NBA Awards Race: Favorites for Every Major Award Heading into 2013

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 3, 2013

NBA Awards Race: Favorites for Every Major Award Heading into 2013

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    As the NBA season heads into 2013, with the All-Star Game and playoffs on the horizon, races for major NBA awards continue to heat up.

    Most major awards races are still too close to call at this point. Many worthy candidates are making a case for themselves on a nightly basis with their stellar play, while numerous coaches continue to prove their worth on the sidelines.

    For the most part, voters can’t go wrong with any of the stronger candidates for the NBA's various awards. There are a few favorites at this juncture, but they shouldn’t feel free to relax, as there will be plenty of other players looking to attain the award by season’s end.

    Note: All statistics in this article are accurate as of Jan. 2, 2013.

Most Improved Player: Omer Asik, Houston Rockets

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    A plethora of NBA players are having breakout performances worthy of the Most Improved Player award. Nevertheless, it’s fair to say that the two players with the best resume for the award so far are Omer Asik of the Houston Rockets and Jrue Holiday of the Philadelphia 76ers.

    Both Holiday and Asik are having career seasons, helping to lead underdog teams to respectable records and proving that they belong among the NBA’s elite with their consistent play.

    What sets Asik apart, however, is the fact that he’s starting and playing big minutes for the first time in his NBA career. By contrast, Holiday started 51 of 73 games during his rookie season, all 82 games his sophomore season and 65 games last season, so he’s been in a position to succeed before.

    Also, despite Holiday's success so far this season, he's leading the entire league in turnovers, averaging 3.7 per game. The young point guard has been great in other areas, but his turnovers have been a major area for concern.

    It’s nice to see Holiday embrace his great potential this season, but it’s more impressive that Asik has done the same thing in Houston in his first opportunity as an NBA starter (while having to justify a big contract, no less).

    Again, both of these stars are worthy of Most Improved Player honors. Asik grabbed 17 rebounds in a blowout against the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 31 and followed that effort up with 21 points and eight rebounds in a win against the New Orleans Hornets.

    Holiday notched 26 points and 10 assists in a big win against the Los Angeles Lakers on New Year’s Day and followed it up with a triple-double in a tough road loss to the Phoenix Suns.

    It will be interesting to see whether Asik’s body will hold up down the stretch given the amount of minutes he’s been playing for the Rockets this season. If he runs out of gas, Holiday will have the advantage.

    Previous Favorite: Omer Asik

    In the hunt: Jrue Holiday, Kemba Walker, J.J. Hickson, Greivis Vasquez

Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

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    Damian Lillard was my pick to win the Rookie of the Year award prior to the 2012-13 season, and he appears to be running away with the award as we enter 2013.

    Thanks in part to the injury sustained by Anthony Davis and mostly due to Lillard’s impressive consistency, Portland’s point guard of the future is the unquestioned favorite for ROY honors.

    So far he’s averaging 18.4 points, 6.4 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game. In addition, despite being a rookie, Lillard is averaging fewer turnovers per game (3.1) than veterans like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant.

    Unless Anthony Davis has a fantastic second half of the season, it appears as if Lillard will continue to cruise to the Rookie of the Year award.

    Previous Favorite: Damian Lillard

    In the hunt: Anthony Davis, Alexey Shved, Dion Waiters

Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors

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    In just his second year coaching in the NBA (the first with a normal schedule not marred by a tedious lockout), Mark Jackson has the Golden State Warriors playing great basketball while jumping out to a 22-10 record.

    Prior to the 2012-13 season, the Warriors were looked at as a surprise team in the Western Conference. With the additions of Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, Golden State appeared to be improved enough on paper to compete for a playoff spot.

    Miraculously, despite the fact that Bogut has played in just four games due to injury (go figure) and that Barnes has posted lackluster numbers, the Warriors are 12 games over .500. Jackson deserves the bulk of the credit for their success.

    What’s more impressive about the Warriors' early-season run is their success both at home (11-4) and on the road (11-6). What's more, the Warriors rank seventh in the league in scoring, eighth in assists per game and second in rebounds per game (without Bogut).

    Addition by subtraction trades—in this case, swapping Monta Ellis for the injured Bogut—rarely work out. Unless, of course, you have the right man coaching. Golden State appears to have that man in Jackson.

