NBA AWARDS CONVERSATION

Miami Heat v Oklahoma City Thunder – Game OneWith the NBA playoffs just around the corner and on-the-bubble teams making late playoff pushes in their respective conferences, the initially-broad award field has now been diluted to a few candidates.

In addition, while more than one player competing for the individual golds presents a solid case to win, each award is taking on the form of a dicey 100-metres race.

Every year, only a handful of pre-season candidates show enough consistency throughout the 82-game season to stay alive in their hunt for the coveted prizes. In this column, I will list my finalists for the MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, and Sixth Man of the Year awards, while also illustrating their cases.

Without further ado, my nominees for the 2014 NBA Awards.

Most Valuable Player 

Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder.

In his best year yet by a mile, Kevin Durant’s 2013-2014 regular season has been the epitome of what the words “most valuable player” intend. With Westbrook out for a large part of the season, Durant’s scoring prowess has been in full display, translating into mind-boggling numbers that not even the most apt scorers in the league would be able to post on a nightly basis unless they used themselves on NBA2k14.

His numbers in December: 29.4ppg, 9.0rpg, 4.5apg, 53%FG, 48%3P, 88%FT.

January: 35.9ppg, 6.1rpg, 6.1apg, 55%FG, 44%3P, 89%FT.

February: 33.4ppg, 7.7rpg, 7.2apg, 49%FG, 33%3P, 85%FT.

Season average: 31.8ppg, 7.7rpg, 5.5apg, 51%FG, 39%3P, 88%FT.

It’s hard to argue with that whopping stat line, and you could also almost say that the past months gave us more of an idea of how good Kevin Durant is than we’ve ever had watching him play in his previous six years. Yet, even in the midst of this scoring glory, many troves of his game remain obscured because of his proficient ability to put the ball in the basket. Whether it be with assists, rebounds, or defense, KD has showcased elite-level efforts in all facets of the game.

This year, there hasn’t been a player in the league who has had more of an impact on the outcome of a game than Kevin Durant has. If the acronym really meant what its words suggest, than Durant would be the consensus pick. All the evidence is there.

Anyone out there who still thinks Westbrook is OKC’s batman?

LeBron James – Miami Heat.

LeBron’s MVP case has really caught fire over the past few weeks, where his wherewithal to win has re-opened the East’s race for the number one seed.

I’m not the only one who thinks that his late rise in the MVP contention is in part thanks to Russell Westbrook’s return in OKC’s lineup, which to some degree will stain Durant’s oeuvre and consequently boost LeBron’s chances at the end of the season.

Back to LeBron, he has won Eastern Conference player of the month twice this season, including February, where he posted averages of 30.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.7 assists, and 2.7 steals on 58% field goal shooting and 36% from beyond the arc. Before losing to Houston on March 4th, Miami had won nine straight. James’ numbers during that stretch? 35.3ppg, 8rpg, 5.5apg, 2.5spg, 62%FG, 36%3P.

While Durant’s numbers make a batter case, it was the way that James prevailed over him at Chasapeake Energy Arena that caused basketball fans everywhere to reconsider Durant’s dominance. The 61-point game against Charlotte also didn’t hurt.

There is no doubt that LeBron James is putting up MVP-type numbers as well as spoiling us with flawless performances; but still, in order for him to take home is fifth award in six years, he will have to outlast his greatest opposition to date. It sounds like a scene out of a mythological movie, so I would watching the next month very closely if I were you.

Blake Griffin – Los Angeles Clippers.

Had it not been for the month of February, where he beat out Kevin Durant for player of the month, Blake Griffin’s name wouldn’t have made my list of candidates.

During that twelve-game period, Blake averaged 30 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 3.8 assists on 58% from the floor. Per NBA.com, Griffin has the highest plus/minus (8.9) of the league’s top scorers since January 1st.

But apart from the impressive numbers and complicating computations, the main reason why he makes a fine case is how well he led his team in Chris Paul’s absence. If you remember, a lot of people went into panic mode when Paul went down, and many predicted a mid-season breakdown that would eventually jolt the Clips to the lower end of the Western’s standings. None of that happened.

Despite CP3 missing a total of 18 games, Blake’s solid output solidified the Clippers’ legitimacy as a contender as well as positioned them within reach of a high seed.

Joakim Noah – Chicago Bulls.

The Bulls’ polarizing center has probably been the most surprising player in the second half of the season whose name isn’t Kevin Durant or LeBron James.

Whether you like to admit it or not, Noah’s play so far has been nothing less of superb. Along averaging double digit numbers in points and rebounds, he is also dishing out close to five assists a night.

In order to get a full grasp of how great of a year he is having, take a look at how his productivity increased each month:

November: 9.5ppg, 7.5rpg, 3.4apg, 0.7bpg, 1.0spg;

December: 12.8ppg, 11.9rpg, 3.4apg, 1.4bpg, 1.3spg;

January: 13.6ppg, 14.1rpg, 5.8apg, 1.9bpg, 1.1spg;

February: 13.2ppg, 11.8rpg, 5.8apg, 1.6bpg, 0.9spg;

March so far: 12ppg, 9.8rpg, 8.0apg, 1.5bpg, 1.3spg.

Thanks to his fervent approach on both ends of the floor, Chicago has been able to bounce back from the D-Rose debacle and is now competing for the third seed in the East.

Two months ago, right after the Deng trade, we all assumed that the Bulls front office was pulling the plug on their initial championship aspirations; but to our surprise, that same team is looking like a potential threat to both Miami and Indiana.

Dwight Howard – Houston Rockets.

Despite his shaky start to the season (unbalance with Asik, health, etc.), Howard has taken a 180 degree-turn from his L.A. days and has now regained the moniker of “NBA’s best center”.

Thanks to his re-birth, the Rockets are serious contenders not only in the race for the top seed in the West, but also in the quest for a championship. NBA rankings on all major sports sites have the Rockets anywhere between the one and five spots, a territory in which they wouldn’t have been included months before.

Dwight’s numbers in the new year (22-8 record since Jan.1st): 19.9ppg, 11.6rpg, 1.6bpg, 60%FG, 57.7%FT.

Honorable Mentions:

Goran Dragic, Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Steph Curry, James Harden.

Defensive Player of the Year

Joakim Noah – Chicago Bulls.

Chicago’s ranking at the top in fewest points allowed is largely thanks to Noah’s stifling defense along with his vehement efforts at protecting the paint.

Unlike most centers who are merely regarded as rim protectors, Noah’s defensive versatility becomes apparent when faced against adept perimeter scorers (KD, LeBron, Melo, etc.). In those situations, you’ll notice Noah’s body lower into a defensive stance and roam around the free-throw line area in an attempt to deny any trespassing, a defensive gamble that most bigs in the league wouldn’t even think to attempt.

We always hear about how indispensable a good rim protector can be, but what if you had both a rim and paint protector to anchor your defense? That is what the Bulls have in Joakim Noah.

Some stats: per Basketball Reference, Noah ranks second in both defensive win shares (4.9) and defensive rating (96.3).

Roy Hibbert – Indiana Pacers. 

Arguably the most feared rim protector in today’s game, Roy Hibbert has been the driving force behind Indiana’s impeccable defensive schemes.

While he’s been on a little bit of a slump lately (8.3pts, 4.5rebs in March), his towering presence in the paint still stands out like a stop sign on a highway. You’ll notice this more against small teams (Miami, Atlanta, Philly, etc.) but even against teams led by A-list bigs (Chicago, Detroit, Clippers, Sacramento, Memphis), stats reveal strong defensive numbers. Against those teams, the 7’2″ behemoth has averaged over four blocks, almost double of his overall average. Per NBA.com, opponents have the lowest percentage from less than five feet when going against him.

The pacers have been so spry on defense this season that they are the only team in the league who’s whole starting five ranks in the top 20 defensive rating. In view of this, crowning one player above the others seems a little unfair, so let’s compare Hibbert’s on/off court defensive rating numbers to the other four starters (Basketball Ref)

The table above shows that Hibbert has the lowest marginal of points allowed per 100 possessions while he is on the floor as well as the highest marginal of points allowed while he is off. Small evidence, but in this case, that should be enough to get him the nod.

Deandre Jordan – Los Angeles Clippers.

