Had the Oklahoma City Thunder squeezed just three more W's out of the past 170 days, our suspicion here at Stein Line HQ is that the 2016-17 MVP race would be -- if not quite a rerun of last season’s unprecedented unanimous coronation of Stephen Curry -- firmly in the grasp of Russell Westbrook.
But they didn’t.
So it isn’t.
Media members have been voting on the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award since the 1980-81 season. The last time media types awarded the Maurice Podoloff Trophy to a player from a sub-50-win team in a full NBA season came in just their second year of voting, when Houston’s Moses Malone won the prize as the anchor of a 46-36 squad in 1981-82.
Westbrook’s Thunder just finished 47-35, which is largely why he could end up like the last (and only other) dude to average a triple-double over the course of a full season. Oscar Robertson, as you’ve surely heard a few times over the past six months, established the triple-double blueprint in 1961-62 ... only to finish third in that season’s MVP race behind Wilt Chamberlain (who averaged 50.4 PPG and 25.7 RPG and still finished second!) and Bill Russell.
OK, OK. Westbrook won’t finish third. I feel reasonably confident saying that much.
But James Harden clearly has a glittering case of his own to beat Westbrook out for the top spot, even after Angry Russ just led the league in scoring while giving us his best Big O impression: 31.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game and in nearly 10 fewer minutes per game than Robertson logged for the Cincinnati Royals in 1961-62.
You can be sure that Kawhi Leonard will snag some first-place votes, too, with those incomparably massive mitts.
The assignment here, as always in our estimation, is trying to determine which candidate had the best season. The whole exercise would be so much easier if we could simply hand the trophy to the league’s consensus best player -- which, in most precincts, continues to be LeBron Raymone James -- but Cleveland just dribbled into the playoffs with a stunningly mediocre mark of 23-23 over its last 46 games.
We’re certainly not blaming LeBron exclusively for the Cavs’ slip to No. 2 in the Eastern Conference standings. That would be lunacy in a season when James uncorked a career-high 13 triple-doubles of his own at age 32 and just joined Robertson and Michael Jordan as the only players to average better than 25 points, eight assists and eight rebounds over a full campaign while shooting better than 50 percent from the field. Yet we also surely can’t place him any higher than fourth on this ballot when you can legitimately classify his team as a regular-season disappointment.
Westbrook. Harden. Leonard.
You can choose only one.
Harden will be incredibly unfortunate if, as in 2015 when he finished second to Curry, he falls short again. With his own gaudy stat line -- which recently prompted Warriors coach Steve Kerr to say that the marriage of Harden and Mike D'Antoni looks like the Steve Nash/D'Antoni Suns on steroids -- The Beard gave new meaning to the phrase NBA 2K by becoming the first player in league history to score 2,000 points and create 2,000 more from assists in the same season. He also joined Robertson (twice), Tiny Archibald and Bob Cousy as the only players on record to finish a season in the top two in both scoring and assists, fully embracing his new life as a point guard and delivering more consistently than ever as the driving force that sparked a 55-win season no one saw coming.
Leonard is still right there, too. We mistakenly presumed a couple of weeks back that San Antonio’s inability to wrest the No. 1 seed in the West from Golden State had made this a two-man race. But all Kawhi has done in Year 1 without Tim Duncan is lead the Spurs to 61 wins as San Antonio’s lone All-Star and the league’s most celebrated two-way player, while also joining Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson on the short list of players who can claim both a 25-PPG season as well as a Defensive Player of the Year trophy. With Leonard having assumed greater offensive responsibility, who else can be found in the top 10 in points per game, steals per game ... and deflections?
Yet I ultimately kept coming back to Westbrook, no matter how hard it was to resist what Harden achieved in possibly (with apologies to Archibald, Robinson and even Russell) the greatest individual season ever by a lefty.
With those record-setting 42 triple-doubles, Westbrook has reached what was widely considered impossible by making triple-doubles an every-other-game occurrence. He took copious grief for supposed “stat-padding,” or obsessively chasing rebounds instead of closing out on opposing shooters, but he doesn’t get enough credit for his ability to keep his assist average in double figures despite OKC’s glaring lack of perimeter threats at a time when the 3-ball rules the league. As one admiring Western Conference rival veteran recently told me: “I don’t think people understand how hard it is to get 10 assists a game on that team.”
The Thunder, furthermore, were a stout 33-9 in those games in which Westbrook triple-doubled, compared to 14-26 when he didn’t. Which suggests they should have tried to do a lot more of that stat-chasing as a group.
Rockets fans get angry when they remember how that idiot Stein had Oklahoma City at No. 7 in the preseason edition of the Power Rankings -- with Houston way down at No. 14 -- but all that means is that we clearly misread the ceilings for both teams in our late-September forecasting.
History tells us, over and over, that teams typically crater when a player of Kevin Durant’s stature leaves without compensation. Check out how Orlando is doing, just to cite one recent example, in Year 5 post-Dwight Howard. But Westbrook refused to let his team spiral, in spite of its obvious flaws, dragging OKC instead to within three victories of the magical Five-0 that could have neutered much of the MVP debate.
The best counter for Harden supporters really isn’t winning, as the Rockets themselves keep pushing at every opportunity, because wins actually do more for Leonard’s cause than Harden’s given how much responsibility Kawhi shoulders for one of the league’s two 60-win outfits. The strongest case for Harden is that he arguably possesses the most well-rounded résumé in the argument, having quarterbacked the Rockets to a 3-point team record on top of the league’s third-highest win total, when no one in the fall was predicting anything in that neighborhood.
In the end, though, what some voters will inevitably see as evidence of Harden’s impact -- D’Antoni and teammate Eric Gordon earning my Coach of the Year and Sixth Man Award votes, respectively -- actually complicates matters on this scorecard.
Although Harden was better than ever at making those around him better, our inclination is that D’Antoni has to get a considerable assist for the system he brought to Clutch City, for the role and freedom he extended to Harden and for the way he, too, rejuvenated the likes of Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
How much credit should D’Antoni get? Was it really Harden who rejuvenated D’Antoni and his system? How precisely, in percentage terms, should we break down the credit mixture?
Told you it was complicated.
Complicated enough to convince us that Westbrook, even at three wins shy of the 50 that would have simplified things so much, couldn’t be denied. Averaging a triple-double is something very few of us can say we legitimately thought possible back on Halloween. All the team success that flowed from those triple-doubles, on the heels of Durant’s free-agent defection to the Bay Area, takes care of all that “just numbers” talk for us.
Think about it: King James himself, widely regarded for years as the most likely triple-doubler on the NBA map, just became the first player ever to record career highs in both rebounds per game and assists per game in his 14th season ... and yet neither of those figures (8.6 RPG and 8.7 APG) even starts with a nine.
Did we get swept up in the drama of Westbrook’s chase (and how he rose to it) over the past month? Sure.
