Rookie of the Year
Winner: Joel Embiid – Philadelphia 76ers
Runner-up: Malcolm Brogdon – Milwaukee Bucks
In what has been a disappointing rookie class, there’s only one player that stands out in this discussion among his peers. The issue, obviously, remains his lack of durability which forced him to miss his first two seasons.
This year, while sitting out in back-to-backs and dealing with a nagging knee injury, Joel Embiid has already missed 45% of his team’s games. That percentage will likely increase when the Sixers inevitably shut him down once they’re eliminated from playoff contention. In any other year, Embiid wouldn’t be considered for this award after missing this many games.
Having said that, he consistently puts up monster stats whenever he’s on the court. In only 25.4 minutes per game, Embiid leads all rookies in points (20.2), rebounds (7.8), and blocks (2.5) by a wide margin. His shooting percentages seem below average for a traditional center (46.6 FG% and 50.8 eFG%), but that’s due to the fact that he’s anything but traditional. Over 22% of his attempts are three pointers, and he’s making almost 37% of them. Embiid profiles as a legitimate stretch 5 who also protects the rim on defense, putting him in a unique category of versatile big men that are revolutionizing the NBA.
It’s depressing for the rest of this rookie class that the runner-up will likely be a former second round pick. When Matthew Dellavedova got hurt earlier in the season, Malcolm Brogdon stepped up admirably in his absence and has put very respectable numbers ever since. He’s the rookie leader in assists (4.2) and steals (1.2), while shooting an impressive 41.7% from beyond the arc. If the voters decide not to trust the process, Brogdon will slide in and become the most underwhelming ROY in league history.
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Sixth Man of the Year
Winner: Lou Williams – Los Angeles Lakers
Runner-up: Eric Gordon – Houston Rockets
This discussion could change depending on what happens at the trade deadline and what role he’d have on a new team, but for now, Lou Williams is the frontrunner to take home this award. Having played in all 58 of the Lakers’ games, Sweet Lou leads the team in points (18.6), FT% (88.4%), true shooting % (60.9%), PER (24.1), and win shares (5.1). He’s also second on the team in 3FG% (38.6), trailing only Nick Young, and he’s their leading scorer in the fourth quarter with 7.7 points per game. Those would all be career highs for him if they hold up, and he has come off the bench in all but one game this season.
Playing in the same role for the Rockets, Eric Gordon has also produced at a high level all season. He’s second on the team in scoring (17.2) while making the most three pointers per game (3.5) on a team that’s on pace to break the record for threes in a season. The only problem for Gordon in this race is that Lou has the advantage in points, assists, steals, FG%, FT%, 3FG%, true shooting %, PER, and win shares. And he’s doing it in less minutes (24.2) than Gordon (30.5).
Again, if Williams gets traded to a contender and his minutes go down (hard to imagine when he’s not even playing that much now), this will be a different conversation. But, until that happens, Lou should take home this award.
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Coach of the Year
Winner: Scott Brooks – Washington Wizards
Runner-up: Mike D’Antoni – Houston Rockets
Out of all the races, this one seems to be the trickiest every year. The argument can always be made: “if coach of the year is about being the best coach, then Popovich should win every year.” Well, Pop has only won it three times and he’s been coaching for almost 20 years.
In recent years, the award has either gone to coaches with the best overall record, or coaches whose teams have improved significantly from the previous season. This year, two coaches stand out more than the others, both in their first season with their respective franchise.
The best place to start when comparing Mike D’Antoni and Scott Brooks is looking at the records of Houston and Washington before they arrived, and comparing it to this year. These are the winning percentages for both teams in the last three years combined compared to now:
There’s no denying the impact D’Antoni has had on the Rockets’ offense (114.4 points per game), but everyone knows that’s his specialty. They predictably struggle on defense (108 points allowed), which is another given on a D’Antoni team. Plus, Houston has had more success recently than the Wizards, which ever so slightly downgrades D’Antoni’s effect on the team.
Although it’s close, Brooks the nod for having a more balanced team on both sides of the ball (7th in pponts per game and 11th in points allowed). Washington also forces the most turnovers in the league (15.0), which should help them get some close wins down the stretch. If the Wizards finish in the top four in the Eastern Conference, Brooks deserves the award for best coach in 2017.
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Most Improved Player
Winner: Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Runner-up: Nikola Jokic – Denver Nuggets
Similar to the rookie of the year race, the most improved award has maintained the same favorite for the majority of the season. Based off past winners, this award traditionally goes to the player who made the most unexpected leap in improvement in a season. Now in his fourth season on the heels of signing a four-year, $100 million extension, Giannis Antetokounmpo has evolved into a do-it-all superstar that’s elevated his team into playoff contention.
With his supreme versatility, the Greek Freak has substantially improved his numbers in points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks, FG%, FT%, and eFG% while playing the same exact minutes as last year. He’s also tied for fifth in steals (1.8), fifth in blocks (2.0), eighth in PER (26.6), and ninth in win shares (8.6). As it currently stands, he leads the Bucks in all five major categories (points, rebounds, assists, steals, blocks) and would be become only the 5th player in NBA history to achieve this. Oh, and he just turned 22 in December.
