Anticipating the Awards
Predicting Who’ll Take Home the Hardware from the 2016-17 Campaign
So often I find myself stealing Drake’s thunder, and that will be the case again today.
The Canadian rap superstar will unveil all this past year’s winners in the NBA’s inaugural awards show in New York on June 26. But while the Wine and Gold await their next opponent as the Raptors-Bucks series rolls on, we thought we’d make our own bold predictions on who’ll get handed the hardware while we wait for Drake.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
I wish this was my original thought as criteria for the league’s Most Valuable Player, but it belongs to John Michael – the radio play-by-play voice of your Cleveland Cavaliers.
Ask any head coach of the 16 teams who reached the NBA Playoffs which player (among this year’s MVP candidates) they’d want going into the tournament to win this year’s title: James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas and LeBron James.
Harden led the league in assists, finished second in scoring and played in 81 games. Westbrook did what some thought was unthinkable – breaking the Big O’s mark and averaging a triple-double for the season after Kevin Durant bolted from OKC. Leonard established himself as the league’s best two-way player. And, at 5-9, Isaiah Thomas put the Celtics on his shoulders and led Boston to the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
Yes, the Most Valuable Player award goes to the league’s top regular season performer. And yes, it’s probably a two-man race between Harden and Westbrook. But as the Playoffs will likely prove once again, the planet’s best player – whose game evolved again this season – wears No. 23 for the Wine and Gold.
Utah’s Rudy Gobert was the centerpiece for the league’s stingiest defense – holding teams to 96.8 points per game.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
If you’re thinking we don’t want to give this one to Golden State’s Draymond Green just on principle, you’d be correct. Even more than Kawhi Leonard, Green is the league’s most versatile defender. He led the league in steals and finished in the Top 20 in both blocked shots and defensive rebounds and spearheading a Warriors team that lead the league in defensive field goal and three-point percentage. But he can win this award on another team’s website.
Leonard has turned himself into such a dangerous offensive weapon that it’s hard to focus solely on what a tenacious defensive player he’s always been. In three meetings against the Thunder this year, “the Claw” helped hold Russell Westbrook to 36 percent shooting and held LeBron to 17 points on 7-for-17 shooting in Cleveland’s last visit to San Antonio.
But this year, let’s turn back to the big men – and there’s a pair of them that are worthy of the pick: Rudy Gobert and Hassan Whiteside.
This past season, Whiteside finished fourth in the league in blocks (2.09 bpg) and first in rebounding (14.1 rpg); Gobert, first in blocked shots (2.64) and fourth in rebounding (12.8). But Gobert was the centerpiece for the league’s stingiest defense – holding teams to 96.8 points per, finishing second in field goal percentage – and for that reason, the fourth-year Frenchman, who also upped his scoring average to 14.0 ppg, is our pick for D.P.O.Y.
Bucks rookie Malcom Brogdon was tough as nails on both ends for a Bucks team bursting with young talent.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
If the voting for R.O.Y. had wrapped up in mid-December, Philly’s Joel Embiid would have been the unanimous winner. Taken with the third overall pick of the 2014 Draft, “The Process” was averaging 20.2 points and 7.3 boards in 31 games before a torn meniscus in his left knee sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. In his final appearance of the season – against Houston on January 27 – the Cameroon native notched 32 points, seven boards, four assists, three steals and a pair of blocked shots.
After the Sixers shut down Embiid, his teammate – Dario Saric – emerged as the new leader. The 22-year-old Croat averaged 12.8 points in 81 games with Philly, including a 15.1 mark after being reinserted into the starting lineup in late February.
But this year’s top freshman could very well be the Milwaukee Bucks’ second selection from this past June’s Draft – Malcom Brogdan, who — at No. 36 overall – could become the NBA’s lowest-drafted Rookie of the Year since a guy named Woody Sauldsberry won it with the Sixers in 1957 after being taken with the 60th pick.
When the Bucks signed Matthew Dellavedova in the offseason, they had no idea Brogdon would pan out like he did. And by early March, the former Virginia standout had cracked the starting lineup. He didn’t put up monster numbers – 10.2 points, 2.8 boards and 4.2 assists per game – but Brogdon was tough as nails on both ends for a Bucks team bursting with young talent.
The Rockets top reserve Eric Gordon averaged 16.2 points per and was very good on the defensive end as well.
Photo by Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images
It’s no wonder the Rockets were less than a point away from being the top scoring team in the NBA (trailing only Golden State). Not only do they feature the league’s second-leading scorer and its top assist man, they have two of this year’s top Sixth Man candidates – Eric Gordon and Lou Williams.
Jamal Crawford is always in the mix, Andre Iguodala flourished again in Oakland and Tyler Johnson made a name for himself coming off the bench in Miami this season. Patty Mills and Enes Kanter were solid with the second unit again this season.
But this one boils down to Gordon and Williams. In 75 games with the high-octane Rockets, Gordon averaged 16.2 points per and was very good on the defensive end as well. Lou Williams, who won the award two years ago with the Raptors, led the Lakers in scoring at 18.6 points per despite starting just a single game for L.A. Without missing a beat, the 12-year veteran proceeded to average 14.9 ppg in 23 appearances with Houston.
But even with Williams’ two-team production, signs are pointing at Gordon as this season’s top reserve.
Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo transformed himself from a pure open-court athlete to one of the game’s most versatile stars.
Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
As some of the league’s old-heads start hitting the back-9 of their career, some young guns look poised to take over.
And you can look to this year’s Eastern Conference All-Star team to the player leading that pack, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who made a major leap in 2016-17, transforming himself from a pure open-court athlete to one of the game’s most versatile stars – leading his Bucks in scoring, rebounding, assists, steals and blocks.
Tim Hardaway, Jr. finally began emerging from his dad’s shadow this season, reviving his career with Atlanta after being discarded by New York and making two trips to the D-League – more than doubling his scoring average (6.4 ppg – 14.5 ppg) from last season.
In terms of some Western Conference big men who made big leaps – Rudy Gobert established himself as one of the best defensive anchors in the Association while Denver’s sophomore center Nikola Jokic blew everyone’s mind after being inserted in the starting lineup in mid-December, averaging 17.9 points, 10.3 boards and 5.3 assists and posting six triple-doubles along the way.
Everyone knew Suns guard Devin Booker could score coming out of Kentucky last year, but not many expected his rise to be quite so meteoric. In his second season, at just 20 years old, Booker averaged 22.1 points with the Suns this season – posting 13 games of at least 30 points, including his epic 70-point outburst on March 24 in Boston, going 21-of-40 from the floor and 24-of-26 from the stripe.
Among these up-and-comers, however, the Greek Freak – for what he meant to his team and the future of that franchise – is at the top of the list.
Jazz head main Quin Snyder completely changed the culture in the NBA’s “hermit kingdom” in Salt Lake City.
Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
COACH OF THE YEAR
There always seems to be two schools of thought on Coach of the Year. One is that the award goes to the coach whose team simply won the most regular season games. The other is that it goes to a coach who over-achieved through a limited roster or unforeseen adversity.
Of our four candidates, three are young risers – (even though Eric Spoelstra’s won two titles with Miami).
After starting out at 11-30, Spoelstra guided a young, revamped Heat roster to a 30-11 mark in the season’s second half – missing the Playoffs in the final week of the season. Boston’s Brad Stevens took a squad with a single All-Star (and a bunch of complimentary pieces) to the top of the Eastern Conference – guiding the Celtics to 53 wins in his fourth season at the helm.
In the Western Conference, Mike D’Antoni brought his up-tempo style to Houston, put James Harden at the point and won 55 games – a 14-game improvement over last year’s total. The Rockets were already a tough out; under the tutelage of D’Antoni – coaching his fifth NBA team – they’ve begun closing the gap on Golden State and San Antonio this season.
But this year’s nod goes to Quin Snyder, who’s completely changed the culture in the NBA’s “hermit kingdom” in Salt Lake City – transforming the Jazz into the toughest defensive squad in the league. In his three seasons with Utah, Snyder has won 38, 40 and now 51 games with the Jazz – winning the Northwest Division for the first time since 2007-08.