Most Valuable Player: James Harden
This year’s MVP race has long been headlined by two perennial all-stars: guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden. Westbrook, lauded for his uncanny ability to generate triple-doubles — recording 34 this season — has led the Durant-less Oklahoma City Thunder to a respectable 41-30 record.
Harden, who leads the league with 11.2 assists per game, has redefined his offense under new Head Coach Mike D’Antoni and has helped the Houston Rockets clinch a playoff berth with a 49-22 record. Westbrook and Harden are averaging 31.4 and 29.4 points per game, respectively, but Harden gets the MVP nod for his team’s better record.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert
While the flashy pick might be forward Draymond Green, Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert quietly became the best rim protector in the NBA. The Frenchman averages a career-best 2.6 blocks per game, ranks second in the league in defensive win shares and currently allows the lowest field goal percentage at the rim at 41 percent. Since his promotion to starting center two seasons ago, Gobert has anchored the Jazz’s defense, one that has seen a rise from the No. 27-ranked defense at the time to best in the league now.
Rookie of the Year: Dario ŠariĆ
Between the strong 2016 draft and the debut of highly touted center Joel Embiid, the Rookie of the Year award was sure to be competitive. However, Philadelphia 76ers forward Ben Simmons was sidelined all year with a foot injury, and Embiid later joined him after a promising start to the season. Forward Brandon Ingram struggled during his rookie campaign, shooting only 29 percent from deep after a blistering 41 percent at Duke. This has left the door open for another 76ers rookie, forward Dario Šarić. Šarić averages a modest 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. While Šarić’s stats are not wildly impressive, he has been the bright spot for a basement-dwelling team starting to make a resurgence.
Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon
While much of Houston’s success can be credited to Harden, the addition of guard Eric Gordon has provided a spark off the bench all season. The Indiana product scores 16.4 points per game on 38 percent shooting from beyond the arc, helping him win the three-point competition during the NBA All-Star Skills Challenge. Houston’s bench received a major boost by trading for guard Louis Williams, but Gordon remains the first off-the-bench in Houston and sees a little over 30 minutes of playing time per game.
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It was only a matter of time before forward Giannis Antetokounmpo took the league by storm. Known as the “Greek Freak,” Antetokounmpo stands at a towering 6 feet 11 inches with a staggering 7-foot-3-inches wingspan, yet can move with as much grace as a point guard. In his fourth year in the league, he boasts 22.9 points, 8.4 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.7 steals per game, all of which are major improvements from last year. Antetokounmpo remains a poor three-point shooter. Despite this, he has increased his field goal percentage from 53 percent to 56.6 percent and his free-throw percentage from 72 percent to 78 percent. By all accounts, Antetokounmpo is the most improved player in the league, capped off by a starting spot on the 2017 All-Star team for his first bid.
Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder
Utah Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder might not be the popular pick but has quietly led the Jazz to their best season in recent memory. With injuries to guards George Hill, Rodney Hood and forward Derrick Favors, Snyder did not have much to work with, yet found a way to maximize the utilization of his star players, namely forward Gordon Hayward and center Rudy Gobert.
The Jazz play at one of the slowest paces in the league and are renowned on the defensive end, meaning that opponents play at their pace and have a difficult time capitalizing on scoring opportunities. This is the tempo that Snyder has set for Utah, as he intelligently relies on the veterans — guard Joe Johnson and forward Boris Diaw — to help implement his philosophy for the team. The Jazz currently sit as No. 4 in the Western Conference at 44-28 and are ahead of teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder. The Jazz are typically seen as a perennial sixth or seventh seed in the West, but Snyder has his team outperforming and looking to carry that momentum into the playoffs.
Have a reaction to this article? Write a letter to the editor.