NBA Awards Watch: Who's the Favorite for MVP, Rookie of Year and DPOY Early On?
One month of the 2017-18 NBA season isn't enough to draw firm conclusions.
We're still waiting to figure out which trends are real and which are the products of small samples. Legitimacy has to be earned over a much longer duration, whether we're talking about breakout offensive studs or new defensive stoppers.
But one month is enough to start looking at the trends.
The beginning of the campaign establishes a baseline for onlookers and award voters alike, hinting at the men who will be featured so prominently during award season.
Strong starts have tangible impacts down the road, even if these early games technically count the same as whatever happens during the middle portion of the basketball calendar.
Not all of the initial front-runners will maintain their leads throughout the season, but jetting out ahead of the pack is still better than attempting to come from behind in the pursuit of hardware.
Executive of the Year
3. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder
Don't be fooled by the Oklahoma City Thunder's seemingly inauspicious 7-7 record, which leaves them tied with the Memphis Grizzlies for the final spot in the Western Conference playoffs. They've been far better than the wins and losses would indicate, only getting dragged down in the standings by close losses and fluky performances.
OKC has outscored its foes by 6.3 points per 100 possessions, which leaves it behind only the Golden State Warriors (14.4), Boston Celtics (7.8) and Houston Rockets (6.7). Thanks primarily to a suffocating defense, this has still been a commanding outfit that other squads don't want to see on the upcoming schedule.
Patrick Patterson is still attempting to find his mojo, while Carmelo Anthony is trying to figure out an ideal role for his talents. But Paul George has worked out wonderfully, looking the part of a veritable two-way superstar alongside Russell Westbrook. He's averaging 21.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists and a league-high 2.4 steals while slashing 44.0/40.5/82.7.
The wins will come. They have to. And Presti's candidacy will trend up when that happens.
2. Scott Layden, Minnesota Timberwolves
Where would the 9-5 Minnesota Timberwolves be without their new additions?
Jimmy Butler's season got off to a slow start while he dealt with illness, but he's rebounded nicely and started to assert himself as a bona fide All-Star candidate.
Though the shots still aren't falling, the swingman's scoring was always of secondary importance while playing alongside Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Far more important are his defense, facilitating habits and ability to provide on- and off-court leadership for his younger teammates.
But how about Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson?
The former has been a steadying force for the offense, capably setting the table for his running mates while hitting his three-pointers at a 42.3 percent clip and providing plenty of spacing. That gravitational pull is so crucial on a squad without established marksmen, and Teague's hot start should engender continued attention throughout the year.
Somehow, Gibson has been even better. The veteran power forward has been a legitimate asset on both ends of the floor, thriving as a quaternary offensive option who can set screens, roll to the hoop and conserve most of his energy for the preventing end.
Minnesota's defense has been bad, but it would be almost unfathomably porous without Gibson's efforts.
1. Danny Ainge, Boston Celtics
No disrespect meant to the other candidates, but this one isn't particularly close.
Danny Ainge has somehow shrugged off all the criticism over the last few years—criticism he earned by refusing to package his stars and premier draft picks in deals for Paul George or Jimmy Butler, then compounded that with the controversial move to trade away the No. 1 pick of the 2017 NBA draft and ship Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers.
After all those decisions, the Boston Celtics haven't just trodden water; they've improved drastically.
And the most impressive part of all: Losing Gordon Hayward, this offseason's marquee signing, only a few minutes into his Beantown tenure hasn't even seemed to matter. Ainge has put together a roster with so much youthful talent that the C's have managed to emerge with the NBA's most suffocating defense and rattle off a lengthy win streak to follow up their two opening losses.
Kyrie Irving is playing the best basketball of his career and finally trying on the defensive end. Jayson Tatum will show up later in our Rookie of the Year snapshot. Jaylen Brown has undergone monumental improvements and capably shouldered more responsibility in the wake of the Hayward injury. Terry Rozier, Daniel Theis, Aron Baynes and Marcus Smart are all making big contributions.
Everything Ainge has touched has turned to gold.
