With the NBA season in full swing, the race for the Association's hardware is heating up, and there are plenty of close races to watch carefully.
Whether award races include rookies carving their way into the league, coaches trying to get the most out of their players or the best NBA talents looking for an MVP award, there are compelling stories for each.
A lot can change between today and the end of the season, but we have a relatively clear idea of who the favorites are for the major NBA awards.
Note: All statistics in this article are accurate as of Dec. 19, 2012 (prior to games played).
The maturation process we’ve seen from Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76ers (who is still just 22 years old) is nothing short of impressive.
Holiday’s numbers this season are up nearly across the board. He’s developed into a true floor general for Philly under head coach Doug Collins, even with the absence of a true star around him.
As a jilted fantasy basketball owner (I had Holiday on my team last season), seeing the breakout year from the young star is both frustrating and surprising. With that said, my disappointment in Holiday last season has become the joy of new fantasy owners this season. The season-to-season shift has been a night-and-day difference.
Compared to Holiday’s career numbers: 12.5 points, 5.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game, his numbers this season are all the more impressive: 18.4 points, 8.9 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
Holiday has been a force on both ends of the court this season, and his improvement from last season is truly dramatic. His only negative is a high turnover rate (3.8 turnovers per contest), but he’s certainly deserving of the Most Improved Player Award thus far.
Making a Case
The big Brazilian is leading the league in rebounds (14.4 per game, a career high) in addition to a career high of 14.1 points per game.
He's been outstanding for the lowly Cleveland Cavaliers thus far, but he’s shooting just 47.8 percent from the field as a big man, one of the worst marks of his career. He’s also been a poor shot-blocker, averaging 0.6 blocks per game.
Varejao has always been a solid hustle player. His numbers this year have shown big improvements, but it’s not entirely unexpected.
Asik has embraced the role of starting center in Houston and is posting career highs in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and free-throw percentage.
However, while Asik has been better than expected offensively, he’s still not a dynamic talent on that end. He’s averaging 2.8 turnovers per game as a center and his numbers could simply be attributed to his minutes, which have nearly doubled this season compared to last season in Chicago.
Davis is having a career season in just about every regard this year. He transitioned to a full-time starter this season and was given the opportunity to lead with Dwight Howard gone.
He’s worthy, but he may get overshadowed by other candidates.
Damian Lillard has had his ups and downs, but he’s been the most consistent rookie by far. Whenever Lillard starts to experience growing pains, he bounces back by having a great game.
In his last two games, the rookie has truly impressed. Lillard scored a career-high 29 points to go with seven rebounds and six assists in a win against the San Antonio Spurs. He followed that up by burying a game-winner against New Orleans to extend Portland’s win streak to three.
Lillard is averaging 18.8 points, 6.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds per game so far. For the sake of comparison, Derrick Rose averaged 16.8 points, 6.3 assists and 3.9 rebounds per game his rookie season.
Making a Case
Davis has been great in limited time this season, but injury woes have really hurt his chances to win the award. He sports a fantastic PER of 23.46, but he needs to have a solid second half of the season if he hopes to overtake Lillard.
MKG got off to a hot start, which certainly contributed to the Charlotte Bobcats’ early success. However, the Bobcats are back to their old losing ways, and Kidd-Gilchrist’s numbers have fallen off.
He’s clinging to Rookie of the Year contention, but Alexey Shved and Dion Waiters are in the hunt.
Even with the absence of Amar’e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert, the New York Knicks are 19-6, leading all Eastern Conference teams. They have an NBA-best 11-1 record at home and a 13-2 record against Eastern Conference opponents.
Since Mike Woodson took over for Mike D’Antoni in New York, the Knicks have proven to be a drastically different ballclub. Woodson has the Knicks playing great basketball, and they actually look like serious contenders.
Carmelo Anthony is playing at an MVP-caliber level, and even players who appeared washed up (Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton and Rasheed Wallace) have been big-time contributors.
Woodson has created a winning culture with great team chemistry. If that continues, the Knicks will be a major threat in the playoffs.
Making a Case
It’s a shame that Scott Brooks doesn’t get more love. He’s overshadowed by the two superstars in OKC, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
Brooks has the Thunder and their superstars playing better and better each year. Even with the loss of James Harden, Brooks has a new rotation with Kevin Martin that has worked incredibly well.
Brooks needs strong Coach of the Year consideration.
Last season was a struggle for Mark Jackson and the Golden State Warriors. A combination of injuries, changes to the roster and no training camp thanks to the lockout was detrimental.
In just his second year of coaching, Jackson’s Warriors are 17-8 and have an impressive 10-5 record away from home.
Understandably, the Chicago Bulls struggled early without their MVP and floor general Derrick Rose. However, the Bulls have a 7-3 record in their past 10 games.
They stand at 14-10, good enough for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Thibodeau is a major reason why.
Mere weeks ago, Jamal Crawford was the runaway favorite for the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award. However, now that Crawford’s fallen into a bit of a scoring lull, his spot at the top is no longer safe.
Insert Kevin Martin of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite having the added pressure of taking over the spot of last season’s Sixth Man of the Year, James Harden, Martin has played great for arguably the league's best team.
In 24 games off the bench so far this season, Martin is averaging 16.1 points per game while shooting 47.3 percent from the field and an absurd 47.4 percent from beyond the arc (which is the third-best mark in the league behind O.J. Mayo and Matt Bonner).
Martin has an 18.99 PER so far this season and is filling in perfectly for the departed James Harden.
Making a Case
Crawford has been among the favorites for the award since the season started. He has helped solidify a good second unit for the Los Angeles Clippers, which has been nicknamed “A Tribe Called Bench” (via Arash Markazi of ESPN).
He has been great, but his torrid streak to start the season wasn’t sustainable. Crawford has come back down to earth recently.
Despite filling a bench role primarily, Redick is averaging 14.1 points and five assists per game for the Orlando Magic.
He’s scoring efficiently while also getting teammates involved more than he has in the past. His 35.1 percent shooting clip from downtown is a career low, however.
Smith is averaging 14.2 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists off the bench for the Eastern Conference-leading New York Knicks.
Although he’s been able to knock down shots off the bench for New York, he’s shooting just 39.7 percent from the field. That is only better than teammates Rasheed Wallace and Marcus Camby.
No one player has stood out dramatically for Defensive Player of the Year honors this season. At 36 years old, however, Tim Duncan has made a statement with his fantastic play.
Despite his age, Duncan is playing his best basketball in quite some time. The San Antonio Spurs are a solid defensive team once again, and that starts with the play of the best player the franchise has ever seen.
Duncan ranks third overall in the NBA in defensive rebounds per game (if you include Kevin Love, who has been injured for most of the season). In addition to that, he ranks fifth in the NBA in blocks per game.
The only other NBA player to rank within the top five in both of those categories is Dwight Howard. A case could be made for Howard, but the Los Angeles Lakers have been an abysmal defensive team thus far.
As one of the most fundamentally sound defensive players in the game today, it’s surprising that Duncan has never won a Defensive Player of the Year Award. Perhaps 2012-13 will be his season to finally do so.
Making a Case
As stated above, Howard is the only other NBA player who ranks in the top five in defensive rebounding and blocks. However, the Lakers will have to show drastic improvements on the defensive end of the floor for Howard to get consideration.
Last year’s DPOY winner hasn’t set himself apart with an overwhelming amount of blocks or rebounds. However, the Knicks are once again one of the league’s best defensive teams, and their anchor is Chandler.
The Memphis Grizzlies are currently the NBA’s best defensive team in terms of opponent points allowed (90 per game). Allen is arguably the Grizzlies’ best perimeter defender, and he always gets saddled with the toughest assignments.
He was an All-Defensive first-team member last season, but his teammate Mike Conley may steal some votes.
Without Paul, the Los Angeles Clippers would be lost. Without Anthony, the Knicks would lack scoring punch and would rely even more heavily on their aging roster. It is hard to even think how bad the Lakers would be without Bryant.
In recent years, however, the MVP has been a two-man race between James and Durant. Voters certainly can’t go wrong with either guy, but Durant’s Thunder team is 21-4. The Miami Heat, meanwhile, stand at 16-6 (with an ugly loss to Washington on their resume).
Between the two superstars, James is without question the better passer who gets his teammates involved as much as possible. However, Durant has proven to be a dynamite scorer.
KD’s shooting percentages this year have been up across the board. He’s shooting 51.4 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line (all career highs).
There are plenty of games left to be played, but it’s hard to argue that Durant hasn’t proven himself to be among the most valuable players in the league to this point.
Making a Case
Prior to Paul’s arrival in Los Angeles, the Clippers finished with a 32-50 record. In his first year with the team last season, the Clips finished 40-26 and made the playoffs.
So far this season, the Clippers are 19-6 and have a current winning streak of 11 games. He has an easy case for being most valuable.
It’s very difficult to argue that James isn’t the league’s best overall player. He’s shooting for his fourth career MVP award this season, but don’t be surprised if voters get bored and mix things up (a la Dirk Nowitzki winning following back-to-back wins for Steve Nash).
Anthony is leading the best team in the Eastern Conference without Amar’e Stoudemire. The Knicks have also defeated the Heat twice this season, so that holds some weight.
Bryant is having arguably the best season of his entire career at 34 years old. It’s astounding just how efficient Bryant has been on the offensive end of the court for the Lakers so far.
However, the Lakers are 12-14 despite Bryant’s play. The only Western Conference teams that are worse from a record standpoint are the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Hornets.