Under-the-Radar Factors Behind NBA's Hottest Award Races
LeBron James is this season's Most Valuable Player and Damian Lillard is the Rookie of the Year. There's almost no debating those two foregone conclusion, lest the landscape of the league change drastically over the next few months.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis is proving to be every bit the phenomenal player we thought he would be, yet he's missed too many games to surpass Lillard at this point.
However, there may be more to some of these award races than meets the eye. That is to say, looking beyond superlatives and statistical measures, there are certain trends and relationships between players and voters that could throw a monkey wrench into these races.
While it's unlikely that anything unseats LeBron James as this season's MVP, there are some factors that need to be talked about and taken into account before we can really be sure who is going to end up winning what award.
MVP Award and the League's Best Record
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While it was cast off a bit last year (the Miami Heat had the NBA's fourth-best record last season), there's always the notion that the best player on the best team deserves the MVP award.
If that's the case, then it seems as if Tony Parker would be the front-runner, but it seems as if the thought that the league's best team must have the league's best player is, more or less, an incorrect notion.
Should the San Antonio Spurs end up with a handful more wins than the Oklahoma City Thunder or the Miami Heat, Parker still won't win the award unless he has a completely dominant next few months.
However, if the Oklahoma City Thunder break out on a run and finish with the best record in the NBA since the 1994 Seattle Supersonics won 63 games, you'd better believe that it's going to add fuel to the fire that Durant deserves the award more than LeBron would.
New Orleans and the Second-Half "Surge"
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It's almost to the point where Damian Lillard could coast through the rest of the season and still win the Rookie of the Year Award, but we're not quite to that point.
While Lillard is averaging a ton of points, racking up assists and throwing together highlight plays and game-winning shots left and right, he has plateaued, and even fallen off as of late. In fact, he's now shooting just 1.2 percent better than Dion Waiters on the season, who has a well-earned reputation of being inefficient.
At one point it looked as if the Portland Trail Blazers were going to have a chance to make the playoffs, but they've lost 15 of their past 21 games and are really struggling.
Meanwhile, Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Hornets are starting to put things together, going 13-12 over their previous 25 games.
It's a slow crawl up the ladder in the Western Conference, but the two teams aren't separated by that much, and as Davis' role increases, his stats inflate and his defensive prowess becomes more evident, this race might just start to open up a bit more.
How Does One Gauge "Improvement"
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At this point there are three front-runners for the Most Improved Player award.
Jrue Holiday has gone from being a solid young point guard to a player who seems to be a perennial All-Star candidate.
Paul George went from being a borderline All-Star last year to making the All-Star Game this year and bordering on stardom, which he'll burst into with a tad more efficiency.
Greivis Vasquez went from looking like a borderline starter a year ago to averaging the second-most assists behind a guy who is out for the season.
Which form of improvement is better? Which is more valuable to a team? And which should voters be voting for?
Honestly, I've got no idea, and that's the main problem with this award.
If we're going based on raw improvement, whose numbers have gone up the most with the smallest increase in minutes, the award goes to Holiday, Vasquez and then George.
However, in terms of helping his team more, George's improvement might just be more valuable than the other two players'.
The moral of this one is pretty obvious. If you're a gambling man, don't bet on this one.
The Ever-Present Voter Fatigue
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In 1993 Charles Barkley was named the NBA MVP, averaging 25.6 points, 12.2 rebounds and a block while shooting 52 percent from the field.
Michael Jordan, who finished with a laughably low 13 first-place votes out of a possible 98, averaged 32.6 points (led the league), 6.7 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 2.8 steals (led the league) and shot 49.5 percent. He finished in third place.
What's the reason for this? The best explanation we have is that people were tired of voting for Jordan, who had won the past two, plus the past two Finals MVP Awards and the 1988 Defensive Player of the Year Award.
This is something that's been talked about to no end, and it's a highly publicized potential problem, so if voters start picking out reasons to not vote for LeBron, look for people to start getting testy.
It doesn't seem like something that should be a problem at this point when we know about everything seconds after it happens and react to it milliseconds later, but there's a distinct possibility that it could factor in.
Is Carl Landry Hurting Jarrett Jack?
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The view of the Golden State Warriors at this point isn't that they've got an amazing player coming off the bench, but rather that they've got an amazing duo coming off the bench.
While Jack is the primary crunch-time ball-handler, he's part of a tandem alongside Landry, who averages just a few points less than he does while clocking in the second-most rebounds on the team.
Jarrett Jack should be in the top two in terms of Sixth Man of the Year award voting, but it seems he's at a distinct disadvantage compared to his biggest threat.
Jamal Crawford is the second-highest scorer that the Los Angeles Clippers have, and their bench is viewed as a crew of guys coming in behind an excellent scorer who is capable of dropping huge numbers at any time. He's flanked by niche role guys like Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe, who are more notable as defenders over anything else.
While this seems like something that shouldn't matter, it seems obvious from past winners that it does.
James Harden, Lamar Odom, Jamal Crawford, Jason Terry, Manu Ginobili, Leandro Barbosa and Mike Miller; the list goes on and on.
Players continually win the Sixth Man award when they are very obviously their team's best bench player with little competition. They were all an interchangeable part of the starting lineup that happened to come off the bench because of necessity or just a conflict.
It's an award that's not generally given to the better part of a squad, or even a tandem. It goes to a guy who tends to be a singular entity coming off the bench.
At this point it seems wiser to put your money on Jamal Crawford, while Jarrett Jack may actually have a bigger impact on his team.
Best Team vs. Most Improved Team vs. Team Who Dealt with Injuries
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Picking the Coach of the Year award is a complete crapshoot.
Realistically it can go to one of four or five coaches in any given year, based on a number of factors.
The team with the best record is obviously well coached, so that's always an option, as is the team who has improved the most from one season to the next, the team who has best dealt with injuries or the team who worked out the best, most interesting combination of starters and bench players. Of course, there's also the extremely popular "just give it to Popovich" mentality that prevailed last season.
Under those guidelines, this year's award could easily go to Gregg Popovich (best record), Mark Jackson (most improved), Tom Thibodeau, Frank Vogel or Mike Woodson (injuries), P.J Carlesimo or Gregg Popovich again (lineup combinations) or Gregg Popovich again (just give it to Popovich).
In any given season there's really no way to tell how the voters are going to lean, but it really seems to depend on which scenario is talked up the most.
This season's trend seems to be most improved team, so keep Mark Jackson at the top of the ballot for now, with Popovich not far behind.
Glamour Stats vs. Impact and the Statistical Revolution
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There's an interesting trend among award voters as far as the Defensive Player of the Year award goes, and it has to do with glamorous statistics and solid defense.
For four years running there were no-doubters as far as the award-winner went. Kevin Garnett anchored the staunch, championship-winning defense of the Boston Celtics in 2008, and then Dwight Howard dominated for the next three years.
In 2007 Marcus Camby took home the award simply because he blocked three shots per game, while Tim Duncan or Bruce Bowen would have been the better choice.
The voters had the same dilemma last season when everybody got tired of Dwight Howard and it came down to Tyson Chandler and Serge Ibaka.
Ibaka led the league in blocks by a huge margin, averaging more than Camby did in 2007, while Chandler completely transformed the New York Knicks with his defensive presence. Chandler took home a narrow victory.
Just as Felix Hernandez' AL Cy Young victory back in 2010 signaled a change in mentality in the MLB, Chandler's victory a year ago could signal the same in the NBA.
What's really going to weigh heavy is perhaps the most popular statistical sports analysis of the past year in which it was revealed that while Ibaka blocks more shots than most other players, he did it because he faced more shots close to the basket. Meanwhile, guys like Dwight Howard or Duncan are impeding enough to keep players from trying to score closer to the basket, therefore giving them fewer "potential blocked shots".
It was an interesting study that hung around the blogs for a while, and it's something that's definitely going to weigh on who wins this wide-open race this year.