    Previous Favorite: Kevin McHale

    In the hunt: Kevin McHale, Mike Woodson, Scott Brooks, Vinny Del Negro, Lionel Hollins, Tom Thibodeau

Sixth Man of the Year: J.R. Smith, New York Knicks

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    Although Jamal Crawford has helped found “A Tribe Called Bench” in Los Angeles with the Clippers and Kevin Martin has filled in where James Harden left off in Oklahoma City, J.R. Smith is setting himself apart with swagger and confidence.

    Smith’s 41.5 field-goal percentage leaves a lot to be desired, but the negatives seem to stop there. Smith hit two game-winning shots in the month of December, one against the Charlotte Bobcats and another with a circus shot against the Phoenix Suns.

    As the season wears on and the weather outside gets colder, Smith just continues to heat up from the field. In fact, Ian Begley of ESPN New York pointed out Smith’s recent success of scoring 25 points or more off the bench in four straight games:

    JR Smith is the first #Knick to score 25 or more points off the bench in 4 straight games since 1970, when bench stats were first monitored.

    — Ian Begley (@IanBegley) January 2, 2013

    Smith has always been known as a streaky shooter who steps up in the clutch (16.5 points per game). However, Smith is adding career highs in assists (2.8 per game) and rebounds (5.2 per game).

    According to ESPN’s Chris Broussard via Twitter, head coach Mike Woodson told Smith he could average 20 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. Those lofty expectations provided Smith with a big confidence boost, according to Broussard.

    While guys like Crawford and Martin are coming off the bench and scoring in bunches, Smith is scoring, rebounding, setting teammates up for scores and hitting game-winning shots. He’s quite literally doing it all.

    Previous Favorite: Jamal Crawford

    In the hunt: Jamal Crawford, Kevin Martin, J.J. Redick, Carl Landry, Ramon Sessions

Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: No NBA player has taken a definitive lead in the Defensive Player of the Year race.

    The award could eventually reward the league’s best defensive team via Roy Hibbert of the Indiana Pacers. It could elect to go the “lifetime achievement” route by rewarding Tim Duncan for his body of work this late in his career.

    Dwight Howard could win it simply based upon pedigree, but Tyson Chandler is once again playing great defense as he did last season. Heck, even perimeter defenders like Tony Allen, Chris Paul and LeBron James deserve honorable mention.

    Anyway, the point is that the race for DPOY is wide open. Despite that fact, Joakim Noah is making a great case through his stats and the effect he has on his team.

    On Dec. 24, Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Maxwell Ogden broke down the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. Ogden pointed out that the Chicago Bulls’ points allowed per 48 minutes with Noah on the floor versus when he’s benched was a full 10 points lower.

    Couple that eye-opening stat with Noah’s averages of 2.1 blocks and 1.4 steals per game, and Noah has certainly been making a case for himself.

    Again, there’s no true “favorite” for DPOY yet. Either that’s good news because the award race is so competitive, or bad news because no one player has taken a hold of the spot. Whatever the case, this award race will be interesting to watch.

    Previous Favorite: Joakim Noah

    In the hunt: Tim Duncan, Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, LeBron James, Tony Allen, Chris Paul

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Miami Heat

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    I have a hard time discounting Chris Paul and all he’s done to turn around the Los Angeles Clippers’ fortunes. Nevertheless, the MVP race appears as if it will come down to two players, so let’s take a look at their stats:

    LeBron James: 26.5 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game.

    Kevin Durant: 28.4 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game.

    Durant is having arguably the best season of his entire career, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are in first place in the Western Conference. But that shouldn’t discount the efforts of James.

    LBJ is simply on a different planet from other NBA stars. He too is having a tremendously efficient season scoring the basketball, notching career highs in field-goal percentage (54.4 percent) and three-point percentage (41.4 percent).

    Additionally, his Player Efficiency Rating (PER) is a massive 30.00. That’s nearly two points higher than Durant’s, which sits at 28.19.

    The MVP race to this point has been very interesting, but James is still the league’s best all-around player. If that’s the criteria for the Most Valuable Player award (and to be honest, I don’t even think voters know the specific criteria), James should win his fourth MVP award at season’s end.

    Previous Favorite: LeBron James

    In the hunt: Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan