NBA awards ballot, Part 1: Dissecting each individual race

Here we go:

Most Valuable Player

1. James Harden
2. LeBron James
3. Anthony Davis
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
5. The box score from Phoenix-Dallas on Tuesday

(Just kidding -- Damian Lillard)

James and Harden are neck-and-neck in almost every metric. The Cavs have outscored opponents by six points per 100 possessions with LeBron on the floor since Cleveland upended its team at the trade deadline, reversing a weird early-season minitrend that had them playing at the same sad level regardless -- a trend unfit for the king.

LeBron since that deadline orgy has been the league's best player. It was enough to surpass Davis and Antetokounmpo. He is going to play all 82 games and lead the league in minutes for a defense-less traveling soap opera that would sink into the lottery if you replaced him with a league-average small forward. His clutch numbers are something out of "NBA Jam." Kevin Love, Cleveland's second-best player by a comically wide margin in the wake of the Kyrie Irving debacle, missed almost exactly the same number of games as Houston's second-best player, Chris Paul. And Paul is better than Love.

If given a choice between game-planning for Harden or James in a seven-game series, 30 out of 30 teams would pick Harden within five seconds of being posed the question.

But what happened before those two months, in Houston and Cleveland, matters at least as much as what came after. Harden and the Rockets played so well as to render their last 15 games of the regular season irrelevant.

Meanwhile, the Cavs collapsed amid infighting and embarrassingly listless play. LeBron in January could have galvanized his -- very much his -- dispirited team. Instead, he stewed in what almost amounted to a monthlong, on-court passive-aggressive rebellion.

We've seen Chill Mode LeBron. This was different. LeBron at times stood still instead of rotating on defense. He occasionally decided not to close out on shooters. During Cleveland's nadir, a couple of shooters caught the ball behind the arc, looked at LeBron as if expecting him to rush out, realized he had no plans to move, shrugged, and fired. Almost every other Cav played with the same sloth. It was, frankly, astonishing.

An MVP galvanizes. He lifts teams up and out of funks. LeBron didn't, or couldn't. There are people within the league who would use that midseason floundering to prop up LeBron's MVP case. They would frame it as part of some Machiavellian plot: LeBron realizing before his front office that Cleveland needed a shakeup, and scheming to make it happen in the only way he could, given his poisonous, reportedly nonverbal relationship with owner Dan Gilbert.

That is a bridge too far, even if the new Cavs are better than their broken, discarded predecessors.

Harden may not be a galvanizer, either. He let his relationship with Dwight Howard a couple of years ago disintegrate amid silence and unmade passes. He wilted facing elimination last season. That is part of the reason Houston added some fire in Paul. There will be a crisis moment in the playoffs when the Rockets need Harden to galvanize them.

But they haven't needed much of it in blitzing through this regular season, and that is the period voters consider. Houston has been the league's best team wire-to-wire, and Harden its best player. He just wrapped the greatest season of isolation basketball in league history, acting as battering ram in Houston's blunt force attack: pick-and-roll, switch, back it out, fatality.

Harden's step-back 3-pointer and shoulder-checking drives have long obscured his brilliance as a passer. Harden's style can bore, but there are few NBA moments more exciting than those eye-of-the-storm seconds in which Harden digests a switch and slides two steps back with a live dribble. His eyes dart side-to-side, the entire game in his hands.

If that defender on Eric Gordon so much as leans toward the paint in preemptive help, the ball is out of Harden's hands -- flying toward Gordon's fingertips while that poor defender tries too late to reverse his momentum. His pocket passes to Clint Capela, lobbed high over reaching arms or skipped low, like rocks on a pond, to skitter underneath them, are among the league's most gorgeous -- and earliest, tossed with pitch-perfect timing.

Harden is an offense unto himself. He is never going to be a plus defender. Even a disengaged LeBron, outside those outlier winter weeks of discontent, is a more impactful defender simply through the power of reputation and size. People fear the sudden appearance of dialed-in LeBron. They avoid him.

