Ira Winderman: Premature balloting a blight on NBA awards

The Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) attempts to get open as the Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James (23) defends at Staples Center in Los Angeles on March 6, 2020. (Harry How/Getty Images/TNS) ****
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By Ira Winderman Sun Sentinel (TNS)

For years, the contention here has been that the NBA’s annual awards should include the playoffs, which, with their two-month run in a typical season, extend nearly as long as a third of the regular season. Why dismiss the most meaningful games of the calendar? (As it is, the only postseason award is for the MVP of the NBA Finals, which factors in only one of the four postseason rounds.)

Instead, the league has gone the opposite way during this most unusual of seasons, opting not to factor into the award balloting the eight “seeding” games each of the 22 teams Disney World will play to conclude their regular seasons.

Understand, during a typical 82-game schedule, that would represent about a 10th of the regular season. This abbreviated season, it’s even more. As for the argument that the eight lottery teams not invited into the NBA’s quarantine setting would be shortchanged … well, don’t stink. Nearly three-quarters of the league is playing on.

For the Heat, the league’s decision halts what could have been momentum toward significant hardware.

Now, Bam Adebayo and New Orleans Pelicans forward Brandon Ingram don’t get to battle to the wire for Most Improved Player.

Goran Dragic doesn’t get the opportunity to improve his standing for the Sixth Man Award.

Tyler Herro is stunted in a bid to plant himself on an All-Rookie team.

And Jimmy Butler’s placement on one of the three All-NBA teams, if there is to be one, won’t count his play in the final eight games of the season.

The league says all the stats for those eight games count … except in the balloting. So we’re basically completing an election … and then holding the debates. You can still make your points, but it won’t assist in winning anything.

Still, if decisions must be made, might as well give it the requisite consideration before the Heat find themselves a week from now in games that count in the standings (but, again, not the award balloting).

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Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

So simple to sum up: The best two-way player in the NBA, and on the NBA’s best team. Then consider that for as garish as the stats stand (averages of 29.5 points, 13.7 rebounds, 5.8 assists), he’s done it in a meager 30.9 minutes per game. Imagine if the Milwaukee Bucks actually pushed him.

And, yet, dropping LeBron James to second on the ballot still stings for this reason: Game tied in the final seconds, who would you want with the ball in his hands — LeBron or Giannis? That element gets too easily dismissed.

So make it: 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2. LeBron James, 3. James Harden, 4. Luka Doncic, 5. Chris Paul.

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Coach of the Year: Nick Nurse.

Lose one of the best players in the game and still wind up with the third-best record in the East? That just doesn’t happen in the NBA (as evidenced by LeBron’s three career departures).

While Kawhi Leonard didn’t make the MVP ballot above, that merely was because of the time given off this season to the Raptors’ MVP of last season’s NBA Finals.

So make it: 1. Nick Nurse, 2. Billy Donovan, 3. Erik Spoelstra.

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Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant.

It should be unanimous for the Memphis Grizzlies guard, who has been dominant in his first season (although this is another case where counting the seeding games could have mattered, if, as unlikely as it would be, Zion Williamson is able to push the New Orleans Pelicans past Morant’s Grizzlies for No. 8 in the West).

For the Heat, the real rookie issue would be if, in eight more games, Tyler Herro could have pushed past Brandon Clarke, Terence Davis, R.J. Barrett, Coby White, P.J. Washington, Rui Hachimura, Matisse Thybulle or others for a final spot on an All-Rookie team.

So make it: 1. Ja Morant, 2. Zion Williamson, 3. Kendrick Nunn.

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Sixth Man Award: Dennis Schroder.

This is among the toughest calls of all the awards, one where a player at the top of some ballots easily could be left off others. It is a field loaded with contenders, including a pair of Los Angeles Clippers, in Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams, as well as Derrick Rose, Goran Dragic, Patty Mills, George Hill.

But Schroeder has led reserves in scoring and has helped spark the Oklahoma City Thunder to unexpected heights as part of a surprisingly successful small-ball alignment (and another case where, with all due respect to uninvited Rose, the eight seeding games would have mattered plenty).

So make it: 1. Dennis Schroder, 2. Montrezl Harrell, 3. Lou Williams.

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Most Improved Player: Bam Adebayo.

The irony here is that an argument could be made that Duncan Robinson actually is the most improved of all Heat players this season, based on his impact. Still, Adebayo fills more boxes, by basically filling them all (and it’s about more than the Heat simply clearing Hassan Whiteside out of the way).

But the field is loaded, from Brandon Ingram keeping the Pelicans afloat in Zion’s absences to Luka Doncic taking another step to 2019 winner Pascal Siakam reaching yet another level. And that’s not even getting into Jayson Tatum, Christian Wood, Devonte’ Graham or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

So make it: 1. Bam Adebayo, 2. Brandon Ingram, 3. Jaylen Brown.

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Defensive Player Award: Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Let’s see: Leads the NBA in defensive win shares, defensive rating and defensive rebounds. And is doing it on the NBA’s best defensive team.

Rudy Gobert still ranks at the top among those planted in the paint, with Kawhi and Marcus Smart continuing as perimeter pests, and Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons and Patrick Beverley also worthy of consideration.

So make it: 1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, 2. Rudy Gobert, 3. Kawhi Leonard.

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