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NBA Awards Race: Favorites to Take Home the Hardware Heading into the New Year

Ben LeibowitzCorrespondent IIIDecember 27, 2012

NBA Awards Race: Favorites to Take Home the Hardware Heading into the New Year

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    With the help of a five-game marathon of NBA action on Christmas day, featuring several of the league’s most talented teams, excitement surrounding the Association is mounting.

    Some of the league’s biggest stars performed at an extremely high level on the national stage, many of them making a case to take home some hardware at season’s end.

    The latest installment of the NBA awards race will break down who the favorites are for each major award as we approach 2013 (take that, doomsday aficionados).

    While some awards races have definitive favorites as December comes to a close, other races for NBA hardware are neck-and-neck.

    So, who has made the best case for each of the seven major NBA awards? Read on to find out.

     

    Note: All statistics in this article are accurate as of December 26, 2012.

Most Improved Player: Omer Asik, Houston Rockets

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    Omer Asik was already having a breakout season for the Houston Rockets prior to his masterful Christmas day performance. As a result, it should come as no surprise that he’s launched himself into the No. 1 spot for Most Improved Player.

    Asik has embraced his new role as a full-time starter extremely well. He’s in the top five in the league in rebounding, top 30 in blocked shots and has been better than advertised on the offensive end (shooting 50.9 percent from the field).

    The native of Turkey has always been an honorable mention candidate for this award, but his performance on Dec. 25 has set him apart, for now. 

    Asik had arguably the best game of his entire career on Christmas. Playing on the NBA’s biggest stage (excluding the playoffs), and facing off against his former team, the 26-year-old finished with 20 points on 69.2 percent shooting from the field, 18 rebounds and three blocked shots.

    So far this season, the big man has established himself not only as a breakout performer, but as one of the best centers in the league. 

     

    Previous Favorite: Jrue Holiday

    Other Worthy Candidates: Anderson Varejao, Kemba Walker, Evan Turner, Greivis Vasquez

Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard is only getting better as the season wears on. There have been some growing pains, which are to be expected for an NBA rookie, but Lillard’s output has been overwhelmingly positive.

    The Weber State product is averaging 8.8 assists per game in his past four contests, over two more than his season average (which is also nothing to sneeze at). In addition, he’s scored 25 points or more on four separate occasions in 2012, helping him to a stellar 18.6 points per game average. 

    It’s truly a shame that Anthony Davis has missed 13 games due to injury this season. He would have made the Rookie of the Year conversation much more interesting to this point if he had stayed healthy.

    Davis has played well, but the New Orleans Hornets are winless in eight games since his return. Lillard, meanwhile, has led the Trail Blazers to a five-game win streak prior to their Dec. 23 loss against Sacramento in the second game of a back-to-back.

    The Rookie of the Year award is Lillard’s award to lose at this point. Don’t be surprised if Davis closes the gap in the coming months, but he’s fighting an uphill battle.

     

    Previous Favorite: Damian Lillard

    Other Worthy Candidates: Anthony Davis, Alexey Shved, Dion Waiters, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist

Coach of the Year: Kevin McHale, Houston Rockets

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    Kevin McHale has shown amazing resilience and strength this season following the death of his daughter. He has led the Rockets to a 16-12 record thus far, which is good for a six seed in the Western Conference. 

    Though the trio of James Harden, Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin have starred for the Rockets thus far, McHale has utilized everybody on his roster to the best of his ability. 

    Chandler Parsons (a second-round pick in the 2011 draft), Marcus Morris (who spent most of last season in the D-League) and Toney Douglas (who was behind Mike Bibby’s corpse on the Knicks' depth chart last season) have all made significant contributions. 

    Believe it or not, McHale's motley crew is the second-best scoring team in the league behind only the Oklahoma City Thunder, averaging 104.8 points per game.

