A new year brings fresh resolve, clean slates and new possibilities for regular folks and NBA superstars alike.
So while some of us solemnly vow to hit the gym or read a book once in a while, guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant probably took oaths to double down on being super awesome at basketball—or maybe not.
To be honest, it's hard to know what guys like them promise when the calendar flips. They already go to the gym pretty often.
At any rate, it's time to take stock of the latest odds for each major NBA award. They're broken down into percentages that reflect which player or coach is most likely to take home hardware at season's end. Where there's a discrepancy between who I think is in line to win the award and who should win it, I'll make that known.
I'm opinionated that way.
Lots can (and probably will) change between now and the end of the season, but here's how the candidates shake out for the new year.
Win: Michael Carter-Williams (3-2)
Place: Victor Oladipo (2-1)
Show: Trey Burke (4-1)
When he's been healthy, Michael Carter-Williams has performed better than any other rookie, including his two nearest competitors, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke. MCW leads all first-year players in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game. And he's not an empty-number generator either.
When Carter-Williams is in the lineup, the Philadelphia 76ers have a respectable 8-11 record. In the 11 games he's missed this season, they're just 1-10. Clearly, it's not difficult to make a case for his Rookie of the Year candidacy.
What is tough, though, is keeping him on the floor.
Those 11 injury-related absences might be outliers, but they could also represent a combination of overall frailty and an understandably cautious approach from the Sixers front office. If Philadelphia continues to hold MCW out whenever he suffers a hangnail—which, by the way, it'd be wise to do for purposes of tanking—there's a decent chance he won't play enough to deserve the award.
If Oladipo, who hasn't missed a game all season, winds up with less impressive per-game numbers while logging 20 or 30 more contests on the year, he'll have a strong case for the honor.
Burke, the third man in this rookie hierarchy, has played extremely well since sitting out the first dozen engagements of the year. Among rookies, only Carter-Williams has averaged more points and assists per game than Burke. And for what it's worth, Los Angeles Clippers head coach Doc Rivers thinks the Utah Jazz point guard has a bright future.
Per Aaron Falk of The Salt Lake Tribune, Rivers was impressed by Burke's Dec. 28 performance in Los Angeles:
I don't want to put a comparison on him because that's the worst thing you can do. But there are guards who can score. There are guards who are just play makers. Then there is that rare group that can do both. Chris (Paul) is one of those guys. ... I think Trey Burke is going to be that.
We can probably pump the brakes on a CP3 comparison for now, but Rivers' compliment should indicate how promising Utah's young floor general truly is.
Ultimately, this award is MCW's to lose, and the only way he's likely to surrender it is by simply not playing enough games the rest of the way. If the Sixers keep treating him with kid gloves, Oladipo or Burke could sneak in and steal the award.
Win: Eric Bledsoe (3-2)
Place: Anthony Davis (2-1)
Show: Lance Stephenson (5-1)
Oftentimes, the NBA's Most Improved Player award goes to somebody who was already highly productive in the past, but got an extra statistical boost by simply playing more. That always feels a little wrong.
Fortunately, this year's top three candidates have not only increased their minutes, but also taken the kinds of significant strides that should determine the winner of this particular award.
For example, Lance Stephenson is logging about six more minutes per game than he did a year ago. But his improved numbers have much more to do with his talent growth than they do with increased playing time. He's shooting the ball better than ever, notching career-high accuracy rates from the field, long distance and the foul line.
In addition, he's suddenly playing long stretches as a de facto point guard in the Indiana Pacers' unconventional offense. His usage rate is 19 percent this year, up substantially from the 15.2 percent he posted in 2012-13, per Basketball-Reference.com. Seemingly overnight, Stephenson has grown into a much more versatile weapon.
Anthony Davis has also improved substantially. According to Basketball-Reference.com, his per-36-minute scoring average has jumped by 3.5 points over last season. Plus, he's defending like a menace all over the floor and leading the league in blocks per game.
In fact, the only reason Eric Bledsoe has an ever-so-slight advantage on Davis is the fact that AD was already really good last season. He's breaking out this year, but because he set the bar so high in 2012-13, he hasn't made quite as big of a leap as E-Bled.
New rule: Any time somebody goes from being a high-energy backup to a potential max-salary franchise cornerstone, he's a front-runner for this award. Bledsoe has done exactly that this season, and Phoenix Suns general manager Ryan McDonough isn't shy about saying so, per ESPN's Ramona Shelburne:
"Obviously we don't have a whole lot of money committed for the future, we don't have a lot of long-term contracts on our books. So we'll have no problem stepping up and paying Eric whatever it takes to keep him."
Whatever it takes?
"Correct," McDonough said. "Any reasonable offer."
Davis is already an elite, All-Star player—one who probably profiles as a future Hall of Famer. But based on this season alone, Bledsoe has taken a marginally bigger step forward.
Win: Nick Young (2-1)
Place: Jamal Crawford (3-1)
Show: Manu Ginobili (10-1)
Nick Young, swag enthusiast, has actually started seven games this season for the Los Angeles Lakers. With Xavier Henry sidelined by a banged-up knee, there's a good chance Young will see a few more opening tips in the near future.
But he's best utilized as a reserve gunner, so his terrific odds here reflect my suspicion that the Lakers will do everything possible to make sure he comes off the pine more often than not. Young leads the league in bad shots (by my own unofficial count), but he's also capable of scoring in bunches, which is basically perfect for a bench spark.