Coach of the Year
3. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
Coach of the Year tends to go either to the signal-callers with the best records, or the ones who have exceeded expectations most. Steering players toward breakout seasons also tends to help.
With his Detroit Pistons sitting pretty at 10-4 and in possession of the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed, Stan Van Gundy meets each of the first two criteria. He's also helped promote an Andre Drummond explosion, allowing the big man to show off his distributing chops and assume an entirely different role in the Motor City.
Oh, and that's not it.
He's incorporated Avery Bradley nicely, affording the ex-Boston Celtic the freedom to operate as both a spot-up threat and ball-handling option while continuing to thrive on defense. He's handed Tobias Harris the keys on offense and watched as he blossomed into a legitimate contender for an All-Star spot.
2. Frank Vogel, Orlando Magic
Just read this quote from Frank Vogel about the Orlando Magic's intentions, per CBS Sports' Chris Barnewell:
"We always wanna play fast. The best way to seal the game is to attack and get layups. You always wanna explore that...The space that we're playing with. The understanding of good shot, bad shot, and working possessions to try and get layups and free throws or open threes. As opposed to the contested guarded shots that plagued us last season."
Yes, that's the same head coach who previously led the charge for the slow-it-down, grind-it-out, win-through-sheer-ugliness Indiana Pacers. He's embraced the stylings of the modern NBA, and the result is an offensive explosion few opponents have proved capable of containing.
Spoiler alert: The Magic have two of the three leading candidates for Most Improved Player, and that's a direct byproduct of Vogel's ability to shape his scheme to his players rather than reversing the order of those two nouns. Orlando's free-flowing offense has benefitted contributors at every position, and they don't seem likely to revert back to their old selves anytime soon.
The Magic have fallen off their early pace and still aren't locks to make the Eastern Conference playoffs. But the fact they're in the hunt is an achievement in and of itself.
1. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
When arguably your best player (who was also inarguably your biggest free-agent acquisition) suffers a devastating injury during the first quarter of the season-opener, you'd be forgiven for throwing in the towel. The season apparently wasn't meant to be.
Brad Stevens hasn't followed that strategy.
Instead, he's unleashed brilliant schemes centered around Al Horford, gotten Kyrie Irving to buy in on the preventing end, facilitated growth from Jaylen Brown, helped Jayson Tatum play like a two-way stud during his rookie season, milked production out of Daniel Theis, figured out how to maximize Marcus Smart's game in spite of a broken jumper, pushed his troops to win 14 consecutive contests and coached a historically great defense.
Take a deep breath. You've earned it for making it through that lengthy list of Stevens' early-season accomplishments.
Boston, for all intents and purposes, seemed like it would be due for some serious struggles after Hayward's ill-fated alley-oop venture. Instead, it's emerged as the prohibitive favorite to earn the East's No. 1 seed.
At this point in the year, no one else is even close to Stevens for this particular award.
Sixth Man of the Year
3. Nemanja Bjelica, PF, Minnesota Timberwolves
This probably isn't the most realistic selection for an award that typically favors smaller players who score lots of points.
Jordan Clarkson deserves plenty of love for his point-producing work with the Los Angeles Lakers, while James Johnson has continued to function admirably in his role for the Miami Heat. We can't completely overlook Rudy Gay's work in his first year as a San Antonio Spur.
But Nemanja Bjelica needs more love.
The Minnesota Timberwolves have seen their net rating improve from minus-4.0 to 5.7 when this power forward moves from the bench to the floor, and it's because he's been able to make a difference on both ends.
The 6'10" Serb has played solid defense for a team that desperately needs to become stingier, displaying a keen awareness of positioning and rotations. But his preventing work still pales in comparison to his scorching shooting.
These numbers will surely regress as the sample swells, but we're concerned only with what's happened so far. And up to this point in the 2017-18 campaign, Bjelica is averaging 7.6 points per game while shooting 57.4 percent from the field, 52.9 percent from downtown and 91.7 percent from the stripe.