Deandre Jordan’s defense usually goes unappreciated as the majority of his highlights feature chin-at-rim dunks and stink-face type posters. But even if that facet of his game is an afterthought on most people’s minds, his defensive efforts this season have aligned with those of a defensive player of the year candidate.

Some stats (Basketball Ref.):

1st in defensive rebounds;

2nd in total blocks;

2nd in defensive win shares;

3rd in blocks per game (2.5);

5th in block percentage;

7th in Win Shares (9.4).

Doc’s meticulous expectations on defense should get most of the credit for stimulating Jordan’s latent defensive abilities, which before this summer came to life sporadically and contributed to his reputation as a limited, one-dimensional center.

Andrew Bogut – Golden State Warriors.

Coming off an injury-plagued year, few expected Bogut’s impact on the Warriors to be this big.

His averages don’t stand out on the box score, but yet, thanks the dirty work he does on the defensive end, Golden State ranks third in two-point field goal percentage (Chicago, Indiana) and is in the top ten in opponents points per game. Those two statistics are great improvements from their numbers last season (Bogut played only 32 games in 2012-2013), where they ranked 19th in opponents points per game and finished out of the top ten in opponents two-point field goal percentage.

More stats:

5th among centers in opponents field goal percentage at rim;

8th in blocks per game (1.8) on 27 minutes per game (lowest minutes among highest blocking centers).

Honorable Mention:

Dwight Howard, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan, Serge Ibaka, Andre Iguodala, LeBron James, Patrick Beverley, Paul George.

Sixth Man of the Year

Taj Gibson – Chicago Bulls.

No other player off the bench has had more of a positive impact on their team than Gibson has as a fill-in to Boozer and Noah.

This year, the 6’9″ forward has averaged career-highs in both points and minutes as well as leading all bench players in rebounds and blocks per game.

His contribution on offense is an aspect that goes under the radar, but stats show that when he is on the court, Chicago’s offensive rating is 103.8, as opposed to the 99.3 rating when he is off. Also, teams tend to score more when he sits on the bench.

You always hear coaches say “it doesn’t matter who starts the game, what matters is who finishes games.”

If you were looking for a player who embodied that aphorism, Taj Gibson would be the last standing player left on your search.

Jamal Crawford – Los Angeles Clippers.

In 30 minutes a game, Crawford is the league’s top scorer off the bench at 18.7 and ranks seventh among all league shooting guards in that category. His efficiency numbers (17.6 PER) are also the highest since 2010, the year he won the award.

Crawford’s yearly campaign for this award has become a norm in the NBA, even though his eligibility this year is shaky as he’s become a de facto starter for the Clippers with Redick, Dudley, and even Paul, out with injuries.

Reggie Jackson – Oklahoma City Thunder.

Like Crawford, you could argue that he doesn’t fully qualify as he started on almost half of the games he has played in this year. But even since Russell Westbrook was integrated back in the starting line-up, Jackson’s numbers have not plummeted, averaging 11.0 points, 2.7 assists, 5.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals so far in March.

We’ll never know if his candidacy would be this strong hadn’t Westbrook gone down with injury, but that being said, Jackson’s play as a substitute to Westbrook have made his name worthy to be mentioned when listing the best young scoring guards.

Mo Williams – Portland Trailblazers.

His instant offense off the bench is a luxury that not many coaches have at their disposal, which is why Mo Williams as a sixth man almost looks like a crime.

If you’re talking about generating points and leading the second unit, few players do that better than Mo Williams who, as the starters rest,  provides almost the same offensive aggressiveness as a fill-in for Lillard and Matthews.

Regular season numbers: 9.4pts, 4.5apg, 2.1rpg, 24.5mpg.

Manu Ginobili – San Antonio Spurs.

At 36 years old, Ginobili’s role in Gregg Popovich’s rotation remains indisputable.

Averaging a mere 23 minutes a night, Manu is posting starter’s numbers in every statistical category.

2013-2014: 12.5ppg, 4.5apg, 3.0rpg, 20.44 PER.

His PER is the highest for bench players this season, third among all shooting guards behind only Dwyane Wade and James Harden, and in the top 30 overall (ESPN.com).

