Awards. Mom’s love them. Athletes like to keep track of them. Trophy cabinets would die without them. It’s that time of year. The regular season has dawned, and the playoffs are on the rise. So before the official winners come out, here’s my take on the deserving winners and their not as happy runner ups in each category.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich.
Runner Up: Tom Thibodeau.
Pop deserves the prize for this one. He’ll likely say…”Thanks,” and nothing else in his acceptance speech, or some other one liner representative of his dry humorous personality, but Gregg Popovich has out coached everyone this year. For a team to lose in Game 7 of the NBA Finals and come back with a better record the next year is pretty exceptional. Especially when a lot of critics were ready to say the Spurs dynasty of Parker, Duncan and Ginobli were done for good. It’s especially easy for a team to come back the next year less intense, justifying their play with something like, “We made it last year, it’s too hard to do it again.” However, Popovich got his team to better themselves and raise the bar even higher for a team that is usually flawless in their execution. Even more than that, an old team like the Spurs whose best players are in the last few years of their careers could’ve let that Game 7 defeat be the end of them. They could’ve taken their past championships and hit the road. However, they’ve all raised their level of play. Popovich has even brought in new guys and has been able to play 10 or 11 men deep every game and win without his stars, who I’ll mention again are not in the prime of their careers like those on other contenders (Miami Heat, OKC Thunder). The Spurs went on a 17 game winning streak, clinched the best record in the league, and have secured home court advantage throughout the playoffs.
Thibs garners my runner up selection simply because the Bulls remain one of the best defensive teams in the NBA and manage to upset the big dogs in the league without Derrick Rose for a second season, but this year without Luol Deng, their leading scorer and arguably their best player.
Most Improved Player: Goran Dragic
Runner Up: Anthony Davis
The Suns have made the biggest turnaround in the NBA from last season. After an embarrassing 25-57 season last year, the roster was transformed and Jeff Hornacek was put in office. The result? A faster, more energetic young team that outcompeted its opponents on a nightly basis. Everything went right for this team except the playoffs, which may not even be a bad thing given their plan for the future and the fact they’ll now receive a higher draft pick. Their backcourt tandem of Bledsoe and Dragic worked perfectly when both were healthy. Their young players developed like they should’ve, and even exceeded some expectations. However, the leader of this team from the beginning till the end was Goran Dragic. He played 76 games, and raised his PPG average, FG% and 3Point% all from last year (20.3 ppg, 50 FG%, 41 3Pt%). I think there are two distinctions that can be made about Goran Dragic that justify his earning of this award. The first is that he was the best player on his team and the leader. He had the team on his back the entire year, even more so when Eric Bledsoe got injured. With added responsibility, he stepped up. Additionally, and probably the most important thing is that Goran Dragic did not “improve” because of added opportunity, or a drastically different system. He is playing 1.5 minutes more a game, on the same team with someone people thought would take opportunities away from him. He’s actually improved. People point to someone like a Gerald Green and say easily most improved player, just look at his stats. Yes, it’s true he’s had a career year, but has he improved, or was he given 10 more minutes a game and an additional 40 starts from last season on an extremely faster paced team than the Indiana Pacers? Think about that.
Anthony Davis garners runner up recognition because many players run into a sophomore wall and after a stellar rookie campaign, can’t break through any more barriers in their careers. Anthony Davis is still improving and becoming one of the most dangerous players in the NBA. He’s still a 2nd year man, and that’s why he doesn’t get my vote, because his improvement is supposed to happen – especially with a guy loaded with as much potential as Anthony Davis. His minutes didn’t increase that much (only a 6 minute difference from last season) but his production in every statistical category improved.
6th Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford
Runner Up: Taj Gibson
Jamal Crawford wins the honors once again after missing out last season to J.R Smith. Jamal Crawford is one of the most lethal and instant offenses in the entire league, averaging 18.6 points, 3.2 assists, and 2.3 rebounds a game, shooting 41% from the field and 36% from beyond the arc. Simply put, Jamal Crawford knows how to put the ball in the hoop and every team needs that off their bench, not only to keep the defense honest but to give the bench a spark when the starters aren’t doing their job. By having a scoring machine playing against 2nd units, it gives the team a huge advantage. Jamal Crawford, for his respective role, probably does it better than everyone in the league. His scoring average (18.6) is the third highest for a 6th man in the last 20 years. He also dabbled as a starter this season when Chris Paul and or J.J Reddick were injured and averaged 20.6 points those 23 games. He’s had six 30+ point games and has hit or eclipsed the 25 point mark 13 times. It’s no question that Jamal Crawford is someone Doc Rivers can rely on, and Crawford has been called to the plate numerous times in the 4th quarter where he averages a 3rd best in the NBA 6.7 points a game, on 9.5 minutes. Beyond the statistics, Jamal Crawford is a spark plug – someone that can bring the fans to their feet quickly, and can start a run with an ankle breaking crossover or a deep three pointer. He has the edge against the other 6th men candidates, because yes, his statistics are better, and he plays in the Western Conference on a better team and is relied on heavier than most of the other candidates in this category.