Forget about 50/40/90, because he's on track to found the 50/50/90 club.
2. Will Barton, SG, Denver Nuggets
This new era of Denver Nuggets basketball hasn't gone too smoothly, with Nikola Jokic and Paul Millsap attempting to feel each other out while the young guards endure roller coasters of their own.
However, Will Barton has been a steady presence off the Mile High City's bench, consistently putting up gaudy point totals and providing key contributions at opportune times.
Barton is an improving defender and a capable facilitator, though scoring remains his preferred role. He's even able to hold his own on the glass and slide up to small forward in a pinch—a necessity dictated by the dearth of legitimate 3s on this 4-loaded roster.
But that's all of subsidiary importance to his point production.
Barton has put up double-digit points in 11 of his first 14 appearances, and one nine-point affair can be excused by his limited playing time in an easy victory over the Brooklyn Nets.
With the athleticism and handles necessary to attack the rim at will, as well as an improved perimeter stroke opening up even more opportunities, he's been the driving force behind Denver's bench ranking in the league's top half for offensive rating even while using so many limited and inexperienced players.
1. Tyreke Evans, SG/SF, Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley hasn't been the best player for the Memphis Grizzlies in 2017-18, struggling to find his shot and dealing with some Achilles trouble. Neither has Marc Gasol, who has taken a step backward on both ends of the floor.
The honor goes instead to Tyreke Evans, who has come off the bench to average a scorching 18.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.2 blocks while shooting 51.3 percent on his field-goal attempts, knocking down 42.9 percent of his triples and connecting from the free-throw line at an 83.3 percent clip.
Remember when Evans won Rookie of the Year for the Sacramento Kings? Eight years later, he's finally morphing into the player he was supposed to become.
The swingman has played solid, physical defense, but he's making his biggest impact as a dynamic offensive threat. Whether he's setting up his teammates, attacking the hoop off the bounce or thriving in a catch-and-shoot role, he seems incapable of doing anything wrong.
A clean bill of health helps, and so too does confidence in a revamped jumper—one deadly enough to keep defenders off balance and make it even easier for him to earn lanes to the hoop when he puts the ball on the floor.
At long last, we're witnessing the evolutionary form of Evans. And the Grizzlies unlocked him for just $3.3 million.
Most Improved Player
3. Evan Fournier, SG/SF, Orlando Magic
Most obviously, Evan Fournier is scoring the ball better than ever. Not only is he averaging a career-high 19.7 points per game, he's also doing so while tracking toward the 50/40/90 club.
The Orlando Magic have trusted him to score in a wide variety of situations, and he's justified that decision by thriving in just about every type of offensive set.
Less obviously, Fournier has developed as a distributor. He's averaging a mere 0.4 assists above last year's tally, but the quality of his feeds has risen substantially. Though he's making fewer passes this year than in 2016-17, he's producing more potential assists and helping his troops shoot a higher percentage off those looks.
And even less obviously still, the Frenchman has become a solid defender, tapping into a level of aggression we haven't witnessed in previous seasons. Ian Holmes had more on that for Orlando Magic Daily:
"What has been most evident this season so far, has been how active he has been with his hands. He is becoming a real difference-maker in the way he hassles the ball-handler and when he helps in the post when digging in on double teams. As soon as big men lower the ball on drives or in the post, Fournier has been excellent at getting his hands on the ball. Leading to fumbles, turnovers, strips and steals."
To make a long story short: Fournier has improved in every possible way.
2. Kristaps Porzingis, PF/C, New York Knicks
So Kristaps Porzingis is a full-fledged superstar now.
After averaging 18.1 points per game on 45.0/35.7/78.6 percent shooting last year, he's upped those numbers to 28.9 and 49.3/40.0/82.1.
Freed from the shackles of a Carmelo Anthony-led offense, the big man has asserted himself as an unquestioned alpha dog who can punish defenders on the interior, pepper defenses with spot-up jumpers and destroy foes with his face-up game. No one should be surprised if he manages to lead the league in scoring.
And he's impactful on defense, too.