Did we also take note of how Professor Pelton crunched all the advanced stats for the season and managed to conclude that the sport’s fanciest metrics suggest an MVP order of Westbrook, James, Harden and Leonard? Ditto.
We were destined to vote someday for an MVP candidate from a sub-50-win squad.
The guy who kept his small-market franchise afloat with the first triple-double average for a whole season in a whopping 55 years -- who soaked up so much of the oxygen in this extraordinary regular season with his historic exploits along the way -- strikes us as the ideal pioneer.
Stein’s official ballot: 1. Westbrook; 2. Harden; 3. Leonard; 4. James; 5. Curry.
October prediction: Russell Westbrook
Not so at Stein Line HQ.
For all of our collective MVP angst this season, I found myself wrestling with the Most Improved Player ballot just as strenuously. Trying to choose between Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic is a struggle akin to spelling or pronouncing Antetokounmpo, which remains problematic for just about everyone in the league, even in our fourth year of trying.
Yet it was indeed the Greek Freak who ultimately snagged our vote. We simply couldn’t resist rewarding him for hiking his player efficiency rating from 19.0 to a ridiculous 26.2 ... for emerging as the first player in league history to rank in the top 20 in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks ... and for literally getting better at everything.
No matter which category you laser in on, Giannis did it better than he did last season, powering the Bucks to their first winning season with him in town despite the fact Antetokounmpo and his top two sidekicks -- Jabari Parker and Khris Middleton -- played in exactly one game together. (Less than one game, actually, because Parker got injured during Middleton’s comeback game.)
The transformation from League Pass curiosity with tons of obvious promise to All-Star starter is also one of the most impressive leaps we can remember.
Jokic made this increasingly tricky as the season wore on, sneaking up on his own team like pretty much no one we can remember. Entering December, Jokic sported a solid but modest PER of 16.3, ranking 88th among players averaging at least 10 minutes per game at the time. Since then? Jokic has a PER of 28.8 from December on, ranking second in the whole league behind only MVP contender Russell Westbrook (31.1).
You can thus make the argument that Jokic, as this season unfolded, morphed from a mere top-100 player into a legitimate franchise player. It makes you wonder -- on top of Denver's issues in one-possession games and on D that we detailed in the season’s final Power Rankings as well as the ill-fated Jusuf Nurkic trade -- how differently the Nuggets might have turned out had Jokic been made a full-time starter sooner.
Just settling on a third name for this ballot is a major problem, thanks to the rise of Harrison Barnes in Dallas, Atlanta’s blossoming backcourt duo of Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. and one of our favorite stories in the league: Miami’s James Johnson. (It’s reached the point that the mere mention of Johnson’s name, as a worthy candidate in both the Sixth Man Award and MIP races, has us wanting to call the Heat to see whether we can talk them into launching a program for making over sports writers’ bodies.)
This was also an unusual season in that several established players, who normally wouldn’t be candidates in this category, forced us to rethink those norms because they made such impressive jumps. (Just to name five: Isaiah Thomas, Gordon Hayward, Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal and our 2016 MIP selection CJ McCollum.)
Yet we ultimately couldn’t resist Rudy Gobert in our No. 3 slot. Not after the considerable improvement Gobert made on offense (averaging career-bests in points, rebounds and field goal percentage) while also leading the league in blocked shots. Gobert quietly became an impact player at the other end while he was cementing himself as one of the league’s consensus top-three defenders alongside Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard.
Jokic or even Gobert, frankly, would be a worthy MIP winner. But Giannis, in the end, has to trump them all. With as much room for growth as he still has, should he find a way to sharpen that outside shooting, Antetokounmpo exceeded even the most favorable projections for his development in Year 4. He probably should be a bigger factor in this season’s MVP discussion and presumably will be next season and beyond.
As we said after the first Trimester: Make it easy on yourself for the rest of the season while you can and just tell yourself that Antetokounmpo is pronounced M-I-P.
Official ballot: 1. Antetokounmpo; 2. Jokic; 3. Gobert.
October prediction: Aaron Gordon.
The NBA's 2016-17 Coach of the Year derby is a typical and unique COY race all at once.
Typical in that the field is overflowing with worthy candidates like always.
Unique in that the guy who's getting our vote has the rare ability to separate himself from the usual deep pack by virtue of the dramatic impact he made on his team through the signature system he implemented as well as the positional change he conceived.
At Mike D'Antoni's behest, James Harden became a full-time point guard for the first time and quickly morphed into the best James Harden we've ever seen, hiking his assist rate on his teammates' buckets from last season's 35 percent to better than 50 percent this season.
At D'Antoni's urging, Harden and the rest of the Houston Rockets have launched 3-pointers at every opportunity with the sort of freedom that even the Steve Nash/D'Antoni Phoenix Suns could envy. The result has been one of the most dynamic offensive seasons in league history.
The preseason over/under projection in Las Vegas for the Rockets was 44 wins. They hit that mark on March 4, in game No. 63, with our choice for the NBA's Sixth Man Award -- Eric Gordon -- unleashed by his new coach into a career year of his own alongside Harden.
No team is exceeding preseason expectations, whether they emanate from Sin City or #ESPNForecast or anywhere else, like the Rockets are.
Yet there's no guarantee D'Antoni will prevail here. Not with the amount of quality competition he has to overcome.
Miami's Erik Spoelstra, who has somehow never won this award, has the Heat on the brink of a .500 record and a Cinderella playoff berth. Despite losing Chris Bosh going into training camp and the subsequent disaster of an 11-30 start, Spoelstra oversaw the most improbable 13-game winning streak in NBA annals and has rejuvenated the likes of Dion Waiters and James Johnson to the point that they're trusty contributors alongside Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside.
Boston's Brad Stevens, with a growing reputation in his own right, suddenly has the guard-heavy Celtics -- with their 5-foot-9 first option -- just one win away from a No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference that no one saw coming.
Washington's Scotty Brooks, after the Wizards' disastrous start, has recovered from the depths of 2-8 to guide them to the franchise's first division title since 1978-79 and a shot at 50 wins (that '78-79 season also happens to be the last time this team won 50).
Toronto's Dwane Casey and Utah's Quin Snyder, meanwhile, rank as two of the eight coaches who awoke Tuesday morning with their teams already in 50-win territory and with both having navigated the significant injury crises their teams have faced.
And a certain Gregg Popovich, of course, has responded to the challenge of his first-ever season as an NBA coach without the luxury of leaning on Tim Duncan by combining with MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard to lead the Spurs to 61 wins. It also happens to be the first time in franchise history that the Spurs have cracked the 60-win club in back-to-back seasons, with Pop using 10 different players for at least 1,200 minutes this season.
Since the NBA began tracking minutes for individual players in 1950-51, none of the nearly 300 teams that have posted a 50-win season in that span has ever allotted 1,200-plus minutes to that many different players.
