And there concludes the 2017 NBA regular season. With every new season, the wait for playoffs only has been getting longer. We know who is getting to the NBA finals, so this is just a very long consolation ladder. I know that the Cavaliers have looked quite weak in the second half of the season, but it is well known there is a level that they haven’t hit yet and no team in the East is really good enough for that level. Even worse, the superteam that the Warriors built hasn’t really had much of a learning curve they had to go through. They seem to be gelling just right and seem destined to be there in June. What made this NBA season exciting, however, was the MVP race. Westbrook, as expected, took the world-against-me mentality a step further and went on a torching spree. Of course, it was much more jaw dropping than imagined. Harden did a bit of that himself, as he became the engine of the second most explosive offense in the league this year.  Meanwhile, Kawhi officially cemented the superstar tag on himself as he led a post-TD Spurs to a 2nd seed. In an ode to those performances and many more that made this season watchable despite the lack of parity, I will give my thoughts on who I believe should get the end of the year awards.

MVP

This essentially comes down to a three-man race for most, so let’s get the others out of the way first.

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo

I know the Bucks are a 6th seed, but that isn’t stopping us from possibly giving it to Westbrook. Giannis has put up a monster season and is probably going to walk away with the Most Improved Player, but he should still be talked about because he was undoubtedly carrying the Bucks. He leads the team in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. That has only happened 5 times in NBA history. To make it more impressive, he is top 20 in all 5 categories in the NBA and that has NEVER happened before in NBA history. He has gotten some help from Jabari Parker or Khris Middleton, but those 2 have only played one game together. Unfortunately, the case against Giannis is that he could only carry his team to a 6th seed in the East. However, this is a future MVP and he is letting the world know.

  1. LeBron James

He is still the best player in the world and in his 14th year in the NBA, he put up career highs in assists and rebounds. Just think about that for a second. We probably have seen the first step to the post-peak transition of LeBron, where he just casually sets up his teammates to double-digit assists every night. That doesn’t mean that Lebron is no longer at the peak of his game. He is still there, but he is clearly starting to set up the groundwork for his old man game. In addition, he got his 3-point shooting back up to above 35% after an abysmal season shooting it from beyond the arc last year. For all the talk of “coasting”, he led the league in minutes (because Lue is too busy staring into space to look at the time). To be fair though, LeBron’s minutes should not be looked at exclusively because during a lot of the minutes LeBron does spend on the floor, he does know when and when not to use his energy appropriately. While that is true, he still should not be leading the league in minutes with two other stars on the team.

Despite all that, the Cavaliers have sleepwalked their way into the playoffs. They did it to the point that they didn’t even realize that Boston took the 1st seed. Halfway into the season, the Cavaliers were 30-11. From that point onwards, they went 21-20. For half the season, this team was barely over .500. I attribute most of this to Lue who has been mostly like a deer caught in headlights this year. He was a defensive assistant coach prior to becoming head coach, but the current Cavaliers defense shows no indication of that. LeBron really hasn’t done enough to overcome this mostly because I don’t think he really cares. The team is clearly much better, but still flawed on defense with LeBron, but they are horrifically bad when he sits. He usually has a different level he brings in the playoffs and by osmosis, brings it out of his teammates. He could have done this in the regular season to make a bigger MVP case, but I don’t think he really cares. Even without caring, he still made a MVP case and that just shows how insanely good LeBron is.

The Big 3

There are a lot of holes that detractors might point out in Kawhi’s MVP case. He scores much less than both Westbrook and Harden, and even worse, he only averaged 3.5 assists per game. That shouldn’t come as a surprise for someone in a Popovich coached offense, but then again, he is in a Gregg Popovich system so maybe he does have some help. However, what Kawhi’s detractors don’t realize is that his real basis behind Kawhi’s MVP case is his defense. The defense is the ice cream and the offense is the cherry on top. He is the best wing defender in the NBA, the glue that holds the Spurs defense together and he does this while averaging over 25 points per game on 49% shooting. He is incredibly efficient and while he isn’t out of the world in his offensive output, he is their offensive leader.

kawhi-leonard-spurs-hawks

There are two angles to the fact that Kawhi plays in a Popovich coached system. While many may think this is an automatic negative, I am not so sure that it is. He doesn’t get crazy assists or put up a gazillion triple doubles because he doesn’t need to and because it wouldn’t be the best thing for his team. Kawhi shines incredibly while remaining within the confines of Popovich’s system. He does what is required of him to do, but he does it at an incredibly valuable level.  How many players in the NBA can bring in the defense he does while producing as well as he does offensively? I got Lebron and then Kawhi.