Porzingis is holding opponents to 35.1 percent shooting when he's stationed at the rim. So far in 2017-18, 82 different players have suited up in at least 10 games and faced no fewer than three shots per contest in the relevant area. Only three of them have forced opponents into more misses than makes: Paul Millsap (42.2 percent allowed), John Wall (47.5 percent) and Derrick Favors (47.8 percent).
You might as well start referring to Porzingis as Tom Hanks, because he's truly in a league of his own.
1. Aaron Gordon, PF, Orlando Magic
Rewind to last season, and Aaron Gordon was a man without a role.
Though he was a natural power forward, the Orlando Magic seemed intent on fitting him into a Paul George-esque role, slotting him in at the 3 and asking him to initiate too much offense as a ball-handler. It was a horrific misuse of his skill set and significantly hampered his development.
But Gordon has slid back to his traditional role in 2017-18 and made the most of all he learned during last season's disaster. With a smoother shooting stroke and the confidence necessary to dominate from anywhere in the half-court set, he's gone from disappointing stagnation to a full-fledged breakout into stardom. Everything seems to have clicked.
Last year, Gordon finished No. 300 in NBA Math's total points added (TPA) metric with a score of minus-27.81, indicating he was a below-average player. This year, he's on pace for 188.71 TPA—a score that would've trailed only 25 players during the 2016-17 campaign.
His per-game scoring average may not have risen quite as astronomically as some other contenders for this award, but his impact gains dwarf all other candidates.
Defensive Player of the Year
3. DeMarcus Cousins, C, New Orleans Pelicans
Though DeMarcus Cousins' effort levels for the New Orleans Pelicans have waned periodically, the body of work he's already compiled is far too impressive to omit him entirely.
He's blocking more shots than in previous seasons, preventing opponents from registering any second-chance opportunities and displaying far more discipline when tasked with defending the interior.
Fifteen games into the season, he's actually the clubhouse leader in ESPN.com's DRPM, outpacing running mate Anthony Davis by a surprisingly wide margin. While Cousins sits in the No. 1 slot regardless of position, his unibrowed counterpart is down at No. 121.
Overall, the Pellies are not a good defensive team. They sit behind 16 other squads in points allowed per 100 possessions, narrowly trailing the Denver Nuggets and a ways behind the No. 15 Orlando Magic.
However, it's hard to pin the blame on Cousins when he's been so stingy on the interior. It's harder still when you realize the Pelicans have a 102.3 defensive rating while featuring this center, which would slot them at No. 8 in the season-long hierarchy.
Cousins has gained recognition more for his dizzying combination of physicality and finesse in previous seasons, and he still should. But his game has been complete in 2017-18.
2. Joel Embiid, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Defense is notoriously difficult to quantify in basketball, since so many hidden elements only show up as anecdotal observations. For example, someone can be terrific at guarding play-ending possessions, but it's often equivalently beneficial to force a pass and push the opposition out of its comfort zone.
And that's where Joel Embiid excels. He's so good at defense that opponents have entirely stopped attacking him.
Other players squaring off against the same number of back-to-the-basket shakedowns? Dennis Schroder, Tim Frazier and Yogi Ferrell, among others. Myles Turner excels at stopping post-ups (92.4 percentile), and he's still forced to go against 3.3 per contest.
Players don't attack Embiid out of the pick-and-roll, either. Let's go through the same exercise.
He's guarding 0.6 roll men per contest, which is substantially fewer than last year's 0.9. Sixty-nine players are more active against this play type, while Kris Dunn, Tyus Jones and Goran Dragic are among those tied with him. Anthony Davis goes up against 1.6 roll men per night.
Embiid can brag about how the Philadelphia 76ers' defensive rating plummets by 14.1 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, dropping all the way down to a stunning 96.4. He can point to no other Sixer having a lower on-court defensive rating than J.J. Redick (100.7) or Robert Covington (100.8), both of whom largely benefit from spending so much time alongside him.
But the most telling piece of evidence might be what he's not doing. Opponents would rather probe all other areas of the Philadelphia schemes before they risk venturing into territory he patrols.
