We’re just over a third of the way into the NBA season, and while there’s still plenty of time for things to change, I want to recognize who I believe would win the five major awards should the season end today. I did the same thing last year and…I had the same amount of luck predicting awards as I did Christmas Day games, but life’s all about improvement, right?
Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel, Los Angeles Lakers
I think it’s time for a LeBron coach to get credit where credit is due. I’d argue Erik Spoelstra should have won in the 2012-2013 season, but I digress. With all the turmoil regarding the Lakers organization, one of the main concerns was who was going to coach LeBron…I mean, the team. They tried to get Monty Williams, but he opted to revive the Phoenix Suns. Then they attempted to get “LeBron’s guy” Tyronn Lue, but the Lakers short-changed him, so he opted to become an assistant for the Clippers. When the Lakers did finally settle on Frank Vogel, many questioned if he’d even last the season, as Jason Kidd – who’d also expressed interest in the HC job – was placed on his coaching staff.
However, Vogel has proved everyone wrong to start this season. The Lakers sit atop the Western Conference, and while it is in no small part to the dominance of LeBron James and Anthony Davis, much success can be attributed to their coach. Vogel preaches defense – he led those stifling Indiana teams in the early 2010s – and has gotten everyone of the team to buy in to his philosophy. Outside a current three-game slump, the Lakers have had a top-5 defense for most of the year. Their length on the interior is incredible, and players who haven’t defended in years are now moving their feet, getting deflections, and drawing charges. Once the Lakers get back on track (and totally healthy) expect their defensive rating to rise – well, fall – and get back to shutting teams down on the less glamorous side of the basketball. Offensively, Vogel has run a steady diet of LeBron-AD pick and rolls, but has also done a good job of staggering the stars’ minutes. LeBron is having another MVP-style campaign, and he’s doing it while playing a career low in minutes.
No one thought the Lakers would be 24-6, and it’s time to give credit where it’s due.
Runners-Up: Mike Buldehozer, Erik Spoelstra, Nike Nurse
Mike Buldenhozer received this award last season for elevating Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks to 60 wins. The Bucks have only improved this year, boasting the best record in the league. Coaches rarely win this award back to back, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that trophy stayed in Wisconsin. Down in Miami, the Heat are off to a very impressive start. Erik Spoelstra must get much of the praise for that; now with a legitimate star in Jimmy Butler, he has this team playing extremely hard and so many players are exceeding expectations. Staying out East, many predicted that the Toronto Raptors would fall off following Kawhi Leonard’s departure. However, they’re firmly in the playoff picture and Nick Nurse deserves a lot of the credit. He’s proven time and time again that he can implement schemes to shut down the league’s top players; unconventional as his methods may be, he gets the job done.
Most Improved Player: Devonte’ Graham, Charlotte Hornets
Ok, let’s be honest: we all thought the Charlotte Hornets would be one of, if not, the worst team in the league this year. They lost franchise player Kemba Walker in free agency, and replaced him…Terry Rozier. The roster boasted a lot of unproven and inconsistent young talent in Miles Bridges and Malik Monk, but also had a litany of veterans who were way past their prime like Marvin Williams and Nicolas Batum. Simply put, the foreseeable future was very, very, very dark.
Yet, the Hornets somehow possess the ninth seed in the Eastern Conference. There seems to have been a variable that we did not account for: the rise of Devonte’ Graham. No one could possibly have foreseen the astronomical rise from his rookie to sophomore seasons.
2018-2019 Stats: 4.7 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.2 RPG, 0.5 SPG, 34.3 FG%, 28.1 3FG%, 76.1 FT%
2019-2020 Stats: 19.3 PPG, 7.5 APG, 3.7 RPG, 0.8 SPG, 38.6 FG%, 40.5 3FG%, 79.7 FT%
The man has gone from a total afterthought to being the new “star” in Charlotte. He’s second in the league in total three-pointers made, 24 behind James Harden, though he’s done it on about 100 less shots. He’s had several games with ridiculous three-point totals, almost all with equally insane efficiency. While it’s peculiar that he’s shooting better from behind the arc than inside it, he’s a bonafide sniper and if he can start making shots from inside the line, he can be a top scorer in this league. More impressively to me is his excellent vision and knack for distributing the ball. He’s tenth in the league in assists per game and boasts a very solid assist-turnover ratio of 2.5.
