Jokic or Giannis? Murray or Morant? This is how a Tribune reporter’s NBA awards ballot looked

Reporter Eric Walden is one of 100 media members who had an official awards vote this season

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, left, dunks as Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic defends in the first half of an NBA basketball game Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

I submitted my NBA awards ballot with a whole 2 hours and 26 minutes to spare. Apparently, that was cutting it pretty fine, if the “gentle reminder” text sent to me by an NBA spokesman about five hours before the cutoff was any indication.

Lest you think it was a simple case of procrastination, let me assure you it was quite the opposite — nerve-wracking indecision. It’s a bad but at least consistent personality trait (see the time my wife picked out a new phone protector case in about five minutes, while I spent three agonizing days comparing features and poring over reviews).

Every time I thought I had a category on the ballot finished, my brain would annoyingly interject: “Wait, but what about …?”

Given all that, even I don’t know how ultimately happy I am with this ballot, or how confident I feel about it. I can’t even say it would be identical today to the one I submitted Monday, if I had longer to (over)think about it. But while some will no doubt take issue with some of the votes cast, anything here you perceive as misguided is not for a lack of thought or effort.

Anyway, that’s enough equivocation.

Most Valuable Player

1. Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

3. Joel Embiid, 76ers

4. Devin Booker, Suns

5. Luka Doncic, Mavericks

I vacillated until the end between the Denver and Milwaukee stars, with the Philly center a half-step below. Ultimately, Jokic’s individual brilliance in keeping the Nuggets as a viable playoff team despite missing Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. was just enough to fend off the Greek Freak, who admittedly packs a greater defensive punch and ultimately enjoyed more team success.

Most Improved Player

1. Dejounte Murray, Spurs

2. Ja Morant, Grizzlies

3. Desmond Bane, Grizzlies

Should I have picked Morant? Maybe. He did make quite the leap in Year 3. Then again, I also felt like he’s the type of player you would expect to make such a leap. Murray taking that much of a “next step” this far into his career was more unprecedented. As for Bane, well, just ask a Jazz fan their thoughts on the team passing him over in the draft. The toughest omission was the Warriors’ Jordan Poole, who shined in his bigger opportunity.

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Rudy Gobert, Jazz

2. Mikal Bridges, Suns

3. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Having seen him play for 82 games, I’m very familiar the subtleties, the nuances, and the growth of Gobert’s game. I honestly considered half a dozen players or more here, but ultimately felt that none had the singular impact that Utah’s center does. I do expect Phoenix’s Bridges — a near-perfect modern switchable weapon — to win the award at some point. Just not this year.

Sixth Man of the Year

1. Tyler Herro, Heat

2. Kevin Love, Cavaliers

3. Cam Johnson, Suns

I know, I know — I’ve defaulted to, as my coverage partner Andy Larsen would put it, worshipping at the altar of points in a category that frequently simply goes to the guy who scores the most points. In my defense … Herro scored a ton of points off the bench, and was a pretty vital cog in the Heat’s run to the East’s No. 1 seed.

Rookie of the Year

1. Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

2. Scottie Barnes, Raptors

3. Cade Cunningham, Pistons

Deciding between Mobley and Barnes was excruciating. I was a big fan of Barnes — I was one of the rare people who had the Raptors selecting him in a mock draft (receipts!). And he was great! Ultimately, I felt Mobley was perhaps just a smidge more consistent from beginning to end. Cunningham had an incredible finish, but a woeful start.

Coach of the Year

1. Monty Williams, Suns

2. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies

3. J.B. Bickerstaff, Cavaliers

I firmly believe that too many voters too often give this vote to “coach who unexpectedly helped a team overachieve” (see Thibodeau, Tom, last season). Which is a worthy reason, but not the only one. Williams had the Suns as the best team from start to finish. Reward that. I had Jenkins because the Grizz are years ahead of schedule. As for the unexpected overachiever vote, I debated between Bickerstaff and the Clippers’ Ty Lue, settling on the former because literally no one thought Cleveland would do anything this year.

All-Rookie Teams

First Team

Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

Scottie Barnes, Raptors

Cade Cunningham, Pistons

Franz Wagner, Magic

Herb Jones, Pelicans

Second Team

Jalen Green, Rockets

Josh Giddey, Thunder

Ayo Dosunmu, Bulls

Bones Hyland, Nuggets

Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors

Wagner had an underrated season toiling in obscurity in Orlando. If you had Giddey or Green on the First Team over Jones, I wouldn’t complain, but man, the guy was a defensive menace. Kuminga’s raw numbers don’t look the best, but when he got a chance to play 20+ minutes, his game really shined.

All-Defensive Teams

First Team

Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Mikal Bridges, Suns

Marcus Smart, Celtics

Second Team

Robert Williams, Celtics

Dorian Finney-Smith, Mavericks

Bam Adebayo, Heat

Jrue Holiday, Bucks

Matisse Thybulle, 76ers

The ballot instructs you to vote for a player at the position they most often play, choosing two forwards, one center, two guards. I didn’t strictly follow that rule, believing that three forwards deserved to make the First Team, so Bridges went in as a guard. I could see that lineup actually existing. I have some regret about not putting Holiday on the First Team, but I can live with it. I don’t know if Finney-Smith will get many votes, but I feel like he’s quietly become a super-switchable weapon for the Mavs. I considered Draymond Green for Second Team, considering he probably wins DPOY if he played more … but, y’know, he didn’t play more.

All-NBA Teams

First Team

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

Kevin Durant, Nets

Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Devin Booker, Suns

Luka Doncic, Mavericks

Second Team

Jayson Tatum, Celtics

LeBron James, Lakers

Joel Embiid, 76ers

Ja Morant, Grizzlies

Steph Curry, Warriors

Third Team

DeMar DeRozan, Bulls

Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves

Rudy Gobert, Jazz

Trae Young, Hawks

Chris Paul, Suns

These were the source of no small amount of angst. Remember that whole “the position they played most” instruction? I’ll admit to being inconsistent in my adherence to it. I could have put Embiid as a First Team forward. Should I have? I did view him as having the third-most valuable season of any player. But I also viewed these teams from a lens of constructing on-court lineups, and could not envision Jokic and Embiid playing together.

I also had the same lack of consistency in finding the right combination of rewarding individual statistical brilliance and team success. I considered Morant for First Team, but opted for Doncic’s gaudier numbers. I considered Tatum, but went with Durant — in spite of his relatively low number of games played and the Nets underachieving — because he’s the more exceptional player. I justified LeBron over DeRozan for Second Team because, even while the Lakers were a flaming pile of rubbish, he remains a marvel.

As for the Third Team, I did fudge positionally this time, including both Gobert and Towns, because I couldn’t justify or bear leaving either off (and so rationalized they could form a workable Twin Towers pairing). If you want to call me a hypocrite, I’ll understand. Meanwhile, apologies to Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Donovan Mitchell — fantastic players all, just not quite good enough to make the cut.

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