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Who I’m voting for MVP, Most Improved, Defensive Player of the Year, and more

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It’s awards time, so it’s time to make some tough (but arbitrary) decisions.

NBA All-Star Game 2016 Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

A few weeks ago in a post about the Most Valuable Player race, I suggested that 66 games — a little more than 80 percent of the season — ought to be a cutoff point for inclusion in the discussion. Feeling good about this observation, I further suggested that 60 games — roughly 73 percent of the season — should be a prerequisite for All-NBA consideration.

I ran that theory by a smart NBA person with the caveat that those numbers were, of course, arbitrary. He looked at me for a second and added, “Very arbitrary.”

As I’ve studied the awards landscape, I’ve come to realize that my games played idea was not only (very) arbitrary, it also painted me into impossible corners when it came time to make my actual choices. What’s good for getting through the weekly column grind is not recommended for making decisions with real-world implications.

NBA awards determine who gets supermax contracts and they’re tied to performance bonuses. They define careers and impact legacies. Voting for these awards is an important responsibility and one I take seriously.

In addition to watching NBA basketball every night from October to April — both in arenas and via League Pass — I’ve spent most of the last seven months consuming basketball content, poring over statistics, and talking to people who work in the league. And now it’s time to vote.

In the interest of transparency, I’m ditching the games played variable as a rule when making my selections that I have filed with the league. I am, however, still factoring minutes played into my decisions. There’s an NBA maxim that the first attribute of player performance is availability. Even that gets tricky.

Managing minutes and maintaining health is not a fixed variable in this league. It shifts from team to team and player to player. Assigning my own arbitrary parameters to this exercise fails to account for 450 unique situations.

Consider the case of Rudy Gobert and Defensive Player of the Year. When you ask people for their DPOY pick, you get one of two responses. The first is, “Rudy Gobert.”

The second response is, “Rudy Gobert hasn’t played enough games (56), but I’m not sure so I’ll get back to you.” The one person who actually did then get back to me conceded that Gobert was indeed his pick for Defensive Player of the Year.

Gobert’s impact in undeniable. The Jazz were 18-26 when he returned to the lineup in January and finished the season with a 30-8 record. Utah wins with defense and its defensive rating is more than seven points per 100 possessions better when Gobert’s on the court than when he’s on the bench.

You don’t need numbers to watch how teams alter their offensive game plan or shy away from attacking the paint when the Stifle Tower is on the court. All of that tells me that Gobert is exceptionally valuable, but there are lot of valuable defensive players in the league.

The Pelicans are more than nine points per 100 possessions tougher to score on when Jrue Holiday is on the court, and Holiday has played 1,000 more minutes than Gobert. Listed as a guard, Holiday defends players all over the court regardless of position.

Holiday is a more versatile defender, but that doesn’t make him a better defender.

I’m going with Gobert because I think he’s been the most impactful defensive player this season. That’s an arbitrary decision, but it’s mine and I stand by it along with all the other picks on my ballot.

I have Holiday second. He’s criminally underrated.

Philadelphia’s Robert Covington is third. This may sound like faint praise, but in a world without Kawhi Leonard and Andre Roberson, Covington is the premier wing defender working right now.

All-Defense first team

Guards: Jrue Holiday, Victor Oladipo

Forwards: Robert Covington, Anthony Davis

Center: Rudy Gobert

All-Defense second team

Guards: Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler

Forwards: Draymond Green, Al Horford

Center: Joel Embiid

Note: I have Davis as a forward for all-defense and a center for All-NBA. I am fine with that contradiction because positions are constructs and the point is to reward the best players.

Most Valuable Player: James Harden

Picture the word efficient in your mind and an image of a Beard pops up immediately. That makes Harden, and his wondrous beard, the living avatar of the offensive ethos that has taken over the league. To wit: take threes, layups, and free throws as much as possible.

That’s a remarkable skill set, but it also sells Harden’s contributions short. He is not just as automaton piling up metrics for Darryl Morey’s database.

What makes Harden so fascinating is everyone knows this is what he’s going to do, and no one has figured out a way to effectively stop him. It’s not as if he’s some dynamic athlete destroying our concepts of physical space by overpowering opponents. Harden is beating math and tactics hoping to slow him down.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Houston Rockets Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Even that sells him short. Watching Harden the last few years has been revelatory. He has a bag full of tricks, but he also has a fluidity and a grace to his game that goes largely underappreciated. Watch his footwork on a step-back three, or the subtle shoulder shimmy that gets him an extra inch of space. Marvel at his handle, his decision-making, and his strength when he attacks the basket.

Harden’s a tremendous athlete, and he’s incredibly durable. Save for a few blips here and there, Harden has been the best player in the league from start to finish. As much as a vote like this can be simple, this wasn’t a hard choice.

Second: LeBron James

At age 33, James remains the single biggest variable in basketball. I thoroughly believe the Cavs will go back to the NBA Finals because of him, and he may prove all over again that he is still the best basketball player on the planet when it matters most.

The MVP is a regular season award and I have him second behind Harden. That’s not a slight.

Third: Anthony Davis

If anyone’s getting slighted, it might be AD. It’s no longer a question of if he’ll win an MVP, but when and how many.

Fourth: Giannis Antetokounmpo

Speaking of future MVPs, it’s going to be a hell of a thing when the Freak battles AD for best player in the league honors. That era is coming faster than we realize and it will also include Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns. Patience, friends. Patience.

