NBA awards ballot, Part one: More wins for the Warriors

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Source:   —  April 13, 2016, at 6:14 AM

Gentle reminder: I consider every speck of information -- game film, public stats, secret stats I wrangle up, exchanges of intel with team officials -- and I don't detest your team.

NBA awards ballot, Part one: More wins for the Warriors

Somehow, it'south already time to hand out regular-season awards. Gentle reminder: I consider every speck of information -- game film, public stats, secret stats I wrangle up, exchanges of intel with team officials -- and I don't detest your team.

I've an official ballot again this year, so these votes count. Without further ado:

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

one. Stephen Curry
two. Kawhi Leonard
three. LeBron James
four. Kevin Durant
five. Chris Paul

The only drama comes in the latest four spots, which means it really doesn't matter much for historical purposes. Curry has been the best and most valuable player in the NBA -- a glitch in the system who transformed a sport. Everything about the Warriors -- their style, their identity, their strut -- emanates from his historically unprecedented shooting.

There are seven candidates for the latest four spots: the four listed, plus Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green. You could construct an argument for James Harden, carrying the wheezing wraith of Houston on his back, but he showed up out of shape and played zippo defense for a would-be contender about to hobble into the No. eight spot with a win over the tanking Kings.

Lowry became a superstar, always in hunched motion, waiting to spring into open space when you obtain a breath. He'south just not as excellent as these other guys.

Green is the firing brain circuitry of maybe the greatest team ever, nearly as necessary to Golden State'south top-five defense as Curry is to their all-time offense. He'd be a star anywhere. But you could imagine these Warriors playing excellent defense without Green; they did below Label Jackson, using a more traditional scheme. You cannot imagine Golden State with a league-average point guard in Curry'south place. The Warriors would've to reinvent their all offense, and they mightn't be very good.

The Warriors' offense falls apart without Curry, and for the second straight season, opponents outscored Golden State -- by a enormous margin -- with Curry on the bench. Green and Curry lean on each other, and lift the team together, but the cost gap between them is large sufficient to shove Green off this ballot.

That left Durant, Westbrook and Paul for two spots. Paul can't match Westbrook'south gaudy triple-double numbers, or turn a game on its head with forty-five seconds of snarling athleticism. Other teams fear Westbrook. They respect Paul, but they don't shudder at the opportunity of him smashing through their all team -- and the concept of normal basketball -- for two or three pivotal minutes.

But on a night-to-night basis, Paul is the more calming, precise player, and he's to be on the ballot after keeping the Clippers afloat amid Blake Griffin'south injury melodrama.

That leaves an impossible choice between Westbrook and Durant -- a choice that nearly seems unfair given the Thunder'south hit-or-miss supporting cast. Both will create a lot of ballots, and that's fine.

Durant gets the nod by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. There isn't much disagreement between them statistically, and Durant reclaimed some control of the Thunder offense once Billy Donovan started staggering the Westbrook/Durant minutes in February. Durant seized more possessions, dished more dimes and drove OK City to a better scoring edge in his non-Westbrook minutes than in the opposite scenario, per NBA. com research.

He'south also a better, more versatile defender -- fast sufficient to guard any wing, and so long, he can dart in from the powerful side to snuff a drive and veer back to a sharp shooter without conceding a thing. Both guys can defend up a position, but Durant sliding to power forward opens more lineup possibilities than Westbrook muscling a shooting guard.

Westbrook remains a manic gambler who submarines too many possessions with rash choices. When two bets in a row hit, it looks spectacular, and we laud Westbrook'south skill to bend the game to his will. We don't do a excellent sufficient work noting the other three or four bets that arrive up snake eyes, leaving shooters open and hanging teammates out to dry. Westbrook'south decision-making at money time can be scattershot.

Westbrook is incredible, and he might finish in the top three once the votes are in. Not here.

A word on the Leonard-LeBron debate: LeBron at full throttle is the better player, and maybe still the best player in the league. Both engineer decent shots from nothing, but only LeBron can steamroll to the rim nearly whenever he wants. LeBron resides in another universe as a passer. LeBron can be the fastest all-court defender in the league when he wishes; remember, he outperformed computerized ghost defenders programmed to be perfect!

But from start to finish, Leonard had the better season, for the better team. He doesn't get possessions off. He doesn't click at teammates or manufacture chaos with calculated, passive-aggressive social media fits. For all the angst over whether Leonard can generate offense when everything else stalls out in crunch time, he ranks among the league'south best one-on-one scorers -- from both the perimeter and the post, per Synergy Sports research.

He'south not LeBron in those situations. Number one is. Leonard doesn't think, or pass, two steps ahead of the defense, and he'south not powerful sufficient to bulldoze his way to the rim every damn time. But he'south plenty good, with a jumper that clicked as LeBron'south broke apart, and he's been the league'south second-best player.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

one. Karl-Anthony Towns
two. Kristaps Porzingis
three. Nikola Jokic

There isn't a case for anyone else. Jahlil Okafor missed thirty-five % of the season, played some of the worst big-man defense in NBA history and exacerbated an internal crisis with embarrassing off-court behavior. He sure scored a lot, though!  Devin Booker got started too late, defended air and finished with an ugly -- if understandable -- uptick in turnovers. Myles Turner is coming off the bench again.

D'Angelo Russell combined hot shooting with beyond-his-years playmaking after finally earning Byron Scott'south trust, only to betray Nick Young'south and deflate the Lakers' locker room.

I realize if some readers mightn't be able to identify Jokic if he walked by them. Number one watches the Nuggets -- not even in Denver. By some measures, the dude is wrapping up one of the best all-around seasons ever for a rookie center. He hit three at nearly a league-average rate, led quick breaks and assisted on eighteenth % of Denver'south buckets while on the floor -- the fifth-best label in history for a rookie big. He'south a slick passer from the post, the elbows and in transition.

Advanced stats wonks have argued he should win the award, and he'south a powerful case to leapfrog Porzingis for the No. two slot. Jokic leads all rookies in adjusted plus-minus by a mile; he'south ninth in the whole stinking league, right ahead of DeMarcus Cousins! He'south an intuitive, nasty defender -- better than you'd guess, given his ho-hum athleticism.

But you can't create a case based on a single, all-in-one stat, particularly one questioned by team insiders with access to the genuine secret sauce: analytics derived from SportVU tracking data. Towns kills by those metrics, sources tell me, and he laps the field by most other public statistical measures.

Towns should win unanimously. He's been a two-way force with the inside-outside skill set a big-man star needs in the modern NBA. He'south already a bright, shining plus at everything: post scoring, leap shooting, passing, defending the rim and scampering around in space. He'south love a five-tool center! If he'south not a top-15 player already, he'south going to be soon.

He's also played nine hundred more minutes than Jokic, the equivalent of nineteen full games, while shouldering a much heavier load; Jokic averages a hair fewer than ten points per game, and sometimes looks reluctant to assert himself. Jokic has more contest for minutes and touches, but it'south not as if he'south stuck in a loaded roster; the Nuggets are only four games ahead of Minnesota, and Jusuf Nurkic, one of Jokic'south main competitors for playing time, spent half the season injured and in Mike Malone's doghouse.

Porzingis can't match Jokic'south advanced numbers, and he actually shot a tick worse from downtown. But Porzingis logged nearly four hundred more minutes and did heavy lifting as the No. two option for the Knicks. He can slide more easily between the two big-man positions, hang with guards on switches, and swat damn close everything around the basket.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

one. Draymond Green
two. Kawhi Leonard
three. Paul Millsap

This is love choosing between Elastic Man and a fire-breathing version of The Thing. Leonard and Green are the two most important, cruelest, most unfair defenders in the league, and it isn't close. Number one else should get a first-place vote.

I lean toward Green because of his versatility -- and particularly his unique ability, at six-foot-6, to credibly guard centers. Some smaller guys can fake it for a possession or two, provided some crisis -- love a rebound bouncing in their direction -- doesn't happen. Green can play up a position for all games if necessity be, and that'south the launch code to basketball'south nuclear bomb: the Death Lineup, with Green as a sneering, rampaging, fast-breaking center, and shooters raining death around him.

The fully engaged Warriors are a perfectly coordinated swarm. They switch and re-switch without cracking open even the teeniest lanes. They assistance in one spot, bend far from another and return there before the offense even realizes anyone was open. They're active with such synchronization; you barely notice the activity. Green is the yapping nervous system of that defense.

Leonard might be an even better one-on-one defender, though, and he could toggle between positions more frequently if Gregg Popovich demanded it. He envelopes opponents, and he'd be the Capt of my Mirror Guy team for defenders who move in such exact sync with a ball handler, it nearly appears as if the ball handler is dueling with a reflection.

