NBA awards ballot

The end of the 2017-18 NBA season has finally arrived as the playoffs are set to begin on Saturday afternoon. This season has been nothing sort of outstanding from the race for the best record in the NBA between the Rockets, Raptors, and Warriors, to the race for the best odds at the No. 1 pick in this summer’s draft between the Suns, Grizzles, and Hawks.

There have been underachievers – hello, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards – overachievers – looking at you, Utah and Miami – and everything in between. The season has seen terrific storylines and traumatic injuries. We’ve seen budding stars emerge from the league, and old stars restate claim at the top. The season was one of the better ones in recent memory, and it’s time to cast some (imaginary) votes for the NBA individual awards.

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*Disclaimer: I do not have an official vote in any of these categories. This is all for fun*

Most Valuable Player

Until three weeks ago I was firmly in the camp that it was James Harden’s time to win the MVP. He’s had a tremendous season, led Houston to the best record in the NBA, and solidified Houston as a true contender to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy this June.

The last few weeks haven’t mattered to Harden and the Rockets, as they’ve been in firm control of the best record in the NBA for some time. That’s not a knock on Harden, and isn’t being used against him.

Three weeks ago, it looked as if the race to be the representative of the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals was as wide-open as it has been since arguably 2010.

Then, the Cleveland Cavaliers, led by LeBron James, kicked things into high-gear. Now, it would come as a surprise if any of the other seven playoff teams in the East made it to the Finals.

James has had one of the best seasons of his career this season. That’s no small feat considering this is the 15th year in the NBA for James and he turned 33 in December. James is simultaneous breaking “the oldest to…” and “the youngest to…” records at the same time. That’s not necessarily something that factors into this discussion, but it’s something that’s simply astonishing.

Let’s be honest, the Cleveland Cavaliers have been a mess the entire season. It feels as if they’ve had three different seasons over the course of the 82-game slate. Everything points at them being a contender for the first pick in the draft, rather than a championship.

Well, everything except for James.

This year James is averaging career-highs in assists and rebounds – again, his 15th season – while maintaining the highest scoring average he’s had since his final year of his first stint in Cleveland. He’s averaging 27.7 points, 8.7 rebounds, and 9.2 assists on the season while shooting over 54 percent from the field.

That’s never once been done in the history of the NBA. That deserves a recognition.

The other area that I look at in the favor of James is that this offseason, the Cavaliers lost their second-best player in Kyrie Irving, and the Rockets added an all-NBA player in Chris Paul to their team.

Irving hasn’t been replaced on the Cavaliers, and Paul is an upgrade over nearly every point guard in the league.

The greatest player of this generation – possibly all-time – is having arguably his best season ever. There’s no questioning that he’s the best in the world, and in my mind he’s the most valuable as well.

I’m going to admit, it’s likely that the award goes to Harden. He’s had a terrific season and most years would deserve it, but I can’t pass on what James has been able to do this season.

The rest

First and second place are easy, the rest of the voting isn’t as cut and dry. My top five would look as follows:

LeBron James
James Harden
Anthony Davis
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Damian Lillard

Davis has carried the Pelicans to the playoffs in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins in the second half of the season. He’s been incredible offensively and will likely finish in the top three of the Defensive Player of the Year voting as well.

I’ve been settled on the top three for quite some time, but there’s been fluctuation over the fourth and fifth spots on my ballot over some time. I think that the end of the season has decided it for me, just as it did in the race between first and second.

Giannis Antetokounmpo’s case

Antetokounmpo is the only reason the Bucks are a playoff team. I’ve had the opportunity to watch him up close all season long, and without him the Bucks would be a lottery team, and a bad one at that. He’s been terrific all season and deserves to finish in the top five, especially after the Bucks closed the season out strong.

Hurting Antetokounmpo is the fact that his team, the Milwaukee Bucks, finished in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Without him the Bucks would likely be fighting for the worst record in the NBA, but instead they’re a playoff team. The common thought about the career path of Antetokounmpo is that he’s a future MVP. While he had a terrific year this year and deserves to finish in the top five, this isn’t the year he wins the award for the first time, and it shouldn’t be.

A top five finish would be an accomplishment for Antetokounmpo, and he should be thought of as a front-runner for the award next season.

Lillard was going to finish in fourth place before the Blazers struggled to end the season. With two weeks to go I had him penciled in there, but the close of Milwaukee paired with Portland’s struggles and his injury dropped him down to fifth.

Close but just missed

Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozen

Defensive Player of the Year

This one took some thinking because the top two players have both missed a significant amount of time due to injuries, but there’s no denying Rudy Gobert’s defensive impact on the Utah Jazz.

With him in, the Jazz have one of the best, if not the best defense in the league. Without him, they’re a lottery team.

Joel Embiid has been absolutely terrific as well for Philadelphia, and very well could win this award one day, but this one deservingly goes to Gobert.

Here’s my top three:

Rudy Gobert
Joel Embiid
Anthony Davis

Coach of the Year

The Utah Jazz have no business being a playoff team. Their leading scorer is a rookie, they lost their franchise player in the offseason as Gordon Heyward left in free agency, and they started the season 19-28.

Since then they’ve gone 29-6 and finished in fifth place in the Western Conference. The Jazz have been one of the best teams in the NBA since the end of January. Quin Snyder has done a masterful job with this group and earns my vote in a very crowded field this year.

Here’s my top three:

Quin Snyder
Brett Brown
Dwane Casey

Close but just missed

Brad Stevens, Gregg Popovich

Most Improved Player

This is possibly the one category that may be the easiest to decide for end of season awards this year. Victor Oladipo is on his third team in three seasons and turned into a star out of nowhere for the Indiana Pacers.

This year the Pacers were expected to be a lottery team, instead they’re the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s thanks in large part to the play of Oladipo. After struggling to find his fit alongside Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook last season he was traded to Indiana in exchange for Paul George. Oladipo has thrived beyond anyone’s expectations for the Pacers. He may win this one unanimously.

Here’s my top three:

Victor Oladipo
Steven Adams
Fred VanVleet

Rookie of the Year

This is an award that has sparked heated debate across the league. The top two is evidently clear in Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell, but that’s where agreements seem to stop by opposing sides.

Simmons has been the better player this year. He’s averaging over 16 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists for the year. That’s unprecedented, and if he were a “normal” rookie then he would likely win this award in a landslide.

The problem with his case to some is that he was drafted in 2016, not 2017, but missed the entire 2016-17 season due to injury. While this is his first season on the floor, it’s his second year around professional basketball.

I understand that argument, but I don’t agree with it. By definition, if a player has never played an NBA game entering the season then he’s a rookie. Simmons meets that criteria, therefore he’s the Rookie of the Year in my opinion.

That doesn’t downplay what Mitchell has been able to do for the Jazz. He’s the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring since Carmelo Anthony did so with Denver in 2003-04. Mitchell  has been a huge reason as to why the Jazz have been able to turn things around.

He just hasn’t been as good as Simmons this season.

Both players are future stars, potentially even future MVPs, but Simmons was the better rookie.

My top three:

Ben Simmons
Donovan Mitchell
Jayson Tatum

Sixth Man of the Year

Lou Williams of the LA Clippers helped keep LA in the playoff race until the first week of April after the franchise traded away Blake Griffin. He finished in the top 20 in scoring in the NBA coming off the bench, and at times was the best player the Clippers had this year. He earns my vote

My top three:

Lou Williams
Wayne Ellington
The Toronto Raptors Bench Unit

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