NBA awards ballot: Winners, runners-up and tight races

Giannis vs. Harden: Who is the MVP? (1:58)

Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden are finalists for the NBA MVP award along with Paul George. Who takes homes the hardware? (1:58)

Here we go:

Most Valuable Player

A year ago, as insiders debated what a coaching change might mean for the league's brightest young superstar, you often heard a note of caution: The talent around Giannis isn't that good.

No one would say that now, after Khris Middleton's All-Star turn, Eric Bledsoe's career season, Malcolm Brogdon's 50-40-90 campaign, and the raging of Splash Mountain. Jon Horst and Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee's GM and coach, crafted the shooting-heavy ecosystem in which all those players -- plus Antetokounmpo -- thrived.

It is hard to untangle Antetokounmpo's MVP case from the work of Milwaukee's brain trust. They mitigated Antetokounmpo's one weakness: his jumper. James Harden has no weaknesses on offense. He could thrive within any ecosystem. He is the best offensive player in the league.

The roster around Antetokounmpo was healthier, deeper and better than the one around Harden. Excluding garbage time, the Rockets outscored opponents by just 1.1 points per 100 possessions with Harden on the bench -- and 6.2 points when he played, per Cleaning The Glass. He took a slightly above-average team in the tougher conference and made them very good. He saved a season that was teetering.

The Bucks outscored opponents by 4.3 points per 100 possessions when Antetokounmpo rested, and 12.5 points with him on the floor. He turned a good team into a supernova.

Which of those is more "valuable"? There is no universal answer. All the sample sizes are small, anyway. We don't really know how Milwaukee would have fared with a replacement-level player in Antetokounmpo's spot.

Best and most valuable are almost the same, but not quite. Kevin Durant is better than Damian Lillard, but he is not as "valuable" -- as indispensable, irreplaceable, whatever -- to the regular-season fate of this Golden State team as Lillard is in Portland. Rewarding players who lift flawed, injured rosters is baked into the MVP process.

The trick is deciding how much. Rewarding candidates on thinner teams means indirectly punishing candidates on better teams. There is a point at which that equation tilts out of balance.

No one would have argued Antetokounmpo's supporting cast was wildly superior to Harden's, or even superior at all, at the end of last season. Much changed between then and now: Brook Lopez entered, Trevor Ariza exited, and injuries (to Clint Capela and Chris Paul, notably) throttled Houston.

Any difference in roster quality is not enough to win Harden MVP. Any team could have had Lopez. Middleton and Bledsoe were borderline All-Stars in the Eastern Conference who would not have made it in the Western Conference. Antetokounmpo elevated them at least as much as Budenholzer and Horst did in crafting Milwaukee's playing style -- and probably much more. He took this roster where an MVP typically would, and maybe further. Harden did the same with his team.

Milwaukee is 7.5 games ahead of Houston. Its scoring margin with Antetokounmpo on the floor is double Houston's with Harden. If those numbers were closer, the roster-quality argument would win the day for Harden. You can't punish Antetokounmpo for leading a healthier, more talented roster if he led it to its proper endpoint.

Open 3-pointers do not materialize without Antetokounmpo rampaging to the rim. Open space matters only if someone can penetrate it, and no one has done so with more ruthless efficiency, more often, than Antetokounmpo. No one has been able to stop him. No gambit meant to exploit his shaky jumper has worked for any prolonged period. He is dribbling, and then he is spinning, and then he is at the rim screaming at you.

Antetokounmpo is an offense unto himself almost to the degree Harden is. He's averaging 28 points and six dimes on 58 percent shooting. He is Shaq, only he starts from 30 feet out. The insanity of Harden's point totals has almost obscured that Antetokounmpo is a phenomenal scorer in his own right.

He is not quite Harden as a scorer, or passer. Harden broke basketball with the step-back 3. He is unguardable. But the gap on offense, and between their rosters, is not big enough to trump the gap on defense.

Harden, even bringing elite post defense, is a minor liability the Rockets scheme around. Antetokounmpo is a weapon Milwaukee wields, and one opponents fear and avoid. He ranks sixth in rebounding, 10th in blocks and 31st in steals.

He impacts every possession, on both ends. On some nights, it feels as if he dictates every possession.

Harden is worthy, but Antetokounmpo gets this vote by a slim margin.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo
2. James Harden
3. Paul George
4. Nikola Jokic
5. Damian Lillard

The three toughest omissions: Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry. The Sixers crater without Embiid. But he missed 16 games, and he's not quite as efficient on offense as the typical big-man candidate: 48 percent shooting, 30 percent from deep and an assist-to-turnover ratio close to even.

It feels wrong to have no Warrior. Curry and Durant are two of the five best players in the league, at worst.

That will be reflected on my All-NBA ballot. The pesky word "valuable" demands we factor in roster context here; Curry's and Durant's MVP voting totals will never match their overall status as long as they play together -- and with Draymond Green and Klay Thompson.

I voted Curry fifth in 2017, his first season teaming with Durant, and I considered him for one of the last three spots this time. He has been incredible; the Warriors rate as the best team in the league with him on the floor. He is the short Tim Duncan, as Steve Kerr likes to say: the founding star and calming force of a dynasty.

But he missed 12 games, and Golden State outscored opponents (barely) when Durant played without Curry. They were even better in the opposite scenario, and Durant parceled out his energy on defense.

I'd have no issue with one or both making the ballot, but at whose expense? This was a three-way race until George tweaked his shoulder. He's No. 2 in scoring, and a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He is Oklahoma City's only reliable high-volume 3-point shooter. The Thunder have collapsed without him.

I've seen voters leave Jokic off, and I don't get it. He has to make it. Denver might snag the No. 2 seed in the West despite major injuries to three starters. Jokic has been their constant -- their only player even close to All-Star status. He is one of the league's half-dozen best offensive players. He's a liability in some matchups on the other end, but the Nuggets have managed to defend at a high level with him on the floor. You cannot say that for Harden and the Rockets.

(I have flipped George and Jokic between third and fourth several times. The Nuggets are way ahead in the standings, but George ultimately had the better two-way season.)

The Blazers are plus-8 per 100 possessions with Lillard on the floor, and minus-8 when he sits. That 16-point differential is one of the largest in the league. Portland has won 52 games. Lillard held them together after a postseason sweep rattled every level of the franchise. He missed one game. There haven't been five more valuable players this season.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Rudy Gobert
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
3. Paul George

If Embiid had been healthy all season, we would have four candidates. The competition is so fierce that missing 16 games is enough to knock him to fourth -- even though the Sixers have rarely been able to function without him.

We didn't see much of the Kawhi Leonard who just takes the ball from anyone who dares dribble within 10 feet of him. Myles Turner burst into this discussion, but he's a tick behind these guys, with lingering footwork hiccups to smooth. Green still has stretches in which he looks like the league's best defender, and the Warriors remained an elite defensive team with him on the floor. But peak Green flits in and out of games.

The three guys on this ballot are every-possession stalwarts. Embiid is too, when he's on the floor. He is a better raw athlete than Gobert; Embiid at full throttle, with fresh legs and full lungs (can't lose!), is the league's most terrifying defensive force. No one closes space faster.

Publicly available stats -- advanced and otherwise -- tilt to Gobert over Embiid, or are so close as to be indistinguishable. Tracking metrics favor Gobert.

Utah has allowed 102.5 points per 100 possessions when Gobert sits, and 103 when he plays, per NBA.com. That should not impact his candidacy. That 103 number is two points lower than Milwaukee's league-leading team mark, and a hair below what Philly yields with Embiid. Gobert compiles it mostly against starters. It's nice that Utah remains so stingy when Gobert rests. It matters more here that the Jazz suffocate opponents when he plays.

The same is true for Antetokounmpo, the best defender on the best defensive team. Milwaukee's defense reaches absurd levels of impenetrability with Antetokounmpo on the floor: 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions.

He is averaging nearly 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per game, otherwise known as pulling an Olajuwon. Opponents are shooting just 52.5 percent at the rim when Antetokounmpo is the nearest defender, about the same as against Gobert and Embiid.

He is the most versatile defender in the league, and has a chance to be the most versatile defender ever. He can play any style, and adjust for any opponent. In plotting out four playoff series, there is no defender I would rather have.

But over the 82-game grind, Gobert barely gets the edge. As a center, Gobert is involved in the main action -- as both pick-and-roll bulwark and last-line-of-defense helper -- more often than Antetokounmpo and George. He challenged about 27 shots per 100 possessions, according to Second Spectrum; Antetokounmpo and George faced about 15.5 apiece. Few regular-season opponents overhaul their rotation to add the level of shooting that yanks Gobert out of his comfort zone. (Gobert has also looked more spry and at ease against those who have.)

On those possessions when Gobert doesn't directly challenge shots, he still defines what kinds of shots opponents get. He is a one-man defensive architecture. (Embiid is, too.) Because of Gobert, Utah allows the fifth-lowest share of shots at the basket -- and that understates his impact, since that share plummets when Gobert is on the floor. Because of Gobert, perimeter defenders can stick to shooters; Utah allows the lowest share of opponent 3s.

