Sports columnist Michael Wexler looks back at the 2016-2017 NBA season at All-Star Break, gives his take on the deserving award winners
NBA All-Star weekend is here! Well, not physically here, not in the Davis/Sacramento area, but wouldn’t that be amazing? Nah, probably not. If you have any concept of what true entertainment actually is, you probably grew out of enjoying this weekend when you were seventeen. All-Star weekend has become increasingly obnoxious over the years. Surely, we will see an excess of Kevin Hart, meaning a plethora of jokes about the height of Kevin Hart, but it surprisingly doesn’t get any funnier after the fifth time.
Also, the concerts are downright awful. The lurid stages, the barely-relevant performers, the acting by the fake fans, it just lacks authenticity. Many look to the Saturday night festivities as the highlight of the weekend, with the three-point contest (I got Klay) and slam dunk (Aaron Gordon all the way) contest as the headliners, but the quality of the dunk contest has been reduced significantly over the years — at a certain point, only so many things are humanly possible before we start getting the repetition and gimmicky props to spice it up. Last year’s slam dunk contest was actually a fantastic showdown between Zach Lavine of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Aaron Gordon of the Orlando Magic, but I strongly believe that performance was an anomaly and the allure of this contest will eventually fade over the years.
But enough of the pessimism, I want to look back at the first 55+ games of the season and give my two cents on the deserving winners and other takes. Let me preface this by stating I was very unexcited by the beginning of the 2016-2017 season, as reflected by sarcastic explanations for award picks at the beginning of the season, but I have been absolutely proven wrong. The product the NBA has put out on the floor has been the best it has been in five or six years, and the amount of marketable players has skyrocketed.
Best Team: Golden State Warriors
This surprises nobody. The addition of Kevin Durant to the already lethal offense of the Golden State Warriors has made this team historically dominant on the offensive end. The Warriors, with a record of 44-8, are averaging an unbelievable 118.6 points per game while also being the only team in the NBA to have a collective field goal percentage above 50 percent. Nobody has surpassed this PPG average since 1991-1992, when it was, funnily enough, done by the Golden State Warriors, headed by Chris Mullin and Tim Hardaway.
The Warriors have been downright dominant on the offensive end, but there is a caveat to their success thus far — this team really struggles to guard offensive-minded big men. DeMarcus Cousins ripped the Dubs apart in a surprising upset on Feb 4. Cousins nearly earned himself a triple-double with 32 points, 12 rebounds, and nine assists in 40 minutes.
The Memphis Grizzlies have posed quite the threat to Golden State thus far, as big-men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have capitalized on Golden State’s vulnerability in the paint. Despite the Warriors victory on Friday, Feb. 10, the Grizzlies have still taken two of three in the season series. With strong play from both Randolph and Gasol, I could definitely see the Grizz being a worthy challenger capable of taking the Dubs to six or seven games in the playoffs.
NBA MVP: James Harden
The Houston Rockets find themselves in a drastically different scenario than they were following the 2015-2016 campaign. The Rockets finished the season with a .500 record and were wiped out of the first round of the NBA Playoffs in five games. Dwight Howard decided to leave to join the Atlanta Hawks, and it seemed as if the franchise was in quite the quagmire. When general manager Daryl Morey hired Mike D’Antoni, that was the first step in making the team an offensive juggernaut. D’Antoni decided that a change of position to point guard would do a world of good for his star shooting guard, James Harden, and it has worked out brilliantly. Harden is averaging 28.9 PPG, 11.4 APG, and 8.2 RPG on 43.9 percent shooting. Rarely does a player land himself in the top five in both scoring and assists per game, but that is exactly what Harden has done. With the help of newly-acquired Ryan Anderson and the resurgence and emergence of Eric Gordon and Clint Capela, respectively, the Houston Rockets find themselves near the top of the Western Conference, behind only the Spurs and Warriors. Harden’s dominance has been the reason why.
Most Improved Player: Otto Porter
Some might say I didn’t choose Giannis Antetokounmpo because spelling his name is too difficult, but Otto Porter is incredibly deserving of this award thus far. The Georgetown product was tabbed as a bust by many in his first couple years in the NBA, but in the last two seasons, he has come on very strong and should earn a multi-million dollar contract this offseason. Porter has improved his scoring output by 2.8 points, his rebound output by 1.4, and his turnovers have decreased by 0.2 despite more minutes in an expanded role, but that’s not even the biggest difference. Porter has increased his field goal percentage from 47.3 percent to 53.2 percent, and his three-point field goal percentage has risen from 36.7 percent to an astounding 46 percent, leading the NBA. This season has shown that Otto Porter will be one of the premier 3-and-D talents in the NBA for years to come, meaning he is capable of precise three-point shooting and talented on the defensive end as well.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid
I wrote about Joel Embiid’s amazing start to the year back in November, and the man has definitely kept up his dominance. An All-Star snub, Embiid has single-handedly brought the Philadelphia 76ers back from the dead, and their future looks as bright as it has in years with an influx of young talent. Joel Embiid has done it all in limited minutes on the floor, averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.5 blocks on 46.6 percent shooting and 36.7 percent from downtown. Embiid has been one of the most, if not the most, dominant bigs in the NBA, but unfortunately the injury bug has tagged Embiid once again. On Feb. 11, it was reported the Embiid has a partially torn meniscus that will fortunately not require surgery. We will see how this injury affects him during the rest of his rookie campaign.
NBA Sixth Man of the Year: Eric Gordon
Eric Gordon has been a revelation for the Houston Rockets during the 2016-2017 season. Gordon was once a budding star for the Los Angeles Clippers, but injuries have really derailed his career and it seems like this guy could never stay healthy. It was hard to watch him fade into obscurity, but Gordon has reemerged and found himself the perfect niche in Houston. Gordon has fit Mike D’Antoni’s mold in Houston perfectly, as he is averaging 17.3 PPG off the bench and is averaging 3.5 three-pointers a game, making an impressive 38.7 percent of his attempts. It’s so encouraging to watch someone with an injury-riddled career reestablish themselves and find success, and that is exactly what Eric Gordon has done this season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green
You know how I was saying the Warriors struggled with interior defense? Yeah, that issue would be exponentially greater if the Warriors didn’t have Draymond. The forward out of Michigan State has long been regarded as one of the preeminent defenders in the NBA, but this year, no Andrew Bogut has meant his presence just means that much more. Green is averaging 2.1 blocks, 1.5 steals, and continues to be that nightmare on the defensive end capable of legitimately guarding all five positions. Last Friday against the Memphis Grizzlies, Green accumulated 10 steals to set a franchise record. Draymond recorded the most unique triple-double in NBA history in this game, one that didn’t require him to surpass the 10 point threshold, which was the only time that has ever been done. In this game, Green also totaled an impressive five blocks. He may be an obnoxious personality, but he is deserving of this honor.
The NBA All-Star game will kick off at 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19 on TNT. I hope that at one point in the game, Steve Kerr decides to throw out all four of his Warrior All-Stars on the court with Russell Westbrook to complete the lineup. That would make this game a must-watch.
Written by: Michael Wexler — email@example.com