Fifth: Kevin Durant

I could have gone in several different directions with this choice, but I’m taking KD fifth in a very right race over Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and LaMarcus Aldridge. There’s not a lot to separate this pack, but KD gets the nod. His defense has been tremendous at times, and he remains the game’s most feared shotmaker.

NBA: Golden State Warriors at Phoenix Suns Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

All-NBA First Team

Guards: James Harden, Damian Lillard

Forwards: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo

Center: Anthony Davis

All-NBA Second Team

Guards: Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo

Forwards: Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge

Center: Joel Embiid

All-NBA Third Team

Guards: Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan

Forwards: Jimmy Butler, Al Horford

Center: Rudy Gobert

Note: Lillard over Westbrook by a hair for first team. I voted for Russ for MVP last season and have no regrets. I have Dame slightly ahead this year with a clear conscience.

I’m putting AD at center because I want to have as many of the five best players on first team as possible. That cost me a center spot. Apologies to Nikola Jokic and Karl-Anthony Towns. I’m calling Butler a forward because there are too many deserving guards.

Minutes and games players were the only things that kept Steph Curry off the third team. Chris Paul played substantially less minutes and games than Kyle Lowry, but I’m giving him the nod in honor of Houston’s dominance. I wish there was room for both.

Apologies also to Kemba Walker. There’s just not enough space.

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons

It’s really unfortunate that the conversation around this award has become such a toxic dumpster fire, but such is life on the internet. Simmons grades out higher than Donovan Mitchell in a number of available metrics. You can look them up for yourself on basketball-reference, nbastats.com, or on ESPN if you have Insider.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

As someone pointed out to me, Simmons is a system unto himself. He’s a 6’10 lead guard who defends multiple positions. On a team with Joel Embiid, his impact has been underplayed. It’s not an accident that the Sixers have kept winning even without the big fella. Simmons is a legitimate co-star in this ensemble.

What isn’t arbitrary is that Simmons is a rookie as classified by the league. Argue with that if you want, but those are the parameters.

Second: Donovan Mitchell

D-Mitch is a phenomenal player who is headed for a bright career. In 10 years if we’re still arguing about this, then both Mitchell and Simmons will have done very well for themselves.

Third: Jayson Tatum

This could have gone to Kyle Kuzma or Lauri Markkanen. All three had terrific rookie seasons and posted enviable stat lines. Tatum’s done his work for a 55-win team that recorded the second best mark in the East.

All-Rookie

First Team: Simmons, Mitchell, Tatum, Kuzma, Markkanen

Second Team: Dennis Smith, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, John Collins, Josh Jackson

Note: This is a great rookie class.

Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo

Imagine that, the most arbitrary award in existence is the easiest pick on the board. The jump that Oladipo made in his fifth season from vaguely effective starter to undisputed star was as dramatic as it was unexpected.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Oladipo isn’t just the best player on a playoff team. He’s one of the best two-way players in the league, period. His rise has been revelatory, and a great reminder to not put players into a box too quickly.

Second: Clint Capela

The Houston big man played 500 more minutes than he did last season and increased his productivity in a number of key areas, especially rebounding. The smallest jumps are sometimes the hardest and Capela may be the most underrated player in the league.

Third: Steven Adams

If you’re talking about an OKC Big Three it needs to include Adams. He increased his scoring, rebounding, and playmaking while upping his shooting percentage to 63 percent. Adams has gone from being a good player to an invaluable one.

Note: Apologies to way too many players to list, especially Dejounte Murray, Rondae-Hollis Jefferson, and Jamal Murray.

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams

The rules say this has to go to a person so I can’t vote for the Raptors bench en masse. That’s a shame because no reserve unit has made a greater impact on their team’s fortunes than Toronto’s.

My choice came down to three players: Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, and Will Barton. I have Sweet Lou first because of his scoring, Barton second for his versatility, and EG third because he’s played fewer minutes.

All three are awesome. Take your pick.

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens

There are lot of great coaches in this league and no one has a monopoly on sideline genius. That word — genius — gets tossed around quite a bit in regards to coaches, and it seems to stick to Stevens more than most. I don’t know him well, but I know him well enough to say that kind of praise bothers him.

I’ve watched the Celtics enough to recognize the subtle tactical adjustments Stevens makes from game-to-game and week-to-week. He’s not infallible, but he’s damn good.

What’s impressed me the most is the overall approach he takes with his team. Excuses are not options and laments are left in the locker room. Stevens takes what he has and doesn’t worry about who’s missing from the lineup. That attitude permeates his team and stands as its defining characteristic.

A lot of coaches have similar mindsets, Stevens has just done them a little bit better instilling them this season.

Second: Dwane Casey

If there’s an award for organization of the year, it should go to the Raptors. When it looked like this team had reached the end of its line, the Raps reinvented themselves. Out went the long twos and spent stars. In came trust in a new system and an injection of youth.

The Raptors made it look easy this year, but change is hard in the NBA. Convincing established players to alter their habits is not as simple as drawing up a few new sets on a whiteboard. Casey did that and he did it exceptionally well. That’s coaching at the highest level of this game.

Third: Quin Snyder

No coach oversaw a larger in-season turnaround than Snyder. He held his club together despite an injury to his best player — Gobert — and allowed for the transition from a Gordon Hayward-led offense to one that revolves around Donovan Mitchell. Snyder is a fantastic coach.

Apologies to a dozen other coaches. Seriously, the level of sideline sophistication is at an all-time high in this league.