While there were certainly some low moments – stars like Paul George, Kobe Bryant Kevin Durant being hurt, the Knicks and Sixers being awful, Steve Nash hanging up his high tops – the 2015 NBA season was ultimately a lot of fun and brought with it some changes.
A couple new teams made the playoffs, a couple more entered the conversation as potential title contenders and a handful of players had phenomenal years that already have hoops fiends looking ahead to next season and salivating about what Kawhi Leonard can do over a full season as “The Man” in San Antonio.
On the eve of the NBA Playoffs, it’s time to recognize the best of the best from the regular season.
Here is the First Annual Under the Bleachers NBA Awards Ballot.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Stephen Curry had a tremendous season, averaging 24 and 7 for an historically good squad in Golden State. He shot .487 from the field and .443 from deep, hit a ton of “Oh No He Didn’t!” shots and did this to the Clippers:
But James Harden was the Most Valuable Player in The Association this year.
Think about it: “The Beard” led Houston to second place in the Western Conference even though Dwight Howard played literally half a season. Harden averaged 27-7-6-2 (points-assists-rebounds-steals) while playing nearly 37 minutes per game on a team that needed 20 minutes per night from Jason Terry, Corey Brewer and Josh Smith.
This was a team that many expected to slide in the standings after the departure of Chandler Parsons, but instead, Harden but the Rockets on his back and carried them to the third-best record in the league. Curry was fantastic, but Golden State was so demonstratively better than everyone else this season, Steph was able to ride out a bunch of fourth quarters on the bench. Harden was in every game for almost the entire game and was the catalyst for everything the Rockets did on offense.
He’s lucky that stupid celebrations can’t be used against you in MVP voting or else he’d likely finish off the ballot because his whole “stirring the pot” thing is all kinds of dumb. Act like you’ve been there before, James!
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
There are going to be people that want to give this award to Nikola Mirotic because he’s come on down the stretch to be a bigger part of a good team in Chicago, but that discounts the fact that he was a “15 Minutes or Less” non-factor more often than naught up until April when Thibs finally gave him some real run.
Wiggins, last season’s first-overall pick and Minnesota’s key returning piece in the Kevin Love deal, played all 82 games, averaged 17 points with four rebounds, a couple assists and a steal every night on a dreadful Minnesota team that finished dead last in the West. He was the best first-year player from start-to-finish and had some flashes of brilliance along the way. The Canadian isn’t at the “This guy will be an All-Star next year” point like Anthony Davis was following his first year, but he’s clearly a star on the rise and should take home this award easily.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
If he didn’t miss 18 games, Kawhi Leonard gets this award, but because he did, Green becomes the new winner. The epitome of a “Glue Guy,” the former Michigan State Spartan does all the little things that often go unnoticed, but have a huge impact on the court. He guards bigger guys and smaller guys, is always in position and has a nose for the game that let’s him swipe passes and snake rebounds that he probably has no business grabbing from time-to-time.
He’s the NBA version of that dude at rec league who is always hollering “Switch!” even though no one is listening. Or playing defense. Because it’s rec league. Except everyone in Golden State listens and they’ve become the best defensive team in the league. Green is the engine that makes it all work.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors
Williams was third on the Raptors in scoring, averaging 15.5 points per game for a team that set a new franchise high in wins (49) and was demonstratively better on offense when he was on the floor than when he wasn’t. He’s basically been Toronto’s version of Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson from the Bad Boys era Detroit Pistons – a guy that comes in, starts bombing right away and keeps bombing even when he’s off because eventually, he’ll get in a rhythm or hit a clutch three late.
But here’s the thing: Williams has been an impact addition to the Raptors, but he kind of wins this award by default because the other options all have more marks against them.
Rudy Goebert moved into the starting rotation at the Trade Deadline, killing his candidacy. Same with Markieff Morris. Perennial candidates Taj Gibson and Jamal Crawford were hurt and less productive than usual, Isaiah Thomas has been very good in Boston, but only got there because he was a poisonous presence in the locker room in Phoenix, and Tristan Thompson doesn’t make a big enough impact every night in Cleveland to supplant Williams.
Most Improved Player: Rudy Goebert, Utah Jazz
While all these awards are subjective, this one is the most subjective because it comes down to how you measure improvement and who you consider as eligible for this award. Anthony Davis took his game to a new level in New Orleans, but he was the first-overall pick and an all-star, so is that a great improvement than someone like Hassan Whiteside, who went from not even being in the NBA last season to showing up at the end of January to be a double-double guy for the Heat?
Goebert averaged nine minutes a game in the 2013-14 season, his first in the league. He was an end-of-the-rotation big with five fouls to use and the raw tools to maybe one day develop into a solid shot blocker and defensive presentce. This season, the Frenchman finished the season averaging 8.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 26.3 minutes and his numbers have actually been better than that since he moved into the starting lineup at the Trade Deadline.
“The Stifle Tower” went from being an afterthought to the most fear rim protector in the league. Utah is a team on the rise (remember where you heard that) and Goebert has the chance to develop into a far more athletic version of Dikembe Mutombo going forward – a guy that can be counted on for 10&10 with a couple or three blocks and a steal or two a night.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
He won’t win because giving the award to the same guy three out of four years never happens in the NBA. This is a league that didn’t just hand Michael Jordan the MVP Trophy every season because they wanted to recognize other players that were valuable to their teams too. Most likely, this will go to one of two Pop disciples: Mike Budenholzer from Atlanta or Steve Kerr in Golden State, both of whom had tremendous years and would be deserving winners.
But not more deserving than Pop.
San Antonio finished 55-27, which lands them in sixth in the Western Conference, but only because of the stupid “division winners can’t be any lower than fourth” rule that gives the 51-31 Portland Trailblazers the four seed.
Kawhi Leonard missed 18 games. Tony Parker missed 14. Tiago Splitter missed 30. Manu Ginobli took a big step back in production, Matt Bonner and Arron Baynes started 19 and 17 games respectively, and a total of 12 players started at least four games, including Austin Daye… and the Spurs still finished 55-27.
Had Popovich not won the award in two of the last three seasons, he’d get it this year as a Lifetime Achievement Award because this team is able to absorb any and all injuries because of the number of minutes he’s spread around to guys like Baynes and Cory Joseph and Patty Mills over the years that allow them to step in and contribute when called upon. He’s simply the best coach in the league, even if the voting doesn’t reflect that this season.