The calendar has just flipped to December, which means that the NBA season is about a quarter of the way complete. Sample sizes are no longer too small to draw at least mild conclusions, and teams have played enough games to mostly iron out the kinks. It is a good time to get a first look at the leaders for a number of NBA awards. Of course, a number of game changing players have yet to make their season debuts, but after missing 20-plus games it is always difficult to win an award.
Most Valuable Player
Leader: James Harden
Twice in the past three years, James Haden has been the runner-up for league MVP honors, and both times he had a legitimate argument to win it. In 2014-15, he averaged four more points per game than Stephen Curry, while carrying a heavier load of the offense, but Curry was given the distinction because he surprisingly led the Warriors to the league’s best record. Two years later, Harden was clearly the best player on a team that finished with the second most wins in the league, but he finished behind Russell Westbrook in MVP voting because the Thunder point guard became the first player in forever to average a triple double.
This year, Harden has put some early distance between himself and the rest of the field. Of last year’s top six MVP vote getters, very few are well positioned to challenge Harden. Westbrook is struggling on the league’s most disappointing team. Curry is sharing the court with three other all stars, one of whom is a top-five guy. Two of last year’s leaders (Kawhi Leonard and Isaiah Thomas) have yet to see the court.
LeBron James, of course, is rolling right along in his fifteenth NBA season. His counting numbers are as impressive as ever, and he’s producing them at the most efficient clip of his career. After some early bumps, his Cavaliers have settled down, and they are in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. However, this performance from James has become so normal to the voters that he doubts to challenge for the award unless he averages a triple-double or leads Cleveland to the league’s best record. Even so, Harden’s numbers are just as gaudy as James’ and his team looks like the league’s best through 21 games.
Harden is threatening to become the first player since Nate ‘Tiny’ Archibald to lead the league in points and assists in the same season. As of now, his primary challenger for the assist crown is his backcourt mate Chris Paul. Harden is shooting the three at a career best rate, and his increase in long range shooting has permitted to eclipse the 30 points per game barrier for the first time. He has realistically only had one performance all season that could be categorized as poor.
The off-season additions of Paul and P.J. Tucker seem to have improved Houston’s defense, and their offense isn’t slowing down anytime soon. Although they’ll be hard pressed to beat them in a playoff series, expect Houston to challenge Golden State for the conference’s best regular season record. Harden has thus far done everything necessary to be named MVP, and no one in the league deserves that title more than him.
Runner-up: LeBron James
LeBron James may be playing the best basketball of his career at an age when most peers are considering retirement. That thought is incredibly scary. If the coaching staff is smart, James won’t continue to play such heavy minutes once Isaiah Thomas and takes some of the offensive burden off of James’ shoulders. It will likely take a superhuman effort to wrestle the MVP trophy from James Harden’s grasp, but if anyone is capable of putting one together, it’s LeBron.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving
Defensive Player of the Year
Leader: Paul George
Before this season tipped off, there were three frontrunners for defensive player of the year: Last year’s winner Draymond Green, two time honoree Kawhi Leonard, and perhaps the preseason favorite, Rudy Gobert.
So far, Kawhi Leonard has remained sidelined by a quad injury and Rudy Gobert is in the middle of a two week absence with a knee injury. Green has been his usual self, but with much of his importance stemming from Golden State’s consistently impressive team defense, it is disappointing that they rank just 19th in the league, giving up over 107 points per game. They are also 17th in opponents turnovers per game, down from first last season.
Far off of their offensive dysfunction and inability to close out games, the Oklahoma City Thunder have been a solid defensive team this season. They have the league’s 21st ranked offensive rating, but it’s third rated defense. The defense is led by new addition George, who leads the league in steals, deflections, loose balls recovered, and defensive win shares. George’s length and athleticism always made him a tough defensive player when he was in Indiana, but he has taken the next step forward this season.
This pick is contingent on the Thunder at least somewhat turning it around. The team is too talented, and shots will have to fall eventually. The Thunder have lost too many close games to remain under .500 for an extended period of time. It’s an extremely positive sign that they look so stout defensively, because the offense should have been the easier side to figure out. If George keeps up his play and the team finds a way into the middle of the pack in the Western Conference playoffs, he will be a strong contender for this award.
Runner-Up: Al Horford
Al Horford’s numbers don’t always stand out, but his impact is undeniable. He is the anchor to the NBA’s stingiest defense, and his ability to switch onto and stay with guards on the perimeter is crucial to Brad Stevens’ defensive scheme.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Smart, Kevin Durant, Hassan Whiteside, Marc Gasol
Most Improved Player
Leader: Victor Oladipo
This is probably the award with the most competition. A lot of players have made big improvements, whether it be because they are the go-player on a team for the first time or simply the natural progression that comes with age. Typically, an NBA player can make three distinct jumps throughout his career: the first to show that they belong in the NBA (think of Kelly Oubre’s transformation this year), the jump from solid player to star (Bradley Beal), and then the select few get to make the transition to superstardom (Giannis Antetokounmpo this season).
Oladipo doesn’t quite fit any of these boxes, but he has nonetheless silenced a lot of doubters this season. Oladipo has been a good complementary player in the league ever since his rookie year in Orlando, but last year in Oklahoma City seemed to be his last and best chance to make “the leap”, and he came up short. Granted, he was in a tough situation because Russell Westbrook was intent on creating all the offense by himself. Still, Oladipo was on a bad contract and considered a meager return when he came to Indiana alongside Domantas Sabonis in exchange for Paul George.
However, Oladipo has been one of the fifteen best scorers in the NBA this season, finally fulfilling some of the potential that the Magic saw in him when they drafted him second overall in 2013. He is averaging almost 23 points per game on a career best 47% from the field. After not one but two teams gave up on the former lottery pick within his first four seasons in the league, Oladipo must feel he has gained a measure of redemption in 2017-18.
The Pacers, a team constructed with a bunch of career role players and Myles Turner, are a surprising 12-10 and should continue to fight for a playoff spot. Oladipo is leading the charge for one of the league’s more gritty rosters that is trying to show that it still has something to offer.
Runner-Up: Aaron Gordon
There is one stat that perfectly encapsulates Aaron Gordon’s progression as a shooter. Gordon’s current three-point percentage through 20 games (43.8%) is higher than his percentage during his lone season of college basketball from the free-throw line (42.2%). I’ll admit that I wasn’t a big believer in Gordon as a prospect, so part of this run still feels fluky to me, but I can’t argue with his numbers through the first quarter of the season. If Gordon can continue to be a threat from long range, it will open up a huge and devastating number of opportunities for his offensive game.
Honorable Mention: Kristaps Porzingis, Kelly Oubre, Andre Drummond, Jaylen Brown
Sixth Man of the Year
Leader: Lou Williams
Although Lou Will has had to start the past few games for the Clippers because their backcourt is so depleted, he will likely return to the bench once Milos Teodosic returns in the next two to three weeks. Williams has always been better suited to a bench role, and he has consistently proven this season that his scoring touch is going nowhere.
He has, and will continue to carry a heavy offensive burden for the Clippers, who were offensively challenged enough before Blake Griffin went down for several months with an MCL injury. Williams is now the best shot creator on the roster, so expect his minutes and production off the bench to mirror that. He’s got a lightning quick first step, an equally rapid release, and can draw fouls with the best of them. He typifies what it means to be a professional scorer.
Alongside the career-best 18.2 points, the former winner of this award is also putting up career highs in assists, three pointers made, and field goal percentage. The only thing that seems to be standing in his way is the health of those ahead of him, which might eventually move Lou to the starting five for good.
Runner-Up: Julius Randle
Randle has been among the league’s most consistent players coming off the bench, putting up almost 13 points and seven rebounds per game, and he is among the league’s most efficient scorers, both in terms of percentage and per-36 numbers. Randle’s numbers have seen a recent uptick as he’s been inserted into the Lakers’ crunch time five, and expect his production to increase with it.
Honorable Mention: Kelly Oubre, Tyreke Evans, Jordan Clarkson, Will Barton
NOTE: With Chris Paul having returned from injury and relegated Eric Gordon back to the bench, the Rockets’ sharpshooter must be considered among the favorites as he attempts to defend his crown as the league’s premier player off the bench.
Rookie of the Year
Leader: Ben Simmons
This was the easiest award to decide. The leader is Simmons and the race isn’t particularly close. Simmons has put together one of the most impressive rookie campaigns in recent memory, if not ever, and has paired with Joel Embiid to lead the 76ers to an extremely exciting start.
Simmons has an admirable level of poise for a rookie. He rarely gets shook, and his game to game stat lines are exceptionally consistent. He is currently putting up almost 19 points, along with over nine rebounds and seven assists. His height as a point guard creates mismatches all over the floor. He has an impressive handle, tremendous vision, and a knack for finishing around the basket. He has so far displayed a vast array of touch shots and post moves near the rim, most impressively demonstrating his ability to score using either hand.
He still virtually never shoots from the outside, but he seems so in control of everything else that this deficiency rarely seems to matter. Simmons should run away with this award comfortably.
Runner-up: Jayson Tatum
Jayson Tatum came into the league figuring to be one of the draft class’ more polished prospects. What he didn’t expect was that he would so quickly be shoved into a starting role for one of the NBA’s best teams.
Gordon Hayward’s freakish injury in the NBA season opener opened the door for Tatum to get more minutes, and thus far he has taken full advantage. He is averaging better than 13 points and five rebounds per game, shooting at a healthy clip from both inside and outside the paint. Like Simmons, he has shown the important trait of steadiness, recently tallying his eighth consecutive game in double figures. Thus far, Tatum has been the best player from his draft class.
Honorable Mention: Lauri Markkanen, Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith
Coach of the Year
Leader: Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens brought a team to the Eastern Conference finals, saw it get completely blown up and revamped, then lost his second best player in the opening game of the season. You couldn’t have blamed him if it took him a little time to find out his bearings. It didn’t.
Ever since the season-opening loss to Cleveland, the Celtics have gone 19-3 to build the league’s best record. They have the league’s best defense thus far, and have seemingly turned Kyrie Irving into a plus defender. They have two young studs developing faster than most people thought they would. They get useful contributions from eight different guys. A lot of that credit goes to Stevens, who consistently puts his guys in the best position to succeed on both sides of the ball. If Boston holds onto the East’s top spot for a second consecutive season, expect Stevens to capture this award.
Runner-Up: Stan Van Gundy
Stan Van Gundy finally has the team that he envisioned when he took the job in Detroit. Andre Drummond has stopped trying to post up, and has understood his role as a lob-catcher and offensive rebound machine. He has also greatly improved his free throw percentage (up over 60% for the season). Defensively, he is blocking shots and wreaking havoc with his speed on the perimeter.
Around him, Reggie Jackson is operating the pick-and-roll at a high level and he’s surrounded by guys shooting the deep ball at an extremely high rate: Langston Galloway, Avery Bradley and Tobias Harris are all up above 40% from three for the season.
Bradley, Drummond, and Stanley Johnson also anchor one of the league’s strongest defenses. The team is strongly reminiscent of Van Gundy’s Dwight-Howard led Magic squads, a spot where the current Pistons coach experienced a lot of success.
Honorable Mention: Steve Kerr, Mike D’Antoni, Gregg Popovich, Brett Brown