Most Valuable Player: James Harden
Chris Ryan: James Harden is the most valuable player of this season, and owner of the most improved persona. Or maybe most improved perception is more accurate. The MVP award is like most awards — it’s about a narrative. And the James Harden story last season was that he didn’t play well with others. Yes, in this case, “others” was Dwight Howard, whose This Is Your Life episode would just be a few dozen NBA players and coaches giving him the finger. But after a 41–41 season that cost Kevin McHale his job, put Daryl Morey on the hot seat, saw the Rockets get drubbed by the Warriors in the first round, and sent Howard on his way to Atlanta, there was a perception that maybe you couldn’t win with Harden as your centerpiece. To which new coach Mike D’Antoni and Morey responded, you wanna bet?
Since arriving in Houston in 2012, Harden’s offensive output has only ballooned. He was the avatar for Rockets general manager Morey’s high octane/highly efficient brand of offense, which emphasized scoring from behind the arc, at the cup, or from the stripe, and consigned the midrange game to the dustbin of history. Harden is the perfect 3-and-free player (the D is another story). As Howard Beck outlined in his Bleacher Report story on Harden and Co. last week, the 27-year-old (in his time with Houston) has scored “8,306 points on threes, free throws and shots at the rim, according to the Rockets.” His closest competition is Steph Curry, and he ain’t that close.
So he’s a new kind of offensive player for a new kind of offense. That’s one way of looking at things. But there’s a fine line between breaking basketball and solving it. The last one-and-a-half seasons of Harden’s career have walked that line. Prior to the 2016–17, Harden was mocked for his lack of effort on defense and his head-snapping flops on offense as much as he was lauded for his explosive statistical output. And the Rockets were generally disliked outside of Houston or the Sloan Conference. But whether you liked him or loathed him, Harden was obviously one of the best players in the league, so Morey and D’Antoni decided to turn into the spin, and gave him the keys.
James Harden, point guard, has been a revelation this season. As an off-ball wing, Harden seemed greedy and relatively disinterested in team basketball. Now he is the team — and seemingly all of Houston’s offense springs from him. Harden’s numbers this season are so eye-popping that when he became the first NBA player to put up a 50–15–15 triple-double in December, it wasn’t out of character. Statistically, his only competition for the award is Russell Westbrook; but as Harden’s former OKC teammate has struggled to navigate a post-Durant landscape where he has to do everything all of the time, Harden has gracefully led the Rockets to the third-best record in the league, brought the careers of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson back to life, and helped make Clint Capela, Montrezl Harrell, and Sam Dekker into legit NBA talent.
The MVP award means different things to different people, but it is ultimately a marriage between numbers and narrative — between who has the best statistical case and who put his stamp on the arc of the season. Nobody’s got numbers like Harden, and most remarkably, nobody has a better story.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green
Jonathan Tjarks: The award could be given to Rudy Gobert or Kawhi Leonard without drawing any complaints. They are two of the most dominant defensive players in the league, the linchpins of the second- and third-rated defenses in the NBA, respectively. The best defense halfway through the season, though, resides in Golden State, which allows a league-low 101.0 points per 100 possessions. The Warriors haven’t missed a beat without Andrew Bogut, thanks in large part to the unparalleled defensive versatility of Draymond Green.
Every team in the league wants to spread the floor with as many shooters as possible; the problem for everyone who wants to play like the Warriors is they don’t have a frontcourt player who can defend as many different positions as Green. At 6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, he has the reach of a big man and the mobility of a guard. His low center of gravity makes it almost impossible to move him in the post, and his quickness allows him to switch screens and stay in front of guards on the perimeter. His defense goes beyond his physical traits, though. Green is a maniac willing to give up his body and do anything to prevent an opponent from scoring. He’s in the top 25 in both steal and block percentage among players with at least 1,000 minutes, he’s averaging career highs in steals (2.0 per game) and blocks (1.4), and he goes from defense to offense as well as any player in the league.
All things considered, Green’s fellow DPOY contenders simply can’t match the breadth of his defensive utility. In a seven-game series, Green might be able to play Gobert off the floor by forcing him to play defense 25-plus feet from the basket. The Spurs don’t use Leonard as a situational 5, though I would sure like to see them try at some point. Until they do, it’s hard for his defense to have quite as much of an impact as Green’s. If he’s not the best defensive player in the league, he is the most important.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid
Danny Chau: From the summer of 2014 to 2016, the Sixers’ R&D laboratory was making crucial structural tweaks to their destroyer weapon behind closed doors. With over two years of rehabilitation under the shroud of front-office secrecy imposed by former Sixers GM Sam Hinkie, Joel Embiid was more idea than player, and in the bleakest moments of the Sixers’ run of premeditated futility, Embiid felt like an idea whose time had come to die. The life cycle of hype is volatile. Whatever greatness existed within Embiid’s gargantuan frame, it couldn’t possibly have survived such an extended stint of injury and inactivity.
