The 2014 ESPYS are taking place at 9 p.m. ET later tonight, with ESPN recognizing some of sports’ best athletes for their contributions based on votes cast by fans around the world. However, although the voting is open to many athletes across various sports, we know what matters most to you: the NBA. Now, there’s plenty of stiff competition, but here are the professional basketball league’s most notable nominees and why they deserve to win their respective categories.
Best Championship Performance: Kawhi Leonard
San Antonio’s second-year player, Kawhi Leonard, earned his stripes during his second NBA Finals appearance by causing all sorts of trouble for LeBron James of the Miami Heat, all the while maintaining a killer offence. The athletic small forward scored a career-high 29 points on Miami during the Finals bout, outshooting his earlier high of 26 (also shot during, of all things, a Finals series). With an average of 17.8 points on 61 per cent shooting, as well as 6.4 rebounds in five games, 22-year-old Leonard was deservedly named Finals MVP. We see big things are popping for this future superstar.
Best Breakthrough Athlete: Damian Lillard
It was obvious that the Portland Trail Blazers second-year point guard, Damian Lillard, was a rising star even before he had his breakout season this past year. He’s shown aptitude in decision-making, clutch play (see “best play” below) and even in sportsmanship—he demonstrated his love of the game becoming the first NBA player to participate in all five of the 2014 All-Star Weekend’s major events. His third year can only be even better after an amazing playoffs showing.
Best Comeback Athlete: Russell Westbrook
The issue with Russell Westbrook’s comeback is that it happened, well, twice. Westbrook sat out only two of a predicted 22 games that he was supposed to miss as a result of being sidelined for six months due to a knee injury. Unfortunately, he reinjured his knee and had to sit out 27 more before returning for a spectacular showing during the Oklahoma City Thunder’s playoffs bout.
Best Team: the San Antonio Spurs
They’re this year’s championship team. They scored an NBA-high 62 wins during the last regular season. They played like they were at war throughout the entire playoffs. Enough said. With Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw and several other key players from last year’s roster are poised to return after the summer, this will likely not be the last time they’re nominated for this category, either.
Best Coach: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
It’s hard to nominate the San Antonio Spurs as this year’s best NBA team without mentioning in the same breath coach Gregg Popovich’s role in its success. After leading the Spurs to five NBA titles since he signed on in 1996, including last season’s win against the Miami Heat, it was announced one week ago that the man had agreed to a multiyear contract extension. He boasts a 1,116-533 career record, and claims three NBA Coach of the Year titles.
Best Moment: Kevin Durant’s MVP acceptance speech
Basketball does have its share of tearjerkers, but few measure up to Kevin Durant’s emotional MVP speech. KD won the honour by a massive margin, earning 119 of 125 first-place votes to take his first NBA MVP trophy of the season. Noting Russell Westbrook’s role in his success, he thanked his team and especially his mother, Wanda Pratt. The latter mention stirred the crowd into a standing ovation, leaving barely a dry eye in the house.
Best Play: Damian Lillard’s buzzer beater
This was one of last season’s definitive plays, and for good reason. Damian Lillard’s final shot put the the Portland Trail Blazers over the Houston Rockets 99-98, clinching Portland’s first second-round playoffs berth in 14 years. Oh, and he did it right after Chandler Parsons took the lead for Houston with only 0.9 seconds on the clock.
Best NBA player: Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, or Joakim Noah
To predict this year’s winner, we must understand who has won this same award previously. It was LeBron James, fresh off three consecutive NBA Championship appearances. Much like the Miami Heat who won Best Team that year (and are conspicuously absent from this year’s running following their defeat), it’s unlikely that King James will be so lucky again unless Cavaliers Fans have the swing vote. Fully recognizing the intense efforts of Joakim Noah, whose performance buoyed a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls out of a massive regular season slump, Kevin Durant’s MVP-calibre play has the highest chances to take this category.