The NBA delaying revealing its regular-season awards until after the playoffs comes with one major upside – a TV special that can be monetized.
But it also sucks the enthusiasm out of the honors. After the drama of a lengthy and high-stakes postseason, who cares about the best performances in a relative mundane regular season?
That can perhaps be felt most strongly in Defensive Player of the Year. Nobody produced an elite defensive season that a national audience will be excited to celebrate months later, and all three finalists have already been eliminated from the playoffs:
Kawhi Leonard missed nearly the entire season. Draymond Green didn’t bring full effort. Andre Roberson got hurt after a strong start to the season.
And with that, three prime candidates didn’t become (or deserve to be) finalists.
I’d pick Gobert, but even he missed 26 games. Nobody sustained elite defense for a large portion of the regular season. How many people will care June 25 who voters deemed came closest?
Fear not, Brad Stevens zealots.
Unlike the NBA’s 30 coaches (who submitted only one name each), some of the the 100-ish voting media members (who had three ranked spots on each of their ballots) chose Stevens as their Coach of the Year.
The Celtics coach is one of three finalists for the more-prestigious award:
- Brad Stevens (Celtics)
- Dwane Casey (Raptors)
- Quin Snyder (Jazz)
The Raptors, of course, fired Casey after they stumbled in the playoffs yet again. But Casey did a fantastic job in the regular season – guiding Toronto to a franchise-record 59 wins, revamping the offense and empowering the bench. His peers gave him their version of this award. If Casey wins the more-official Coach of the Year on June 25 while unemployed or working elsewhere, it could make for an awkward moment.
Stevens is also a strong contender for the award. He did an excellent job keeping the injury-riddled Celtics humming. Keeping it up deep into the playoffs is even more impressive, but this is a regular-season award.
Snyder did a tremendous job keeping Utah humming after Gordon Hayward left, the team started slow and Rudy Gobert got hurt. Many teams would have thrown in the towel. The Jazz rallied to make the playoffs, with Snyder’s smart X-and-O work helping the cause.
There are many tough cuts here – Mike D’Antoni (Rockets), Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Doc Rivers (Clippers), Nate McMillan (Pacers), Terry Stotts (Trail Blazers), Brett Brown (76ers). It was a crowded race, and assessing coaching – especially from the outside – is difficult. The only wrong choice is insisting one of the omitted coaches was unquestionably better than Stevens, Casey or Snyder.
Sometimes, the most productive overall reserve wins Sixth Man of the Year. Usually, though, the award goes to the highest-scoring reserve.
When both those players are the same, it’s easy.
Lou Williams – who averaged 22.6 points per game, third-most ever for a Sixth Man of the Year-eligible player* – is deserves to and will likely win the honor when it’s presented June 25. For now, we just know the finalists:
*Ricky Pierce averaged 23.0 points per game for the 1989-90 Bucks. Michael Jordan averaged 22.7 points per game for the 1985-86 Bulls, though he played just 18 games, including seven starts.
Williams (2015) and Gordon (2017) have both previously won this award.
Gordon had a nice season, but he fits the high-scoring model that attracts voters more than he fits the best overall reserve.
VanVleet was a key piece of a deep and dominant Toronto bench.
Just 17 minutes after his season ended, Victor Oladipo texted his trainer about preparing for next season.
That mentality will almost assuredly win him Most Improved Player this season, maybe even unanimously.
He’s one of three finalists for the award, which will be presented June 25:
Oladipo developed the approach of a go-to player, got into great shape (which allowed him to still thrive defensively despite his greater offensive responsibilities) and improved his pull-up 3-pointer. And he got traded to a team that needed him to blossom. Put it all together, and he went from a borderline starter to a true star. He deserves this award.
Capela and Dinwiddie are also deserving of recognition. Capela became a defensive anchor in Houston’s switch-heavy scheme, and he developed the skills to thrive with James Harden and Chris Paul in the pick-and-roll. Dinwiddie had an incredible journey to this point.
Dinwiddie thinks he should get consideration to win this award. I wouldn’t go that far. This is Oladipo’s to runaway with.
The Ben Simmons–Donovan Mitchell Rookie of the Year debate turned petty – from Philadelphia to Utah to Boston to Miami.
Who will actually win the award, though?
The finalists for the award, which will be announced June 25:
- Ben Simmons (76ers)
- Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)
- Jayson Tatum (Celtics)
Tatum is included here because there had to be three finalists. This is a two-man race. If the award included the playoffs, when Tatum has elevated his game even higher, voters would have plenty to re-think. But they made their selections at the end of the regular season, and Tatum didn’t quite hold up on the level of Simmons and Mitchell.
I’d give the edge to Simmons, whose all-around game was so impressive and who didn’t have as sharp of early growing pains as Mitchell. But I would only be slightly surprised if Mitchell won.