Picking a Favorite for Every Major NBA Award with Regular Season Winding Down
It's starting to feel like those final days before summer break—at least for some NBA guys.
But for the guys on this list, players worthy of NBA award recognition, the postseason is approaching.
The best players should be part of winning efforts, so all but one of the favorites for these honors will be playing past April 17.
Some award races are just about final, while others are still being decided.
Either way, we'll take a look at some other names in the conversation too.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich
The Miami Heat have won 20 games in a row, and they still have about as many wins as Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs.
That's credit to Pop, who should be Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season.
Clearly, Tim Duncan is past his prime, but there is no arguing that his 16.6 points, 9.6 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 29.6 minutes per game is unexpected.
Duncan is thriving, as he has his entire career, within San Antonio's perfected system. Duncan wouldn't put up those numbers at 36 years old anywhere else.
The Spurs haven't been invincible since Tony Parker's injury, with two blowout losses to the Portland Trail Blazers and Minnesota Timberwolves, but they continue to win with new pieces.
The team is fourth in the league in points per game with guys like Danny Green and Tiago Splitter averaging double digits. Popovich is managing minutes this March, playing 15 different guys through the team's six games.
But don't sleep on Miami's Erik Spoelstra either.
The Heat will end the season with the league's best record, and though it has nearly everything to do with James, Spoelstra must get some credit. He's having one heck of a year.
Defensive Player of the Year: Larry Sanders
The Chicago Bulls' Joakim Noah had this award wrapped up.
He's an everywhere-on-the-floor guy whose dynamic hustle is matched with skilled defensive technique. As captain of one of the league's top defenses, Noah is averaging 11.5 rebounds and 2.2 blocks.
But hang on. Thumbs up to Larry Sanders.
The Milwaukee Bucks' young center is an interior treasure.
Sanders is Inspector Gadget, with length and the ability to leap at slashing scorers. His 3.2 blocks provides the undersized backcourt of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis insurance when they get beat.
He also averages 9.1 rebounds, all in just 26.6 minutes per game. He's a significant reason the Bucks are going to claim at least an eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
The 24-year-old is coming on strong, seeing his minutes jump to 31.8 in March, as he is averaging 3.3 blocks and 11.2 rebounds per game this month.
Plus, he's got this side of him:
The trio of thumbs-ups came when Sanders was ejected after receiving a second technical for arguing an offensive call in the fourth quarter of Wednesday night's loss to Washington.
Yes, he's a treasure.
Most Improved Player: James Harden
James Harden became the newest NBA superstar this season.
The beard ages the guy, but he's still just 23 years old.
It's been one dramatic shift this year, and Harden is the league's most improved player.
Leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder where he was the the team's third option, Harden has been asked to lead the Houston Rockets each night.
His drastic statistical improvement comes with added minutes and responsibilities, but that's true of any guy turned franchise player.
Last season: 16.8 points (49 percent shooting), 4.1 rebounds, 3.7 assists in 31.4 minutes.
This season: 26.2 points (45 percent shooting), 4.7 rebounds, 5.9 assists in 38.4 minutes.
He is the league's fifth-highest scorer, as he gets to the line more than any player in the NBA, where he shoots 85.5 percent. His turnovers are too high, up to 3.7 per game, but that's natural for a player suddenly handling the ball more than ever.
If Harden doesn't deserve the award, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors does.
Curry, healthy again after two ankle surgeries since last season, is connecting on the most three-pointers (203) and doing so at the highest three-point percentage (45.5 percent).
He didn't earn All-Star recognition, but this award is deserving.
6th Man of the Year: J.R. Smith
J.R. Smith is about to set his price as a free agent this offseason.
The erratic scorer will be the No. 1 scoring option with Amare Stoudemire out and Carmelo Anthony's day-to-day knee issues.
Smith is a dangerous scorer, both good and bad.
He has the abilities to splurge offensively and is averaging 16.5 points in 33.2 minutes as a reserve for the New York Knicks. But he's also shooting just 40.2 percent from the field and connecting on just 35.2 percent of his 5.7 three-point attempts per game.
Still, there's no doubt that Smith has the biggest impact of any bench player in the league. The Knicks are still the third seed in the Eastern Conference, but they wouldn't be without Smith.
The New York Knicks bench is only averaging 29.5 points per game, proving how valuable the 16.5 points from Smith truly are.
With Stoudemire and Anthony out, Smith has an opportunity to show whether or not he is worthy of being a No. 1 scorer, something that will earn him cash this offseason.
One of the dark-horse picks is one of the league's best off-the-pine scorers. San Antonio Spurs veteran reserve Manu Ginobili is the highest scorer off the league's second-highest scoring bench.
Though he's missed time, the 35-year-old Argentinian is averaging 12.4 points, 4.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 23.4 minutes per game.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard
Damian Lillard is the only award winner who won't perform in the postseason.
The Portland Trail Blazers guard has sparkled as the league's top youngster all season, though, and he's an easy favorite to win Rookie of the Year honors.
Lillard has been given the keys to drive Portland's offense. The point guard is capable of running an offense, tallying 6.4 assists per game.
Behind only LaMarcus Aldridge for the most shots per game on the team, Lillard is averaging 19 points on 6.8-for-15.8 shooting (43 percent). He has a lethal three-point shot; however, he's still hitting just 2.2-of-6.2 from behind the arc.
The good news is that the Big Sky product is finishing strong. Lillard is scoring 24.8 points and tallying 6.5 assists on 52.9 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range during March.
Anthony Davis, the 2012 NBA draft's overall No. 1 pick, hasn't been a disappointment despite losing time early this season to injury.
It's tough to enter the league as a big, but Davis is averaging 12.9 points and 7.9 rebounds in his rookie season and is an easy runner-up for the honor.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James
There is no doubt.
LeBron James is unquestionably this season's Most Valuable Player, the lead master behind the Miami Heat's 20-game winning streak and now the league's best record.
His all-around numbers are the best in the game: 26.5 points on an unreal 55.7 percent shooting, 8.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists and a league-best 30.98 Player Efficiency Rating, according to ESPN's Hollinger stats.
But what about Ty Lawson?
Someone needs credit for the surging Denver Nuggets, and Lawson is the biggest driver of the team's recent success.
His numbers, 17 points and 7.1 assists, rival Paul and you can begin to make a case that the Nuggets are better than the Los Angeles Clippers—especially after Denver's convincing win on March 7.
Jimmy Spencer is an NBA Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @JimmySpencerNBA.