The stretch run is underway in the NBA.
Outside of the obvious jostling for playoff position this time of year comes with, this is also the part of the season when cases for the various annual awards will begin to be made in earnest.
Here’s a look at the frontrunners in each of the six major awards with about three-quarters of the season in the books now.
Coach of the Year – Nick Nurse
A homer pick? Sure. That doesn’t make this any less right, though.
Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse is the coach of the year and, really, it’s not even close.
The Raptors are top-five in the entire league in man-games lost, sustaining injuries to the following players this season: Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet, Norman Powell, OG Anunoby, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Patrick McCaw, Matt Thomas, Stanley Johnson and Dewan Hernandez.
Not only is that 12 of the 15 players on the roster overall, it also comprises the team’s top-seven core players — most of whom have missed significant time this season due to injury, as opposed to just a game here or there.
The only player who hasn’t missed a game — be it because of injuries or G League assignments — is rookie Terence Davis, who by the way, is enjoying a stellar rookie season, averaging 8.2 points per game on scorching 41.5 per cent shooting from three-point range on 3.6 attempts from distance in 17.6 minutes per game.
And yet, despite all this, the Raptors boast the third-best record in the league at 42-16, went on a Canadian professional sports-best 15-game win streak and look poised to reach another Eastern Conference Finals — or beyond.
Yes, as it turns out, the Raptors are probably a lot more talented than many thought they were sans Kawhi Leonard — with Siakam, in particular, taking a huge leap this season — but the most consistent contributing factor to the Raptors’ success this season has been the steady hand of Nurse at the helm, guiding the good ship Raptors through rough weather just as deftly as he’s done through easy breezes.
The hallmark of the Raptors this season – and by proxy, Nurse – has been the team’s defence. Toronto’s buy-in and commitment on that end of the floor being ever-present — even as the team’s coach has experimented with some wacky looks by using multiple zones such as standard two-three, box-and-one and triangle-and-two, to using college basketball-style full- and half-court presses.
This is stuff that you don’t see in the NBA, and normally you’d hear grumbling from players over such weirdness. But that doesn’t happen with the Raptors, and the biggest reason is that, more often than not, when Nurse decides to push a button a positive result follows.
No other coach in the league has the kind of leeway, nor results to back it all up, like Nurse does. This award should be in the bag for him.
MVP – Giannis Antetokounmpo
Prepare to see this narrative popping up a lot in the coming weeks:
Look, it’s not difficult, Giannis Antetokounmpo is going to win the MVP again.
His team, which had the best record in the league last season, is going to finish atop the league with an even better record this season and the man himself — who won MVP last season with averages of 27.7 points, 12.5 rebounds and 5.9 assists — has improved nearly across the board statistically this season, averaging 29.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 5.8 assists.
Usually there’s some controversy in regards to MVP because it’ll normally wind up being awarded to the best player on the best team, but not necessarily the actual best player in the league. Antetkounmpo is the best player on the league’s best team who also happens to be the best player in the world.
There’s no room for argument here.
Rookie of the Year – Zion Williamson
This might seem crazy, because the most games New Orleans Pelicans phenom Zion Williamson can play this season is 37, while his Memphis Grizzlies super rookie counterpart Ja Morant has already played 51.
But there’s a definite chance because, for one, Williamson’s counting stats are a little better than Morant’s, but also because of where they’re respective teams are going.
As unfair as this is, the Grizzlies, who have now lost three straight, also feature the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA, according to Tankathon, while the Pelicans have just the second-easiest.
If things go as expected, the Pelicans will make up the 3.5 games they’re currently back of the No. 8 seed Grizzlies and sneak into the playoffs, largely thanks to the boost Williamson’s providing them.
It’ll still be a tough call to measure what will be a full season’s worth of work from Morant to an explosive half-season from Williamson, meaning where the Grizzlies and Pelicans end the season in the standings will likely be a determining factor.
Defensive Player of the Year – Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is poised to enter elite company as just the fifth player in NBA history to win an MVP and defensive player of the year, joining Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kevin Garnett in the select club. Even more exclusively, Antetokounmpo will join Jordan and Olajuwon as the only player to win both awards in the same season.
The Bucks are the league’s best defensive team by a large margin and Antetkounmpo has been one of the key factors in this, leading the league in individual defensive rating (96.2), defensive win shares (4.3) and defensive box plus/minus (3.9).
This is Antetokounmpo’s league now, on both ends of the floor, and he should get the fitting hardware to match.
Sixth Man of the Year – Dennis Schroder
Instead, the Thunder, led by Canadian rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and veteran superstar Chris Paul, are comfortably in a playoff spot and could push for homecourt advantage seeding down the stretch.
But while most focus on the Thunder’s success this season has revolved around Gilgeous-Alexander and Paul, the player on the team most likely to walk away with some shiny recognition for the year is reserve guard Dennis Schroder.
The Thunder’s third-leading scorer, Schroder is enjoying one of his best seasons as a pro — and certainly his top one coming off the bench — averaging 19 points and four assists per game on 47.5 per cent shooting from the field and 38.6 per cent from deep.
Among players who have played at least 41 games off the bench, Schroder’s 19-point scoring average leads the field, including Los Angeles Clippers bench bosses Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams — who are probably the front-runners in many folks’ minds.
They shouldn’t be, though.
The Clippers were expected to be among the league’s elite, and probably would still be even if one of Harrell or Williams were having an off-season. The Thunder are a team that feel like they’re greater than the sum of their parts, and if you remove a piece like Schroder from the equation it’s unclear where they would be now.
Most Improved Player – Luka Doncic
Before saying anything else, it’s important to know that the author of this post personally dislikes this award. Not because it’s bad to reward improvement, but the idea of “most improved” just seems so arbitrary. Improvement can mean just about anything, and as such the goal posts for this award often shift from year to year. It’s just, overall, frustratingly undefined what the criteria of this award is.
So, with that said, the most improved player so far, by at least one estimation, is Dallas Mavericks superstar Luka Doncic.
Why? Well, just look at the descriptor preceding his name. Superstar.
In terms of tiers of improvement, the hardest one to make is going from very-good, star-level player into a true blue bona fide superstar. Doncic has made this leap in just his second NBA season.
This doesn’t just have to do with numbers, though – which, by the way, have improved over his rookie season in nearly every statistical category.
Being an NBA superstar means that, yes, you have to produce on the floor and likely be the best player on the floor whenever you’re on it, but it’s also about being marketable and a good ambassador for league and the sport as a whole as the superstars of the NBA double as its face.
Doncic might be the most exciting player in the league to watch, has a million-watt smile and represents the global game basketball is and the NBA has become.
Superstars are less common than you think they are, but you definitely know one see one. Doncic is a superstar.