Frontrunners for the NBA Awards Heading Into the Season's Second Half
It's not exactly the true halfway point of the season -- considering most teams have already played over 50 games -- but the All-Star break represents a good cutoff point to judge the NBA season in two parts: pre- and post-All-Star. For that reason, this is a time when most NBA followers reflect heavily on who they think are the frontrunners to win the big end-of-season awards up to this point. We here at numberFire -- and in this case, me in particular -- are no different.
If the season ended today and I had a vote to cast for these awards (neither of which is true), here is who I'd pick. I already know that the other hoops writers at the site disagree with a few of these, so I can imagine some of you reading this do as well. That's fine, discussion is the majority of the fun! Feel free to throw your picks in the comment section below. At the end of the season, when cases are more clearly cemented, you can expect a more roundtable-style discussion from me and my colleagues (if you're into that sort of thing).
For now, you're stuck with my thoughts. Let's do it.
Most Valuable Player
My pick: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
I have always had a problem with All-Star and All-NBA selections being made based on the performance of the team over the individual, because those accolades go on a player's personal résumé and always come up in Hall of Fame discussions and the like. I agree that James Harden and Stephen Curry are deserving frontrunners for this award and I won't be upset when one of those two guys likely wins it, but I have to make Anthony Davis my pick. The Brow is simply having the best individual season and has truly been the "most valuable" player to his team for the biggest chunk of the year (just check out Brett Oswalt's recurring MVP column for proof). Picking one of the other guys, regardless of how good they've been, would be largely based on how good the Rockets and Warriors are, or how much better - in a matter of speaking - Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Dwight Howard, Trevor Ariza, etc. are than Tyreke Evans and Omer Asik. It's certainly not Brow's fault that he's not on the Warriors.
So, let's be honest; if Anthony Davis doesn't win MVP this year, it has a shot at being the best individual season ever not to have the award attached to it. The 21-year-old is averaging an astonishing 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.5 steals and a league-leading 2.7 blocks per contest, while shooting 55.1% from the field and 83.1% from the free throw line. That places him in the top-10 in scoring, rebounding, shot swatting and field goal percentage. He's on pace to set the best Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of all time at 31.8 and his .291 rate of Win Shares per 48 minutes would place him 16th on that all-time list, trailing Kevin Durant's MVP-winning 2013-14 by a mere .001. He leads the league in nERD at 21.2, our in-house metric that estimates how many games or below .500 a league-average team would finish an 82-game season with him as one of its starters. Harden (20.3) and Curry (18.4) have trailed behind him the vast majority of the season.
If the Pelicans squeak into the playoffs, this should be Davis' award.
Defensive Player of the Year
My pick: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
This award almost always goes to a big man, but it might be time to name a wing player DPOY for the first time since Metta World Peace took it in 2003-04 (the only non-big to win it in the last 18 years). Cases can certainly be made for guys like Anthony Davis, 2012-13's winner Marc Gasol, or even old man Tim Duncan, but I like Draymond Green to take it.
Green has the best Defensive Rating in the NBA at 96.3, according to Basketball-Reference.com, and he plays on the best defensive team in the Association, according to our metrics. When he's on the floor, the Warriors have a 95.4 Defensive Rating, compared to a 101.3 when he's off (the only player the Dubs have a triple-digit Defensive Rating without and an insane 5.9-point swing per 100 possessions). He's also the league leader in Defensive Win Shares (3.6), and third in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (4.3). He joins rookie Nerlens Noel as one of only two players in the league averaging a minimum of 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest, and he does it all while being able to guard positions one through five in a pinch.
He might not be a popular choice for the award, but he is certainly in the conversation and deserving of it.
Sixth Man of the Year
My pick: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors
Los Angeles Clipper and perpetual 6MOY candidate Jamal Crawford seems to be a favorite for this award again this year (he's a two-time winner, including last year), but for my money, Sweet Lou gets the edge as the sixth man for the Toronto Raptors. Both players put up eerily similar numbers, but Lou outdoes J-Crossover in some important areas.
