As we mentioned last year, the Guardian prefers to wait until the end of the playoffs before handing out our NBA awards. This season ended up being a perfect example of why we wait. Prior to the NBA finals, this year was all about the Golden State Warriors’ quest to put together the greatest season in NBA history. Instead, they ended up being the heavies in the story of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ remarkable comeback.
Most valuable player: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
An unfortunate result of the Cavaliers’ Finals victory was that that Steph Curry’s unprecedented season may end up being a mere historical footnote because his team fell short.
Curry didn’t become the first unanimous MVP in NBA history by accident. At his best, which he was at for practically all of the regular season, Curry looked like he was playing an entirely different sport than the rest of the league. His otherworldly shooting stretched courts to their breaking points. Curry made 402 three-pointers, blowing away the record he set in the previous season (where he hit a mere 286). There were many reasons that the Warriors were able to win 73 games in a season, besting the single-season wins record set by Michael Jordan and the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, but nobody can deny that Curry was the most important element.
The problem was that unanimous MVP Curry only made occasional appearances in the playoffs after he suffered a knee injury in the Warriors’ first-round series against the Houston Rockets. Whether it was due to that injury, exhaustion after a season where nearly every regular season game had a playoff feel or just an ill-timed slump, Curry clearly wasn’t the same player in the postseason. Even so, the Warriors might have been able to win their second straight championship if they weren’t facing the winner of our next award.
Most valuable player, playoffs: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
LeBron James wins this distinction for the second straight year. Last year, James almost single-handedly pushed the NBA finals to six games, despite the fact that the Warriors looked practically unbeatable and the Cavaliers had lost Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injuries. While Andre Iguodala ended up being named the MVP, voters tend to go with someone from the team that actually won, there was no question in who was the best player on the floor.
James was even better during these finals, where he averaged 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists. He was the leader, MVP and partial architect of a Cavaliers team that beat the team with the best record in NBA history, came back from a 3-1 series deficit for the first time in NBA finals history and brought the city of Cleveland their first major sports championship since 1964. This was the most impressive accomplishment of James’s career, which is saying something considering that his career was pretty darn good heading into this postseason.
Least valuable player: Kobe Bryant, LA Lakers
Maybe no player in the history of sports has ended his career with a more appropriate final game than Kobe Bryant. In the last game of the season, the last day of his HOF career, Bryant scored 60 points in a win over the Utah Jazz. This sounds like a perfect Hollywood ending unless one looks at the box score and sees that Bryant needed 50 shot attempts to get there.
To his credit, that was still one of the few games this year where Bryant managed to be productive enough to actually help, rather than harm, his team. Certain metrics labeled Bryant as the worst starter in the league for the first half of the season. Bryant’s game was the same as it ever was, but time clearly had taken its toll to the point where his high-volume shooting finally made him a liability as the clangs continued to outnumber the made baskets. The Lakers ended up winning 17 games; only the failed experiment that was the Hinkie-era Philadelphia 76ers won fewer.
In a way, though, Bryant ended up being valuable in his own way. The Endless Kobe Farewell Tour ended up being a huge success attendance-wise while the Lakers ended up being bad enough that they were able to keep their lottery pick, which they turned into Brandon Ingram.
Worst social media user: D’Angelo Russell, LA Lakers
Heading into this season, many believed D’Angelo Russell would compete for Rookie of the Year. Instead, his most notable accomplishment was that he accidentally helped to break up a B-grade celebrity couple via a poorly conceived Snapchat prank.
Coach of the year: Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
The Portland Trail Blazers were, before the season began, almost a lock to finish their season well out of the playoffs. LaMarcus Aldridge signed with the San Antonio Spurs, Robin Lopez went to the New York Knicks, Wesley Matthews left for the Dallas Mavericks and Nicholas Batum was traded to the Charlotte Hornets. By all available evidence, it looked as if the Trail Blazers were rebuilding around Damian Lillard.
Then something odd happened: the Trail Blazers kept on winning. Lillard thrived as the team’s undisputed MVP, while CJ McCollum won most improved honors. Not only were the Trail Blazers relevant they ended up clinching the fifth seed in the Western Conference. Once in the playoffs, the Trail Blazers made it to the second round before the Warriors dispatched with them in five games. It was an impressive run for Portland, in the NBA it’s incredibly difficult to rebuild on the fly while still being competitive.
When a team out-performs expectations to this degree, the team’s manager receives a lion’s share of the credit for getting the most out of his roster. Unfortunately for Trail Blazers had coach Terry Stotts, this was the year of the Warriors, so he ended up in second place behind Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, despite the fact that Luke Walton was Golden State’s acting coach for the first half of the season when Kerr was recovering from surgery. Stotts really deserved this nod.
Not receiving votes: Byron Scott (Los Angeles Lakers), George Karl (Sacramento Kings), Kurt Rambis (New York Knicks)
Rookie of the Year: Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
There is no legitimate argument for putting any other player in this category, a fact which the voters recognized by unanimously naming Karl-Anthony Towns as Rookie of the Year. Towns averaged 18.3 points and 10.5 rebounds a game and was named Western Conference Rookie of the Month every month of the regular season. When you factor in that the Timberwolves’ also have last year’s Rookie of the Year, Andrew Wiggins, he future in Minnesota looks brighter than it ever has.
Defensive Player of the year: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The debate about this award could end up coming down between Kawhi Leonard and the Warriors’ Draymond Green for the next few seasons. This time around we’re going to go with the guy who didn’t hurt his team by getting suspended in the Finals after one too many groin-kick attempts.
Disappointment of the year: New Orleans Pelicans
This was supposed to be Anthony Davis’s year to shine, with some of us even predicting that he would win MVP. Sadly though, injuries once again decimated the Pelicans, who fell well short of the playoffs, and having to practically carry the team on his shoulders may have partially stalled Davis’s development.
Game of the year: Warriors v Thunder, 27 February
In the wake of the Warriors’ failure to win a championship, it’s hard to remember just how gripping their quest to beat the Bulls was. Every Warriors game felt like a playoff game, to the point where there was grumbling whenever it wasn’t covered by national television.
While their regular-season record now feels rather hollow, that shouldn’t take away from just how great some of the individual games were. Most notably, Golden State’s overtime win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on 27 February. It was an instant classic. The Thunder were in control for much of the game, and they managed to build up a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter. The fact that the Warriors were in trouble was enough to make the game feel like a rarity: they had only lost five games all season before heading into this contest.
The Warriors, as they did many times during the season, rallied late to make it a one possession game. Still, it looked like the Thunder were just about to pull away with a victory when they fouled Andre Iguodala with just 0.7 seconds left on the clock, putting him on the line with 0.7 seconds left in the game. Iguodala, normally not one of the team’s best free-throw shooters, sank two free throws to tie the game, sending it into overtime.
That’s where Curry hit the shot of the year:
Curry’s three, which was from about 37 feet away, was one that no other player in the league would even attempt in that situation, let alone make. It ended up being the game-winner as the Warriors escaped Oklahoma City with a 121-118 win.
It ended up being a crucial victory, or at least it seemed so at the time. A loss here, and it felt certain the Warriors would end up tying the Bulls record rather than breaking it. The game also became one of those rare playoff previews that actually predicted how their postseason series would play out. When they faced each other again in the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder took an early lead in the series only to see the Warriors battle back and pull of a thrilling comeback.
Play of the year: LeBron James’s block
Of course, the Warriors ended up being on the wrong end of the biggest comeback of the year. The enduring image of the Cavaliers’ Finals run happened in the last few minutes of Game 7, when LeBron James, materializing on the other end of the floor like the Ghost Car, violently blocking an Andre Iguodala shot that would have given the Warriors a lead with under two minutes remaining.
It’s a fantastic play just on its own, but it’s also almost symbolic scene, with James coming out of nowhere to reject the shot that represented the Warriors’ last best chance of getting the lead or maybe even a win, the win that would have solidified their place among the greatest teams of all-time. Instead, with one quick forceful swipe, James flipped the script of the entire NBA season.