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Russell Westbrook was my NBA MVP pick because he defined the season

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I have an official awards pick for the honors that’ll be unveiled on June 26. Here’s why I voted Russell Westbrook for MVP.

Denver Nuggets v Oklahoma City Thunder Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images

I started covering the league as a backup newspaper beat writer in the late ‘90s. It was a different, more insular time. Pregame interview sessions with coaches were informal, often held in their offices. Players were generally approachable and locker rooms weren’t as crowded. Our work was read primarily by those in our coverage areas, our colleagues, and the teams we covered.

I covered the 76ers, which gave me one of the best seats in the house to watch the Allen Iverson show. There’s never been anything like it for reasons that went far beyond the confines of the court. Each game was a test. It was a chance to prove that one man could break the game into a million tiny pieces and that all the broken glass was worth it.

Everything culminated in the 2001 season when the Sixers took control of the Eastern Conference and Iverson played every game “like it was my last,” as he liked to say in his raspy voice. For anyone else, it would have been an unnecessary boast. For Iverson, it was his reason for existing.

Iverson won the Most Valuable Player award that year in a relative landslide. Tim Duncan and Shaquille O’Neal had arguably better seasons, especially Shaq, who showed his value by steamrolling through the playoffs en route to a championship.

The Lakers dropped only one game that postseason, to Iverson’s Sixers in Game 1 of the Finals. You remember that one. The signature moment came when A.I. stepped over Tyronn Lue after hitting a huge shot. That was everything right there: defiant, bold, brash. Iverson may not have been the best player in the league that year, but he defined it.

NBA Finals X Iverson

I’m not sure Iverson would have won the MVP had his season taken place in the context of everything we know today. It certainly would have been a more contentious debate. To be sure, Iverson had his share of detractors in his day. The basketball purists felt that his shoot-all-the-time game was wrong and reductive. Yet, without raw, analytical evidence to back up their arguments, it was all hearsay.

The game has changed and so have the people who chronicle the league. Much of the coverage today takes place online, and many of the writers with national voices emerged from the digital sphere. What basketball coverage on the internet has done is raise the level of discourse. It’s not that we’re smarter now, it’s that we have so much more access to information.

Anyone who covers the league must have at least a passing knowledge of metrics and their applications, because that’s how the game is played. The mid-range game isn’t dated because of an aesthetic decree. It lost to math, and to ignore that is to reveal yourself as a troglodyte.

Conversely, our age of reason has yielded different problems. There’s the idea that there is only one way to play, and it must be governed by efficiency above all else. Taken to its logical extreme, there is less room for individual artistry and more demand for expert clinicians. That’s not bad in and of itself, but it does leave less space for exploration.

Also, the insular worlds that existed only in our respective regions now have a louder voice. Those voices have been amplified by one of the closest, most contentious MVP votes any of us can remember. It’s into this hyper-charged environment that the NBA has empowered more writers who came from the internet to have a vote for their awards.

Many of us have agonized over this decision to an unhealthy degree. There have been long, restless nights mixed with moments of clarity when we thought we had a handle on things. At various points in the last month, I felt sure that I was voting for LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, only to change my mind when new information presented itself.

No matter who we choose, there will be a backlash. Harden backers have convinced themselves that anyone who does not agree with them is a fool. Russ resistors believe that anyone who doesn’t vote their way is favoring the system over the individual. Kawhi believers are sure that we do not value defense enough. LeBronologists merely counter with, “Dude. LeBron.”

None of them are wrong, yet it’s not enough to show support. Dissenting opinions must be castigated and sliced into ribbons. That’s an unfortunate side effect of this entire exercise. It’s also unavoidable in a year when there are four worthy contenders, each of whom would make a fine MVP.

This was the year that broke basketball. Offensive records fell, defenses struggled to keep pace, and ball-dominant guards proved to be unstoppable. How can anyone definitively say that one player was better than the others when all four reached previously unimaginable heights?