All of the above are bound to get votes. Golden State's Steve Kerr (merely owner of the best record in the league for the third successive season) and Milwaukee's Jason Kidd (who has the Bucks back in the playoffs despite the lengthy injury absences of both Khris Middleton and Jabari Parker) figure to get some COY love, too.
Yet none of them, on this scorecard, overtly impacted the teams and stars involved with their philosophy and strategy as profoundly as D'Antoni has with the Rockets.
Moving on at last from those nightmare stints with the Knicks and Lakers, D'Antoni unlocked Harden's playmaking gifts, helped heal a fractured locker room and is finally winning appreciation for his ever-bold offensive approach that proved far tougher to come by in the initial wake of his Seven Seconds Or Less success in Phoenix.
Especially in L.A. and New York.
D'Antoni recently became the first coach since our ESPN colleague and dear friend Hubie Brown to go at least nine seasons between 50-win campaigns. Before this season, D'Antoni last managed 50 wins with the Suns in 2007-08. (Hubie, of course, set the NBA record by pulling that off 24 seasons apart, first with Atlanta in 1979-80 and then again with Memphis in 2003-04.)
We suspect, as a result, that the wait for D'Antoni's second career COY trophy can be measured in a matter of weeks from here.
Stein's official ballot: 1. D'Antoni; 2. Spoelstra; 3. Brooks.
October prediction: Rick Carlisle
Emphasis on supposedly.
Draymond Green, rather predictably, loved soaking up all that preseason naysaying.
"Obviously when you hear that noise, you want to shut it up No. 1," Green told me in our SportsCenter chat last week. "So coming into the season, what everyone’s saying -- 'They lost this guy, they lost that guy, their defense isn’t going to be good and that’s where their downfall is going to be' -- it motivates you. It motivated me to try to be the anchor of this defense."
Using all that preseason skepticism as fuel, Green made it his mission to fill the void in terms of vocal leadership created by Andrew Bogut's departure, hush the doubters who asserted that the Warriors would not be able to replace Bogut and Festus Ezeli inside and, of course, win his maiden Defensive Player of the Year award after consecutive second-place finishes to San Antonio Spurs stopper Kawhi Leonard.
Green has been so good on D -- and so versatile -- that it's hard to imagine Leonard, Utah's Rudy Gobert or anyone else you wish to nominate denying him the DPOY honors this time.
As dominant as Gobert has been on the interior in his own right, it's Green's turn.
Has to be.
Who else is capable of guarding all five positions as well as Green does?
Who is most responsible for helping the Warriors maintain their top-two status in the defensive efficiency standings and stick right with mighty San Antonio even after Kevin Durant was lost for nearly 20 games in the midst of Durant's best-ever season defensively?
Who but Green could rank as the only player on the league map to rack up 100-plus blocks and 100-plus steals for the second successive season while also placing in the top five -- just one spot behind Gobert -- in terms of opponents' field-goal percentage at the rim?
Entering the weekend, opposing players were shooting just 40 percent from the floor and turning the ball over in 14 percent of head-to-head confrontations with Green.
Leonard remains the superior perimeter defender, while Gobert undeniably ranks as the most intimidating rim deterrent in the modern game. My colleague Kevin Pelton has likewise complied his typically excellent annual list of all the other top defenders out there who don't get nearly the spotlight they deserve, but let's face it: No one in the conversation in these 3-pointer-crazed times can do as many different things well on the no-fun end as Green.
He switches on to speedy guards, bangs with bulkier bigs and joins Milwaukee's Giannis Antetokounmpo on the exceedingly short list of players to lead their respective teams in steals and blocked shots as well as rebounds and assists.
Only four players in league history, for the record, led their teams in those four categories for an entire season before Green and Antetokounmpo: Boston's Dave Cowens (1977-78), Chicago's Scottie Pippen (1994-95), Minnesota's Kevin Garnett (2002-03) and Cleveland's LeBron James (2008-09).
Gobert had a monster season himself, of course, in joining forces with Gordon Hayward to lead the Jazz to their first division title since 2007-08 despite their unyielding stream of injuries. He will win the league's shot-blocking title, as Mark Eaton so often did in the early days of the Stockton-to-Malone era, but he also is bringing underrated mobility to the position in pick-and-roll coverage to complement the significant improvements made by the Frenchman at the offensive end.
The momentum, though, has been building in Green's direction throughout a 14-game Golden State winning streak that has included Durant for just one game yet carried the Warriors away from Kawhi's Spurs to cement the league's best record for a third successive year.
"I’m confident in the year I had defensively," Green told me in our SportsCenter conversation. "I think I’ve gotten a lot better over the last couple years, and I think I’ve continued to get better each year and I think this has been my best year defensively. And I’m proud of it.
"But with the way the voting has gone the last two years, I can’t just say, 'Oh, I’m super confident, I know I’m getting it this time.' I don’t know. It’s out of my hands. I think I’ve done everything I possibly can to get the award, and obviously it’s something I want to do over the course of my career.
"Being a defensive-minded player, that is the ultimate. So definitely something I want to do, and I feel confident about what I’ve done on the floor, but I can’t just say: 'Oh. I’m getting it.' I can’t do that."
Tune in June 26 on TNT for the NBA's maiden year-end awards show to see if everyone doing it for Green these days is proved correct.
Stein's official ballot: 1. Green; 2. Gobert; 3. Leonard.
October prediction: Karl-Anthony Towns
Translation: Andre Iguodala should be the reflex answer any time someone asks you to name the best sixth man in basketball.
That said ...
There's really no difference between the Sixth Man Award race and the MVP race in this regard: We're gathered here to try to pinpoint the best season assembled by any sixth man in the league in 2016-17.
So just as we don't simply hand the MVP trophy over to LeBron James every October without waiting to see what happens over the next 82 games, in a nod to LeBron's ongoing status as the most feared individual force in the game, we can't make Golden State's Iguodala our choice here without concluding that he assembled the season's best resume off the bench.
And closer inspection inevitably points you in Eric Gordon's direction.
Operating largely as a reserve after coming into the season with just 19 non-starts in his career, Gordon has managed to hang with the likes of Harden and Stephen Curry all season in terms of 3-point makes, emerging as the first player in league history to hit 200-plus triples as a sub and cementing his place as an integral part of the most prolific 3-point shooting team this league has ever witnessed.
With Harden off the floor this season, furthermore, Houston has still managed to outscore the opposition by 3.9 points per 100 possessions, with Gordon stepping up as the focal point of the Rockets' offense during Harden's breaks.
In short: On top of his newfound durability -- appearing in 73 of Houston's 79 games to date -- Gordon is the second-leading scorer on the league's third-winningest team.
Strong case, huh?
But it had to be, frankly, to nudge Gordon past new teammate Lou Williams and Iguodala, because both -- as well as underappreciated outsiders Zach Randolph of the Memphis Grizzlies and Patty Mills of the San Antonio Spurs -- can make their own compelling arguments for Sixth Man honors based on what we've seen over the past six months.
