NBA Mid-Season Award Watch: Does Kawhi stand a chance in MVP race?

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) puts pressure on Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo. (Frank Gunn/CP)

With most NBA teams either at or nearing the mid-way mark of the 2018-19 NBA season, and a seemingly never-ending list of standout performers shining early this season, here’s a look at the award races and current candidates from around the league:

Most Valuable Player

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks
38 GP, 26.6 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.3 spg, 1.5 bpg, 58.1 FG%

The Milwaukee Bucks own the NBA’s best win-percentage and also lead the league — by far — with a +9.5 point differential this season. The team’s roster is bolstered with more shooters than previous years, which has helped open the floor for Antetokounmpo, who has been the league’s most unstoppable force thus far and the clear front-runner for MVP honours.

He’s essentially Shaquille O’Neal in his prime and, although obviously utilized way differently, has similarly wreaked havoc on opponents at the rim — where he’s on pace to demolish the NBA’s single-season dunk record. Throw in career-highs in rebounding, shooting percentage, and night-after-night dominance and Antetokounmpo’s MVP case writes itself.

Watch how he makes easy work of Utah’s Rudy Gobert, who may be the best rim protector in the game:

James Harden, G, Houston Rockets
37 GP, 33.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 8.6 apg, 2.0 spg, 43.6 FG%, 4.8 3PM/g

After a dissapointing start to the season for Harden’s Rockets, the reigning MVP didn’t even crack this list when we published our quarter-mark awards watch a couple months back. Needless to say, a lot has changed since then.

Harden is currently on one of the most impressive offensive tears we’ve seen. Since Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury on December 20th, Harden has been averaging an even 40 points per game (not a typo). He’s put the team on his back, leading the league in minutes played and usage rate — by a large margin — and the Rockets are 7-2 since.

Has Harden’s recent tear, which has almost singlehandedly righted Houston’s ship and re-established him as the NBA’s greatest offensive force these days, been enough to snatch the MVP out of Antetokounmpo’s hands?

The MVP is a two-person race at the moment, and The Beard and The Freak met up on Wednesday night — a Bucks win in which Antetokounmpo dropped a monstrous 27-point, 21-rebound double-double and Harden answered with 42 points.

Honourable mentions: Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George, LeBron James.

Most Improved Player

De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings
36 GP, 18.0 ppg, 7.3 apg, 3.5 rpg, 1.8 spg spg, 0.5 bpg, 47.6 FG%

After a typically up-and-down rookie season, Fox has really put it together in year two and is already making a case against the likes of Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell as the most promising player out of the 2017 rookie class.

He’s addressed his weaknesses this season, particularly his shooting where he’s raised his field goal percentage by nearly seven and upped his three-point rate from around 30 per cent as a rookie to a respectable 38 per cent this season. He’s been Sacramento’s go-to star and the biggest reason why the Kings are suddenly no longer a laughing stock, currently, to the shock of many, just two games back from a playoff spot thanks in large part to Fox’s breakout. And, for what it’s worth, he’s also making a case for himself as the NBA’s fastest guard:

Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers
39 GP, 15 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 3.0 apg, 0.5 bpg, 62.1 FG%

While some of the success of Most Improved candidates like Siakam, or the Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell can be attributed to increased playing time, Sabonis is producing more while playing just about the same amount as last season.

The third-year forward is a big reason why the Pacers are third in the East and has been a consistent force on both ends of the floor. His 62.1 field goal percentage is tops in the East, while his 18 double-doubles are the most of any non-starter.

Pascal Siakam, F, Toronto Raptors
42 GP, 15.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.0 spg, 0.7 bpg 57.6 FG%

Siakam’s hot start to the season has proven to be no fluke, and he’s emerged as a consistent contributor — borderline all-star, even — for the Raptors, starting all but one game so far this season.

Playing 10 more minutes per game than last season, he’s more than doubled his scoring average, and has become one of the hardest forwards to contain thanks to his speed, size, and ballhandling abilities.