1. Al Horford, C, Boston Celtics
The last time a Defensive Player of the Year took home hardware while working for a team outside the top five in defensive rating? That would be Marcus Camby, who earned the award for the Denver Nuggets in 2006-07 when they ranked ninth. No winners have come from teams outside the top 10 since Dikembe Mutombo and the No. 12 Atlanta Hawks in 1998.
Embiid and the 76ers sit at No. 13 in the defensive-rating hierarchy. Meanwhile, Al Horford's Boston Celtics lead the league by a rather wide margin.
The big man doesn't generate many steals. He doesn't block nearly enough shots to match the shot-swatting leaders, and his numbers are actually down drastically from previous seasons. But that's perfectly fine, since it's far more important he anchor the team's schemes and show off his remarkable versatility.
As Greg Cassoli explained for CelticsBlog, the new personnel—a collection of rangy athletes who can switch everything—has unlocked his full potential:
"In 2016-17, the Celtics simply did not have the right personnel to leverage what it is that makes Horford a special defender—switching, helping, and organizing the troops to defend the pick and roll. Boston overburdened him with duties, and attempted to construct a system that leveraged the strengths of its tenacious on-ball defenders.
"Now, in 2017-18, that system has been rebuilt around collective length, allowing for more switching, increasing the value of a rangy, versatile big like Horford, and decreasing the number of split second decisions he’s forced into making. The result has been, and will continue to be, a more cohesive and effective defensive unit."
Horford probably isn't the best defender in the NBA. But in these schemes and surrounded by these teammates, no one has been more valuable on the less glamorous end.
Rookie of the Year
3. OG Anunoby, SF/PF, Toronto Raptors
OG Anunoby wasn't even supposed to be playing at this point in the season, much less filling such a big role for the Toronto Raptors that he could surpass all but two rookies in the early hunt for the league's premier first-year honor. But play he has, and his versatility has been astounding.
The Indiana product who slipped to No. 23 in the 2017 NBA draft while still recovering from a right knee injury that prematurely ended his collegiate career has even stepped into Toronto's starting lineup.
In his first appearance as part of the opening quintet, he gashed the Houston Rockets for 16 points (on 6-of-8 shooting), two rebounds, one assist and one steal.
But so much of what Anunoby does won't show up in the box score. He can fill plenty of different offensive roles, whether he's spotting up, cutting to the hoop or serving as a decoy. And perhaps most impressive is his ability to avoid mistakes—something far more advanced players still struggle to do.
Then again, his defense may be even more impressive still. Though he occasionally cedes backdoor cuts and falls asleep off the ball (what rookie doesn't?), his overwhelming athleticism and feel for the game have made him an impact stopper from the get-go.
2. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Boston Celtics
"Yes, we would have picked him with the first pick," Boston Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said about Jayson Tatum, per CSN New England (h/t NBC Sports' Dan Feldman). "But the draft was very even, we felt, at the top all the way through maybe five or six. And it was very difficult. There was a lot of players we liked in this draft."
The C's landed Tatum at No. 3, and the ex-Blue Devil has done nothing but justify the GM's words.
He was expected to thrive on offense, but not even the biggest Duke homers would have expected him to immediately come out and average 14 points per game while shooting 50 percent from the field, 48.9 percent from long-range and 82.8 percent from the stripe.
More surprising still is his comfort on the defensive end, where he's shown a knack for pick-and-roll coverage and ceded just 0.68 points per possession (87.5 percentile) to spot-up shooters.
Most years, Tatum would be the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. He's been that good on both ends while playing for the red-hot Celtics.
But this isn't most years.
1. Ben Simmons, PG, Philadelphia 76ers
Ben Simmons isn't fair.
He already ranks No. 17 in NBA Math's TPA. He sits at No. 1 among point guards in ESPN.com's DRPM by a substantial margin. The Philadelphia 76ers are outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor, and the net rating craters to minus-9.6 without him.
But numbers don't tell the full story.
