NBA Awards Predictions: Race Is on for the Association's Hardware

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIDecember 6, 2012

NBA Awards Predictions: Race Is on for the Association's Hardware

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    Just over a month into the 2012-13 NBA season, we have a better idea of which players and coaches lead the charge for the league’s major awards.

    Contending teams have separated themselves from the pack by getting off to hot starts. Other teams thought to be contenders, like the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets, have sputtered out of the gates. They’re all hovering around .500 records.

    The playoff picture in the NBA for 2013 remains a riddle, but the leaders for major awards (Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Valuable Player) are starting to surface.

    Note: All statistics used in this article are accurate as of Dec. 5, 2012 (prior to games played).

Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, PG, Portland Trail Blazers

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    This season’s crop of rookies has had a rough go of it for the most part so far. A combination of injuries, lack of playing time and stints in the NBA Development League has hindered the chances some rookies have of winning individual hardware at season’s end.

    In addition to that, much-hyped players like Bradley Beal and Jonas Valanciunas simply have not put up the numbers expected of them. Also, Anthony Davis, who was seen by most as the favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award as the No. 1 overall pick this year, has spent the majority of the season sidelined due to injury.

    Damian Lillard, meanwhile, has put up fantastic numbers.

    The 22-year-old rookie has had his share of ups and downs thus far. He’s shooting just 42.7 percent from the field and turning the ball over 3.3 times per game, which is more turnovers than Portland pariah Raymond Felton averaged last season (2.8).

    Even though there’s still some obvious room for improvement, Lillard is averaging 19.1 points, 6.3 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game. According to ESPN Stats and Information, before Portland's Dec. 3 contest, the only other NBA rookies to average at least 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 1.4 steals per game are Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson, Damon Stoudamire and Steve Francis. That’s certainly not bad company.

    In addition to that, as of Dec. 3, Lillard has had five games with at least 20 points and nine assists, the most such games in the entire NBA, according to ESPN Stats and Information.

    As a Lillard fantasy owner, I’d like to see him cut down on those 6-for-21 or 2-for-13 shooting nights. But as with all rookies, there are sure to be some growing pains.

    Anyway, with Davis sidelined due to injury, Lillard has taken command as the early front-runner for Rookie of the Year. He appears poised to keep a hold on that position unless another rookie really steps it up.

    Other Candidates: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, Dion Waiters, Kyle Singler (who would have thought that Singler would be Detroit’s best rookie so far over Andre Drummond?)

Coach of the Year: Mike Woodson, New York Knicks

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    After one month of the NBA season last year, the New York Knicks had a 7-11 record, which included a six-game losing streak.

    So far this season, under head coach Mike Woodson, the Knicks are undefeated at Madison Square Garden (7-0), have an 8-1 record in their conference and lead the Eastern Conference overall with a 12-4 record.

    Considering that Amar’e Stoudemire has been sidelined all season due to injury (shocker) and the Knicks have a plethora of fresh faces after a busy offseason of moves, it’s a testament to Woodson’s coaching ability that this team holds a first-place record.

    As if that isn’t impressive enough, Woodson has Carmelo Anthony playing at a level which has created considerable MVP buzz. However, as friend and assistant NBA editor Ethan Norof pointed out via Twitter, Melo is putting up extremely similar numbers compared to last season (when he was labeled a bad teammate who can’t lead a team).

    After an undefeated start through six games, the Knicks have come back down to earth a bit. They’re 6-4 in their last 10 games, but three of the four losses came on the end of a back-to-back. Winning games in consecutive days at the pro level is no easy task, so reading too far into the Knicks’ four losses isn’t wise.

    It will be interesting to see how team chemistry is changed when Stoudemire returns from injury, but Woodson has turned around the Knicks’ losing culture and has his guys playing great basketball.

    Other Candidates: Doug Collins, Avery Johnson, Mike Dunlap, Gregg Popovich

Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford, SG, Los Angeles Clippers

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    When older athletes suddenly start to play better than or as well as they have during their younger years, the common analogy is that said player found the Fountain of Youth. Considering that even the fictional Nathan Drake hasn’t found it yet, let’s just say that Jamal Crawford has been rejuvenated in Los Angeles.

