Dark-Horse Candidates for Every NBA Award in 2017-18

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2017

Dark-Horse Candidates for Every NBA Award in 2017-18

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    Preseason NBA awards predictions that aim only to identify the most likely recipient in every category have their place.

    This space just isn't it.

    What fun would that be? The most obvious contenders for the Association's year-end hardware earn plenty of shine.

    LeBron James will stake claim in the MVP debate. Gregg Popovich will try getting the Coach of the Year honor named after him. Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard will make other Defensive Player of the Year hopefuls wonder why they should even try. Blah, blah, blah.

    Stepping outside the box, in search of under-the-radar possibilities, is much more fulfilling. These picks are not meant to be blasphemous. Rather, they're players to keep an eye on throughout 2017-18.

    If performance-related and anecdotal-based reasoning breaks in their favor, they could find themselves closer to the forefront of a discussion that has yet to meaningfully include them. 

Rookie of the Year: Milos Teodosic, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Too many sleeper candidates came to mind under the Rookie of the Year umbrella.

    Kyle Kuzma would be a spectacular pick if his emergence with the Los Angeles Lakers wasn't officially the exact opposite of a secret. Donovan Mitchell no longer qualifies either. He stole Marshawn Lynch's Beast Mode during summer-league play, and the Utah Jazz are desperate for the very shot creation he's used to shed the relative-unknown label.

    John Collins is the dare-to-be-great pick. He's also the stop-drinking-on-the-job dice roll. The Atlanta Hawks have the rebuilding timeline to run out their toddlers in volume, but they'll be hard-pressed to chisel out enough spin for the 20-year-old jack-in-the-box.

    They seem intent on using him at power forward, where Luke Babbitt, Ersan Ilyasova and Taurean Prince will all scrap for minutes. Ticket him for time at the 5, and he'll still have to jostle for participation with Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala.

    Markelle Fultz might cede enough status to Ben Simmons at the moment to be considered an underdog, but earmarking No. 1 picks as long shots is questionable practice. He is closer to Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonzo Ball territory.

    Consider this a roundabout way of saying: You're up, Milos Teodosic.

    Older rookies usually hold an edge over their younger counterparts, and Teodosic, 30, has a decade on some of the higher-profile candidates. His passing is as advertised: crafty and improvisational, mixed with general sorcery. His Los Angeles Clippers teammates already know to cut and find the corners when he has the ball; he should rack up more assists than any rookie not named Lonzo or Benny.

    Adapting to the NBA's three-point line has been a non-issue. He's canning 45-plus percent of his treys for the preseason on more than six attempts per 36 minutes. All the preseason caveats apply, but his off-ball work renders him a nice complement to Blake Griffin.

    Teodosic doesn't add anything beyond opportunistic steal-chasing on defense, but the Clippers can cover up his suboptimal foot speed with minutes beside Patrick Beverley and by stashing his 6'5" frame on plodding weak links.

    Playing time could become a hiccup. Playoff aspirants tend not to lean heavily on beginners. But the Clippers need the additional playmaking around Griffin, and the trio of Beverley, Austin Rivers and Lou Williams won't cut it. Teodosic should get enough reps to keep his dark-horse hopes intact.

Most Improved Player: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

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    Most Improved Player honors have a way of finding breakout stars on playoff teams. Five of the past six awardees headlined postseason squads. 

    That puts Myles Turner at a noticeable disadvantage. The Eastern Conference is a wide-open slop fest, but his Indiana Pacers don't have the look and feel of a playoff contender after jettisoning Paul George. Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, Norman Powell, Karl-Anthony Towns et al. will all be mentioned before him.

    Maybe Turner detonates to the tune of surprise postseason contention. Achieving best-player status on an unexpected eight-seed would make his case for him. But he doesn't need to ferry the Pacers that far.

    Kevin Love (2011) and Goran Dragic (2014) secured recognition while repping lottery teams. He can, too. (Though, to be fair, Dragic's 48-win Phoenix Suns squad was a lottery anomaly.)

    George's exit leaves an alpha-sized void in the offensive pecking order. Even Jeff Teague's departure leaves more community touches. Many of the lingering responsibilities will fall to Victor Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, with Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young mopping up some shots as well.

    But Turner is no second or third fiddle. His usage will spike after a sophomore dip. And while he won't be able to leverage George's passing and spot-up shooting into gimme looks, he needn't fear that independence. He's already flashed some self-sufficient chops.

    In the 365 minutes he logged without George last season, Turner shot 53 percent and averaged an astronomically efficient 1.17 points per possession, according to NBA Wowy. He improved his finishing out of the pick-and-roll and parlayed infrequent post-up and dribble drive opportunities into efficient offense.

    Account for extra shot attempts, and Turner could flirt with averaging 20 points per game. And if he does that while once again holding opponents to sub-50-percent clips around the rim, his Most Improved Player case will write itself—Indiana's proximity to the East's playoff picture be absolutely damned.

