Somehow, it's already time to hand out regular-season awards. Gentle reminder: I consider every speck of information -- game film, public stats, secret stats I wrangle up, exchanges of intel with team officials -- and I don't hate your team.
I have an official ballot again this year, so these votes count. Without further ado:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
The only drama comes in the last four spots, which means it really doesn't matter much for historical purposes. Curry has been the best and most valuable player in the NBA -- a glitch in the system who transformed a sport. Everything about the Warriors -- their style, their identity, their strut -- emanates from his historically unprecedented shooting.
There are seven candidates for the last four spots: the four listed, plus Russell Westbrook, Kyle Lowry and Draymond Green. You could build an argument for James Harden, carrying the wheezing wraith of Houston on his back, but he showed up out of shape and played zippo defense for a would-be contender about to limp into the No. 8 spot with a win over the tanking Kings.
Lowry became a superstar, always in hunched motion, waiting to spring into open space when you take a breath. He's just not as good as these other guys.
Green is the firing brain circuitry of perhaps the greatest team ever, nearly as important to Golden State's top-five defense as Curry is to their all-time offense. He would be a star anywhere. But you could imagine these Warriors playing good defense without Green; they did under Mark Jackson, using a more traditional scheme. You cannot imagine Golden State with a league-average point guard in Curry's place. The Warriors would have to reinvent their entire offense, and they might not be very good.
The Warriors' offense falls apart without Curry, and for the second straight season, opponents outscored Golden State -- by a huge margin -- with Curry on the bench. Green and Curry lean on each other, and lift the team together, but the value gap between them is large enough to shove Green off this ballot.
That left Durant, Westbrook and Paul for two spots. Paul can't match Westbrook's gaudy triple-double numbers, or turn a game on its head with 45 seconds of snarling athleticism. Other teams fear Westbrook. They respect Paul, but they don't shudder at the possibility of him smashing through their entire team -- and the concept of normal basketball -- for two or three pivotal minutes.
But on a night-to-night basis, Paul is the more calming, precise player, and he has to be on the ballot after keeping the Clippers afloat amid Blake Griffin's injury melodrama.
That leaves an impossible choice between Westbrook and Durant -- a choice that almost seems unfair given the Thunder's hit-or-miss supporting cast. Both will make a lot of ballots, and that's fine.
Durant gets the nod by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin. There isn't much difference between them statistically, and Durant reclaimed some control of the Thunder offense once Billy Donovan started staggering the Westbrook/Durant minutes in February. Durant seized more possessions, dished more dimes and drove Oklahoma City to a better scoring margin in his non-Westbrook minutes than in the opposite scenario, per NBA.com research.
He's also a better, more versatile defender -- quick enough to guard any wing, and so long, he can dart in from the strong side to snuff a drive and veer back to a sharp shooter without conceding a thing. Both guys can defend up a position, but Durant sliding to power forward opens more lineup possibilities than Westbrook muscling a shooting guard.
Westbrook remains a manic gambler who submarines too many possessions with reckless choices. When two bets in a row hit, it looks spectacular, and we laud Westbrook's ability to bend the game to his will. We don't do a good enough job noting the other three or four bets that come up snake eyes, leaving shooters open and hanging teammates out to dry. Westbrook's decision-making at money time can be scattershot.
Westbrook is incredible, and he might finish in the top three once the votes are in. Not here.
A word on the Leonard-LeBron debate: LeBron at full throttle is the better player, and perhaps still the best player in the league. Both engineer decent shots from nothing, but only LeBron can steamroll to the rim almost whenever he wants. LeBron resides in another universe as a passer. LeBron can be the fastest all-court defender in the league when he wishes; remember, he outperformed computerized ghost defenders programmed to be perfect!
But from start to finish, Leonard had the better season, for the better team. He doesn't take possessions off. He doesn't snap at teammates or manufacture chaos with calculated, passive-aggressive social media fits. For all the angst over whether Leonard can generate offense when everything else stalls out in crunch time, he ranks among the league's best one-on-one scorers -- from both the perimeter and the post, per Synergy Sports research.