Taj Gibson garners runner up recognition because he has surpassed Carlos Boozer as the go to Power Forward in the 4th quarter. He plays 10 minutes a game in the final quarter, and defensively and energetically Taj Gibson brings another multi-fasceted weapon to the Bulls game. He is active in help defense and in protecting the rim, and has developed a nifty offensive game around the rim and as far out as the free throw line for jumpers. Along with Joakim Noah he has become the 2nd emotional leader of the team, a humongous part of why they are in 4th in the Eastern Conference even without Derrick Rose and the mid-season trade of Luol Deng. The only thing that held him back from winning in my eyes, is the competition. The Eastern Conference was historically bad this season, home to 8 losing records, and the 4 worst teams in the entire league. Taj Gibson did what was asked from him and more but its the teams he played against which may have prevented him from winning this award.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah
Runner Up: Roy Hibbert
Joakim Noah is the epitome of energy when on the court – playing with more passion and fire than some teams altogether (Knicks, Pistons, etc..) Defensively, it’s his presence on the court, his protection of the paint and his versatility to be able to guard every player has brought Chicago to the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference even without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng. The Chicago Bulls were 1st in opponents points allowed per game, only allowing 91.8 points throughout the season. They were 2nd in opponents FG% with 42% and in the top 10 in opponents 3 Point%, holding teams to only 35% from beyond the arc. They say anybody has the ability to play great defense, all you need is energy and the desire and Joakim Noah lacks neither. His passion is contagious and has many times won Chicago games or secured them the ball on big possessions down the stretch. Joakim is a fierce rim protector, but what garners my vote over Roy Hibbert is his ability to guard every position on the floor. Unlike most defensive centers, Joakim Noah has no problem switching pick n rolls, or going out to the perimeter and guarding quicker guys. Joakim is agile, quick and disciplined on defense and has been seen many times stuck on someone like Lebron James on the perimeter and given him trouble. That kind of versatility isn’t seen often in 6’11 guys and it gives the Bulls more leeway defensively knowing Joakim Noah can do everything on that side of the court.
Roy Hibbert gets runner up because the Pacers were right behind the Bulls defensively in opponents points per game. I think his reputation was tarnished slightly toward the end of the season due to the Pacers’ rough end to the year and his being taken out of many games due to foul trouble or attitude. However, Roy Hibbert is the best rim protector in the NBA and plays the verticality game to perfection.
Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter-Williams
Runner Up: Victor Oladipo
While it’s acceptable to argue against MCW’s rookie campaign and deny him the ROY because of the historically fast pace at which his team plays with, and the embarrassingly scarce, inexperienced and untalented roster he had around him, the talent was obviously there and for a rookie MCW definitely took the most of the opportunities he was given. His team was the 2nd worst in the league and in tank mode like we’ve never seen before, but throughout it all, he was the beacon of hope for a franchise looking toward the future. MCW led all rookies in points per game (16.7) assists (6.3), rebounds (6.2), steals (1.9) and usage rate (25% of his teams possessions) – some fantastic numbers for a first year guard. He is also the first rookie since Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson to average at least 16 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists.
Victor Oladipo is the close runner up, and had a great season in his own right. He was second amongst rookies in usage rate (24%) and averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. He played 31 minutes a game for a team with a slower pace than the 76ers and still averaged numbers that somewhat resemble those of MCW. But it’s really his energy, athleticism and aggression to the basket that have the Magic smiling about this guy.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant
Runner Up: Lebron James
Finally Kevin Durant surpasses Lebron James and wins an MVP. Kevin has been chipping away and sprinting on Lebron’s heels for years now and finally he should be awarded with the MVP. His individual season has been historic. I’ll repeat what I said in an earlier post about Durant in terms of some eye-opening statistics:
Kevin Durant is averaging career highs in points (32.2) and assists (5.6) a game. With Russell Westbrook struggling with knee injuries, Kevin Durant has often had the entire team to carry by himself, and that has led to two 50-point games, twelve 40+ point games, three triple-doubles and an Oklahoma City Thunder record of 59-23 good for 2nd in the Western Conference. In comparison to previous great individual seasons, Kevin Durant surpassed Michael Jordan’s record of consecutive 25+ scoring games with 41 in a row. He’s the first player since the 1988-89 season to average 32 points, 7 rebounds and 5 assists per game – the last to do it was Michael Jordan. To further the comparison with Jordan, Kevin Durant is the first player since MJ’s 1991-1992 season to average 30+ points, 5+ assists and 5+ rebounds a game while shooting 50% or higher from the field.
Lebron James obviously is a close 2nd, and like every season he’s ever had he’s been consistent and amazing. He is still probably the best player on the planet but this year was Kevin Durant’s year, and I’m sure it won’t be his last.