Dark-Horse Contenders for Every Major NBA Award
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Awards season is still a ways away, but that doesn't mean that it's too early to identify a few of the surprise dark horses for this year's set of NBA awards.
At this point in the season, we have a pretty firm grasp on who the favorites are for each award. LeBron James for MVP, Damian Lillard for Rookie of the Year—we've heard the names quite a few times by now.
What's much more interesting are the names that we haven't heard quite so much. These are the guys who aren't being talked about much now but who very well could end up taking home the hardware after a late-season push.
Let's break it all down.
All stats accurate as of Jan. 2, 2013.
Coach of the Year: Vinny Del Negro
As strange as it sounds, Vinny Del Negro is a surprise candidate for Coach of the Year.
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Believe it or not, Vinny Del Negro has a decent shot at winning a coaching award.
The Coach of the Year Award is generally doled out to a coach whose team makes the jump from the lottery to the playoffs, so the Golden State Warriors' Mark Jackson is the prohibitive favorite right now. But Del Negro has been making his own push for the award over the past month.
He's taken a lot of criticism over the years, but you have to give Del Negro some credit. A 17-game winning streak doesn't happen by accident. He's done a heck of a job with the Los Angeles Clippers this season.
He seems to have a much better sense of his rotations this year. More importantly, all of his players seem to love playing under him.
Ronny Turiaf recently talked to the Los Angeles Times' Lisa Dillman about the way Del Negro talks to him about his family rather than just about basketball, saying:
I was like, “Whoa, that's different.” In the back of my mind, my subconscious was telling me, “I think you made the right choice to go to a place where the coach actually cares about his players."
Getting your players to buy in and play hard is very important, and Del Negro's done that perfectly. But beyond that, he's also done a fantastic job managing all of the egos on a veteran team.
When asked about Del Negro's role in the Clippers' success this season, Jamal Crawford told the Orange County Register's Dan Woike:
Everybody here has a decent body of work in some way shape or form. They've proven something somewhere in the NBA. With that is a confidence that a player has, and there are egos involved. For him to be able to manage that and put people in the right positions and use people to their strengths, he deserves a lot of credit.
Del Negro's players love him, the Clippers are sitting in second place in the Western Conference and they're coming off of a franchise-best win streak. Watch out, Mark Jackson.
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry
Stephen Curry is finally over his ankle injuries and playing like one of the best point guards in the league.
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It's hard to imagine any player in the league breaking the MVP quintet of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. It's almost inevitable that one of those guys wins it.
But the fact that Stephen Curry at least has to be mentioned as an MVP candidate is a surprise in and of itself.
Curry's finally gotten over his nagging ankle injuries and is back to playing ball. The results have been good to say the least.
Curry's averaging 20 points, 6.5 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game, all while adjusting to his new role as both primary scorer and facilitator for the Golden State Warriors.
The Dubs are 21-10 right now, good for fifth in the Western Conference. Their vastly improved defense deserves tons of credit for their success, but so too does Curry for the way that he's seamlessly slipped into that hybrid scorer/playmaker role.
He's passing better than ever before, hitting threes at a near 45-percent clip (fifth in the league), understands when to take over games, and he's already had a few MVP-caliber moments. What more can you ask for?
Most Valuable Player: Tim Duncan
Tim Duncan's been playing like he's ten years younger.
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Here are three stat lines for you:
22.6 PPG, 11.3 RPG, 3.3 APG, 2.2 BPG, 50.8 percent shooting
21.3 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 3.6 APG, 2.7 BPG, 51.3 percent shooting
21.1 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 3.0 APG, 3.0 BPG, 50.8 percent shooting
The first two lines are Tim Duncan's per-36 minute stats from 2001-02 and 2002-03—his two MVP years. The third line is his per-36 minute stats from this year (per Basketball Reference).
This is coming from a guy who's 36 years old and looked like he was losing multiple steps last year. Unbelievable.
San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich wants to keep Duncan fresh for the playoffs, so Duncan's only getting 30 minutes a game. But that's really the only knock on his MVP candidacy.
The Spurs have one of the best records in the league, and Duncan's essentially the same incredible player that he's always been.
Despite being the best power forward ever, Duncan seems to be eternally overlooked and underrated.
It's going to be pretty difficult to take the MVP away from guys like LeBron James or Kevin Durant. But if Duncan keeps on playing like this, he might have a legitimate shot at doing just that.
Defensive Player of the Year: Larry Sanders
Larry Sanders has been an absolute shot-blocking machine this season.
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Larry Sanders blocks shots. In fact, Larry Sanders blocks lots of shots. And as Serge Ibaka proved by finishing second in last year's Defensive Player of the Year voting, that's all it really takes to get votes.
Sanders swats three shots per game (tied with Ibaka for tops in the league), but he also only averages 25 minutes per game to Ibaka's 32.
Sanders is blocking an absurd 4.3 shots per 36 minutes, putting him in a class of his own when it comes to rejecting players (per Basketball Reference).
But that doesn't mean that he's just a one-trick pony. In fact, Synergy Sports Technology rates him as the fifth-best overall defender in the league. Sanders allows just 0.64 points per possession and has held his opponents to 33.1 percent shooting overall.
