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NBA AM: Casting Awards Ballots Is Not Easy

As the NBA season ends, here is how Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler voted for the regular season awards.

Steve Kyler

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Casting Award Ballots Not Easy

It’s time for NBA writers around the league to cast their votes for the regular season awards. The balloting is done electronically and is required to be submitted by Friday. Most voters wait until the season ends. However, votes could be cast as early as last week.

I usually do not write in the first person or about myself, however, as a voter, I wanted to share my process, my votes and how I came to my selections. I have also shared those selections on Twitter and as you would expect they were met with unanimous respect and support… Well, maybe not unanimous.

There are a few things I opted to do with my voting, especially my final vote in most of the categories. In those situations, I opted to acknowledge a lesser or more underrated candidate—the contrarian vote, if you will. In other words, I opted to show some love and respect to those that are more than deserving, but maybe not getting talked about enough.

Let’s start with NBA Most Valuable Player Award.

The NBA asks for five nominations. First-place votes count for 10 points in the scoring system. A second-place vote is worth seven; a third-place vote is worth five, a fourth-place vote is worth three and a fifth-place vote is worth one.

I landed with Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook in the first place slot. This was not an easy vote. There has been a lot written about Westbrook and his record-setting triple-double season. His efficiency is down. His team’s offensive efficiency is down. His usage rate is up over 42.6 percent. It was not easy to pick Westbrook over Houston’s James Harden. That said, the records he has broken stood the test of some of the greatest to have ever played the game. How can that be ignored? I couldn’t do it.

The rest of my votes went to Harden, Cleveland’s LeBron James, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and lastly Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, respectively.

In my mind, Harden was as equally deserving as Westbrook. This was a 1A – 1B situation, not some huge gap between the two. As for James, he has been just short of incredible this year. I think we’ve grown too accustomed to how special LeBron is as a player, but not recognizing how good he’s been all season would have been a mistake. The same is true of Leonard. He is truly becoming a special NBA player and more than deserving of the nomination.

Lastly, Thomas in Boston has been so impressive to watch. Pound for Pound, he is maybe the best player in basketball and he is powering an impressive Celtics team that, today, has a one-game hold on the top seed in the East.

As for Rookie of The Year, this was not a great rookie class by any stretch of the imagination. There were a few late-bloomers in this class, but when it came down to it, these were not easy decisions.

The NBA requires three nominations, and my first-place vote landed with Milwaukee’s Malcolm Brogdon. He was the 36th pick. He was one of the older players in the draft, and he’s become a key part of a Bucks teams that’s not only going to make the playoffs, but could be a formidable match-up.

I could have easily gone with Philadelphia’s Dario Saric in the top spot; his season has been great. I opted instead to acknowledge the player on a winning team, mainly because I don’t think the gap is so great between Brogdon and Saric. Both have turned into very promising young players, and you’d get no debate from me on Saric as Rookie of The Year.

My third-place vote went to New York’s Willy Hernangomez. New York’s dreadful season was highlighted by the emergence of Hernangomez, who posted the second-best Player Efficiency rating in the rookie class. While his raw numbers won’t wow you, his play this season has been impressive, especially considering how lackluster the rookie class was this season.

So now on to Defensive Player of The Year.

Twitter isn’t very happy with me today and its brought to light a problem with having people vote for awards. Some have suggested I should just shut up and vote based on stats. Maybe. Some have suggested that my personal view of a player shouldn’t be a factor. Maybe. Some have questioned my sanity, mental acuity, the amount and frequency I may have smoked something and my sexual prowess because I might be more willing to vote on principal rather than just raw performance.

Let’s be clear. Golden State’s Draymond Green is having an incredible season defensively. He has powered the Warriors to the second-best team defensive efficiency in the NBA, he holds the best individual defensive efficiency in the NBA, and he is routinely guarding the best player on the opposing team more nights than not. The resume speaks for itself.

But should he get my vote? Not your vote. Should he get my vote? I struggled with this mainly because Green has a history of what we’ll call “questionable” play defensively. He flails his legs, often making contact with other players. He admitted to trying to punch James Harden in his injured wrist. Should he be rewarded and acknowledged for it?

There are many that have said who am I to judge. I was the one asked to vote. Where do I get off judging Draymond? I was asked to. Apparently, I have some agenda against Draymond. I really don’t, other than I have issues with the “questionable” play, especially when you consider San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Utah’s Rudy Gobert don’t carry the questions.

Green is likely going to win the award because many will overlook his many transgressions and just vote on the stats and the games. That’s what many on Twitter have suggested I should do, but should we reward the questionable actions? I struggle with that.

The Supreme Court issues a dissenting opinion whenever it rules on a subject. The purpose of that opinion is to put out the other side of the argument. To make sure its recorded that there was another side.

Some have suggested my view is about publicity. Trust me, I’d rather not have the things said about me that are being said. However, as a person of principal, I can’t just put that in my pocket because it’s more comfortable or popular.

With that out of the way, here is where my votes landed.

San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard got my first-place vote. While his numbers are down from a season ago, the Spurs are the top defensive team in basketball and Leonard is far and away their best defender. His two-way game is impressive, and he may be the best perimeter defender since Michael Jordan.

My second-place vote went to Utah’s Rudy Gobert. He has been incredible this year on a team that’s become very interesting defensively. There is a real case for Gobert as the first-place guy. It was not an easy decision.

My third-place vote went to Miami’s Hassan Whiteside, like Leonard, Whiteside’s numbers are down from a season ago, but he still leads the league in rebounding. He is second in total defensive rebounds grabbed and third in blocks per game and fourth in total blocks on the season.

Sixth Man of The Year was a little easier and less dramatic than Defensive Player, with my first-place vote going to Houston’s Eric Gordon. He has been phenomenal this season. Few can debate him as the sixth man.

My second-place vote went to Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. He may not want the vote, but, he is deserving and as impactful as anyone in the field. Lastly, Memphis’ Zach Randolph. He embraced being moved to the bench like a pro and has been incredibly effective in that role for the Grizzlies. Not every player can transition to the bench as smoothly as Randolph has and he’s been incredibly effective.

Coach of The Year was tough too. There have been some stellar coaching jobs this season, but the job that Brad Stevens has done in Boston stands above the rest, and he landed my first-place vote. The narrative all season was it was a forgone conclusion that Cleveland would win the East, and as of today that’s not true. Boston has done it with young guys and with their defense, and that’s typically a reflection of the coaching staff.

Houston’s Mike D’Antoni got my second-place vote, but he could just as easily have been the first-place vote. What D’Antoni has done in Houston is just short of incredible. The same can be said of Miami’s Eric Spoelstra; there may not have been a better coaching job in basketball than what Spo has done in Miami. Washington’s Scotty Brooks was also under serious consideration for this final spot.

Executive of the year was also tough. There were a number of strong candidates, but Houston’s Daryl Morey won out. Not many teams have all of their moves pan out, but Morey’s free agent acquisitions, trades, and even his coaching hires all across the bench have paid dividends.

The second-place vote went to Boston’s Danny Ainge. Like Morey, he’s come up roses on almost everything he’s touched this year, and his team has played incredibly well. A lot of Boston’s success is about decisions from previous years but landing Al Horford in free agency and drafting Jaylen Brown were huge in getting the Celtics over the hump. Golden State’s Bob Myers got my third-place vote, although he could have easily flipped with Ainge, no one landed the bigger fish than Myers, and the creative way they managed the cap to fill in the roster and convince veterans to go in for a title run was impressive.

So we get to the end of the line with Most Improved.

The Most Improved is a tough award because it’s harder to define than many of the others. Case in point is Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is often talked about as Most Improved, but is he really that improved or is he progressing as the Bucks have expected? Consider that Giannis went from 6.8 points per game as a rookie to 12.7 as a sophomore and to 16.9 last season to 23.1 this season. Is that “Most Improved,” or the steady progression of a promising young star? I think there is a better case for Giannis as an MVP candidate than a Most Improved Player, because the progression was there.

Some have suggested that Washington’s Brad Beal get consideration. Beal averaged 17.4 points last season on 44.9 percent shooting. This year he is at 23.1 points and 48.2 percent shooting. Is he Most Improved, or simply healthy for the first time in four years?

From my perspective, Most Improved is about radical improvement, not steady gains. To that end, my first-place vote went to Denver’s Nikola Jokic. His season has been breathtaking. He showed glimmers of being good, but he emerged as a legit star for the Nuggets and maybe their best player.

My second-place vote went to Washington’s Otto Porter Jr. Last season, many thought that Porter may have been a draft bust, but this year, he might be Washington’s second most important player. The year-over-year transformation has been unbelievable, which got him the second-place vote. My third-place vote went to Dallas’ Harrison Barnes. While you could argue Barnes became the player Dallas hoped he’d be when they gave him the huge contract last summer, compared to who he’d been for four years in Golden State, his emergence as a star in Dallas is impressive.

So, lastly, the All-NBA teams.

Here is how I came down:

All-NBA First Team
Kawhi Leonard
LeBron James
DeAndre Jordan
Russell Westbrook
James Harden

 

All-NBA Second Team
Kevin Durant
Draymond Green
DeMarcus Cousins
Damian Lillard
Stephen Curry

 

All-NBA Third Team
Giannis Antetokounmpo
Anthony Davis
Rudy Gobert
DeMar DeRozan
Chris Paul

While I respect everyone’s right to disagree or to have other opinions, that’s how I saw it and ultimately voted.

This year’s awards will be handled differently than in season’s past, with a single awards show to occur on Monday, June 26 from Basketball City at Pier 36 in New York City. TNT will air the show that will recognize NBA players, teams, coaches and executives for their accomplishments and performances from the 2016-17 NBA season.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @MikeAScotto, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @joelbrigham, @SusanBible @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @CodyTaylorNBA, @SpinDavies, @BuddyGrizzard, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers, and @Ben__Nadeau .

Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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NBA Daily: What Is The Hurry To Deal Leonard?

The San Antonio Spurs don’t seem any closer to a Kawhi Leonard trade than they were in mid-June. The real question is, what is the rush to make a deal?

Steve Kyler

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What’s The Hurry?

The San Antonio Spurs and disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard don’t seem any closer to a resolution today than they were back in mid-June when ESPN’s Chris Haynes dropped the bomb that Leonard no longer trusted the Spurs and wanted out.

While it seems fairly clear that Leonard is going to be dealt, the artificial sense of urgency from the outside doesn’t seem to be bothering the Spurs, as word in NBA circles is they continue to listen to offers but don’t seem anywhere close to making a decision. That can always change.

There are a few things that have started to leak out about the situation worth talking about, and some of it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

Kawhi Wants His Own Team

It is a common belief among fans that players should covet the chance to compete for a championship even if it means checking their own egos at the door. What’s become clear in this Leonard saga is that he has way more ego and bigger individual goals than anyone might have thought a year ago.

According to a source close to Leonard for a number of years, Leonard has always coveted his own team. He wants the chance to be the focal point on a group built around him. The idea that Leonard would openly welcome being second or third fiddle seemed unlikely to this source, which brings into question how seriously Leonard would pursue the chance to play with LeBron James in LA as a Laker.

There have been reports already suggesting that Leonard may not want the sidekick role with the Lakers, and that seems to line up with things sources were saying in Las Vegas last week.

If Leonard truly doesn’t want to share the spotlight with a bigger star, that could make this whole process a lot more interesting.

Kawhi Is Leaving A Lot of Guaranteed Money

Leonard became extension-eligible yesterday, reaching the third-year anniversary of his current contract. Because Leonard has made All-NBA in two of the past three seasons, he became eligible for what’s been commonly dubbed the “Supermax” contract extension, which would allow him to jump into the 35 percent of the salary cap max contract tier.

Based on the current cap, that extension could be worth as much as $221 million if he signs this summer. That money is only available to Leonard if he stays with the Spurs and gives him almost $30 million more money than he could receive becoming a free agent in July, even if he is traded to a new team that could obtain his Bird Rights.

While some have suggested that Leonard could make up some of that money being in a bigger market, it’s hard to imagine that he’s gaining $30 million more than his current marketing value, especially given his reclusive personality.

If by some miracle the Spurs and Leonard do reach an extension agreement, he would be untradable for one year from the date of his extension, so the idea of giving it one more year in order to salvage the contract money isn’t out of the question. The question becomes, would the Spurs do it without a full-throated pledged to be a Spur for the duration of the deal?

Lakers And Sixers Seem To Have Lost Interest

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, on a recent ESPN podcast, suggested that the Lakers and the Sixers may have taken themselves out of the race for Leonard after making what most insiders believe was their best efforts to secure Leonard in trade. According to sources near both situations, the Spurs simply listened and didn’t really openly engage in negotiations sort of ended things where they started.

That’s not to say either team couldn’t jump back into the fray; there is a sense in NBA circles that the Lakers simply won’t give away the farm for Leonard, knowing they could be the favorite to sign him outright next July, so why give up too much?

The 76ers pursuit of Leonard was more about going all in, but only to a point. The 76ers were said to be reluctant to include Markell Fultz in a deal for Leonard, and that they were equally unwilling to let trade talks derail their upcoming season.

Are The Raptors The front Runners?

In the same podcast, Windhorst suggested that with the Lakers and Sixers likely bowing out, the Toronto Raptors may have jumped into the driver’s seat on a Leonard trade.

That would line up with the notion of the Raptors wanting to do something aggressive to better match up with Boston, and potentially clear some cap space should it not work out. It’s unclear exactly what the Raptors would be offering San Antonio to cement a deal, but they have no shortage of young promising players and a few proven All-Stars in DeMar DeRozan and/or Kyle Lowry that could be the centerpiece of a deal.