Their stat lines are nearly identical this season, but Lou gets the edge in most of the advanced efficiency-based metrics (PER, Win Shares per 48, nERD) because he generally makes more out of his possessions (his free throw rate of .448 crushes Crawford's .329, and his 55.8% true shooting percentage edge's out Jamal's 53.4% as well). Factor in the that the Raps are a full 7.2 points per 100 possessions better in the 24.6 minutes per game that Lou is on the floor, compared to the shocking 9.3 points per 100 possessions the Clippers are worse in Jamal's 26.9, and the decision is easy.
Most Improved Player
My pick: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Draymond Green is a frontrunner for this award as well, but he's kind of always been this good -- albeit under the radar -- and his impressive stat line this year is mostly the product of a having a starting gig and more minutes. If Hassan Whiteside turns a ridiculous January into a solid rest of the season, he'll also get some votes for this award. But, for now, Jimmy Butler is the popular choice for this honor and he's more than deserving of that consideration.
Once a poor shooting, solid defending proverbial question mark for the Bulls, Jimmy has blossomed into an All-Star this season and even a viable MVP candidate. At the very least, it's not hard to argue that he's been more valuable to the 34-20 Bulls this year than former MVP Derrick Rose and last year's fourth-leading vote getter, Joakim Noah.
Up to this point in the season, Butler is posting career highs in points (20.4), rebounds (5.8), assists (3.2), and blocks per game (0.6), while coming awfully close to his best in both field goal percentage (46.1%) and steals per game (1.8). His PER of 18.7, WS/48 of .213, and Eastern Conference-leading (and fifth in the NBA) nERD of 14.4 are all career bests by a mile as well. If he keeps this up, it'll be hard to deny him the award.
Rookie of the Year
My pick: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
With a season-ending injury to Jabari Parker, a slow start for Nerlens Noel, and limited minutes for Nikola Mirotic, Andrew Wiggins might be on his way to a unanimous Rookie of the Year selection. We've been singing his praises over and over again this season at numberFire and I'm not about to stop now (that wouldn't be very Canadian of me, eh?).
Wiggins currently leads all rookies in scoring (15.2 points per game) and minutes per game (35.7), while tossing in 4.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.1 steals, and 0.6 blocks per contest as well. For a rook, he's shooting a respectable 43.1% from the field, 35.8% from deep, and 73.7% from the charity stripe on the year and has seen steady improvement with each passing month. In fact, he's won every single Western Conference Rookie of the Month award since the season started (three times), compared to a different winner every month on the Eastern side. Just this past weekend, during the Rising Stars Challenge, he lit up the competition for 22 points on 8 for 11 shooting and took home the MVP trophy.
Of all the awards, this one seems like the biggest lock and it'll be truly shocking if anyone else manages to steal it from Wiggins.
Coach of the Year
My pick: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
First-year coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors will certainly get some votes for this award, but it'll be incredibly difficult not to give it to the Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer if the Hawks keep up their torrid pace.
The surprisingly 43-11 Hawks have the second best record in the league and the best in the Eastern Conference. Yes, Golden State's 42-9 is better and comes in the loaded West, but we expected the Warriors to be this good. No one - not even us - saw these Hawks coming, at least not to this extent.
According to our metrics, the Hawks are currently second in the entire Association in team nERD, sixth in offensive efficiency (109.8 points scored per 100 possessions), and sixth in defensive efficiency (102.8 points allowed per 100 possessions). Golden State is the only other team to rank in the top-6 in all three of those categories and not a single other Eastern Conference team shows up in all three top-10s.
The Hawks play beautiful, meticulous basketball with solid spacing and defense, fuelled by a team full of players who know their roles and play them well. Look no further than last weekend's All-Star festivities and the fact that Hawks players (Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Jeff Teague, and Kyle Korver) made up one-third of the Eastern Conference roster (plus Budenholzer as head coach). Neither of those guys would be well known to the casual fan and the word "superstar" is rarely used to describe either of them, but they all deserved to be there just as much as anyone else.
The Hawks posted the only 17-0 month in NBA history in January in the midst of a 19-game win streak, and those four All-Stars and DeMarre Carroll were rewarded for it by receiving the Eastern Conference Player of the Month honor as a unit (the first time that's ever happened).
The team's long list of impressive accolades this is season is largely coach Bud's doing and the players will be the first to tell you that. The narrative is too fun and interesting not to give Budenholzer the award this year, so he definitely gets my (imaginary) vote (for the season up to now).