The historically good MVP race between Russell Westbrook and James Harden captivated the NBA world in 2017. One guy would seemingly pull away, only to be one-upped by the other the very next night. The discussion surrounding the award added some spice to an otherwise dull regular season. Award races are a fun talking point, so let's project the various awards for the 2018 season with a quarter of the year done:
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons -- Philadelphia 76ers
Runner(s)-Up: Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen
This is quite clearly a one-man race at this point. Simmons is putting up numbers that are going to get him All-Star consideration – let alone Rookie of the Year votes. He’s the quintessential do-it-all player (18.1 PPG, 7.4 APG, 9.1 RPG) and he’s doing it all with efficiency (51.1 FG%). His rapid acclimation to the league has allowed Philly to take that next step into becoming a quality team.
The race for second is far more interesting as it currently stands. Lonzo Ball is shooting his way out of the discussion, while De’Aaron Fox, Dennis Smith Jr., and Frank Ntilikina have been good in spurts. Three players in particular stand out here, and that’s Kyle Kuzma, Jayson Tatum and Lauri Markkanen.
Kuz leads the trio in scoring – while coming off the bench for half of his games – so we’ll give him a slight edge here. It’ll certainly be a race to monitor though, as this rookie class has shown great promise from top to bottom.
Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo -- Indiana Pacers
Runner-Up: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It’s amazing what can happen when you stop being teammates with Russell Westbrook. Oladipo has looked like a completely different player during his short time in Indiana. The combo guard is shooting with confidence, and knocking down threes at a career rate (46.2-percent on 5.2 attempts per game). His scoring has gone up eight points per game, as he leads the offensive attack for a surprisingly fun Pacers squad.
Giannis lurks in a close second place, as he has fully taken the jump from All-Star to Superstar. We all knew he had the talent, but The Greek Freak is beginning to impose his physical dominance over opponents on a nightly basis. His numbers are up across the board, though the gradual improvements were a bit more predictable than Oladipo’s rise.
Defensive Player of the Year: Al Horford -- Boston Celtics
Runner-Up: Draymond Green
It’s about time Horford is commended for the job he’s doing on the defensive end. The 31-year old center has never made an All-Defensive team, but that is sure to change in 2018. Boston is a pick-and-roll blitzing, layup-contesting, turnover-creating force when Horford is in the lineup.
He has his team currently ranked first in Defensive Rating and third in opponent’s efficient field goal percentage, according to Basketball Reference. Individually, Horford is ranked third in defensive win shares behind a pair of Oklahoma City Thunder teammates (Paul George and Russell Westbrook).
Green almost always needs to get a mention here. His versatility makes the Warriors go, and they’ve been as good as ever on that end (first in opponent’s field goal percentage and fifth in defensive rating).
Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens -- Boston Celtics
Runner-Up: Stan Van Gundy
What Stevens has accomplished this season is nothing short of a miracle. Boston lost star forward Gordon Hayward in the opening minutes of the season, and were seemingly dilute of depth after a multitude of offseason moves. Gone were Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder – stalwarts on one of the league’s top defenses a year ago – and replacing them were the 2016 and 2017 third overall picks, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum.
Through all of that, Boston remains a defensive juggernaut and just got done polishing off a remarkable 16-game winning streak. Stevens had Kyrie Irving playing defense for crying out loud – he should be given the award solely based upon that.
Few in the league are able to get more out of their players than Stevens can (turns out Crowder maybe wasn’t all that good after all). Everybody’s contributing – from Irving to Tatum to Marcus Morris to Daniel Theis – and they own the top seed in the Eastern Conference to show for it.
Not too far behind is a team that just recently beat them in the Garden – Van Gundy’s Pistons. SVG looked to have lost the team at times during an uninspired 2016-2017 season. Now, he has his team at 13-6 with everybody wondering why in the world they would have considered dealing Andre Drummond before last year’s trade deadline.
Sixth Man of the Year: Tyreke Evans -- Memphis Grizzlies
Runner(s)-Up: Lou Williams, Jonathon Simmons, Will Barton
Evans’ play has been a revelation for a Memphis team that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this past week. The former Rookie of the Year is enjoying one of the best seasons since his freshman campaign, as a move to the bench has helped revitalize the 28-year old's career.
Evans' playmaking skills fit well in a bench unit, as he’s given freedom to create for himself and his teammates. His percentages from the field (49.0-percent) and beyond the arc (41.3-percent) would be career highs, and his per-36 minute scoring total of 22.5 would blow any of his previous seasons out of the water.
Picking a runner-up behind Evans is a bit tricky, because it seems like a lot of productive bench players could be on their way to becoming mainstays in their respective teams' starting lineups.
It looks like Williams will be starting the rest of the season for the Clippers. Paul Millsap going down has led Denver coach Mike Malone to experimenting with Will Barton in the starting five. Orlando’s Jonathan Simmons just recently replaced Terrence Ross as a starting wing.
We’re going to give the nod to Williams for the work he’s done thus far (18.6 PPG, 4.0 APG, 39-percent from three), but it’s certainly possible that he won’t be eligible for this award once the season is over.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden -- Houston Rockets
Runner(s)-Up: LeBron James, Kyrie Irving
It’s time to start talking about the historical season Harden is having. He leads the league in both points and assists – a feat no player has accomplished over a single season since Nate “Tiny” Archibald did it in 1973.
Harden also – potentially even more remarkably – leads the league in both free throws made and three-pointers made.
No player in NBA history has ever been able to lead in both categories over the length of an entire season. The most recent example of somebody getting close to touching this record – other than Harden himself – was Kevin Martin during his days in Sacramento.
A high volume of free throws and three-pointers completely contradicts itself. Steph Curry has led the league in three pointers made in each of the last five seasons, and hasn’t finished higher than 15th in made free throws.
Getting to the free throw lines means you have to attack. Three-point gunners aren’t attackers. Harden gets to the line at will and can step back beyond the arc and rain threes.
He navigated this Houston team while Chris Paul took an extra month of summer vacation. He’s looked just as good even when he and Paul take the floor together.
Holding the top seed in the Western Conference will be tough with the Warriors waiting in the wings, but this is shaping up to be the year Harden sheds his Bridesmaid aura and finally takes home an MVP trophy.
If anybody has anything to say about it though, it would be the King. Voter fatigue is clearly a real thing, as James could be elected the league MVP virtually every season. To start this year however, there’s no denying how great he’s been on the floor.
The 15-year veteran is posting career highs in field goal percentage, three-point percentage, and blocks per game. He somehow continues to get better with age, and has led an injury-plagued Cavs team to an 8-game winning streak following a rough start.
Although he comes in third place, we’d be remised if we didn’t mention what Kyrie Irving is doing in his new digs. Irving has been a one-man highlight reel during his brief time in Boston, playing elite ball on both ends of the floor.
Unfortunately for the newest Celtic, previous MVP results prove that stats matter, and Irving’s numbers across the board aren't quite as eye-popping as his contemporaries.
Image Sources: Erik Williams/USA TODAY Sports, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports, David Richard/USA TODAY Sports, Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports, Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports, Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY Sports, Basketball Reference