The Lakers have gotten much more than they bargained for in their minimum-salaried chucker, per Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times:
Nick Young has been a bundle of entertainment, though, a free-agent afterthought back in July who makes any game amusing for better, for worse, for whatever.
He's prone to missing a lot of shots, and takes plenty of questionable ones, but he's one of the few Lakers who can create his own shot. And he has a semi-catchy nickname to match his free-spirited personality.
Jamal Crawford won the award in 2009-10, and he's actually a hair ahead of Young in the bench-scoring department—16.7 points per game to 16.5—this season.
Expect a little voter fatigue, though, which should give Young the edge.
Manu Ginobili was the league's top sixth man in 2007-08 and is enjoying a serious bounce-back season. It's never safe to count him out entirely, but it seems like Ginobili won't log the heavy load of minutes necessary to inflate his scoring average like Young and Crawford will.
And just to be generous, Dion Waiters and Rodney Stuckey deserve a small honorable-mention nod for their work in Cleveland and Detroit, respectively.
Win: Roy Hibbert (1-4)
Place: Paul George (7-1)
Show: LeBron James (20-1)
If Roy Hibbert avoids injury, this award is his to lose. It's that simple.
The anchor of the NBA's best defense and an emerging statistical darling, Hibbert's value is still largely underestimated. The truth is we don't actually know for sure how valuable he is; the numbers that would definitively prove his status as the league's clear best defender and possible MVP candidate just aren't widely available yet.
What we can say definitively, though, is that he protects the rim more effectively than anybody. And since the rim is, you know, kind of important, that's a pretty good place to protect.
Hibbert limits opponents to 41 percent shooting in the restricted area, per SportVU (via NBA.com), and he leads all NBA players with 83 blocks on the season. Essentially, he either alters close-range attempts or snuffs them out entirely.
It's no coincidence that absolutely everything the Pacers do on defense is designed to funnel the ball toward him. Hibbert is where offensive possessions go to die.
James and George are both brilliant, versatile defenders in their own right. And Andre Iguodala, though not listed here, deserves recognition for being very near their level as well. But wings simply can't have the same defensive impact as an elite big man. You don't build entire schemes around guys like George or James, though both are integral parts to very good systems.
Hibbert is a building block, a cornerstone. Nobody has a bigger defensive impact than he does. Whether voters rely on the eye test or the numbers, he's as close to a lock for this award as we've had in a very long time.
Win: Jeff Hornacek (3-2)
Place: Terry Stotts (4-1)
Show: Gregg Popovich (10-1), Frank Vogel (10-1), Erik Spoelstra (10-1)
We'll start with the long-odds guys here, mostly because they share a similar plight.
For Popovich, Vogel and Spoelstra, the illusion that it's easier to coach a team with talent than one without weighs against them. It doesn't seem fair that we discount coaches who meet extremely high expectations when considering this particular award, but that's the way voting has gone in the past.
Don't expect that to change this year.
As long as we're on the topic of "don'ts," here's another one: Don't let that preceding passage detract from the incredible job Hornacek has done with the Suns. Expected to do little more than compete for the No. 1 pick in the lottery, Phoenix is a legitimate playoff contender.
The first-year head coach is stretching the floor, allowing Bledsoe to penetrate and making sure his shot-happy forwards get off as many triples as possible. The result? Phoenix boasts a top-10 offensive rating and sits just a half-game back of the Clippers for the Pacific Division crown.
Stotts has done a fantastic job in his own right, but there's a very good chance that the Portland Trail Blazers' No. 22 defensive rating will contribute to some standings slippage as we head into 2014. He'll still be worthy of consideration on the strength of Portland's brilliantly devised offensive scheme and overall success, but I suspect Hornacek is only going to increase his lead going forward.
Win: LeBron James (1-1)
Place: Kevin Durant (3-1)
Show: Paul George (10-1)
I don't think James has ever been better than he is right now, which makes the fact that Kevin Durant has actually narrowed the gap between himself and the King over the past couple of weeks all the more stunning.
LBJ still leads the league with a 29.6 PER, per Basketball-Reference.com, and he's continued to redefine offensive efficiency with gaudy shooting percentages that are even better than the ones he posted in a historically great 2012-13. James is hitting 59 percent of his shots from the field and 41.5 percent from long distance, both career bests.
In fact, James' true-shooting percentage of 67.3 percent trails only Kyle Korver's and is significantly better than Durant's figure of 62.8 percent.
With Russell Westbrook out until the All-Star break, KD will get a second chance this season to inflate his statistics as the Oklahoma City Thunder's unquestioned focal point. That should lead to modest statistical improvements over his current numbers, but will also give him an opportunity to show voters the kind of heroic, do-it-all performance they crave.
Durant has actually made most of his headway on James this season with his defensive work. According to 82games.com, KD is holding opposing shooting guards to a PER of 7.5, small forwards to 11.1 and power forwards to 8.1 while leading OKC to a defensive rating of 97.5 points per 100 possessions, second-best in the league.
James earns a ton of praise for his defensive versatility, and Durant has vaulted into something approaching LBJ's stellar space in that regard.
George has been brilliant this season, a fringe candidate for both Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved. It's just unfair that he's competing for an MVP award with two remarkable talents like James and Durant.
This is a two-man affair, and James holds a slimmer-than-ever lead on Durant. Buckle up as this race gains speed in 2014; it's going to be a hell of a ride.