Antetokounmpo and George carry their own versions of that kind of passive value. Teams might warp game plans to avoid attacking them. They lurk on the wing, discouraging productive passes and shutting off catch-and-go drives.

But by virtue of sliding to power forward, Antetokounmpo spends more time than either Gobert or George guarding bottom-rung options. There are nights against Blake Griffin types when the lift is much heavier, and Antetokounmpo can of course switch onto the alpha wing scorers George envelops every game. Defending off-ball types also frees Antetokounmpo to rove, and he is lethal in that role.

I had George ahead of Antetokounmpo until the past two-plus weeks. All three would be fine choices.

Coach of the Year

1. Mike Budenholzer
2. Doc Rivers
3. Mike Malone

This award presents the thorniest cognitive challenge. The Budenholzer makeover in Milwaukee is fresh. Jason Kidd trapped everything, and Milwaukee's opponents passed around those traps to produce the most shots at the rim last season, per Cleaning The Glass. Budenholzer planted Lopez in the paint, and the Bucks now give up the fewest shots at the rim by a mile.

Only two teams fouled more often, per opponent shot attempt, than Milwaukee last season. Budenholzer made that a priority, and bam: The Bucks have the league's lowest foul rate. Milwaukee ranked 25th in the portion of shots that came from 3-point range last season; only Houston posted a higher share this season.

Budenholzer's handprints are all over this team. That is easy to see. Our brains gravitate toward stuff that happened recently. But the flip side is what might be called the Curse of Popovich -- the cost, in awards voting, of consistency.

Why does Quin Snyder -- my pick a year ago -- fall off the ballot because the 50-win Jazz merely met expectations they set last season? Terry Stotts' Blazers are wrapping their sixth consecutive season at .500 or above, and he made substantive changes to Portland's rotation and playing style. You barely hear his name in Coach of the Year chatter.

The "of year" wording encourages voters to focus on each season as its own entity -- a process that naturally leads toward the new and unexpected.

In a 20-month span, the Clippers traded Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and Tobias Harris, and somehow sniffed 50 wins in the Western Conference. They are starting two rookie guards and an anonymous third-year center. About half their roster is heading toward free agency, often a recipe for selfish, disjointed play.

Rivers and his staff helped keep this team together. They crafted different styles of offense -- one for starters, another for the rollicking bench -- that shared a hard-charging ethos resulting in heaps of foul shots. Everyone committed to making the simple play, the collective unselfishness compensating for an absence of any star playmaker.

Bringing two of LA's three best players off the bench -- Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell -- balanced the rotation. This might be Rivers' best coaching job ever; he is as deserving as Budenholzer.

The last spot came down to Malone, Nate McMillan, Kenny Atkinson and Dave Joerger, with strong consideration for Stotts, Snyder, Nick Nurse, Brett Brown, Mike D'Antoni, Popovich and Steve Clifford. All have cases. (Nurse has done under-the-radar great work guiding the Raptors through major changes and injuries, and positioning them to peak at the right time.) Rick Carlisle is still a warlock.

McMillan was the toughest omission. Everything in Rivers' dossier applies to him: the disappearance of a central player (Victor Oladipo); the physical, selfless playing style; the unusual number of impending free agents. The Pacers going 6-12 so far in March and April hurt. Denver having a chance at 54 wins and the No. 2 seed in the West is more impressive than 47 wins and fifth in the East.

The Nuggets survived injuries to Paul Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Trey Lyles. None are as good as Oladipo, but that is a lot of lost manpower.

The Nuggets play hard, and for each other. They have bought into a helter-skelter defensive style that doesn't work without peak effort from everyone.

You could see it crystallize toward the end of last season, when Denver fell far enough behind in the playoff race that it would have been understandable for them to sulk toward the finish line. Instead, the Nuggets galvanized around a long-shot goal, and took the Timberwolves to overtime in the finale.

If you were watching and listening, you knew those last 10 or 12 games meant something real. They were a big reason I picked Denver to host a playoff series this season. They signaled a healthy culture. Malone deserves a lot of credit for that -- and for smart schematic coaching.

Rookie of the Year

1. Luka Doncic
2. Trae Young
3. Jaren Jackson Jr.

Doncic's late-season slide and Young's scorching February and March created the perception of a race, but I'm not sure there is any real case for Young beyond an edge in assists. The first 40 games count, and Young over that time was one of the worst players in the league -- a piece of tissue fluttering around on defense who missed nearly everything on the other end.

