NBA quarter-mark award races: Early MVP candidates & more

Tim and Sid discuss San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich's leadership comments about Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard.

With the 2018-19 NBA season at it’s unofficial quarter-mark 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 — With a roster bolstered with more shooters than last season, the Bucks have helped to create more floor space for Antetokounmpo to operate in under new coach Mike Budenholzer, and the results have been as good as you could have expected. He’s been a more effective scorer than ever thus far, averaging 26.8 points per game while shooting a career-best 57.2 per cent from the floor. He’s also posting career-highs in rebounding (13 per game) and assists (5.9 per) while contributing 1.4 steals and 1.3 blocks for good measure.

He’s been flat-out dominant, the leader on an impressive 14-6 club, and just might be the NBA’s most unstoppable player.

LeBron James, F, Los Angeles Lakers — With his supporting cast struggling to find consistency and no clear-cut secondary scorer emerging yet, James is averaging his highest scoring total — 28.3 points per game — since the 2009-10 season. He’s also found success from beyond the arc, hitting a career-best 2.3 threes per game on 38.6 per cent shooting (which would be his second-highest mark).

After beginning the season 4-6, Los Angeles is 7-2 over its last nine games, in which, not coincidentally, James has stepped into the driver’s seat and upped his scoring to 30 points per game. He has a 44-point and 51-point game in that span, while also shooting just shy of 47 per cent from deep.

The Lakers are currently ranked seventh in the closely-contested West, but are just 2.5 games out of first place.

Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers — Had he not missed his last 10 games, Steph Curry would have likely occupied this spot — it’s clear how integral he is to the Warriors’ success and dominance — but Curry’s injury opens the door for Embiid, who is playing his best ball to date.

Embiid leads the NBA in total points scored and rebounds and is currently averaging a career-high 28.1 points and 13.3 rebounds along with an even two blocks per game. Co-star Ben Simmons hasn’t taken a leap forward this season for Philly, but Embiid is picking up the slack for the third-place Sixers.

Most Improved Player

De’Aaron Fox, PG, Sacramento Kings — I’m a bit hesitant giving this award to a second-year player and fifth-overall pick who, on one hand, is progressing as expected given his sky-high potential. But on the other hand, Fox’s leap into a bona fide consistent backcourt game changer comes well ahead of schedule for the 20 year-old, who already looks comfortable running his own team. Fox has addressed his biggest weakness — shooting — and upped his field-goal rate considerably. He’s averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists this season.

Behind Fox, the Kings have been one of the NBA’s most surprisingly competitive teams, and as Fox continues to round out his game and improve, it looks like Sacramento has finally found a franchise cornerstone it can build a winner around.

Pascal Siakam, F, Toronto Raptors — A fixture in the starting lineup for the NBA’s winningest team, Siakam is thriving in his new role under coach Nick Nurse. If you followed along during his off-season, you knew the 24-year-old third-year big man was in store for a monster season.

So far this season he’s doubled his scoring average, and in his last 10 games is averaging 17.6 points, six boards, 1.2 steals and one block per game while shooting 65.5 per cent from the floor and 85 per cent from the free-throw line. Beyond the numbers he’s showing potential as a playmaker, and is playing with more confidence and aggression than ever:

Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers — Sabonis bulked up in the summer and has been flexing on opposing big men throughout the season thus far. In virtually identical playing time, he’s upped his scoring from 11 to 14.4 points per game, his rebounds from 7.7 to 9.7 per game, and leads the NBA with a 69.3 per cent field-goal rate. He also leads the league with a win-shares-per-48-minute mark of .260 and is an integral weapon for the 11-8 Pacers.

Sixth Man of the Year

Domantas Sabonis, F/C, Indiana Pacers — See above. With Myles Turner struggling to find his groove offensively, Sabonis has vaulted himself as the Pacers’ most important big man and we’ll see how much longer he holds onto his sixth man status.

Lou Williams, SG, Los Angeles Clippers — Williams, a two-time Sixth Man of the Year and the reigning winner, hasn’t missed a beat this season, averaging just shy of 18 points per game. The Clippers boast a deep lineup with seven players earning over 25 minutes per game, but Williams remains the lead reserve on the roster. He’s a spark plug capable of breaking a game wide open and is often on the floor in crunch time, where he makes plays like this:

Montrezl Harrell, C, Los Angeles Clippers — A big reason why the Clippers let DeAndre Jordan walk in free agency, Harrell has thrived with more playing time this season and is averaging 16 points, 7.5 rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game in just over 25 minutes per game off the bench.

Defensive Player of the Year

Giannis Antetokounmpo, F, Milwaukee Bucks — The Greek Freak is tied for the lead in defensive rating, but you don’t need a cavalcade 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.

Paul George, F, Oklahoma City Thunder — A notoriously active defender on the perimeter, George leads the NBA with 2.3 steals per game for the Thunder, who currently boast the league’s stingiest defense. Whether it’s guarding his man, looming in passing lanes, or as a help defender, George continues to be one of the NBA’s best two-way threats and is also tied for the lead in defensive win shares so far this season.

Marc Gasol, C, Memphis Grizzlies — After a disappointing 2017-18 campaign, it looked like Gasol’s window as an elite-level centre had all but closed. This season the Grizzlies veteran has bounced back in a major way and is helping to fuel Memphis’s 12-7 start. Fresh off a five-block game, Gasol is averaging 2.6 blocks, 1.4 steals, and 12 boards per game over his last five contests.

Rookie of the Year

Luka Doncic, G/F, Dallas Mavericks — When it’s all said and done, Doncic should be a runaway winner here in by far the easiest to call of any NBA award. Through his first 15 games he scored more points than any teenager in NBA history, passing Kevin Durant. Simply put, he has an “it factor” almost exclusively seen in the great ones this early in their careers. Doncic has future superstar written all over him. For now we’ll have to settle on a teenage sensation who can already nearly do it all.

Jaren Jackson Jr., F/C, Memphis Grizzlies — Jackson’s rim protection and ability to stretch the floor at nearly seven-feet tall ensured that he would be able to contribute in the NBA right away, and the fourth-overall pick has done just that. He’s currently the Grizzlies’ third-leading scorer and after a wild seven-block night on Sunday is averaging 2.2 swats on the season.

DeAndre Ayton, C, Phoenix Suns — Ayton has been effective and productive early into his NBA career. While it’s hard to fathom passing on Doncic it’s easy to see Ayton’s appeal. He already has the strength and size to do damage in the post, and is averaging a double-double with 16.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game. Upon closer inspection they appear to be empty stats on a 4-15 team, but impressive nonetheless.

Coach of the Year

Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors — “It’s definitely unique,” Nurse told me of the situation he was entering when he was first hired as Dwane Casey’s successor. A first-time head coach usually doesn’t enter a season with expectations to reach the Finals while managing the on-and-off court challenges of incorporating a dominant talent like Kawhi Leonard to the existing framework of a winning organization.

Through his first 21 games at the helm of an NBA team, it’s safe to say Nurse has exceeded expectations. He’s been even-keeled and has earned his players’ respect early while managing to balance a deep roster worthy of playing time. Look no further than his fluid starting lineups and evolving rotations as proof that the Raptors are buying what Nurse is selling.

Dwane Casey, Detroit Pistons — Casey has done a great job getting the most out of Blake Griffin, who has stepped up as the Pistons’ veteran leader and best player. But beyond Griffin and Andre Drummond, it’s a fairly weak roster outplaying expectations at 10-7. Look no further than Detroit’s dramatic buzzer-beating win in Toronto to see the extent to which Casey already has his players responding to him.

Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks — He’s totally re-worked the Bucks’ offence, transforming them from a team that shot the 25th-fewest three-pointers last season to the second-most of any team so far this season. Budenholzer has also managed to somehow get even more out of Antetokounmpo than ever. Like Nurse, he’s been masterful at balancing a deep roster while also exhibiting excellent late-game play calling.

Executive of the Year

Masai Ujiri/Bobby Webster, Toronto Raptors — Does Webster, the Raptors’ GM, technically get the award? Either way, the Raptors’ brass is the clubhouse leader given how much Toronto’s off-season moves have contributed to its NBA-best 17-4 start.

From replacing Casey with Nurse to swapping DeMar DeRozan for Leonard (a clear upgrade on both ends of the floor) and managing to finagle All-Glue-Guy first teamer Danny Green from San Antonio in the process, the Raptors’ busy — and contentious — summer raised the team’s ceiling from outside contender to legitimate Finals threat.

Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder — Re-signing George was an enormous coup that will keep the 12-7 Thunder competitive. Don’t overlook how he’s improved the team’s depth, either. The acquisition of Dennis Schroder in particular gives OKC a tertiary scoring option its lacked recently, and another playmaker to help ease Russell Westbrook’s historically massive workload.

Jon Horst, Milwaukee Bucks — Like the Raptors, the Bucks have clearly made a good call in their coaching hiring. They’ve also done a great job of providing Budenholzer with players (read: shooters) poised to excel in his three-point-happy system. Brook Lopez, Pat Connaughton, Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie Donte DiVincenzo were all relatively under-the-radar acquisitions that have boosted the Bucks considerably.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.