At this point, it’s his award to lose, but there are a number of different cases that could be made for the runner up. Isaiah Thomas has increased his scoring to 30 points per game, including 10.7 in the fourth quarter alone, in his third season in Boston. Coming over from the Warriors, Harrison Barnes continues to improve his game while leading a Mavericks team in usage rate for the first time in his career. Otto Porter broke out in his fourth season and now leads the league in 3FG% (for qualified players). Despite these noteworthy improvements, there’s still another who’s taken his game to an entirely different level in a few short months.
For whatever reason, Nuggets coach Mike Malone felt that the best way to begin the season was to play two traditional centers together in the starting lineup. After these experiments proved unproductive, Malone went back to his one center lineup and inserted Nikola Jokic back into the starting lineup, where he blossomed quicker than anyone could have imagined.
Since becoming the starting center on December 15th, the Joker has averaged 21.0 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game while posting the best offensive rating for a player in that span (120.6). He’s already tallied two triple doubles this year, tying DeMarcus Cousins for the most in the NBA among centers. After finishing third in last year’s ROY voting, he’s built on his impressive rookie campaign to become one of the top young big men in the league.
If Malone had started him from day one, he would’ve put up a much better fight for Most Improved award. Instead, the Freak from Greece will likely take home the gold.
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Defensive Player of the Year
Winner: Rudy Gobert – Utah Jazz
Runner-up: Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
Similar to the past two years, Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green will likely end up near the top of the voting for DPOY. Leonard seeks his third consecutive award while Green aims to finally secure the victory after finishing second in each of the last two seasons. Standing in their way this year is Jazz center Rudy Gobert, whose put together an outstanding resume in his breakout season.
In only his fourth season, the Stifle Tower is first in blocks (2.5), fifth in rebounding (12.6), sixth in total rebound % (21.7%), second in defensive rating (98.1) and first in defensive win shares (4.4). This is all for a Utah team that gives up the fewest points in the league (95.7) with the lowest opponents points per shot (1.17) and the third lowest FG% allowed (.439). He’s the fulcrum of the defense for the Jazz, who are now in 5th place after missing the playoffs last season.
With Leonard’s spike in offensive usage this season, his defensive metrics have dropped compared to his last two years. He’ll likely finish third after Gobert and Green, who’s also having a tremendous impact on Golden State’s success.
Draymond’s putting up career highs in steals (2.1), blocks (1.5) and defensive win shares, which rank first, 14th, and third in the league respectively. He’s able to effectively guard every position on the court, while holding his own in the post against bigger opponents. No one can question his versatility and leadership, but unfortunately for him, versatility and leadership don’t usually win this award.
In the last 25 years, no players have won the award that weren’t been considered elite rim protectors, lockdown perimeter defenders, or anchors of the best defensive teams that season. Considering the Warriors aren’t known for their defense, Green doesn’t fall under any of those categories. His overall effect on the game is undeniable, yet Gobert better fits the criteria for this award based on what history says. The voting will be insanely close, but Gobert will be the guy standing above the rest when it’s all said and done.
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Most Valuable Player
Winner: James Harden – Houston Rockets
Runner-up: LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
For the first time in nearly 10 years, there isn’t one MVP candidate that significantly stands out among his peers. With so many elite players putting up incredible seasons, there’s a case to be made for any of the top 7 candidates.
Since the Golden State Warriors are such a balanced, well-oiled machine, Kevin Durant’s and Stephen Curry’s impact aren’t distinct enough for either to earn this award. Isaiah Thomas has put up crazy scoring numbers this season for the Celtics, but his deficiencies on defense are too great to ignore. And, despite the fact that San Antonio has the league’s second best record, Kawhi will be unfairly overlooked because that’s just what normally happens to the Spurs.
That leaves the three leading favorites for the award: James Harden, Russell Westbrook and LeBron James.
Here’s a comparison of all of their per-game stats:
James Harden: 29.2 points, 8.3 rebounds, 11.3 assists, 1.4 steals, 52.5 eFG%, 61.5 true shooting %, 6.8 net rating, 34.2 usage %, 27.6 PER, 11.2 win shares
Russell Westbrook: 30.1 points, 10.5 rebounds, 10.1 assists, 1.6 steals, 46.8 eFG%, 54.5 true shooting %, 2.7 net rating, 41 usage %, 29.5 PER, 8.2 win shares
LeBron James: 25.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 8.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 58.7 eFG%, 61.6 true shooting %, 7.8 net rating, 29.4 usage %, 26.3 PER, 8.9 win shares
What initially stands out about these stats are Westbrook’s poor shooting percentages and high usage rate. He also takes five more shots per game than Harden, and six more than James. Despite his gaudy offensive numbers, his net rating is at least four points lower than both of them, which also speaks to his issues on defense. If Harden or James took as many shots AND had the ball in their hands as often, it’s highly likely that their stat line would be even better than Westbrook’s.
Since efficiency grows more important with each passing season (bad news for Westbrook), this race comes down to the Beard and the King. While Harden clearly has the edge at the moment, how LeBron fares over the next few weeks with Kevin Love out will go a long way in determining the winner.
However, as it currently stands, Harden is the clear favorite while guiding his Rockets to a surprisingly strong season. Don’t be surprised if the King’s MVP campaign starts to pick up steam down the stretch, but for now, it’s Harden’s trophy to lose.
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