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NBA awards, Part 1: MVP, ROY, COY, DPOY, Sixth Man, MIP

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The greatest MVP race in NBA history (1:14)

Scoop Jackson says comparing Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James this season stacks up with any previous MVP debate. (1:14)

After 82 games, six major awards. Here we go:


MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

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

Let's be reasonable up front: This was brutal. At various points in the past week, I had the top four in every possible order and felt both good and terrible about each permutation. They were all fantastic, and they would all be deserving winners. Choosing one over the others is an indictment of no one. It is a requirement forced by a deadline.

Leonard is a system player. Westbrook, Harden and LeBron are the systems. That is kind of true. Leonard doesn't touch the ball on some San Antonio possessions. He could not handle the creative burden on offense the two leading candidates face every night.

Leonard, in this regard, would be an unusual MVP. (Westbrook will be too given Oklahoma City's sub-50 win total, but that never bothered me.) He averaged only 3.5 assists per game. Of all the perimeter players to win, only Michael Jordan in 1997-98 averaged so few, and Leonard isn't Michael Jordan.

But if Leonard doesn't control every output of the Spurs' system, he is something like the electrical current powering it. There is not a lot of evidence it works without him. San Antonio has scored 112.6 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor, and just 102.6 with him sitting. That is nearly the difference between Golden State's league-best offense and Atlanta's 27th-ranked brick-fest.

Dewayne Dedmon starts for the Spurs. Tony Parker just wrapped his worst season since he was a rookie. LaMarcus Aldridge dropped off across the board, and Danny Green is Danny Green -- a nice fourth or fifth option. This does not profile as a 60-plus win team, or a lethal scoring outfit.

Aldridge is the second star, but the Spurs managed just 99.6 points per 100 possessions (and a negative scoring margin) in the 423 minutes he played without Leonard -- worse than any team's offense.

A ton of digital ink has been spilled about why San Antonio's defense was better with Leonard on the bench. Some of it is Parker and Pau Gasol. A lot of it is clearly luck. Opponents shot horribly on wide-open 3-pointers and foul shots with Leonard sitting. Maybe David Lee is really distracting.

What has gotten lost: San Antonio's fatter points allowed per possession figure with Leonard on the floor, compiled mostly against the best opponent lineups, would still rank fifth overall at the team level. That is borderline elite.

No non-Leonard lineup has logged more than 73 minutes. The Spurs have a strong scoring margin without Leonard, just as the Rockets do without Harden, but it's unclear if that would hold up over extended minutes against top competition. (I doubt it would.) I'm not sure we should hold the Spurs' strong bench against Leonard, either.

Leonard's role in San Antonio's offense is perhaps as central to his candidacy, anyway. He is not some wallflower. He averaged 25.5 points per game on 48.5 percent shooting, including a strong 38 percent from deep, and a career-best 7.2 free throws. He used 31 percent of San Antonio possessions, a superstar lift.

Leonard is more of a possession finisher than do-it-alls like Harden and Westbrook, one reason his turnover rate is miniscule. But he is also both starter and finisher on a lot of those trips. He'll zip up from the baseline, run a pick-and-roll, kick the ball to Aldridge, cut to the other side, and launch a catch-and-shoot triple when the shot clock winds down.

And that's when things work. When they don't, the Spurs dump him the ball and ask him to create something from nothing. He's damn good at that, too. Leonard hit 51 percent of his post-up shots, 24th among 105 guys who attempted at least 50, per Synergy Sports. He averaged better than a point per possession on the pick-and-roll, an elite mark just above Harden and way above Westbrook. He nearly equaled them in points per possession via isolations: .973 for Harden, .938 for Westbrook, and .939 for Leonard, according to Synergy.

The other two have to do much more of both. They have quicker first steps, and they are faster to the rim. They draw two defenders more easily than Leonard, and produce more open looks for their teammates. Leonard zealots might say he could play that style if San Antonio needed it, or if Gregg Popovich didn't turn up his nose at the superstar model.

He couldn't. He could probably handle some individual creative burden between what he has now and what those guys deal with, but not the Atlas-level weight they shoulder. The ability to manufacture shots, for yourself and your teammates, is the single most valuable skill in the NBA. Harden, Westbrook and James are better at it than Leonard. They also played more minutes than Leonard -- 250 more for Westbrook, and 450 for Harden -- but it feels unfair to punish Leonard for Popovich's choices and the quality of San Antonio's roster.

Still: If you weigh shot creation even more heavily than I do, Leonard is not the MVP. If you want to wait a season to see if Leonard absorbs even more load, that's fine. To repeat: They are all worthy.

What the Spurs ask in terms of one-on-one bucket-getting, Leonard handles with MVP-worthy efficiency. On a lot of other possessions, he might act as initiator, connector, and finisher. Replace Leonard with a league-average wing -- say, Trevor Ariza or Andre Iguodala -- and it's unclear if San Antonio's offense would even crack the league average. He is their go-to, late-game option, and he managed fine in crunch time -- though not as well as the incandescent Westbrook.

And then there is defense. It is not really half the game, even if you spend literally half the game on defense. At the superstar level, individual offense is more important than defense. And a wing defender can't impact every possession in the same way as Rudy Gobert or even Chris Paul.

But even if defense is 25 percent or 30 percent, that is a lot, and Leonard, to be polite, has a Katie Ledecky-level lead on everyone else. Even if opponents scheme to avoid Leonard, as Matt Moore of CBS Sports suggested earlier this season, that is a huge advantage: "If Kawhi is guarding our best player, we'll just use use him less." It's like starting the game up 5-0.

Good defense isn't captured only in events -- steals, blocks, good close-outs, strong challenges at the rim. It also lurks in the absence of mistakes -- back-cuts that don't work, clean switches, fast breaks that don't materialize, flare screens that miss. Even when he's not snuffing the central action, Leonard's airtight work has value. He proactively prevents a lot of points, and doesn't give any back.

He would blow open games with individual two-way runs -- little Kawhi spasms: a steal and dunk, then a deflection leading to a turnover followed by an open Leonard triple. They often happened in the third quarter, rendering the bright lights of crunch time moot.

If Leonard is by far the best defender among the candidates and contributes 70 or 80 percent of their value on offense, then he has a legitimate MVP case. (And you can't calculate offensive value simply by adding points and points created via assists.) If LeBron had defended more consistently, every argument for Leonard -- another two-way wing star on a better roster than Houston's and Oklahoma City's -- would apply in some multiple to him. He is the best player. But his defense was casual, the Cavs slid into the playoffs, and as thin as they were for much of the season, they should still have won more than 51 games.

Even voters choosing these others concede Leonard was the most "complete player" in the game this season. That alone tells me this is a reasonable vote.

Westbrook's clutch shooting down the stretch nearly changed my final vote. He led the league in go-ahead or game-tying shots in the last minute of games. He shot 46 percent on a preposterous 100 field-goal attempts in the last three minutes of close games, and the Thunder destroyed teams in high-leverage moments.

Those shots were of ludicrous difficulty. In a normal season, he might hit 35 percent of them. He hit a handful more this season. Some voters will dismiss that as a small, semi-random sample that shouldn't tip him over Harden, but each single season is a small sample. Those shots went in, and that counts. It is the strongest part of his case, stronger even than the triple-doubles, which are visceral and amazing and important -- even if people can disagree politely on how important they are as a standalone marker.

Westbrook single-handedly won three games in the last two weeks -- against Orlando, Dallas and Denver -- that probably cinched him the award. Those are fresh in our minds. They added to the Thunder's win total, but Oklahoma City was nearly locked into the No. 6 seed by then. The Spurs and Rockets were slotted in their current spots, their work already done. Those shots mattered, but they didn't tilt the balance of the Thunder's season.

Replacing Westbrook with a league-average point guard -- Dennis Schroder? -- would destroy the team. They scored at a borderline top-10 rate with Westbrook on the floor, and scrounged just 97 points per 100 possessions when he sat -- a laughable mark. They are poor on scoring talent; it would be hard to find a strong playoff team in any season starting (until the trade deadline) two worse offensive players than Andre Roberson and Domantas Sabonis.

The Thunder built a team of defense-first finishers around two superstars. One superstar left. They had no time or money to build another sort of team. They needed everything Westbrook could give on offense, and he gave them everything he had.

So why is he behind Harden here, by the slimmest of (mandated) margins? They really had the same season, in different contexts. One guy had the ball all the time surrounded by good 3-point shooters, and he passed more. One guy had the ball all the time surrounded by, umm, 2-point shooters, and attempted six more shots per game. Most of those extra shots were 2s, which is why Harden has a bigger edge in shooting efficiency -- true shooting, and adjusted field-goal percentage -- than the raw percentages indicate.

Would Westbrook pass more if they flipped teammates? Probably. He is a spread pick-and-roll point guard in search of some spread. He knows where shooters are, and he can make almost any pass with either hand.

On the flip side, Harden has the physicality, grit, and guile to drag this same Thunder roster to a win total in the mid-40s. He fell two rebounds short of averaging a triple-double, but his stat line is an historical outlier just the same. One free throw rebound and one uncontested defensive board per night don't, on their own, make Westbrook a superior candidate.

Harden gave up the ball a little more readily, and played with a bit more variety. Most assistant and head coaches I spoke to say, privately, that Harden is harder to game plan against -- that he's craftier, and less predictable than Westbrook's battering-ram approach. A lot of that stems from Harden having actual outside shooters around him. But I don't think that explains all of it, and even if it does, it is the reality with which we are presented.

It dovetails with the feeling I had all season that Westbrook bent the game to a (slightly) uncomfortable extreme: the highest usage rate ever, monopolization of the offense. It's easy, and mostly right, to say he had to do that on this roster. It's also reductive. It ends the conversation. It refuses to even entertain the possibility that other players might have benefited in the long run from Westbrook loosening his grip on the offense by 5 percent. Maybe it makes no difference. Maybe it makes the Thunder worse this season. I don't know. But the usage rate gives me pause.

Again: Replace Westbrook with Schroder, or even Jeff Teague, and this might be a 25- or 30-win team. Replace Leonard with Ariza, and maybe the Spurs approach 50 wins. (I'm aware that Value Over Replacement Player pegs Westbrook at plus-12.4 wins, tops in the league, with Leonard tied for fifth at 6.2. I don't take those numbers as gospel in terms of impact on team win totals, and they do not adequately factor in defense. Trust me: I've pored over every stat, and seen all the color-coded charts floating around Twitter. I know Leonard outranks Harden and Westbrook in Win Shares, too.)

Is making a terrible team decent more "valuable" than making a good team great? There is no definitive answer. But the jump from 50 to 60 wins is the hardest one to make. Most teams never complete it.

Leonard isn't the best player, or the most dominant scorer. He may not have an extra playoff gear on offense. He probably won't win a postseason game by scoring 12 points in the final three minutes.

But night to night, possession to possession, he was on par with anyone over the 82 games of this particular regular season. His two-way play gets the vote here, and I'm hitting "send" before it's too late. Westbrook will win, and he will deserve it. It will be a celebration of his unrelenting will, and of the season that belonged to him. If Harden sneaks past him somehow, well, how can you argue against 29, 11 and 8? How can you ever argue against LeBron?

What a season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

1. Malcolm Brogdon
2. Dario Saric
3. Buddy Hield

For 31 games, Joel Embiid was one of the best rookies in league history. The Sixers -- the freaking Sixers -- performed like a playoff team during Embiid's outrageous 786 minutes.

Unfortunately, the NBA season consists of 82 games. Had Embiid played more of them, Philly might have actually been a playoff team. I'm sorry that one of the baseline requirements for being a productive NBA player is playing in NBA games.

Much of the case for Embiid is based on the notion that his ascendancy to superstardom will render Brogdon and perhaps even Saric footnotes. We will rehash Embiid's comet of a rookie season -- the Euro-steps, the 3-pointers, the Duncan-esque rim protection -- as he squashes the league in 2025.

I hope that's true. But nothing since Philly drafted Embiid in 2014 suggests that happy endgame is inevitable. He has played 31 games in three seasons, and just underwent another surgery.

