This is shaping up to be the most challenging and relevant NBA awards ballot in a generation. To add to the drama, new rules in the CBA make this year's awards votes matter more than ever. Let's break it down FAQ-style.
Is this going to be the closest MVP race in history?
Probably not. This year could see five players (James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and perhaps Giannis Antetokounmpo) get at least one first-place vote, which hasn't happened since 2012, when James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Tony Parker each received first-place votes. But there really hasn't been a "close" MVP vote since Steve Nash edged Shaquille O'Neal by seven first-place votes in 2005. That one is still a cause for debate.
Because it's been so long since the MVP race was projected to be this close, there's extra attention this year. Last year, of course, was the most lopsided in history, with Stephen Curry winning unanimously.
So who is the favorite to win MVP?
The Washington Post recently did a poll among more than 100 likely MVP voters, and Harden won by a reasonable margin. Westbrook was second. However, Westbrook's continued incredible play over the past couple of weeks has probably tightened the race, while Harden has struggled a bit recently with a wrist injury.
You mean Russell Westbrook could average a triple-double and not win the MVP?
It seems very possible. Did you know that when Oscar Robertson averaged a triple-double in 1961-62, he finished third in the MVP voting? Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged 50.4 points, 25.7 rebounds and 48.5 minutes a game (there's a record that won't be broken), finished second. Bill Russell won the award, and it wasn't close. He received 51 of the possible 85 votes. Sometimes the competition is simply that tough.
Could there be a tie?
It's possible but unlikely. The system in place makes it difficult to have an exact tie. However, it is possible for a player to get the most first-place votes and not win when there are a lot of candidates. That happened in 1990, when Charles Barkley got 11 more first-place votes than winner Magic Johnson in a field in which seven players got at least one first-place vote (Johnson, Barkley, Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon).
Is there anything at stake for Westbrook and Harden?
Other than pride, history, a cool trophy and a chance to make a really important speech? Winning the MVP would qualify both to sign huge new extensions this summer, Westbrook adding $200 million to his deal and Harden $170 million to his. But there are other ways to qualify for this so-called "designated player extension" and they probably will get it either way.
So the MVP is tough for a change. Is that the only reason there's been so much talk about the awards ballot?
No. Rookie of the Year is going to be a challenge because the clear best rook, Philadelphia's Joel Embiid, played only 31 games. There's no precedent for someone playing less than half a season and winning an annual award. There are some other candidates, teammate Dario Saric and Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon, but neither are having the type of season that Embiid was having before his injury.
Coach of the Year might be a split vote, especially if Erik Spoelstra can guide the injury-plagued Miami Heat into the playoffs to rival the job Mike D'Antoni has done in Houston. There's a case to be made for several players for Most Improved Player, too, from Antetokounmpo to Devin Booker to Otto Porter. But the All-NBA team -- that's where the stakes are really high.
Why the All-NBA team?
There's a new rule in the collective bargaining agreement that was just passed. If a player is voted to the All-NBA team and has eight or nine years of experience, then he qualifies for a special exception to sign a massive contract with his team for about $75 million more than any other team can pay him. A player also qualifies if he wins MVP or Defensive Player of the Year. But in that case, the player would probably already be on the All-NBA team.
That doesn't seem as if it would affect that many players, right?
That's true. It doesn't apply to many players. But the ones it does apply to could have a big impact on the league. This year, for example, if either Paul George or Gordon Hayward makes one of the three All-NBA teams, that would give his team an overwhelming advantage in re-signing him long-term.
It would make George eligible to sign a $200 million extension with the Pacers this summer. That's $75 million more than if he were to become a free agent in 2018 and sign somewhere else, such as with the Lakers. If he doesn't make the All-NBA team, and the Pacers lose this advantage, it is unlikely that he will sign an extension this summer, and that will apply pressure on the Pacers to trade him. This is a big vote -- one that George believes should go his way.
Hayward is a free agent this summer and has only seven years of experience, so he couldn't get the payoff now. But he could exercise his contract option for next season and then he could sign an extension beginning with the 2018-19 season that could become the largest contract in NBA history if the Jazz were willing to offer it, something in the range of six years and $230 million.
When Durant went down because of an injury and missed a large chunk of the season, it made voting for All-NBA forwards much more interesting. Also, it's unclear if Anthony Davis will be viewed as a forward or a center. These have possibly opened the door for Hayward and George. Possibly.
Why does the media have this power?
It's the best solution the league has come up with. All-Star voting has shown that fans can't really be trusted, partially because the voting systems can be manipulated. All-Star voting this year involved players, and turnout was low, and there were plenty of joke votes, which showed that many didn't seem to take it seriously.
Players used to vote for official awards, but it became a popularity contest at times. One of the most controversial MVP votes came in 1975, when Bob McAdoo won. McAdoo had a great season, winning the scoring title, but Rick Barry had one of the finest seasons of his career for the eventual champion Warriors yet finished fourth in MVP voting. Barry wasn't popular among many of his peers, and it's believed that played a factor. That variable affecting so much money is potentially problematic.
The media already had quite a bit of power with these votes with the previous CBA. The All-NBA team was a component that determined whether certain players hit escalator clauses in their contracts. Last year, for example, Anthony Davis stood to receive a $24 million contract bonus if he made the All-NBA team. But he got hurt late in the season and finished three positions out of the last spot.
Which media get to vote?
For years there were about 125 voters per award, each voting pool slightly different, mostly from local media members in each city. This year the pool has been adjusted to the same 100 voters for each award with the majority being national writers and broadcasters.
When will the awards be announced?
For years the awards were announced throughout the playoffs and arranged so players can accept them on their home floor. But this year for the first time all the awards will be given during a special awards show on TNT. It will be the week after the draft -- Monday, June 26, in New York.