    You could fill a merry-go-round with worthy coaches for Coach of the Year honors after two months of play. There are plenty of coaches proving their worth and elevating the play of their respective squads.

    For now, though, McHale is the favorite—and not just a sentimental one. 

     

    Previous Favorite: Mike Woodson

    Other Worthy Candidates: Mark Jackson, Scott Brooks, Lionel Hollins, Tom Thibodeau

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

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    Is it possible that Billy Crystal holds the title for best broadcasting call of the season after Jamal Crawford’s Christmas day crossover? The “Shabbat Shalom” reference is, at the least, a close second to Craig Ackerman's call proclaiming that “The Lakers have just pooped their big-boy pants!”

    Shifting back to Crawford, the sixth man extraordinaire got off to a blistering hot start for the Clippers, averaging over 20 points per game through the season's first two weeks. He sputtered for a five-game stretch starting Dec. 12 against the Charlotte Bobcats, but has since regained his old form, dropping 22 points in back-to-back contests.

    The former Sixth Man of the Year award winner has created a dynamic culture among the Clippers’ second unit, aptly nicknamed “A Tribe Called Bench.”

    I’m not opposed to changing the award to Sixth Men of the Year so that the entire Clips bench receives credit. As the leading man of the second unit, however, Crawford deserves the award at this juncture.

    The flashy combo guard is averaging 16.5 points off the bench for the league’s best team. Someone else will really have to step up to take his place.

     

    Previous Favorite: Kevin Martin

    Other Worthy Candidates: J.R. Smith, Carl Landry, J.J. Redick, Ramon Sessions

Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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    I’ve said on multiple occasions that the race for the 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year award is wide open. No one player has established himself as the odds-on favorite, and there are more than a few contenders. 

    Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Maxwell Ogden provided a breakdown for the award in a recent article. He makes a strong case for Joakim Noah on the basis that the Bulls’ points allowed per 48 minutes when Noah is on the floor (88.9) is a full 10 points lower than when Noah is on the bench (98.9).

    Additionally, Noah is averaging 2.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per game, wreaking havoc on the defensive end by forcing turnovers. 

    The only statistic that may be working against Noah is rebounding. Yes, Noah is among the league leaders in rebounds per game, averaging 10.6 per contest. However, Noah gets only 6.9 of those rebounds on the defensive end of the floor.

    Compared to Tim Duncan (8.4 defensive rebounds per game) and Dwight Howard (8.2 defensive rebounds per game), grabbing 6.9 on the defensive end doesn’t make the best case for DPOY.

    Nonetheless, Noah’s impact on Chicago's defense when he’s on the court versus when he’s off makes a pretty convincing argument all on its own. His 3.5 steals plus blocks is similarly impressive. 

     

    Previous Favorite: Tim Duncan

    Other Worthy Candidates: Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert, Tony Allen, LeBron James

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    In my two previous articles tracking favorites for NBA awards, I had the same player winning MVP.

    That man was Kevin Durant.

    On Christmas day, NBA fans were treated to the showdown between KD and LeBron James. Not only was the matchup a duel between two of the league’s best players, but it was also an NBA Finals rematch.

    At this point in the season, the matchup between these two rivals provided some insight as to who should be the favorite for the Most Valuable Player award at season’s end. Although I believe Durant was the favorite heading in to Christmas Day, LBJ made a statement—and a loud one, at that. 

    Not only did the Miami Heat come out with the victory, but James recorded 29 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. In comparison, Durant ended up with 33 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

    Durant is having arguably his best NBA season, but James simply brings too much to the table on a nightly basis. He scores (25.6 points per game), sets up his teammates (6.9 assists per game), cleans up on the glass (8.7 rebounds per game), defends (2.3 steals plus blocks per game) and is notching career highs from the field (54.2 percent) and the three-point line (42.9 percent).

    Two months into the season, Durant has been amazing, but James has been even better.

     

    Previous Favorite: Kevin Durant

    Noteworthy: Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant

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