Good to hear from James Harden last night, who returned as brash
as he left.
“Not to brag or anything, but I’m like really, really good at
this game,” Harden said after returning from an 18-game absence for
the Brooklyn Nets, who may end up being the best team in New
York... or may not.
If we have all learned anything in the past 14 months, it is to
expect the unexpected. Today’s rules are not necessarily tomorrow’s
rules, although one rule is the same from year to year when it
comes to choosing the winners of the NBA’s annual awards: Vote with
When the NBA sends out ballots to official voters, it entrusts
them with making informed decisions and giving credit to the most
deserving. There is nothing in the instructions about “embracing
the narrative” or rewarding the unsuccessful, yet some voters do
exactly that when casting their ballots. Eventually, they have to
answer to the public if they cast an outlier ballot.
There will be no such blowback here because these decisions were
made with the utmost care and concern. When you are a basketball
journalist lifer, you try to stick with what has worked in the past
– even in a season in which there was no in-person access to
players, coaches, scouts and various team officials who can usually
be used as a sounding board when deciding who to vote for on these
The ballot below is organized in the same manner as an official
ballot: Five choices for MVP, ranked first through fifth, and three
choices for all of the other awards except All-NBA. So let’s have
Unlike every other superstar on a winning team, he has been
there from the get-go and has killed it statistically, sitting just
outside the top 10 in points (26.5), and in the top 10 in both
rebounds (10.8) and assists (8.4) for the team that has the best
winning percentage leaguewide since March.
Julius Randle, Knicks: Not a ton of people are
going to rank him this high in the MVP race (other than Tommy Beer) but
Randle has not only been an All-NBA First-Team talent, but he has
also been dominant against the Eastern Conference teams that New
York may see in the playoffs.
Joel Embiid, 76ers: His injury absence probably
will cost him this award. Doc Rivers has him playing with a passion
and a controlled aggressiveness that Brett Brown could never
summon. Embiid is third in scoring (29.2) and 11th in rebounding
with 10.7 boards per contest.
Chris Paul, Suns: A pair of recent losses will
prevent them from winning the West, and although Devin Booker might
be the most consistent player for Phoenix, Paul gets the credit on
the ballot for changing the culture.
James Harden, Nets: Harden is a victim of a
prolonged injury absence as well. That will keep him out of the
running for this award, but he merits a spot on this ballot because
of how well he has run the Nets when he has played. He was almost a
lock for this award before getting hurt.
Honorable mention: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, Rudy
ROOKIE OF THE
Edwards' finishing kick has been something, and this ballot was
going to include Ball at the top until the Hornets decided to play
the final month of the season like it was the first month. Edwards’
19.0 points per game ranks first among his draft class, along with
ranking seventh in rebounds (4.7) and eighth in assists (2.8),
LaMelo Ball, Hornets: LaMelo is going to be a
heck of a player down the road,
but he needs to put in more work over the summer on his strength
and his defense. Going 1-for-10 and 1-for-9 in two of his past four
games -- including going 2-for-17 from three, in addition to
turning the ball over frequently -- while returning from a wrist
injury did not help his case.
Desmond Bane, Grizzlies: Among those who play
more than 20 minutes per game, Bane leads rookies in three-point
shooting at 44% for a playoff team, which gets him the third-place
nod over Saddiq Bey of Detroit.
Before getting into this award, a disclaimer: I believe Julius
Randle will win this award, but to me he is not quote-unquote
“improved” because he was already a terrific player for the Los
Angeles Lakers and New Orleans Pelicans, and he shot 52.4% two
years ago. I will be in the minority there, but I am okay with
LaVine is averaging career-highs in points (27.5), rebounds
(5.0), assists (4.9) and in all three shooting percentage
categories. 50.4% overall ain’t too shabby, but the above-41%
perimeter clip with over eight attempts per game (back-to-back
years of this volume, by the way) is what stands out.
Michael Porter Jr., Nuggets: This fellow was
red-flagged by his injury history and a bad back two seasons ago
when the Nuggets took a chance on him in the draft. Denver waited a
whole year before implementing him into this team's rotation; it
was worth the wait. Porter is averaging 19.4 points per game in his
second season and shooting just under 55% from the field, including
45% from long distance.
Enes Kanter, Trail Blazers: In my honest
opinion, Kanter is the most underappreciated player in the league.
Good things happened whenever he entered playoff games for the
Celtics last year, and they let him go. Half of the league’s
general managers dismiss him as a bad defender, but he had 33
double-doubles. This season, Kanter is averaging 11.2 points and
11.0 rebounds on a career-high 60% shooting, and he filled in for
an ailing Jusuf Nurkic as a starter for 35 games. He's been one of
four NBA ironmen to have played every game to this point in the
SIXTH MAN OF THE
Clarkson may get this award unanimously after averaging 18.2
points per game in just under 27 minutes for a Jazz team that
appears poised to finish first in the West.
Joe Ingles, Jazz: He made 28 starts because of
injuries, most recently the one to Mike Conley, but has a vastly
superior assist-to-turnover ratio than Clarkson and is sixth in the
league in three-point percentage at a 45.6% clip as a volume
long-range shooter (min. 30 games).
Derrick Rose, Knicks: Rose has made only three
starts for the ‘Bockers, but he has been their unquestioned floor
leader over the second half of the season. It was a great pickup
early in the trade market; he will be a difference-maker in the
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE
Gobert probably deserves more MVP consideration than he is going
to receive, but the Utah big man still is deserving of this award
for his 2.7 blocks per game and being second in the NBA in
rebounding with 13.4 boards a night -- and he is the only player in
the league averaging at least 10 defensive rebounds.
Jimmy Butler, Heat: The league leader in
steals, Butler is from the Patrick Beverley-Robert Covington-Marcus
Smart school of lockdown defenders. The league needs more of these
Julius Randle, Knicks: Randle ranks second in
the league behind Gobert in defensive win shares while playing for
a coach, Tom Thibodeau, whose team locks down fairly consistently
on the defensive end.
COACH OF THE
Tom Thibodeau, New York
Only the folks who are married to basketball, as Thibs is, can
appreciate his work ethic and his ability to connect with his
players. The long postseason drought in Manhattan is about to end,
and Thibs did it with Randle and Rose leading the charge.
Doc Rivers, Sixers: So it turns out there
actually is someone on the planet who can motivate both Embiid and
Ben Simmons. But Doc has a lot of playoff work to do to make up for
Quin Snyder, Jazz: Not leaving Snyder off the
ballot because Utah is still in the catbird seat in the East.
Apologies to Monty Williams, but Jazz > Suns.
ALL-NBA FIRST TEAM: James Harden, Chris Paul,
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic
ALL-NBA SECOND TEAM: Stephen Curry, Bradley
Beal, Luka Doncic, Julius Randle, Rudy Gobert
ALL-NBA THIRD TEAM: Damian Lillard, Russell
Westbrook, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum
ALL-ROOKIE FIRST TEAM: LaMelo Ball, Anthony
Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Desmond Bane, Saddiq Bey
ALL-ROOKIE SECOND TEAM: Immanuel Quickley,
Isaac Okoro, Jae’Sean Tate, Isaiah Stewart, James Wiseman
ALL-DEFENSIVE FIRST TEAM: Marcus Smart, Jimmy
Butler, Robert Covington, Julius Randle, Rudy Gobert
ALL-DEFENSIVE SECOND TEAM: T.J. McConnell, Ben
Simmons, Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green