NBA All-Star Game 2017 Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

I’m voting for Russell Westbrook to win the MVP on June 26 because I believe that his season stood out just a little bit more than the others. In 20 years, when we look back at this regular season, we will remember Westbrook’s year before anyone else’s. That’s not the entirety of his case, but it’s the one I kept coming back to while struggling with this decision.

His numbers are, of course, astronomical. No one, not even Iverson, could have conceived of dominating as much of his team’s offense as Westbrook did. That he did all that he did in open defiance of the norms that govern the sport means that Westbrook is not part of any larger trend. He is a singular force unto himself.

His pursuit of the mystical, ethereal triple-double galvanized his support, but that was not enough to sway me completely to his side. The triple-doubles were merely a byproduct of his efforts even as they took on a life of their own.

I’m voting for Westbrook even though his Thunder failed to crack the 50-win mark, finished a distant sixth in the Western Conference, and fell in five games in the first round. His value to their modest accomplishments was evident in his on/off splits. They achieved what they achieved because of Westbrook and his style of play. That Harden’s Rockets were mediocre without him and Russell’s Thunder would have been in the lottery if not for him played a role in my decision.

His style, incidentally, is not my favorite. I prefer the smooth contours of Harden’s game to Russ’ rough edges. Westbrook has my vote even though Harden has been more efficient in the classic definition of the word. No matter how you choose to split that metric atom, Westbrook has been just as productive, if not more so.

Westbrook has my vote even though Leonard has been statistically better on a per-minute basis and is the superior defender by a wide margin. This was the toughest test, and I make this decision understanding that many of the people whom I respect the most in this world disagree with me. This came down to minutes. All credit to the Spurs, who understand the zero-sum game of the regular season better than anyone, but Westbrook didn’t have the option to rest. For that same reason, I have Harden second.

Westbrook has my vote even though LeBron is the best player in the world. For most of the season, that’s where I assumed my vote was headed. But the carelessness with which the Cavs finished the regular season changed my thinking. In any case, it’s evident that Westbrook, Harden, and Leonard had stronger seasons statistically.

I’m voting for Westbrook because I believe that he offered the most value to his team from start to finish through all the minutes of all 82 games. He started strong, remained consistent through the dog days, and finished in hyperdrive. I came to this decision late and I can’t even say for certain that Westbrook was the best player in the league when we have all this data that makes compelling cases for all of the other contenders.

What I can say, and what I ultimately came back to, was that Westbrook’s season was definitive. Like Iverson before him, he dared to reach for the highest individual apex that we can imagine and surpassed it. That’s no disrespect to Harden, Leonard, or James. Rather, this vote honors a season that we will look back on in the years to come to marvel at its sheer audacity.

  1. Russell Westbrook
  2. James Harden
  3. Kawhi Leonard
  4. LeBron James
  5. Stephen Curry

Note: I have Curry fifth over Isaiah Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, John Wall, and Anthony Davis, in roughly that order. Had Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, and Kyle Lowry not missed so much time, they would have had credible cases for top-5 inclusion and even higher.


Here are the rest of my official award picks

ALL-NBA

First Team: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis

Second Team: Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Rudy Gobert

Third Team: John Wall, Chris Paul, Draymond Green, Kevin Durant, DeAndre Jordan

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

  1. Draymond Green
  2. Rudy Gobert
  3. Kawhi Leonard

We’ve had enormous advancements in defensive tracking systems, but we have yet to settle on quantifiable metrics that we all understand. That’s normal. It was only a decade or so ago when people really started to catch on to per-possession offensive metrics, and those are much easier to calibrate and quantify.

One of the best attempts thus far has been ESPN’s Real Plus/Minus. Using that as a guide, Gobert made the biggest statistical impact on the defensive end, ranking first in that metric by a full point over Green in second place. Utah’s defense has been exceptional, ranking third in the league, and Gobert has been an obvious focal point. The Jazz give up seven points per 100 possessions more when Gobert is on the bench. That’s a huge impact.