He's not LeBron in those situations. No one is. Leonard doesn't think, or pass, two steps ahead of the defense, and he's not strong enough to bulldoze his way to the rim every damn time. But he's plenty good, with a jumper that clicked as LeBron's broke apart, and he has been the league's second-best player.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
There isn't a case for anyone else. Jahlil Okafor missed 35 percent of the season, played some of the worst big-man defense in NBA history and exacerbated an internal crisis with embarrassing off-court behavior. He sure scored a lot, though! Devin Booker got started too late, defended air and finished with an ugly -- if understandable -- uptick in turnovers. Myles Turner is coming off the bench again.
I understand if some readers might not be able to identify Jokic if he walked by them. No one watches the Nuggets -- not even in Denver. By some measures, the dude is wrapping up one of the best all-around seasons ever for a rookie center. He hit 3s at nearly a league-average rate, led fast breaks and assisted on 18 percent of Denver's buckets while on the floor -- the fifth-best mark in history for a rookie big. He's a slick passer from the post, the elbows and in transition.
Advanced stats wonks have argued he should win the award, and he has a strong case to leapfrog Porzingis for the No. 2 slot. Jokic leads all rookies in adjusted plus-minus by a mile; he's ninth in the whole stinking league, right ahead of DeMarcus Cousins! He's an intuitive, nasty defender -- better than you'd guess, given his ho-hum athleticism.
But you can't make a case based on a single, all-in-one stat, especially one questioned by team insiders with access to the real secret sauce: analytics derived from SportVU tracking data. Towns kills by those metrics, sources tell me, and he laps the field by most other public statistical measures.
Towns should win unanimously. He has been a two-way force with the inside-outside skill set a big-man star needs in the modern NBA. He's already a bright, shining plus at everything: post scoring, jump shooting, passing, defending the rim and scampering around in space. He's like a five-tool center! If he's not a top-15 player already, he's going to be soon.
He has also played 900 more minutes than Jokic, the equivalent of 19 full games, while shouldering a much heavier load; Jokic averages a hair fewer than 10 points per game, and sometimes looks reluctant to assert himself. Jokic has more competition for minutes and touches, but it's not as if he's stuck in a loaded roster; the Nuggets are only four games ahead of Minnesota, and Jusuf Nurkic, one of Jokic's main competitors for playing time, spent half the season injured and in Mike Malone's doghouse.
Porzingis can't match Jokic's advanced numbers, and he actually shot a tick worse from downtown. But Porzingis logged nearly 400 more minutes and did heavy lifting as the No. 2 option for the Knicks. He can slide more easily between the two big-man positions, hang with guards on switches, and swat damn near everything around the basket.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Draymond Green
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Paul Millsap
This is like choosing between Elastic Man and a fire-breathing version of The Thing. Leonard and Green are the two most important, cruelest, most unfair defenders in the league, and it isn't close. No one else should get a first-place vote.
I lean toward Green because of his versatility -- and especially his unique ability, at 6-foot-6, to credibly guard centers. Some smaller guys can fake it for a possession or two, provided some crisis -- like a rebound bouncing in their direction -- doesn't happen. Green can play up a position for entire games if need be, and that is the launch code to basketball's nuclear bomb: the Death Lineup, with Green as a sneering, rampaging, fast-breaking center, and shooters raining death around him.
The fully engaged Warriors are a perfectly coordinated swarm. They switch and re-switch without cracking open even the teeniest lanes. They help in one spot, bend away from another and return there before the offense even realizes anyone was open. They are active with such synchronization; you barely notice the activity. Green is the yapping nervous system of that defense.
Leonard might be an even better one-on-one defender, though, and he could toggle between positions more often if Gregg Popovich demanded it. He envelopes opponents, and he'd be the captain of my Mirror Guy team for defenders who move in such exact sync with a ball handler, it almost appears as if the ball handler is dueling with a reflection.
Choosing Millsap for the No. 3 spot will raise some eyebrows, especially in Miami, where Hassan Whiteside rejected everything in sight. People don't think of Millsap as an elite defender. They don't think of him much at all, really. Being a low-key dude in Utah and Atlanta will do that.
But he has developed into the keystone of the league's stingiest defense since Jan. 1 -- a jack-of-all-trades with the speed to extinguish pick-and-rolls 30 feet from the basket, glue-trap hands that rip more steals than almost any big man in league history, and the guts to initiate an airborne collision at the rim. Millsap is averaging 1.7 blocks per game, by far a career high, and he's the only rotation player in the league topping 1.7 blocks and 1.7 steals per night.
He gets those numbers without gambling, and he can guard any position in a pinch. He's a horse on the glass, always does his job in transition and plays hard on every damn possession.
Whiteside doesn't, though he has found another gear over the past three months. Remember: I was touting Whiteside early in the season when commentators who didn't bother digging into even one layer of context would robotically recite the stat showing the Heat defended better with Whiteside on the bench.
Even so: There are matchups that trouble him. Brutes with touch and the heft to get into Whiteside's body have done damage on the block; opponents have hit 51 percent of their post-up shots against him, per Synergy Sports research, 10th worst among 72 defenders who have faced at least 75 post-ups this season.
He likes to hang back on the pick-and-roll, inviting disaster against sharpshooters like Curry and Damian Lillard, who need only a sliver to unleash pull-up 3s upon turning the corner. Whiteside has been more diligent taking an extra step out toward such players over the past 40 games, but he's wobbly -- and vulnerable to blow-bys -- outside his comfort zone.
Millsap's comfort zone extends across the full court, and every playing style. The bigs who might normally displace him have battled injuries, or slipped a bit from peak form: Joakim Noah, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Rudy Gobert, Andrew Bogut, Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis and a few others. Cousins could crack this ballot if he tried hard all the time. And alas, DeAndre Jordan is not quite as good as his reputation.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Steve Kerr
2. Gregg Popovich
3. Terry Stotts
This is partly a multiyear achievement award for Kerr and Popovich, and it should be. The NBA is considered the most predictable of the four major U.S. pro sports leagues, and at the top, that's true. The better team usually wins a best-of-seven series, and the best teams with the best players win championships.
Below that stratosphere, team identity and culture are fragile. Houston found something last season as a carefree, go-go outfit, brought back the same cast and fell apart amid chemistry issues, laziness and a staleness of spirit. Chicago lost its way, and by the end of the season, the Bulls were just throwing crap against the wall on offense -- lifeless possessions with no purpose. Some combination of injuries, infighting and confusion undid Washington, New Orleans and Phoenix. The Magic still don't know what in the hell they are.
Creating a cohesive ethos that sticks is a rare thing. It takes nurturing over years. Isolating a coach's work from Halloween through tax day is a strange conceit.
This is why, as queasy as it makes me, I can look past the fact that serious health issues kept Kerr off the sideline for half the season. The drudgery of travel and in-the-moment decision-making are big parts of coaching. But Kerr was very much present during his absence, especially when the Warriors were at home.
He redefined the tone of the organization the moment he walked in the door. He empowered Curry to test the limits of his revolutionary game, sold stars on passing and cutting, convinced big names to sacrifice and gave everyone a voice in choosing strategies. That culture of openness and community held up as Kerr recovered. He isn't the only one responsible for building it, but he was the driver, and he's one of the few who's powerful enough to undermine it if he ever chose.
Also: Win 72 games -- and maybe 73! -- and I break my long-standing rule of voting for Popovich every season.
The bedrock principles of San Antonio's culture have been unassailable for 20 years. That is remarkable. Popovich tweaks the stylistic fringes to fit every new cast, and that's why this second-place vote isn't just a lifetime achievement trophy. Popovich re-centered his offense around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge without completely losing the pass-first mojo that powered the 2012-2015 versions of the Spurs borg; you especially see it on bench-heavy units. Only Rick Carlisle, a confirmed warlock, and perhaps now Kerr can touch Pop's in-game strategy and lineup optimization.
The final spot came down to a bunch of guys whose teams play together, play hard and know who they are: Stotts, Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Steve Clifford, Erik Spoelstra, Dave Joerger, Quin Synder, Stan Van Gundy, Mike Budenholzer and Carlisle. Casey, Clifford and Stevens were the final, painful cuts; all of them have real arguments for the top spot.
Clifford reimagined Charlotte's offense as a high-octane triple machine without conceding an inch on any of his conservative (basketball) principles: low turnovers, fast-break paranoia, and killer defensive rebounding. The Raptors love Casey and play hard for him. It's a little corny how Boston's Stevens talks about wanting players to "soar with their strengths," but he lives up to the motivational mantra. He loosed Isaiah Thomas without worrying about his defensive limitations, encouraged Avery Bradley to chuck more 3s and pushed Jae Crowder to test his off-the-bounce game. You trust Stevens' play calling a bit more than Casey's in crunch time.
But those teams had more continuity in talent; we knew most of them would be at least decent. Stotts placed cast-offs and unknowns around Lillard and forged a playoff team in Portland.
Stotts empowers players to stretch themselves in his whirring motion offense, knowing that if they feel involved on that end, they'll buy into the grunt work. He stabilized the team's iffy defense with some key midseason tweaks, including a few that nudged players into uncomfortable new challenges. Players embraced those challenges, in part because they thought their coach and their superstar had already embraced them.
The Blazers snagging the No. 5 or No. 6 seed after losing four starters is perhaps the happiest story of the season. No team plays, and lives, with a better spirit. Much of that gravitates from Stotts. He might win, and he'd deserve it.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
Confession: I had no idea what to do with this award once Iguodala started missing games -- and with Whiteside ineligible.
Traditionally, this is an award for gunners. There is some merit to that. A lot of bench-heavy units are light on shot creators and need someone, anyone, to chuck when the shot clock dwindles. Most of those chuckers can slide into a secondary role alongside starters in crunch time.
That is why Jamal Crawford is a two-time winner and such a popular candidate as he finishes this season with a flourish of crossover goodness. He also absorbed a larger burden during Griffin's absence.
But Crawford is barely shooting 40 percent from the floor. Even piss-poor bench lineups relying on such tough jumpers can redistribute some of those shots to other players, and not lose much. Most of the Clippers' bench mobs have stunk, anyway. Crawford thrives with Paul, J.J. Redick and Jordan. Who doesn't?
Crawford's limitations on defense matter even more when he plays with those guys, since that means he's probably also playing against opposing starters -- lineups that might not offer him a safe hiding spot.
There is more to winning basketball than shooting and scoring. Iguodala laps the field as a playmaker and defender. He can play with any lineup, and against any lineup. He works as a co-point guard off the bench, defends the other team's best wing players, drains 40-plus percent of his corner 3s when Curry is on the floor and shares a genius-level defensive mind-meld with Green.
Yeah, Iguodala will end up missing 25 percent of the season. But no other candidate has done enough in every facet of the game to unseat him -- especially given Golden State's historic success.
Barton and Enes Kanter might represent superior versions of the classic Crawford candidacy. Barton outshot Crawford despite a late-season slump, revved up Denver in transition, rebounded like a power forward and defended more reliably across both wing positions. If you're looking for a high-volume chaos engine, this is your guy.
Kanter might win the damn thing, and I'd have no problem with that. Post-up brutes do better against backups; dump the ball to Kanter against some second-unit sad sack, and he's eating buckets. Pair him with a drive-and-kick star like Westbrook or Durant, and Kanter morphs into perhaps the league's pre-eminent scoring mooch -- gobbling up drop-off passes and offensive rebounds when his man leaves to help on a Thunder stud.
He's still bad on defense, but not as bad as he once was. Kanter is trying harder this season, and he can usually survive if the other team plays at least one traditional big man.
Still: Kanter gives back a lot of points, and the Thunder will have to cut his minutes against elite postseason offenses who target him like chum.
So, screw it: I'm going with the blue-collar, unheralded Ed Davis -- a journeyman who became essential for Portland, and has long slapped up per-minute numbers that blow away almost every other sixth-man candidate. He logs about 21 minutes per game, the same as Kanter, and half-dozen fewer than Tristan Thompson, his burlier doppelgänger in Cleveland, working the same role as a hybrid, rim-running big.
Davis' 21 minutes drove Portland toward the unexpected. Thompson has been great, but the Cavs would have finished first or second in the East even if he had held out the whole season. Davis has better stats across the board: 61 percent from the floor as a basket vulture, the fourth-best offensive rebounding rate in the league and much better rim-protection numbers.