That left Brogdon and Saric. Some folks around the league dismiss Saric's strong per-game stats as empty numbers-chasing on a bad team. That applied to Michael Carter-Williams years ago, but not here. Saric is unselfish, and plays within the offense. When he hunkers down for one of those meandering, Diaw-esque drives, it usually flows organically from some other action -- a pick-and-roll that produces a favorable switch, or pops Saric out to catch the ball along the 3-point arc.

He's a canny passer, and he plays hard on both ends.

Brogdon does, too. He can't match Saric's counting stats, but that is the price of playing on a better team. Brogdon shapes his game to the moment. He developed a wonderful two-man chemistry with Greg Monroe on bench units before seizing the starting job from Matthew Dellavedova, and the Bucks aren't afraid to turn some of the crunch-time offense over to him. When Giannis Antetokounmpo is dribbling through people, Brogdon morphs back into a spot-up shooter; he canned 40 percent from deep, and pulling that in meaningful games gets him the nod.

Hield surged into the third spot with his strong play for the post-Boogie Kings. He hit 39 percent overall from deep, including a fiery 43 percent in Sacto, and looked comfortable running the pick-and-roll there. Hield has one proven NBA skill, and he executed it over almost 1,900 minutes -- fifth among rookies. That stood out in a field of flawed candidates who spent parts of the season out of their team's rotation.

I thought about slotting Embiid into the third spot, but that felt inconsistent: If he's on the ballot, that means you've considered him, and if you've considered him, he should win. Don't worry, he'll appear elsewhere.

COACH OF THE YEAR

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

We would have forgiven the Spurs a step back. Their cultural touchstone retired. The league's bastions of continuity scrambled to revamp the entire front-court rotation around LaMarcus Aldridge. David Lee is involved. They are starting a journeyman center. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are a year older.

And yet: 61 wins, tied for fifth-most in franchise history. The cast and the context changed more than usual, but the Spurs did what they do every night: play hard, defend without fouling, and move bodies and ball until they find a good shot.

This might be Popovich's best coaching job. It is the product of years of work, and that is why he probably hasn't won this award enough. There is rarely a new narrative about the Spurs -- a bad season from which to rebound, or a feel-good journey that wallops expectations. They just keep picking players who fit their culture and style, execute it every night, and romp all over teams who have no idea what they are trying to be or how they might arrive there. Your haphazardly constructed bench isn't ready for Patty Mills to catch the ball on the run, jaunt into the lane, and find a teammate about to do same damn thing with zero hesitation.

When it matters, Popovich staggers minutes to feast on enemy bench mobs. He sold Pau Gasol on a bench role Gasol refused in Chicago, and now Gasol is draining 3s. He is happy to surrender the offense to Leonard and Aldridge when defenses clog the beautiful machine.

I'd be fine with D'Antoni, Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder, Scott Brooks, Dwane Casey and many other guys winning this thing, but Popovich is the best coach in the league.

I'm writing this before we know if the Heat make the playoffs, and that seems appropriate: Spoelstra's salvage job is no better or worse if the Heat finish ninth. We have never really seen a team plummet to anything like 11-30, stay together, and roar back into the playoff race. Most teams who fall so low disintegrate.

Miami kept plugging. Spoelstra had a vision for the finished product, and he would not abandon it. He would not let his players lose confidence in their ability to find it, even as early-season injuries robbed a talent-poor team of talent it could not afford to lose. They would work until it clicked, and they became the most relentless, turbo-charged drive-and-kick machine in the league -- the kind of team that makes opposing players, when they see "Miami" on the upcoming schedule, sigh: "Oh, that's gonna be unpleasant."

D'Antoni was ahead of the curve, as usual, in handing his offense to Harden. He nudged Harden toward a healthier balance between passing and shooting, and with the ball flying, everyone else happily accepted supporting roles. They try on defense.

The Rockets outperformed preseason expectations, but I thought most of those -- including the Vegas over/under at 41.5 wins -- undersold the talent on the roster, and how snugly that talent fit D'Antoni's system. I didn't think they would win 55 games, and D'Antoni will deserve this award if he wins.

Brooks squeezed almost 50 wins from a team that looked lost three weeks in, and coaxed Bradley Beal and Markieff Morris in the right directions. Washington's late-season slippage on defense costs him here. Casey steered Toronto through Kyle Lowry's injury. Snyder's Jazz hit the 50-win level (plus one) even though their projected starting five played only 150-plus minutes together in 13 games -- and is somehow still Utah's most-used lineup! Stevens is a wizard.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

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

This is the closest two-man race on the ballot. Gobert is impenetrable; opponents hit just 43 percent of shots at the rim with the French Rejection (come on, people!) lurking, second-stingiest among current rotation players who defend at least four such shots per game.

He is long and speedy enough in tight spaces to guard pick-and-rolls almost by himself. Gobert slides away from his man to corral ball-handlers, back-pedals along with them in a coiled crouch, and keeps his arms spread so wide they don't feel at ease bouncing a pass to their rolling partner. He unnerves scorers. He keeps them guessing even when they have a numbers advantage. Where most big men become prey, Gobert is a predator.

The ripple effects from that are enormous. They define the structure of Utah's defense, third-best in the league. Defenders flanking the central action stay home on shooters; only Miami allowed fewer 3-pointers, and no team yields a lower share of juicy corner 3s. They are one team with Gobert, another team without him. Utah allows eight fewer points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor.

Gobert has gotten more comfortable roaming around the 3-point arc, a necessity against pick-and-roll maestros who jack from anywhere. He is almost game-plan and matchup-proof.

Almost. Green is matchup-proof. He can be anywhere, anytime. He contested seven shots at the rim per game, as many as DeAndre Jordan, Anthony Davis, and Andre Drummond. Opponents hit just 43.8 percent of those shots, barely above Gobert's equivalent figure.

To guard the loot like that and switch onto Harden? Come on. Green is unmovable in the post. He gets his giant mitts on everything. He trails only John Wall in steals, and he's about to become the 10th player ever to average two swipes and 1.4 blocks per game.

He is the smartest defender I've seen since the peak 1990s Chicago teams. His anticipation is uncanny, as if he wakes up every morning to find a tape of that night's game on his doorstep, "Early Edition"-style. He moves in sync with every action. He doesn't arrive to the collision point on time. He arrives early.

Green is the one irreplaceable part in the NBA's best defense -- the main reason Golden State stiffened on that end during Kevin Durant's absence. Gobert would be a deserving winner, but Green's versatility gives him the edge here.

Leonard's defense slipped a bit this season, but the league's best perimeter defender belongs on the ballot.

There are a bunch of interesting candidates for consideration on the All-Defense teams, but no one who really approached these three.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

1. Andre Iguodala
2. Eric Gordon
3. James Johnson

Iguodala and Gordon followed almost opposite trajectories across the season, fitting given their different games and roles within their teams. Gordon burst out of the gates, shooting 43 percent from deep combined over November and December before cooling a bit after. His move to the bench upon Patrick Beverley's return healed what looked like a fatal wound: Houston's inability to muster any offense over the first few weeks of the season when Harden rested.

Beverley is something of a co-captain of those non-Harden lineups, perhaps as much a driver of their success as Gordon. But Gordon deserves a ton of credit for hitting 37 percent from deep on an ungodly number of attempts, and defending point guards when he replaces Beverley alongside Houston's other four starters. He logged about 300 more minutes than Iguodala.

Iguodala marinated over much of the first 50 games before exploding over the last six weeks as Durant recovered from a knee injury. He'll never score or bomb like Gordon, but Iguodala averaged about 12 points per game on 60 percent shooting (!) in 17 games after March 1.

Iguodala laps Gordon as a defender and passer. He can cover ace scorers, and he led the league in assist-to-turnover ratio by a mile. He fills more gaps.

Iguodala just feels essential to Golden State's identity. They are only really themselves when he is in the game, and they are better on both ends. They get smaller, faster, and more versatile. They take on his connoisseur's arrogance in the way they fling the ball around the floor. They explore possibilities. It comes back to bite them now and then, but it's what makes them who they are.

