NBA Awards Odds 2013-14: Predictions for the Season's Home Stretch
If the 2013-14 NBA season were a race track, we'd be coming around the final corner and headed for the finish line right about now. No team has more than nine games to play before its regular-season schedule is complete.
Even at this advanced stage of the campaign, every major award that the Association will soon hand out remains in play. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are still battling for MVP votes. Roy Hibbert's no longer the overwhelming favorite for Defensive Player of the Year that he once was, thanks to the Indiana Pacers' recent slide. The Rookie of the Year race is as competitive as ever, if only because this year's field lacks any true standouts.
The difficulty of choosing just one of the league's first-year performers, though, pales in comparison to that of sorting through the myriad worthy names in play for Most Improved, Sixth Man and Coach of the Year.
It's been several months since yours truly last handicapped the competition with equestrian lingo. With the curtain set to drop on the regular season in two weeks, now seems as good a time as any to see who currently stands where in pursuit of each of the NBA's six major pieces of hard-earned hardware.
Stats up to date through games played on Tuesday, April 1.
Rookie of the Year
Win/Place/Show: Michael Carter-Williams (33 percent), Victor Oladipo (33 percent), Trey Burke (33 percent)
I'm going to go ahead and declare this year's Rookie of the Year race a flat-out toss-up. We've got three promising young point guards—all with apparent flaws in their respective games, all putting up decent numbers on terrible teams.
Carter-Williams has the early name recognition in his favor, along with the counting stats (16.5 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 2.0 steals). But he's shot under 40 percent from the field and well under 30 percent from three.
Oh, and his Philadelphia 76ers tied the North American pro sports record for most consecutive losses with 26.
Oladipo has played in more of his team's games than has MCW, hit more than 40 percent of his field goals (41.4 percent, to be precise) and had enough spectacular moments on the court to fill a modest YouTube highlight reel. 'Dipo, though, hasn't started all of his games like Carter-Williams has and hasn't been quite as productive therein (14 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.6 steals).
As for Burke, he's played in and started about as many games as has Carter-Williams, he's racked up more assists (5.3 per game) than has Oladipo and he's turned the ball over far less frequently (1.9 per game) than either of those two has. Trouble is, Burke has been the least efficient of the three from the field (37.8 percent), with a scoring average (12.5 points) that's not about to take anyone's breath away.
At this point, the fact that Burke's Utah Jazz, at 23-52, have two more wins than Oladipo's Orlando Magic and seven more than MCW's sad-sack Sixers might be enough to tip the scales in the former Michigan Wolverine's favor.
Most Improved Player
Win: DeAndre Jordan (20 percent)
Place: Anthony Davis (19 percent)
The MIP race is just as tough to call as the one for ROY, but for the opposite reason: There are so many worthy candidates for an honor with inherently vague criteria for qualification.
Wall cracked his first All-Star Game by staying healthy, flashing a vastly improved jump shot and posting career-best numbers across the board as a result. The same goes for DeRozan, who, along with should've-been-All-Star teammate Kyle Lowry, propelled the Toronto Raptors into the playoffs by filling the void left behind by Rudy Gay after the early-season trade that sent him to the Sacramento Kings.
Stephenson and Ibaka have both stepped up their respective games as key cogs on championship-caliber clubs. Green and Morris have been revelations for the run-and-gun Phoenix Suns.
Technically, this award should go to Davis. No player in the NBA has improved more from last season to this one than has Davis. He's gone from tantalizingly talented rookie to bona fide superstar for whom the path to "Best Player in Basketball" may be impeded only by LeBron James and Kevin Durant at this point.
Moreover, Davis' unique ability as an all-court terror has made comparisons to past pros nigh on impossible. "He is going to be his own player," Monty Williams, the head coach of the New Orleans Pelicans, recently told Grantland's Zach Lowe. "People try and think back to re-create another A.D., but he’s not like anyone we’ve ever seen."
But the leap A.D. has made is hardly unexpected. He came into the league as a can't-miss franchise cornerstone atop the 2012 NBA draft. And, historically speaking, young players tend to improve the most between their rookie and sophomore seasons. Davis has overshot expectations, sure, but the fact that his game has grown by leaps and bounds at this point in his career isn't entirely out of the ordinary.
