Predicting NBA Award Winners with 6 Weeks Left in the Season

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 27, 2019

Predicting NBA Award Winners with 6 Weeks Left in the Season

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    With six weeks left in the 2018-19 NBA season, most of the award races have narrowed to a handful of serious contenders.

    Some are all but decided. At the risk of spoiling things, this is good news for Dallas Mavericks rookie Luka Doncic.

    There's always the hope that every winner is deserving, but voting bodies sometimes fixate on one statistic over another or get caught up in a powerful narrative. You never know what'll make the difference in the end.

    So along with laying out statistical cases and summarizing the storylines that might impact these awards, we'll also highlight other candidates, some of whom will have serious chances to upset the current favorites. Six weeks is a long stretch, and the arc of the 2018-19 season is far from complete. There's still time for a hot streak or captivating run of team play to change these results.

    Nothing's guaranteed, but these guys might want to clear space on their mantles just in case.

MVP: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Paul George, James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo each have defensible cases for Most Valuable Player with six weeks left in the season. The ease with which you can cape for any of the three is remarkable (and for this exercise, maddening).

    Antetokounmpo leads the league in Jacob Goldstein's Player Impact Plus-Minus, Harden is tops in box plus-minus and George is No. 1 in ESPN's Real Plus-Minus. The leading catch-all metrics are of no help here, except insofar as they illustrate that all three of these guys are playing ridiculously productive ball. Unless you're prepared to argue one of the three metrics is definitively more accurate than the others (which you shouldn't be), these stats don't do enough to identify a clear winner.

    The narrative angle, which always seems to inform MVP picks, is even less helpful.

    Harden is assaulting scoring norms, equaling or surpassing Wilt Chamberlain's records on a daily basis. He's on pace to post the highest effective field-goal percentage for any player who's ever averaged at least 35 points per game. If the voting body's affinity for statistical history-making is as strong as it was when Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double and won in 2016-17, Harden's a shoo-in.

    But Antetokounmpo is making the leap from All-Star to megastar, which is significant, too. Especially because his ascent is tied to the one his Milwaukee Bucks are making. They currently have the best record in the NBA, and voters tend to weigh team success heavily.

    Since 1985, there have only been three MVPs on teams seeded third or lower in their conference. The Bucks are all but locked into the first or second spot in the East, while Houston and OKC are effectively out of the running for first or second in the West. From the beginning of the season, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks have scratched that "who's the next superpower?" itch. If there's any voter fatigue in the wake of Harden's win last year, Giannis is in the best position to capitalize.

    George gets several narrative bumps as well. He's surpassed Westbrook as Oklahoma City's best player, transitioning to a true alpha level after spending his career as a 1(b) talent. His recovery from a gruesome broken leg is also still fresh enough in the minds of voters to earn him a point or two.

    Perhaps most importantly, George leads all big-minute players in on-off differential. The Thunder are 21.3 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor. Voters looking for a simplistic way to define the term "valuable" can point to this number and feel good about calling it definitive. Throw in several game-winning shots (for the first time in his career) and serious momentum for Defensive Player of the Year, and George has loads of avenues toward MVP.

    In the end, team success feels most likely to make the difference, which gives Antetokounmpo a narrow edge against two worthy candidates. But this is a three-way toss-up. Whoever wins will deserve it.

             

    Apologies to: Whichever two of the three don't win.

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Luka Doncic is in line to join Oscar Robertson as the only players to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and five assists in their debut season. Honestly, we could stop there and call the Rookie of the Year debate over.

    That'd be a disservice to the way Doncic has captivated the league with his preternatural passing instincts, clear-cut ability to run a team as a teenager and glorious step-back threes.

    Doncic is a player for the new age: an oversized ball-handler who can beat individual defenders with an array of one-on-one perimeter moves while still scanning the floor at hyperspeed. Though he lacks the strength and quick-twitch burst of Harden, Doncic's ability to break down defenses in isolation as a scorer and passer mirrors that of the Rockets' superstar.

    He's an offense unto himself.

    The handle, the confidence, the flair—it's all part of a package that screams franchise cornerstone. He'll win, and it'll probably be a unanimous vote.

           

    Apologies to: Trae Young

    Young has been a revelation in February, finally looking like the deep-shooting, slick-passing Stephen Curry clone many hoped he'd become. But we can't so easily forget about the first several months of his rookie season, in which he couldn't hit a triple and appeared physically overwhelmed on both ends of the floor. He's the closest challenger to Doncic (though he's still miles behind), and his future looks brighter than ever.

Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder

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    This doesn't necessarily double as a prediction George won't win MVP, but you can imagine a scenario where voters view Defensive Player of the Year as some sort of consolation.

    That isn't to say George would be an undeserving winner.

    George is a long-limbed menace on the perimeter and is the key to the Thunder's top-five defense this season. With him on the floor, OKC stifles opponents more effectively than the Bucks' No. 1 defense. When he sits, the Thunder's performance on that end falls outside the top 10.

    George ranks second in deflections and first in loose balls recovered. Pass or dribble in his vicinity at your own risk.

    Offensive stars tend to take breaks on D, but not George. He's a consistent max-effort player, clogging passing lanes and materializing in open space to shut down a drive or snatch a steal. Capable of guarding four positions and just as dangerous as an off-ball helper, he's been the most consistent, disruptive perimeter defender in the league this year.

           

    Apologies to: Rudy Gobert, Joel Embiid, Myles Turner, Draymond Green, Giannis Antetokounmpo

    There's a glut of viable candidates in this category, which may illustrate that it's still tricky to quantify defensive value.