They will never avoid Harden. But Harden has cleaned up his defense. The comatose, meme-worthy blunders are largely gone. Houston has helped by surrounding him with plus defenders and giving him simple marching orders: switch everything.

Opponents have shot just 37.5 percent against Harden on post-ups, one of the league's stingiest marks, and he has poked away a ton of steals. He jostles for rebounds. When he snags them, he is lethal in flight against a defense discombobulated by Houston's switches.

Bottom line: This is Harden's year. Given equal statistical profiles, it is hard to reward an alpha player (LeBron) whose team -- the fourth seed entering Wednesday in the junior varsity conference -- is beset by constant, season-threatening melodrama.

Davis has been otherworldly carrying a preposterous two-way load for an injury-riddled team assembled by years of random, unconnected transactions. Antetokounmpo faded a hair down the stretch as the Bucks faded toward the bottom of the East. A lot of voters will leave him off the ballot as punishment.

I can't get there. I have long been open to a player on a 45-ish win team crashing the MVP conversation; the word "valuable" begs voters to consider team context that way, and last season's MVP, Russell Westbrook, came from a 47-win team. Michael Jordan spoiled us into thinking that a top-five player should win 55 games every season. It doesn't work that way. It's possible for the league's second- or third-best player -- and maybe its very best one -- to toil on a middling playoff team. The Cavs are a middling playoff team now, barely eking 50 wins, and LeBron will get a chunk of first-place votes.

The Bucks have been a trash fire all season whenever Antetokounmpo sits. He averaged 27 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists per game, while working as the league's best perimeter defender. He belongs.

The last spot came down to Lillard, Kevin Durant, Westbrook, LaMarcus Aldridge, the Toronto guards, and Nikola Jokic, keeping Denver alive to the last moment. (Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry, Chris Paul and Jimmy Butler missed a few too many games.) I'd be fine with almost any of them. Durant is the best of those players, and was my initial choice -- a well-rounded superstar who will log almost 70 games for the championship co-favorite.

But Golden State is 7-10 in its past 17 games, lost without Curry, now behind Toronto in the overall standings. Portland is slumping too, but Lillard dragged them to a winner-take-all showdown with Utah on Wednesday for the No. 3 seed. Portland has been toast all season when Lillard sits. He is their lifeline, and he snags the last spot here.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Rudy Gobert
2. Joel Embiid
3. Anthony Davis

The toughest player award, with a resolution that leaves me more confused about how we should judge it.

We have collision of precedent: No player has won having logged as few games in a non-lockout season as Gobert or Embiid; Kawhi Leonard appeared in 64 games three seasons ago, one more than Embiid this season, and eight more than Gobert. But only two players -- Dikembe Mutombo in 1995 and Alvin Robertson in 1986 -- won while leading defenses that ranked as low in points allowed per possession as the current Pelicans (14th).

As someone who cares perhaps too much about games played, I came into this exercise favoring Davis. He is, somehow, underappreciated as a defender -- the curse of ridiculous physical gifts that raise expectations, and of playing on a team that can't stick to one organizing principle for more than a few months.

He led the league in blocks, even while playing with more calm and anticipation. He doesn't leap at every eyebrow twitch anymore. He is the most switchable of these three. Opponents have shot 8.3 percentage points worse than expected when Davis is the closest defender, the second-largest such differential in the league -- behind only Embiid, per Second Spectrum.

And yet: Even with Davis on the floor, the Pelicans are equivalent to the 6th- or 7th-best team defense, per NBA.com. The Sixers and Jazz are way stingier than even the league's stingiest team -- Boston and Utah, in a dead heat! -- with their franchise centers playing.

Davis's defense isn't as airtight as the near-perfect work of Embiid or Gobert. There are more hiccups: slow jogs back in transition, out-of-scheme switching, pick-and-rolls addressed with arms dragging at his sides. Being able to switch is nice, but the Pelicans have allowed more than 1.12 points per possession after Davis switches on a pick-and-roll -- worse than league-average, per Second Spectrum. (Gobert and Embiid rank ahead of Davis in all of Second Spectrum's tracking of pick-and-roll defense.)

