With the All-Star break over and done with, senior analysts Harris Ahmadzai and Jason Fray conjured up their list of mid-season awards for the 2018 season:
Rookie of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Ben Simmons
I admittedly don’t feel great about this pick. A kid in Utah by the name of Donovan Mitchell has firmly inserted himself in ROY talks. The 2018 Slam Dunk Contest winner helped carry the hottest team in basketball to eleven straight wins heading into the All-Star break. Mitchell is the better scorer and flashier athlete of the two.
Despite all of that, I can’t go against Simmons’ entire body of work this season. Only two players in NBA history have ever averaged at least 15 points, seven assists, and seven rebounds over their rookie season – Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. Simmons is on pace to be joining that list shortly.
Jason Fray: Donovan Mitchell
Ben Simmons is right up there next to Mitchell as a leading candidate for the award. The Australian has averaged 16.4 PPG, 7.3 APG, and 7.8 RPG through the first half of the year. Normally these would be shoe-in numbers for the award. However, Mitchell has been just that damn good. The former Louisville Cardinals star has provided Utah with a dynamism not seen in years.
Mitchell attacks the rim ruthlessly, loves to get out in transition, and is a disruptive force on the defensive end of the floor (1.45 SPG). Mitchell is largely responsible for Utah picking up its collective pace offensively.
Duly, he’s a large reason for why the Jazz have won 11-straight. Few envisioned Utah becoming a playoff team without Gordon Hayward and George Hill in tow. However, Mitchell currently has the Jazz smackdab in the competitive Western Conference playoff mix.
Most Improved Player
Harris Ahmadzai: Victor Oladipo
It’s amazing what can happen when you stop being teammates with Russell Westbrook.
All joking aside, Oladipo has transformed into a completely different player in 2018 — a player worthy of being selected No. 2 overall in 2013. The Indiana Pacers combo guard has made the fan base quickly forget about that other guy that used to play there (the one Oladipo was traded for).
He’s averaging career highs across the board, and has helped a young Indiana team settle into playoff contention. Most importantly, the former Indiana Hoosier is playing with confidence. He plays every game thinking that he’s the best player on the floor — which is a complete turn from last season. A star has been born in Indiana.
Jason Fray: Victor Oladipo
To say Oladipo is having a breakout season would be an understatement. The 25-year-old from Maryland was traded away from the upstart OKC Thunder to the lowly Indiana Pacers. No one was expecting much from a talented yet volatile player. Though the ‘inconsistency’ tag has canopied Oladipo’s young career thus far, this year is a different story. Oladipo is averaging career-highs in PPG (24.4), three-point percentage (.381), field-goal percentage (.484), free-throw attempts (5.3), RPG (5.3), SPG (2.1), and BPG (0.8).
In the process, the first-time All-Star is now widely considered one of the better two-guards in the NBA. The loss of Paul George appeared to be a proverbial gut-punch for the franchise. However, Oladipo’s play is quickly making him Indiana’s primary building block for the future.
Defensive Player of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Andre Drummond
Despite what Joel Embiid might say, Andre Drummond plays defense, and he plays it quite well. Detroit’s big man leads the league in Defensive Rating (98.7), Defensive Win Shares (4.1), and Defensive Box Plus/Minus (5.8) – and second place isn’t all that close in any of those categories. He also happens to be the league’s most relentless glass cleaner, and flashes the ability to stick with guards on the perimeter when the opportunity arises.
There are plenty of contenders, though. Golden State and Oklahoma City have about six players combined that could contend for the award. Al Horford has been consistent throughout the year. Rudy Gobert would have a strong case if he could stay healthy. It’s a tough pick, but I’m rolling with the guy that is overwhelmingly dominating the competition from the statistical perspective.
Jason Fray: Joel Embiid
We’ve seen the upside and potential on the defensive end of the floor. This season, we’ve now seen the production. Embiid impacts the game defensively like no other player does. Per 100 possessions, Philadelphia’s marquee player is holding opponents to only 41.5-percent shooting on field-goal attempts. This places him second in the NBA for the specific category.
Additionally, Embiid is sixth in both rebounds per game (11.1) and in blocks (1.82). Though there’s not really a metric for such a mark, Embiid’s ability to alter shots with his length cannot be overstated enough. Assuming he can stay healthy, Embiid has a great chance at capturing his first Defensive Player of the Year Award.
Sixth Man of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Lou Williams
Any bench player that can garner All-Star buzz is in contention for this award. At 31 years old, Sweet Lou is enjoying the best season of his career. The scoring savant is posting career highs in points (23.2), assists (5.3), and three-point percentage (37.8-percent). Perhaps most impressively, he’s kept an undermanned Clippers team within striking distance of a playoff spot.
With Blake Griffin now in Detroit, Williams will be tasked with even more playmaking responsibilities. Even if his efficiency slips down the stretch, there aren’t any other serious contenders in this race.
Jason Fray: Lou Williams
This is one of the easiest awards to peg. At this point, the only thing that’d hold Williams back from winning the award would be if he started more games than not. There was a stretch in which Williams averaged over 30 points per contest. Many pegged him as an All-Star candidate despite coming off the bench for much of his offensive explosion. Williams is the main difference between the Clippers being a fringe playoff team and one destined for the top of the lottery.
