It’s that time of year in the NBA.
No, not the time when the Golden State Warriors whacks everybody, although it’s easy to see how you’d assume that.
No, this is when we break down who will win the NBA finals, along with who should win some of the annual regular-season awards.
First, let’s look at the finals, which start on Thursday in Toronto.
The Raptors are huge underdogs in the best-of-seven series, even though the experts have them pegged as a 1-point favorite in Game 1.
To me, this suggests that the wise guys fully believe this is going to be a long series, which means lasting at least six games.
As good as Golden State is, the Warriors will not have three important things in this series:
Home court advantage.
An intimidation factor.
Let’s look at that last item first. The Warriors were clearly the bullies against Portland in the Western Conference finals. And really, they played that role well against Houston in the previous round, too.
But in Toronto, the Warriors will be seeing Kawhi Leonard, who has been an NBA finals MVP. They will see Marc Gasol, who while not as forceful as he once was, still has all the experience necessary not to be overwhelmed by the moment.
Same for Serge Ibaka and Danny Green. Those veterans will make sure that Pascal Siakim, Fred VanVleet and others don’t get caught up in the finals frenzy.
Of course, all this will be of no use is players like Green and Ibaka don’t come up big. Both were modest performers in the final two games against the Milwaukee Bucks (both Toronto wins). Leonard and Kyle Lowry did the heavy lifting. Everybody else tagged along. It can’t be that way against the Warriors.
Secondly, both of these teams were good on the road in the regular season and in the playoffs. And Golden State will have to win once in Toronto to secure their third consecutive championship and fourth in five years.
The Warriors were 27-14 on the road in the regular season and the Raptors were 26-15.
The guess here is that Golden State will have to win twice on the road in this series to win the title. And the Warriors certainly are good enough to do so. They won twice in Portland in the conference finals and are 6-2 on the road in the playoffs, which actually is the same as their home record.
But winning twice in Toronto would be a lot easier with Durant, who has been ruled out of Game 1 but did travel to Toronto with the Warriors, lending fuel to the argument that he might be available come Game 2 or at least to get his legs back under him in workouts with the team while in Canada.
Without Durant, the Warriors are still good enough to win the series. It will just be a little harder. And for the record, I am not of the opinion that Durant has played his last game with the Warriors. He’ll be back in this series at some point.
That said, the pick in the finals is Golden State in six games. It’s not exactly a ballsy pick. But all signs point to it being the right one.
And now, on to the awards. Bear in mind that I no longer have a vote in the league’s official balloting for these awards, which will be announced on a TNT special on June 24 (8 p.m., TNT).
And allow me a rant about that. I miss the good ol’ days. And when you get to be a certain age, you say that a lot. It used to be that the awards were parceled out, usually once every week or so, and each one of them got their own platform and their own interest level.
It was fun.
Now, everybody will find out at the same time who the rookie, defensive player, sixth man and MVP will be. The league does release the all-rookie and all-NBA teams, which tides us over for a while. But it’s just not the same.
That said, it’s time to unveil my selections. The votes that do count – from media members around the country – had to be filed before the playoffs started. These are regular-season awards.
So here’s a look at how this veteran observer sees how the regular season went with a short explainer about each.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden.
Yes, the thought throughout the playoff was that Giannis Antetokounmpo did enough to nose out Harden, and this clearly was a two-man race. But when you look at Harden’s sheer numbers – more than 36 points, 7 assists, 6 rebounds and 2 steals per game – I don’t see how you can’t give it to him. I can even overlook the five turnovers per game. The Greek Freak was great (more than 27 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists per game). And he’s going to win this award, probably many times, before he’s done. But Harden gets the nod this year. Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Joel Embiid also were worthy of consideration.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic.
Can there be any real doubt? The Mavericks’ hybrid ballhandler was good at just about everything in his first season, which started with him as a raw 19-year-old and ended with him proving that age is just a number.
He averaged more than 21 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists per game and got better as the season went along.
He probably won’t win the award unanimously. Trae Young dazzled for Atlanta in the Eastern Conference and no doubt will get some support. But Doncic is the clear winner. Young and Deandre Ayton should follow.
Coach of the Year: Michael Malone, Denver.
Though I’m a huge fan of what Terry Stotts did in Portland, Mike Budenholzer did in Milwaukee and Steve Kerr did in Golden State, it came down to Malone and Toronto’s Nick Nurse in my estimation.
These teams both overachieved. Yes, Nurse took over an accomplished roster that had done well under Dwane Casey. But he had to cultivate his way through some things with Kawhi Leonard and some of the younger players.
But what Malone did in Denver, taking the Nuggets to 54 wins and the No. 2 seed in the ultra-stiff Western Conference was enough to sway my vote.
And by the way, this is a very close call. Any of the aforementioned coaches would be a viable pick.
Sixth man: Lou Williams.
The Los Angeles Clippers’ sharpshooter was a clear winner. We can’t even think of anybody else who was close.
Most improved: Pascal Siakim.
Toronto’s athletic forward became a borderline star this year. You have to like what De’Aaron Fox and DeAngelo Russell did, too. But Siakim is deserving.
Defensive player of the year: Giannis Antetokounmpo.
You could argue for Kawhi Leonard, Paul George or Rudy Gobert and I wouldn’t argue with any of those choices. This was as close as the coaching vote. But when you factor in Freak’s defensive rebounding, shot-blocking and steals, hard to find anybody who is more deserving.
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