With six 30-point games off the bench this season, when no one else in the league can claim more than one, Williams boasts the sort of rare flammability as a reserve that prompted the Rockets to surrender a future first-round pick to acquire him from the Lakers at the trade deadline in February.
A rough March with his shot (38 percent shooting from the field) has contributed to a significant dip in Williams' player efficiency rating from where it was in Lakerland (23.9) to where it is with the Rockets (16.3), but this vote might have been even more complicated had LouWill stayed put and kept racking up crazy numbers as a reserve like he was in L.A. for Luke Walton.
Iguodala, though, doesn't need gaudy box-score lines to turn heads. He's threatening to become the first non-point-guard we've ever seen to lead the league in assist-to-turnover ratio and has been even more of a steadying force than usual during Golden State's 14-game winning streak.
In those 14 victories, Iguodala is shooting 60.6 percent from the floor, has racked up 46 assists to just seven turnovers and is third on the squad in plus/minus behind only Stephen Curry and Draymond Green.
The 33-year-old also appears to have found the proverbial Fountain of Youth; Iguodala totaled just nine dunks in November but summoned the spring to throw down 27 in March.
Iguodala clearly eased his way into the season to save as much fuel as possible for the playoffs, but wound up playing such a pivotal role during the Dubs' long unbeaten run that he suddenly ranks as Gordon's biggest threat in this category. You suspect there isn't a coach on the planet who wouldn't love to have access to Iguodala's sticky D, high IQ and playmaking eye to inject into a game when the starters need the boost.
Gordon ultimately possesses the strongest October-to-April resume and thus should win out. Williams has clearly had his moments, too, while both Z-Bo (averaging his usual double-double after accepting this new life as a non-starter without complaint) and Mills (San Antonio is 36-2 when he scores in double figures) deserve more Sixth Man shine than they've gotten.
Yet we can also trumpet, with loud conviction no matter how the voting turns out, that Iguodala has spent the past month or so reminding us all that he has assumed Ginobili's long-held mantle as the league's most esteemed game-changer off the pine.
Which presumably means more to the awards-averse Iggy than winning the actual Sixth Man trophy.
Stein's official ballot: 1. Gordon; 2. Iguodala; 3. Randolph.
October prediction: Iguodala.
One of the most important aspects of a professional athlete's ability is availability.
You should have your ballot revoked (or worse) if you vote for Joel Embiid.
I've heard it all, friends.
I'm fully aware that my ROY vote is going to be an unpopular choice with a lot of you.
But here's the thing: I'm the one who has to live with the choice on my ballot.
And I feel much better about rewarding Embiid for the legit flashes of excellence he showed us in those 31 games -- leading the Sixers to a passable 13-18 along the way -- than I do about voting for Malcolm Brogdon or Dario Saric (or sleeper candidate Willy Hernangomez) simply because their primary advantage is better health.
I know, I know. Lots of you are enraged by that stance. But we stubbornly insist in response, as we did after Trimester 2, that the usual voting standards don't apply here and simply can't apply here when the NBA's Class of 2017 is so underwhelming as a collective.
Voting for Saric would essentially mean rewarding him for the big numbers he put up over a two-month period. The Croat entered Friday's play averaging 18.2 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.1 assists since Feb. 8 ... but I'm not quite sure why rewarding strong play from Saric over 28 games makes him so much more worthy than Embiid and what he achieved in a similar span.
Voting for Brogdon, meanwhile, would be establishing a new points-per-game low for a Rookie of the Year. The President, as he's known, has proven to be a real find for the Bucks, emerging as a trusty contributor despite his humble status as the 36th overall pick last June. Yet he's averaging just 10.3 points per game, which would fall below the 10.7 PPG averaged by Fort Wayne's Monk Meineke in his Rookie of the Year season of 1952-53.
Instinct tells me that Brogdon has a real shot with the voting body at large. He's been a fun story because of that modest draft position, certainly contributes to a playoff-bound team and averaged 12.8 points per game, 4.0 rebounds per game and 4.9 assists per game in 26 games as a starter through Thursday's play. You could likewise argue that the Bucks' 0-3 start in April, with Brogdon missing all three games as he nurses a back injury, has only underlined how important he's become to Milwaukee's program in Year 1.
It's an overall résumé that is bound to hook some voters, especially when word starts to spread that Brogdon has inspired a new website (ThePrez4ROY.com) that might well propel him to become the first second-rounder to win this award in the lottery era.
Yet we're sticking with Embiid.
We can't forget the fact that his game-changing defensive presence was such that Embiid held opponents to the league's lowest field-goal percentage -- even lower than Rudy Gobert's -- and still leads all rookies in total blocked shots even though he hasn't played in a game since Jan. 27.
We also draw some encouragement from the reality that Embiid, Brogdon or Saric -- whoever wins -- will have averaged fewer minutes per game than any previous Rookie of the Year this league has seen. None of these guys, in other words, has exactly been ever-present.
Focus on all the time Embiid has missed this season if you choose. I understand the sentiment.
But he's the rookie that I'm going to remember when folks talk about that season when Russell Westbrook messed around and averaged a triple-double.
For all that injury has snatched away from Embiid in his first three pro seasons, one night as a charismatic star attraction at the NBA's inaugural year-end awards show on TNT on June 26 strikes us as the least he deserves for what he contributed to the 2016-17 campaign.
The Process was that good, and that certifiably entertaining, when he was able to play.
Stein's Rookie of the Year ballot: 1. Embiid; 2. Brogdon; 3. Saric.
October Prediction: Embiid.
The uncertain future of the two cornerstone players in Clipperland has been felt (and feared) by this franchise every single day since training camp commenced way back on Sept. 26.
So it goes when the widespread assumption in league circles holds that big changes are coming in the offseason if the Clippers fail to at least reach the Western Conference finals for the first time in CP3 and Griffin's six seasons together.
Yet what if our focus is misplaced?
What if the big change looming, in the event of another disappointing end to a Clippers season that began with such promise, occurs in the coaching box?
Doc Rivers is under contract to serve as Clippers coach and president of basketball operations through the 2018-19 season. This is Year 3 of the five-year deal Rivers landed with new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer -- believed to be in excess of $50 million -- after steering the club so admirably through the last days of Donald T. Sterling's famously chaotic and controversial reign that spanned more than three decades.
That monster pact, however, hasn't prevented Rivers' name from popping up in one of the league's more rampant recent conspiracy theories.
There has been persistent chatter for weeks on the NBA's front-office grapevine that the Orlando Magic and Rivers will explore a reunion down the road.
Now, you're certainly not alone if you're wondering whether down the road in this case should be measured in months or years.
More clarity, though, might not be far off.
The Clippers, for starters, are bound to put their entire operation under the microscope if their season continues to unravel in its current manner. Injuries have undoubtedly played their part, with Paul and Griffin playing together in only 37 of the Clippers' 69 games to date, but a 5-8 funk heading into Saturday night's home showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers has threatened to knock the Clips down to the West's sixth or seventh seed.
