We conclude our NBA Season’s Greetings series — a two-week refresher course to get casual fans up to speed before the Christmas Day quintuple-header, focused on free-agent signings, new-coach hires, trades and draft picks that have shaped the 2016-17 season so far — by handing out some hardware. This week’s Four Corners roundtable asks: Which players most deserve the NBA’s major awards after the first two months of the season?
Here are the Ball Don’t Lie staff’s ballots. Share your picks in the comments below.
Most Valuable Player
Dan Devine: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder. I flipped between Westbrook and James Harden about a dozen times here; if you went with the latter, I wouldn’t fight you in a public square. The difference to me, at this point, is that while Houston has found a way to more or less survive with Harden off the court, Oklahoma City is utterly without hope if Westbrook isn’t creating basically everything.
The Thunder have outscored opponents by 136 points in Westbrook’s 985 minutes of floor time. They have been outscored by 107 points in 379 minutes without Westbrook. The Thunder have performed like a top-eight team in the league with Westbrook on the court, and like some ghastly mashup of the Joel Embiid-less Sixers and the Everybody-less Nets with Westbrook on the bench. He has hardly any teammates who can reliably shoot from outside and/or create their own shots — and, with Victor Oladipo sidelined by a wrist sprain, we can get change that “hardly any” into a “no” — and yet he continues to thrive, trailing only Harden in points created by assist and ranking fourth in the league in points scored via drive despite running against stacked boxes every night.
Westbrook is carrying the greatest creative burden in NBA history and producing at a level we haven’t seen in nearly 60 years. And while his individual shooting numbers leave something to be desired, he’s still working effectively enough to lead the league in Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Lack of Effs Given, Seriously (LEGS).
LeBron James is the NBA’s best player, Kevin Durant its most efficient player, and Harden its most brilliant orchestrator. But no one player has been more valuable to his team this season than Westbrook.
2: Harden, Houston Rockets
3: James, Cleveland Cavaliers
Ben Rohrbach: Westbrook. Not only has his Triple-Double Watch dominated NBA conversation through the first two months of the season, but no player has impacted his team’s success more. OKC outscores opponents by 5.1 points per 100 possessions with Westbrook on the floor, and is outscored by 14.1 points-per-100 with him on the bench — a 19.2-point swing unmatched by fellow contenders Chris Paul (19.0), LeBron James (14.8), James Harden (7.5) and Kevin Durant (4.9).
3. Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Eric Freeman: Westbrook. I would not be surprised if my end-of-year picks wound up listing these top three choices in reverse order. The choice between Westbrook and Harden was a tough one, but I ultimately went for the guy who is in line to average a triple-double for the season over the guy who has elevated his play under a new coach and returned to the ranks of the league’s most exciting players. These do-everything stars are my favorite thing about the NBA so far this season — I only hope they can keep it up.
Kelly Dwyer: Westbrook. I’m not as concerned with the context of his production as I am with the fact that nobody is playing basketball as well as Russell Westbrook is playing it this year.
3. Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Defensive Player of the Year
Ben Rohrbach: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz. The Jazz own the league’s third-best defensive rating; yet, they drop to a middling unit sans Gobert. Conversely, the Warriors have maintained roughly the same defensive efficiency with or without Green. Nobody defends more shots at the rim than Gobert, and opponents are shooting just 41.7 percent on those 11.1 attempts per game, thanks to the Stifle Tower’s league-leading block total.
Eric Freeman: Green. It speaks to Draymond’s unrivaled defensive versatility that he ranks among the frontrunners for this award even as more and more fans and media members acknowledge that he can cost the Warriors wins with his antics. The Warriors have enough talent to withstand any injury, but Green might be the difference between a very good team and a championship favorite.
2. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
Kelly Dwyer: Leonard. When he wants to, defensively, Kawhi can take over the game repeatedly while still 45 feet from the basket. Nobody — not Payton, not Pippen, not the former Ron Artest — has been able to do that since Michael Jordan. It’s as if it’s on cue.
