Russell Westbrook. James Harden. Kawhi Leonard. LeBron James. These four NBA superstars have all just finished unbelievable seasons, all of which would be MVP-worthy in a typical season. However, with an explosion of triple-doubles and stunning solo performances this year, only one of these names will win the league’s greatest individual honor.
In this all-NBA edition of Take5, I’ll be making my selections for MVP and some of the other major awards, giving my picks for the first round of the playoffs, and looking ahead to who I think will be left standing in the NBA Finals. Let’s get right into it.
1) The MVP Race: I’ll be the first to acknowledge Russell Westbrook’s insane numbers and applaud him for both averaging a triple-double and breaking Oscar Robertson’s record for triple-doubles in a season. He’s carried the Thunder to the playoffs practically single-handedly and plays with as much intensity as anyone I’ve ever seen. Despite this, however, my vote for MVP has to go to James Harden.
Harden’s Rockets finished 55-27, a mark eight games better than the Thunder. The Rockets were also the league’s greatest overachievers when compared to their Las Vegas preseason projected win total. Harden averaged 29.1 points (second only to Westbrook) and 8.1 rebounds per game while leading the league with 11.2 assists. Harden became the first player in league history to both score and assist for 2,000 points in a season, and edged out Westbrook 4,554-4,482 in terms of total points accounted for, setting an NBA record in the process. This was all done with a significantly lower usage rate (34.1% vs. 40.8%) and higher true shooting percentage (.613 to Westbrook’s .554).
Numerically, Westbrook’s greatest advantage over Harden comes in rebounding, where he grabbed 10.7 boards a game, which, as a point guard, was perhaps the most impressive part of his 31.6/10.7/10.4 triple-double average. However, 8.5 of those rebounds were “uncontested”, meaning no opponent was within 3.5 feet of Westbrook when he grabbed the loose ball. This number led the league. I’m not going to downplay Westbrook’s year by saying he was stat-padding for triple-doubles, but It does suggest his teammates let him have a lot of easy rebounds.
Regardless, I don’t think it makes sense to hand Russell Westbrook the MVP just because he averaged a triple-double. Sure, it’s an incredible feat, but do those 2.6 extra rebounds per game he had over Harden really make him a more valuable player, especially when 2.1 of them were uncontested? There are great arguments to give Westbrook the award, namely that he carried a team which without him would be absolutely terrible to the playoffs, but in such a close race, I give Harden the edge for his offensive production and overall team success.
For the record, while Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the league, he just isn’t at the same level in terms of being a ball handler and offensive playmaker. As for LeBron James, his team has been such a disappointment this season that it removes him from contention. For my ballot, the top five are Harden/Westbrook/Leonard/James/Stephen Curry.
2) Other Awards: For Defensive Player of the Year, Draymond Green edges out Rudy Gobert, while once again, Kawhi Leonard finishes third. Green led the league in steals and defensive rating while allowing just 43.8% shooting at the rim, fourth-best in the NBA despite Green standing at just 6’7″.
Coach of the Year belongs to Mike D’Antoni for leading the Rockets to a 14-win improvement and #3 seed in the West in his first season at the helm. My second choice would go to the Celtics’ Brad Stevens. As for Rookie of the Year, it would’ve gone to Joel Embiid easily had he played in more than just 31 games, but with his missed time due to injury, Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric also join the race. However, in a year with no other standout rookies, I still have to give the award to Embiid for the incredible potential he’s showed from the first time he stepped on the court.
Sixth Man of the Year goes to the Rockets’ Eric Gordon. It’s the Rockets’ third award win, and a well-deserved one for the league’s top bench scorer, who knocked down 246 threes. Andre Iguodala finishes runner-up. The Most Improved Player is easily Giannis Antetokounmpo, the first player to ever finish in the top-20 leaguewide in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks. Nikola Jokic is runner-up, although I don’t usually like giving a second-year player votes here.
3) West 1st Round Predictions: The Warriors are the league’s best team, and should have little trouble with the Blazers, who they swept in the regular season. I see another sweep, Warriors in 4, and I’d be shocked if we reach anything beyond a game 5. In the 2-7 matchup, I see the Spurs having more difficulty with the Grizzlies than most would anticipate. Of course, the Spurs had no trouble in game 1, but I stand by my prediction from before the series started. Spurs in 7.
Rockets-Thunder might be the greatest first round playoff series we’ve ever seen. It’s the leading two MVP candidates going at each other, and I see a highly competitive series with plenty of close games. In the end, I think the Rockets’ depth proves too much, despite Westbrook doing everything in his power to keep the Thunder in it. Rockets in 6. In the West’s final matchup, I like the Clippers in 6 over the Jazz. The Jazz were able to take game 1, but I think they’d trade that result in order to have a healthy Rudy Gobert for the rest of the series.
4) East 1st Round Predictions: It might be boring, but same as the West, I’m going chalk in the East, with all the top four seed moving on to the conference semifinals. Just four games separated seeds 1-4 in the standings, and only two games were between the fifth and eighth seeds. However, between the #4 Wizards and #5 Hawks were six games. It’s a large talent gap between favorites and underdogs, and while I think Milwaukee might give the Raptors a run for their money, the other series should be fairly simple. Celtics in 5, Cavaliers in 5, Raptors in 7, Wizards in 5.
5) NBA Finals Predictions: I know the Spurs are a great basketball team that can pose a strong challenge to the Warriors. I know that Isaiah Thomas and the Celtics always play with a chip on their shoulder. I know the Cavaliers struggled heavily after the All-Star break. Here’s the deal, though. Any finals matchup that doesn’t pit the Warriors against the Cavs for the third straight year would be a big surprise. This year’s Warriors have a similar mindset to the 2013-14 Spurs. Both blew a lead to LeBron James in the finals the previous year, and both are dead set on revenge. The Cavs would’ve loved the #1 seed, but ultimately, LeBron’s playoff teams just play differently. Until someone proves they can knock off either of the conference favorites, they’ll remain the teams to beat. Not just this year, but for years to come as well. As for an NBA Finals prediction, I’ll take the Warriors in 6. I know it’s far from guaranteed, but I just can’t see this team losing again.