As most teams hit the 41-game mark this week, what better time to hit the pause button and see how the award races are shaping up?
With All-Star break about a month away, here’s one person’s opinion on the major awards.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden
Runners up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Joel Embiid
Harden checks every box. Traditionalists will love his eye-popping scoring average (he’s leading the scoring title by full 5.0 points, which would be the largest gap since Michael Jordan's 1986-87 season when he averaged 37.1 to Dominique Wilkins' 29.0) and triple-doubles combined with the narrative that he’s “carrying” the Chris Paul-less Rockets. The nerdier voters will appreciate his freakish efficiency (his current true-shooting percentage tops Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s best) and off-the-charts offensive RPM. Both ends of the spectrum can get behind Harden.
Put it this way: Who has raised a team’s championship odds more this season?
You could make a strong case for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks have the NBA’s best net-rating at plus-9.2. But the addition of head coach Mike Budenholzer, who overhauled both ends of the floor, muddies the picture for the Greek Freak. Who deserves credit for the Bucks’ rise?
That question is easier to answer for the Rockets. It seems like a lifetime ago, but only one month has passed since Houston general manager Daryl Morey came on The Habershow podcast with the 11-12 Rockets reeling in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony debacle. Rather than retreat, Morey doubled down: “We feel like we can be better than last year. I know I sound crazy saying that.”
Shortly after that, Paul got hurt, and the Rockets went on a tear, Harden leading the way. Over the past 14 games, Harden has averaged 40.3 points and 9.4 assists while shooting 40.2 percent on a whopping 14.9 3-pointers per game. To put that into perspective, Harden averaged 30.4 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 36.7 percent on 10 3-pointers per game during his MVP campaign last season.
The difference between last year’s campaign and this one? Harden has turned the step-back 3 into a basketball superpower. He’s getting defenders off balance and routinely racking up three-shot fouls, which is the most profitable play in the game. Peruse the Basketball-Reference logs and you’ll find that Harden has accumulated 38 three-shot fouls this season. That’s more than Damian Lillard (16), Stephen Curry (10) and JJ Redick (8) combined. He used to hunt for the three-shot foul in pick-and-rolls, but the league started cracking down on it. Now, he’s getting it with the step-back 3.
While Harden has my vote for first-half MVP, I’m a tad concerned that he’ll wear down. He’s leading the league in minutes per game and the Rockets are paper-thin at the guard position. Case-in-point: Free-agent pickup Austin Rivers is averaging a team-high 38.5 minutes per game in his eight contests with the team. Harden’s MVP candidacy may be dented by Paul’s eventual return, but they need more bodies to win at the highest level.
Antetokounmpo may have taken the lead in the larger MVP conversation after Wednesday’s victory over the Rockets, but I’m still leaning Harden, who is averaging 20.2 assist points per game in addition to his own scoring. Also in the running is Joel Embiid, who is putting up Shaq-like numbers for the Sixers, and Paul George, who might be the best two-way player in the game. Speaking of George...
Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George
Runners up: Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday
The Thunder have the NBA’s best defense by a good margin despite not having Andre Roberson, who might've been the best perimeter defender in the league last season.
George has snatched that distinction from Roberson this year. Here’s a list of guys he’s guarded for at least 10 possessions this season: James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Luka Doncic, Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson and Devin Booker. That versatility enables the Thunder to blanket opponents on the perimeter while Steven Adams mans the middle and owns the backline. George’s on-court defensive rating of 99.9 is second-best for any player among the 84 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Some of that is due to Adams, but George leads all players in deflections and loose balls recovered. He’s everywhere.
Gobert may end up winning this award again now that the Jazz have overcome a funky start on that end of the floor, but his on-off splits haven’t been nearly as stark as last season. Embiid, for his part, has defended the most shots at the rim in the NBA and held opponents to a crazy-low 54.2 percent on those shots. Holiday is a 6-foot-4 straitjacket, but for this award, I can’t ignore that the Pelicans have a bottom-six defensive rating.
Ultimately, George has earned this spot. In today’s 3-point-heavy league, lock-down perimeter defenders are more valuable than ever. With Kawhi Leonard sitting out games to rest, George has ascended to become the gold standard on that end of the floor.
Coach of the Year: Dave Joerger
Runners up: Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers
It feels odd to hand this award to the coach of a team that’s been hovering around .500 all season, but the Kings might hit their Vegas over/under projection before the All-Star break.
It’s not just some lucky wins here and there. Joerger has completely overhauled their playing style and tailored it for young legs. Last season, their offensive possessions lasted 15.4 seconds on average, the third-slowest pace in the league, per Inpredictable.com. This season? Joerger has handed the keys to De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield and the results are a group averaging 13.1 seconds on offense, which is the second-quickest rate in the league. They’re running teams out of the gym.
