The Crossover's 2018 NBA Awards: A Rookie of the Year Battle for the Ages

The NBA season has come to a close and it's time to make awards picks. The Crossover presents James Harden, Ben Simmons and the year of the unanimous selections.
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The NBA season is coming to a close and the time to make awards selections is here. In a season when stars shone bright, The Crossover staff was faced with several close calls. James Harden and LeBron James battled at MVP and Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell fought for Rookie of the Year. Here, you can receive a cleaner look at the thoughts several writers had before making their picks. Without further ado, it's time to get into the awards. 

(For more year-end coverage, check out Ben Golliver's All-NBA and All-Defensive picks and NBA awards ballot.)

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Most Valuable Player

Ben Golliver: James Harden, Rockets

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.

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.

Lee Jenkins: James Harden, Rockets

Harden could have won this award in 2015 and probably should have in 2017. He will finally break through with the best season of his career and the finest in Rockets history, the culmination of a historic four-year surge. Harden leads the NBA in scoring, ranks third in assists and shoots 45% from three-point range, the modern offensive ideal. His only formidable challenger was LeBron James, and if the season lasted a few more weeks, James might have edged him. Despite the Kyrie Irving trade, the Kevin Love injury and the deadline shakeup, James led the Cavaliers to roughly the same record they posted a year ago. Harden and James were equally spectacular, but the Rockets were more consistent than the Cavs, and Harden was the force behind their sustained success.

Rohan Nadkarni: James Harden, Rockets

The MVP is Harden and there isn't really a debate this year. Harden has had a stranglehold on this award for months. He's the best player on the best team in the league, with the gaudy stats to back up his case. Anthony Davis's Pelicans just don't have enough wins, while LeBron's Cavs struggled for too much of the season with him on the court. Harden's success in isolation situations has made both him and the Rockets devastating offensive forces, and his defense is no longer filled with cringeworthy moments made for YouTube. Hopefully no one overthinks this award. 

Andrew Sharp: James Harden, Rockets

You could make a good argument for LeBron James, as he's putting the finishing touches on a 27/9/8 campaign that might be the most dominant offensive season of his career. What's more, LeBron voters might argue, the difference in Houston's win total this year can be explained by the emergence of Clint Capela as a dependable fulcrum on offense and defense and the arrival of Chris Paul as an elite sidekick. Meanwhile, LeBron's out here winning 50 games with Cedi Osman, Jeff Green, half-a-season of Kevin Love, and Lakers cast-offs. 

I get it. But LeBron has also played a central role in some of the adversity that Cleveland's had to overcome, and for me that was a first place dealbreaker. Also, while Cleveland likely tops out at 51 wins, Harden will win 65 or 66 games while putting together a season that's been every bit as statistically dominant as LeBron. 

MVP always requires a balancing of interests and definitions of "value", but for me the two basic questions are these: Who was the player who defined the regular season? Years from now, when we look back at this season, what should people know about what it was like to watch basketball that year? I don't know if Harden defined the regular season, but the second question is sealed it for me. Smack in the middle of the Warriors-Cavs era, this was the season where, after years of polite acknowledgement, and quiet skepticism, and complaints about fouls, the dominance of James Harden and the Rockets became impossible to ignore. Now let's see what happens in the playoffs

Jeremy Woo: James Harden, Rockets

As the engine behind the NBA’s best offense and best regular-season record, there shouldn’t be too much debate that this is Harden’s year to finally collect his hardware. It feels like there are element’s of Houston’s dominant season that have been taken for granted as far as the spotlight is concerned—it’s what happens when you’re quietly that efficient, and as bigger personalities win headlines—so let’s not sell him short here. LeBron is deserving on some level every single year, but this year belonged to the Rockets start to finish, and Harden as the tone-setter. It’s not really justification for any awards, but his willingness to bring in and incorporate Chris Paul should at least be noted. We’ll see if they can do it in the playoffs, but don’t overthink this.

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Most Improved Player

Ben Golliver: Victor Oladipo, Pacers

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. 

Lee Jenkins: Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Nine months ago, Oladipo was a punch line in jokes about Oklahoma City’s heist of Paul George. Now, he is an All-Star, a franchise player and the obvious winner of this award. Sitting in the visitors’ locker room at Toyota Center last spring, after a first-round beat-down by the Rockets, Oladipo pledged to overhaul his body and his career. He improved his diet, cut his weight and regained the explosiveness that once convinced the Magic to draft him second overall. Orlando never trusted Oladipo with its offense, and neither did Oklahoma City, installing him as a sidekick to Russell Westbrook. Indiana returned Oladipo to his college roots and handed him the reins. The results, for player and team, have been transformative.

The Crossover's All-NBA and All-Defensive Picks: Who Deserves to Make First Team?

Rohan Nadkarni: Victor Oladipo, Pacers

Free from the shackles of Russell Westbrook, Oladipo put together one of the more surprising seasons in recent NBA history. The Pacers performed like an elite team with Oladipo on the court, with a net rating of 6.6. Indiana is 13.5 points per 100 possessions better with Oladipo on the floor, which speaks to his immense impact on the players around him. It's unclear if he can do this for his entire career, but Oladipo carried the Pacers practically like a superstar this season. Indiana looked like it was headed for the lottery after trading away Paul George. Oladipo almost single-handedly thrust this team into the playoffs. It would have been impossible to predict this kind of year from Oladipo after he struggled in his supporting role in Oklahoma City. Apparently, simply asking him to be the star brought out the best in him. 

Andrew Sharp: Victor Oladipo, Pacers

"Most Improved Player" doesn't properly convey everything Victor Oladipo has done with the Pacers this year, but it's a start. And this is a category where Fred VanVleet deserves all of the second-place love in the world. 

Jeremy Woo: Victor Oladipo, Pacers

This feels like a shoo-in: Oladipo posted career-highs across the board, lifted the Pacers to the playoffs and assuming a true alpha dog role with aplomb. He’s gone from the No. 2 pick to two-time castoff to All-Star all before his 26th birthday, and it’s eminently clear things finally clicked for him. Not many words need be wasted here.

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Sixth Man of the Year

Ben Golliver: Lou Williams, Clippers

The nod here goes, hesitantly, to Williams over Toronto’s Fled VanVleet, an unheralded, do-everything glue guy who has emerged as one of the season’s best feel-good stories while guiding the NBA’s top bench. Williams’s 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.

Lee Jenkins: Lou Williams, Clippers

We’re at the point where Lou Williams and Eric Gordon might need to just alternate for a while. Williams should have been an All-Star, keeping the Clippers in the playoff hunt despite the defection of Chris Paul, the trade of Blake Griffin and injuries to almost everybody of significance on the roster. Williams probably locked up this award at midseason, but Gordon has been close behind, an expert complement to Paul and Harden for his ability to score without the ball and hit from up to 35 feet. Williams will take the trophy from Gordon this year, and expect Gordon to take it back in 2019.

The Year of James Harden Is All About the NBA Playoffs

Rohan Nadkarni: Lou Williams, Clippers

There are a couple good choices for this award, but it's hard not to reward Lou Williams here. Lou Will and the Clippers had no business fighting for a playoff spot for as long as they did, but L.A. remained in the postseason hunt for much of the season thanks in large part to Williams's offensive heroics. This was a team that was routinely toyed with by Golden State until Williams dropped 50 in Oakland for the Clips' first win against the Warriors in four seasons. With Williams on the court, the Clippers and their no-name, patchwork roster has a 112.6 offensive rating, which is better than the Houston Rockets. The only knock on Williams's case is that he started 19 games. But if there's one thing we know about Lou Will, he's an expert in having it all. 

Andrew Sharp: Lou Williams, Clippers

Fred VanVleet has been incredible, but let's not get crazy. Lou Williams is the only correct answer to this question. 

Jeremy Woo: Lou Williams, Clippers

Williams became the first player ever to lead his team in scoring and assists in a bench role this season, offering surprising stability over the course of a tough season that could have been far more tumultuous for the Clippers, all things considered. He’s also the first player in league history to average 20 points and five assists as a backup. This is the Sixth Man award—what other qualifications really are there? This was the best year of Williams’s career, at age 31. Seems pretty obvious.

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Rookie of the Year

Ben Golliver: Ben Simmons, Sixers

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.

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.

Lee Jenkins: Ben Simmons, Sixers

Ugh. This is hard. In most years, Donovan Mitchell would be a unanimous winner, but the NBA hasn’t seen many oversized playmakers who can channel the vision of Magic Johnson and the force of LeBron James. Simmons took control of the race in the last couple weeks, hauling the 76ers to the top half of the Eastern Conference with Joel Embiid injured. Simmons does not shoot at all from outside, which in some ways makes his accomplishments even more impressive, since he is able to shred defenses that sag back on him. The Sixers are left to daydream about what Simmons will be capable of when he does develop a jumper. 

Ben Simmons Is Rookie of the Year, But Where Will He Go From Here?

Rohan Nadkarni: Ben Simmons, Sixers

I flipped on this award this week after Donovan Mitchell wore his now-infamous hoodie that defined the word rookie. Donovan, my man. I've had you picked for this award for months. All you had to do was keep chucking threes and maybe help the Jazz steal the third seed in the West. Instead you hinted you should win Rookie of the Year because Ben Simmons is... not a rookie?

Look, I'm actually not comfortable giving this award to players who've had a redshirt year, but Simmons clearly qualifies within the rules, and his case is damn good. I think the degree of difficulty for Mitchell this season was higher, which was my original case for him. But it's hard to ignore the all-around game of Simmons, who makes a bigger impact than Mitchell in areas less sexy than scoring. Rebounding, passing and defense are all pretty damn important as well. Also helping Simmons's case is Philly's recent success without Joel Embiid. I'd be happy if either player won, I just wish Mitchell hadn't worn that hoodie.

Andrew Sharp: Ben Simmons, Sixers

Strictly by the numbers, Ben Simmons is more valuable. But I think it's a little reductive to claim that the numbers make this easy. If there's one thing I've hated most about this rookie of the year debate, it's the notion that this choice is obvious, or that someone can quantify a definitive correct answer. The question isn't who's the better player—probably Simmons—but who had the better season?

Simmons did a little bit of everything, and picked his spots, and was great. Mitchell was asked to do more. He was the catalyst for a playoff team's offense, and there's a steeper learning curve for that job. Mitchell responded over and over again by exceeding expectations. Some of what he accomplished, and why it was impressive, can't be quantified. Critics and/or Sixers fans like to discredit him as just a scorer (and not a particularly efficient one), but he's been scoring in huge moments for a playoff team that badly needed someone to fill that role. If Utah had been counting on Ben Simmons instead, the Jazz wouldn't be as good. And therein ends my argument that everyone who said "This isn't close!" is not as smart as they think.

I went with Simmons in the end. While his highs haven't been quite as thrilling and he wasn't always asked to do as much, he did almost everything well, and he was more consistent. He played the best version of his game more often than Donovan Mitchell did this season. He's been better on defense than Mitchell, and on offense, his skills make the entire Philly team unlike anything else in the NBA. So he's rookie of the year (but it's close).

Jeremy Woo: Ben Simmons, Sixers

Yes, Simmons is a fake rookie and had the benefit of what was effectively a redshirt year due to injury. But that doesn’t change the fact that literally nobody thought he’d show up and average 16, 8 and 8 from the outset and hardly bat an eyelash in the process. You will see this list a billion places, but the only other guys to do that, period, are LeBron James, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Magic Johnson. Simmons did it in his first year in the league. He didn’t shoot threes and in the end he didn’t have to—the learning curve was negligible, and the degree to which he made teammates better. Simmons stands out as the deserving candidate thanks to his consistency and role in the Sixers’ instant turnaround. 

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Defensive Player of the Year

Ben Golliver: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

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.

Lee Jenkins: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Because Gobert missed 26 of Utah’s first 44 games, his margin for error was slim. But he has been so dominant when healthy that his case can’t be dismissed simply due to injury. The Jazz are back in the playoff picture, even after Gordon Hayward’s departure, for two main reasons: Mitchell is a revelation and Gobert is the best rim protector in the league. This is not a new phenomenon. Gobert could have beaten out Draymond Green last season and he has left no doubt this time. Defensive performances can be hard to quantify, but most of the advanced metrics point Gobert’s way.

Rohan Nadkarni: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

The Jazz have a 100.6 defensive rating with Gobert on the court, which is even better than their league-leading 101.6 defensive efficiency. Gobert's biggest knock is that he missed 26 games, but injuries should not automatically disqualify players from awards. Gobert is the biggest reason for the Jazz's midseason turnaround, even more so than Mitchell. The Jazz have been one of the best teams in the league with Gobert playing, and there's something to be said about him doing his damage in the loaded Western Conference. Few players can take over a game defensively like Gobert, and perhaps even fewer give the type of consistent effort The Stifle Tower does every night. There are stretches in nearly every game when opposing offenses just refuse to go in the paint and try to challenge the Jazz. If Utah's shocking turnaround was fueled by Gobert's dominance on the defensive end, then I have no problem recognizing it, no matter how many games he missed.

Andrew Sharp: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Rudy Gobert will haunt your dreams. Watch him scare the crap out of Paul George here; it's beautiful. He's so much bigger, longer, and faster than any defensive player should be allowed to be. He's so unfair, he makes it defense almost as entertaining as offense. After two Gobert weeks-long injuries led to premature eulogies for this Utah season, he came back to life so dominant that the Jazz are on pace to win 49 games. He's the best defender in the league, and I can't wait to see what he does in the playoffs. 

Jeremy Woo: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

It’s about time Gobert won one of these. The Jazz made the playoffs without Gordon Hayward, maintained the Western Conference’s best defense, and none of it would have been possible without him—his verticality and strength can’t be undersold. Whether or not his vulnerability defending in space can anchor a serious contender is a different question, but this is an award for the best defensive player on the league’s best defensive teams. As far as individual impact on team schemes goes, there isn’t too much of an argument.​

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Coach of the Year

Ben Golliver: Brett Brown, Sixers

There were plenty of overachieving coaches with credible cases for this awards, but 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 Dwane Casey and Brad 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.

Lee Jenkins: Brad Stevens, Celtics​

There are no fewer than six legitimate candidates for this award—​including Dwane Casey, Quin Snyder, Terry Stotts, Nate McMillan and Gregg Popovich—​and a convincing argument could be made for each one. Stevens lost Hayward on Opening Night, and then lost Kyrie Irving down the stretch, and he still has the Celtics second in the Eastern Conference thanks to contributions from the likes of Marcus Morris and Terry Rozier. Under Stevens, Jayson Tatum looked at times like the No. 1 pick, Jaylen Brown took a massive leap and Al Horford became the key cog in the East’s best defense.

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Rohan Nadkarni: Brett Brown, Sixers

I feel like one-third of the league could win this award. There are so many good choices and they are nearly impossible to separate. I'm cheating a bit and not only rewarding Brown for this season, but also for years of patience as he waited for The Process to play out. The Sixers were always a bit of a sleeper team this season, but even the most excited Hinkie truther would likely have been hard-pressed to guess this team would win 50 games.

Brown resisted the urge to overplay Joel Embiid, trusted Simmons to actually play point guard, and defended Markelle Fultz at every turn before working him back in to the lineup. The Sixers play an exciting brand of basketball and their success is built almost entirely on young players who should still be figuring out the NBA. Instead of another year of rebuilding, Brown has helped shepherd a team that appears to be a juggernaut in the East for years to come. 

Andrew Sharp: Brad Stevens, Celtics

The Raptors entered the season with an underwhelming team that seemed destined to make the transition from "reliable, impressive" to "stale, depressing" somewhere over the course of this season. Instead, Toronto has a chance to win 60 games. Dwane Casey deserves some love. Utah lost a foundational All-Star, lost its other All-Star for 30 games, and the Jazz will finish somewhere in the middle of the West. Quin Snyder deserves some love. 

The Sixers survived one the league's toughest schedules to begin the year and then spent the final two months tearing through the whole damn league. Young players have improved, veterans have been added seamlessly, and all of this is nuts. Brett Brown deserves some love. No one knows the Spurs have continued to succeed without Kawhi Leonard this season, but every rambling and unsatisfactory explanation begins and ends with Gregg Popovich. Pop always deserves more coach of the year love than he gets. 

So, it's a crowded field. And for me, in a field where five guys deserve to win, the decision came down to who I'd choose if I had to win one game this season. And with due respect for Casey, Snyder, Brown, and Popovich, I've spent the past six months watching Brad Stevens win with everyone from Kyrie Irving, to Terry Rozier, to Daniel Theis, to Al Horford, to half the Maine Red Claws roster. The Bucks are currently in 7th place, and if Stevens was coaching them, I'm convinced they'd have 55 wins. Stevens is my coach of the year. 

Jeremy Woo: Dwane Casey, Raptors

The Raptors changed their philosophy, kept their personnel and improved by leaps and bounds, riding perhaps the league’s deepest roster to the East’s best record. The balancing act that goes into that type of feat is massive. Credit Casey for making it work in a league where maintaining a winning continuity is perhaps the greatest team-building challenge, and where finding ways to get more out of the same guys can be overshadowed by whatever the new, shiny thing might be. Casey deserves it.