Executive of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Kevin Pritchard
Social media absolutely destroyed the Pacers after making the Paul George deal. How in the world could a four-time All-Star only fetch Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis? These types of deals remind every “armchair GM” why they aren’t the ones making any decisions.
The haul that Pritchard got for George has proven to be an absolute coup. Oladipo figures to be a borderline All-Star for years to come, and Sabonis has been the team’s best rebounder and finisher at the rim.
Pritchard’s excellence this year stretches far past one trade, though. The additions of point guards Darren Collison and Cory Joseph have helped stabilize the backcourt. Both guys can fill either guard role on both ends. Bojan Bogdanovic has helped provide spacing to the starting unit. Even rookies T.J. Leaf and Ike Anigbogu appear to be solid pieces moving forward.
For as much flak as Pritchard caught for the George trade, the veteran general manager has done quite well for himself.
Jason Fray: Daryl Morey
The inventive front office executive from Houston isn’t afraid to think outside the box. Morey shocked many by orchestrating the momentous trade for Chris Paul. There were plenty of questions as to how two ball-dominant players (Paul, James Harden) would be able to coexist. At the All-Star break, Houston currently has the best record in the entire NBA.
The shrewd acquisitions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gave Houston much-needed toughness on the perimeter. The Rockets became a much more versatile team on the defensive end of the floor. Tucker’s physicality — coupled with Mbah a Moute’s length — were sought-after traits. Without question, those two moves were made with the Golden State Warriors in mind.
In recent weeks, the team inked buy-out veterans Joe Johnson and Brandan Wright. Johnson’s experience and shot-making ability in clutch situations will be welcomed with open arms. Wright’s length and penchant for blocking shots will work well when spelling both Clint Capela and Nene.
Houston might not beat Golden State in a seven-game series. With that said, a ton of credit is owed to Morey for opting to attack the Warriors rather than playing a passive second-fiddle to what many feel is an unbeatable squad.
Coach of the Year
Harris Ahmadzai: Brad Stevens
When Gordon Hayward went down, Boston’s season was supposed to be over. It seems like nobody let Stevens know that.
The former Butler coach has been at his best this year, guiding an oft-injured club to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. Just about every player that gets significant minutes for Boston has gone down due to injury at some point this year. Stevens’ ability to navigate through these ailments, and find contributions from all over the roster, is remarkable.
When Al Horford went down, Stevens won games with Aron Baynes and Daniel Theis as his primary big men. When Marcus Smart punched a picture frame, Stevens gave his minutes to Terry Rozier, who has been sensational in Smart’s absence. Stevens even has Kyrie Irving playing defense! Is there anything he can’t do? (Besides winning a NCAA Tournament Final)
Jason Fray: Dwane Casey
Casey deserves a ton of credit for the Raptors’ revival. It appeared as if this collection of players had reached their ceiling as the ‘good enough to be a playoff team but not good enough to get over the hump’ kind of squad. Many were questioning Casey’s acumen – both in terms of in-game strategy and long-term tactics. However, Casey and the Raptors have shattered those glass windows of skepticism.
Currently, Toronto has the best record in the Eastern Conference (41-16) and the third-best record in the NBA (only behind Golden State and Houston). Casey has made significant changes this season – opting to utilize a deeper bench and upping the collective tempo with which the Raptors play. No longer is this an iso-centric team living and dying by the one-on-one skills of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. It’s a more dynamic group, a faster group, and one that looks primed to be a contender in the watered-down Eastern Conference.
Most Valuable Player
Harris Ahmadzai: James Harden
This season – there’s Harden, and then there’s everybody else. LeBron James is firmly in second, and has an outside chance at securing his fifth MVP trophy if his Cavaliers can somehow catch the Raptors and Celtics. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have both been brilliant in spurts, but will likely split any votes. Boston has regressed a bit since their blistering start, hampering any chances Kyrie Irving once had of winning the award. It’s a one-man race, and after coming in second place in voting twice, the award is finally Harden’s to lose.
The 28-year old guard is an offensive juggernaut, currently leading the league in points (31.3) and coming in second in assists (9.0). The addition of Chris Paul has only upped his game, as the Rockets grade out as one of the most potent offensive teams in NBA history. In fact, if the season ended today, Houston would have the highest Offensive Rating (115.7) for a team in NBA history – narrowly edging out the 1987 Showtime Lakers and 2017 Golden State Warriors. Houston currently owns the best record in the NBA, and are becoming more legitimate contenders to the Warriors with each passing week. This is a no brainer.
Jason Fray: James Harden
After narrowly being defeated last year in the ultra-competitive MVP race by Russell Westbrook, this year simply belongs to Harden. The Los Angeles native has led Houston to the NBA’s best record at the All-Star break for the first time in franchise history. It’s also no small feat considering the competition Houston faces night in and night out in the rugged Western Conference.
Harden is currently averaging 31.3 PPG, 9.0 APG, 5.1 RPG, and has a ridiculous PER of 30.53 (the highest in the league). His ability to break down defenders – whilst also getting teammates involved – makes Harden truly special. He’ll become the first Rocket to garner the MVP Award since Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1993-94 season.
Sources: Bob Donnan/USA TODAY Sports, Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports, Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports, ESPN, Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY Sports, Troy Taormina/USA TODAY Sports, Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY Sports, Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports