Every year, the NBA’s individual awards generate a lot of buzz, before and after the season. And while most “way too early” prediction pieces focus on the favorites for such awards, this one endeavors to uncover the dark horses.
Put simply, which players have a shot to take home some individual hardware that we aren’t really talking about?
Prior to last season, there likely weren’t many people predicting Stephen Curry would win Most Valuable Player (though Today’s Fastbreak’s Kelly Scaletta did so) or that Lou Williams would win Sixth Man of the Year.
Kawhi Leonard snagging Defensive Player of the Year and Andrew Wiggins taking home the honor as the top rookie were both slightly more predictable.
Jimmy Butler’s Most Improved Player campaign probably falls somewhere in between the two categories.
Again, this piece is interested only in the dark horses. Players who may even be more of a long shot than Curry or Williams were in the summer of 2014, but who still have a realistic shot.
Sixth Man of the Year – Andre Iguodala
This award has traditionally been reserved for the spark-plug scorer off the bench. Williams, Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith and James Harden have won the last four Sixth Man of the Year awards, all scoring guards. And you have to go all the way back to the New York Knicks’ Anthony Mason in 1994-95 to find a winner who didn’t average double-figures.
So the safe money in this category would be on another change-of-pace scorer who carries the offensive load for a team’s second unit.
Those qualifications would seem to eliminate Andre Iguodala, who’ll turn 32 this season and has yet to average double-figures as a member of the Golden State Warriors. But Iguodala’s riding a tidal wave of momentum after his Finals MVP performance and is playing in an era that better quantifies the impact of role players.
Iguodala was third on the Warriors in Defensive Rating, as they gave up just 96.8 points per 100 possessions while he was on the floor. His length and athleticism helped him cover multiple positions, often the opposition’s best perimeter player.
He also functioned as a point forward in many possessions, showing the ability to both lead a break or facilitate a halfcourt scheme.
With so much scoring in Golden State’s starting lineup, there’s little chance he’ll score anywhere near as much as a typical Sixth Man winner, but he does enough of everything else to put himself in the conversation.
Defensive Player of the Year – Tony Allen
Like Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year generally goes to a very specific type of player. Leonard winning last year went against the grain. It’s gone to a big man 25 out of the 32 times it’s been handed out. Prior to Leonard winning in ’15, the last time a wing or guard won was when Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) won in 2003-04.
But again, this era allows for better tracking of things that went under the radar in the past. Leonard winning over DeAndre Jordan’s block and rebound totals (and that’s all he had, raw numbers without much legitimately good defense) may have signaled a culture shift for this award.
And that could open the door for perhaps the most impactful perimeter defender in the NBA.
Tony Allen had by far the best Net Rating of any Memphis Grizzly last season. His team outscored the opposition by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, and that was thanks mostly to his ferocious defense.
Allen’s been named First Team All-Defense three times and Second Team once. He’s perhaps the most important ingredient to a defense that has been at or near the top of the league for the last five years.
Rookie of the Year – Myles Turner
Rookie of the Year is one award that is clearly still decided by a couple very basic factors: playing time and shot attempts.
A clear example of that can be found in the 2013-14 season, when a wildly inefficient Michael Carter-Williams took home the award simply because he had countless opportunities to shoot and pass the ball.
So when breaking down the Rookie of the Year field for this season, you have to look at the players who’ll likely have big roles right out of the gate.
Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell may be the obvious choices, but Indiana’s Myles Turner could play just as many minutes. The only difference is that he’s likely to be on a playoff contending team.
With David West now in San Antonio and Roy Hibbert in Los Angeles, Turner could start for the Pacers as early as opening night. And if he parlays that into a double-figure scoring average for a team in the hunt for a postseason berth, he’ll have a very solid case.
On top of those considerations, Turner’s already shown an ability to produce against fringe NBA talent. At the Orlando Summer League, he averaged 18.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 4.3 blocks in 29 minutes per game. Sure, the typical summer-league caveat is there, but he was arguably the best player in that league.
Most Improved Player of the Year – Rodney Hood
This is generally the hardest individual award to forecast. By nature, it’s about someone coming out of nowhere.
A number of second-year players who enjoyed a lot of success in summer leagues could have bigger roles this season. T.J. Warren in Phoenix, Kyle Anderson in San Antonio and possibly even Doug McDermott in Chicago all come to mind.
But one player, who was already trending up last season and figures to have a lot more responsibility on offense this season, is Utah’s Rodney Hood.
Hood struggled with a nagging foot injury before the All-Star break last season, when he averaged just 5.3 points and shot 31.7 percent from the field. After the break, though, Hood stayed healthy and dropped 11.8 points per game while shooting 46.4 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range.
At the tail end of the season, Utah started to taper Gordon Hayward’s minutes and responsibility, hoping to give him some much deserved rest. As his responsibility decreased, Hood’s increased. In April, the Jazz rookie averaged 16.7 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.4 assists.
Most Valuable Player – LaMarcus Aldridge
Dark horse and MVP border on being oxymorons. So it’s difficult to pick someone who fits here. But we can still lay out a framework in which the MVP is generally awarded and look for someone who has a chance.
The NBA’s highest individual honor is almost always going to go to the lead dog on one of the two or three best teams in the league. If LaMarcus Aldridge can return the Spurs to the No. 1 spot in the West, lead the team in scoring and increase his efficiency a bit, he’ll have a shot.
Last season, he finished seventh in MVP voting, while playing for the fourth-place Portland Trail Blazers. His True Shooting Percentage of .528 ranked 14th among the 15 players who averaged at least 20 points and qualified for the scoring title. Only DeMar DeRozan was worse.
If Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can get the ball to Aldridge in more efficient ways (as opposed to the long twos he took in Portland), there’s a chance his efficiency could turn around. The prospect of seeing him work high-lows with Tim Duncan, while Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and others space the floor is tantalizing.
Again, that’s not the only thing that has to go right for this scenario to play out. San Antonio will have to be near the top of the standings and Aldridge will have to be the clear Alpha (not necessarily a given with Leonard there), but the scenario is there.
Andy Bailey is on Twitter @AndrewDBailey.
Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.