Ryan Wolstat's 2016-17 NBA award picks
Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder drives around James Harden of the Houston Rockets during an NBA game on April 21, 2017 in Oklahoma City. (J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
It is never easy to decide which NBA players stood above their peers, but selecting awards for this past regular season was particularly difficult.
We are living in one of the golden ages for basketball. Several offensive records were shattered in 2016-17 and a number of players turned in truly sublime individual campaigns, seasons that in many other years would have made those players locks for hardware.
The winners will be unveiled June 26 at the NBA Awards Show in New York City.
I had one of the 100 votes given to media and agonized over many of my choices after doing hefty research.
Here's the tally:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
No choice was more difficult than this one.
James Harden was the call from November through March, when Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James also emerged really as viable choices. There was considerable flip-flopping, but Westbrook’s incredible close to the year and his absurd clutch statistics sealed the deal. Westbrook led the NBA in fourth-quarter scoring and was a menace in tight games, helping the Thunder win a number of contests they shouldn’t have.
The MVP, to me, is the player who made the biggest difference on a nightly basis, especially in the biggest moments. Westbrook was that guy.
Harden was amazing, too, but Westbrook had a bit less help, a system that wasn’t completely designed to make him great — in fact, it was designed to have Kevin Durant helping out too — and a coach who doesn’t assist as much as Mike D’Antoni helped Harden.
Westbrook led the NBA in value over replacement player (Harden was second, but far behind), box plus/minus (Harden second, again, way behind) and was fifth in win shares (Harden was first). One of the five best players in the NBA left OKC and Westbrook kept the Thunder in the mix.
It was as close as you can get, but Westbrook deserves the nod here. Leonard's defence nearly closed the gap.
Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
At least this one was easy.
In 2016-17, Giannis Antetokounmpo became only the fifth player to lead his team in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals (James, Kevin Garnett, Scottie Pippen, Dave Cowens complete the list).
James was 24 when he did it, Garnett was 26, Pippen and Cowens were 29. Antetokounmpo was only 22, played nearly identical minutes to his third season — he didn't lead the Bucks in any of those categories that year — and simply just took off. He has become a force and you didn't have to watch the Bucks-Raptors playoff series to realize it.
I don’t believe in giving MIP to sophomores because they should get significantly better in Year 2 after they know what the league is all about. Still, Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns really did take huge strides.
My personal preference is to reward veterans, which the Greek Freak is classified as at this point, despite his age, or those figuring it out. Isaiah Thomas, Otto Porter and Rudy Gobert nearly got votes, but James Johnson getting into the best shape of his life and turning in a surprising tour de force for Miami got him second place. His pal DeMar DeRozan became a much better player than ever before, carrying the Raptors when top player Kyle Lowry went down. His clutch numbers earned him the third-place vote.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Johnson, DeMar DeRozan
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Andre Iguodala does so much for the best team in basketball. When he is on the court, good things happen and he helps unlock various Warriors lineup combinations, similar to Draymond Green. He could have won this either of the past two years and was just as good, if not better, this time around.
Eric Gordon finally stayed healthy and helped assist Harden by raining three-pointers and becoming a secondary ball-handler for the Rockets. He was great, but not quite as good as Iguodala.
Johnson came off the bench to propel the Heat, playing every position at some point for the team.
Apologies to Lou Williams, Greg Monroe, Zach Randolph and Patty Mills.
Andre Iguodala, Eric Gordon, James Johnson
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
People have tended to screw up their face and say, 'Really?' to me when this vote is revealed — and that's fair.
Joel Embiid was clearly the best rookie in the NBA in 2016-17, but he barely played due to injuries. Still, he was at least twice as good as any other freshman, and his totals weren't far off what many produced in full seasons which helps negate the games played argument, at least in this corner. He was second in the league in blocks per game, way up there in player efficiency rating, rebounded, hit threes and made the 76ers relevant.
Dario Saric had a great second half, mostly without Embiid. Yes, Malcolm Brogdon was solid from start to finish and a key contributor on a playoff team. He leads rookies in value over replacement player, assists, steals and was second in points. He was a negative in box plus/minus though, which helps swing this to Embiid, who was also tops among centres guarding the rim, holding opponents to 40.9% shooting.
Further to this vote, Saric wasn't very good before the all-star break
Joel Embiid, Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric
All-Rookie Teams: Embiid, Brogdon, Saric, Willy Hernangomez, Jaylen Brown. Buddy Hield, Jamal Murray, Rodney McGruder, Caris LeVert, Yogi Ferrell
COACH OF THE YEAR
After two post-Phoenix failures, Mike D’Antoni orchestrated a great success story in Houston.
He took an underachieving team and turned it into a contender. He made Harden dominant, giving him the reins and telling him to lead the league in assists while still scoring, made the offence a terrifying group and melded the pieces well. It was a masterful job.
Erik Spoelstra also did great work taking a Miami team left for dead to within a game of a playoff berth. His in-game calls were masterful, the defensive schemes were terrorizing and he showed that old Phil Jackson trait of getting mercurial players (Hassan Whiteside, Johnson, Dion Waiters) to play tremendous basketball.
Apologies to Scott Brooks, but Gregg Popovich could win this every year and did another nice job with the Spurs.
Mike D'Antoni, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Another brutal decision.
Draymond Green and Rudy Gobert were equally dominant defensively and Gobert kept the injury-riddled Jazz on course. However, Green gets the slight edge because his versatility opens up so many options for the Warriors. Everyone talks about the offensive firepower in the Bay, but Green brings everything together at the other end.
Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard
All-Defensive Team: Green, Leonard, Gobert, Patrick Beverley, Chris Paul.
Jae Crowder, Andre Roberson, Anthony Davis, John Wall, Danny Green
1st: Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Rudy Gobert, Russell Westbrook, James Harden
2nd: Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul
3rd: Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Marc Gasol, John Wall, DeMar DeRozan
Missing considerable time cost Durant a higher spot and impacted Paul, but the Clippers went 8-13 without Paul and won 69% of the time when he was in the lineup. Paul George simply wasn't as good as Butler or Durant. If he was listed as a guard, George or perhaps Gordon Hayward would have been picked over DeRozan, who will be a controversial selection here over Thomas, who had better metrics. DeRozan had a historic first three weeks of the season and was great after the all-star break and slightly less of a detriment defensively. That was enough to place him over Thomas, but it was basically a pick'em. Wall was a no-brainer; he was superb.