Sixth Man of the Year: Will Barton, Denver Nuggets

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    Will Barton originally wasn't in the mix for this spot. But then yours truly realized he didn't even grab a top-13 finish on last season's Sixth Man of the Year ballot.

    Then, after that, the ever-insightful Zach Lowe offered his input on the award for ESPN.com. He went out on a limb with Greg Monroe while proposing another 13 alternatives—none of which were Barton:

    "Yup, this is dumb. Big guys never win this. It always goes to some empty-calories wing chucker. There could be a ton of candidates: Lou Williams, Eric Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Andre Iguodala (he's apparently never winning it, either, which is insane), Dario Saric, Marcus Smart, Norman 'Norm' Powell, someone from the Heat, Tristan Thompson, J.R. Smith, Patrick Patterson, Patty Mills, Milos Teodosic, and probably one or two more."

    Lowe is correct: Sixth Man of the Year nods favor volume and points per game over substance. But Barton represents the area in which volume and substance collide. 

    Glossing over his case last season isn't a big deal. The Denver Nuggets didn't meet the unofficial playoff-team qualifier. But they will this year following the rise of Nikola Jokic and addition of Paul Millsap. And Barton will be a huge reason why.

    Denver should be calling his number more than ever. The roster is light on wings, and Juan Hernangomez can only play so many consecutive minutes at the 3. Gary Harris and Jamal Murray will defend up a position, but that takes an untenable toll. The 6'5" Barton will have to log more time at the 3, paving the way for him to become the rare second-stringer who eclipses 30 minutes per game.

    Even the Nuggets' point guard rotation supports this volume. Jameer Nelson is 92 in NBA years, and Emmanuel Mudiay hasn't yet shown he belongs in a rotation at this level.

    Jokic and Murray will seize control of the offense, with Harris and Millsap filling in some ball-handling gaps, but Barton jump-started more pick-and-rolls per game last season than anyone on the docket. That shouldn't change. 

    Sure, he will burn possessions with ill-advised pull-ups, but Jamal Crawford is multiyear proof voters eat that stuff up. Besides, Barton has become a more willing passer without cannibalizing a bunch of additional touches. He averaged 6.7 potential assists in 2016-17—the exact amount delivered by Paul George and Khris Middleton.

Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

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    Labeling Anthony Davis as a long shot on the Defensive Player of the Year plane isn't a sign of disrespect.

    Rudy Gobert, Kawhi Leonard and reigning recipient Draymond Green have turned this annual race into a three-man heat. Anyone outside their triangle defaults to unlikely-winner status.

    Davis is the most intriguing name among prospective outsiders. Andre Roberson comes pretty darn close, but newcomers Carmelo Anthony and Paul George complicate his credentials. George and Roberson could yank attention away from one another, while playing Anthony heavy minutes makes it hard for the Oklahoma City Thunder to prop up a first-rate defense.

    The New Orleans Pelicans haven't plopped obstacles in front of Davis. They enhanced his case after acquiring DeMarcus Cousins ahead of last year's trade deadline.

    Having that second deterrent around the basket allows Davis to roam. He won't send back as many shots, but he can party-crash more passing lanes, jump out on more pick-and-rolls and just generally serve as roving aid. 

    Where Cousins and Davis still need to iron out kinks on offense, this defensive dynamic takes immediate effect. The Pelicans allowed 99.6 points per 100 possessions through the 394 minutes these two shared the floor—akin to the league's best defensive rating.

    Losing Solomon Hill to a torn hamstring does dampen Davis' appeal a bit. New Orleans' playoff stock is shaky at best, and he'll be responsible for switching onto more wings. But he's no stranger to fly-all-over workloads.

    Davis added average to above-average value in every defensive play type last season, except when guarding pick-and-roll ball-handlers, according to NBA Math. And only one player contested as many two-pointers and three-pointers while forcing as many deflections.

    It just so happens that player is Draymond Green.

Coach of the Year: Steve Clifford, Charlotte Hornets

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    Every Coach of the Year debate includes Steve Kerr (Golden State Warriors), Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs), Erik Spoelstra (Miami Heat) and Brad Stevens (Boston Celtics). The Cleveland Cavaliers' Tyronn Lue and Houston Rockets' Mike D'Antoni, last year's winner, will also get their share of love as a sideline-stalker for teams that could amass 50-plus wins.

    Stray from the beaten path, and it won't be long before you run into Charlotte Hornets head honcho Steve Clifford.

    Known primarily for his defensive ingenuity, he's been nothing if not adaptable on offense over the years. He's mixed and matched dual ball-handlers in the backcourt and steered Charlotte's action away the low post and out past the three-point line.

    Clifford pieced together a strong argument for himself in 2015-16, when the Hornets rattled off 48 wins and landed inside the top 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency. He'll have a stronger one this season.

