2017 NBA awards ballot: SN's Sean Deveney votes on MVP, Defensive Player of the Year and more
There were surprises and shockers, there were disappointments and flops, there were teams and players who did pretty much exactly what was expected of them. But there was history, a season whose storyline was dominated by a player in Oklahoma City, a team in the Bay Area, a trade in the Big Easy and a never-ending saga in the Big Apple.
But 2016-17 is all but behind us now. That means the good folks at Ernst and Young have sent out their emails to me and others, asking us to pick our award winners for the year. I’ve filed mine. Here is how they shape up.
1 MVP: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
1. Russell Westbrook, Thunder
2. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
3. James Harden, Rockets
4. LeBron James, Cavaliers
5. Isaiah Thomas, Celtics
Westbrook has done something this season that has not been done in 55 years, and all the arguments that can be stacked against his MVP candidacy are just not enough to obscure that fact. He was the story of the season, and his numbers say it all: 31.9 points, 10.4 assists, 10.7 rebounds.
You average a triple-double, you should be the MVP.
Yes, Westbrook has mundane shooting percentages, 42.6 percent from the field and 34.4 percent from the 3-point line, both well below league averages. And his team is sixth in the conference with 47 wins prior to OKC's season finale Wednesday night, which would match Moses Malone for the 1981-82 Rockets as the last MVP playing for a team with so few wins and seeded that low within his conference.
But there have been MVPs for worse teams, though only twice. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers were 40-42 and did not make the playoffs in 1975-76, and the first-ever MVP, Bob Pettit, played for the 33-39 St. Louis Hawks in 1955-56. Have a look at the Thunder roster and consider where the team would be without Westbrook.
Again, all anti-Westbrook arguments crumble in the face of the simple fact that Westbrook made it through an entire NBA season averaging a triple-double. That’s an incredible accomplishment, and he should be MVP because of it.
2 Rookie of the Year: Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
1. Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
2. Dario Saric, Sixers
3. Buddy Hield, Kings
For most of the year, this award was shaping up to be an easy win for Sixers big man Joel Embiid. But Embiid’s ongoing knee troubles ended his season short and took him out of the running, setting up what could be a stunner in the vote: Brogdon, a second-round pick out of Virginia, is the most deserving of this year’s ROY honors.
BIRDSONG: Brogdon became the ROY no one saw coming
Brogdon is no shoo-in — Embiid’s teammate, Dario Saric, will garner votes, too — but his steady contributions over the course of the season have been critical to keeping the Bucks’ season afloat. Brogdon first helped Milwaukee cope with the loss of shooting guard Khris Middleton to start the year, then took on a more sizable role as the starting point guard during the Bucks’ March surge.
It helps that last year’s draft class was mostly disappointing this year. But that should not diminish how good Brogdon has been, with averages of 10.2 points and 4.3 assists, making 40.3 percent of his 3s and playing solid defense throughout.
3 Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Warriors
1. Draymond Green, Warriors
2. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
3. Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
This is the toughest of the awards to pick, because there is such a thin margin between Green, Gobert, Leonard and guys beyond that trio like LeBron James and Patrick Beverley.
But Green holds his place atop the league’s defensive hierarchy because of his versatility. Green is able to switch against any matchup, able to handle centers and point guards alike — he is thickly built, but still quick enough to keep up with smaller players.
That is critical to the success of the Warriors, who allow opponents to shoot 43.5 percent from the field, 2.0 percent worse than they normally shoot. Green is second in the league in deflections (3.9 per game), another important factor for a team lacking rim protection. Zaza Pachulia is not the paint defender that Andrew Bogut was, so it’s important for the Warriors to keep the ball from getting into the paint to begin with.
Green’s defense was also vital in getting the Warriors to the No. 1 seed, especially with star Kevin Durant missing all of March and two April games. Durant has, rightly, been given credit for altering and even improving the way the rangy, long-armed Warriors defend. His absence figured to be a test.
Headed by Green, the Golden State defense did not miss a beat. They managed 13 straight wins without Durant, and during that streak, allowed 99.9 points on 41.6 percent shooting and 29.6 percent 3-point shooting. That showed Green’s defensive value.
4 Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
2. Otto Porter, Wizards
3. James Johnson, Heat
Most Improved is an award that has long brought a big shrug from this voter, because the criteria are nebulous. Should it go to a young player who just happens to get more minutes and makes a natural progression? Or to a guy who adds something new to his game and genuinely improves that way. Shrug.
The list of Most Improved winners includes Don MacLean, Isaac Austin and Bobby Simmons. Winning does not necessarily portend great things.
But Antetokounmpo will be different. As a fourth-year guy, it was expected that he would get better. But he got better in unexpected and varied ways. He became a force on the defensive end. His ability as a scorer improved. His court vision — and thus, his playmaking — got better.
And so you wind up with these numbers: 22.9 points, 8.7 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game on 52.2 percent shooting. Antetokounmpo, at just 22 years old, became the first Buck All-Star since Michael Redd in 2004 this year, and he is likely to be the team’s first-ever Most Improved winner.
5 Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon, Rockets
1. Eric Gordon, Rockets
2. Andre Iguodala, Warriors
3. Zach Randolph, Grizzlies
Of all the numbers you could use to sum up the year Gordon has had, the most important would probably be 74. That’s the number of games he’s been able to play, the most since his rookie year nine seasons ago.
Gordon will never become the player he seemed destined to be after his promising first three seasons with the Clippers, which gave way to his injury-ravaged tenure in New Orleans. But he has remade himself as the ideal sixth man for coach Mike D’Antoni’s offense, a pure 3-point gunner who can carry the offense when James Harden sits and make teams pay for giving Harden too much attention when they’re on the floor together.
Gordon edges out perennial award candidate Andre Iguodala, whose shooting and defense were critical to bolstering the Warriors bench. And he slides in ahead of a couple of rarities — frontcourt sixth men, like Zach Randolph and Greg Monroe.
6 Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, Spurs
1. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
2. Mike D’Antoni, Rockets
3. Quin Snyder, Jazz
Mike D’Antoni is deserving. So are Quin Snyder, Scott Brooks, Erik Spoelstra, David Fizdale and Brad Stevens. Every year, there are more coaches worthy of votes than there are votes available. But Popovich stands out.
Popovich has won the award three times already, but the job he did this year might have been his finest effort. For the first time since his first season as an NBA coach, Popovich did not have Tim Duncan on his roster, and he had to cope with a diminished version of Tony Parker, who, at 34, had the worst season of his career.
Still, Popovich’s Spurs played the best defense in the league and maintained their depth up front by working in newcomers Dwayne Dedmon and Pau Gasol, getting surprisingly effective seasons from both. He very methodically brought along the team’s reworked bench, with Gasol, Patty Mills, Manu Ginobilli and David Lee as the mainstays, but with a long list of potential playoff surprises already groomed: Davis Bertans, Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons and Bryn Forbes.
The Spurs are taking a step backward in terms of record this year. But they’re still over the 60-win mark, and what Popovich did this season deserves recognition.