NBA Awards Odds 2013-14: LeBron James and Kevin Durant Neck and Neck for MVP
Mask or no mask, LeBron James isn't ready to hand over his MVP trophy to any of the NBA's leading candidates.
The Miami Heat superstar has been locked in a tight battle with Kevin Durant for the league's premier individual award throughout the season, and the latest iteration of incredible performances is threatening to shake up the odds.
Did LeBron's 61 points put him on top? Did Durant's Russell Westbrook-less run keep him in the No. 1 spot?
Those are but two of the many questions this article will answer as we dive into the races for each of the Association's six biggest honors: Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Coach of the Year and, of course, MVP.
Grant Hughes ran the last version of this article back in early January, so I'll be adopting his format. That means the top three candidates for each award will be named, and odds will be given for their chances of winning the honor in question.
As Hughes wrote over a month ago, "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."
We haven't reached the end of the season, but a lot has already changed.
Rookie of the Year
Win: Michael Carter-Williams (2-1)
Place: Victor Oladipo (3-1)
Show: Trey Burke (6-1)
Michael Carter-Williams is now a victim of the Philadelphia 76ers.
This is a team with so little talent that it has trouble remaining competitive for very long. You can close your eyes and point to the name of a player on the roster, then justifiably wonder if you'll be identifying a legitimate NBA player or a D-Leaguer when you regain your sight.
The dearth of scoring talent has forced MCW into taking some terrible shots, but that's not all that's plaguing him during the second half of the season. His stroke has completely deserted him as well, leaving him with post-All-Star-break percentages of 38.8 percent from the field, 12.5 percent beyond the arc and 68.1 percent at the line.
That wouldn't normally cut it, but Carter-Williams built up such a massive lead during the first half of the season that he still retains a grip on the crown. It's no longer a stranglehold, but it's a grip nonetheless.
Trey Burke had a shot to narrow the gap between himself and the league's top rookie point guard, but he's also run into a bit of a rookie wall.
During February, his numbers tailed off in the negative direction, as a jumper that was drawing more iron than net had a trickle-down effect on the rest of his game. Defenders started sagging off him, which affected the passing lanes and prevented him from overcoming his lack of height (he's 6'1") on his drives to the rim.
Still, it's clear that he's played well enough to make this what Adi Joseph writes for the Detroit Free Press is a "three-horse rookie of the year race." Sticking with the equine terminology, Tim Hardaway Jr. is a dark-horse candidate for ROY, but he's still well back of Burke and the other two guards.
It's Victor Oladipo who has the best shot at wresting the crown away from MCW, though.
He may have needed two overtime periods to achieve his final line, but the Indiana product still posted 30 points, nine rebounds and 14 assists in a victory over the New York Knicks.
Not only is that an insanely impressive performance, one of the absolute best posted by a first-year player, but it's even more stellar because this was a player hailed as a developing combo guard heading into the season. It also gives him the unique distinction, joining Penny Hardaway, as one of two Orlando Magic rookies to post multiple 20-10 games as a rookie.
"I've still got so much room for improvement, man," Oladipo said after the game, as relayed by FOX Sports' Ken Hornack. "I can get so much better. I really feel like I haven't even scratched the surface of how good I really can be. I honestly believe that."
He's been impressive even while scratching the surface, but he'll have to get even better to take over the Rookie of the Year race.
Most Improved Player
Win: Goran Dragic (3-1)
Place: Lance Stephenson (4-1)
Show: Anthony Davis (5-1)
The list of honorable mentions could stretch on for miles and miles here, both because there are plenty of players who have gotten better during the 2013-14 season and because there's always confusion over what exactly this award signifies.
Are we selecting the player who has risen the most in terms of performance level, or are we choosing the guy who has improved only slightly while getting a marked increase in playing time?
Voters have typically chosen the latter, but I can't follow that path. It's not like voters always get things right anyway.
If they did, the top three candidates for Most Improved Player wouldn't all have been All-Star snubs. And yes, Anthony Davis is still an All-Star snub, even if he made the team. He wouldn't have been invited to play that weekend were it not for Kobe Bryant's injury, after all, so while he'll go down as a 2014 All-Star, he was still passed over by voters.
Nonetheless, The Unibrow has improved quite a bit from his rookie season. He's gone from a standout first-year player to a guy I'm willing to compare to legends. He's averaging 20.2 points and 10.0 rebounds while leading the league in rejections, and it seems as though his main contributions don't even show up in a box score.
"Imagine that Davis develops into a top-five scorer, a game-changing defender and a dominant rebounder," writes ESPN's Kevin Pelton (subscription required). "The flashes of brilliance he demonstrates on a nightly basis make that easy, if you try. That's Davis' MVP-caliber upside, one he's right on track to reaching."
