With the NBA season winding down, the pools for the highly sought after end-of-year awards are beginning to thin out.
While usual suspects LeBron James and Kevin Durant have continued to receive their due recognition, the 2012-13 campaign has brought with it plenty of surprises.
A handful of head coaches have helped restore order to oft-tumultuous franchises, while races for Sixth Man, Most Improved and Defensive Player of the Year have tightened up. The Rookie of the Year award seems to be all sewn up, but the chase for league MVP remains a compelling mystery.
Which players are the favorites to walk away with this year's individual hardware?
We're nearly three-quarters of the way through the regular season and, as the hunt for postseason berths has heated up, so have the quests for singular greatness and distinction.
*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82Games.com unless otherwise noted.
Few expected the Golden State Warriors would be near the top of the standings in the NBA Pacific.
With the murky bill of health surrounding both Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry heading into the season, Golden State appeared to be a fringe playoff team, even with the additions of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry. Brandon Rush's season-ending injury didn't help their case either.
But Mark Jackson has.
Helped along by a healthy Curry, Jackson is poised to coach the Warrior to their first playoff berth in six years. Golden State has a firm lock on the Western Conference's sixth seed and is a mere 10 wins away from doubling the victory total (23) from last season.
Don't make the mistake of believing the going has been easy for Jackson and company. Bogut figured to (eventually) play a huge role in the team's plans this season, but he's seen the light of just 12 games. Jackson has thus been relegated to depending on rookie Festus Ezeli (14.6 minutes per game) more than he would care to admit.
In spite of such adversity, the Warriors are still a playoff team. How surreal is to read that?
COY Chances: 35 percent
The going hasn't been especially pretty for the New York Knicks lately, but it's tough to discredit the job Mike Woodson has done in the Big Apple.
New York is third in offensive efficiency and third overall in the Eastern Conference standings. Though the Knicks have dropped toward the bottom-half of defensive efficiency, we've seen a more engaged Carmelo Anthony on the defensive end all season, which is nothing short of incredulous.
Admittedly, Woodson's refusal to tinker with New York's current starting lineup may cost him some votes. The current starting five are being outscored by 9.6 points per 100 possessions and Iman Shumpert looks visibly uncomfortable playing at the 3.
Still, Woodson has helped transform an expensive mess into a title contender. If he could only instill a sense of defensive competency in Amar'e Stoudemire, he could wind up being the favorite.
COY Chances: 20 percent
Frank Vogel isn't receiving enough credit for the job he's doing with the Indiana Pacers.
Navigating most of the season without Danny Granger and a generally ineffective Roy Hibbert should have spelled the end for this team, yet they currently sit with the second-best record in the Eastern Conference.
Indiana ranks first in defensive efficiency and presently poses the only legitimate threat to unseat the Miami Heat.
Normally, I'd hang the Pacers' stagnant, bordering on insipid offense, but despite ranking 25th in points scored per game (94), they've dropped at least 100 points in four out of their last five.
In other words, Vogel is proving to be a sideline-meandering genius.
COY Chances: 15 percent
Honorable Mention: Gregg Popovich
No coach has ever won Coach of the Year two seasons in a row, but I find myself still marveling at what Gregg Popovich (2011-12 COY) has done with the San Antonio Spurs.
The Spurs are poised to finish with the NBA's best record for the third year running and are the only team in the top six of both offensive and defensive efficiency.
Yeah, Coach Pop has rendered them that kind of dominant.
COY Chances: 10 percent
I honestly don't see how you make a case against Joakim Noah for Defensive Player of the Year.
Not only is he one of just two players (Dwight Howard) in the NBA averaging at least 10 rebounds, one steal and two blocks per game, but he's second in defensive win shares (4.1) on a top-five defensive team.
Noah has proved to be an impenetrable force in the paint as always, but he's also improved his perimeter defense and showings against rim-attacking guards off switches.
If points are awarded for hustle, then he would probably be a shoo-in. You would be hard-pressed to name another big man who's as vital to his team's transition defense.
Noah has been that instrumental to the Bulls on the defensive end.
DPOY Chances: 45 percent
I'll likely be hung for this selection, but Paul George has been too stalwart a defender to ignore.
George is one of five players to be grabbing at least seven rebounds and forcing 1.5 steals per game, and he leads the league in defensive win shares (4.7) on a Pacers team with the best defensive rating in the NBA.
Per 82games.com, George is also holding opposing shooting guards and small forwards to an average PER of 12 per 48 minutes.
The last perimeter-oriented player to win the DPOY award was Metta World Peace (then known as Ron Artest) in 2003-04, so it will be difficult for George to walk way the victor here.
Watching how effective he's been keeping players out of the paint, forcing turnovers and rotating to perfection, it's also difficult to pinpoint many candidates more deserving of it then him.
DPOY Chances: 20 percent
If there was also an award for Understated Defender of the Year, Marc Gasol would have my vote.