Not what anyone expected, least of all Ballmer, when these same Clips jumped out to a 14-2 start.
The Magic, meanwhile, appear headed for their own sooner-rather-than-later shake up. League sources say without hesitation that Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan finds himself on the hot seat and is increasingly likely to be dismissed at season's end, with the Magic on course for a fifth successive losing season under Hennigan's watch.
It might only be a matter of weeks, then, before the Magic have a vacancy for a new lead voice in the organization.
The simpler move for Orlando, of course, would be to hire an on-the-rise executive to take over basketball operations and work with first-year coach Frank Vogel. Ex-Magic forward Pat Garrity, presently in Detroit as part of Stan Van Gundy's cabinet, has emerged as a potential target to come aboard in precisely those circustances and inherit Vogel, who appeared to be absolved from blame for Orlando's 25-45 misery this season when Hennigan conceded that the roster was overloaded with big men and traded Serge Ibaka to Toronto just eight months after surrendering Victor Oladipo, No. 11 overall Domantas Sabonis and a first-round pick to bring Ibaka in.
Talk of an eventual Rivers return to the Magic Kingdom, where he launched his coaching career, is nonetheless too prevalent among league insiders to ignore.
File it away, if nothing else, as we await a number of related dramas to play out. Such as:
- Is the prospect of a new voice via coaching change, on top of Ballmer's vows to spend as much as it takes to keep his top two stars, something the Clippers should consider as part of its pitch to re-sign Paul and Griffin in the event this upcoming postseason plays out like the previous five?
- Does it even make sense for the Clippers to try to keep that starry twosome together if this latest slide proves irreversible and they stretch it to six consecutive seasons in the Paul-and-Griffin era without progressing beyond the second round of the playoffs?
- Is the simpler solution for the Clippers asking Rivers to merely surrender one of his titles -- meaning his GM hat -- to bring in a new team-builder that keeps one of the six active championship coaches in the game on his current bench?
- Do the rumblings about Ballmer's close ties to former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers executive Bob Whitsitt, as some league insiders believe, make Whitsitt destined to land in charge of the Clips in coming years?
- Do this week’s complaints about the Clippers' approach and inconsistency coming from J.J. Redick hint at his free-agent departure this summer? Word is that some within the organization are concerned Redick is going to be too pricey to re-sign when the sharpshooter, like LA's starting point guard and power forward, hits the open market in July.
Weave through all of the above and there's clearly plenty here, dare we say, to keep you tuned in well after the Clips and Cavs hook up.
We're almost there.
The NBA, assuming it makes it through the next three-plus weeks with no coaching casualties, is about to record its first campaign since 1970-71 without a single in-season coaching change.
The league, for the record, only fielded 17 teams back then, compared to the current 30.
The next trick, of course, will be seeing how many teams change coaches in the offseason, since we can almost always bank on a surprise firing (or three) beyond those who find themselves fielding regular questions about job security as the regular season dribbles to a close (such as New Orleans' Alvin Gentry, New York's Jeff Hornacek and Chicago's Fred Hoiberg).
The last season in which every NBA team began with the head coach who finished the previous season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was 1975-76 ... just when your humble correspondent was falling in love with this league as an inquisitive 6-year-old.
There were 18 teams, for the record, in that NBA season.
Jimmer Fredette, fresh off an MVP season with the Yao Ming-owned Shanghai Sharks, is back in the United States and eagerly awaiting the phone call that affords him another NBA shot.
Carlos Boozer, meanwhile, remains in China but has also played his way back onto the NBA's radar, having helped the Guangdong Southern Tigers, along with veteran guard Donald Sloan, advance to within one game of the Chinese Basketball Association finals.
After a bumpy adjustment period to the Chinese game, Boozer has joined Fredette as one of the CBA's most influential imports during the past two months. One source plugged firmly into the Chinese scene says that the Miami Heat and the aforementioned Clippers are among the teams tracking the 34-year-old's progress with Guangdong.
One potential problem for Boozer: If Guangdong indeed reaches the championship series in China, he might run out of time to make it back to the States in time to hook up with a playoff team. Boozer is eligible to play in the NBA postseason for anyone who signs him, since he hasn't been on a roster all season, but the one requirement is that he'd have to be signed back home before the NBA regular season ends April 12.
FWIW: The best available free agent, on this scorecard, is Omri Casspi, who endured the misfortune of suffering a broken right thumb in his New Orleans Pelicans debut on Feb. 23 but, according to league sources, was cleared this week to resume basketball activities ahead of schedule.
Given Casspi's ability to play small forward and power forward and shoot the ball from the deep, you have to believe a playoff-bound team will try to sign him in the coming days.
The Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, sources say, are among the teams that have expressed exploratory interest. The Grizzlies, in particular, appear to have an opening on the wing after Chandler Parsons was sadly ruled out for the rest of the season thanks to his own hard-luck meniscus tear in his left knee.
A few fun tidbits, via tireless ESPN research ace Micah Adams, about the Spurs' ridiculous run of 18 straight 50-win seasons:
- The closest call to falling short of 50 occurred during the 2011-12 season, which, as you surely remember, was shortened to 66 games thanks to a lengthy lockout. The Spurs needed to finish that season with a 10-game winning streak to get to the big Five-Oh ... and naturally did.
- The very first victory in this 18-season run came against Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 1999. Current ESPN analyst and longtime Spurs swingman Bruce Bowen played in that game ... for the Sixers.
- Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old when the streak began./p
- The Clippers entered 2016-17 with the second-longest active streak of 50-win seasons ... albeit with just four.
- Gregg Popovich has employed 137 players during these 18 seasons. Tim Duncan holds the record with 1,260 games played during the streak; Alex Scales appeared in the fewest ... as in just one.
- In yet another testament to the job R.C. Buford has done as Pop's trusty personnel ace: More than half of the Spurs' players in the past 18 seasons -- 56 percent -- were not first-round draft picks. Forty-three of them, furthermore, were undrafted.
Kevin Durant is not going to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year trophy.
Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard are, as usual, your headliners in the DPOY race ... with Andre Drummond quietly faring well in many advanced defensive categories despite the widespread so-so reviews of his play this season.
Yet this will also go down as the season that Durant established himself as a nightly defensive force. As of Sunday morning, in fact, Durant ranked an impressive eighth in the league in individual defensive rating and sixth in defensive win shares, according to Basketball Reference.
So this is no pity vote for Durant merely because he's out indefinitely and could miss the rest of the regular season in the wake of the knee injuries he suffered in Washington just days ago. Consider this our formal (and overdue) hat tip to the commitment Durant has brought to the no-fun end in his debut season as a Warrior, when many expected his new team to suffer greatly on D and on the boards because of a shortfall in the size and rim-protection departments.
Heading into Sunday's Madison Square Garden date with the Knicks, Golden State ranked No. 2 overall in the league in defensive efficiency behind only San Antonio and one spot ahead of the Gobert-led Jazz. Yet the Warriors actually wound up fielding the league's top team defense during trimester 2, allowing just 100.4 points per 100 possessions to finish narrowly ahead of the Spurs (100.8 points per 100 possessions).
And Durant, for his part, averaged 8.3 rebounds over those 28 games to rank second on the team only to Green's 8.5 RPG in the same span. Better yet: As Golden State was going 24-4 in that stretch, Durant held players he directly guarded to 38 percent shooting for the trimester ... better even than Green's 41 percent.
Durant's D has been such a season-long plus that, in the wake of his injury, it became a common reaction to hear various NBA analysts out there opine that the Warriors would miss him as much (or more) at that end as they would offensively.
It's an unarguable statistical fact, whether or not you agree, that Golden State had logged 215 minutes at the time of Durant's injury with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and all on the court and KD spectacting. The Dubs were 11.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively in those situations.
Durant, mind you, would be the first to say that Green remains Golden State's unequivocal defensive anchor and the co-favorite along with the menacing Gobert to end Leonard's two-year hold on this award. And Green's trimester 2 defense was absolutely smothering; Golden State allowed just 97.3 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor in those 28 games and giddily watched him force a turnover on 13 percent of all plays when Green was the primary defender (according to ESPN Stats & Info player-tracking data).
Too little has been said and written about the sort of defender Durant has become to offset the departures of Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, while he obviously continues to rank as one of the most-feared pure scorers this game has ever seen. So we decided to rectify that today.
What Green can show us in Durant's absence might prove to be the extra dose of defensive goodness he needs to trump Gobert, Leonard, Drummond, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Giannis Antetokounmpo and everyone else vying for the DPOY award ... as well as stealth Spurs candidate Dewayne Dedmon. But spotlighting Durant in this category for the very first time just felt right.
Don't be surprised if Durant winds up on the NBA's All-Defensive Team for the first time, too.
Or James Harden.
Most NBA award voters would tell you that the Most Valuable Player race in this league is going to come down to those two offensive dynamos when ballots are cast in mid-April.
Barring a stretch-run groundswell of support for LeBron James in one of his strongest overall campaigns, or Stephen Curry shifting into flamethrower made to compensate for the sudden loss of Kevin Durant, I certainly expect the same.
We don't have to decide that now, though.
Harden has the slight edge with us here entering the season's final 20 (or so) regular-season games, undoubtedly helped by Oklahoma City's slip to seventh in the West despite all of Trimester 1 MVP Westbrook's triple-double brilliance. But the time to truly put their respective cases under the microscope is about a month from now.
We're here today to pay tribute to the perennially overlooked excellence that emanates from San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, whose résumé for the season's middle third can live up to anyone's you wish to submit.
West or East.
Across the season's second Trimester, Leonard averaged 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, while also chipping in 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game.
He also happened to string together the four highest-scoring games of his career during that slice of schedule: 41 points, 38 points and two 36-point outings. Prior to Trimester 2, Leonard had never scored more than 35 points in an NBA game.
Dig even deeper and you'll find that Leonard, over a 16-game stretch starting Jan. 10 and leading into All-Star Weekend, reached the 30-point plateau 11 times. He had registered only 12 30-point games in his career before that hot streak.
The NBA's two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, in other words, has officially transformed himself into an elite scorer.
Instinct nonetheless tells me Leonard shouldn't expect to finish higher than fourth in real-life MVP balloting. Not with the seasons Harden, Westbrook and James are having.
Interesting question to ponder: What happens if San Antonio takes advantage of Durant's knee injuries to swipe the No. 1 seed in the West from the mighty Warriors?
While you let that one marinate, please at least join us in anointing Leonard as the West's best for the Trimester that just finished. The Spurs, after all, are suddenly just two games behind Golden State in the race for the top seed in the conference after Saturday night's overtime win over Minnesota, even though LaMarcus Aldridge is carrying his lowest scoring average (17.3 PPG) since his rookie season ... and despite the fact Pau Gasol really hasn't come close to filling the Tim Duncan void ... and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, like it or not, making less of a mark than they ever have.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kawhi is one of only three players leaguewide who has managed to increase his scoring average for five successive seasons, alongside fellow All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler. But in Leonard's case, that jump is from 21.2 points per game last season to a heady 25.9 PPG this season, good for No. 8 overall when you click to the league leaders.
A season that was supposed to be a seismic shock to everyone's system in the Alamo City looks as Spurs-y as usual. Franchise patriarch Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford certainly deserve their slice of the credit for that, but they'd surely also be the first to say that no one is more responsible than Kawhi.
Getting the Trimester 2 hardware here, then, seems like the least Leonard deserves.
The NBA's eventual Sixth Man Award winner for the 2016-17 season is very likely coming from the Houston Rockets.
Seeing them on the same roster, however, is bound to complicate things for some voters. Judging by Williams' first four games in a Rockets uniform, in which he averaged 19.3 points in 25.3 minutes per game, it would be unwise to assume that Gordon will continue to generate the gaudiest numbers off of Houston's bench.
Gordon cemented himself as a key figure in Houston long before winning the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend, thanks largely to those 13 successive games from Nov. 25 through Dec. 17 in which he found a Steph Curry-esque groove and drained at least three 3s per game. He's still a heady No. 3 in the league in 3-point makes for the season (202) despite some recent ups and downs, trailing only Curry (235) and teammate James Harden (203) entering Sunday's play.
Yet if Williams continues to average 18-plus points in fewer than 25 minutes per game for the season, he'll join the San Diego Clippers' Freeman Williams (19.3 PPG in 24.1 MPG in 1980-81) as the only players in league history to do so.
What we're trying to say is that we could really use more time -- as well as the forthcoming 20-ish games' worth of data -- to untangle the Gordon/Lou Will conundrum. Their production was very similar during the second trimester (as the accompanying chart shows), which only makes these two harder to separate.
Allow us to train our lens on Motown, where Tobias Harris has quietly emerged as perhaps the most credible threat to the Houston duo's presumed duopoly in the Sixth Man race.
Harris was moved into a reserve role by Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy right around the start of the second trimester and, after a brief return to the starting lineup, returned to the bench for good Jan. 23. In the 17 games since he became a full-time sixth man, Detroit has gone 9-8 to cling to the No. 8 seed in the East, with Harris shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor and averaging 16.7 points per game as a sub.
Which leaves Harris trailing only Williams (18.7 PPG) and Gordon (17.2 PPG) in terms of bench scorers this season.
The rub, of course, is that Harris can qualify for official Sixth Man Award consideration only if he has fewer starts than nonstarts by season's end. Assuming he plays in all 19 of the Pistons' remaining regular-season games, that means Harris must appear as a reserve in at least 18 of them.