Golden State’s defense has been even better, ranking second in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions. Green’s impact there is also undeniable. When he’s on the floor, the Warriors allow just 99.3 points per 100 possessions. That’s the best overall mark among qualified players and a full point better than Gobert’s, who ranks second. Without Green, the Warriors are nearly five points worse defensively.

San Antonio’s defense has been even better still, and Leonard is the league’s marquee defensive stopper. We’ve seen him do it time and again against the best players in the league in the most important moments. If we’re choosing sides in a defense-only draft, I’ll take Kawhi first overall and figure everything out later. But for reasons that are fascinating to explore and have been explained better in other places, Leonard’s individual defensive impact does not show up as obviously as Gobert’s and Green’s this season.

So, this really becomes a philosophical question. Utah has a great defense in large part because of Gobert. The Warriors have a great team because they transition from defense to offense and back again so fluidly, and that’s primarily because of Green.

The main reason I’m giving my vote to Green is because of the full array of defensive talents he brings to the floor. He can guard everyone from ball handlers to bigs, and often switches onto both in the normal flow of a possession. His ability to cover so much ground, and from so many different angles, allows the Warriors to play their devastating small lineups.

It’s a measure of how far we’ve come in understanding defense that this award has become second only to MVP in importance. In its own way, this vote was just as difficult.

ALL-DEFENSE

First Team: Chris Paul, Danny Green, Draymond Green, Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert

Second Team: Pat Beverley, Tony Allen, Andre Roberson, Paul Millsap, DeAndre Jordan

Houston Rockets v Dallas Mavericks Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

COACH OF THE YEAR

  1. Mike D’Antoni
  2. Erik Spoelstra
  3. Gregg Popovich

After bottoming out in Los Angeles and then a frustrating run in New York, Mike D’Antoni persevered through a forced sabbatical wondering if he’d get another chance. During that time, he saw his reputation as an offensive innovator rise. When the Warriors won the title two years ago with former D’Antoni assistant Alvin Gentry running their offense, much praise and respect was directed toward MDA.

But we still didn’t know how he would do if given another chance. Accorded a team and a franchise that was in complete sync with his ideas, D’Antoni’s coaching career has come full circle. Coaches rarely get third acts in this profession, and fewer still thrive with that opportunity.

The Rockets had one of the most prolific offenses in history and were six points better offensively per 100 possessions than last season. That helped translate into 14 more wins than the previous campaign, as Houston went from playoff bottom-feeder to arguably the third-best team in the league.

So much of coaching goes beyond the schemes and the systems. D’Antoni helped convince James Harden to run his offense, and Harden’s star grew exponentially. He then got all of Harden’s supporting cast -- which is basically the entire roster -- to buy into his scheme. Veteran players from other teams accepted their reserve roles and made Houston into one of the most joyous teams on the court and one of its most harmonious off it.

This was really a two-person race for me and I want to make special note of Erik Spoelstra. Think about how far he’s come in his nine years on the job. From Pat Riley protege, to two-time champ who was at the forefront of the pace-and-space smallball revolution, to being acknowledged as a Jedi Master of the highest order.

Spoelstra’s work over the second half of the season, in conjunction with the entire Miami Heat infrastructure, has been one of the few truly surprising events of the season. That kind of performance typically results in an Auerbach trophy and I don’t have any objections if that winds up being the will of the voters.

My third-place vote went to Gregg Popovich, who doesn’t need Coach of the Year validation, and indeed he’d probably be fine if one of his peers got the recognition instead. When we look back over Pop’s body of work someday, we won’t count Coach of the Year trophies. We’ll note that his Spurs became the modern equivalent of Red’s Celtics.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

  1. Eric Gordon
  2. Andre Iguodala
  3. Greg Monroe

Gordon acclimated himself so seamlessly into Houston’s culture that he agreed to come off the bench when Patrick Beverley returned from an injury. Gordon was the second-leading bench scorer in the league, averaging over 16 points per game while making 246 3-pointers, fourth-most in the NBA.

Gordon’s game didn’t change all that much as a reserve, but the context by which he accumulated his numbers did alter his value. As a reserve, he acted as Houston’s secondary playmaker besides James Harden and took on more strenuous defensive matchups.

