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Checking in Way Too Early With the NBA’s Major Award Races

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

At what point is it acceptable to start thinking about the NBA’s season-ending awards? Probably like January or February.

But screw it, let’s start now.

After two or three weeks, we’ve seen enough to form opinions on players and coaches. Some of those opinions may look stupids by season’s end, and that’s OK. So let’s take a way-too-early look at the top five candidates for each of the six major awards.

Most Improved Player

Runner-ups: Jeremy Lamb (5th)Clint Capela (4th), Evan Fournier (3rd), Andre Drummond (2nd)

What does it say that I seriously considered Stephen Curry, last season’s MVP, here? He’s getting any shot he wants this year and has stepped everything in his game up a notch or two.

We’ll have more on him later, though.

Lamb was an under-the-radar acquisition for the Charlotte Hornets over the summer, but he’s flourished alongside Jeremy Lin in the team’s second-unit backcourt. The 23-year-old has received a healthy bump in minutes and responsibilities after wasting away on the Oklahoma City Thunder bench last season, and is using the opportunity to average 13.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game on 54.9 percent shooting from the field and 42.4 percent from three.

Capela barely played for the Houston Rockets last year, but he’s gotten a great opportunity to succeed as Dwight Howard’s backup. especially with the departures of Josh Smith and Joey Dorsey, plus injuries to Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas. He’s averaging 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in 17.2 minutes per game, shooting 78 percent (!) from the field and 57.1 percent from the free throw line. That latter number is up from just 17.4 percent last season.

Did anyone expect Fournier to play a team-high 38.2 minutes per game for Scott Skiles’s Orlando Magic this season? He showed some flashes last season, but he’s getting a gigantic role now and is succeeding (18.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists and solid defense) against the opposition’s best players.

If you’re especially impressed when players make the jump from good to great, then Drummond is your man. He’s averaging 18.8 points and 19.3 rebounds for the 5-3 Detroit Pistons, vastly improving his defense in the process.

The most improved player race has a loaded field of potential candidates. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bradley Beal, Doug McDermott and Dwight Powell are just a few of the many snubs from this runner-ups list.

The front-runner: C.J. McCollum

McCollum is a natural scorer, and it was difficult to watch him play the past couple of seasons in a very limited role when he deserved more. Now, he’s letting it all hang out.

Going from 6.8 to 21.4 points per game is impressive, but he’s also improved his efficiency and per-minute scoring significantly despite being guarded by starting-caliber players. I pegged him as a sixth-man extraordinaire before this season, but he seems to be destined for bigger things both in the present and the future.

Sixth Man of the Year

Runner-ups: Tristan Thompson (5th), Alec Burks (4th), Enes Kanter (3rd), Andre Iguodala (2nd)

Another difficult category, as several teams had a quality bench player (or players) who deserved consideration for this runner-up list, but only five could make it. Several of the early standouts off the bench will regress to the mean, and the list of legitimate candidates will shorten. It’s worth noting that Isaiah Thomas of the Boston Celtics would’ve won this category if he hadn’t started four of his seven games this year.

I don’t know if Thompson will ever live up to his five-year, $82 million contract, but if he keeps up his slow, steady improvement, he could do it. The 23-year-old continues to play within himself for the Cleveland Cavaliers and is averaging 7.7 points and 9.7 rebounds on 60.9 percent shooting.

Many members of the Utah Jazz are underrated, but Burks might be the one who deserves the biggest increase in respect. He’s a valuable creator off the bench who can score at the rim and shoot (11-of-20 on threes this season), and averages 16 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.

Kanter is a poor defender, obviously. But if you’re averaging 21.0 points and 14.8 rebounds per 36 minutes on 57 percent shooting while at least being a big body on defense, you’re helping your team. The Thunder’s depth has been disappointing so far, but don’t blame Kanter.

The reigning NBA Finals MVP has done nothing but show out for the undefeated Warriors. Iguodala provides fantastic all-around value and holds the Golden State second unit together with his passing, defense and athleticism.

The front-runner: Manu Ginobili

Maybe it’s the undying love for Ginobili that comes with being a San Antonio Spurs fan, but there are few things I enjoy watching more than Manu when he’s on his game.

He’s incredibly instinctive on both ends of the floor, timing a steal at the perfect moment or deciding to switch his passing target to a cutting teammate at the last instant. His averages of 11 points, 3.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game are nothing special, but he’s averaging the fewest turnovers since his rookie year (1.6) and his highest true shooting percentage (60.8) in four years.

The Spurs have also been 21.5 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the court than when he isn’t, so there’s that.

Rookie of the Year

Runner-ups: Nemanja Bjelica (5th),Emmanuel Mudiay (4th), Kristaps Porzingis (3rd), Jahlil Okafor (2nd)

Bjelica is turning into the immediate contributor that a 27-year-old rookie should be, averaging 8.9 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He’s also a player who doesn’t need a bunch of touches to make an impact, which is helpful for a team trying to build higher usage guys like Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns.

Mudiay’s 39.6 true shooting percentage and 4.9 turnovers per game are ugly, but he’s making a lot of things happen for the Denver Nuggets. He’s found his groove in his last few games and is now averaging 11.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists per contest.

It didn’t take long for Porzingis to become a cult hero in the NBA sphere. He’s putting back missed shots all over the place, gobbling up every rebound in sight and playing some solid defense. Aside from Karl-Anthony Towns (or maaaaaybe even including him), the 7’3″ Latvian has the highest ceiling of his draft class.

Okafor’s stellar start to his career has gone all for naught on the 0-9 Philadelphia Sixers, a squad that’s already punting this season. It’s a stark contrast to the rookie big man’s 2014-15 season, in which he won the national championship with Duke. However, you can count on Okafor’s 19 points and 6.8 rebounds per game to lead the Sixers to a win at some point.

The front-runner: Karl-Anthony Towns

Rookies who can come in and immediately be the best player on a competitive team are rare. Towns is one of those rookies for the 4-5 Minnesota Timberwolves.

Andrew Wiggins may have something to say about that “best player” thing later on in the season, but he hasn’t been great (for the most part) so far.

Towns is already a force on both ends, averaging 19.5 points, 12.9 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per 36 minutes on 49.1 percent shooting from the field. His 89.7 percent mark from the free throw line is also going to make his development into one of the NBA’s best players that much easier.

Defensive Player of the Year

Runner-ups: Andre Drummond (5th), Hassan Whiteside (4th), Rudy Gobert (3rd), Kawhi Leonard (2nd)

Drummond, as mentioned earlier, has improved quite a bit, and a lot of it has been on the defensive end. His 1.9 steals and 1.6 blocks per game are impressive, but even more is his ability to snuff out pick-and-rolls. Andre’s 12.1 defensive rebounds per game are also more than anyone else in the league’s TOTAL boards per contest aside from DeAndre Jordan.

Whiteside is the NBA’s leader in defensive win shares (0.9), defensive rating (86.2) and blocked shots (4.0 per game) this season. The Heat also rank second in defensive efficiency. However, there’s something fishy about the team’s defense being a full 12 points per 100 possessions better when Whiteside is on the bench.

While I would argue that Gobert’s overall impact became a little bit overhyped coming into this season, you really can’t overstate how well he protects the rim. Opponents are shooting a downright silly 31.6 percent at the rim against him this season, although the Jazz defense is slightly better when he’s off the floor.

Leonard already has some signature defensive performances this season, including holding Kevin Durant to 6-of-19 shooting, Carmelo Anthony to 4-of-17 shooting and Rudy Gay to 5-of-15 shooting and no free throws.  However, handling the duties of a legit No. 1 offensive option (which Kawhi must do now) does require plenty of energy, so it’s hard to see him taking another significant leap on the defensive end this year.

The front-runner: Draymond Green

Green just makes the Golden State Warriors’ defense so tough to score against. He can guard bigs or smalls and do extremely well on either, and there’s really no legitimate weakness he has on that end despite his 6’7″ size at the power-forward position.

The Warriors have stepped back to third in team defensive efficiency, but Draymond is allowing his opponents to shoot just 35 percent from the field against him. Respect.

Coach of the Year

Runner-ups: Mike Budenholzer (4th), Gregg Popovich (4th), David Blatt (3rd), Stan Van Gundy (2nd)

It would take a miracle for Budenholzer to repeat as COY, but he’s doing a very nice job navigating his Hawks through their early portion of their season. Any coach whose team is 8-3 to start the season deserves some consideration here.

Popovich is pretty much here by default. He’s the best coach in the league and the San Antonio Spurs are doing pretty well with a No. 2-ranked point differential, despite still learning to integrate LaMarcus Aldridge into the fold.

Blatt has avoided the sluggish start many predicted for the Cleveland Cavaliers due to injury by leading his squad to an 8-1 record. Even though the problems have caused the coach to play Richard Jefferson and Jared Cunningham significant minutes, the Cavs keep winning.

The Detroit Pistons are playing very hard, and their coach is the person you should credit for that. Van Gundy’s squad has faltered as of late, losing its last two games to fall to 5-3, and its bench looks bad, but this way-too-early award is based on the entire season to date.

The front-runner: Luke Walton

Steve Kerr still has no timetable for his return to the Warriors sideline, but Walton has the Golden State machine humming.

A 10-0 record is impressive, but the Warriors are doing more than just squeaking by most of these teams. If the season ended it today, they would have a plus-17.1 point differential, much better than the all-time record of plus-12.3 by the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers.

MVP

Runner-ups: Kevin Durant (5th), Kawhi Leonard (4th), LeBron James (3rd), Blake Griffin (2nd)

Durant is looking like the Durant of old, thankfully for us. He’s averaging 28.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists, but a hamstring injury suffered in a game against the Washington Wizards will have him out approximately a week.

Leonard’s weaker end of the floor (offense) is probably better than anybody else’s weaker end in the league, as he’s at 21.9 points and just 1.6 turnovers on 52.6 percent shooting from the field. If you take that as me saying he’s the best two-way player in the NBA, so be it.

James’s mortality is becoming more evident, but that doesn’t mean he’s not insanely valuable to the Cavaliers anymore. He’s got Kevin Love back in the lineup and old pal Mo Williams is providing some scoring punch, but the threat of James scoring and passing opponents to death is still what makes Cleveland tick.

Last year’s impressive playoff runs seems to have been a mere hors d’oeuvres to Griffin’s entree performance this season. If there’s still anyone out there who still says he’s “just a dunker,” it’s officially time for them to stop watching basketball. Griffin will beat you with a variety of dribble and post moves, plus a consistently improving mid-range jump shot.

The front-runner: Stephen Curry

What’s one plus one? Why did the chicken cross the road? Who would be the 2015-16 NBA MVP if the season ended today? These are all questions you could answer without thinking.

Curry is doing things on offense we’ve never seen before. The ability to shoot off the catch or off the dribble, squared up to the basket or not, from anywhere in the offensive frontcourt is just a special skill. But Steph combines that with league-best ball handling abilities and keen court vision to find open teammates.

I’ve criticized Curry’s defense in the past (not that he was bad defensively, just that it needed to be better for him to be the best player in the league), but he seems to be improving there as well.

It’s obviously early, but Steph is probably a safer bet than the field to win the MVP at the end of the season.

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