Well, 30 games into his NBA career, it has. Oh my god, it has. Embiid — whose minutes cap was supposed to be a temporary precautionary measure — will likely play on a 28-minute restriction for the rest of the year, which effectively makes Embiid’s already-historic season a beta testing. Those team-imposed limitations have made him a per-possession titan of the highest caliber: Since 1973–74 — the season that blocks were first officially recorded in the NBA — no player has ever put up numbers like the 38.8 points, 15.3 rebounds, and 4.8 blocks that Embiid currently averages per 100 possessions.
With Embiid’s unearthly dexterity at his size, an overgrown Hakeem Olajuwon had always been a convenient comparison; but the more you watch him, the more it’s conceivable to align his impact on the game to Shaquille O’Neal’s 25 years ago. Of course, times have changed: Young Shaq devastated teams with raw power and inhumanly quick turnaround hooks and jumpers that took advantage of his wide turn radius; Embiid’s shown similar capabilities, in addition to shooting at a higher percentage from 25-plus feet out (27 of 68) than Kyle Korver (or Klay Thompson, albeit on much fewer attempts) this year. O’Neal was at the vanguard of the NBA’s last golden age of centers. You could make the argument that there hasn’t been a center since Shaq who has magnified a generational style de rigueur in both athletic and personal charisma like Embiid has.
The numbers have already solidified Embiid’s case as a potential all-time great, let alone his case for the ROY award. And yet he’s still every bit a vessel for the basketball fan’s imagination. Seriously: Imagine Joel Embiid even consistently playing 32 minutes a game.
Most Improved Player: Harrison Barnes
Tjarks: By the end of last season’s NBA Finals, Warriors fans were cheering when Harrison Barnes made an open jumper. He averaged 9.3 points a game on 35.2 percent shooting in those seven games and had completely lost his confidence; he was a fourth-year player who had already become a shell of himself. When the Mavs signed Barnes to a max contract in the offseason, you could hear the guffaws from all over the league. Before training camp started, Rick Carlisle warned people not to expect Barnes to do too much too soon, saying he needed to be eased into a bigger role in Dallas.
Instead, a rash of injuries to an older Mavs roster opened up an opportunity for Barnes, and he ran with it. He has nearly doubled his scoring average from his final season in Golden State while also increasing his field goal percentage. He has completely changed his game, going from a guy who spotted up in the corner to becoming the top isolation scorer in the NBA. Barnes leads the league in the percentage of his field goal attempts that come out of isolations, scoring more efficiently than noted isolationists like Jamal Crawford, Carmelo Anthony, and James Harden.
He has a position change to thank. Barnes has gone from a small forward in Golden State to a small-ball power forward in Dallas. He’s too quick and agile for most big men to guard on the perimeter, and his deceptive strength has made him a tough cover from many areas on the court. He has been a key cog on the Mavs improved defense, too: playing Barnes at the 4 has allowed the Mavs to switch screens in lineups with versatile defenders who can guard multiple positions.
The Mavs have moved Dirk Nowitzki to the 5, partly because he is too slow to guard most power forwards these days, and partly because Barnes has been too good at the 4 to bump him down a position. Just like Dirk did a generation before, Barnes has done his part in redefining the power forward position. What Harrison Barnes has become is a far cry from the player who couldn’t stay on the floor just seven months ago.
Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon
Kevin O’Connor: The Rockets outscore teams by 7.5 points per 100 possessions when James Harden is on the floor, and that number only drops to 3.8 when he’s off. That’s not at all a significant drop compared to what the Thunder experience when Russell Westbrook is off (a differential of 15.8 points per 100 possessions), since Eric Gordon holds the fort by averaging 18 points and 2.9 assists per game when coming off the bench.
Gordon averages 28.3 points and 4.8 assists per 36 minutes with a usage percentage of 33.7 when Harden is off the floor, compared to only 16.9 points and 2.5 assists with a usage of 19.1 when Harden is on the floor. In plain terms, Gordon seamlessly transitions from role player to star depending on what the team needs from him. “When James is off the floor, having [Gordon] on the floor is just massive,” Morey told me last month. “He’s a do-it-all player.”