    Charlotte doesn't have the personnel to finish 10th or better in points scored per 100 possessions. Last year's 14th-place standing is owed to a post-All-Star tear, and the front office didn't do anything over the summer to beef up the offense—with the exception, maybe, of adding rookie Malik Monk.

    If anything, the Hornets are set up to fall. Kemba Walker will anchor potent units because that's what he does, but Nicolas Batum's shoulder injury severely hamstrings the team's playmaking corps.

    It doesn't matter. The Hornets will be good to great on defense. Dwight Howard and Cody Zeller combine for a punishing one-two punch at the 5, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist devours perimeter possessions. 

    Mustering average—or close to average—offensive production via more three-pointers and Walker-Howard pick-and-rolls would be gravy. A stingy defense puts the Hornets in play for 46 to 49 victories, with the outside possibility of cracking 50, in the Eastern Conference.

    Scrap and claw into that range, and Clifford has everything he needs to steal some Coach of the Year love—including a Dwight Howard reboot.

Executive of the Year: Masai Ujiri, Toronto Raptors

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    The Toronto Raptors' offseason can be viewed through two different lenses: Either they're worse off for prioritizing luxury-tax evasion over talent retention, or team president Masai Ujiri deserves a formal commendation for keeping 50-win hopes alive in the face of a budget.

    Neither stance is wrong at this stage. Toronto's situation isn't that cut and dried. The regular season has to play out before a right answer materializes.

    On the one hand, the Raptors lost Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker, three glue guys who filled pressing needs. Their point guard rotation is rife with inexperience behind Kyle Lowry, they're paying Serge Ibaka more than $20 million to be a glorified spot-up shooter and occasional shot-blocker, and the frontcourt pecking order is heavy on specialists but barren of complete packages.

    On the flip side, Ujiri essentially turned Joseph, DeMarre Carroll, a late first-round pick and a second-rounder into the sweet-shooting, switch-friendly C.J. Miles. Ibaka (three years, $65 million) and Lowry (three years $100 million) are making a ton of money, but they're on short-term contracts that come off the books before DeMar DeRozan's deal.

    Yes, the Raptors need a bit of luck, but so does every team. And they've put themselves in a position to make their own.

    Norman Powell's four-year, $42 million extension safeguards them against monstrous offer sheets next summer and is reasonable enough to progress into a steal. The frontcourt carousel won't look so inconveniently crammed if they get a jump from Lucas Noguiera, Jakob Poeltl or Paskal Siakam—all of whom are 25 or younger. 

    DeRozan has the handles to neutralize the secondary playmaking issue. He rated in the 84th percentile of efficiency last season as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and has committed himself to dropping more passes during preseason play. 

    Indeed, the Raptors could incur regression. Their depth specifically is tethered to so many unknowns. But if they hit on a few of their experiments and prospects, they'll be neck and neck with the Celtics and Washington Wizards, pursuing ownership of the real estate just below the Cavaliers. And after the offseason renovation they underwent, that'd be more than enough to put Ujiri near the tippy top of the executive's ladder.

MVP: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Russell Westbrook opened the door for players on unspectacular teams to wedge their way into the MVP discussion, and no underdog is in a better spot to follow his lead than Blake Griffin.

    He, too, lost a superstar teammate, in Chris Paul. Now, like Westbrook before him, he's tasked with shouldering persisting playoff hopes rather than a newly minted rebuild.

    "I wouldn't really call it a transitional season," Griffin said, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Elliott Teaford. "We have new players. To me, transitional makes it seem like it's a rebuilding year or something like that. I guess it would be rebuilding if we had done something. We haven't really done anything over the past five, six years."

    Voters will still gravitate toward the megahumans from top-two playoff seeds. Everyone should fear LeBron James, because he's LeBron James, but also because the way in which Kyrie Irving pushed his way out of Cleveland might compel the four-time MVP to enter NBA Finals mode during the regular season. 

    Kawhi Leonard looms in this race if his quad injury doesn't prevent him from making 70 appearances. Either Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant could do enough to make us forget they have the cushiest superstar gigs in basketball. Giannis Antetokounmpo, John Wall and, if the Pelicans can surpass 45 wins, Anthony Davis make for stiff underdog competition.

    But no one in the league has the opportunity laying before Griffin—that chance to establish himself away from a superstar, for the first time, while spearheading a mid-end playoff bid.

    And if last season's me-time is any indication, Griffin is up to the challenge. He averaged 23.2 points and 6.4 assists on 50 percent shooting per 36 minutes of court time without Paul, through which the Clippers scored like a top-three offense and posted a positive differential per 100 possessions.

    Translate that 554-minute sample size into a full-season's body of work and postseason appearance, and Griffin could find himself getting the Russell Westbrook treatment. 


    Statistics courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball-Reference, NBA Math and ESPN unless otherwise noted. Salary information via Basketball Insiders, Spotrac and RealGM.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.