by Preston Tolliver
MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)
The MVP race was always going to be between James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Sure, the field was wide open in October: Will LeBron James take a Lakers D-League team to the playoffs? Is this the year that Kevin Durant usurps Golden State’s golden child Steph Curry and makes the Warriors his team? And what the hell exactly was Kemba Walker eating at the beginning of the season to play that well?
But those questions were eventually answered (except the last one, which became inconsequential - Walker’s MVP-caliber play amounted to little more than just a weird case of gas) and Harden and Giannis stood alone in front of the pack, a good mile between them and whoever will be voted third (an argument could be made for Curry, or Durant, or Russell Westbrook, or Paul George). Harden actually led in a lot of categories this season: 36.1 points to Giannis’ 27.7; 7.5 assists to 5.9; 2 steals to 1.3; and .7 blocks to Giannis’ 0.4. The only statistical categories Giannis beats Harden in are field goal percentage (a biggie: 57.8 to Harden’s 44.2), rebounds (12.5 to 6.6) and turnovers (3.7 per game to Harden’s 5). Combine his offensive efficiency with his work on the defensive end - already at age 24, Giannis is an excellent two-way player, whereas Harden is likely to step to the side of anyone crawling toward the basket - then Giannis has to get the nod. He’s the league’s most valuable player.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)
He has great hair, a great attitude, a weird but efficient shot and he’s given Dallas a reason to have faith in the post-Dirk Nowitzki era: this season’s Rookie of the Year is Luka Doncic. At just 19, the international sensation scored 21.2 points per game in his rookie season and was the Mavericks best player living happily in the shadow of the retiring Nowitzki. Now, and not just because there’s not a lot of competition on that team, he’s Dallas’ star, and deserves the recognition as such.
Most Improved: D’Angelo Russell (Brooklyn Nets)
After getting the “Snitches get stitches” treatment (which in the NBA, means getting sent to Brooklyn), no one expected D’Angelo Russell to emerge as one of the premier guards of the East. He raised his points per game almost six points (from 15.5 to 21.1) and his assists from 5.2 per game to 7.
The East has lacked for years in regard to its number of quality point guards. Outside of Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons and Kemba Walker, pickings have been slim. But D’Angelo has earned his spot next to them.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams (Los Angeles Clippers)
Anytime a bench player is the best player on the team, they should automatically be handed the Sixth Man of the Year Award. Lou Williams is the reason the Clippers are in the playoffs (even if they don’t make it to a sixth game in the first round), giving some much-needed life to LA while simultaneously killing upper management’s plans of tanking this year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard (Toronto Raptors)
Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert won this award last year, but arguably only because of the absence of the NBA’s best defender. He sat out last season for the Spurs but is now Toronto’s best player, and the one true king of the north (that’s a “Game of Thrones” reference), Kawhi Leonard, is taking his iron throne back.
All NBA: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks), James Harden (Houston Rockets), Joel Embiid (Philadelphia 76ers), Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors) & Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)
First, the obvious: the MVP and the close second: Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. Giannis is the best two-way player in the league today and Harden is the best offensive threat. Joining them are Paul George (another case for best two-way player) Steph Curry (the best shooter the NBA has ever seen) and Joel Embiid, who has made the center position matter again.