Superstar guards Russell Westbrook and James Harden dominated the headlines most every night they played during the 2016-17 regular season, posting historic stat lines and fantastic highlights to become the NBA’s top two Most Valuable Player candidates. Debates raged over their respective cases for the award throughout the season, and they have continued despite (or maybe because of) their teams’ eliminations from the postseason.
Their status as MVP favorites is now official. The league announced the finalists for its six major individual awards on TNT prior to Friday night’s Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and Harden and Westbrook headed the list of honorees. Both players had already been named to the All-NBA First Team on Thursday. Harden was a unanimous decision, but Westbrook missed out on one first-place vote (which went to Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry).
The NBA will announce the MVP, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man Award, Most Improved Player, and Coach of the Year winners on June 26 during the inaugural NBA Awards show on TNT. The awards were voted on by an 100-member media panel at the conclusion of the regular season, but the results will be withheld until the awards show in an attempt to build drama. (Finalists are merely the top-three finishers in each category.) Rapper-singer-actor-multihyphenate performer Drake is set to host the show, which will also include several awards voted on by fans such as Dunk of the Year.
Kawhi Leonard joins Westbrook and Harden on the MVP list and is the lone member of the trio still active in the postseason. He is a superstar at both ends and led the Spurs to the NBA’s second-best record. Kawhi is also a finalists for Defensive Player of the Year and joins Rudy Gobert as the only players to be named in two categories.
LeBron James, Isaiah Thomas, and Stephen Curry had also been named as worthy MVP candidates at some point during the season. In a testament to LeBron’s greatness, this season marks the first time since 2008 that he has not finished in the top three of the vote.
Check out the full list of awards finalists, plus our analysis, below. You can also take a look at BDL’s awards picks, which include several names announced on Friday.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
James Harden, Houston Rockets
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Westbrook and Harden are the clear leaders among the trio of MVP finalists, but the former stands out as the favorite (and not just because every BDL writer picked him for the award). Harden received plenty of support and a significant push from Rockets general manager Daryl Morey, but Westbrook generally offered the superior narrative via his triple-double average, more highlight-ready moments, and a more purely exciting experience for neutrals. Leonard has to be considered the underdog in this race, although he would be a perfectly deserving winner. Westbrook and Harden were just too incredible all season.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Embiid was the overwhelming favorite halfway through the season, but a torn meniscus kept him out after January 27 and limited him to just 31 games. He might win anyway (and would still like your vote), but his teammate Saric could emerge as the winner due to his steadier play and varied skills as a scorer, rebounder, and facilitator. The 24-year-old Brogdon vastly exceeded expectations and became a solid guard for the Bucks. He was picked 36th in June and would be the lowest selection ever to win this award.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs (2015 and 2016 winner)
Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Leonard can become the first player since Dwight Howard to win this award in three consecutive seasons, but he’ll once again have to beat out Green, who’s finished second in the last two seasons. Kawhi’s skills as an on-ball defender are unrivaled, but Draymond could claim this year’s award due to his league-best versatility and, if we’re being honest, voter fatigue towards the two-time winner. Gobert led the league in blocks and would be a perfectly deserving winner, but he feels like a long shot.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Lou Williams, Houston Rockets (2015 winner)
Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets
Gordon and Williams fit the typical Sixth Man mold as top bench scorers — Williams led the league in scoring and came in second in three-pointers among reserves, finishing only behind Gordon in the latter category. Yet Iguodala could come out on top if voters prized his defensive versatility and key role in one of the NBA’s best lineups. The Warriors wing finished second to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Jamal Crawford last season.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The NBA’s most difficult to define award includes three players who rose to stardom this season. Gobert jumped from a defensive ace to a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and burgeoning offensive threat, Jokic used a promising rookie season as a springboard to becoming one of the league’s best offensive centers, and Antetokounmpo fulfilled a sizable portion of his boundless potential to start the All-Star Game and lead the Bucks back to the postseason. The Bucks’ do-everything, position-shattering star is the odds-on favorite to claim this trophy and find himself among the MVP finalists as soon as next season.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs (2003, 2012, and 2014 winner)
Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets (2005 winner)
Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat
Popovich is arguably the best coach in NBA history and probably deserves to win this award the most every season. Those who prize narrative and single-season accomplishments most likely prefer D’Antoni, who turned around a Rockets team that looked miserable last season and helped them to the league’s third-best record. Spoelstra’s Heat did not make the postseason, but a questionably talented squad remained in the mix until the season’s final day after an 11-30 start.
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