He has been Portland's best big man; he plays a lot of crunch time, and has stepped into an even more important role with Meyers Leonard hurt and Noah Vonleh fading. When Stotts asked Davis to defend power forwards so that Leonard could hang closer to the hoop against centers, Davis accepted the shift out of position -- and busted his butt to make it work.
There are too many six-point, five-rebound nights for Davis to win this award, but he deserves a hard look. Patrick Patterson's candidacy suffers from the same lack of raw production, but his 3-point shooting at power forward and ability to guard multiple positions make him a key part of almost every successful Toronto lineup. He is much better than his traditional numbers suggest. Evan Turner fills every gap for the Celtics.
This was just a brutal category.
Additional apologies to: Crawford, Turner, Patterson, Thompson, Mirza Teletovic, Jeremy Lin, Shaun Livingston, Dennis Schroder, Clint Capela, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph, Manu Ginobili, Bismack Biyombo and Matthew Dellavedova.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Two broad player types give me trouble here: the second-year guy who thrives with increased playing time, and the superstar who somehow becomes even better. The first type is packed: Gary Harris, Doug McDermott, Clint Capela, Rodney Hood, JaMychal Green, Jerami Grant and many more. Their ascension is almost expected. Young players get better with experience, and they get to play more.
I haven't wrapped my head around what to do with the second type -- notably Curry, Green and Leonard. An MVP sharpening skills-within-skills to transform into an historic superstar might be the hardest advance, and certainly the most unusual. It's like a 60-win team pushing for 70 the next season.
But Curry and Leonard were already so damn good, they had only so far to leap. They're going to win mega-awards, anyway, and one of them will likely snag the championship.
I gravitate toward the squishy middle -- mid-career guys who make an overall leap, or hone one key skill that unlocks other parts of their game. McCollum is really a Category 1 type on a one-year delay, but unlike a lot of young guys thrust into larger roles, he's pulling this as the second-best player on a playoff team. The Blazers don't rise from the ashes without McCollum maturing into a borderline star.
He didn't just maintain his per-minute stats over triple the minutes. He blew them away. McCollum worked as Portland's de facto backup point guard when Lillard rested, and the Blazers outscored opponents during those minutes, per NBA.com research. He has remade himself into a natural fit for Stotts' catch-and-go system, and works hard on defense.
Walker reinvented only one part of his game, but that single change -- morphing into an above-average 3-point shooter -- transformed everything for the Hornets. Opponents for years clogged Charlotte's dreary offense by ducking under screens against Walker, walling off his driving lanes and leaving the Bobcats/Hornets heaving up junk late in the shot clock. Do that now, and Walker is roasting you from deep.
Defenders have to chase Walker over picks, and that means he can ankle-break his way into the paint -- drawing help and opening up 3-point looks for Charlotte's army of shooters. A lead ball handler polishing his long-range shot is the rare isolated skill development that ripples across an entire roster. It's a big reason Charlotte gradually found its footing in those minutes when Walker leads the offense without Nicolas Batum as co-pilot.
Walker vowed for years he would do this. He finally made good. What a season.
You could give the third slot to at least two-dozen guys, but I'm going with Mahinmi, Indy's only source of reliable front-line play over the full season. There was almost nothing in Mahinmi's dossier to suggest he could work as the dive man in a semi-functional pick-and-roll offense. He had never started more than 12 games, and he entered this season with 107 career assists; ask him to throw a quick-hitter on the move, and he was more likely to fling the ball five rows deep in the stands.
Now, he's doing stuff like this:
Mahinmi doubled his career assist total, nearly doubled his scoring average and obliterated almost every past statistical marker -- all while maintaining his SMOTHERED CHICKEN presence around the rim on defense. He became a different player.
Additional apologies to (deep breath): Barton, Crowder, Capela, Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Zach LaVine, Allen Crabbe, Evan Fournier, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Lance Thomas, Khris Middleton, Marvin Williams, Reggie Jackson and many other nice people.
Coming later this week: my picks for All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defense.