You can understand all this: Davis shoulders a massive load on offense -- way heavier than Gobert's, and in substantially more minutes than both -- for a worse team. He has to conserve some energy.

With the exception of Jrue Holiday, Davis plays alongside worse defenders, and in a more confused, scattershot scheme. Some of those out-of-scheme switches are just Rajon Rondo deciding he'd rather not fight through picks. Watch the film, and you'll discover a lot of enemy baskets that come after those Davis switches have nothing to do with Davis.

But some do. It's hard to know what to do with a candidacy like this. Do you give Davis extra credit for working as (maybe) 90 percent of the defender Gobert and Embiid are in a heavy-usage, heavier-minutes role -- and even more for doing it amid leakier teammates and a thin roster?

In the end, the Pelicans' defense had to be a little better to reward Davis, even with his minutes advantage. A little good luck is also boosting his on-court/off-court splits; opponents have hit just 32.9 percent of above-the-break 3s with Davis on the floor, and 40 percent when he sits. Davis has contributed to some of that gap. He is so long, and so springy, he surprises shooters who think he is too far away to disrupt their sight line.

But some of that gap is good fortune. How much? It's hard to know. But there was enough overall uncertainty to drop Davis into the bronze slot, and focus on the two behemoths.

They have remarkably similar cases. The perception seems to be that Gobert deserves this in a slam dunk. I'm not sure why. This is a coin flip.

Both rank as elite rim protectors, though Embiid has held nearby shooters to a lower percentage. Both are immovable in the post. They are one-man schemes who warp the geometry and math of the game.

When Gobert and Embiid play, their teams allow fewer shots at the rim and fewer 3s -- especially fewer corner 3s -- while coaxing more midrange jumpers. Ball-handlers don't dare advance as far; help defenders stay home on shooters. Having Embiid and Gobert is like starting every game with a 3-point lead. Davis doesn't bend opponent shot distribution to nearly this degree.

Both are better than you'd expect venturing toward the 3-point arc against pick-and-roll handlers who require extra attention.

A disproportionate number of Gobert's 26 missed games came against the league's best scoring teams: both Cleveland games, three against Denver, one each against Houston and Golden State, and more. When Gobert was on the floor, Utah smothered those offenses: 104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions against the league's dozen best offenses, and 102.7 against playoff teams (including both Denver and Minnesota), according to an analysis John Schuhmann of NBA.com performed after I annoyed him.

Guess what? The Sixers with Embiid on the floor held those same teams to even lower numbers -- about 100.5 points allowed per 100 possessions, an insane figure -- in about 100 more total minutes, per Schuhmann.

But Gobert's defense -- or at least the numbers behind it -- appears to be more luck- and teammate-proof. Philly opponents have shot a paltry 31.9 percent on above-the-break 3s with Embiid on the floor; Utah's opponents have hit the same percentage from deep -- about 36.5 percent -- with and without Gobert.

Again: Some of that low Philly mark is Embiid. Some is luck. And some is the presence of several skilled, giant, tenacious defenders -- including two All-Defensive candidates in Ben Simmons and Robert Covington, among the very best at challenging 3-pointers. Utah's supporting cast on defense is solid. Philly's is better.

It doesn't feel great punishing any player, even a little, for having great teammates. But you can only choose one. Remove every confounding factor and ask me -- and most coaches and executives -- to name the best individual defender in the league this season, and I'd go with Gobert. Utah's defense with Gobert on the floor yielded two fewer points per possession than the Sixers with Embiid.

Gobert may not shoot as often as Embiid or dribble as often as Davis, but he is not some Mark Eaton-level wallflower on offense. He sets 67 ball screens per 100 possessions, most among all rotation players, per Second Spectrum. He often scurries back-and-forth for picks two and three times on the same possession. That is work. It's grunt work, but it's work.

The next four on the ballot would probably have been Al Horford, Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, and Covington in some order. Horford is the quarterback of the league's co-No. 1 defense. He just isn't as impactful or intimidating as Davis, and enjoys a healthier defensive ecosystem.