Choosing Millsap for the No. three spot will lift some eyebrows, particularly in Miami, where Hassan Whiteside rejected everything in sight. People don't think of Millsap as an elite defender. They don't think of him much at all, really. Being a low-key dude in UT and Atlanta will do that.

But he's developed into the keystone of the league'south stingiest defense since Jan. one -- a jack-of-all-trades with the speed to extinguish pick-and-rolls thirty feet from the basket, glue-trap hands that rip more steals than nearly any huge man in league history, and the guts to begin an airborne collision at the rim. Millsap is averaging one.7 blocks per game, by distant a career high, and he's the only rotation player in the league topping one.7 blocks and one.7 steals per night.

He gets those numbers without gambling, and he can guard any position in a pinch. He'south a horse on the glass, always does his work in transition and plays tough on every damn possession.

Whiteside doesn't, though he's found another gear over the past three months. Remember: I was touting Whiteside early in the season when commentators who didn't bother digging into even one layer of context would robotically recite the stat showing the Heat defended better with Whiteside on the bench.

Even so: There are matchups that trouble him. Brutes with touch and the heft to obtain into Whiteside'south body have done damage on the block; opponents have hit fifty-one % of their post-up shots against him, per Synergy Sports research, tenth worst among seventy-two defenders who have faced at least seventy-five post-ups this season.

He likes to hang back on the pick-and-roll, inviting catastrophe against sharpshooters love Curry and Damian Lillard, who necessity only a sliver to unleash pull-up three upon turning the corner. Whiteside has been more diligent taking an additional step out toward such players over the past forty games, but he'south wobbly -- and assailable to blow-bys -- exterior his consolation zone.

Millsap'south comfort zone extends across the full court, and every playing style. The bigs who might normally displace him have battled injuries, or slipped a bit from peak form: Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis and a few others. Cousins could crack this ballot if he tried tough all the time. And alas, DeAndre Jordan isn't quite as excellent as his reputation.

None of the league'south perimeter stoppers -- including Paul George and Jimmy Butler -- matched the consistency of these three studs.

COACH OF THE YEAR

one. Steve Kerr
two. Gregg Popovich
three. Terry Stotts

This is partly a multiyear achievement award for Kerr and Popovich, and it should be. The NBA is considered the most predictable of the four major U. S. pro sports leagues, and at the top, that'south true. The better team generally wins a best-of-seven series, and the best teams with the best players win championships.

Below that stratosphere, team identity and culture are fragile. Houston found something latest season as a carefree, go-go outfit, brought back the same cast and fell apart amid chemistry issues, laziness and a staleness of spirit. Chicago lost its way, and by the finish of the season, the Bulls were just throwing crap against the wall on offense -- lifeless possessions with number purpose. Some combination of injuries, infighting and confusion undid Washington, New Orleans and Phoenix. The Magic still don't know what in the hell they are.

Creating a cohesive ethos that sticks is a scarce thing. It takes nurturing over years. Isolating a coach'south work from Halloween through tax day is a strange conceit.

This is why, as queasy as it makes me, I can see past the fact that serious health issues kept Kerr off the sideline for half the season. The drudgery of travel and in-the-moment decision-making are huge parts of coaching. But Kerr was very much present during his absence, particularly when the Warriors were at home.

He redefined the tone of the organization the moment he walked in the door. He empowered Curry to test the limits of his revolutionary game, sold stars on passing and cutting, convinced large names to sacrifice and gave everyone a voice in choosing strategies. That culture of openness and community held up as Kerr recovered. He isn't the only one responsible for building it, but he was the driver, and he'south one of the few who'south powerful sufficient to destroy it if he ever chose.

Also: Win seventy-two games -- and maybe seventy-three! -- and I crack my long-standing regulation of voting for Popovich every season.

The bedrock principles of San Antonio'south culture have been unassailable for twenty years. That's remarkable. Popovich tweaks the stylistic fringes to fit every new cast, and that'south why this second-place vote isn't just a lifetime achievement trophy. Popovich re-centered his offense around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge without totally losing the pass-first mojo that powered the 2012-2015 versions of the Spurs borg; you particularly look it on bench-heavy units. Only Rick Carlisle, a confirmed warlock, and maybe presently Kerr can touch Pop'south in-game strategy and lineup optimization.

The final spot came down to a bunch of guys whose teams play together, play tough and know who they are: Stotts, Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Steve Clifford, Erik Spoelstra, Dave Joerger, Quin Synder, Stan Van Gundy, Mike Budenholzer and Carlisle. Casey, Clifford and Stevens were the final, painful cuts; all of them have genuine arguments for the top spot.