Their statistical cases are similar, and similarly brilliant. Gobert leads the league in the NBA in total blocks; ranks second in blocks per game, block percentage, and defensive Real Plus-Minus; and sits fifth in defensive rebounds and shots contested. Nobody defends more shots at the rim, and he holds opponents to microscopic 41.7 percent shooting on those attempts, second-best among dudes who defend at least five such shots a night. Utah gives up way fewer shots inside the restricted area and from beyond the arc with Gobert on the floor, because his presence deters drivers from even trying him inside, and his ability to lock down the paint gives Utah’s perimeter defenders the freedom to stay at home on their marks and be more aggressive defending outside.
Green, meanwhile, leads the league in DRPM, steals per game and deflections; ranks second in total steals and individual defensive rating; and sits fourth in shots contested and steal percentage. Despite standing just 6-foot-7, he ranks 10th among the league’s high-volume rim protectors, holding opponents to just 45.9 percent shooting on interior attempts, the same mark as Dwight Howard and just a tick behind behemoths DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside. He guards all five positions, he makes game-winning stops on the reg, and he clips unicorns’ wings. He’s been tremendous.
In a coin-flip argument, then, I’ll go with the guy who’s been the lone major-minutes constant for the NBA’s No. 3-ranked defense — a unit that’s been more than 4.5 points per 100 possessions better with Gobert on the court than off it — than the one who’s had more consistently available top-flight help around him on the NBA’s No. 2 D. (And, if I needed one stop to save my life, I still think I’d go with the dude down in San Antonio.)
Rookie of the Year
Ben Rohrbach: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers. Embiid leads all rookies in scoring, rebounding and blocks, and it’s not close. He’s also shooting 41.8 percent on 2.9 attempts from 3-point range per game — better than supposed rookie snipers Jamal Murray and Buddy Hield — while anchoring a 76ers defense that’s actually respectable with him on the floor. No easy task in Philadelphia. And he’s done it all in 24.3 minutes a night. Consider “The Process” entrusted.
2. Murray, Denver Nuggets? I don’t know.
3. Nope. The Class of 2016 doesn’t deserve a third vote. Not yet, anyway.
2. Domantas Sabonis, Oklahoma City Thunder
Eric Freeman: Embiid. Just give Embiid the trophy now. He will take pictures of it and do funny things on social media. Why wait?
2 (tie). The field
Dan Devine: Embiid. I waxed ecstatic about JoJo’s deferred freshman year two weeks ago; since that time, he has put up 33 and 10 in 27 minutes and thrown his support behind the Sixers Freeing Nerlens. This award, and my heart, are his.
3. Willy Hernangomez, New York Knicks
Honorable mention: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks, who always seems to be doing something good when I watch the Bucks, including dunking on LeBron and Kyrie, and has the two best non-“Process” nicknames in the rookie class: “The President” and “Humble Moses”
Coach of the Year
Kelly Dwyer: Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets. The old Mike D’Antoni question — can he ever get a mediocre defense to match his top-ranked offense? — might get answered this year. All Houston has to do is get a top-ranked offense.
2. David Fizdale, Memphis Grizzlies
3. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Ben Rohrbach: Fizdale. The Grizz have no business winning 60 percent of their games — not with rookies Andrew Harrison and Troy Williams replacing max-salary main men Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons for extended periods in a starting lineup that’s been forced to change once every three games. And certainly not with a roster that’s awfully similar to the the one that seemed to be going stale as a .500 team at this point last season. And yet, they have, so Fizdale gets the nod.
2. Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets
3. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Eric Freeman: D’Antoni. Congrats to D’Antoni, who is rebuilding his reputation after disastrous ends to his time with the Lakers and Knicks. The Rockets were always going to seem like more fun this season, but D’Antoni has transformed them into one of the most entertaining teams around while also returning them to contention for a top-four seed in the West.
Dan Devine: Snyder. I love D’Antoni for restoring joy to Clutch City and unleashing Harden in such a thrilling fashion that the fates, sated by purely lovely basketball, have decided to allow Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to remain healthy for two consecutive months. I respect Dwane Casey for refusing to allow his team to accept “good enough” and stagnate, pushing the Toronto Raptors to a historic rate of offensive efficiency and putting them on pace to set a new franchise record for wins for the fourth straight year.
