The NBA regular season is over, and we’re now glued to playoff drama to see which team will be crowned as the champions come June. Aside from the team accolades that accompany winning a championship, this season has been full of individual accomplishments and storylines that have both entertained us and opened our eyes to new possibilities.
The debates as to who should win each NBA award aren’t new. We’ve been talking about the race for Rookie of the Year since Ben Simmons’s incredible start to the season. But now that the regular season is over, it’s time to actually crown the MVP, RoY, DPoY, MIP, and CoY.
Most Valuable Player
The MVP race has once again included some familiar faces in Lebron James, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, but this year is different for several reasons.
LeBron’s Cavaliers have had their ups and down over the course of a tumultuous season, and there were times when they had us questioning their ability to keep pace with some of the other contenders in the Eastern Conference. They ended up securing just the 4th seed in the East and looked like anything but a Finals-caliber team during their first game against the Pacers. While LeBron remains the unquestioned most valuable player on his team, the Cavs are simply not playing well enough for him to capture the award for the 5th time.
Russell Westbrook deserves to be in the conversation, after guiding his team to the 4th seed in the loaded Western Conference. He did so in spectacular fashion, recording his second consecutive year averaging a triple double. However, the Thunder were dangerously close to missing out on the postseason altogether, finishing just two games ahead of the 9th place Denver Nuggets. The lack of dominance from the talent-infused Thunder takes him out of the MVP race, despite his tremendous statistical performance.
That leaves James Harden, who has taken his game to new heights this season, as my clear front-runner for the league’s MVP award. Harden closed the regular season, averaging 30.4 PPG, with 8.8 APG and 5.4 RBG, numbers that have only been achieved twice during the 3-point era – Westbrook in 2017, and Michael Jordan in 1989. Those monstrous numbers are further exemplified by the sheer dominance with which he played, often taking over games and hitting clutch shots to get his team the win.
To illustrate just how much he means to his team’s success, consider that Harden played in 72 games over the course of the season, after missing ten games due to a hamstring injury. In a seven game stretch in January without Harden, the Rockets went 4-3, a far cry from their dominant form with their star point guard. In the 38 games Harden played after returning from injury, the Rockets had a record of 33-5. That is a massive difference, which so eloquently displays the unwavering value that Harden brings to this franchise. He is the best player on the NBA’s best team, helping Houston post a 65-17 record, breaking the franchise record for most wins in a season (previously 58). For many reasons that go beyond statistics, Harden gets my vote for the 2018 NBA Most Valuable Player.
Rookie of the Year
The 2018 Rookie of the Year race really comes down to two very promising players in Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell. This year’s race has led to many discussions among NBA enthusiasts, who can state the case for each contender.
Simmons boasts the better all around numbers, averaging 15.8 PPG, 8.2 APG and 8.1 RPG. Simmons is a 6’10” point guard, who has taken a monster role on his team and is leaving his mark on the NBA. His dominant play has been even more critical with the absence of teammate Joel Embiid, helping lead the 76ers on that 16-game winning streak heading into the postseason – the longest streak for any team in NBA history entering the postseason.
Meanwhile, the main reason for the ultra competitive RoY race is the unexpected emergence of Donovan Mitchell as a rising star. Mitchell has really taken control of Utah’s offensive attack. His season-long stats were impressive, with 20.5 PPG, 3.7 PPG and 3.7 RPG. However, the numbers only go so far in illustrating just how important he is to the success of the Jazz.
When Gordon Hayward announced he was leaving Utah to join the Celtics, the general consensus was the the Jazz would be unable to overcome his loss. Nobody could have foreseen the resurgence from Mitchell and what he could do for the organization in such a short span. Mitchell placed the team on his back, guiding them to the playoffs and exceeding everyone’s expectations.
Advocates of Mitchell for RoY honors continuously point to the fact that Simmons is not a true rookie, having sat out a full year due to injury while still benefiting from being a part of an NBA team, including practices and film study. However, Blake Griffin similarly was held out of a full season of play as a result of injury, only to come back the following year and claim the award.
In the end, Simmons’ play places him just ahead of Mitchell, as he has been undeniably dominant for any player in the league, let alone a rookie. He is a critical part to a more successful team. Only time will tell which one of these rising stars will end up the better player, but as far as their rookie campaigns, Simmons gets the slight edge over Mitchell.
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert has been the driving force behind the Utah Jazz’s strong defensive performance this year. Since returning from a knee injury on January 19th, his tremendous play has guided the team to a 30-8 record to close the season. Each of those victories proved to be crucial with the tight race that ensued in the Western Conference playoffs race.
Gobert is averaging 2.3 blocks per game, as well as 10.7 RPG. His presence as a towering 7-foot-1 center allows the Jazz to play an aggressive style of defense, knowing the big man is handling their opponents’ attack in the paint.
The Jazz held opponents to just 97.5 points per 100 possessions since his January return to the lineup, which would go a long way in the team’s potential postseason run. Gobert is by far the most impressive individual defensive player in the league at the moment, and he has earned the DPoY award without much contest.
Most Improved Player
The former second overall pick in the draft had a rough start to his career, unable to establish himself as a top player for the Orlando Magic, and later struggling in a complementary role to Russell Westbrook in OKC. After two teams had given up on him entirely, the Pacers handed Oladipo an opportunity to take over as the team’s centerpiece, and it immediately paid dividends.
Oladipo is having a strong season, setting career highs in practically every major category, including 23.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, and 4.3 APG. He has been a force at both ends of the court, also improving his total number of steals, on his way to guiding the Pacers to a very unexpected 5th seed in the Eastern Conference.
His influence on the Pacers goes far beyond statistical success. He has infused the locker room with a swagger and confidence that had been lacking even when Paul George was on this squad. The Pacers were expected to be a contender for a top lottery pick, but instead they’re leading LeBron and the Cavs 1-0 in the first round.
Coach of the Year
The Coach of the Year in 2018 should go to Brad Stevens, who has managed to lead the Boston Celtics to the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference, ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston’s success is even more impressive considering the team lost star Gordon Hayward just minutes into the first game of the season. They also lost Kyrie Irving in late March, after he underwent a knee procedure.
The Celtics have seen a total of six players missing at least 15 games this season, including Hayward, Irving, Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris. These obstacles could have sent the Celtics’ season into a downward spiral, but their coach has been able to masterfully push the team’s agenda forward, finishing the regular season with a 55-27 record.
In addition to overcoming so many injuries, Stevens has shown his worth on the NBA stage. He has been able to improve his winning percentage in each season so far. Celtics.com reporter Taylor Snow illustrated this point in a tweet earlier this month:
With tonight’s win, Brad Stevens becomes the 2nd coach in NBA history to have his win-loss% increase annually over his 1st 5 full seasons.
Y1: 25-57 (.305)
Y2: 40-42 (.488)
Y3: 48-34 (.585)
Y4: 53-29 (.646)
Y5: 54-25 (.684) [incomplete]
Mike Woodson was the other coach to do so.
— Taylor Snow (@taylorcsnow) April 7, 2018
While many other NBA coaches, including Houston’s Mike D’Antoni and Indiana’s Nate McMillan, are also deserving of being in the discussion, Stevens has seemingly achieved more with less at his disposal, and should therefore be the 2017-18 Coach of the Year.