Doncic built an insurmountable advantage. Even now, his shooting numbers are better, though Young's higher 3-point volume closes that gap some. Doncic is maybe a slightly below-average defender; the Hawks would throw a party if Young checked in as slightly below average next season. Doncic's size gives him some positional flexibility. He's a plus rebounder; rebounding is part of defense.

The advanced numbers, if you are care about those, paint this as a blowout. Young is going to be a sensational offensive player. His 3-point shot came alive over the second half of the season on the kind of high-wire diet that bends defenses to their breaking point -- 30-footers, step-backs, pull-ups going both directions on the pick-and-roll. He is already one of the 10 best passers in the league, and that might be selling him short.

But Doncic is in that group too, and he was better over the full season.

The third spot is an eye-of-the-beholder thing. Deandre Ayton has the best box-score numbers, and has appeared in 13 more games than Jackson. He made real strides on defense after looking in his first 15 games as if he had never seen a pick-and-roll. He has a case. So do Marvin Bagley III and perhaps Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. The Cavs will stump for Collin Sexton; his shooting, shoulder-checking drives and "give me the freaking ball" tenacity made for a pleasant surprise over the last 30-plus games.

But those first 40 ... oof. His defense at the point of attack has been about as damaging as Young's.

Jackson has been the best all-around player in this group, and 58 games is enough to nab this historical footnote. He's miles ahead of Bagley and Ayton on defense, and his 3-point shooting -- 36 percent from deep, with a polished pump-and-go game -- makes him the most versatile among them on offense.

Critics might point out that the Grizzlies were abysmal when Jackson played without Mike Conley, but the same holds for Ayton and Devin Booker. Jackson gets the nod here.

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Lou Williams
2. Domantas Sabonis
3. Montrezl Harrell

Williams, second in fourth-quarter scoring, solidified his case with a strong finishing kick and insane clutch shooting. He's a liability on defense, but the list of credible candidates doesn't feature any stoppers.

I went into this thinking Harrell had outplayed Sabonis, giving the Clippers an unprecedented 1-2 finish, but the evidence favors Sabonis. Both have scored efficiently. Harrell is more of a deterrent around the rim on defense, but Sabonis knows where to be. He has managed well enough guarding opposing power forwards to buy McMillan good chunks of time every game playing Sabonis and Turner together.

Rebounding and passing separate him from Harrell. He props up Indiana's shaky rebounding; the Clippers concede more offensive boards with Harrell on the floor, per NBA.com. Sabonis can act as the hub of Indiana's second-unit offense, working handoffs, plucking cutters (he and Doug McDermott share a powerful mind meld), and even canning the occasional short jumper.

Harrell hasn't proven he can subsist without Williams, or another star-level ball handler. The Clips have collapsed when Harrell plays without Williams, and comfortably outscored opponents in the opposite scenario. Both sample sizes are small -- about 400 minutes apiece -- but you have to split hairs somewhere.

I'm not sure anyone else belongs on the ballot. Spencer Dinwiddie faded a bit down the stretch. The Nets have been a little better with Dinwiddie on the bench, and he is duplicative with D'Angelo Russell and Caris LeVert.

Terrence Ross might be the tougher omission. He has been a crucial bench cog for Orlando -- its only reliable second-unit deep threat -- and part of its best five-man lineup. But 38 percent from 3-point range is not, like, incredible, and he's not good at anything else. A nice season, but he falls short here. Ditto for Dwyane Wade in his swan song.

Derrick Rose finished with just 1,392 minutes in 51 games. Julius Randle, Jeremy Lamb and Marcus Morris are ineligible by rule; they started too many games. Dennis Schroder tossed bricks from everywhere, and his defense remains inexcusably soft given his physical tools. Bogdan Bogdanovic -- posting a tidy 14-4-4 line -- hasn't shot quite well enough inside the arc.

The Spurs and Nuggets deserve some collective bench award, but no single player stands out above the Williams/Sabonis/Harrell trio. Monte Morris might come closest, though Mason Plumlee and Malik Beasley have cases.

Dwight Powell came on too late. Robin Lopez is sneakily eligible, but it's hard to reward anyone from such a bad team. Andre Iguodala is a genius, but he just doesn't do enough stuff anymore. (It's a crime he never won during this Golden State run, though.)

Most Improved Player

1. Pascal Siakam
2. D'Angelo Russell
3. De'Aaron Fox

Russell appears to be the people's choice amid a typically overstuffed field. He has made monster strides: 4.5 points and two assists per game over last season, plus improved shooting from some of his pet areas.