I know some people are hesitant to give the MIP award to a second year player since most players are expected to make a jump. However, this is a huge leap that needs to be recognized, regardless of Graham’s experience – or lack thereof. While the Hornets’ sort of winning ways may not last all season, I expect Devonte’s play to stay the course.
Runners-Up: Brandon Ingram, Bam Adebayo, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander
Brandon Ingram is showing why he was the most valuable asset the New Orleans Pelicans received in exchange for Anthony Davis. With Zion Williamson out with a meniscus injury, Ingram has been able to run a team for the first time in his career, and has been balling out. He’s averaging over 25 PPG on essentially 49/41/85 shooting splits, showing when given the chance, the comparisons to Kevin Durant are very accurate. Back to South Beach, while Jimmy Butler is the Heat’s true star, Bam Adebayo is having a breakout year. His numbers have risen in all the major statistical categories, though none are more impressive than his assists numbers, averaging 4.6 APG from the center position. His play this year is definitely worthy of an All-Star nod. Last but not least, I have to acknowledge the work my fellow Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting in down in Oklahoma City. In all honesty, I did not see the star potential many praised him for last year, but he’s producing and then some in his sophomore year. He’s silky smooth on offense, able to get to the rim and finish, and he’s become more comfortable letting it fly from behind the arc.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are the deepest team in the league and their bench paces the NBA in scoring, contributing almost 51 points per game. Their “Bench Mob” is led by 3-time Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams and Montrezl “The Energizer Bunny” Harrell. This award was really just a coin flip between the Clips’ star bench players. However, I’d argue that this year, Montrezl Harrell has made a larger impact.
If there’s one place that the Clippers show signs of weakness, it’s on the interior. Unlike many Western Conference squads, the Clippers don’t have a “star” big man down low that can make a huge impact on either side of the ball. They have Ivica Zubac, but he plays less than 18 minutes a game. Harrell has almost single handedly masked this hole with his play this year. He’s averaging 19.0 PPG on 57.5 FG%, 7.5 RPG, and 1.9 APG in just over 29 minutes per game. Even though he’s just 6’8, he’s a bruiser inside, finishing through contact continuously. He and Lou have mastered the pick and roll, as Williams often finds Harrell off clean dives for layups and dunks. Defensively, while being undersized, he’s very strong and has the ability to give larger opponents fits all game long. He effectively shutdown Anthony Davis in the Lakers-Clippers showdown on opening night, and while that’s merely one game – and AD’s first with the Lakers – it shows that when he’s focused, he can limit some of the league’s top interior talent.
The last center/power forward to win the Sixth Man of the Year award was Cliff Robinson in 1992-1993. If Harrell keeps this play up, he’ll break this 17-year streak.
Runners-Up: Lou Williams, Goran Dragic, Dennis Schröder
If you don’t understand the bench brilliance of Lou Williams, you need to educate yourself. While his scoring has dipped a bit, his assists have gone, providing some much needed playmaking for this Clippers team. I was very surprised when I saw Goran Dragic was coming off the bench this year for Miami; he was an All-Star two seasons ago and now healthy, one could have expected similar production. However, he has embraced the sixth man role and has performed very admirably allowing the Heat to maximize his on-ball skills. Similar to last year, Dennis Schröder has done his thing off the Thunder bench. Even with talented starters in Paul and Shai, Dennis’ scoring punch of the pine has helped this team exceed expectations this year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
Coming into this season, many questioned how good the Lakers would be on the defensive end. They stunk defensively in the latter half of last season, and most of their offseason acquisitions were either shooters or past their defensive prime. LeBron’s defensive effort – or lack thereof – has been well documented in the latter half of this decade, and former defensive stalwarts like Javale McGee and Rajon Rondo proved to be negatives on that end last year.
Yet, outside of a recent slump, the Lakers have been one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. The reason? A 6’10 defensive monster named Anthony Davis. I’d obviously seen the stats he’d put up in his time in New Orleans, the blocks, the steals, the deflections. But now watching him on a nightly basis, I can truly see his defensive impact. AD can cover so much ground with his length and agility. First Take’s Max Kellerman says Davis is the first player he’s ever seen guard both the ball handler and the roll man in the pick-and-roll, an extremely impressive feat.
More importantly to me, however, is how he’s holding his teammates accountable on that side of the ball. Before the season, he announced he wanted to win the Defensive Player of the Year award. In that same interview, he challenged LeBron to make an All-Defensive Team, which would be his first since his last year in Miami. With the team’s two superstars keyed in defensively, the rest of the roster has followed suit. Should the Lakers return to their defensive dominance, Davis will have the numbers and storyline to take this award home in his first season with the Purple & Gold.
Runners-Up: Jonathan Isaac, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert
Even more so than last year, the Orlando Magic have struggled to produce offense. Their saving grace has come in the form of Jonathan Isaac, truly coming out as one of the elite defensive players in this league. With his length and athleticism, he’s one of the top shot blockers in the association and has the ability to give just about anyone fits. Joel Embiid is having a bit of a down year, but he’s still third in the league in Defensive Win Shares and is a big part of why the Philadelphia 76ers are a top-5 defense. The Utah Jazz have been pretty disappointing this season, and while some of the blame can be assigned to Rudy Gobert, he’s been one of the team’s lone bright spots. He’s the two-time defending DPOY and assuming Utah does their usual second-half surge, expect Gobert’s name to be mentioned in the discussion more and more.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Last year, this was the only award I correctly predicted. We know the story of how Giannis Antetokounmpo dominated the NBA last year, led the Milwaukee Bucks to 60 wins, and was named the league MVP in a race that really wasn’t all that close (sorry, not sorry James Harden). The Bucks were knocked out in the Eastern Conference Finals by the Toronto Raptors, but that might have been a blessing in disguise for the squad. Giannis has come back this year with a vengeance, taking his dominance to a whole new level. He’s averaging over 30 PPG, almost 13 RPG, and nearly 6 APG, to go along with his stellar defense and insane efficiency. I don’t think anyone expected Giannis to kick it up a notch, but he has, and the Bucks are the best team in the NBA because of this.
The Greek Freak is still doing most of his damage in transition and at the rim; you can’t teach that kind of size and athleticism. However, the true revelation this season has been his three-point shot. No, he hasn’t become Stephen Curry, but his both his efficiency and volume have gone up this year. He’s never looked more comfortable letting it fly from deep, and if he continues this improvement, there’s truly no ceiling for him. It’s puzzling how his three-point shot got better, but his free-throws fell off a cliff. Regardless, Giannis is the best player on the team with the best record, and I don’t think that will change for the remainder of the season. The guy won the MVP award last year and has somehow gotten better; the award is his to lose.
Runners-Up: LeBron James, James Harden, Luka Dončić
The Lakers are the best team in the Western Conference and since he’s the first to blame when they’re playing bad, LeBron James should be the first to praise for their success. He’s leading the league in assists with almost 11 per game, is trying on defense, and is winning. As long as LeBron and the Lakers are healthy, he’s Giannis’ biggest threat to repeating as MVP. James Harden is doing things we haven’t seen since Wilt Chamberlain – if Wilt’s name is mentioned, you know you’re doing something special. The guy is averaging over 38 PPG and has had back-to-back games of scoring 50 or more points not once, but TWICE already! I absolutely hate the way Harden plays and this style won’t lead to playoff success, but you’ve gotta put some respect on the numbers. It’s rare to see someone go from winning the Rookie of the Year award to being in the MVP discussion, but that is exactly what Luka Dončić has done. The “Boy Wonder” is averaging just under 29 PPG, 9.5 RPG, and 9.0 APG while leading a historic offense; let me remind you that he’s just 20 years old! While he doesn’t have a real chance to win, the numbers are there and this is just a sign of things to come.