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My NBA Awards Ballot

| Friday, April 8, 2022

After another thrilling edition of March Madness, the basketball world now shifts its attention back to the NBA, where teams are counting down the final days of the regular season and gearing up for the playoffs (or the draft lottery). With that being the case, the annual season-long discussion over the NBA’s end-of-year awards has reached a crescendo, and I wanted to weigh in on the debates and present my picks for each of the individual awards. Before beginning, it is important to note that these selections are not predictions for who will win the awards. Rather, they are the picks I would make in the unlikely scenario of the NBA giving me a ballot.

Most Valuable Player – Nikola Jokic

The race for the regular season’s highest honor has seemingly come down to a trio of big men: Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. While the margin is incredibly thin, I lean toward Jokic earning his second consecutive MVP. Embiid is perhaps the league’s most dominant force, and after leading the Bucks to the championship last year, I still consider Antetokounmpo the best player in the world until proven otherwise, but no one has brought more value than Jokic this year. Nearly every advanced stat in existence points to him, with many indicating that he is having one of the greatest seasons ever. His raw averages of 27 points, 13.7 rebounds and 7.9 assists are incredible in their own right, and he’s doing it with elite efficiency while playing the best defense of his career. Just as importantly, he has the Nuggets in sixth in the West despite Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., their second and third-best players, both having missed the entire season due to injury. Any way you frame it, Jokic has been the NBA’s Most Valuable Player.

Most Improved Player – Darius Garland

Most Improved Player has the most nebulous criteria of any award and leaves a lot up to the voter’s interpretation. Should it go to someone like Ja Morant, who used this season to transition from a star into a full-fledged superstar, a member of the NBA’s elite? Or to a promising young player who finally realized their potential and became a high-end starter, like Miles Bridges? It’s a fine line to walk, and I chose to split the difference and select the player that best made “The Leap” — the one that turns someone from a solid, everyday player into a star. This year, that player was Darius Garland. The Cavaliers have been one of this season’s best stories, a team expected to be among the league’s worst that has found themselves in the playoff picture. Garland’s elite scoring and playmaking ability has been key to that surprising success, as he has averaged 21.7 points and 8.7 assists per game. Garland made his first All-Star appearance this year, and both he and the Cavs are on the cusp of taking the league by storm in the near future.

Rookie of the Year – Evan Mobley

Another crucial factor in the Cavaliers’ surprising turnaround has been the play of Evan Mobley. The third overall draft pick has been an elite defender for the Cavs since day one, and his smooth post game and guard-like passing and ball handling skills showcase his outstanding offensive potential. For me, Mobley’s ability to combine statistical production with impacting winning is what pushes him to the front of the pack. Selecting Mobley over the Raptors’ Scottie Barnes was the most difficult decision among any of the awards, as Barnes’ impressive two-way play has quickly made him a standout for a Toronto team on the rise. I gave Mobley the nod due to his slightly superior defensive impact, but it was truly a toss up between the two. Cade Cunningham, drafted first overall by the Pistons, got off to a slow start but now leads all rookies in points and assists per game after a dominant post All-Star break stretch. I would bet on Cunningham winding up as the best player in the class, but his early struggles and the Pistons’ dismal season slot him behind Mobley and Barnes for the award.

Sixth Man of the Year – Tyler Herro

This is by far the most clear-cut selection, as it is difficult to even make a case for anyone other than Tyler Herro. After an impressive rookie season in which he helped lead the Heat to the bubble NBA Finals, many thought a breakout campaign was in store for Herro last season. It turned out that the breakout was coming, just one year later than expected. Herro is averaging 20.8 points, 5 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 40% on three-pointers and contributing for the top team in the Eastern Conference. Herro may have an unfair advantage given that he is averaging nearly 33 minutes per game off the bench, but he seems like a shoo-in to bring home the hardware.

Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY) – Marcus Smart

The DPOY has long been off-limits for guards, with Gary Payton being the last to win the award in 1996. For most of this season, that trend seemed likely to continue, as it looked like Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green or Giannis Antetokounmpo would add yet another trophy to their mantel. That all changed when the Boston Celtics flipped a switch at the new year and became the best defensive team in the league, with Marcus Smart at the center of the turnaround. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to accurately compare the value of a rim protector like Gobert to a perimeter pit bull like Smart, but Smart’s versatility and ability to effectively guard all five positions set him apart from bigger players that become liabilities outside of the paint. The grit and tenacity that Smart plays with, coupled with his tendency to elevate his teammates’ defensive play, make him my pick as the NBA’s best defender.

Coach of the Year – Taylor Jenkins

The obvious pick, and a completely deserving selection, is the Phoenix Suns’ Monty Williams. The Suns have been the league’s best and most consistent team all season, and Williams’ leadership has been a major factor. However, I take into account the fact that, while few envisioned the Suns being quite this dominant, they entered the year coming off a trip to the NBA Finals and were widely expected to be a championship contender. Conversely, the Memphis Grizzlies finishing the season with the NBA’s second-best record is something no one saw coming, which is why Taylor Jenkins is my pick for Coach of the Year. Jenkins took over a rebuilding Grizzlies franchise in 2019 and has turned them into a powerhouse in just three seasons. The Grizzlies are a team of young players that have great chemistry, play unselfishly and are consistently locked in defensively, which is a testament to the culture that Jenkins has built in a short time. Perhaps the strongest argument in his favor is the Grizzlies’ astounding 20-3 record in games played without superstar guard Ja Morant, highlighting their next man-up mentality and ability to overcome adversity, both of which are strong indicators of a well-coached team.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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