But amid a start beset by injuries to a number of valuable players, with George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Rodney Hood and Alec Burks all missing time, Snyder has the Jazz at 18-11, three games out of the No. 4 seed in the West, as one of only four teams to rank in the NBA’s top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, along with the Warriors, Spurs and Clippers. General manager Dennis Lindsey has given him plenty of tools to work with, but Snyder deserves credit for deploying them well enough to keep the Jazz within hailing distance of serious contention.
Most Improved Player
Eric Freeman: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo’s rise from “talented curiosity” to “legitimate star” makes me smile, because I have picked him to win this award every year since he was a rookie. The question at this point is how much more he can realistically improve. There seem to be no limits to his talent, in part because he’s just beginning to discover everything he can do. But how do you improve on leading your team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals?
2. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
3. Nick Young, Los Angeles Lakers
Kelly Dwyer: Antetokounmpo. The growth and production are inarguable; the trick from here will be displaying potency at the right times. Kawhi Leonard has developed it at age 25. How soon will that come for the 22-year-old Giannis?
2. Otto Porter, Washington Wizards
3. Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
Ben Rohrbach: Antetokounmpo. We’ve been touting the Greek Freak’s potential for three straight seasons, and he’s realizing it like only a 6-foot-11 point guard could. He’s averaging career highs across the board, leading the Bucks in every major statistical category, and he’s even begun improving his jump shot — the one aspect of his game that could launch him from All-Star to transcendent talent. So, yeah, there’s even more potential here.
2. Sean Kilpatrick, Brooklyn Nets
3. Avery Bradley, Boston Celtics
Dan Devine: Antetokounmpo. The points of comparison for even a slightly-stepped-on version of Giannis’ production this year are Hall of Famers, present-day MVP candidates, prime Chris Webber and young Antoine Walker. Oh, and he’s become a team-leading facilitator who also protects the rim like an elite big man.
He has gotten so much better in four NBA seasons — and even since last year, when he finished third in MIP voting — that it seems almost greedy to ask for more. And yet, at age 22, with so much growth still possible and so many finer points to hone, why would we start putting ceilings on this modern marvel now?
Sixth Man of the Year
Eric Freeman: Lou Williams, Los Angeles Lakers. Williams has gained attention this year while performing well for an improved Lakers team, but I do not get the impression he is an especially different player. Praise the unrepentant gunner — as with Jamal Crawford before him, popular considerations of Williams depend almost entirely on his context. He will take and make the same bad shots and draw fouls on 3-pointers no matter the score.
2. Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
3. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
Ben Rohrbach: Gordon. The former Clipper and Hornet/Pelican is shooting 43 percent on 8.4 3-point tries per game — essentially the same prolific efficiency as Stephen Curry’s first MVP season. Only the Lakers’ Williams and Jordan Clarkson have scored more points from the bench, and neither has been as impactful as Gordon, who has done his work in lineups that consistently outscore opponents and operate on an elite offensive level.
3. Patrick Patterson, Toronto Raptors
Kelly Dwyer: Williams. Nice year and all, possibly legendary, but …
2. Gordon: Can we talk about how wonderful it is to see Gordon playing with a full spring in his step? Finally healthy, acting as perhaps the Most Important Most Improved Player of the year?
3. Marreese Speights, Los Angeles Clippers. MO SPEIGHTS!
Dan Devine: Patterson. Bench scoring matters, and it’s certainly noteworthy that Williams is shooting and scoring in greater bunches and much more efficiently than he did even two years ago, when he won this award. But let’s have a toast to the non-volume scorers who never seem to get this recognition.
This tremendous recent feature by Eric Koreen of The Athletic captures it beautifully: Patterson’s intelligence, defensive versatility, offensive effectiveness, communication and leadership make him the ideal complement in virtually any configuration Casey can throw out there, the inside-out linchpin of what have been the NBA’s two most dominant lineups thus far. His contributions almost never jump off the screen at you in real time, but the Raptors just about always seem to play better when he’s on the floor, providing the steady two-way baseline that allows the rest of Toronto’s talent to soar.
3. Patty Mills, San Antonio Spurs
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