This is not just a case of Russell making more of the midrange shots and wackadoo ceiling-scraping floaters he has always adored. He is craftier changing pace, manipulating defenses with eye fakes and hesitation dribbles, prodding into more profitable territory. He knows when to dispense with all that, pick up his dribble near the 3-point arc, and slingshot crosscourt lasers to open shooters.

Russell has always had that sort of guile. He has tapped into it on a deeper level, in more varied ways, and he has done so as the No. 1 option on a team that played the last month under postseason pressure.

Siakam, of course, is not a No. 1 option. He is Toronto's third-best player, and someone defenses leave alone on the perimeter -- or at least did so until Siakam proved he would punish them.

But critics who paint Siakam as a wallflower mooching off the greatness of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry haven't paid attention. Leonard and Lowry have missed 39 combined games, and their absences have not often overlapped. That has nudged Siakam into something like a floating second-option role, and some alpha duty when the one remaining star rests.

Siakam has run almost 300 isolations, 28th overall, more than Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum, Andrew Wiggins, Stephen Curry, Ben Simmons, Rudy Gay, Lou Williams and Donovan Mitchell. The Raptors have scored almost exactly one point per possession on those plays, 46th among 150 players who have finished at least 50 isos, per Second Spectrum data.

Toronto has scored 1.07 points per possession when Siakam shoots out of a post-up, or passes to a teammate who launches right away -- 27th among 122 guys who have recorded at least 40 post-ups, per Second Spectrum.

I'm not sure why it hasn't registered, but Siakam is a very good one-on-one player. It doesn't always look pretty -- well, the spin move does -- but Siakam just kind of zig-zags to where he wants to go, and flicks in floaters off the glass. He is like a skinny, faster Boris Diaw. You don't quite understand how he got from point A to point B, but he did.

He is a fiend in transition, as both ball handler and finisher. He and Marc Gasol have a budding pick-and-roll partnership. Siakam is shooting 37 percent from deep, and 41 percent from the corners; he hit 29 3s all of last season. Multiple Eastern Conference coaches have told me in the past two weeks that they are scared now to leave Siakam open.

Siakam is averaging 10 more points per game than last season. Russell has become a better version of the player he already was. Siakam is a different player entirely.

He also has a claim as Toronto's best defender this season. (The engaged version of Leonard will presumably retake that status in the playoffs.) Toronto's points allowed per possession when the opponent involves Siakam in any action -- isolations, post-ups, either end of a pick-and-roll -- are off-the-charts good, per Second Spectrum. He can switch across every position.

You could go dozens of different directions with the third spot. There are guys who went from the deepest bench to playing well in meaningful roles: Morris and Beasley in Denver, Derrick Jones Jr., D.J. Wilson, Alfonzo McKinnie, Derrick White, Damyean Dotson, Jahlil Okafor, Cedi Osman, Thomas Bryant. Bryn Forbes kind of fits this mold, even though he logged 1,500 minutes last season. I never know quite what to do with this type.

Some prefer stars who made another mini-leap: Harden, Antetokounmpo, George, Jokic. Perhaps you lean toward established guys one or two tiers below: Steven Adams, Jusuf Nurkic (one of my favorite candidates), Andre Drummond, Bojan Bogdanovic, Zach LaVine, Nikola Vucevic, Malcolm Brogdon, and others. Vucevic is probably the strongest such candidate, with big jumps across the board. He nearly made this ballot, and he might get first-place votes.

There are guys who don't fit any category, and don't appear to have improved much unless you watch closely. A favorite this season: Jerami Grant. Some of his advanced numbers are down or flat, but his huge spike in 3-point shooting -- 39 percent on 3.6 attempts per game -- changed Oklahoma City's season. (He's also averaging five more points per game.)

And then there are the younger guys: Fox, Myles Turner, Buddy Hield, John Collins, Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow (perhaps a little old for this designation), Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma (playing a grittier and more all-around game this season) and Jonathan Isaac. A lot of voters stay away from second-year guys, especially lottery picks; we expect them to improve.

But Fox accomplished in one season what can take some point guards the bulk of a career: transforming from overwhelmed, one-step-behind kid into sophisticated orchestrator who baits the defense and sees passes before anyone else. The bump in shooting -- up to 37 percent from deep -- is a bonus.

Fox slowed down after the All-Star break, but he did enough to snag this spot.

Additional apologies to: Terrance Ferguson, Noah Vonleh, Emmanuel Mudiay, Marcus Smart, Alex Len, Davis Bertans, T.J. Warren, Karl-Anthony Towns, Christian Wood, Harrell, Joe Harris, Dorian Finney-Smith, Josh Richardson and a few others.