Green probably hasn't received enough attention in the debate. Even the A-minus/B-plus version of his defense is special. Had we seen the A-minus version for 70 games, he'd get my vote. Availability matters. But we didn't see quite that level from anyone in that many games, and in an era when almost everyone misses 10 games, I can stomach voting for a stud who played 56.

Rookie of the Year

1. Ben Simmons
2. Donovan Mitchell
3. Jayson Tatum

Mitchell's case comes down the malleability of his 3-point shooting -- he can play on and off the ball -- and his burden as the No. 1 scoring option on a good team. He was a force from Game 1, fearless and efficient in crunch time. With Embiid brutalizing fools, Simmons doesn't face the same pressure. For the first half of the season, the Sixers fell apart when Simmons played without Embiid.

But that trend started flipping in late December, and Simmons dunked it into the dustbin of NBA history with an emphatic, bulldozing, and honestly kind of scary run over the last three months. Philly has outscored opponents by seven points per 100 possessions since Jan. 1 when Simmons plays without Embiid -- just shy of Toronto's margin for the season. He beefed up that number against tanky types, but his brilliant performance in a pivotal win over Cleveland last week legitimized it.

Simmons' LeBron-esque, freight train physicality mitigates his busted jump shot. Philly has helped by slotting shooters all around him. Play off of him, even in the half-court, and Simmons uses the space to rev up, barrel straight at you, and finish right through you. And in transition? Forget it. Backpedaling victims have no chance. Panicked defenders swarm Simmons, freeing wingman shooters.

Simmons' rare positional versatility puts those defenses at an extreme disadvantage as Philly transitions from defense to offense. He can defend any position; he might start or end a possession defending the opposing point guard. The other team wants zero part of that matchup on the other end. As Philly rushes the ball up, multiple opposing defenders crisscross, pointing and screaming, hoping to normalize matchups. Creases open amid that chaos. Simmons feasts in those creases.

In that sense, Simmons is almost as foundational to Philly's identity as Gobert is to the Jazz -- and perhaps moreso than Embiid. He sews that transition chaos. He allows the Sixers to play an ultra-big starting lineup -- maybe the deadliest heavy-minutes lineup in the league this season -- devoid of a traditional point guard without suffering any consequences on either end.

Simmons is an All-Defense-level talent, now. Mitchell defends with a skill and ferocity way above the typical Rookie of the Year candidate, but he can't envelope guys at every position. Simmons is already one of the half-dozen best passers in the league -- a preternatural genius who sees things others don't, and makes passes others can't.

Philly being awful early in the season with Embiid on the bench caused a lot of folks to conclude Embiid alone drove most of the team's success when both were on the floor. The connection was from Point A to Point B was never that clear. We probably shortchanged early-season Simmons.

In most seasons, Mitchell would win. He has been Utah's most indispensable offensive player. Without him, they might have sunk even lower than 19-28 as Rubio sputtered and the Derrick Favors-Gobert tandem looked unplayable for the first time ever. Utah's offense has actually ticked up when Mitchell plays without Gobert.

But Simmons is just a better all-around player, and Mitchell is down to 34 percent from deep -- below the league's average. Tatum is close-ish to 50/40 territory, and has flashed enough playmaking chops in Irving's absence to make you wonder what he might do in Mitchell's role. He can slide across more positions on defense, though Boston has mostly shielded him from the toughest matchups.

But we don't know what Tatum could manage in Mitchell's spot. We know what Mitchell actually did. He belongs in the No. 2 spot. No one else deserves consideration.

Coach of the Year

1. Quin Snyder
2. Dwane Casey
3. Brad Stevens

This is always impossible. Mike D'Antoni, the coach of the runaway best team, is getting shockingly little attention. There is a sense that he is undercoaching -- sitting back and letting Harden and Paul dance. But undercoaching is coaching, too; overcoaching with some rosters -- including this one -- is counterproductive micromanagement.