Most importantly, Houston was more than six points better per 100 possessions than their opponents in the 31 minutes per night when Gordon was on the floor. He impacted the game in tangible ways that reflected themselves in the box score and on the scoreboard.

Only one reserve had a higher net rating with at least 25 minutes of action: Andre Iguodala. While Iguodala didn’t put up the box score numbers that Gordon and others did, the Warriors were more than 13 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions when he was on the court. Being the savvy veteran that he is, Iguodala paced himself early and hit his stride in the stretch run. He was one of the key players who allowed the Warriors to thrive without Kevin Durant in the lineup.

I’m sympathetic to Iggy’s case, and I thought he was far and away the best 6th Man last season. But I’m going with Gordon because of the offensive burden he carried throughout the season and his defining role in establishing the Rockets’ nascent team culture.

As difficult as this decision was, the third spot was even tougher. Gordon’s second-half teammate Lou Williams led all qualified reserves in scoring. San Antonio’s Patty Mills not only quarterbacked the Spurs’ awesome bench units, he also filled in for veteran Tony Parker as a starter. Tyler Johnson and James Johnson were both invaluable members of the Heat’s shocking run.

In the end, I decided on Greg Monroe ahead of two other big men whose roles have evolved with the game’s dynamics. Like Monroe, both Enes Kanter and Zach Randolph are prototypical reserve bigs who anchor second-team offenses and clean the glass. All three were productive in their roles, but Monroe had a more positive impact on Milwaukee’s fortunes.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

  1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
  2. Rudy Gobert
  3. Bradley Beal

After years of making fun of this award, I finally have to come to terms with what it means to be improved. The first order of business is creating a definition, and yes, this is largely subjective. To me, most improved indicates a young player who has made a substantial leap toward stardom. That may be nebulous, but that feels like a longer jump than a veteran role player who enjoys a career year, or a second-year player who puts up numbers with more minutes.

With that in mind, Giannis Antetokounmpo was an obvious choice. I wrote long on Giannis a few weeks ago and I won’t rehash all the particulars. His rise from fascinating phenom to top-10 player has been one of the pure joys of this season.

Following Giannis was Gobert, who got healthier and stronger in his fourth season as he made himself into a complete player. Gobert may never put up massive scoring numbers, but his combination of effective offense, rebounding, shot-blocking, and floor coverage makes him the league’s premier defensive big man.

Beal is an interesting test-case for my definition. It’s not that he added radically new elements to his game or even made as significant a jump as Giannis and Gobert. Rather, Beal took what he does and managed to do it better. His shooting and scoring went from good to elite. His shot selection and ball handling improved. Most importantly, he stayed healthy.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

  1. Malcolm Brogdon
  2. Joel Embiid
  3. Dario Saric

It’s a credit to the sheer magnitude of Embiid’s 786 minutes that he’ll finish second on my ballot. It’s also an indictment on the rest of this underwhelming rookie class. Had the season ended when Embiid underwent surgery, this wouldn’t have been a contest. But we still had half a season to play, and Brogdon has been a steady contributor throughout the campaign.

The fact that he is 24 years old doesn’t bother me when you consider that he’s only 16 months older than Saric, who’s been playing professionally since he was a teenager. It certainly doesn’t bother me any more than calling Embiid a rookie when he’s been in the NBA for three years.

If Brogdon hadn’t produced at this level throughout the season, I would have gone with Embiid. That Brogdon did it for a playoff-bound team also helped his cause. There is a difference between putting up numbers in a defined role on good teams and compiling them for poor ones, which is why he’s also ahead of Saric and Buddy Hield.

This is one of the weakest rookie classes in memory, both in terms of top-end talent and overall depth. Such as it is, the All-Rookie team is below.

ALL-ROOKIE

First Team: Brogdon, Embiid, Saric, Hield, Jamal Murray

Second Team: Jaylen Brown, Rodney McGruder, Marquese Chriss, Willy Hernangomez, Brandon Ingram