We’re at the three-quarter mark of the NBA season. The time when playoff races heat up but it is also when major award candidates are solidified. Here’s my perspective on who should take home the NBA’s major hardware based on their seasons to date.
MVP – James Harden
He’s on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players to average 28 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists throughout an entire season. He leads the league in assists and has yet to have a game with less than seven this year. Only eight players in the league average over seven helpers. Harden has a better field-goal percentage, three-point percentage and free-throw percentage than his main rival Westbrook. Much has been made about the burden Westbrook has every night but Harden leads the league in minutes played. Harden leads the league in win shares with 12.2 and has made his teammates better à la Steve Nash under Mike D’Antoni.
Russell Westbrook – Yes, I know he’s averaging a triple-double for the first time since the big O. That alone will garner him a bunch of votes. But Harden is playing much more efficiently. Still, the fact that Westbrook has been able to chase triple-doubles every night without his body breaking down is more impressive than the actual numbers he’s putting up. He is on pace to lead the league in PER and usage rate which makes the competition for MVP with Harden a photo-finish. The fact that the league’s highest individual award usually goes to players who have brought their team to a high win total will not work in his favour.
Kawhi Leonard – The case for Kawhi is simple: he’s close to as good offensively as the other serious candidates and miles better than them defensively. His game winner over Paul George is just another reminder that Kawhi is cold blooded on both ends of the floor. If the Spurs make a late run and secure the No. 1 seed overall due to Kevin Durant’s injury, Leonard’s candidacy will grow.
Defensive player of the year – Draymond Green
Draymond has campaigned for it and rightfully so. Green is literally the only player in the league that can and does guard all five positions well. His infectious defensive attitude has rubbed off on Kevin Durant. His defensive box plus-minus leads the league at 5.1. From the power forward position, he leads the league in steals with 2.1 per game. Draymond is the reason the offensive juggernaut Warriors have the second-best defensive rating in the league.
Kawhi Leonard – Leonard has become the Deion Sanders of NBA defence. He’s the best lockdown wing defender in the league. However, he’s so good teams are often running action away from him and keeping the man he is guarding parked in the corner to neutralize his defensive effectiveness. The best part about Leonard’s defence is it has remained stellar even as his offensive usage has steadily increased.
Rudy Gobert – Gobert just missed out on being an all-star and the defensive player of the year award would be a nice market correction for the previous oversight. Gobert leads the league in both blocks (159) and block percentage (6.2). His 4.8 defensive win shares are the best in the league and his 98.3 defensive rating is second.
Rookie of the year – Dario Saric
The biggest beneficiary of Joel Embiid’s season-ending injury is Dario Saric. The unintended consequence is him getting more minutes and becoming the focal point of the Sixers offence; improving his already impressive 11.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Joel Embiid – The most impactful rookie this season has been Embiid, and it is not close. Embiid was rookie of the month three times this season and should have been an all-star. His 24.2 PER and plus-13.1 on/off per 100 possessions number could arguably put him in MVP consideration. What other player in the league could average over 20 points in 25 minutes of action? But you can’t in good conscience give a major award to a player that was on a minutes restriction, didn’t play back-to-backs and only played 31 games. Especially a “rookie” that was drafted three seasons ago.
Malcolm Brogdon – Remember when college seniors were a thing? Brogdon is 24 years old but he is still a rookie. The Virginia alums .548 true shooting percentage and 19.3 points per 100 possessions making him already a efficient scorer in his rookie season.
Coach of the year – Quin Snyder
The way Snyder has continued to rack up wins with a banged-up roster is impressive. Gobert is his only Jazz starter that hasn’t missed a game due to injury. Going from outside of the playoffs to a potential top-four seeding in the West has taken Snyder to the forefront of the league’s most respected coaches.
Scott Brooks – It took a while for the Wizards to assimilate to Brooks’ approach, but since they have they’ve been as good as anyone over the last two months. If the Wizards hold off the Raptors in the East, “new coach who takes a team from outside of the playoffs to a top-four seed” will be the narrative used when talking about Brooks.
Erik Spoelstra – Spoelstra is now amazingly the longest-tenured coach in the Eastern Conference. The longevity has paid off. This might be his best coaching job ever. The Heat, who most thought would be tanking for a high lottery pick have improved as the season has gone on and now could contend for the final East playoff spot.
Sixth man of the year – Lou Williams
Lou Williams went from the leading scorer on the Lakers to potentially the final piece for the Rockets. Known as a shot chucker, Williams is averaging 18.5 points off the bench with a 53 effective field goal percentage. His role with his new team will put him in higher profile games and given him more open shots. Williams hit seven three-pointers in his first game in Houston.
Eric Gordon – Gordon was the frontrunner for this award before Williams joined his team and stole his spotlight. Gordon is third in the league in made three-pointers but the rest of the counting stats favour Williams. Gordon hasn’t been coming off the bench all year so his candidacy in the first place is controversial.
Austin Rivers – Nick Young has just as much as a claim and Jamal Crawford should be grandfathered in to any sixth man conversation, but Austin Rivers has actually been more impactful. Rivers has been the spark plug to the second-best Clippers bench in the Doc Rivers era. Rivers has worked on his shot and is now shooting .392 from three and averaging 21.7 points per 100 possessions.
Most improved player – Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis leads his team in five categories and went from interesting NBA prospect to starting in the all-star game. More remarkable is the fact that Giannis has improved in 21 major statistical categories from a year ago. This is the year of Giannis. If Milwaukee starts to win, MVP votes will soon follow.
Otto Porter – A big reason the Wizards have taken the next step is the Georgetown grad fulfilling his potential. He’s long been a willing and active defender but now Porter’s 129.3 offensive rating is the best in the league.
Lucas Nogueira – Nogueira went from 7.8 minutes a night to 20.8. Such a drastic jump doesn’t often happen on a team competing for the playoffs. Despite being a role player, Nogueira is in the top 15 in the league in blocks (87), blocks per game (1.7). He would be second to only DeAndre Jordan in field goal percentage (68.2) and effective field goal percentage (69.2) if he had enough shots to qualify. His claim will take a hit if he continues to lose minutes to Serge Ibaka and be behind Jakob Poeltl on the Raptors depth chart.