But that's the key for Davis—he's on track to reach his potential, but he still has a long way to go.
The other two leading candidates are farther along the road to greatness.
Lance Stephenson has thrived on both ends of the court, displaying some tenacious defensive skills while attacking the rim with relentless fury. While Born Ready sometimes plays out of control, his unpredictability with the ball in his hands has been a major reason for the competence of the Indiana Pacers offense.
However, this award is still Goran Dragic's to lose. For proof, just look at his per-game stats over the last two seasons:
This isn't just the result of a slight increase in minutes.
Dragic has taken his level of play to the proverbial next level, as he's finally playing with unabashed confidence. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote, "It is crazy to watch Dragic today and remember that his earliest NBA coaches had to urge him out of what seemed an ingrained timidity."
The Dragon might not have the same ceiling as Davis, but he has been something else to watch in 2013-14.
Sixth Man of the Year
Win: Manu Ginobili (9-2)
Play: Markieff Morris (5-1)
Show: Taj Gibson (6-1)
If Jamal Crawford hadn't been forced into the starting lineup due to the injury woes of the Los Angeles Clippers, he'd undoubtedly be one of the favorites for this award. The same goes for Reggie Jackson, who subbed for Russell Westbrook while he was healing from arthroscopic surgery.
Both guards are technically eligible, but they just haven't spent enough time coming off the bench to be truly eligible—at least in my eyes—at this stage of the season. Assuming they remain in their sixth-man roles for the rest of the 2013-14 season, though, they'll get back into the competition.
With those two out of the picture, this is a highly, highly, highly competitive race, which you can see reflected in the tight-knit nature of the odds. At this point, it almost depends on personal preference.
In one corner, we have Manu Ginobili, who seems to have spent his entire career excelling off the pine. This year has been no different, despite the fact that he began the season needing to prove himself after his downfall during last year's postseason was largely overblown.
The effect he's had on the San Antonio Spurs is just remarkable, and it's coming on both ends of the court. Well, it is, but his offense is making his defensive effort look almost negligible.
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
That on-court/off-court disparity, which comes courtesy of Basketball-Reference, is pretty striking. Therein lies the advantage possessed by the Argentine 2-guard, though both Markieff Morris and Taj Gibson are closing the gap rather quickly.
Morris keeps lighting up the scoreboard off the Phoenix Suns bench, and he's only gotten better during the second half of the season. Even after a lackluster nine-point outing against the L.A. Clippers, the better half of the twin frontcourt in the desert is averaging 16.0 points per game since Jan. 15.
Then there's Gibson, who has provided sensational defensive efforts for the Chicago Bulls while showcasing an improved post game.
From Jan. 20 through his 12-point showing against the Brooklyn Nets, the backup power forward has posted 16.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per contest. He's getting extremely close to passing Morris, but the early portion of his season hasn't quite allowed him to do so.
This is still a tossup, and that likely won't change throughout the remainder of the season.
Defensive Player of the Year
Win: Roy Hibbert (3-2)
Place: Joakim Noah (4-1)
Show: Serge Ibaka (7-1)
If it seems like Roy Hibbert has been the unquestioned favorite for Defensive Player of the Year throughout the season, then it's only because that should be the case. The big man from Georgetown may be surrounded by a number of standout candidates—including Paul George, who's arguably the biggest snub from this slide—but he's still the driving force behind the defensive efforts for the Indiana Pacers.
Just as a reminder, we're talking about a unit that has allowed only 97.0 points per 100 possessions during the 2013-14 campaign, per Basketball-Reference. No other team in the NBA is in double digits.
No matter what type of numbers you look at, Hibbert is impressive—really impressive, in fact.
82games.com shows that he's thriving as an individual, holding opposing centers to a 12.2 player efficiency rating. Synergy Sports (subscription required) basically confirms that, revealing that he's allowing only 0.74 points per possession and outdoing all but four players in the NBA when it comes to defending the post.
Not bad for a player whose primary responsibilities lie away from his man, huh?
The Pacers allow 3.0 fewer points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, and NBA.com's SportVU data lets us know just how elite he's been as a rim-protector. Seventy-one players in the Association have played at least 20 games while facing at least five shots per game at the basket, and not one of them has held opponents to a lower field-goal percentage.
Joakim Noah and Serge Ibaka have both been impressive on the less-glamorous end of the court, but the latter isn't even remotely close to Hibbert at this point in the 2013-14 campaign. The Chicago Bulls center might be well behind, though he could change that soon if he keeps up this level of play.
Here's B/R's Jared Dubin on the subject:
Noah might be in the midst of his best defensive season yet, and he's on his way to giving Roy Hibbert a run for his money in the Defensive Player of the Year voting. Noah's 4.5 Defensive Win Shares thus far rank second in the NBA only to Paul George, and are 0.3 away from establishing a new career high.
