Most Valuable Player:
Evan Hall: Gordon Hayward. During the push for the playoffs, Hayward was the best player on the team. In April, Hayward averaged 16 ppg, 4 rebounds, and 3.5 assists on 51/49/88 shooting splits. Read those splits again! 51% from the field, 49% from three, and 88% from the line! Those numbers are so Steve Nash-ian that I can’t stop using exclamation points!
Nick Smith: Paul Millsap. While Jefferson may have carried the scoring load throughout the season, Millsap’s all around game makes this a no brainer. Millsap was also our best guy late in huge games.
Jackson Rudd: This is tricky- Millsap had a lackluster second half of the season, Hayward and Harris had rough starts, and Big Al was never really the difference maker. It has to be one of those four guys, though, so I’m going with Hayward. The Jazz were 8-2 this season when he scored 20 points or more, but more importantly, his playmaking skills always fired up the offense and helped everyone get going.
Austin Horton: Paul Millsap (player), Kevin O’Connor (personnel). Call me crazy, but it would have to be Paul Millsap, with a honorable mention going to Kevin O’Connor. Obviously, the “P” in MVP would have to stand for Personnel, not Player, but you’ve got to make exceptions for O’Connor. The moves he made in such a short offseason when the lockout was officially ended, and the pick ups/signings he made DURING the season were as important as any on-court contribution from the players this season. But, for MV Player, it has to be Millsap no question.
Sam Strong: This will be the trendy pick but how can you can go with anyone but Milsap here? Anytime this team needed a big shot, after the ball was passed around way too many times, it ended up in Milsap’s hands and he delivered more times than anyone expected him to. He’s a hustle guy who was asked to be a superstar and he did an adequate job. Begrudgingly, runner up goes to Big Al. Hard to believe they make the playoffs without him.
Most Improved Player:
Hall: Derrick Favors. Over the course of the season, Favors became a prolific rebounder, a decent scorer, and one of the 15 best low-post defenders in the NBA. Five years from now, the D-Will trade will look like a steal for the Jazz, and it will be all Derrick Favors’ fault.
Smith: Has to be Gordon Hayward. Gordon Hayward is emerging as a mini LeBron James. I’m not putting him in that category, but Hayward can guard 4 positions, has great size, is great in both offensive AND defensive transition, and is great making plays for his teammates. Not many players in the league are that versatile.
Rudd: Favors wins this by a mile. Hayward only got the votes in the NBA’s Most Improved Player tally because the national media didn’t notice that he was already lighting everyone up the last month or two of his rookie year. Favors didn’t put up dramatically better stats, but he became a dramatically stronger presence on the defensive end. He started to gain a sense of how to take over games defensively that I have never seen from a Jazz player (possibly because there aren’t enough Mark Eaton highlights on YouTube).
Horton: Gordon Hayward. While his offensive stats were actually slightly below last season’s final numbers (keep in mind it was a shorter season, and he almost DOUBLED his minutes played), his DEFENSIVE stats were light years improved from last season. Last year in 72 games played, Hayward logged 19 blocks, 30 steals, and 98 DRB’s. This season> 41 blocks, 53 steals, and 171 DRB’s. And in 6 LESS games than the previous year. (Addendum: I’d be surprised if he’s not NEXT year’s MIP as well)
Strong: Hayward all day. I’ve never seen someone’s play drop off as severely as his did from the end of the regular season to the playoffs but that shouldn’t overshadow the strides he made this season. He looked like a lost 10 year-old kid at times last season. Now, he still looks like a 10 year-old but he’s found his groove. If he keeps playing the way he closed the year, he could be something very special.
Rookie of the Year:
Hall: Alec Burks. I love Kanter, but Burks was the only player on the entire roster who could penetrate at will and consistently get to the foul line. He’s just a rookie, and he was already filling a necessary role for the team.
Smith: Enes Kanter. While Burks’ play was solid and at times seem to be more convincing than Kanter’s, who honestly expected Kanter to play as well as he did after not having played basketball in 2 years. Sure he’s got a lot to work on, but a big men have the toughest transition into the NBA even if they are coming from the best college program in the country, let alone from a two year hiatus from competition. Kanter’s ability to contribute was a huge surprise.
