NBA First Month Recap: NBA Awards
The NBA season is still young but it is never too early to start thinking about the NBA awards season. The many early season surprises have yielded some unexpected names in the awards races. Let’s see which players and coaches are in lead in the early part of the season.
Rookie of the Year
Ben Simmons is running away with this thing. It might take an injury to derail his ROY campaign. He is likely on track to be an All-Star, which would make him just the third player since 2000 to receive that honor and the 46th in NBA history.
Rookies tend to fare poorly by advanced statistical measures but Simmons has a positive Real Plus Minus (RPM) and a PER of nearly 20. He is in the ballpark of averaging a triple-double and has led the 76ers back to prominence and contention. By traditional stats, advanced ones, or just watching the kid play, it is pretty clear that he is a star.
Other Notable Rookies:
Dennis Smith Jr. has been lighting it up including a 27 point explosion against the Spurs. More impressively, he has gained the trust of notable curmudgeon Rick Carlisle. In November, Smith has averaged nearly 20 points a game to go with five rebounds and four assists. His efficiency has not matched some of his fellow rookies but he could end up as the leading scorer for the Mavericks.
In Utah, Donovan Mitchell has been doing much of the same. He is also averaging 20 points a game for the Jazz in November and has shown that he can stroke threes. Mitchell looks like he could be the steal of the draft.
Lauri Markkanen might lead the pack behind Simmons. Markkanen has improved his rebounding since his lone season at Arizona and flashed the shooting ability that had some scouts salivating. The Dirk comparisons are premature but Markkanen has exceeded expectations so far and his elite shooting should make him a longtime NBA player at worst.
The Kyle Kuzma hype train rolls on in LA as Kuzma has been among the team leaders in both scoring and rebounding. His three-point shooting will need to improve from 32 percent but he is showing that the ability is real.
Last but not least, Jayson Tatum has been one of the standouts in this rookie class. His situation as a key player on a contender will likely hurt his ROY chances. Coach Brad Stevens is looking to amass wins and will not be playing Tatum as many minutes, particularly towards the end of the season. Nonetheless, Tatum has flashed the full repertoire of skills. His defense has been a pleasant surprise. He is fourth in defensive rating among all NBA players playing at least 25 minutes a game.
The offensive package has been even more impressive as he is knocking down threes, cutting to the basket, and even showing some moves off the dribble. Tatum may have the benefit of doing this against lesser perimeter defenders given the attention commanded by Kyrie Irving but his perimeter skills and tenacious defense make Tatum look like the best player in the 2017 NBA draft.
Coach of the Year
It’s Brad Stevens, duh. As mentioned on the podcast, Frank Vogel and Stan Van Gundy should get credit for their teams’ turnarounds but Stevens is the clear-cut coach of the year. Gregg Popovich likewise deserves immense credit for the success the Spurs have had without Kawhi Leonard. However, do not overthink it. Brad Stevens is the coach of the year.
Most Improved Player:
Kristaps Porzingis seems like a shoo-in for the award this year after leading the Knicks to an 8-7 start despite a significant lack of talent around him. He is averaging nearly 30 points a game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is getting to the line over seven times a game and is posting career-high block numbers. Meanwhile, his PER is sky high (nearly 29) and the Knicks are winning basketball games at their best clip in years.
Porzingis has some tough competition for this award, including in his own backyard. D’Angelo Russell is turning into a star for the Brooklyn Nets. His per 36-minute numbers are off the charts with averages of 27 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.1 rebounds a game. His per minute scoring is fifth in the NBA behind guys like Porzingis, Steph Curry, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and James Harden. Russell is nearing superstar territory with those numbers and could have some Lakers fans groaning. After arthroscopic knee surgery, everyone is hoping Russell can return to health quickly.
Another offseason trade that may merit some reassessment is the Paul George deal. The Pacers got both Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Both players have been playing out of their minds for Indiana. Sabonis is averaging nearly a double-double, shooting over 60 percent from the field, and shooting 40 percent on threes. The real attraction has been Oladipo though.
Oladipo has posted career highs across the board for a tough Pacers team. He is averaging over 23 points a game but his efficiency has been the most impressive part as he is doing it while shooting 48 percent from the field and over 40 percent from beyond the arc. He is also getting to the rim more than in his Oklahoma City or Orlando. That newfound aggressiveness has translated into a career-high number of free throws. Oladipo is a clear all-star in the Eastern Conference right now due to his combination of shooting, defense, and ability to get to the line.
For advanced stat heads, the MIP might be none of the above. In fact, it would likely be Robert Covington. RoCo has been a beast. Covington is usually thought of as an elite defender but he has slipped a bit in that regard. Last year he was fourth in RPM and now sits 44th. Meanwhile, he sits 46th in defensive rating after being a top 25 player in that measure a year ago. If you haven’t guessed it, Covington is making this list for his offense.
Covington is shooting about as many shots as he did last year but averaging four more points a game. He is doing it with efficiency. He is shooting 50 percent from both the field and beyond the arc and has reduced his turnovers. The hot shooting is probably not going to continue but so far he has been a major part of the 76ers success and his presence along with JJ Redick has given Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons more space to work.
Defensive Player of the Year
Al Horford has played his way into being the favorite for the Defensive Player of the Year this season. Award voters usually like to give the award to the best defensive player on the best defensive team. The Celtics are number one in the league by a mile and Horford has been a huge part of it. His rebounds are up this season and his defensive real plus-minus is fourth in the league. Among players who have played 25 or more minutes a game, he is fourth in defensive rating.
One issue for Horford is that it is not clear if he is the best defender on his own team. Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown have been menacing. Smart still utilizes his quick hands but has been moving his feet even better than usual while still being able to switch onto bigs. Brown has corralled ball handlers big and small. His length and athleticism have made him a nightmare on defense. Both of these players might not be old enough or prominent enough to garner the respect Horford does. For now, he gets the nod.
Joel Embiid has been one of the most impressive players in the NBA. He has firmly entrenched himself as one of the best big men in the league. His impact on both ends has him in lofty company. This season the numbers bear it out. He is seventh in defensive rating although there is some noise in those numbers with the Celtics unsustainable defense. He is number two in defensive real plus-minus. His ability to win this award will depend on how well the Sixers can defend as a team.
The Warriors could have two players up for the award this season. Draymond Green and Kevin Durant are both having phenomenal seasons. Part of the reason the Warriors offense is so historic has been the ability of their defense to get them transition looks. The numbers dramatically favor Green but the narrative about KD as a great defensive player will keep him in this discussion. Ultimately, both players will likely suffer from the attention and votes the other gets.
Most Valuable Player
Last but certainly not least is the MVP. In one of the widest fields in recent memory, there is an argument for a dozen different players but here are the top five:
Curry has been incredible this season. He still has the moonshots but his passing and his pick and rolls have looked crisper. Curry has been probing more often this season and that has led to more free throws and easier shots for his teammates. The whole Warriors team is content to swing the ball around, which has contributed to their all-time offense. Stats may never truly capture the gravity and respect he garners from opposing defenses. Thankfully, the offensive numbers tell part of the story. Curry is probably the most impactful offensive player in the NBA but he will not be MVP.
The numbers for Porzingis are great but the only number anyone needs to know is the Knicks win total. If Porzingis can bring this group of ragtag veterans to the playoffs, he deserves serious MVP consideration. Many predicted the Knicks to be a borderline lottery team with Carmelo Anthony. As far as Melo has fallen, it is still incredible that the Knicks have played better without him. Porzingis is the reason for that. The Knicks over-rely on him but he has been able to soak up possessions and turn games into his own personal show. As the Knicks fall back to earth, his candidacy will slip so enjoy it while it lasts Knick fans.
It is impossible to overstate what Cousins means to the Pelicans. Some nights he feels like the only NBA player on the floor. When Davis leaves, Cousins simply takes over the offense. Perhaps more impressive has been his ability to work together with Davis when both big men share the floor. The two have flashed chemistry with lobs and pick and rolls. Cousins has adapted his game to stretch outside. He is averaging over seven attempts a game from deep and shooting over 35 percent. Defensively, he leads the league in defensive real plus-minus and is in the upper echelon of most advanced stats. Cousins and Davis barricade the paint on defense and brutalize them on the other end. Just a season ago, people wondered if a team could win with Cousins as a centerpiece. Now he is a legitimate MVP candidate.
Harden could easily be the favorite for this award. He is an offensive maestro who directs Houston’s offense with less style than Steve Nash did in Phoenix but equals his efficiency. In fact, Harden may be the evolutionary Nash in the way he can vacillate between scoring and setting up teammates. He navigates defenses with a certain aplomb that culminates in shock whenever the Rockets fail to score. His defense is still horrendous but the Rockets have surrounded him with players who minimize his impact on that end. The result has been that Houston is the second best team in the Western Conference behind the juggernaut Warriors and they have their eyes on the top seed. If Houston can top the standings, Harden is likely to be MVP.
Giannis is the early MVP for so many reasons. On offense, he is a wrecking ball with the grace of a ballerina. He charges towards the hoop and deftly swivels and swerves his way past defenders before extending his impossibly long arms up to roll the ball into the hoop. He is also the team’s de facto point guard and gets his teammates wide open looks due to the attention he commands.
His defense is still a step behind his reputation but he is awe-inspiring when he locks in. He can guard any position on the floor and Houdini them. While covered by Giannis, they disappear from the game. He moves his feet so quickly and extends his arms so far that the offensive player has no space to work in and inevitably dishes the ball back to someone else. Down low, bigger players muscle up shots only to see Giannis elevate higher and higher before unfurling his arms and swallowing up the shot attempt. Besides being the MVP, Giannis might be the most fun player to watch in the NBA. Long live the Greek Freak and the early season MVP.
This article will not cover Sixth Man of the Year or Executive of the Year as the candidacy and eligibility for both are tough to assess before the season is over.