League sources said as many as eight teams started doing due diligence on Leonard after the NBA draft, and there was a growing sense that teams other than the Lakers were willing to pony up for a shot at Leonard, even in a rental.

The hope on a Leonard trade is similar to what played out in Oklahoma City with Paul George: that Leonard lands in a new environment and falls in love with the situation enough to commit long-term. There is clearly a risk in that thinking, but it seems several teams were at least open to the idea.

Training Camp Is The Real Deadline

While most of the basketball world has “Kawhi Fatigue” and simply wants it over already, the truth is the Spurs have a much longer runway.

The next milestone opens next week when Team USA opens mini-camp in Las Vegas. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich is set to coach the men’s Senior Nation Team, and Leonard is among the 35 players selected to compete for a shot at the 2020 Olympic squad.

There has been talk that Leonard may opt not to attend until his situation is resolved, which would make the optics of the situation that much worse. There are many in the NBA that believe the Spurs are waiting to see if time together in Las Vegas might bridge the gaps between Popovich and Leonard, so how both handle the Team USA camp is worth watching.

While the outcome of a few days in Las Vegas likely won’t seal a deal, either way, the real window for a deal is the week of training camp in late September. That’s when things will start to get ugly and real for both the Spurs and Leonard. Neither are going to want to open camp with this situation hanging over their heads, so that’s the real date to watch.

The New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony had a similar situation last year; it came to a resolution literally the day training camp opened, despite weeks and weeks of trade talks.

It may take exactly that long for the Spurs to finally agree to their own deal, so don’t expect closure quickly. There isn’t anything motivating a decision, beyond everyone being ready for it to be over already.

More Twitter: Make sure you are following all of our guys on Twitter to ensure you are getting the very latest from our team: @stevekylerNBA, @LangGreene, @EricPincus, @TommyBeer, @MokeHamilton , @jblancartenba, @Ben_Dowsett, @SpinDavies, @JamesB_NBA, @DennisChambers_, @MattJohnNBA, and @Ben__Nadeau .

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NBA Daily: Jaren Jackson Jr. Adapting As He Goes

Memphis Grizzlies rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. has put on a show this summer. Spencer Davies dives into what’s been behind the success and how it bodes well for the future.

Spencer Davies

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Meeting Jaren Jackson Jr. for the first time, you won’t find an ounce of doubt in him.

Instead, you’ll be introduced to a high-spirited man oozing with charisma and an obvious love for the game of basketball, which likely factored into why the Memphis Grizzlies were so keen on taking him with the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft.

Then there’s the big reason—quite literally—that came into play. Standing at 6-foot-11 with over a 7-foot-5 wingspan and hands that are the size of most people’s heads, Jackson Jr. is the term “matchup problem” personified.

We’re seeing the evidence in front of our very eyes already. In eight summer league games between Utah and Las Vegas, the versatile Jackson Jr. is averaging 12.9 points and seven rebounds. He is shooting 41.3 percent from the field and has knocked down half of his attempts (14-for-28) from beyond the arc.

It didn’t take long for the JJJ bandwagon to get established. In his first taste of NBA action against the Atlanta Hawks in Salt Lake City, he scored 29 points and cashed in on eight triples to kick off July. He hasn’t tried more than four perimeter shots since then, but he’s been plenty busy doing other things just as important on the floor.

“I think I’m surprised by how well I’ve been doing,” a smiling, candid Jackson Jr. said. “You’re surprised at yourself sometimes, especially like the first game.”

You can look at these aforementioned offensive stats and take them with a grain of salt since the level of competition is a step below what the real professional ranks bring to the table. However, seeing the anticipation, reaction time, and natural awareness on the defensive end makes the lengthy forward a true gem of a prospect.

In all but one game thus far, Jackson Jr. has recorded multiple rejections every time he’s stepped foot on the court, including two occasions where he swatted four shots. It’s added up to an average of 3.3 blocks per contest to this point.

So since the outside potential, the athleticism and the rim protection are all there, what else is there to hone in on?

“I think just my aggressiveness,” Jackson Jr. said. “Making sure I play tougher, go harder longer. And my shooting…kind of—make sure I get my form right and all that stuff.”

Adjusting to a new pace at the next level can take some time. It depends on how fast of a learner a player is and how quickly that person can apply that knowledge in a game setting. Jackson Jr. thinks he’s started to pick it up as he’s gone along.

“It’s getting a lot better,” he said. “It’s a lot more spacing so it’s pretty cool. But they’re definitely stronger and faster players, so you have to adapt to that.”