The Memphis Grizzlies rank second in defensive efficiency and Gasol is fifth in defensive win shares (3.7) His 1.7 blocks and one steal per game don't exactly seem like much, but Memphis ranks fifth with just 38.6 points allowed in the paint per game and he's a huge reason why.
Few also realize how much of a defensive liability Zach Randolph can be. He's not especially quick and his footwork borders on unwatchable when he's defending with his back to the basket.
With Gasol by his side, however, his defensive shortcomings aren't nearly as prevalent as they would (should) be.
I shudder to think how poor a defensive team the Grizzlies would actually be without Gasol in the post.
DPOY Chances: 15 percent
Honorable Mention: Larry Sanders
Larry Sanders has been in beast mode all season, and his averages of 3.1 blocks and 8.6 rebounds (4.4 and 12.4 per 36 minutes) are incredible. I just don't see him getting the nod while averaging under 30 (barely 25) minutes per game.
DPOY Chances: 10 percent
If you think the Philadelphia 76ers are in dire straits now, you don't even want to imagine where they'd be without Jrue Holiday.
Philly's point man has become the face of the franchise, toiling with superstar status that culminated in his first ever All-Star selection.
Holiday ranks eighth in assist percentage (40.3) and technically third in assists per game (8.7) with Rajon Rondo sidelined for the rest of the season. He's also one of just two players (Chris Paul) averaging at least 15 points, eight assists and 1.5 steals per game.
Turnovers (3.9) have proved to be an issue for the 23-year-old, but he's posting career-highs in points (19), assists (8.7), field-goal percentage (45.4) and PER (18).
That Holiday has made this kind of a statistical jump in his first season as "the man" is encouraging for a struggling Sixers team, while it is bad news for the rest of the NBA.
MIP Chances: 55 percent
Is it maybe that point guards just thrive as members of the New Orleans Hornets?
We watched Chris Paul dish his way to stardom in New Orleans, saw Jarrett Jack completely manipulate our perception of him only last season and now we're witnessing Greivis Vasquez playing at a blistering pace.
Again, with Rondo out, Vasquez currently ranks second in assists (9.4) and is averaging career-highs in points (13.6), assists, rebounds (4.5) and three-point percentage (35.2). Rondo and Russell Westbrook are the only other players in the league averaging at least 13 points, eight assists and four rebounds per contest.
It's tough to downplay the season Vasquez is having, even on a rebuilding faction like the Hornets. Night in, and night out, he's proved to be a crafty playmaker who can run an efficient offense.
That New Orleans is a plus-8.2 on offense per 100 possession with him on the floor only adds fuel to his already strong fire.
MIP Chances: 20 percent
To answer your question, no, I'm not joking.
Stephen Curry is having a monster year and is one of the main reasons why the Warriors are going to return to the playoffs. His 21.9 points, 6.5 assists and 46 percent three-point shooting clip per game are all career-highs, and he is one of only three players (James Harden, LeBron James and Westbrook) to be averaging at least 20 points, five assists, four rebounds and 1.5 steals per game.
In fact, if Curry keeps up his current pace, he'll become the first player in NBA history to post such marks while also shooting at least 45 percent from deep.
A pretty good follow up to a 2011-12 crusade that saw Curry miss 40 games and spur doubt as to whether he would ever be a star, wouldn't you say?
To think, he currently holds the season-high for points scored in a game (54) and didn't even earn a berth to the All-Star game.
MIP Chances: 15 percent
J.R. Smith shouldn't be a candidate, let alone a favorite for this award, though not because he doesn't deserve it; because he should be starting. But I digress.
Smith is another one of those surprise players having a season to remember. He's tallying a career-high in points (16.1) and rebounds (4.9). He's also the only player in the NBA who has started fewer than 10 games, but averages at least 16 points and four rebounds a night.
Mike Woodson's star pupil remains prone to taking unnecessary defensive risks and his shot selection (40.3 percent shooting) is questionable at best, but he's proved invaluable to the Knicks. A coming of age, if you will.
Factor in the massive pay cut he took to remain in New York and he deserves to win for sheer chivalry alone (kidding...kind of).
Sixth Man Chances: 30 percent
If you don't know about Jarrett Jack, you're missing out.
He's averaging 13.7 points, 5.9 assists and shooting a 42.4 percent clip from deep off the pine for Golden State.
What you may also not have known about Jack is that he, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and LeBron James are the only players in the league averaging at least 12 points and five assists while shooting 40 percent or better from three.
Perhaps what is most impressive about Jack is his ability to play out of position. According to 82games.com, he's spent a majority of his playing time at shooting guard, off the ball. And still he's assisting on 32.4 percent of his team's field-goals while on the floor.
Go figure. Then go cross your fingers in hopes that Jack receives the recognition he deserves as a viable candidate for this here award.
Sixth Man Chances: 20 percent
Jamal Crawford was considered the early favorite for this award but, while his numbers are still somewhat jaw-dropping, he has regressed to the mean a bit.