Factor in the way he's hit the glass this season (he snags 27.5 percent of all available defensive rebounds), and you're looking at some great DPOY credentials.
Bucksketball.com's Jeremy Schmidt described Sanders' year by simply saying:
It’s almost like the Bucks were able to trade Andrew Bogut, but keep his spirit and transfer it to Sanders.
If Sanders played for a big-market team like the Los Angeles Lakers or the New York Knicks, he would get much more attention. But because he plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, he's flown a little bit under the radar.
Still, with a burgeoning reputation as an elite defensive player and the stats to back it up, Sanders is emerging as a serious dark-horse candidate.
Rookie of the Year: Andre Drummond
Andre Drummond hasn't been near the project he was made out to be.
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It might seem strange for a ninth overall pick to be considered a surprise candidate for Rookie of the Year, but Andre Drummond is a special case.
Drummond was bursting with potential coming out of the University of Connecticut, but that was pretty much all that he had. Honestly, he was a mess on the basketball court.
Drummond was drafted as a project big man, but he's been one of Detroit's best players.
What's really impeding Drummond from being a bigger name in the ROY mix is his minutes. For whatever reason, he sees the court less than 20 minutes a game, leading to relatively modest averages (seven points, seven rebounds and a block and a half per game).
But if you look at his stats per 36 minutes, Drummond averages a much more impressive 13 points, 13 rebounds (including over five offensive) and 2.8 blocks per game (per Basketball Reference).
Damian Lillard has a pretty firm lead in the standings, but Drummond's growing on a daily basis. If he starts seeing the floor more, he'll make a serious Rookie of the Year push.
Sixth Man of the Year: Carl Landry
Carl Landry has been a revelation off the bench for the Warriors.
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Going into this season, who would have guessed that Carl Landry would act as the Golden State Warriors' defensive presence down low? Moreover, who on earth would have guessed that it would work?
Kevin Martin and Jamal Crawford get all the press, but Landry has arguably been more important to his team's success thus far in the season.
Landry's numbers (12.5 points and seven rebounds per game) are impressive in their own right, especially on a team in which he's often the fourth option offensively. But as mentioned above, it's his presence in the paint and the steadying effect that he's had on the Warriors that truly deserves praise.
In essence, Landry is soaking up a lot of the minutes that Andrew Bogut would have had if he wasn't injured.
The Warriors, generally considered an offense-only team, have the 10th-best defense in the league this season, allowing just 104 points per 100 possessions (per Basketball Reference).
Offensively, Landry opens things up for his frontcourt mate David Lee (who's having a career year) and is sometimes even the Warriors' go-to guy in crunch time.
Head coach Mark Jackson told the San Francisco Chronicle's Rusty Simmons:
If you don't have Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, if you don't have that guy to go get you a bucket or make you a play every single night, you've got to find a way to stop the bleeding. Carl has been that guy for us. When I watch him, it's hard for me to believe that he was on the market.
Luckily for the Warriors, he was available in the offseason.
Most Improved Player: Greivis Vasquez
Greivis Vasquez has stepped up his playmaking to an impressive degree.
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The New Orleans Hornets aren't having the best season, but it does at least look like they've found their point guard of the future.
Vasquez's scoring has jumped from 8.9 to 13.6 points per game, with his rebounding improving from 2.6 to 4.5 boards per game. But the most noticeable jump in Vasquez's game has been his playmaking.
Greivis is averaging 8.8 assists per game, fourth in the league. Even more impressive is his assist rate (the percentage of field goals that he assisted while on the floor), which is a whopping 45.9 percent (per Basketball Reference). Only Rajon Rondo has a higher assist rate than Vasquez.
There are still some noticeable flaws in Vasquez's game—he turns the ball over far too much, for one— but he's truly worlds better than he was last season.
Perhaps the most ringing endorsement for Vasquez comes from the Los Angeles Clippers' Chris Paul. According to Jimmy Smith of NOLA.com, when the Hornets upset the Clippers in late November, Paul walked away from the game saying:
That Greivis Vasquez, he's going to be an All-Star.
Pretty high praise from the undisputed best point guard in the world.
Executive of the Year: Danny Ferry
Danny Ferry's decision to build around Al Horford has thus far been a huge success.
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Just a few months ago, it looked like this award was destined to fall into the hands of Los Angeles Lakers' general manager Mitch Kupchak.
But with the Lakers floundering, there's a chance that the award actually goes elsewhere. And surprisingly, the most logical candidate has to be Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry.
Ferry wisely chose to tear apart the perennially fourth- and fifth-seeded Hawks over the offseason, shipping the disappointing Marvin Williams off to Utah and somehow getting the Brooklyn Nets to take on Joe Johnson's albatross of a contract.
Just the sheer amount of cap flexibility that those two moves generated would have made for a great offseason. But the real reason that Ferry is a genuine contender is that the Hawks haven't missed a beat since the trades.
The team currently sits at 20-10, third overall in the Eastern Conference and just two games back from the top seed. The decision to build the team around Al Horford rather than Joe Johnson has worked splendidly, and offseason additions Lou Williams and Kyle Korver have been solid contributors.
Ferry made financially-based decisions geared toward the future that somehow led to a more competitive team in the present. That's about as impressive as it gets for an executive.