Honorable Mention:

Markieff Morris, Tyreke Evans, CJ Watson, Nick Young, Marco Belinelli, D.J. Augustin.

Most Improved Player

Lance Stephenson – Indiana Pacers.

Last year: 8.8ppg, 3.9rpg, 2.9apg, 46%FG, 33%3P, 65%FT.

This year: 14.0ppg, 7.2rpg, 5.0apg, 50%FG, 34%3P, 70%FT.

I wasn’t an advocate of his inclusion in the All-Star game, but nonetheless, he made my shortlist of honorable mentions. As an established starter for Indiana, Lance Stephenson finally lived up to the nickname “Born Ready”.

His myriad of skills extend to every category in the stat-sheet, making him the league leader in triple doubles as well as the best rebounding shooting guard.

Assuming he keeps his numbers up, Lance Stephenson will be the first guard, 23 years old or younger, since Magic Johnson in the 1982-1983 season to average at least 14 points, 5 assists, and 7 rebounds per game (Basketball reference).

Goran Dragic – Phoenix Suns.

Last year: 14.7ppg, 7.4apg, 3.1rpg, 1.6spg, 44% FG, 32%3P.

This year: 20.6ppg, 6.2apg, 3.4rpg, 1.4spg, 51%FG, 42%3P.

A big reason why Goran Dragic has made my list of candidates is Eric Bledsoe, whose lengthy absence favored his unexpected rise towards stardom.

Per Hoopstats.com, Dragic is the best two-point field goal scorer among all league point guards, recording an overall average of 51% from inside the arc. His efficiency has also been a big contributor to Phoenix’s notable season.

Almost every one would agree that he should have been an All-Star this year…no, scratch that. I haven’t come across a fan who thought his exclusion out of the West All-Stars was an injustice; an injustice that will rapidly turn into a breach unless he’s prized with an accolade.

Gerald Green – Phoenix Suns.

Last year: 7.0 ppg, 2.4rpg, 0.8apg, 37%FG, 31%3P, 80%FT.

This year: 15.6ppg, 3.5rpg, 1.6apg, 44%FG, 39%3P, 85%FT.

Very few NBA-related matters this season have shocked me more than Gerald Green’s scoring outputs. Just last year he was regarded a one-dimensional scrub who only lived for above-the-rim plays. Now, he’s a top priority of opposing teams scouting reports.

In my mind, he’ll always be a dunker first, then everything else; but that being said, more props should be given to his solid improvements in the fundamental parts of the game.

D.J. Augustin – Chicago Bulls.

Last year: 4.7ppg, 2.2apg, 1.2rpg, 35%FG, 35%3P, 84%FT.

This year: 12.1ppg, 4.5apg, 1.7rpg, 41%FG, 40%3P, 91%FT.

Like Gerald Green, he was a forgotten spare wheel while in Indiana, posting low digit numbers in every statistical line. After being waived by both Indiana and Toronto he took advantage of the opportunity Chicago gave him and resurrected his quasi dead career.

His season numbers are certainly an upgrade to last year, but in March so far, Augustin has averaged 19.8pts, 4.6asts, and 1.4rebs off the bench. Don’t ask me how, but he has gone from dud to stud overnight. Can you guys think of a batter story in the NBA this year?

Honorable Mention: 

John Wall, Patrick Beverley, Miles Plumlee, Reggie Jackson, Paul George, Kendall Marshall, Deandre Jordan, Kent Bazemore, Andre Drummond.

Rookie of the Year

Although some signs of promise can be detected intermittently, this year’s rookie class hasn’t been one to brag about, or even spend too much time arguing over when picking a recipient for the award.

Michael Carter Williams and Victor Oladipo are the names that always emerge in ROY conversations, with mention to Trey Burke, Tim Hardway Jr and Giannis Antetokounpo. Still, while all of the players in question had good individuals years, most would agree that the most memorable moment of the 2013 rookie class came during the Rising Stars Challenge game when New York Knicks rookie Tim Hardway Jr traded buckets with Cleveland Cavaliers sophomore Dion Waiters. That’s pretty bad.

Honorable Mention:

Kelly Olynyk, Cody Zeller, Ryan Kelly, Pero Antic, Mason Plumlee.

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