Photographer: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images North America

NBA Crowns an MVP and Itself With Pop Star Gala

The league hopes to build a post-season institution with a summertime awards show.

Russell Westbrook is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player, it was revealed Monday night. Not James Harden. Not Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook.

The honored object of the much-anticipated coronation is something basketball fans have been aching to learn. The season, however, has been over for weeks. So what took so long?

Well, the National Basketball Association delayed its inaugural awards show, overhauling the way it presents its annual accolades, including MVP. Held on a New York pier and broadcast on TNT, the event was as much about the fanfare and star power associated with professional basketball as it was about last season on the court.

Two weeks after the Golden State Warriors won their second championship in three years, and days after the Philadelphia 76ers selected Markelle Fultz as the first pick of the draft, the NBA is still trying to keep your brain on basketball—and keep basketball embedded in pop culture.

The strategy is pretty straightforward: Use a star-studded awards show to keep the buzz going after the season is over, dipping the league’s influence into the sports void that opens up each summer.  After all, July contains the deadest sports days on the calendar. When basketball and hockey pack up their high tops and skates, only baseball remains of the four big American sports until the NFL preseason starts in August. 

League award shows have long existed as celebrations of their particular sports. Football has its own version, NFL Honors, but unlike the NBA, it holds the event on the eve of the Super Bowl to proclaim winners in such categories as Most Valuable Player and the Walter Payton Man of the Year. The show sits firmly in the big game’s shadow. Baseball is even more pragmatic, with MLB teasing out its announcements over four days. It’s all business, with little glitz and glam aside from the shine of the hardware.

Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder speaks to the media after winning the Most Valuable Player of the Year award at the 2017 NBA Awards Show.
Photographer: Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA, as one might expect, had no plans to be as staid. Its take on an awards show felt more like ESPN’s ESPY Awards than those of its stodgier brethren. While flashy fashion has been featuring in the NBA for years, the new awards show is arguably the league’s official recognition—and exploitation—of its central role in American popular culture. As with ESPN’s big show, the NBA is striving to make its post-season awards extravaganza a stand-alone attraction, in part by involving fans.

It didn’t hurt that this year also presented a white-hot MVP race to help hype the NBA's program. But all wasn’t serious business: There was a new Style Award, which fans bestowed on Westbrook, as well as Best Dunk, Best Assist, and Best Block.

Monday’s show was full of celebrities. Drake hosted, 2 Chainz rapped and Nicki Minaj was carried on stage by way of a golden chaise before her performance. Jada Pinkett Smith, Hailey Baldwin and Chadwick Boseman presented awards. Will Ferrell was in full funnyman mode for some sketches.

For TNT and its parent, Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the gala was a way to push its own on-screen talent, much as ESPN does. Game day personalities, including Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson, presented the fan awards with their usual “Inside the NBA” off-script banter.

Nicki Minaj performs at the NBA Awards Show.
Photographer: Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

In April, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said on a Bleacher Report podcast that he didn’t like the way awards had previously been unveiled throughout the playoffs, distracting fans from the games. The new show, bringing all the accolades together under one roof and at one time, was modeled more on the Golden Globes than the Academy Awards, a self-aware party that serves alcohol and doesn’t take itself too seriously. But serious moments were there, too. The NBA honored Monty Williams after tragedy struck his family, and Westbrook delivered a tearful, heartfelt speech.

Some players may not attend each year, and it’s not mandatory to show up. (LeBron James wasn’t there.) But that’s not a big deal, insisted Silver.

“This will take time to build,” said Silver. “For this to become a tradition, it’s not going to happen overnight.”

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