Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls
Who are this season's award winners?
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By Sam Smith | 4.13.2015 | 7:10 a.m. CT
As it turned out, figuring out the Western Conference (at least regular season) winner was not that difficult with the Golden State Warriors October to April runaway. What’s become the race no one can truly guess is for Most Valuable Player. There have been few like this in a season in which there could be as many as five good choices, but two almost indistinguishable. So here’s my post season award ballot starting with the one of my few votes in the last 30 years in which I won’t be that disappointed if I didn’t select the winner.
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Not that he doesn’t deserve it. He does. But so does James Harden, perhaps even more so having basically had the Houston Rockets second or third all season with so many injuries and players in and out of the lineup all season. I’ve leaned toward Harden much of the season for the way he’s carried the Rockets. But the MVP award has a tiebreaker. Even if none is stated. Actually, the league gives zero advice or recommendation on standards, but it basically always comes out right. Like the famous Supreme Court comment on pornography, you know it when you see it. You know an MVP when you see one. Curry and Harden really lead the pack even though you can probably make a case for LeBron James as the league’s best talent and the way he’s turned around the Cavs. Plus, Anthony Davis, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul have had excellent seasons, if not quite MVP worthy. That’s because the award always has been an award about winning if there is a doubt. The closest it’s been was when Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain traded it back and forth in the 60s and Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in the 80s. Russell won out for the success of the Celtics before Chamberlain did while Bird’s and Magic’s teams generally led their conferences. So either was justified. But the win tiebreaker enabled voters to be democratic and not give it to Michael Jordan every year or James. Charles Barkley won in 1993 when the Bulls didn’t finish first and in 1997 Karl Malone won. The Bulls were first, but did have fewer wins than the year before. There’s nothing wrong with honoring others. Media are such sentimentalists. The Cavs did finish second, and so if you’d still list LeBron ahead of Curry and Harden, he slips this season. As Curry and Harden are as close to even as possible, Curry gets the vote because of the historic winning season of the Warriors. It’s the unwritten formula for the award and tiebreaker: Best player on the best team having the best season. Still, I hate not voting for Harden. But if Harden wins I’ll say it was deserving. After Harden, I go with LeBron, Westbrook and Paul.
Coach of the Year: Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
This will be sort of one of those sweep years like the Bulls had in 1995-96 when they were so dominant they just had to get most of the awards, and probably should have gotten more. Kerr as a rookie coach with zero coaching experience other than when teammates told him to duck when Jordan is throwing a punch has been as close to the Phil Jackson model as I’ve seen without the Zen. Is honest and open with his players, trusts them enough not to scream at them all game from the bench, has made bold moves of moving All-Stars to the bench seamlessly and has a team that never stops competing and leads the league in offense and defense. It’s the only way the Atlanta Hawks Mike Budenholzer loses with a team that it’s going to be difficult to find anyone to even list top three in any award category. The Hawks’ domination of the Eastern Conference—hey, LeBron is there—has been as complete as it’s been shocking. They probably don’t have an all-league player, but have been consistently impressive with teamwork and sacrifice. For No. 3 (only MVP requires a vote for five) is the Bucks’ Jason Kidd. C’mon, just look at that roster. Yes, it’s the East and they’re not quite .500. But this was the league’s worst team last season with essentially the same roster. And they were trying. And still finished behind the 76ers. They’ve done it with small ball, switching defense and more from Kidd as a coach than we imagined. Boston’s Brad Stevens just misses out in a tough field.
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler, Bulls
This one was pretty ordained from the beginning in what’s actually a pretty impressive field. Butler didn’t exactly come out of nowhere, but he fits the profile of what this award should be. It generally draws the most players getting first place votes—unlike MVP—because it lacks historical standards. Sometimes it goes to a high lottery pick who for whatever reason comes on later in his career. It shouldn’t. Sometimes it goes to a great player who becomes even greater. So you’ll see votes for Anthony Davis this season. There used to be a Comeback Player award. But it was going too often to players coming back from drug suspensions, so it evolved into Most Improved. Which is better. But it should be about improvement. If you were a high lottery pick, you were supposed to be good. Not so much the 30th pick, like Butler. Yet, in the overall computer MVP ratings, he’s still in the top 10 in a terrific season and still the Bulls leading scorer. Butler was so deserving he even knocked out a Warriors Draymond Green, a second round player and reserve who has become a vital starter on one of the winningest teams in NBA history. And if not for them, it would be Hassan Whiteside, who’s been kicking around overseas and the D-league without an NBA start and averaging about a point in parts of two seasons. Whiteside may be the poster kid for the award as he’s averaging a double/double since signing with Miami earlier in the season and becoming one of the league’s better centers. And there were other good come from nowhere candidates, like the Bucks’ Khris Middleton and the Jazz’ Rudy Gobert. It’s just that Butler and Green were so good.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
If only to give a defensive award to a Warriors player. Don Nelson would be horrified. For decades, even when they had some success, they were an offensive team. But the Warriors have been the league’s best defensive team, best in opponent field goal and even top three on defensive three-point shooting as they shoot so many. Their overall efficiency defensive ratings are the best and Green has been in the middle of it all the way they play, switching and playing small lineups with Green defending every position on the floor even more than they say LeBron does. There’s been considerable sentiment, especially from the Clippers, regarding DeAndre Jordan. Sure, Jordan is tough at the rim and gets a lot of rebounds and blocks, which are defensive statistics. But overall the Clippers aren’t a very good defensive team even with Chris Paul, who is supposed to be. Though he’s really not as he mostly plays the lanes for steals. For big guys, I’d prefer Anthony Davis. There’s a longtime debate on this award as well of whether the best defense is big guys who protect the rim and change the driving or perimeter guys who move their feet and defend individually. The history of the award has been big guys with Dikembe Mutombo, Ben Wallace and Dwight Howard the principal multiple winners. I tend to prefer individuals who take on the challenge, switching pick and rolls and defending other positions. It’s why Joakim Noah was so deserving last season. I have the Spurs’ Kawhi Leonard second even with missing 18 games. Leonard may be the best individual defender in the league and just barely behind Green for all Green has done this season. There are other good candidates like Avery Bradley, Andre Bogut, fast developing Rudy Gobert and, of course, LeBron, who if you needed one stop you’d probably take him. But I’ll go the third spot for Memphis specialist Tony Allen.