    Gobert is the lynchpin of a predictably fearsome Jazz defense, anchoring the middle and deterring close-range attempts with absurd length and (2017-18 award-winning) reputation. Embiid is a hunk of granite that somehow catches wings on the break for chase-down blocks. Turner has honed his help instincts and leads the league in blocked shots. Green is still the best five-position stopper in the NBA, and Antetokounmpo's length makes him a nightmare on or off the ball.

    More than any other award this year, DPOY feels like a complete free-for-all.  

Most Improved: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

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    Lock this one up. It's Pascal Siakam's award to lose.

    At a rangy 6'9", Siakam was already an impactful defender off the bench last season. Long enough to battle underneath against bigs, he's also quick enough to clamp down on guards beyond the three-point arc. Wiry strong and competitive, he'll have more than a few shots at DPOY in his future.

    Still, Siakam's leap has been most notable on offense.

    After shooting 22 percent from deep last season, he's up to 36.9 percent on increased volume in 2018-19. His scoring average is up by nearly six points per 36 minutes, and despite a spike in usage (thanks to his undeniable value as a transition ball-handler), Siakam's scoring efficiency is also way up: He has a 63.0 true shooting percentage after finishing last year at 54.9 percent.

    Siakam can get into the lane off the dribble and finish with either hand, generally after a spin move that's as unstoppable as it is predictable. He's a fine cutter, a spot-up option opponents can no longer ignore and a far savvier offensive thinker than he was last year, as evidenced by a free-throw rate that has nearly doubled to 32.8 percent.

    The "Giannis Lite" label has been around all year, and though it's unfair to compare a still-developing player to a superstar, it isn't wrong.

           

    Apologies to: De'Aaron Fox, D'Angelo Russell, John Collins

    Fox's improvement as a three-point shooter (30.7 percent to 37.4 percent) and finisher at the rim (64.7 percent to 70.9 percent) gives him a star's ceiling, and the Sacramento Kings wouldn't be nearly the feel-good story they've become without his incomparable open-court speed defining their fast-break identity. He's had a larger impact on his team's success than either Russell or Collins, although those two have nothing to be ashamed of. Both are enjoying statistical spikes, while Russell's late-game heroics are largely responsible for Brooklyn being a playoff team.   

Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Perhaps any coach would have had the sense to surround Antetokounmpo with shooters. And maybe the Bucks' supporting cast, nearly all of whom are playing in contract years, would have been this much better regardless of who organized and directed them.

    Still, Mike Budenholzer's offensive and defensive overhauls seemingly have as much to do with Milwaukee's destruction of preseason expectations as anything else. He's the one who decided to station Brook Lopez 28 feet from the bucket on offense, stretching opposing centers to their breaking points. And he's also the one who determined Lopez should never leave the lane on D, turning Milwaukee into the stingiest interior defense in the NBA.

    Milwaukee leads the league by allowing the lowest shot frequency and conversion rate at the rim.

    On the other end, Antetokounmpo perpetually runs downhill into space in Budenholzer's system, generating dunks, free throws and spot-up threes.

    If there's a case against Budenholzer, it's that his changes seem simplistic. Of course Antetokounmpo should attack a spaced floor. Of course four shooters should dot the perimeter. Of course the Bucks should shut down the rim. And whoever followed Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty was bound to look sharp, right?

    Perhaps, but Budenholzer pushed the right buttons and turned a 44-win team into a historically dominant title contender.

    Let's not overthink Coach of the Year.

             

    Apologies to: Nate McMillan, Mike Malone, Dave Joerger

    McMillan has done more with less all year, and that was before his Pacers kept on winning in the wake of Victor Oladipo's season-ending injury. Indy's defense has hung around the top five all season.

    Malone has a more talented roster than either of the other two honorable mentions, and you could ding him for never getting Denver to defend at a high level. But the Nuggets are second in the West after missing the playoffs last year, which has to count for something.

    Joerger turned the Kings into a relentless fast-break machine, which has helped Fox, Buddy Hield and Willie Cauley-Stein unlock new levels. If the Kings wind up ending the NBA's longest playoff drought, his Coach of the Year case will get much stronger.

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, LA Clippers

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    Lou Williams took this one home last year without much of an argument, earning 97 of the 101 first-place votes. He's now averaging more points, rebounds and assists per 36 minutes this season than he did last year, and he's also upped his usage percentage and cut his turnover rate.

    Sure, Williams' minutes are down, but that's mostly because he was pressed into starting duties 19 times last season. He's come off the bench exclusively this year, and he's done much more than score.

    With a career-high 34.2 assist percentage, Williams is also creating shots for others. Not only that, but his craft as a foul-drawer has somehow improved. He's suckering opponents into contact at a higher rate than last season.

    Williams leads all reserves in scoring average, and the Clippers are 13.6 points per 100 possessions better when he's on the floor. That isn't just the best such figure among bench players; it's one of the best in the league overall. Cleaning the Glass cuts out garbage time, so Williams' on-off impact is "only" plus-12.4 by their metric. But that figure ranks 10th among players who've logged at least 1,400 minutes.

    No other reserve is even close.

           

    Apologies to: Derrick Rose, Spencer Dinwiddie, Montrezl Harrell, Domantas Sabonis

    Rose's career resurgence is among the most surprising stories in the league. He's averaging 18.4 points per game behind a career-high true shooting percentage and a career-low turnover rate.

    Dinwiddie is Brooklyn's late-game answer to switching defenses, and his 5.4 points per fourth quarter rank right between DeMar DeRozan and Damian Lillard. Not bad company.

    Harrell's energy and better-than-you-realize drives from the foul line mean nearly as much to L.A.'s bench as Williams' scoring, and Sabonis is on pace to be the first player in league history to average at least 14 points and nine rebounds in under 25 minutes per game. He has the fourth-highest field-goal percentage among players who've taken 500 shots this year (Harrell is third).

                

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Cleaning the Glass and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Feb. 26.