This is my eighth year as a NBA postseason-awards voter, and this was perhaps the most difficult time filling out the ballot.
Unlike the majority of the players who made a mockery of their All-Star votes, I have put a lot of thought into my selections.
My votes did not come easily after much thought, and after casting my ballot early Friday morning I naturally began to second-guess myself immediately.
But I’m sticking with my picks, and here are my award winners for the 2016-17 season.
Most Valuable Player
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
My five finalists were Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas. On Friday morning, my final two were Westbrook and Harden.
Why Westbrook over Harden? It wasn’t an easy decision. The simple way to look at it would be to say Harden won more games than Westbrook and the Thunder and exceeded expectations. But I expected the Rockets would be good this season and despite the team underachieving in the 2015-16 season due to internal issues.
And the “more wins” argument makes it seem as if Westbrook put up his numbers late in games on a terrible 20-win lottery team. Oklahoma City won 47 games after losing a superstar in Kevin Durant.
I expected Westbrook to get the Thunder into the postseason, but he did so in historic fashion.
Even if he hadn’t averaged a triple-double for the season (say he’d averaged 9.9 rebounds and 9.8 assists), Westbrook still would have been in the top-15 in scoring, rebounding and assists.
Still, Westbrook set a record for most triple-doubles in a season (42) and never slowed down when it seemed natural he’d eventually tail off at his frenetic pace.
Westbrook would not be denied this season, so I could not deny him my vote.
Defensive Player of the Year
Draymond Green, Golden State
Green led the NBA in steals per game (2.03) and was the glue to the team that led the NBA in opponents field-goal percentage allowed (.435).
Green’s post defense in clutch situations is not to be tested, as many players learned this season.
The defensive play of Leonard remained spectacular this season, and 7-foot-1 Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert proved centers can still anchor a defense in a small-ball era.
But it’s time that Green is recognized for the tangible and intangible things he does to make the Warriors among the best defensive teams in the NBA.
Sixth Man of the Year
Andre Iguodala, Golden State
Eric Gordon of the Rockets was an easy choice, if this category was based on scoring. Patty Mills of the Spurs has been good, too. But Iguodala keeps it together on both ends of the floor for the Warriors and remains one of the NBA’s better perimeter defenders.
He’s a big reason the Warriors flourished while Durant recovered from his knee injury. He picked up his scoring average to 11.9 points per game during the Warriors 13-game winning streak without Durant. When Iguodala is on the court, the Warriors are a better team.
Rookie of the Year
Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee
If Joel Embiid of the Sixers had stayed healthy, this award was a no-brainer. But in the same way I wouldn’t give the award to a rookie based solely off a solid 30 games to end a season, I couldn’t vote for the Philadelphia center based on a résumé built on work solely before the All-Star break.
So why Brogdon? His 10.2 points per game aren’t overly impressive, ranking fourth among rookies. But what Brogdon did was become a steadying presence at point guard for a playoff team that had to deal with the loss of Jabari Parker.
Dario Saric finished strong for Philadelphia and Jaylen Brown had to step up with Avery Bradley injured and helped Boston secure the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Still, my vote went to Brogdon for the leadership role he assumed, especially when the Bucks’ season could have gone in the wrong direction.
Coach of the Year
Mike D’Antoni, Houston
We all know D’Antoni is a gifted offensive coach. So it’s no surprise he was able to turn the Rockets into a scoring juggernaut.
D’Antoni’s best decision was shifting Harden to point guard. Harden remained a gifted scorer, but also led the league in assists.
D’Antoni also settled what looked to be a dysfunctional situation from afar after the Rockets underachieved last season and went from Western Conference finalist in 2015 to an eighth-seed in 2016 and being bounced out of the first playoffs in the first round.
Scott Brooks stepped into what many thought was a toxic situation in Washington and was patient as John Wall found his health after knee surgery. By the end of the season, the Wizards had the look of a team that could be a dark horse to come out of the East.
Erik Spoelstra, again, proved he is one of the NBA’s best coaches with the turnaround Miami had this season. When most thought the Heat would settle for tanking, Spoelstra pushed the Heat to the very end and nearly made the playoffs with a 41-41 record.
Most Improved Player
Nikola Jokic, Denver
Who knew the Nuggets had a possible franchise center on their roster before the season? They do in the second-year center who showed he could be a triple-double threat, too.
Jokic averaged 16.7 points (up from 10 per game as a rookie) and 9.8 rebounds (up from 7.0). Most impressive, Jokic showed he could be a player who can be an All-Star and be a cornerstone piece.
Jokic will be a problem for opponents for years to come.
All-NBA first team
Russell Westbrook, Thunder G
James Harden, Rockets G
LeBron James, Cavaliers F
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs F
DeMarcus Cousins, Pelicans C
All-Rookie first team
Malcolm Brogdon, Bucks
Dario Saric, 76ers
Jaylen Brown, Celtics
Buddy Hield, Kings
Jamal Murray, Nuggets
All-Defense first team
Draymond Green, Warriors F
Kawhi Leonard, Spurs F
Klay Thompson, Warriors F
Tony Allen, Grizzlies F
Rudy Gobert, Jazz C