Sixth Man of the Year

Montrezl Harrell, C, Los Angeles Clippers
41 GP, 15.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 0.9 spg, 1.4 bpg, 63.2 FG%

Harrell’s emergence last season made the Clippers’ decision to let DeAndre Jordan walk in free agency a relatively easy one. The fourth-year big man has been a machine off the bench this season and a rim-rattling wrecking ball down low — even more impressive considering he’s putting his 6-foot-8 frame up against the biggest players in the league.

Spencer Dinwiddie, G, Brooklyn Nets
43 GP, 17.1 ppg, 5.1 apg, 2.5 rpg, 0.6 spg, 45.9 FG%

The Nets have quietly been on a tear of late, and Dinwiddie is a major reason why. He’s the ultimate spark plug off the bench and between his streaky-but-potent long-range shooting and an under-appreciated ability to finish at the rim, he deserves more credit outside of Brooklyn for his production this season.

Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers — See above. With only four starts — in place of injured Myles Turner — and given the Pacers’ success, I’d give the award to Sabonis if the season ended today.

Defensive Player of the Year

Paul George, F, Oklahoma City Thunder  
40 GP, 26.8 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 3.9 apg, 2.2 spg, 0.6 bpg

George is enjoying his best pro season to date and is helping to make the Thunder look like legitimate contenders in the West. A notoriously active defender on the perimeter and potent ballhawk, George is second in the NBA in steals per game and is tied with Antetokounmpo for the lead in defensive win shares. In related news, OKC posts the league’s stingiest defense with a defensive rating of 102.9.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks — As mentioned, the Greek Freak is tied for the lead in defensive rating, but you don’t need much in the way of numbers to figure out Antetokounmpo’s defensive impact. His combination of size, strength, speed, and an ever-growing awareness on the court have helped turned the MVP candidate into one of the NBA’s most disruptive forces.

Honourable mention: Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gobert.

Rookie of the Year

Luka Doncic, G/F, Dallas Mavericks
40 GP, 19.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 43.5 FG%, 2.4 3PT/g

Doncic has been a revelation for the Mavs this season, although his stellar play against the top competition in the world shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s followed his path to the NBA, which is littered in championships and MVP awards in Europe.

The teenage sensation is second among West forwards in all-star voting after two rounds of ballots, and while he hasn’t been that good this season it’s nice to see that there are plenty of people paying attention to what Doncic is accomplishing in his first season.

There are many promising first-year players this season, but Doncic, who appears to be a generational talent and future MVP candidate, is the runaway winner here.

Honourable mention: Wendel Carter, Jaren Jackson Jr., DeAndre Ayton, Trae Young.

Coach of the Year

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 29-11

The front-runner at the moment, Budenholzer has taken essentially the same roster from last season and elevated Milwaukee from a .500 team to first place in the East and the league’s most dominant offence. Sure, the progression of Antetokounmpo and surprisingly strong campaigns from the likes of Brook Lopez help, but Budenholzer has established a three-point heavy, floor-spacing system that has allowed his team to thrive and put them in a position to achieve what they have halfway through the season.

Mike Malone, Denver Nuggets
Record: 28-12

Like Budenholzer, Malone has taken essentially the same roster as last season but orchestrated far better results. Denver is a unique team built around a unique star in Jokic, and credit Malone for maximizing his players’ strengths and putting the Nuggets in a position to win despite suffering through a series of injuries to several players on the roster.

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors 
Record: 31-12

Between the rash of injuries and subsequent frequent lineup and rotation changes, the management of an enigmatic talent like Kawhi Leonard along with the egos and personalities of a locker room full of talented players warranting court time, and the natural pressures and wake-up calls of being a first-time NBA bench boss, Nurse has been flat-out impressive to start his head coaching career and it’s hard to imagine asking for much more from him to this point.

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