Rookie of the Year: Nikola Mirotic, Bulls
This comes with a philosophical debate: We take into consideration winning for every other award. So why not Rookie of the Year? The obvious reason is most rookies end up with losing teams in the NBA’s appropriate spread the wealth model that works so well for the NFL. And if the NFL isn’t all-American, than what is? This has been one of the weaker rookie classes because there were so many season long and otherwise injuries of basically half the top 10. No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins was traded to Minnesota and put up by far the best statistics, but with one of the league’s losingest teams and playing more than 36 minutes per game, among the league’s top 10. And there’s always that saying about scoring for a losing team: Somebody has to. Mirotic, once he did crack the rotation, became a mainstay for the Bulls and in one of the more remarkable statistics of the season led all NBA players in fourth quarter scoring since March 1. Now that is amazing. Maybe not unbelievable, which announcers classify as everything else. This case comes up from time to time and maybe the best result was 2000 when Elton Brand and Steve Francis tied. Though the Rockets weren’t a playoff team, either. And I do think winning matters as I was one of the few who voted for Jason Williams for Rookie of the Year in 1999 over Vince Carter because the Kings made the playoff for the first time in about 20 years and Williams’ play with Chris Webber was instrumental. It’s a long way to say Niko. Second would be Wiggins, who is going to be really good and then Elfrid Payton ahead of some rookies who have emerged, like Jordan Clarkson, Nerlens Noel, Marcus Smart and Zach LaVine.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors
Well, there is a rule for this award. You can’t start. Well, at least not more than half your team’s games. One of the larger issues these days with the award with depth becoming so important is who is the sixth man? Rotations change based on matchups, though the spirit of the award is the scorer coming in to provide a spark. The Celtics basically invented it before it was an award with their unselfish style of title play, though it’s more scorers than defenders or playmakers. Williams takes some wild shots and isn’t hesitant. Jamal Crawford perhaps exemplifies this award as much as anyone in this era, but he’s already won twice and probably would be a top contender this season if he hadn’t just missed about a month. There are always many good choices. Rodney Stuckey with Indiana qualifies but probably has started too much. Houston’s Corey Brewer, Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson, Oklahoma City’s Anthony Morrow and Phoenix/Boston’s Isaiah Thomas have contributed to teams playing for playoff spots. Take your choice with the Warriors as Marreese Speights was an early contender. Probably go with Andre Iguodala for his play on both sides of the ball and taking the hit for the team going to the bench. I’ll say Crawford second and Iguodala third.
First Team: Guards Stephen Curry and James Harden; Forwards LeBron James and Anthony Davis; Center Pau Gasol.
Second Team: Guards Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul, Forwards LaMarcus Aldridge and Tim Duncan; Center Marc Gasol.
Third Team: Guards John Wall and Klay Thompson, Forwards, Kyle Korver and Kawhi Leonard. Center DeAndre Jordan.
I had to find a space for someone from the Hawks somewhere. After all, 60 wins. It’s a well balanced team, but Korver has such a huge impact with those threes. And the guard position is so deep it’s tough to find room for Jeff Teague even leaving off Damian Lillard. I also left off Blake Griffin, but I could not go with three Clippers with them in the middle of the pack in the West, which, of course, means near the top or bottom. The first team is easy as it’s essentially the MVP ballot, which doesn’t have many centers. And Pau did lead the league in double/doubles. Sorry, I could not go with a popular center choice of DeMarcus Cousins given all the losing. And his so called supporting cast isn’t that bad. He’s a big part of the problem with his undisciplined and selfish play. As for Tim Duncan, he does classify as unbelievable and even getting better as playoffs apporoach.
First Team: Guards Tony Allen and Kawhi Leonard, Forwards Draymond Green and Anthony Davis, Center Tim Duncan.
Second Team: Guards Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley. Forwards LeBron James and Paul Millsap. Center DeAndre Jordan
It’s perhaps the most arbitrary of choices as the best defensive teams play team defense with help and recover. There aren’t many great individual defenders, and sometimes those who are tend to be overrated, like Chris Paul. He gets a lot of steals, but that’s because he’s out of position, letting his man go because Jordan is back there. Kobe did a lot of that as did Michael. But they had backing like Shaq or Horace Grant, Rodman and Bill Cartwright. Of course, if you wanted one guy defended for one possession, I’d pick Jordan. Michael, that is. But all of those guys are hard playing and will take on the best players.
First team: Nikola Mirotic, Andrew Wiggins, Elfrid Payton, Jordan Clarkson, Marcus Smart.
Second team: Nerlens Noel, Zach LaVine, Jusuf Nurkic, Jerami Grant, Spencer Dinwiddie.
If Dinwiddie played only against the Bulls, he’d be first team. Same with Payton. Oh, Payton was. It wasn’t a great class with all the injuries and Jabari Parker surely would have been in there. Those immature bodies have a tough time.