If the idea of the MIP is to recognize a player who's been around for a while but has only just taken the next step, DeAndre Jordan should be the front-runner. He's leading the league in rebounding (13.9 per game) and field-goal percentage (.669) and ranks third in blocks (2.45 per game). He's also anchored a Los Angeles Clippers defense that ranks sixth in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, despite a dearth of size and depth up front behind him.
Statistics aside, Jordan has matured as a man, eschewing the locker-room drama of yesteryear for a more focused approach, both on and off the court. Doc Rivers deserves some credit for that turnaround, though it'll be up to Jordan to decide whether or not he wants to share the hardware.
Sixth Man of the Year
Win: Jamal Crawford (40 percent)
Place: Markieff Morris (25 percent), Gerald Green (25 percent)
Show: Nick Young (10 percent)
Injuries and starting nods have loosened Jamal Crawford's grip on his second Sixth Man of the Year Award somewhat, but not enough for it to slip from his hands before season's end. Even if you wiped away the 20.1 points per game that Crawford's averaged in his 23 starts for the Los Angeles Clippers, his remainder (17.6 points per game) would still be the best of any reserve in the NBA this season.
And, of his five games of 30 points or more, four have come off the bench.
More importantly, none of the other contenders can claim to be integral to the title hopes of a legitimate contender. Crawford deserves credit for the work he's done to mask the losses the Clips have suffered in their backcourt and on the wing over the course of the 2013-14 campaign. According to Basketball Reference, L.A. has a record of 19-9 this season when Crawford's scored 20 points or more.
Green and Morris have been plenty impactful for the Phoenix Suns, but those two could only hope to split votes at this point. Morris might get slightly more credit in this category, if only because all 73 of his appearances have come off the bench. Green, on the other hand, has started 47 times in 74 games.
As much as I admire what fellow Reseda Cleveland alum Nick Young (C-HOUSE!) has done to infuse the Los Angeles Lakers' miserable season with excitement and entertainment value, there's no way he should outpace any of the previous three candidates at the ballot box. There's no ignoring the 18 games he's lost to injury and suspension this season.
Nor can the effect of inflation on his stats, amid the Lakers' largely listless misery, be ignored. Put Swaggy P on a slower-paced, more competitive club, and he's not pouring in 17.3 points per game.
Defensive Player of the Year
Win: Joakim Noah (40 percent)
Place: Roy Hibbert (35 percent)
Show: DeAndre Jordan (25 percent)
Three shot-blocking bigs. Three great defenses. Three surprisingly distinct cases for Defensive Player of the Year.
Hibbert was the runaway favorite throughout the first half of the season. His Indiana Pacers sprinted out to a 33-7 record on the strength of a defense for which Hibbert served as the unquestioned anchor. Prior to the All-Star break, the Pacers allowed their opponents to score a measly 93.6 points per 100 possessions—a mark that would've tied for the second-stingiest of all time over the course of a full season, per Basketball Reference.
Since then, Indy has seen its defense surrender 101 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. That's still a top-10-caliber mark, but it's hardly one becoming of a Hibbert-led group that had been historically elite.
Hibbert's contributions have been no less vital to Indy's cause. He ranks fourth in blocks (2.33 per game) and third in block percentage (5.8) while holding the opposition to just 41.4 percent shooting on 9.9 field-goal attempts at the rim per game, according to NBA.com's SportVU stats.
Still, the Pacers' overall slippage has left the door wide open for Noah. The Chicago Bulls have been slightly stingier on defense since Luol Deng was traded (97.7 points per 100 possessions) than they were when they still had one of the NBA's premier perimeter defenders on their side (97.8 points per 100 possessions).
Tom Thibodeau deserves dap for keeping his players focused on that end and will get some in the Coach of the Year race. But it's Noah who's put Thibs' principles into practice on the court. He's faced plenty of shots at the rim (7.5 per game) and defended them exceedingly well (45.5 percent opponent field-goal percentage at the rim), albeit not quite to the degree that Hibbert has.
What Noah lacks as a traditional paint patroller, he more than makes up for as an all-court menace. He leads the league in defensive rating—the Bulls have allowed fewer than 96 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor—and, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required), his opponents have shot just 38.4 percent from the floor.
And while Hibbert's star has faded, Noah's has never shone brighter. The disparity in productivity between Noah (10 points, eight rebounds, eight assists, four steals, three blocks) and Hibbert (three points, no field goals, five rebounds) in their most recent showdown—an 89-77 win for the Bulls—further underscores the recency bias that may lead to Noah's award-season victory.
As for Jordan, he'll garner DPOY consideration for many of the same reasons he'll be a favorite in the MIP push.
Coach of the Year
Win: Gregg Popovich (35 percent)
Place: Jeff Hornacek (25 percent), Steve Clifford (25 percent)
Show: Terry Stotts (7.5 percent), Tom Thibodeau (7.5 percent)
Putting Pop in pole position here may be more a matter of wishful thinking than anything else. After all, new coaches engineering quick turnarounds like those that Hornacek and Clifford have helmed in Phoenix and Charlotte, respectively, tend to garner more attention than does a winning machine like the San Antonio Spurs churning out yet another 50-win season—16 in 17 years since Popovich and Duncan became a pair, to be exact.
(The lone exception? The lockout-shortened 1999 season, when there were only 50 games on the schedule. The Spurs won an NBA-best 37 games that year before winning their first championship. Go figure.)
Still, the job Pop's done with this year's Spurs is head and shoulders above the rest. This squad owns the league's best record by three-and-a-half games, courtesy of a franchise-record 18-game winning streak, and has beaten its opponents by an average of 8.4 points per game, also a franchise high, per Basketball Reference.
This, despite coping with injuries to nearly every member of San Antonio's core group, save for Tim Duncan, who's missed six games as part of his usual rest regimen. And, despite adding just one new player (Marco Belinelli) to a team that might've rightly been burnt out by an exhausting, heartbreaking run to within mere seconds of the organization's fifth championship last spring.
But rather than rest on their laurels and ride out this season on the bitterness of their collective memories, the Spurs have returned with a tinge of urgency added to their ritual excellence. Belinelli's fit seamlessly into their system, as has Austin Daye since his deadline addition. Patty Mills and Cory Joseph have done wonders to keep Tony Parker from burning out after a summer spent carrying France to its first EuroBasket title.
Behind all of these successes is Popovich, the puppet master, pulling strings with greater aplomb than ever.
Most Valuable Player
Win: Kevin Durant (45 percent)
Place: LeBron James (35 percent)
Show: Blake Griffin (10 percent), Joakim Noah (10 percent)
Most years, LeBron James' 2013-14 would be more than enough to win the MVP. His numbers (26.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 1.6 steals, .569 from the field, .374 from three), while down slightly from last season's, are still remarkable in their own right.
Even more so when you consider the context. James has once again carried the Miami Heat to the best record in the Eastern Conference, despite pain in his own back and plenty more across Dwyane Wade's lower torso to force the All-Star guard into 22 DNPs thus far.
Durant's team, though, has been similarly imperiled by injuries, if not more so. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Russell Westbrook to knee surgery not once, but twice this season. They've been operating without Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha since late February and early March, respectively, and have since seen Reggie Jackson succumb to a back sprain.
Yet, OKC is once again on pace for 60 wins against a Western Conference schedule much tougher than what Miami's faced in the East.
Oh, right, and Durant's been nothing if not vital to that effort and has performed spectacularly therein. His 32.2 points per game not only put him well ahead of Carmelo Anthony in the push for his fourth scoring crown; they also grade out as the most by a player since Kobe Bryant poured in 35.4 points per game with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2005-06.
Durant's free-throw percentage (.872) will probably leave him just shy of his second straight 50-40-90 season. But he's getting to the line more often—10 times per game, the most in the NBA—and he's setting up his teammates for makes at a higher rate than ever, by both raw average and percentage.
And if you're into all-encompassing stats, Durant leads the league in player efficiency rating, win shares and win share per 48 minutes.
It's almost too bad that Durant and James are so far ahead of the field. Otherwise, Griffin's leap from flashy superstar to true member of the league's elite, particularly amid Chris Paul's midseason absence, and Noah's superb work holding together the Chicago Bulls sans Derrick Rose and Luol Deng would garner much more attention. As it stands, those two may well stir up the most vigorous debate over third-place ballots in NBA history.
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