Simmons is a scheme-altering point guard who can overcome his shaky jumper with constant attacks on the basket and nearly peerless vision. He's already one of the NBA's deadliest passers, and he's still learning the nuances of professional schemes.
With his 6'10" frame and ridiculous quickness—seriously, men this large aren't supposed to resemble blurs when zooming up and down the hardwood—he's even been a terrifying defensive presence who can switch on to any position and constantly stay between his man and the basket.
Comparing him to his first-year peers is just about pointless. He's that much better than any of them and may even earn some back-end MVP votes if he can keep up this pace and carry the Sixers into the playoffs. As Kevin Pelton did for ESPN.com, we have to turn to history to find legitimate comparisons.
Except even that is tough.
"You're well within your rights to stick with [Oscar] Robertson's rookie season as the most versatile ever," Pelton wrote. "But there's reason to believe Simmons may be the most versatile rookie we've ever seen."
Most Valuable Player
3. Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors
Stephen Curry's shooting stroke hasn't quite been there in 2016-17. He's knocking down "just" 38.8 percent of his triples while taking 9.3 deep attempts per contest—numbers most would kill for, even if they're well below what we've come to expect from this two-time MVP.
As great players so often do, though, Curry has made up for his perimeter struggles by thriving in a number of different areas.
The point guard has been far more aggressive attacking the basket than in previous seasons, and he's shooting 94.4 percent when he gets to the stripe. That extra volume and efficiency has made up for his relative woes from beyond the rainbow, and his true shooting percentage is higher than it was last year.
Plus, he's been more careful to avoid turnovers and is playing some of the best defense of his career, consistently pushing his matchups to the right spots and refusing to yield easy paths to the hoop.
Curry isn't putting up the otherworldly performances he needs to convince voters that playing alongside Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Jordan Bell and Klay Thompson is irrelevant. But he's still been the best player on the league's best team, and that counts for a lot.
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, SG/SF/PF, Milwaukee Bucks
A 22-year-old player shouldn't mean this much to a team, but here we are.
The Milwaukee Bucks rely on Giannis Antetokounmpo for everything, asking him to push for the league lead in scoring while serving as a primary facilitator and defensive ace.
He's never able to play with anything less than maximum effort and intensity, whether he's Euro-stepping his way toward the basket or pushing his own teammates into proper positions on the preventing side.
Antetokounmpo still hasn't developed a jumper. He's made only seven triples in his first 25 attempts, which isn't exactly normal for a wing in today's NBA.
But the aptly nicknamed Greek Freak is an exception to the near-universal need for marksmanship, avoiding should-be limitations because covering him is literally impossible. Play tight on him, and he'll burst by you before reaching around for an easy finish with his lanky limbs. Sag off him, and he'll attack the hip you expose while trying to backpedal.
Antetokounmpo has the stats and narrative to make a serious push for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy. Now he needs the Bucks to improve around him and start winning more games, since an 8-6 record is just about the only thing keeping him from the No. 1 spot.
1. James Harden, PG/SG, Houston Rockets
At some point, James Harden is going to get his MVP trophy. And if he continues leading the charge for the Houston Rockets like this, it'll happen in the near future.
The bearded guard was incredible in 2016-17, ultimately finishing behind only Russell Westbrook in the fight for the league's most prestigious award. But he's been even better one year later, leading the NBA in both scoring and assists while cutting back on his turnovers, maintaining his shooting efficiency and playing surprisingly adept defense.
Last season, Harden's minus-1.57 DRPM left him at No. 63 among the 79 qualified point guards. This year, he's sitting all the way up at No. 6 with a 0.73 DRPM. His effort has increased dramatically, and he's finally using his size advantageously as he pushes guards off their driving lanes and makes them fight for buckets.
Need numbers? Harden has enough that he could give away some of his points and still lead the league in offense generated. Need defense? He's playing better than ever there. Need wins? No one has proved impervious to Houston's ascent up the Western Conference standings. Need a narrative? It's his time after finishing second in the voting during two of the last three go-rounds.
All the factors have aligned.