Heat Check: Evaluating My NBA Awards Predictions

(Jose Garcia, via Flickr)

Remember five months ago? The Cubs were still perennial losers, the Vikings looked like a good team, and the United States was … different. I only bring up those days, because that’s back when I first made my awards picks for the 2016-17 NBA season. And what’s the point in making predictions if you’re just going to let them get buried, never to be reassessed again? We here at SBD hold ourselves accountable!

With just a little over a month left in the NBA regular season, now is a good time to check in with picks I was once so confident in, and see if they’re still on pace to collect some glorious hardware. Am I confident any of them will win an award at year’s end? Of course! Let’s start with…

NBA 2016-17 Award Predictions

Rookie of the Year: Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans

Confidence Level: Oh boy.

The good news is: Joel Embiid’s season-ending injury opens up the door in a Rookie of the Year race that seemed completely over in December. The bad news is: Hield is so far back in the race, someone would have to hold that door open for an uncomfortably long time while he’s pressured into walking faster, even though he didn’t ask for the door to be held open. What started as a kind gesture has essentially become a non-verbal “giddy up!” Is that what you were going for, random stranger?

Sorry, sidetracked. But in a way, you could say Hield was sidetracked for most of the season. (Yes, nice save!) Now in Sacramento, Buddy’s usage is up, and his shooting has improved as a result. It’s a small sample size, but had he been able to achieve these numbers throughout the entire year, he could’ve been the runner-up-turned-favorite when Embiid got hurt. Instead, he probably slots in behind Dario Saric, Malcolm Brogdon, Yogi Ferrell, and Jamal Murray at this point in the season.

In the end, ROY voters will take issue with the fact that Embiid played fewer than 800 minutes. But I think given the choice between his incredible 31 games and Hield’s mediocre 82, Embiid would still win out. At this point Saric and Brogdon are the only ones who can possibly surpass Embiid’s insane flashes. Buddy has no chance at this one.

Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics

Confidence Level: Thinking your paper mache volcano is going to crush at the science fair, only to learn grade 12 chemistry has slightly higher standards.

Stevens has had an excellent year, coaching the Celtics to an expected no. 2 seed in the East. The biggest issue facing Stevens is that many coaches are doing the unexpected.

Mike D’Antoni’s system is working wonders in Houston; the Rockets are the second-highest scoring team and have the third-best record in all of basketball. Quin Snyder’s Jazz have an identical record to the Celtics (only good enough for fourth in the West) and the league’s stingiest defense. Erik Spoelstra’s Heat were headed for a top-three lottery pick, but have rallied back from an 11-30 start to sit on the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

So while Stevens has done enough to earn the award, others have done more. Unless he can secure the one-seed in the Eastern Conference, it’ll be hard to make a case for Stevens over any of the aforementioned coaches.

Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

Confidence Level: That unsure feeling you get on a road trip when you decide you can hold it until the next rest stop.

Draymond Green was supposed to be the no. 1 challenger for DPOY, but heading into the final month, Rudy Gobert poses the biggest threat to a Kawhi three-peat. Not only does Gobert lead the league in blocks and sit top-five in rebounds, but the advanced metrics boost his cause too. He’s tops in the league in defensive efficiency for a Jazz team that ranks first in points allowed.

Leonard has been his usual amazing self, making another case for MVP thanks to a career-high in points and assists, but that offensive boon may be a result of a slightly lower involvement on defense. Matt Moore of CBS wrote an interesting piece in December about how teams are opting to play four-on-four ball against the Spurs, and it’s hurting Kawhi’s defensive numbers. He’s still capable of making game-changing plays on defense, he just has fewer opportunities to do so in any one game.

Before Leonard came along, this was a big-man’s award: centers had taken 17 of the last 18. The tremendous season Gobert is having gives voters an excuse to return to their old ways. But no one will ever debate that Leonard is the best defender in the league, so his reputation could still net him the honor.

With Green also in the equation, this award feels like a toss-up. Not an ideal situation, but considering how the first two predictions have shaken out, I’ll take my chances with a toss.

MVP: James Harden, Houston Rockets

Confidence Level: Getting whatever wine the waiter recommends without hearing the price first. 

Going off at 10/1 before the season, Harden is now the odds-on favorite with less than a quarter of the year remaining. And if you listen to the hot-take culture out there, Russell Westbrook is apparently not even the top challenger for MVP, which is a shame, because I had a whole argument planned for why Harden is a better pick than Russ.

Instead, let’s just look in isolation at what Harden has done. Currently, he’s first in the league in assists, third in points, second in rebounds among guards, fifth in usage rating and first in win shares. The Rockets rank second in offensive efficiency and are on pace for 56 wins after winning just 41 last year. On its own, that sounds like a strong case for MVP. But the real confidence in this pick comes from the barriers Harden’s competitors face.

On Tuesday, there was a surge of “Kawhi should win MVP” takes after the Spurs’ lockdown defender went off against Houston. But the reason that case got shoved down our throats the past week was that no one was really talking about it prior. Leonard is easy to forget about: he’s a quiet player on the NBA’s most consistently great team. Unless the Spurs can actually overachieve by passing the Warriors for first in the West, you watch, voters will forget about Leonard at year’s end again.

As for Westbrook – who will likely average a triple-double on the year – his obstacle is even harder to overcome than being bland: a lot of people flat out don’t like him. He’s on the verge of an incredible statistical accomplishment, but as a result, he’s also getting hammered for “selfish play.”

Ultimately, it’s going to be a close MVP vote, but the advantage Harden has this season is how non-polarizing he is. He won’t be first on every ballot, but he should be in everyone’s top three, whereas you know some media folks are going to take hard stances on Westbrook, rating him too low or omitting him altogether in order to drive up their clicks.

And because of that, even though I may go 0 for 3 on my other awards picks, I should still be leaving this NBA awards season in the positives.