His 96.1 individual defensive rating is remarkable—fifth best in the NBA and one of the 15 best marks of the last five seasons, according to Basketball-Reference.
Chicago has the NBA's second-best defense since the Deng trade, allowing 98.1 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. In the 980 minutes Noah's played since the trade, they've allowed just 96.0 points per 100 possessions, which would be good enough to lead the league were it not for the best defense of all time.
Don't count out Noah quite yet, even if the award is still Hibbert's to lose.
Coach of the Year
Win: Tom Thibodeau (4-1)
Place: Jeff Hornacek (5-1)
Show: Gregg Popovich (8-1)
Talk about a close race.
There are quite a few coaches who deserve mentions, even if they haven't done enough to work their way to the front of the pack. Terry Stotts is one, thanks to his job with the Portland Trail Blazers, and so, too, are Frank Vogel (Indiana Pacers) and Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat). We have to give shout-outs to Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks) and Steve Clifford (Charlotte Bobcats) as well.
But let's move on to the triumvirate of coaches who actually hold down the fort at the top of the competition.
Gregg Popovich has the third-best odds, thanks to the remarkable job he's done with his San Antonio Spurs. Then again, voter fatigue is just about the only thing that can ever keep Pop too far away from the trophy he seems to deserve every year.
This season, it's been all about injuries for the Spurs, who have played 60 games after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 4. Here's how many times a handful of the best players have suited up:
- Tony Parker, 49 games
- Tim Duncan, 55 games
- Manu Ginobili, 49 games
- Kawhi Leonard, 45 games
- Danny Green, 50 games
- Tiago Splitter, 40 games
At one point, San Antonio was just about out of wing players, but the Spurs have remained right at or near the top of the Western Conference throughout the season.
And yet, Popovich still hasn't compiled a record as impressive as the other two guys.
Remember the preseason expectations for the Phoenix Suns?
Right before the season started, I projected that the team would go 12-70, finishing dead last in the Western Conference. Welp, so much for that, and it's not like I was the only one forecasting doom and gloom.
Despite losing Eric Bledsoe prematurely, Jeff Hornacek still has this squad in playoff positioning this late in the season. That deserves some serious credit, though not quite as much as Tom Thibodeau should get.
How has this team overcome losing Derrick Rose? How has it gotten past trading Luol Deng for absolutely nothing useful during the 2013-14 adventure? How has it overcome injuries to an already-thin crop of wing players?
Thibodeau is the answer to all three questions, because he refuses to let his team take its foot off the gas pedal. A dominant defense has the Bulls rolling, and they now have a legitimate shot at earning the No. 3 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Hell, a second-round upset wouldn't be incredibly surprising at this point.
Most Valuable Player
Win: Kevin Durant (1-1)
Place: LeBron James (3-2)
Show: Blake Griffin (20-1)
It's tempting to just leave the third spot empty.
Blake Griffin holds a narrow lead over Paul George and Stephen Curry for that No. 3 spot on my MVP ballot thanks to his utter offensive dominance while Chris Paul was recovering from a separated shoulder, but he's still miles behind the two best players in the league.
At this point, you might as well pick a name out of a hat. If you draw Kevin Durant, just go with it. Same goes for LeBron James.
Both superstars have been absolutely unstoppable, but Durant still holds an ever-so-slight edge. The Miami Heat forward's 61-point masterpiece certainly drew him closer, but his counterpart on the Oklahoma City Thunder responded with quite the night of his own.
Against the overmatched Philadelphia 76ers, KD dropped 42 points, nine rebounds and three assists on 14-of-20 from the field. And scarily enough, it felt like it was just par for the course against the backdrop of this season's scoring exploits.
We're set up for one heck of an MVP race, one in which the two leading candidates both decide to trade legendary performances while flip-flopping their positioning for the NBA's biggest individual award. There will be punches, then counterpunches.
Then more punches.
As B/R's Zach Buckley wrote after LeBron's scoring outburst, "That gap (between Durant and LeBron) is thinning, though, much like the air in the ethereal atmosphere these two players occupy."
And, as you might expect, he's not the only one with an opinion on the topic. That said, you won't find a much better take than CBS Sports' Zach Harper:
The Most Valuable Player award race is often a marathon that we want to turn into a sprint. We start tracking it in the first two weeks of November, asking if a player is a leading candidate for the season's most prestigious individual honor. By the middle of the season, we want to give it to someone like the Lord of the Flies conch and claim it's theirs to protect.
We end up taking a season-long award and turn it into something much shorter than the necessary criteria for such an honor. The 2013-14 season is showing us how silly it is to not look at the process of the entire regular season before rewarding someone with the distinction as the league's move valuable.
This race is not over yet.
None of them are.