But when we laser in specifically on trimester 2, during which he was largely deployed as a sixth man, Harris has a sneaky-good case. In those last 17 games, for example, Detroit has been better on both ends of the court with Harris on the floor, posting a net efficiency of plus-4.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions when he doesn't.
Memphis' Zach Randolph, Miami's James Johnson, Denver's Wilson Chandler, San Antonio's Patty Mills and Milwaukee's Greg Monroe have also all had their moments as game-changers off the bench. (Editor's note: Enes Kanter removed himself from the conversation despite his usual top-shelf offensive production and board work in limited minutes -- at least for this trimester -- when he punched that chair.)
Yet it looks as though Harris, based on what he just did during the season's middle third, is the only real threat to prevent Gordon or the newly acquired Williams from bringing home the first Sixth Man trophy to Houston in franchise history.
I've heard all the arguments.
I've seen all the wails of protest on Twitter after my suggestion earlier this week that Joel Embiid, without playing another minute this season, still stands as the most likely Rookie of the Year in the NBA.
I still struggle to picture voting for anyone else for Rookie of the Year over Joel Embiid. His mere 31 games still outshine all other rooks
— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) March 1, 2017
And I see no reason -- yet -- to budge. No matter how loud you shout.
He won't even end up playing half the games.
He's not really a rookie.
Durability is a huge part of the NBA player's resume.
You can believe all those things with a maximum amount of conviction. But it still doesn't change the reality that a defensible alternative to voting for Embiid has yet to present itself.
The fact that Embiid will have only played 31 of 82 games this season is bound to upset lots of people if the Sixers' charismatic center is indeed chosen as the NBA's 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. As we've noted on numerous occasions lately, Patrick Ewing's 50 games played in the 1985-86 season is the previous record low for a ROY winner. Embiid is going to fall nearly 20 games shy of Ewing's total.
Yet there's simply no good fallback option, as we speak, some three decades removed from Ewing's ROY nod. Withholding a vote for Embiid because of the injury plague that has cursed him again means you have to cast a vote for someone else. Which raises the obvious question: Who?
During the season's just-completed second Trimester, only three other rookies besides Embiid averaged at least 10 points per game: Dallas' Yogi Ferrell (13.6 PPG), Philadelphia's Dario Saric (11.5 PPG) and Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon (11.2 PPG).
Embiid averaged 23.6 PPG in Trimester 2 in 14 games. (Ferrell, for the record, only played eight games in the Trimester).
The gap between Embiid's production so far this season, compared to the rest of this rookie class, gets even more pronounced when you click to the PER numbers for rookies. Embiid (24.33), New York's Willy Hernangomez (18.63) and the Los Angeles Lakers' Ivica Zubac (15.16) are the only rooks at 15 or better.
Any PER reading below 15, remember, is considered below average.
It's also worth remembering that Embiid has often been brilliant when we have seen him out there, which is something you don't hear much about rookies anywhere these days. The 7-footer wound up averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in a scant 25.4 minutes per game in those 31 precious outings, leading the long-suffering Sixers to a record of 13-18.
When Embiid isn't in uniform, Philly is 10-20.
And let's please stop with the nonsensical claims that Embiid being drafted in 2014 and missing the entirety of his first two NBA seasons is some sort of grand advantage he holds over other rookies. Seriously? Did anyone who works in this league or simply loves it from the outside ever think Embiid would produce at anywhere close to the level he has after -- we repeat -- losing two full seasons to injury?
There's still time, of course, for Saric or Brogdon or Denver's Jamal Murray -- or whoever -- to wow us in Trimester 3 and provide a defensible voting option. When we sat down with Embiid for an ESPN Radio visit, he insisted it would be Saric, who happens to be averaging 19.4 points over his past 10 games.
Saric, though, isn't there yet. He's averaging a mere 11.4 points per game for the season and sporting a PER of 12.12. If that doesn't sound ROY-esque to you, that's probably because it would represent the lowest PPG posted by a ROY winner since Fort Wayne's Monk Meineke averaged 10.7 points in the 1952-53 season ... which happens to be the first season that the NBA handed out this award.
Those who take issue with how much more "grown up" Embiid is than other rookies are also advised to recall that Saric, just like Embiid, was drafted in 2014. He spent the past two seasons playing top-level European basketball in Turkey before matriculating to the Sixers.
The goal here, though, is not to pick on Saric or Brogdon, who has shown his own promising flashes by breaking into Milwaukee's rotation as an unheralded second-round pick and shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range. Let's see what happens in the final 20 (or so) games of the regular season. Maybe Saric or Brogdon can seize the opportunity.
All of the above, though, is meant to illustrate that Embiid's excellence -- however fleeting -- makes him the standout rookie so far.
And this ROY voter, speaking purely for himself, simply refuses to make this race all about the GP column when the numbers we're seeing from the overwhelming majority of Embiid's peers are so pedestrian everywhere else you look.
The last man to win NBA Coach of the Year honors from a non-playoff team was Doc Rivers with the Orlando Magic in 1999-2000.
Consider this your warning to take note of what's happening in Florida's other NBA city nearly two decades later.
Houston's Mike D'Antoni, Boston's Brad Stevens, Utah's Quin Snyder, Memphis' David Fizdale and, of course, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich all remain prime contenders for the ultimate COY prize. Washington's Scotty Brooks, furthermore, has added himself to that group by masterminding the Wizards' recent turnaround.
Yet it's Miami's Erik Spoelstra who boasts the most irresistible case to score our nod for the second Trimester, given what legitimately ranks as an unprecedented in-season turnaround for a team that reached the season's halfway point on pace to win 22 games.
Entering Friday's disappointing showing in Orlando, Miami was on a 17-3 fairy tale of surge that (A) features what many are calling the most improbable 13-game winning streak in league history and (B) accounted for the best record in the NBA since Jan. 17.
What Spoelstra has done with an injury-riddled roster that had pundits and hoop know-it-alls howling for the Heat to tank when they were 11-30 is truly special. Yet those who know Spoelstra best will tell you he's obsessive about trying to find an edge, constantly studying any piece of data he can muster in the search for the best lineups and schemes and, as he's in the process of showing us, adept at squeezing month-to-month improvement from the group no matter who is wearing the uniforms.
As mentioned in Monday's Power Rankings, this is the complete list of players Spoelstra deployed as starters in those 13 wins in a row: Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Luke Babbitt, Willie Reed and Wayne Ellington.
Spoelstra, incidentally, isn't the only coach from a non-playoff team who's building some COY momentum. With Rick Carlisle pushing the buttons in Big D like only he can, Dallas posted a 16-12 mark over the season's middle third, after the Mavericks had stumbled to a 6-20 start marked by countless injuries.
The improvement was the league's largest in win-percentage terms, from Trimester 1 to Trimester 2, with Carlisle's decision to move Seth Curry into the starting lineup paying particular dividends. When Curry starts, Dallas is 14-9.
We still say D'Antoni will be tough to beat at the COY finish line if the Rockets, currently on a 57-win pace despite coming into the season with such modest expectations, win at least 55 games. Voters are bound to be drawn to what D'Antoni's system has done for James Harden as well as the corresponding freedom he he's handed to his new star ... while revitalizing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson along the way.
It also has to be said that if the Celtics somehow overtake Cleveland for the East's No. 1 seed -- or if the Spurs wind up winning the West in their first season post-Tim Duncan and with injuries/inconsistency plaguing star swingman Kawhi Leonard's supporting cast -- Stevens and/or Popovich would suddenly reduce D'Antoni to mere co-favorite status.
Brooks is another name to monitor in the wake of the Wizards' surge from 12-14 in Trimester 1 to 21-7 in Trimester 2, which has thrust the Wiz into contention for a top-three seed in the East after a nightmarish 2-8 start.
But Spoelstra, frankly, strikes us as the most interesting what-if in the conversation. Seriously. Imagine if the Heat snag a playoff spot. What then?
Spoelstra has to get some COY votes in that scenario, considering Miami's playoff chances were down to 0.04 percent, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, when it was mired at 11-30.
Just before the Heat launched what our pal Micah Adams from ESPN Stats & Information likes to refer to as "the least likely double-digit win streak in NBA history."
What a difference a Trimester makes.
At Christmastime, I thought Giannis Antetokounmpo had the NBA's Most Improved Player trophy pretty much wrapped up. He had quickly put himself on a pace to become the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and field goal percentage. The Greek Freak had risen to such prominence so quickly that, within weeks of our first batch of Trimester honorees this season, he was not only selected to his first All-Star Game, but voted in as a starter.
Who in the world could compete with that?
Nikola Jokic, naturally!
Jokic was so freakishly good in his own right in the season's middle third that he would be fully justified to ring us up and ask why he isn't our West MVP for the same reporting period.
How freakishly good?
In Trimester 2, Jokic posted a PER of 31.5, which ranks as the league's best in that span, as calculated by ESPN research ace Micah Adams.
Jokic averaged 21.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting a seemingly impossible 60.8 percent from the floor in just 29.4 minutes per game over that slice of schedule. Compare that to his numbers in the season's opening third: 11.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 23.7 minutes per game.
The improvement was so sharp and sudden that the Nuggets felt compelled to first nudge bruiser Jusuf Nurkic out of the rotation and then ultimately trade the 2014 first-round pick to Portland.
Thanks to the rise of Jokic, furthermore, Denver is unexpectedly the team several other Western Conference residents have been forced to chase for the West's final playoff berth. The Nuggets were 13-11, to be exact, in the 24 games Jokic played in Trimester 2; they went 1-3 in the four games he missed.
Jokic, in case you'd forgotten, was selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft, 23 spots after Nurkic.
That's Giannis-level madness.
From here, then, we won't even dare to make predictions about what happens next in this crazy MIP race. It's been too wild.
Instead of the usual overflow of candidates in this category, with voters typically struggling to choose between all the various types of MIP contenders that surface, Antetokounmpo and Jokic have made such dramatic leaps in stature that players like Harrison Barnes and Tim Hardaway Jr. scarcely get mentioned in this race.
That's the same Barnes, for the record, who has merely supplanted Dirk Nowitzki as the No. 1 offensive option in Dallas by hiking his scoring average from 11.7 points per game last season in Golden State to 20.2 PPG this season.
How on Earth are we going to choose between The Greek Freak and The Joker when official league award ballots hit our inbox in six weeks' time?
One Trimester removed from what seemed like a runaway for Antetokounmpo, Jokic just joined Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins as the only players in the league to average 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists during the second Trimester.
As predicted by no one.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are not going to be happy.
I just read all of their rather determined lobbying on behalf of LeBron James' MVP candidacy in a neatly assembled piece Friday by my longtime colleague Dave McMenamin. Yet it wasn't going to sway us ... as well-timed as it was.
Not even as we acknowledge, along with several of his Cavs teammates, that it's hard to believe LeBron hasn't hoisted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since the 2012-13 season.
As ridiculously good as James was in February -- 63.7 percent shooting from the floor and 56.8 percent shooting from deep jump off the page most -- Trimester 2 in the Eastern Conference belonged to Isaiah Thomas more than anyone.
Or have you forgotten what LeBron himself dubbed a " s---ty" January?
Thomas, meanwhile, posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 31.1 in the season's middle third, which was tops in the East in that span.
Within that same slice of schedule, Boston's little big man established himself as the NBA's Mr. Fourth Quarter, averaging 13.1 points per game in the final period in that time frame. Next in line leaguewide was Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook ... at 9.1 points per game in the fourth quarter.
Of greatest importance, Boston went 21-7 in Trimester 2, matching Washington's 21-7 mark for best in the East and helping the Celtics seize control of the East's No. 2 seed, despite all those well-chronicled concerns about Thomas' defensive limitations.
As a bonus, Thomas is the closest competition Westbrook has for the league's scoring title, which is something no Celtic, amazingly, has ever won. And this is a franchise, remember, that boasts 33 Hall of Famers.
Factor in Thomas' increase from 22.2 points per game last season to 29.6 PPG this seas on and we'd probably be talking about him as a Most Improved Player candidate as well ... if not for the fact that IT essentially disqualified himself from that category on our ballot because we typically don't give MIP consideration to players who've already reached All-Star status.
Let's be clear here as we swing this back to Bron: Taking James for granted is the last of our intentions. He was our First Trimester MVP in the East and has been undeniably brilliant when you zoom out from Cleveland's January struggles and remind yourself that James has a good shot to average better than 25 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game for the season while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.
Thomas is getting the nod here as we move into the season's final third, because we see him, in recognition terms, as the Kawhi Leonard of the East.
In other words: Thomas is the underappreciated star in his conference who realistically can't win the MVP award but deserves much more frequent mention as a contender for one of the five spots on the official MVP ballot than he's been getting.
After 14½ seasons on its own, ESPN.com's famed NBA Power Rankings Committee (of One) is going to try a community approach.
On a one-Monday basis.
This is your long-awaited opportunity, faithful readers, to join the process by submitting comments via Twitter that will be considered for usage in our rankings that hit cyberspace Monday, coming out of All-Star Weekend.
The 1-to-30 order teams are placed in, of course, will remain the Committee's domain.
All rankings devotees worldwide are invited to tweet their smartest thoughts -- between now and Sunday, Feb. 19 -- summing up their team's 2016-17 season so far in 140 characters or less.
We repeat: Sum up your team's season to date -- be sure to include the hashtag #ESPNPowerRank -- and fire away!
The best tweets we get will be used in the comment space for all 30 teams Monday. It's a chance to see your Twitter handle immortalized in some of the brightest lights you'll find on ESPN.com.
This is your long-awaited chance to get involved. We're looking for smart NBA analysis for all 30 teams, so start tapping!