Thanks to contributions from Jackson Jr.—in addition to Jevon Carter and Kobi Simmons—the Grizzlies have had loads of success in Sin City. They are one of the final four teams standing as summer league play wraps up in a day.

Whether the result goes in the favor of Memphis or not, the last couple of weeks in Las Vegas have impacted Jackson Jr. in a positive manner in more ways than one as a student of the game—and he’ll be better off because of it.

“It’s been cool,” Jackson Jr. said. “It’s a lot of stuff going on. It seems like more of an event when you’re here as far as watching it on TV over the years. You get like a new historic player sitting on the sideline every day talking to people. You meet people in your hotel. Bunch of stuff like that. It’s been a good experience just having everybody here before we all leave and go to our own cities.

“I kinda went into it [with a] clear head. I didn’t really didn’t want to put too much into it ‘cause I’m learning everything new. Everything is new. Being a rookie, everything’s gonna be a new thing.”

As the youngest player in his draft class at 18 years old, Jackson Jr. has a ways to go to familiarize himself with the NBA.

But by the looks of things, the NBA had better prepare to familiarize itself with him as well.

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NBA Daily: Antonio Blakeney Hoping For A Big 2nd Year

After an impressive rookie stint, Antonio Blakeney gives us a tale of hope and potential.

David Yapkowitz

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The Chicago Bulls are in the midst of a rebuilding project. This summer, they held on to one of their key young players in Zach LaVine and drafted two guys in Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson whom they’re hoping can be part of that rebuild.

But there might be one player on the roster already who could play a big role in the team’s future. A year ago, Antonio Blakeney used a big summer league performance in Las Vegas to earn a two-way contract with the Bulls.

This time around, with his NBA future a little more secure, he’s working on becoming more familiar with the team.

“Just learning and getting better,” Blakeney told Basketball Insiders his goals are. “Obviously being able to play through my mistakes, go out here and learn and get familiar with the coaching staff. Keep building our relationship with the coaches and stuff.”

Blakeney went undrafted last summer after declaring for the draft following two years at LSU. He lit up Las Vegas to the tune of 16.8 points in four games before the Bulls signed him. Under the two-way contract, he split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G-League affiliate.

His summer success carried over to the G-League where he exploded on the scene averaging 32 points per game and being named the G-League Rookie of the Year. Being shuffled back and forth between leagues was a bit of an adjustment for Blakeney, but it was an experience he ended up learning a lot from.

“It was an up and down roller coaster from the NBA to the G-League and stuff like that. Starting in summer league, going to the big team, going to camp, preseason games and going to the G-League. It was an up and down experience,” Blakeney said.

“Overall, it was great. I think I learned a lot in the G-League. A lot of rookies play in the G-League now. Going down there it’s kind of tough. For some guys, the travel is different. It’s just staying motivated and working hard.”

It’s no secret that Blakeney can put up points in a hurry, as he was the Tigers third-leading scorer his freshman year behind Ben Simmons and Keith Hornsby with 12.6 points per game. His sophomore year, he led the Tigers in scoring with 17.2 points.

He knows though that he’ll have to be able to do other things if he wants to stick in the NBA. While he’s been lighting up the stat sheet scoring wise this summer in Vegas, he’s been working on other aspects of his game. He’s been charged by the Bulls summer league coaching staff with initiating the offense.

“Obviously I got to be a combo. I got to be able to move over to the one and make plays and stuff like that. So just working on making that simple play,” Blakeney said. “Obviously, I’m a natural scorer so I’m not really a pass-first guy, but I’m more when the simple play presents itself, to make it.”

While his future may be more secure, the majority of the guys in summer league don’t have that luxury. The two-way contract Blakeney signed last summer was for two years and based on his play this summer, it would be shocking to see the Bulls let him go.

For his summer teammates who don’t have that security, he understands what they’re going through. Having been in that situation a year ago, he’s got plenty of advice for them.

“Just go work hard, learn from the veteran guys, but compete,” Blakeney said. “Go at the guys that’s supposed to be the best. If you think you’re that good, go at guys. Just compete, that’s the main thing I did, I just competed.”

And although nothing is ever guaranteed in the NBA, especially regular rotation minutes, Blakeney is confident that he can be a regular contributor. The league is filled with guys who come off the bench and provide instant offense. He knows if, given the opportunity, he can do that too.

“I think next season my goal is to try to crack the rotation and just be a guy who brings energy off the bench,” Blakeney said. “I can get buckets fast, get it going, bring energy and get buckets off the bench, just do my thing. That’s something that in my young career I’m trying to get in to.”

He’s certainly off to a good start.

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