NBA

NBA on Sling: Handing Out the Hardware

 

The season is all but over, meaning it’s safe to start anointing award winners. The MVP has race been the most dominant and intriguing, as Russell Westbrook and James Harden have both had record breaking seasons for the ages. The Sixth Man race was thrown into chaos by a mid-season trade, the Rookie of the Year took a tragic turn in January, Defensive PoY finally found a new home and the Most Improved Player was the greatest foregone conclusion in recent awards history.

MVP

At midseason the general consensus was that this race was gonna come down to Russell Westbrook vs James Harden, and nothing’s happened to change that. In fact, the two-man race was cemented when Kevin Durant missed the month of March. Harden has been incredible in leading the Houston Rockets to another 50+ win season, averaging 29.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 11.2 assists per game. Sure, he shattered his own league record for turnovers — which he set just last year — by coughing up the rock more than 440 times, but hey, you wanna make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs. In addition to turnovers, he’s also led the league in free throws attempted and made, total and average assists, offensive win shares and win shares.

But there’s simply no way to deny Westbrook his due, as he joined Oscar Robertson as the only other man to average a triple double for the season, with 31.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game, while alse breaking the Big O’s record of 41 triple doubles in a season. Westbrook vs Harden is reminiscent of the MVP race in the American League a few years back, when Mike Trout was (again) the best player, but Miguel Cabrera was the first man to win the Triple Crown since Yaz in 1967 — it’s hard to get too ginned up about Trout getting robbed when Cabrera made history. Making Westbrook’s season-long triple double all the more impressive is that he did it while playing nearly 10 fewer minutes per game than the Big O, and for a team whose pace of play was much slower. Westbrook makes the Thunder one of the scarier 6 seeds in league history.

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Rookie of the Year

Would it be wrong to give this to Joel Embiid? When he went down in January with a torn meniscus, he was averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game and the 76ers were 17-28. Without him, they’ve gone 11-24. Unfortunately, no one’s ever won RoY while playing fewer than 50 games, so it seems we can’t give it to Embiid, meaning we’ll have to settle for… Well, there’s Embiid’s teammate, Dario Saric, who’s averaged 12.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.2 assists this year, but has stepped up big in Embiid’s absence with 16.8 ppg, 7.0 rpg and 3.0 apg.

The only other choice that makes any sense is second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon out of Milwaukee, who’s averaged 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists. While Brogdon’s raw numbers don’t measure up to Saric’s, he’s a much better shooter — 45.7% to 41.1% — and commits about two-thirds as many turnovers. You could argue late into the night making a case for either guy, but given that Saric has the brighter future, let’s give it to Brogdon, who would make history as the first second-rounder to win the award.

Defensive Player of the Year

It’s tempting to just keep writing down Kawhi Leonard’s name for this award until someone cries BS. The two-time defending champ is the best defender on the top-rated defense in the league. Leonard is again suffocating defenders, while emerging as one of the league’s premier scoring threats. But Leonard’s on-off numbers show that opponents’ effective field goal percentage jumps from 46.7% when he’s off the court, to 50.6% when he’s on the court — what’s up with that? Looking at the defensive win share numbers at Basketball Reference, Rudy Gobert would be the obvious choice, and he’s definitely a beast in the middle, with 8.9 defensive rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game, but DWS is a sucker for big men.

Which means it’s time to hold our nose and give the award to Draymond Green, maybe the dirtiest player in the game, a man so depraved he’ll even reneg on a child. Green gave up a large chunk of his already limited role in Golden State’s offense in deference to Kevin Durant, and focused his energies where he naturally excels, on D, and it’s paid off. He’s led the league in steals and defensive box plus/minus, while having to deal with opponents’ biggest offensive threat, regardless of size now that Andrew Bogut is gone.

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Sixth Man

This one is a tale of two Rockets. The Houston Rockets fell on some tough times ahead of the All Star break, going 9-9, and raising questions about their fitness for the playoffs. But then the Rockets traded away Corey Brewer to the Lakers, and welcomed Lou Williams in return, who has come off the bench for Houston to average 15-3-2 as the team has gone 13-8 with him in the lineup and secured the position as a 3 seed. Williams has been so good this season, that back in December he set an NBA record with 137 points off the bench in a four-game stretch. The irony is that Williams’ arrival in Houston has cost the Rockets’ Eric Gordon a chance to win this award. Gordon’s averaging 16-3-3 on the year while averaging 31 minutes a game, compared to Williams’ 18-3-3 overall in just 25.4 minutes per game. Advantage Williams.

Most Improved Player

Is there a candidate other than Giannis Antetokounmpo? Last season he was a promising up-and-comer, this year he’s a superstar. The Greek Freak is just the fifth player in league history to lead his team in points (23.2), rebounds (8.7), assists (5.4), steals (1.7), and blocks (1.9), joining Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett, and LeBron James. That 4-year/$100 million extension the Bucks signed him to last fall is looking like a bargain.

 

Monday on TNT

Washington Wizards (48-32) vs Detroit Pistons (37-43) @ 8pm

Houston Rockets (54-26) vs Los Angeles Clippers (49-31) @ 10:30pm

Wednesday on ESPN  

Atlanta Hawks (42-38) vs Indiana Pacers (40-40) @ 8pm

New Orleans Pelicans (33-47) vs Portland Trail Blazers (40-40) @ 10:30pm

All stats courtesy ESPN and Basketball Reference.

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