Rudd: I’m going with Kanter here based on his elite rebounding alone. He is only 19 years old and he finished in the Top 10 rebounds-per-48-minutes in the entire league- and that’s not even taking into account the fact that he was competing for boards alongside Favors, who is ranked 15th on the same list. I love Alec Burks, but Enes Kanter’s rebounding sets him apart for me.
Horton: Alec Burks. Is anyone going with Kanter? Not that Enes had a bad season, but he definitely faded away as the year went on, while Alec Burks seemed to get stronger, more confident, and smarter as time went on. Burks can definitely bring the energy and ability needed to score a lot of points, and at times he almost single handedly conducted runs that aided the Jazz in comebacks, even if the team ultimately ended up losing the game. While he does have the curse of “when he misses, he misses and misses and misses,” Burks got love and respect from opponents around the league this season, and definitely didn’t look like a rookie for most of the season.
Strong: The Big Enes’ mic drop almost sealed the deal but you have to go Burks here. Not only did he play more minutes and score more than Kanter, he didn’t look like a rookie when he was in there. Granted, I’m a bit biased, but at this point, Burks looks like more of a potential starter than Kanter.
Best Moment of the Year:
Hall: Gordon Hayward’s double-block against the Celtics. Of all the highlights from this season, this will be the one I return to YouTube time and time again to watch.
Smith: Derrick Favors taking over the playoff play-in game vs. Phoenix by completely shutting down anything and everything Phoenix brought down the lane, especially Gortat. Have the Jazz ever had a player that has changed the entire game by his defense? How many guys in the entire NBA can do that? Favors seems to be destined to be a top 5 PF.
Rudd: March 2, Miami Heat, Devin Harris, and-1 for the win at the end of regulation. That game made me believe that this team could actually beat anyone on a good night and served as the beginning of Devin Harris’ redemption.
Horton: 3OT Win over Dallas down the home stretch. Riding a 2 game losing streak (@ New Orleans, @Memphis) and looking like they were fading from the playoffs picture more every day, the Jazz were able to dig deep and knock off the depending NBA champions in 3 overtimes, withstanding furious efforts from Dirk, Jason Terry, and Jason Kidd. With that win I physically saw in some of the players’ eyes and faces that they finally BELIEVED they could and should make the playoffs. That game had everything in it. Joy, pain, success, failure, smart decision, ridiculous decisions, and yet the team was able to pool their efforts and come out with a giant win.
Strong: This is a weird one and anyone who’s been near my Twitter profile knows I’m the last Big Al apologist on earth but his Ally-oop/Tip-in/Was-that-a-shot?-Who-Cares! game winner in Sacramento sticks out to me. That was the first time I remember believing that this could be a playoff team.
“If this team had a captain, it should have been…”
Hall: I thought Corbin’s refusal to choose a captain was so awesome that I wrote an entire post about it, but with the advantage of hindsight, Devin Harris should have been the captain of this team. The idea of a Team Captain is all motivational symbolism anyway, so the captain should carry himself like the best player on the team, at times play like it, and be self-aware enough to defer when he’s off.
Smith: Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. Say what you want about their games, but leadership is about showing up and playing hard. Both of those guys did that all year long.
Pretty solid role models for our young guns. Now if Kanter can just keep learning Big Al’s footwork along the way…
Rudd: Paul Millsap and Earl Watson should have been co-captains. Both of them understood the team’s ceiling this season before anyone else did, they were the first players to show a lot of heart early on when things weren’t looking great, and they were both humble enough to do whatever the team needed them to do in order to win.
Horton: Earl Watson. If you say anyone else, you’re absurd. Watson was the ultimate leader, even when he was sidelined, from day 1. Even during the lockout when
he wasn’t under contract, the dude was still calling players together and contaminating them with his confidence and belief. There’s that word again, belief. Watson knew from the get go that this team was ready to bloom and achieve more than any outsiders expected. And not only did he say it, he believed it. He backed it up. And he was right. The young guys and the old vets all stood behind him, even if they themselves didn’t realize it. He was the leader in the community, around the media, in the box scores, and on the bench. El Capitan? No, more like Earl Capitan.
Strong: Devin Harris. He’s not the most popular among fans but he commands a lot of respect in the locker room. He can be an effective leader next season if his quality of play picks up where it left off.
For more analysis on which Jazz players are most deserving of awards, check out Salt City Hoops’ podcast featuring Spencer Ryan Hall and Jackson Rudd.