Will he or won’t he? Jusuf Nurkic’s return to Blazers for playoffs still uncertain

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Portland center Jusuf Nurkic‘s availability for the opening game of the Trail Blazers’ playoff series against the Golden State Warriors remains uncertain.

Nurkic has missed seven games with a non-displaced right leg fracture.

There had been speculation the 7-footer known as the Bosnian Beast could return for the playoffs. He was seen shooting during warmups for the past two regular-season games, and he’s walking with no apparent limp.

But Portland coach Terry Stotts said Friday that his status for the first-round opener in Oakland on Sunday was “undetermined.” He said it would likely be a game-day decision.

“I feel better and I’ve made good progress, but we still haven’t decided if I’m going to play,” Nurkic said.

Nurkic, traded to Portland on Feb. 12 from the Denver Nuggets, was averaging 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers.

“Completely different team with him in there. So it changes everything. Obviously if he plays I’m sure I’ll be on him some. I foresee the game probably being a smaller game if he doesn’t play, whereas if he plays it turns into a bigger game,” Golden State’s Draymond Green said following practice on Friday. “It changes everything whether he’s in or out.”

Since his arrival in Portland, Nurkic has been embraced by Portland fans. He’s credited with boosting the team as it made a final push for the playoffs: The Blazers finished in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, clinching a spot ahead of the Nuggets with two games left in the regular season.

Before the All-Star break, the Blazers were 23-33 and it looked as if they were headed to the draft lottery in the offseason.

Enter Nurkic.

Portland went 18-8 following the break and finished at .500. In a short time he seemed to develop chemistry with Portland’s starting backcourt duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, and with Nurkic in the starting lineup, Portland was 14-5.

When Nurkic scored 28 points with 20 rebounds at home this season against Philadelphia, Stotts spoke about how fans had taken to the newcomer: “Nurkic fever? Why not?”

On the court afterward, Nurkic smiled when he was told about the coach’s comments. The crowd roared and a catchphrase was born.

“I love being here,” he said. “I appreciate what the city is doing for me. I just want to give them back something.”

Even while he was rehabbing from the injury, Nurkic endeared himself to fans by pouring cups of water over the heads of teammates when they appeared in postgame TV interviews.

Nurkic’s arrival in Portland wasn’t just good for the Blazers, it was good for the big man, too.

Taken with the 16th overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in 2014 but sent to Denver in a draft-night deal, he was hampered last season by a knee injury.

At the start of this season, Denver looked to use both Nikola Jokic and Nurkic at the same time in a big starting lineup. But the experiment never jelled, and Jokic got the bulk of the minutes while 22-year-old Nurkic averaged fewer than 18 minutes with eight points per game.

Energized in Portland, he became the first Trail Blazer to average 15-plus points and 10-plus rebounds in his first 20 games with the team since Mychal Thompson in 1978.

After his injury was announced, Nurkic vowed he would do what he could to return as quickly as possible.

“If it doesn’t hurt I’m going to be back. It’s not a question,” he said. “I’m going to do my part, work every day like I do, and try to be back.”

On Friday he hadn’t changed his tune.

“If it was up to me, I’d play right now,” he said.

AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report.

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Russell Westbrook wins the 2017 NBA MVP Award

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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for the 2017 NBA MVP? We finally have our answer.

On Monday night Westbrook, the Oklahoma City Thunder star, took home the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, earning him the right to be called the league’s most valuable player for the 2016-17 NBA season.

The debate raged on the entire regular season, but the Oklahoma City Thunder star hit new heights in 2016-17, averaging a triple-double for the entire season, a feat not seen since 1962 when Oscar Robertson did it. That pushed him over impressive numbers by Houston Rockets star Harden, who was incredible as he moved to play the point guard position full-time for NBA Coach of the Year Mike D’Antoni.

Whether you picked Westbrook or Harden, I’m not so sure that there was a wrong answer. Granted, the Rockets were a much better team and in fact gave some of the best squads in the Western Conference a run for their money. Harden and D’Antoni seemed like a natural pairing, and his move to the point guard position was inspired. Houston finished third in the Western Conference last season, a mark that most of us did not expect them to achieve without the likes of Dwight Howard.

In comparison, the Thunder were only in playoff contention because of Westbrook and even then, they scraped by the entire season. Oklahoma City had just three players with a positive VORP For the season, in stark contrast to the Rockets. While basketball purists might rightly point out that Westbrook’s contribution to his team was still centered around himself, the debate will have to rage on with the trophy now firmly in the Thunder star’s grasp.

Plus, if you ever watched the guy it would be hard not to point to him as MVP. Westbrook was just flat out ridiculous.

It is difficult to understate just how significant Westbrook’s statistical achievement is for the season. He averaged 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 10.4 assists per game. The ability of a player to achieve that record with modern defenses in the NBA being what they are is impressive, even if you want to argue that many teams allowed Westbrook to operate while concentrating on his lesser teammates.

In the age of advanced statistics, when an analyst with both a spreadsheet and a pair of working eyes may slide to the side of Harden, it is still an astonishing thought to think Westbrook dominated so wholly against his opponents statistically. Indeed, if you ask me who had a genuine impact and who was more impressive, the answer would have to be split between the two.

So here we are, at the end of the year and everything is as we thought it would be. Russell Westbrook is the individual season champ as a player, the best of the best. The Golden State Warriors are the team champions of 2016-17. You could argue against either of them, but I don’t think it would do you any good. Westbrooks season is a statistical anomaly we are unlikely to see again. NBA MVP voters have got it wrong a lot of the time over the years, but this isn’t one of them.

Russell Westbrook is your NBA MVP.

Draymond Green wins 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year

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There were a lot of incredible candidates for the 2017 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, but make no bones about it: Golden state Warriors forward Draymond Green was the most deserving.

Monday night Green was announced as the Defensive Player of the Year during the NBA’s Awards Ceremony.

In a year in which the Warriors were coming off a 73-9 season, and after an offseason where they added Kevin Durant, Green’s importance to the team was never overstated. His tenacity on defense and switchability allowed the Warriors to continue to be one of the best defensive squads in the NBA. Golden State finished second in the NBA in defensive efficiency in 2016-17, and part of that was due to Green acting as they lynchpin.

A unique defensive player, Green was able to take some of the pressure off of Durant as well as boost his impact on defense. A player who at times had to guard all five positions, Green led his team in defensive win shares.

To take home his DPOY award, Green got 73 out of a possible 100 first place votes (from select media members), comfortably beating out Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert, who was second, and San Antonio Spurs MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, who was third. Robert Covington of the Philadelphia 76ers was fourth, followed by LeBron James fifth.

Much like the MVP award this season, a real argument could be made for either Leonard or Gobert’s candidacy for DPOY. However, With yet another 60+ when season under his belt, it made sense that Green was seen as the key by voters for the Golden State defensive attack.

Green finished with 73 first place votes, while Gobert trailed with 16 and Leonard with 11. Green finished with 434 total points. Gobert was second with 169.

Durant was the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, and voting for DOPY closed before the playoffs began. But if anyone watched the great playoff run by the Warriors — one where they only lost one game — Green’s importance is easily understood.

Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni wins the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year Award

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Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni is your 2017 NBA Coach of the Year.

If you are a Texan or a fan of the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, today probably feels pretty good.

D’Antoni beat out the second place finisher, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, by 247 total points. D’Antoni grabbed 68 first place votes compared to Spoelstra’s nine.

This last season was an impressive one for D’Antoni, and his pairing with James Harden certainly seemed to excite fans to begin the season. D’Antoni is at least partially responsible for the way a modern NBA offense works, and putting him with one of the most efficient and exciting offensive players in Harden was at least match on paper.

But it was so, so much better on the floor.

D’Antoni immediately moved Harden over to play the point guard position full-time, a real utilization of his passing and scoring skills. The emphasis for Houston all season was getting the ball out often and early, much like it had been in Phoenix. Harden easily played the role of Steve Nash, getting the ball out on the wing to shooters early in transition, leading the break, and running the pick-and-roll in the early offense.

The result was a No. 3 finish in the Western Conference below the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. Harden, a leading MVP candidate, finished the year with averages of 29.1 points, 11.2 assists, and 8.1 rebounds per game. In seasons past a casual fan could find watching the Rocket a chore, with Harden whirling his arms around to draw illogical fouls. This year they became a delight.

Suddenly, the Rockets were out on the break more often and shooting more 3-pointers. They were dunking down lobs. Eric Gordon was shooting the lights out from the arc as a feel good Sixth Man of the Year candidate. It didn’t matter that Harden had somehow upped his free-throw rate to the highest it had been since 2012-13. The Rockets, with Trevor Ariza and Clint Capela and Ryan Anderson, were a dynamo with Harden leading the charge.

It doesn’t seem like an obvious change now, but adding more speed to Harden’s game was something that only a COTY like D’Antoni could have envisioned. With the addition of time, revolutionary ideas often seem like staid practices. They seem simple and blunt, which is why the execution of those ideas is what ends up making those we galvanize in the history of the game so important.

The Rockets lost a Hall of Famer — albeit an aging one — and somehow got 14 wins better. They finished 55-27 after going just .500 a year ago. They added an offense of system that took the extremes of the modern NBA and turned them up to 11.They did all of this with the coach who started that revolution more than a decade ago.

Mike D’Antoni winning the 2017 NBA Coach of the Year is about as good a story as you can get. His career has had all the acts and plot twists of a great narrative, with a rise, a crash in the middle, and a return to glory. Monday’s award puts D’Antoni right back where we thought he should be in Phoenix: at the top.

Warriors’ Bob Myers wins 2017 NBA Executive of the Year

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Give the Golden State Warriors in yet another trophy.

General Manager Bob Myers has won the 2017 NBA Executive of the Year Award, which was announced at the NBA Awards ceremony Monday night.

In a year in which the Golden State Warriors beat their rival Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals — thanks in part to the addition of free agent Kevin Durant — is it any wonder that Myers took home the top brass for an NBA executive?

The Warriors looked dominant even a year removed from their 73-9 season, with Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson, and Durant playing perfectly as they stormed through the 2017 NBA playoffs.

It wasn’t until Game 4 the NBA Finals that the Warriors actually lost a game, the only game that the Cavaliers and LeBron James would win in that series.

Golden State is on the verge of a dynasty even as they try to keep their team together. The swiping of Durant from the Oklahoma City Thunder was a huge coup, but the real magic for Myers has always been that the Warriors drafted their top three players.

The Warriors let off the gas a little bit in 2017, winning just 67 games on their way to a number one seed in the playoffs this last year.

Congratulations are in order yet again into the Warriors, who won their second NBA championship in three years thanks in part to the guidance of Myers at the helm.