Midseason NBA Awards: How Many Can Kawhi Leonard Win?
We're at roughly the halfway point of the NBA season, and there's practically no better arbitrary cutoff point to give one's early, midseason-y takes on the six major awards that will be given out at year's end.
Doing so can be largely anecdotal, so in order to save you from yet another opinion by some blogger you've never heard of, let's break this down using our in-house metric, nERD, instead.
For players, nERD measures the total contribution of an individual throughout the course of a season, based on his efficiency. Comparable to Win Shares, this ranking gives an estimate of how many games above or below .500 a league-average team would win over an 82-game season with said player as one of its starters. For example, LeBron James is posting a 12.7 rating this year. If he played on a team with four league-average players, you would expect that team to finish roughly 12 games over .500 (47-35) based on his play from this season.
For a team, nERD is a ranking on a scale from 0-100, with 50 as the league average. It is meant to be predictive of a team's ultimate winning percentage. For example, the Cleveland Cavaliers currently have a nERD of 64.8, suggesting that they're playing like a team that would have an ultimate winning percentage of .648 (for an approximate record of 53-29).
Most Valuable Player
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
Curry leads the entire NBA in nERD at 25.9, and it feels like he's had this award wrapped up since November. His averages of 30.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 2.1 steals per contest are otherworldly, and he's doing it all while putting in a bid for entry into the exclusive 50/40/90 club with a shooting split of 51.0% from the field, 45.1% from long range, and 90.5% from the free throw line.
Apart from leading the league in our metric, he's also tops in Player Efficiency Rating (32.1), True Shooting Percentage (67.9%), Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.336), Box Plus-Minus (12.2), and Value Over Replacement Player (4.8). No matter what your stat of choice is, if you believe in numbers, Steph is your MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year
Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
This is the only award that we can't strongly associate with nERD, but there are plenty of other metrics that suggest that the Big Fundamental deserves to win this award for (somehow) the first time in his illustrious career. Timmy's teammate and reigning DPOY, Kawhi Leonard, is a more likely candidate to receive this honor, but Duncan is currently leading the NBA in Defensive Rating (91.6), Defensive Box Plus-Minus (5.7), and Defensive Real Plus-Minus (6.60).
He's averaging 8.2 defensive rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.8 blocks per 36 minutes, and holding opponents to a stingy 46.9% success rate on the 7.2 shots that they can throw at him per contest within five feet of the tin. The Spurs' historically good 95.3 Defensive Rating leads the league by 6.1 points per 100 possessions, and Duncan -- as he's always been -- is their anchor.
Rookie of the Year
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves
Towns has been even better than advertised in his rookie season, posting averages of 15.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.7 steals, and 1.7 blocks per game, while shooting 52.0% from the field, 37.1% from deep, and 85.8% from the charity stripe. He's our rookie leader in nERD with a mark of 4.0, something he's done for the majority of the season.
Kristaps Porzingis (2.2 nERD) has been a pleasant surprise, and his raw numbers have been nearly identical to KAT's, but Towns gets the slight edge for being a more efficient scorer.
Coach of the Year
Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs currently have a Team nERD of 91.1, meaning they have played like a team that would finish the year with a .911 winning percentage. For the record, that would result in a record of approximately 75-7 if prorated over a full, 82-game season. They are currently first in the league in Defensive Rating (95.3), third in Offensive Rating (110.4), and first in Net Rating (15.1). They are on pace to set the NBA records for both Margin of Victory at 14.21 and Simple Rating System (which factors in average point differential and strength of schedule) at 12.80.
Popovich deserves a lot of the credit for those eye-popping numbers. He's somehow found a way to balance keeping his aging stars fresh and effective, integrating a star centerpiece like LaMarcus Aldridge, and developing Kawhi Leonard into a legitimate MVP candidate -- all while making the best team of the last decade and a half even better in the process.
Most Improved Player
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
The biggest leap in nERD from 2014-15 to 2015-16 was Kawhi Leonard, who went from 9.8 to 21.4. With that jump, Leonard could arguably be in the running for MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Most Improved Player this year.
Kawhi is the only player in the Association who ranks in the top 10 in both individual Offensive Rating (121.5, 10th) and Defensive Rating (92.0, second), and he is posting career bests in both. He has made sizable improvements across his shooting split, going from shooting 47.9% to 50.6% from the field, 34.9% to 48.1% from long range, and 80.2% to 87.4% from the charity stripe. That has resulted in his Player Efficiency Rating jumping from 22.0 last season to 25.7 this year and his Win Shares Per 48 Minutes rate from .204 to .295. The leading candidates for this award tend to be guys who are doing more with increased minutes and/or usage, but Kawhi's meteoric rise has happened while receiving close to the same in both.
Sixth Man of the Year
Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kanter is leading all bench players in nERD this season at 9.2. That puts him 15th in the NBA as whole, while he also comes in 14th in Player Efficiency Rating (23.4), and 5th in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.231). He's not exactly on the same plane as the NBA's best and brightest name-brand stars who are littered throughout the rest of those leaderboards, so he seems like a bit of a statistical anomaly sandwiched in there. Those surprising numbers definitely put him in the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year, despite his notoriously terrible defense.
Love him or hate him, there's no denying that Kanter's 11.6 points and 7.5 rebounds in a mere 20.3 minutes per contest have been a big boost for the Thunder over his 43 games coming off the pine. Those numbers work out to a robust 20.5 points and 13.2 rebounds per 36 minutes, while his 56.6% shooting percentage is notably the fourth-best mark in the entire league. There simply aren't many bench players in the NBA capable of putting up those kinds of numbers in limited minutes with that kind of efficiency.