He's the second-leading scorer for the Los Angeles Clippers with 16.7 points per game and shooting a respectable 37.2 percent clip from behind the rainbow. As it stands, he's also just one of two players (Tim Duncan) to be averaging 15 or more points in under 30 minutes per game (minimum 25)
Surprisingly Crawford's defense (I'm serious) has improved a great deal. Opposing guards are posting a meager 12.8 PER per 48 minutes against him and, if you haven't watched his rotations or passing lane defense, you don't know what you're missing.
I still have doubts that Crawford will be able to secure the award, but don't mistake that for misplaced hating or apprehension regarding his impact. He's been simply sensational for the Clippers. Hence, he is a top-three candidate.
Sixth Man Chances: 20 percent
Damian Lillard essentially has this award on his mantle already.
The rookie point guard is averaging a lucrative 18.4 points and 6.4 assists per game. He's emerged as the Portland Trail Blazers' go-to scorer down the stretch and improved upon his skills to make big plays considerably.
Ball control (3.1 turnovers per game) is still in an issue, but the kid's a neophyte. When it comes to this award, we've should excuse his rookie errors, in light of his considerable achievements.
We also might as well hand him the Rookie of the Year award now too.
ROY Chances: 80 percent
It's not that Anthony Davis hasn't been great because he has—when healthy.
Davis has missed 14 games (so far) and been unable to log more than 27 or 28 minutes a night.
Troubling though his health concerns and limited usage may be, he's still shown flashes (movies, really) of the great player he is destined to become.
New Orleans' unibrowed wunderkind is averaging 16.2 points, 9.7 and 2.3 blocked shots per 36 minutes, making him one of seven players to be posting at least 15 points, nine rebounds and two blocks per 36 ticks of burn.
His 20.7 PER is also second amongst all rookies, right behind the injured Andre Drummond's 22.3.
I can't imagine a situation where Lillard isn't the Rookie of the Year but, if anyone can steal it from him, it's the future two-way superstar in Davis.
ROY Chances: 10 percent
Give up for Bradley Beal.
The first year combo guard is averaging 13.9 points and shooting a cool 36.8 percent clip from outside. His 40.8 percent shooting overall is of some concern, but he has become more efficient as he has been allowed to play the part of an undersized 2-guard more.
Defensively, Beal hasn't been great but, given his size (6'5", 205), he's done a nice job of containing point and shooting guards. His work on both ends of the floor in transition are also works of beauty.
The Washington Wizards have their backcourt of the future in Beal and John Wall. While that's enough for a team that's currently surging (as far as lottery teams go), Beal's ability to crack his way into the Rookie of the Year buzz at all is a testament to his potential.
ROY Chances: 5 percent
I almost hate to say it, given how incredible a year Kevin Durant has had, but LeBron James has to be the MVP right now.
Should James continue to (he probably will) average 27.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.3 assists on 56.8 percent shooting, he'll be the first player in NBA history as impressive in those categories all in one season. He's also poised to lead the league in win shares once again as well.
How's that for capping off an already historical season?
Well, for LeBron, it's actually not enough.
If he sustains his 31.9 PER, it will go down as the highest mark in NBA history of any player who appeared in at least 50 games.
There's really not much else I can say that does him justice.
Just know the Heat wouldn't even be close to as good as they are without him. Nor would the NBA be as fun to watch.
MVP Chances: 70 percent
Durant stands as the only real threat to pry the MVP award out of James' unprecedented hands.
Not only is Durant second in win shares behind LeBron (13.9), but he's averaging career-highs in assists (4.6), steals (1.5), blocks (tied; 1.2) field-goal percentage (51.3), three-point shooting (42.6) and free-throw shooting (91).
Knowing that you may not be impressed enough, he's on pace to join the 50/40/90 club and become the first player ever to lead the league in scoring while doing so.
Whether you worship James or are among his detractors, you must understand that Durant's MVP case is much stronger than perceived on paper. He's been an offensive rock for the Oklahoma City Thunder to lean on and done so in historically efficient fashion. That he's emerged as a premiere (elite, even) defender only furthers his cause.
Unfortunately for Durant, he's playing at a time when LeBron simply can't be surpassed. His numbers suggest that we can't count him out just yet, but James' actually say otherwise.
MVP Chances: 20 percent
Nothing argument that can be made for Chris Paul will change the reality that the MVP award is a two-man race. But that doesn't mean an ode to him is completely useless.
Paul (with Rajon Rondo sidelined) leads the NBA in assists (9.4) and steals (2.5). Los Angeles' offense is more than 13 points better per 100 possessions with him on the floor and he's on pace to average at least 15 points, nine assists and 2.5 steals for the third time in his career.
Only seven total players in league history have accomplished such a feat at least once and only one other (John Stockton) has done it more than twice.
Paul seems like a lock to re-sign with the Clippers this summer and Donald Sterling should thank his lucky stars for that.
The Clippers would be nothing without Paul.
MVP Chances: Less than 5 percent