On the other hand, you have Westbrook. If you were to take Kawhi and then try to make a player completely opposite of him, you get Westbrook. He gets the stats and he runs loose without abandon. Westbrook simply does not know what a system means. It has worked rather well for this team as they have made their way to a 6th seed. There was definitely a lot of success that both Westbrook and his team got from this style of play, but the question that keeps running in my head is: would they have been more successful had he played with a little more within a system? Sure, the Thunder doesn’t have Popovich at the helm, but it is clear that Westbrook had the ball in his hands a bit too much.

Westbrook’s usage percentage this season was a whopping 41.7%, shattering all records. That is a full five percentage points over the next person on the list. To put things into more perspective, the previous record for the highest usage percentage in a season was 38.74% held by Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. So Westbrook is ball hogging at a full 3 percentage points higher than Kobe when his teammates were Smush Parker, Kwame Brown, and Chris Mihm? The key to understanding this historic season that Westbrook put together is that Westbrook, the coaching staff, and his teammates all embraced this whole Westbrook is going to hog his way to triple doubles every night approach. I mean what better way to attract the attention after a top 3 NBA player left your team than to let your other insanely athletic star showcase his athleticism at full display every night. Westbrook needed to carry the team without a doubt, but the extent to which he carried them can’t be deemed necessary. Westbrook may not have the greatest teammates, but it would be insulting to say that they are Smush Parker and Kwame Brown level. Steven Adams broke out last year in the playoffs and he was supposed to be making strides this year to becoming a top 10 center. Andre Roberson had a postseason of similar standards and he proved to be a vital role player. Enes Kanter shined incredibly off the bench last year and he was supposed to be a key offensive tool. Oladipo was widely considered to have ton of potential and while I know not everyone reaches his potential, Oladipo was showing improvement every year. After these players, the drop off is pretty steep, but the management went out to get Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott also. Again, I repeat, Westbrook’s teammates aren’t world-class, but they aren’t anywhere near as awful as his usage rate implies. Some of these young players were expected to take a step further this year like Adams and Oladipo, but failed to do so. How much of that is because of how much Westbrook dominates the ball so much?

Russell Westbrook’s season is historic and impressive beyond belief. That is something I cannot deny. That is also something that has nothing to do with his triple doubles. The strategy involved in Westbrook’s incredible rebounding numbers has been widely talked about. The OKC bigs box out and let Westbrook slide in to get the rebound so that he can blast across the court and create mismatches on offense. I won’t fault the strategy and I don’t know how much it helps or not, but I can’t base whether or not someone wins MVP based on rebounding numbers when OKC’s strategy inflates it. That is essentially what this triple double talk is all about – a couple of rebounds that other MVP candidates could get if their team wanted to use a similar strategy. Also, while this aspect of the strategy is harmless, it has become evident that Westbrook often ignores his defensive assignment in an attempt to go for the rebound. Forget the NBA, this doesn’t even result in good things in 2K.

These are all flaws that don’t allow me to pick Westbrook as my MVP. If Westbrook doesn’t win the actual MVP (which is looking highly unlikely due to his strong close to the season), it doesn’t in any way detract from his unforgettable season. Westbrook has put up a picture perfect season, but the picture doesn’t show the entire game tape. Essentially, Westbrook would probably be better matched for an Offensive Player of the Year award like the ones we see in NFL. However, even in that, he has strong competition from his former teammate.

The Westbrook and Harden side-by-side comparison has been done to death, but let’s do it one more time:

Westbrook: 31.6 PPG, 10.7 RPG, 10.4 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.4 BPG 42.5% FG 34.3% 3PT 34.6 MPG

Harden: 29.1 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 11.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 0.5 BPG 44% FG 34.7% 3PT 36.4 MPG

These are strikingly similar numbers and the major difference is the rebounds, which I addressed earlier. The other difference is not listed above and that is the true shooting %. James Harden’s true shooting is an incredibly efficient 61.3%. On the other hand, Russell Westbrook’s true shooting is 55.4%. There are 117 NBA players this season between Harden and Westbrook’s percentages. As great as Westbrook has been on a pure numbers standpoint, he hasn’t been efficient. Harden has been on par with the numbers, but has done it much more efficiently.

There is an argument made by some that much of Harden’s success is Mike D’Antoni’s doing. D’Antoni has made everyone look amazing, from Steve Nash to Jeremy Lin. But the important point to note is that the reason that D’Antoni manages to make his ball handlers look so good is that he caters the offense to their strengths. This entire Rockets system was shaped to be most equipped to use Harden’s drive and kick ability.
Therefore, it boils down to this. Russell Westbrook uses chaos as his advantage and plays without being bound by a system sometimes to great benefit and sometimes to a fault. Kawhi Leonard stays within the confines of Pop’s system and does what is required of him except he does it at a level that no one else does, so he is never a detriment to his team while simultaneously being a huge plus. James Harden is the system and contrary to what many say, that team is not doing as well without him. This is a team that was supposed to, in the best-case scenario, squeeze in the playoffs. Instead, they earned themselves a 3 seed and are actual contenders. Therefore, my final MVP picks:

  1.     James Harden
  2.     Kawhi Leonard
  3.     Russell Westbrook
  4.     LeBron James
  5.     Giannis Antetokounmpo

Defensive Player of the Year

  1.     Draymond Green
  2.     Rudy Gobert
  3.     Kawhi Leonard

For a while, I had Gobert winning this one and he would deserve it if it weren’t for that guy in Golden State running around relentlessly and stifling opposing offenses every night. The reason Draymond should never lose this award as long as he maintains this play is because he can guard any position you throw at him. There is no Golden State Warriors superteam without Draymond Green. He recorded a triple double this year without scoring 10 points. He had 12 rebounds, 10 assists, and 10 steals. He also finished that game with 5 blocks. That is just insanity. On the year, he is defending an average of 7 shot attempts per game at the rim and he is allowing 43.9% of them to go in. It always remains a wonder how someone who is 6’7 can be such a relentless rim protector, but he makes it look so easy due to his timing on contests.

i-20

I wanted to give Gobert the award so much, but I simply can’t Dray’s versatility. However, Gobert is not that far behind. He is an absolute terror on defense and a major reason why Utah is a 5th seed right now. Gobert is defending a league high 10.2 shot attempts per game and is allowing only 43.9% of them to go in. He is such a menace in the paint that Utah’s perimeter defenders can freely focus on defending the 3 point line, allowing the Jazz to become such a suffocating defense. He has probably put up one of the greatest defensive seasons of a big man ever. Unfortunately for him, he simply doesn’t have the versatility of Draymond Green.

Non-Popovich Coach of the Year

  1.     Mike D’Antoni
  2.     Brad Stevens
  3.     Quin Snyder

I just want to say that like Belichick in the NFL, it is a given that Gregg Popovich could win this award every year. He achieves greatness year in and year out. It has gone under the radar, but he has made the transition from a Tim Duncan era team to a Kawhi Leonard era team so effortlessly that we didn’t even notice it. So yeah, he should win this award this year, but just to credit the others, we are going to pretend he isn’t there.

Mike D’Antoni had left such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth after his stint in NY and LA that pundits practically decided this Rockets team is probably entering the lottery. He proved them so wrong. D’Antoni once again proved that you give him the right offensive player and he will create a juggernaut of an offense for him. The first best thing he did was making James Harden the full time point guard. Harden was pretending to be a PG for a while now, so why not just go all the way and give him the title? He established a better balance between Harden’s scoring and passing. This is important because in past years, the Rockets would always fall apart in the important games because they relied on his scoring way too much and not enough on his ability to create. In addition, D’Antoni is the perfect coach for what Morey had envisioned. Every game they go in and their goal is to launch as many 3s as physically possible. They attempted a record breaking 40.3 threes per game this year. The result is that they are the second best scoring team in the league behind the Golden State Warriors. However, this was all expected. What was unexpected is that this team plays defense! Well, somewhat. They aren’t world-beaters on defense, but they don’t need to be. They just need to put some effort and be middle of the pack because their offense will blow the team away anyway. The Rockets this year have a defensive rating of 109, good for 18th in the league. That is good enough when your team is scoring at the 2nd best rate in the NBA.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics - Game Four

Brad Stevens has established a great level of consistency in Boston, but he is also consistently making the Celtics better each year. This year, they stole the 1st seed from LeBron. They are not even close to the most talented team in the East and their star player is incredibly undersized. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the Brad Stevens led Celtics from taking the Eastern Conference regular season throne.

Quin Snyder is leading a group of young over-achievers as well. Unfortunately for him, he is doing in the bloodbath that is the West. Still, he has developed these young players slowly and made them incredibly dangerous whether it is Gobert on defense or Gordon Hayward, who is the NBA’s least talked about star. They are truly an elite team on defense and rank only behind the Spurs and the Warriors in their defensive rating. Despite the heavy competition at the top of the West, they finished with a 5th seed.

Special Mention: Erik Spolestra was part of one of the more exciting stories this season with that incredible turnaround in Miami. Unfortunately, the team did not have quite enough to squeeze into the playoffs, but Spolestra has proven more than enough that he is one of the top 5 coaches in the league right now. If he manages to make Dion Waiters an All-Star next season, I am giving him COTY no matter what.

All NBA Teams

All NBA 1st Team

Russell Westbrook
James Harden
Kawhi Leonard
LeBron James
Rudy Gobert

All NBA 2nd Team

John Wall
Stephen Curry
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Draymond Green
Anthony Davis

All NBA 3rd Team

Isaiah Thomas
DeMar Derozan
Gordon Hayward
Kevin Durant
Marc Gasol

I know Rudy Gobert over Anthony Davis is quite a controversial decision, but defensively he has just been in another world in terms of the Center position. Of course, Anthony Davis is miles ahead of Gobert on offense. I also agree that Davis is closer to Gobert on defense than Gobert is to Davis on offense. The reason I put Gobert on the first team is because his advantage on defense is currently a huge reason why the Jazz are where they are now. While Anthony Davis has been great, his play has not translated to the wins yet. I know a lot of that is due to the weaker supporting cast that AD has, but this is more of me rewarding Gobert than punishing AD.

9804106-nba-washington-wizards-at-boston-celtics-850x560

John Wall versus Isaiah Thomas has been another tough one for me. Isaiah Thomas has been a sensation on offense this year and the Celtics aren’t the first seed without him. He is averaging 28.9 points per game! That is only behind two leading MVP candidates. John Wall, as great as he has been, is only a 4th seed. In addition, John Wall has another star to help him out in Bradley Beal who is averaging just as many PPG as Wall. IT does not have that kind of scorer to help him out. The deciding factor for me was Wall’s passing ability and his defense. IT tries on defense, but there is only so much he can do when is undersized. Therefore, that results in a great deal of effort going into masking his defensive weakness. Wall, on the other hand, is arguably the best defender at the point guard position. He is also averaging close to twice as many assists as IT.

I tried to somehow stick Damian Lillard into the 3rd team because of how on fire he was post-All Star break. Lillard literally willed his team into the playoffs. However, that would be recency bias. As great as Lillard has been in the second part of the season, he was having quite a poor stretch before All-Star break and the team as a whole was in quite a funk. On the other hand, Derozan has been doing it all year and although Lowry was better than him, he got hurt and Derozan had to make sure his team didn’t dip in Lowry’s absence.

Lastly, there is Gordon Hayward versus Jimmy Butler.

Hayward: 21.9 PPG, 3.5 APG, 5.4 RPG, 1.0 SPG, 0.3 BPG 47.1% FG 39.8% 3PT 34.5 MPG

Butler:  23.9 PPG, 5.5 APG, 6.2 RPG, 1.9 SPG, 0.4 BPG 45.5% FG 36.7% 3PT 37 MPG

Their stats are more or less similar, but Butler has the slight edge in most categories. However, Hayward has been slightly more efficient. Hayward’s true shooting is 59.5% while Butler’s is 58.6%. Jimmy Butler is a better defender, but the disparity between them is not much as you think. Hayward has become a lot smarter as a defender this year. Basically, I don’t think I can go wrong either way, but I am leaning towards Hayward because of his efficiency and his play has translated to more success.

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