The role of a sixth man should be to sustain a team’s production while its best players are off the floor, and that’s precisely what Gordon does. The Rockets have the third-best record (34–13) and fourth-best net rating (plus-6.6) not just because of Harden’s dominance, but due to the contributions of their supporting players like Gordon.
Coach of the Year: Mike D’Antoni
Chau: Mike D’Antoni is iconic, and there are plenty of reasons he is that can be extrapolated from the Houston Rockets’ exhilarating season, but let’s start with a scene from Jack McCallum’s Seven Seconds or Less: My Season on the Bench With the Runnin’ and Gunnin’ Phoenix Suns. In early March 2006, the Suns signed Tim Thomas for postseason reinforcements. The 29-year-old Thomas, who to that point, had played three games all season with the Chicago Bulls before getting picked up by Phoenix, is gearing up for his first practice with a team that played at the fastest pace in the league. D’Antoni walks up to welcome him. The first thing he says (after taking out the Tootsie Pop from his mouth)? “I just want to let you know that I’m never going to get mad at you for shooting. I’m going to get mad at you for not shooting.”
As I said: iconic. D’Antoni has remained consistent to his dream, and unlike puppet masters such as Phil Jackson, his grand vision was so future-forward a decade ago that it’s basically right on time these days, validated by the past two NBA champions. Maybe all D’Antoni’s done for Houston is change a certain perception about the team — after all, he’s landed in real estate initially developed by Daryl Morey, and James Harden has always been great — but perception counts for a lot in the NBA. Last season revealed the Rockets as a moribund team with a moribund superstar. Harden grappled with apathy, Dwight Howard, an entire nation sick of his foul-baiting, and the Lil B curse. How better to remedy the situation than bring in the most based NBA head coach of recent memory?
Morey wants 3s, so how about 40 attempts a game? Harden wants to be respected as the best player in the NBA, so how about 100 touches night in and night out to prove you’re the best at what you do? He’s revitalized the careers of players like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson the same way he did so many players in the past: by letting his players luxuriate behind the 3-point arc like it was the fountain of youth. The Rockets went from being a .500 team last season to being awfully proud owners of a .723 record, good for the third-best win-loss percentage in the NBA.
D’Antoni’s a serial enabler and his weapon of choice is Occam’s razor; have the right players around and the game is as simple as you want it to be. We literally have the book on him, but when everything is aligned like it is with these Houston Rockets, D’Antoni’s teams are capable of producing a rare kind of joy.
Executive of the Year: Sam Hinkie
Jason Concepcion: Joel Embiid, a 7-foot social media art installation on a minutes restriction, is putting up statistics which read more like apocalyptic metaphor than numerical representation of reality. Nerlens Noel is an energetic defensive terrorizer, roaming the paint and perimeter alike in search of lights to extinguish. The belated debut of no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons — who has been garnering comparisons to Magic Johnson and LeBron James since he was … well, some unreasonably young age at which not much should be expected of anyone — is looming somewhere over the immediate horizon. Robert Covington is a dynamic, do-anything glue guy. Dario Saric just did this. And, a year after winning 10 games total, the Sixers are 15–27 midway through the season.
Boom. You’ve just been Processed.
The person responsible for assembling all that talent, the person who, by all rights, should be the NBA Executive of the Year, is currently cooling his heels in a Palo Alto Starbucks. But that’s OK. After all, Sam Hinkie doesn’t believe in doing things linearly.
“Why do we watch basketball games front to back?” Hinkie asked in a recent Sports Illustrated profile. “Why not watch games back to front, or out of order?” I suppose one answer would be the immutable flow of time. Another would be: Why would you watch a basketball game back to front, you beautiful egghead maniac? Another might possibly be: Sam, pass the vape.
That said, an admission: I don’t particularly find the Process, which is really just plain tanking but in a much more brazen and systematic way, all that clever. Neither am I a great admirer of Sam Hinkie, who has always struck me as being as much huckster as executive. He managed to weave Philly’s natural tribalism and his prepackaged mystique into a fine set of emperor’s robes, all encoded in a successful rebrand of TED Talks jargon. This is a dude who wrote a 13-page resignation letter studded with arcane academic and literary references, which defended, in detail, his tenure as Sixers GM, answering every charge leveled at him during his nearly three years at the helm of USS Tank. And he wants you to believe that he didn’t expect that the document would go public. Please. Hinkie was the GM of an NBA team — the subject of numerous media profiles — not the branch manager of a local bank. Do not for a second fall for this. That’s just a smart person’s version of Oh, this old thing.
Be that as it may. Sam Hinkie for Executive of the Year. It probably won’t happen. But it should.