Monthly NBA Awards: Selecting the December Winner in Every Category

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 30, 2016

Monthly NBA Awards: Selecting the December Winner in Every Category

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    The NBA doesn't hand out monthly versions of year-end awards, but for the sake of imaginations everywhere, let's pretend it does.

    Winners will be picked based solely on their performances during the month of December. Big-picture anecdotes and stats will be used to add context, but they won't matter nearly as much as recent efforts.

    To preserve the importance of adequate sample sizes where necessary, candidates must have played at least 10 games and averaged 25 or more minutes per outing to be considered.

    The 10-contest appearance benchmark will be lifted and the minutes minimum lowered to 15 for Rookie of the Month honors. First-year roles are fluid, often inconsistent and demand more flexibility.

    Remember: This is not a predictive exercise. We are only singling out December's superheroes in every category.

Coach of the Month: Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors

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    Five NBA head coaches have held their current post for at least four seasons. Four of them are routinely recognized as pristine basketball minds: Rick Carlisle (Dallas Mavericks), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat) and Terry Stotts (Portland Trail Blazers).

    The other is Dwane Casey, head honcho for the Toronto Raptors. Despite being cited annually as one of the sideline guides most likely to get fired, he is also one of the league's top hardwood brainiacs.

    General manager Masai Ujiri has boosted Casey's stock by acquiring better talent. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry are among the select few studs who generate offense out of thin air, and the roster contains a mix of skill sets that allows the Raptors to play many different styles.

    But Casey has made the Raptors his own—and the latest iteration is his pride and joy.

    For the fourth straight year, Toronto is on pace to break the franchise's single-season win record. It has the league's best offensive rating, and Casey has a knack for fortifying defensive stands despite an array of frontcourt liabilities.

    After a slow start on the less glamorous end, the team ranks fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions since the start of December. No team has a better net rating during that time.

    Most impressive of all: Casey makes decisions down the stretch other coaches don't have the gall to execute. He doesn't have an issue benching Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto's second-highest-paid player, in crunch time. Sophomore Norman Powell will get fourth-quarter spin during close games over experienced vets if the matchup calls for it.

    At this point, since Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is now receiving his due prestige, Casey may be the most underrated clipboard-carrier in the league.

    Runner-Up: Jason Kidd, Milwaukee Bucks

December's Most Improved Player: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    Sophomores don't typically earn Most Improved Player nods. We must go back to 2006-07 Monta Ellis to find the last second-year winner.

    Rookie seasons usually represent the rawest version of players, so they are supposed to make leaps during their next go-round. It's much harder to go from good to great, which is why third- and fourth-year talents dominate this discussion—which, in turn, is why Giannis Antetokounmpo should take the year-end distinction running away.

    But we needn't confine ourselves to this preconceived criteria when looking at month-to-month swings. Extreme midseason detonations are impressive no matter how much experience a player has to his name. That brings us to Nikola Jokic, the Denver Nuggets sophomore who played like a fourth-year veteran last season and who has used an uptick in playing time to reinforce his superstar ceiling:

    Nikola Jokic Per 36PTSFG%3P%REBASTBLK
    Before Dec. 114.450.427.310.34.30.9
    Since Dec. 122.567.338.512.66.91.1

    Extrapolating Jokic's production isn't pivotal for appreciating his December performance. He's averaging 16.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 0.8 blocks in 26 minutes of action per game—unreal output that has coincided with his return to center and, per Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal, prompted teammate Mike Miller to say Jokic is basically Marc Gasol with "flashes of Pau."

    It's an adequate parallel. Jokic isn't particularly explosive, but he is smart, should develop into a feared rim protector and has "future best-passing big" written all over him.

    For now, he's a superstar-in-training, wrapping up a dominant December.

    Runner-Up: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Sixth Man of the Month: Eric Gordon, Houston Rockets

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    Eric Gordon fits the bill for sixth-man honors whether we're looking at monthly or season-long displays—a second-unit spark plug who is anything but gun shy.

    Lou Williams is the only backup averaging more points per game in December (21.7), and his contributions come amid inferior efficiency for a Los Angeles Lakers squad that isn't very good.

    As the Houston Rockets' most popular second-stringer, Gordon is pumping in 19.0 points a night while shooting 44.8 percent from the field for the month. His 45.8 percent accuracy rate from downtown is absurd—even more so when you realize he's jacking 9.6 three-pointers per appearance.

    Playing beside James Harden helps pad accuracy rates: Almost half of Gordon's shot attempts leading into the New Year come off the catch, and many of his looks are wide-open gimmes. Still, converting more than 47 percent of your spot-up threes for an entire month is impressive no matter how you do it.

    Besides, Gordon doesn't depend on others as much as Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, Corey Brewer and Sam Dekker. He is the Rockets' third-most reliable playmaker behind Patrick Beverley and Harden, and his December assist percentage (19.9) is the fifth-best among reserves.

    This won't be the last time you see him tied to the Sixth Man of the Something conversation.

    Runner-Up: Garrett Temple, Sacramento Kings

Rookie of the Month: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

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    Who else?

    Malcolm Brogdon is a possibility. He has the Milwaukee Bucks' third-highest net rating for December, during which time he's led all rookies in three-point shooting and assist rate.

    But we mustn't numb ourselves to the wonders of Joel Embiid.

    He has seen a dip in efficiency, but his usage rate over the last nine appearances is 13.1 points higher than any other newbie. The Philadelphia 76ers are also making him play more next to Jahlil Okafor—the 21-year-old defensive turnstile with an offensive repertoire that reached the NBA two decades too late.

    Still, Embiid is crushing it.

    Through nine December outings, he is averaging 19.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.3 blocks...in just over 27 minutes of action per tilt. He fails to crack the top 10 of total minutes played among rookies, and yet he's first in points, third in rebounds and first in blocks.

    Embiid's three-point clip has fallen to 31.3 percent during this stretch, but the Sixers will take that from a 22-year-old 7-footer who didn't play for two seasons. Plus, he's still knocking down more than 45 percent of his looks overall.

    It should come as no surprise that Embiid's general Rookie of the Year case is untouchable. If he's outperformed by another beginner for even a month, it will qualify as a major upset.

    Runner-Up: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

Defensive Player of the Month: JaMychal Green, Memphis Grizzlies

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    JaMychal Green? The undrafted product who fell into a prominent role with last year's injury-infested Memphis Grizzlies? Him?

    "Sooner or later, he's going to start being recognized as one of the top defenders in this league, not treated as a young guy," Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale told reporters. "When that happens, it's going to be a great thing to see, because he's really earning that reputation."

    That recognition has arrived in this space, finally and deservedly, with mountains of evidence to back it up. Here's a taste of Green's defense during the month of December:

    • Memphis is first in points allowed per 100 possessions, and Green has a better defensive rating than the team's most-used players, Tony Allen and Marc Gasol.
    • Andrew Harrison, Klay Thompson and Kevin Love (seriously) are the only players who have amassed more defensive win shares.
    • Opponents are shooting 35 percent against him at the rim—the lowest mark among anyone averaging 2.5 point-blank challenges per game.
    • Rival shooters are hitting 25.9 percent of their three-point looks with him in the vicinity—almost 10 points below their season average.

    The Grizzlies treat Green like an underdeveloped Draymond Green. He dances between protecting the paint, switching onto ball-handlers and closing out perimeter snipers. Just two players have matched the number of pick-and-roll ball-handler (19) and roll-men (29) possessions that Green has defended: LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul Millsap. Where Green ranks in the 79th percentile or better in both categories, neither Aldridge nor Millsap reaches the 60th percentile.

    Volume matters, and Green has guarded fewer sets than his statistical partners. But the point stands: He is one of the NBA's most versatile defenders—one who is more than worthy of his December distinction.

    Runner-Up: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

MVP of the Month: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Surrounding storylines and surpassed projections may keep LeBron James from winning his fifth MVP award at season's end.

    They will not, however, prevent him from carrying the imaginary December crown.

    James Harden and Russell Westbrook are supposed to be duking it out for MVP position. Their per-game lines are mythically good, and both of their teams are on pace to unexpectedly clear 50 victories. James' value to the Cleveland Cavaliers is more predictable and therefore stale.

    People don't (terribly) care that he's averaging 27.9 points, 7.8 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.8 steals in December while shooting 52.9 percent overall and 39.7 percent from deep. And it doesn't seem to matter that his MVP case writes itself whenever he takes a seat.

    "In games with James, the Cavaliers are 129-43, which is a winning percentage of .750," Cleveland.com's Chris Fedor wrote. "Without him, they are 0-3 this season and 4-18 since he returned to Cleveland. That's a winning percentage of .182—worse than the Philadelphia 76ers, Phoenix Suns and Dallas Mavericks this year."

    Net RatingSince Dec. 12016-17 Overall
    CLE without James-8.7-7.8
    OKC without Westbrook-3.4-10.1
    HOU without Harden9.3-0.5

    Harden's absence doesn't have a stark impact on the Rockets. Westbrook's breathers have not been crippling the Oklahoma City Thunder much in recent weeks. The Cavaliers have two other superstars in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, but they cannot function like a playoff team without James. That counts for something—in this case, everything.

    Runner-Up: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

                                              

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com and are accurate leading into Thursday's games unless otherwise noted.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.