Clifford reimagined Charlotte'south offense as a high-octane triple machine without conceding an inch on any of his conservative (basketball) principles: low turnovers, fast-break paranoia, and killer defensive rebounding. The Raptors like Casey and play tough for him. It'south a tiny corny how Boston'south Stevens talks about wanting players to "soar with their strengths," but he lives up to the motivational mantra. He loosed Isaiah Thomas without worrying about his defensive limitations, encouraged Avery Bradley to chuck more three and pushed Jae Crowder to test his off-the-bounce game. You believe Stevens' play calling a bit more than Casey'south in crunch time.

But those teams had more continuity in talent; we knew most of them would be at minimum decent. Stotts placed cast-offs and unknowns around Lillard and forged a playoff team in Portland.

Stotts empowers players to stretch themselves in his whirring motion offense, knowing that if they perceive involved on that end, they'll purchase into the grunt work. He stabilized the team'south iffy defense with some key midseason tweaks, including a few that nudged players into uncomfortable new challenges. Players embraced those challenges, in portion because they thought their coach and their superstar had already embraced them.

The Blazers snagging the No. five or No. 6 seed after losing four starters is maybe the happiest legend of the season. Number team plays, and lives, with a better spirit. Much of that gravitates from Stotts. He might win, and he'd deserve it.

SIXTH MAN AWARD

1. Andre Iguodala
two. Will Barton
three. Ed Davis

Confession: I'd number idea what to do with this award once Iguodala started lost games -- and with Whiteside ineligible.

Traditionally, this is an award for gunners. There is some merit to that. A lot of bench-heavy units are light on shot creators and necessity someone, anyone, to chuck when the shot clock dwindles. Most of those chuckers can slide into a secondary role alongside starters in crunch time.

That's why Jamal Crawford is a two-time winner and such a favorite candidate as he finishes this season with a flourish of crossover goodness. He also absorbed a larger burden during Griffin's absence.

But Crawford is barely shooting forty % from the floor. Even piss-poor bench lineups relying on such tough jumpers can redistribute some of those shots to other players, and not lose much. Most of the Clippers' bench mobs have stunk, anyway. Crawford thrives with Paul, J. J. Redick and Jordan. Who doesn't?

Crawford'south limitations on defense matter even more when he plays with those guys, since that means he'south probably also playing against opposing starters -- lineups that mightn't proposal him a secure hiding spot.

There is more to winning basketball than shooting and scoring. Iguodala laps the field as a playmaker and defender. He can play with any lineup, and against any lineup. He works as a co-point guard off the bench, defends the other team'south best wing players, drains 40-plus % of his corner three when Curry is on the floor and shares a genius-level defensive mind-meld with Green.

Yeah, Iguodala will finish up missing twenty-five % of the season. But number other candidate has done sufficient in every facet of the game to unseat him -- particularly given Golden State'south historic success.

Barton and Enes Kanter might represent superior versions of the classic Crawford candidacy. Barton outshot Crawford despite a late-season slump, revved up Denver in transition, rebounded love a power forward and defended more reliably across both wing positions. If you're looking for a high-volume chaos engine, this is your guy.

Kanter might win the damn thing, and I'd have number problem with that. Post-up brutes do better against backups; dump the ball to Kanter against some second-unit dreary sack, and he'south eating buckets. Pair him with a drive-and-kick star love Westbrook or Durant, and Kanter morphs into maybe the league'south pre-eminent scoring mooch -- gobbling up drop-off passes and offensive rebounds when his man leaves to assistance on a Thunder stud.

He'south still horrible on defense, but not as horrible as he once was. Kanter is trying harder this season, and he can generally survive if the other team plays at minimum one traditional large man.

Still: Kanter gives back a lot of points, and the Thunder will have to slice his minutes against elite postseason offenses who target him like chum.

So, screw it: I'm going with the blue-collar, unheralded Ed Davis -- a journeyman who became fundamental for Portland, and has long slapped up per-minute numbers that blow far nearly every other sixth-man candidate. He logs about twenty-one minutes per game, the same as Kanter, and half-dozen fewer than Tristan Thompson, his burlier doppelgänger in Cleveland, working the same role as a hybrid, rim-running big.

Davis' twenty-one minutes drove Portland toward the unexpected. Thompson has been great, but the Cavs would've finished first or second in the E even if he'd held out the whole season. Davis has better stats across the board: sixty-one % from the floor as a basket vulture, the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the league and much better rim-protection numbers.

He's been Portland'south best big man; he plays a lot of crunch time, and has stepped into an even more necessary role with Meyers Leonard damage and Noah Vonleh fading. When Stotts asked Davis to defend power forwards so that Leonard could hang closer to the hoop against centers, Davis accepted the shift out of position -- and busted his butt to create it work.

There are too many six-point, five-rebound nights for Davis to win this award, but he deserves a tough look. Patrick Patterson'south candidacy suffers from the same lack of raw production, but his three-point shooting at power forward and skill to guard multiple positions create him a key portion of nearly every successful Toronto lineup. He's much better than his traditional numbers suggest. Evan Turner fills every gap for the Celtics.

This was just a brutal category.

Extra apologies to: Crawford, Turner, Patterson, Thompson, Mirza Teletovic,  Jeremy Lin, Shaun Livingston, Dennis Schroder, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Manu Ginobili, Bismack Biyombo and Matthew Dellavedova.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

1. C. J. McCollum
two. Kemba Walker
3. Ian Mahinmi

Two wide player types give me trouble here: the second-year guy who thrives with increased playing time, and the superstar who somehow becomes even better. The first type is packed: Gary Harris, Doug McDermott, Clint Capela, Rodney Hood, JaMychal Green, Jerami Grant and many more. Their ascension is nearly expected. Youthful players obtain better with experience, and they obtain to play more.

I haven't wrapped my head around what to do with the second type -- notably Curry, Green and Leonard. An MVP sharpening skills-within-skills to transmute into an historic superstar might be the hardest advance, and certainly the most unusual. It'south love a 60-win team pushing for seventy the next season.

But Curry and Leonard were already so damn good, they'd only so distant to leap. They're going to win mega-awards, anyway, and one of them will likely snag the championship.

Jabari Parker and Julius Randle are basically rookies. Crowder and Whiteside are matching what they did latest season in more Ltd runs in Boston and Miami, respectively.

I gravitate toward the squishy middle -- mid-career guys who create an overall leap, or sharpen one key skill that unlocks other parts of their game. McCollum is really a Category 1 type on a one-year delay, but unlike a lot of youthful guys thrust into larger roles, he'south pulling this as the second-best player on a playoff team. The Blazers don't rise from the ashes without McCollum maturing into a borderline star.

He didn't just support his per-minute stats over triple the minutes. He blew them away. McCollum worked as Portland'south de facto backup point guard when Lillard rested, and the Blazers outscored opponents during those minutes, per NBA. com research. He's remade himself into a natural fit for Stotts' catch-and-go system, and works tough on defense.

Walker reinvented only one portion of his game, but that single change -- morphing into an above-average 3-point shooter -- transformed everything for the Hornets. Opponents for years clogged Charlotte'south dreary offense by ducking below screens against Walker, walling off his driving lanes and leaving the Bobcats/Hornets heaving up junk late in the shot clock. Do that now, and Walker is roasting you from deep.

Defenders have to chase Walker over picks, and that means he can ankle-break his way into the paint -- drawing assistance and opening up 3-point looks for Charlotte'south army of shooters. A lead ball handler polishing his long-range shot is the scarce isolated skill development that ripples across an all roster. It's a huge reason Charlotte gradually found its footing in those minutes when Walker leads the offense without Nicolas Batum as co-pilot.

Walker vowed for years he'd do this. He finally made good. What a season.

You could give the third slot to at minimum two-dozen guys, but I'm going with Mahinmi, Indy'south only source of dependable front-line play over the full season. There was nearly nothing in Mahinmi'south dossier to propose he could work as the dive man in a semi-functional pick-and-roll offense. He'd never started more than twelve games, and he entered this season with one hundred seven career assists; ask him to toss a quick-hitter on the move, and he was more likely to fling the ball five rows deep in the stands.

Now, he'south doing stuff like this:

And this:

Mahinmi doubled his career assist total, nearly doubled his scoring average and obliterated nearly every past statistical marker -- all while maintaining his SMOTHERED CHICKEN presence around the rim on defense. He became a different player.

Extra apologies to (deep breath): Barton, Crowder, Capela, Whiteside,  Kent Bazemore, Zach LaVine, Allen Crabbe, Evan Fournier, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lance Thomas, Khris Middleton, Marvin Williams, Reggie Jackson and many other nice people.

Coming later this week: my picks for All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defense.

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