Despite the fifth-youngest roster in the league, the Kings are also holding their own in clutch situations. Per NBA.com tracking, the Kings are 14-10 when the game is within five points in the final five minutes, a better record than the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the LeBron-led Los Angeles Lakers.
Who says young teams can’t win in the NBA? To me, the Kings are the biggest surprise of the season and this award reflects that.
Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis
Runners up: Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick Rose
This guy is an absolute stud. The 22-year-old has been a monster for the Pacers’ nasty second unit along with Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph. Over the last 10 games, the son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis is averaging 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds on 60.7 percent shooting and providing stout defense up front. He doesn’t have Anthony Davis’ wingspan, but he doesn’t need it to make an impact defensively. He has allowed the fewest points per possession on plays against him (.771), according to Synergy tracking (minimum 300 plays defended).
The only red flag here? Sabonis might not be a bench player for long. Thaddeus Young just won an East Player of the Week award, but Sabonis deserves the starting gig, and soon. Sabonis is averaging 21.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes this season with great touch around the rim and a nice pick-and-pop game in the mid-range. If he can re-discover his 3-point stroke, he could be Kevin Love 2.0 (who also came off the bench at the beginning of his career).
With Myles Turner, Young and Sabonis, Indiana suddenly has a logjam in the frontcourt, but don’t be surprised if the Pacers -- who also have Kyle O’Quinn as insurance -- make a move to free up some starter minutes for Sabonis. He’s earned them.
If Sabonis does move off the bench, there are several other candidates of consideration. Spencer Dinwiddie is the new Lou Williams (who also deserves plenty of votes). Derrick Rose has started over a third of his games, which might disqualify him in many eyes, but he’s been a revelation this season. When it comes to picking between Sabonis or Montrezl Harrell, you’re splitting hairs at this point. Both have been incredible supersubs, but Sabonis’ playmaking and rebounding gives him the edge.
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic
Runners up: Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr.
You could make a case here for a few guys in this loaded class and I wouldn’t mind. But to me, no one has been more dominant than Doncic, who is the only rookie in the top 50 of ESPN’s RPM. As last week’s BIG Number illustrates, Doncic, as a teenager, is putting up numbers we haven’t seen since LeBron James. Only James Harden tallied more free throws than Doncic in the month of December, which is downright absurd for a teenager.
Like Harden, Doncic has used the “slow” or “unathletic” label to his advantage -- starting and stopping on a dime and capitalizing on the defender’s overeagerness to draw fouls. Doncic’s expert tempo and court awareness has more than made up for a perceived lack of athleticism. Only 6.6 percent of Doncic’s 2-pointers have been blocked this season, per pbpstats.com, which is lower than that of leapers like LeBron James (7.0), Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.0) and Andrew Wiggins (8.8 percent) -- and nearly half that of Zach LaVine (13.6).
In any normal year, Ayton, Jackson and Carter Jr., could win but not when Doncic is averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists for a team that holds a positive point margin. The seemingly slow Doncic has picked up the NBA game mighty quick.
Most Improved Player: De’Aaron Fox
Runners up: Pascal Siakam, Monte Morris, Thomas Bryant
Often times, Most Improved Player is misinterpreted as Most Minutes-Improved Player, but you can’t say that about Fox, who is just plain better than he was last season. The 21-year-old went from averaging 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.7 free throw attempts per game last season to 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 attempts per game this season (he’s only playing 3.9 more minutes per game). Usually, we see turnovers soar with the larger burden, but not in Fox’s case.
There’s some pace inflation in those stats because of the Kings’ new run-and-gun offense. But you know who makes all that possible? That’s right: Fox. Despite only playing 31.7 minutes per game, he’s sixth in the NBA in total transition points, per Synergy Sports tracking, while also helping Buddy Hield rank second on that same list. This season, Fox has posted a higher player-efficiency rating (19.0) and win-shares total (3.0) than his draft classmates Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Who saw that coming?
Fox often times looked lost in his rookie season. This year, Fox has often looked like the best player in his class. That’s improvement.
Some feel that sophomores shouldn’t win this award because improvement is almost expected after a rookie season. If that’s your philosophy, then Siakam is your guy. The third-year forward has become a go-to scorer for the Toronto Raptors, who have gone 8-2 without Kawhi Leonard this season in no small part because of Siakam’s continued improvement. Denver’s Monte Morris and Washington’s Thomas Bryant were G-Leaguers last season but have rescued their teams with their stellar play this season at the NBA level.