    Following the 2008 season with the New York Knicks, Crawford’s points-per-game numbers experienced a steady decline for four consecutive seasons. As a 32-year-old free agent coming off his worst statistical season since his rookie year, it didn’t appear as if Crawford had much to offer NBA teams in 2012.

    The Los Angeles Clippers, looking to improve their bench this past offseason, signed Crawford to a four-year, $25 million contract. At the time, the deal seemed like a big mistake for the Clippers.

    Even so, Crawford has proven skeptics wrong early and often so far this year. He’s averaging 17.6 points per game in just 28.9 minutes per game, while shooting 44.5 percent from the field and 39.8 percent from three-point range.

    In fact, after 17 games off the bench so far this season, Crawford is leading all Clippers players in scoring.

    Crawford has proven to be one of the best acquisitions of the 2012 offseason. He’s the front-runner for the Sixth Man of the Year award.

    Other Candidates: Carl Landry, Kevin Martin, J.R. Smith, Ben Gordon

Defensive Player of the Year: Tim Duncan, PF/C, San Antonio Spurs

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    If voting for Defensive Player of the Year has taught us anything, it’s that post players with impressive totals in blocks and rebounds hold a commanding edge. Since 1989, the only guards to win the award have been Gary Payton in 1996 and Ron Artest (Metta World Peace) in 2004, even though the latter is more of a small forward.

    So far this season, no one player has separated himself from the pack to be the favorite for the award.

    The Indiana Pacers have been the best defensive team so far, leading in opponent points per game, opponent field-goal percentage and opponent three-point percentage, but no single player on their roster has set himself apart as the major reason for that.

    An argument could be made for Roy Hibbert and his 3.1 blocks per game, but he’s also averaging just 8.4 rebounds alongside a career-high 3.6 personal fouls per game.

    Right now, the only two players in the top 10 in rebounds and blocks per game are Tim Duncan and Dwight Howard. As a result, I decided to have a faceoff between the two players to decide who should have the best shot at the award at season’s end.

    Although Duncan is averaging fewer total rebounds than Howard, Duncan averages more defensive rebounds than the Lakers center. Howard ranks fourth in the NBA in blocks per game (2.72), while Duncan ranks sixth (2.41).

    Both players are pretty much deadlocked as far as individual defense is concerned, but the San Antonio Spurs are better in nearly every defensive category when compared with the Lakers. As a result, Duncan has the early edge in a race that is completely wide open.

    Other Candidates: Dwight Howard, Serge Ibaka, Tyson Chandler, LeBron James

Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, SF, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Another key thing that NBA award voting has taught us over the years is that voters often get bored. They hate voting for the same player year after year after year without any variety.

    Dwight Howard had won three consecutive Defensive Player of the Year awards before Tyson Chandler won the award last season. Chandler had a great case to win by turning around the New York Knicks’ defensive culture, but he wasn’t an overwhelming favorite over Howard.

    Steve Nash won the MVP award in 2005 and 2006 but was beat out in 2007 by Dirk Nowitzki, even though Nash had arguably his best season over that three-year span in 2007.

    The MVP award this season is likely a two-man race. Will LeBron James win his fourth MVP award in a five-year span, or will the voters look to add some variety just for the sake of doing so?

    Well, although James is likely still the favorite to win the award, Kevin Durant is going to make it difficult for MVP voters.

    James’ supporting cast in Miami has been improved with another year of continuity and additions, namely Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis. Durant, meanwhile, has had to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder clicking on all cylinders without last season’s Sixth Man of the Year award winner, James Harden, who was traded to Houston before the start of the season.

    As expected, these two superstars have very similar numbers so far.

    Durant: 26.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game.

    James: 24.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game.

    Both players are more than deserving of an MVP award, so it may come down to which team has a better record at season’s end.

    Other Candidates: LeBron James, Chris Paul, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony