acclaim if he played in a larger market or for a higher-profile team. Quietly, he leads the 2016 draft class in points and minutes played while placing third in total Win Shares. Murray’s scoring outbursts are intoxicating and, with improved consistency, may place him on a star’s track.
Sixth Man of the Year
- Lou Williams, Clippers
- Fred VanVleet, Raptors
- Eric Gordon, Rockets
This is the sneaky best awards race, as it pits a traditional Sixth Man archetype against a wonkier candidate. In one corner, Williams has been the quintessential one-way bucket-getter lighting it up nightly during a career year. In the other, VanVleet has emerged as one of the season’s best feel-good stories, an unheralded, do-everything glue guy who aces the impact stats and guides the NBA’s top bench. Their roles might stand in contrast, but they both approach their craft with aplomb: Williams was miffed that he was an All-Star snub, and VanVleet has repeatedly made it clear that he rocks a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder.
The nod here goes, hesitantly, to Williams. His importance to the Clippers—who stayed in the West’s playoff chase until the bitter end despite a litany of injuries and the Blake Griffin trade—can’t be overstated. He emerged as the offense’s focal point when Griffin was injured, his success helped ease the pain of Griffin’s departure, and he was as unstoppable and entertaining on his best nights—four 40+ point games and a 50-spot—as anybody in the league.
If Williams (22.6 PPG / 5.3 APG) wins, he would become the second-highest scoring Sixth Man of the Year, trailing only Ricky Pierce (23 PPG in 1990). At the same time, he would rank second all time in assists for Sixth Man winners, behind only Darrell Armstrong (6.7 APG in 1999). His career-best assist numbers are worth highlighting, as they reflect how much attention he commanded on a nightly basis.
VanVleet (8.7 PPG / 3.2 APG) has modest per-game stats, but he ranks among the league’s top guards in Real Plus Minus and boasts a +12.5 net rating that is tops among Raptors rotation players. He functions well on or off the ball, his tenacity is reliable and infectious, he’s been money from long distance, and he rarely makes mistakes. If Toronto plays to its capabilities in the playoffs, VanVleet is bound to inspire envious drooling from rival fanbases hoping to pry him away in free agency.
Gordon (18.2 PPG / 2.5 RPG) rounds out the ballot as a relatively unheralded cog in the Rockets’ killing machine: He’s flown under the radar because he’s not a superstar like James Harden and Chris Paul, and he’s not a new face like P.J. Tucker or Luc Mbah a Moute. Even so, he’s excelled in multiple roles and in a variety of lineups, stepping in for Paul as a starter early and then spending a majority of the season as an ultra-floor-spacing, ultra-deep-shooting weapon off the bench. Gordon ranks second among Sixth Men candidates in scoring, and Houston’s offensive efficiency has jumped to an excellent 115.7 when he’s been on the court. His gravity, skills as a secondary attacker, and comfort off the ball are always welcome additions to a strong offense.
Coach of the Year
- Brett Brown, Sixers
- Dwane Casey, Raptors
- Brad Stevens, Celtics
This was a banner year for overachievers: The 10 tanking teams helped out by inflating win totals and the defending finalists—Golden State and Cleveland—further set the table by slogging through underwhelming campaigns. All told, something like seven coaches have reasonable cases to win Coach of the Year based on outperforming expectations: Brown, Casey, Stevens, Nate McMillan, Terry Stotts, Quin Snyder and Gregg Popovich. That group doesn’t even include Houston’s Mike D’Antoni, who followed up his 2017 Coach of the Year award by posting the league’s best record.
Brown gets this vote based on his degree of difficulty. A 50+ win season is a shocking accomplishment for such a young and inexperienced team, much less one built around three lottery picks who entered the season facing questions about their health (Joel Embiid), positional fit (Ben Simmons), and psychological makeup (Markelle Fultz). After surviving the grind of The Process for years, Brown deftly managed Embiid’s return to form, he smartly empowered Simmons as his lead ball-handler, and he navigated the Fultz quagmire—made worse by his own front office—as well as anyone could hope. Under Brown, Philadelphia achieved a remarkable terrible-to-great turnaround, one that could pay off with a deep playoff run and an enhanced position as a free-agent destination.
While Casey and Stevens displayed excellent control in the face of serious adversity, they had the twin advantages of veteran stars and winning cultures. Brown lacked both, and no one should forget the Sixers are just two years removed from a 10-win campaign.
Casey’s greatest strength this season was his adaptability. Toronto’s culture overhaul required Casey to reduce the pressure on his star guards, to empower an inexperienced bench group, to radically redistribute his team’s shot selection, and to keep all the egos and personalities in check along the way. He succeeded on all fronts, delivering another franchise record in wins and the East’s top seed.
As for Stevens, he again proved to be a master of maximizing his players’ talents, fashioning productive lineups from spare parts, and preparing for late-game scenarios. For the second straight season, Boston ranked among the league’s best clutch teams—a feat made more difficult by injuries to Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. During his five-year tenure, Stevens has coached bad teams, average teams, good teams and very good teams—and he’s arguably surpassed expectations with all five groups. If he doesn’t claim his first Coach of the Year award this year, he will soon.
Executive of the Year
- Daryl Morey, Rockets
- Kevin Pritchard, Pacers
- Danny Ainge, Celtics
Media members don’t cast official votes for Executive of the Year; that task falls to the executives themselves.
Unofficially, Morey deserves the recognition. Often, Executive of the Year awards reflect years of planning and building. That’s the case with the Rockets, who have diligently recast their roster around James Harden. But Morey also enjoyed an excellent 2017 off-season. He traded for Chris Paul in a complicated blockbuster that has proven to have a larger influence on the 2018 title race than any other summer move. From there, he made purposeful, targeted additions aimed at shoring up his team’s defense, signing P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute. To top it off, he charted a clear and modern vision for the group, giving coach Mike D’Antoni the ability to stagger Harden and Paul and to utilize fully interchangeable lineups. Cleveland, Oklahoma City, Boston and others took big swings in hopes of challenging Golden State. Only Morey truly connected.
Pritchard should savor his season-long victory lap after setting a new NBA record for shattering conventional wisdom. In truth, Indiana’s haul in the Paul George deal surely exceeded Pritchard’s own wildest dreams: Victor Oladipo has been a revelation and Domantas Sabonis will likely join Oladipo on some Most Improved Player ballots. Remember, Pritchard executed that trade after George backed the Pacers into a corner and longtime team president Larry Bird abruptly announced his retirement. Rebooting a franchise is no easy task; doing it on short notice and with little leverage is even more difficult.
Ainge nailed his four big 2017 moves—trading for Kyrie Irving, successfully courting Gordon Hayward, trading away the No. 1 pick, and using the No. 3 pick to draft Jayson Tatum—and in so doing added top-level talent and young assets without sacrificing depth. The full fruits of his 2017 labors will be revealed next year and beyond.