He and his staff -- Jeff Bzdelik in particular -- deserve huge credit for going all-in on a switch-everything defense, and getting players to do it the right way. Switching is a tempting path of least resistance. Bzdelik drills something harder: switch early, but without falling victim to a back cut; switch into passing lanes instead of drifting beneath them; switch with physicality.

Everyone, including Harden, has bought in, and the Rockets are a staunch sixth in points allowed per possession.

But the front office signed a lot of the key ingredients in that defense, and Houston's stars are doing the heavy lifting for a stripped-to-the-basics offense. There's nothing wrong with that. It's just not enough to land D'Antoni on a ballot that somehow doesn't have space for Nate McMillan (probably my No. 4), Terry Stotts (also right there), Brett Brown, Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra, Alvin Gentry, Steve Kerr, and Gregg Popovich. (Yes, the Spurs' season was so strange, I'm deviating from my "always vote Pop" stance. Guiding this Kawhi-less roster to almost 50 wins is something, though.)

Stevens and Casey would be deserving winners, and I bet one of them nabs it. So why Snyder? On Jan. 22, the Jazz hit rock bottom, falling to 19-28 after a blowout loss in Atlanta. Some idiot (me) even wrote it might be time to mothball the Rubio-Favors-Gobert starting trio.

The response from Utah coaches and players was unanimous: You're wrong. They were confident they would go on a run with Gobert back, and that the offense would open up. They were right, and they did it by executing the mundane things Snyder and his staff preach every day -- the dribble handoffs, flare screens, and ball fakes (Joe Ingles, baby!), each designed to gain a few inches so the Jazz might have a few feet when it comes time to shoot.

They tinkered with Rubio's shot habits, especially around the rim, and pushed him to stick with it. They found an able playmaker-defender in Royce O'Neale, and helped make him better. Gobert adds little touches to his rim-running every season.

Gobert is the keystone to Utah's absurd defense, but Snyder has instituted an impenetrable, mathematically sound scheme around him. He has made the most of Gobert. Lesser coaches have failed greater talents.

A weaker team, with a weaker culture, would have caved. We knew Utah was not that kind of team. It wouldn't have surprised anyone if they clawed back to .500 over their last 30-plus games. That doesn't get you Coach of the Year. But this? This 27-5 rampage to home-court advantage in the first round? This is championship-level dominance. The foundation -- even with Gordon Hayward gone, and Gobert missing a third of the season -- is even stronger than we thought.

It's painful to shoehorn Casey into runner-up status after the Raptors reinvented themselves as the greatest team in franchise history. Everyone else has received a ton of credit for Toronto's livelier offense: Masai Ujiri for his "culture reset" mandate; Nick Nurse as the offensive guru among Casey's assistants; the bench for diving in headlong; the stars for relinquishing control.

None of it happens without a coach who has earned the respect of everyone involved -- an underrated big-picture tactician.

What is there left to say about Stevens? The man is a magician, and Boston has thrived despite season-ending injuries to two of its three best players. Boston, like Utah, doesn't do dumb things schematically, ever. They're slumping now after rattling off six straight wins with seemingly half their team injured. They are more vulnerable in Round One than Cleveland or Toronto. That does not mean they will be underdogs, or any fun to play against.

But Snyder (and his staff) is the choice here, by a hair.

Most Improved Player

1. Victor Oladipo
2. Steven Adams
3. Andre Drummond

This should be unanimous. Winners of this amorphous award typically fall into one of three categories:

• Young player gets better. Every voter is different, but I tend to stay away from first-round picks who improve in Year 2. That is what they are supposed to do. Apologies to Taurean Prince, Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Kris Dunn, Jamal Murray (though I was tempted given his huge leap on a playoff contender), Domantas Sabonis (ditto, though a lot of his improvement came from playing center and being allowed to, you know, participate in NBA offense), Dario Saric (a complicated case), Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, and a few others.

Third-year guys who make more of a belated leap deserve a look, but the barrier to entry is high. Apologies to Terry Rozier, Bobby Portis, Trey Lyles, Montrezl Harrell (a second-rounder, but still), Larry Nance, Jr., and a couple more.

• Below-average player becomes playable, or even good. Reggie Bullock, Dwight Powell, Shabazz Napier, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyle Anderson, and a few others fit the bill. None of them jumped quite enough to sneak in. Dinwiddie's shooting cratered. Dallas merely played Powell in the right position. Jerami Grant benefited from the same sort of shift. Some of Bullock's surge came in meaningless games, in a low-usage role. Trey Burke didn't play enough games.

• Young guys who become borderline stars -- the C.J. McCollum model.

There is no model encompassing a fifth-year guy on his third team becoming a legitimate superstar almost out of nowhere. That is what Oladipo did. He should make an All-NBA team. He will have to prove he can sustain this level, but this award is his -- easily.

Beyond that, I never know what to do with guys who have almost no prior NBA track record -- Fred VanVleet, Bryn Forbes, etc. They have no body of work upon which to improve. They are closer to rookies.

I gravitate toward veterans who add new skills. Every part of Adams' game inched forward. His numbers are up across the board. He is a better passer and defender, and his floater has become automatic.

Drummond transformed into an expert high-post facilitator, and his jump at the foul line -- from worst-in-history to 61 percent -- is one of the biggest ever.

Joe Harris, Joe Ingles, and Clint Capela deserve votes; they were probably my next three. Aaron Gordon's shooting fell off a cliff, and he fell off the ballot. Josh Richardson could seize a few more possessions in Miami. Julius Randle got a little shot-happy for my taste, and I was camping atop Julius Randle Hill back when it was just a few of us rubbing sticks together to make fire. I could name more, but Adams and Drummond get the nod.

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Lou Williams
2. Eric Gordon
3. Will Barton

You can make a strong case for Gordon. Williams' shooting dipped in March and April as the Clippers faded into the lottery. Gordon gained strength as the season went along. There is no comparison on defense. Gordon is stout across two positions. The Clippers' scoring margin barely improved with Williams on the floor, in part because he submarined their defense.

Houston has outscored opponents by about nine points per 100 hundred possessions for the season. That number balloons to 13.1 with Gordon on the floor, per NBA.com. Gordon allows Houston to rest one superstar guard without sacrificing much shooting or playmaking. The Rockets have obliterated opponents by 71 points in 148 minutes Gordon, Paul, and Harden shared the floor -- equivalent to almost 30 points per 100 possessions. That is, like, a made-up number. It will be fascinating to see how comfortable D'Antoni is using that look in the playoffs.

But Williams was essential to LA's improbable survival in a way Gordon never could be in Houston. The Clippers could not score without him. His defense hurt, but give all his minutes to a defense-first spot-up guy -- someone like Patrick Beverley -- and it's unclear if the Clippers could have competed against any non-tanking team for 48 minutes. You have to score.

Williams scored efficiently -- 22.6 points per game -- and distributed dimes at a career-best rate.

I badly wanted to give the third spot to VanVleet, the most important cog in Toronto's rollicking bench mob -- and a crunch-time fixture next to Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. But 20 minutes per game is historically low for a Sixth Man candidate, and Barton's plug-and-play pliability at three perimeter positions helped Denver navigate injuries, trades, and poor play. He has been the Nuggets' best straight-line off-the-bounce guy -- a gear they don't really have anywhere else.

That's three microwave scorer types -- my most old-school list ever. (It is crazy Andre Iguodala never won.) I've seen some voters leave off Gordon -- somewhat redundant after Harden and Paul -- in favor of VanVleet, Kelly Olynyk, P.J. Tucker, and a couple other candidates. All have strong cases. I am kind of jealous of the Tucker vote. But Gordon is averaging 18 points per game for a 65-win team, defending hard, and shooting well from everywhere after an icy start on 3s.

Additional apologies to: James Johnson, Harrell, Nance, Kyle Kuzma, Sabonis, Powell, J.J. Barea, D.J. Augustin, the entire Raptor bench including the mascot, Tomas Satoransky, and Nikola Mirotic before his shot got lost en route to New Orleans.

That's it for individual awards.