Johnson dislodged Monroe from the last spot after stepping into the starting lineup for Luke Babbitt, and thriving in an even larger role. The Heat would have died without his off-the-bounce creativity. He got in shape, guarded everyone, kept the offense in constant motion, and even spotted Spoelstra some minutes at center.

Monroe is a fine candidate -- a happy ending after Jason Kidd bizarrely banished him to the fringes of the rotation in the middle of the season. He is Milwaukee's starting center in all but name, though Thon Maker earned more of Kidd's trust over the last two weeks. Monroe had his best season on defense, and brutalizes overmatched backups in the post. He has become a crucial pick-and-roll hub in Milwaukee's crunch-time offense. He has a strong case to win the award outright.

Lou Williams fell off the ballot when the Lakers traded him into a seventh man role behind Gordon. Zach Randolph just hasn't been quite as impactful night-to-night as these other guys. Wilson Chandler is hit-or-miss in Denver. Additional apologies to: Patty Mills, Al-Farouq Aminu, Tim Hardaway Jr., PJ Tucker, Tyler Johnson, Patrick Patterson, Jamal Crawford, and Enes Kanter.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. Gobert
3. Isaiah Thomas

We saw this coming into form over the last 20 games of 2015-16, when Kidd, playoffs out of reach, decided to up and make Antetokounmpo a point-whatever. Antetokounmpo averaged 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists after the All-Star break last season. The Bucks went 11-17 in those games, and lots of fluky stuff happens in the NBA garbage time of March and April. Was it real?

Umm, yeah. Antetokounmpo blew away his career stats across the board and emerged as no-brainer All-NBA pick in leading the Bucks to the playoffs. He still can't really shoot, and on most nights, it doesn't matter. Play 10 feet off of him, and he'll just dribble right at you, spin once, and lay the ball in over your head. Somehow contest that, and he'll wrap one of his extend-o arms around your waist like he's hugging a tree and flick the ball to a teammate waiting on the other side.

The Antetokounmpo-Dellavedova/Brogdon pick-and-roll is starting to look like the LeBron-Kyrie Irving duet in Cleveland. Antetokounmpo can swap between screening and handling the ball, and he'll toggle directions until Milwaukee cracks an opening -- or generates a switch.

He mashes smaller players in the post. Swarm him on the block, and he'll sling passes all over the floor. He is unstoppable in transition. He gets better defensively every season. He can switch across all five positions, and he came pretty close to Olajuwoning (i.e., averaging two steals and two blocks per game). He could one day win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season.

We expect good young players to improve in their third and fourth seasons. That's why I gravitate toward mid-career guys who unveil unexpected new skills. But this is an across-the-board mega-leap.

Gobert's development on offense redefined what might be possible for this Utah core, provided they stay together. They would have been a nice team with Gobert anchoring the defense and hovering on offense in the netherworld between asset and awkward, slippery-handed liability. If Gobert is a weapon, they can grow into something special.

Gobert has weaponized. He hit 66 percent from the floor, and is finishing with alarming speed and aggression from more varied angles on the pick-and-roll. Defenders have to scrunch in to help on him now, and that frees up Utah's outside shooters. Gobert is up to 65 percent from the line, and shaking off fear of failure there has liberated him. He plays through contact. Imagine if Drummond could?

The last spot came down to Thomas, Bradley Beal, Gary Harris, Otto Porter, James Johnson, Tim Hardaway Jr., and Nikola Jokic ahead of dozens of other candidates. Thomas hasn't changed much about his game. He's just doing more of everything for a team that can't score without him, and he has somehow managed to do it more efficiently despite the heavy burden.

He's shooting at a career-best level from all over the floor, getting to the line more, and keeping his turnovers under control. Add it up, and you get seven more points per game and a massive jump in player efficiency rating. He had a superstar season at age 28.

Thomas marks an interesting contrast with Porter, who mostly just finished the looks Beal and John Wall fed him at a higher rate. Jokic is a strong candidate, but it's hard to know how to judge second-year players. Johnson has flashed this level of all-around production before, though never for this long.

That's it. Now it's time for the real season.

Go to Part 2 of Zach Lowe's awards