Top 3 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award After 3 Months

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2021

Top 3 Candidates for Every Major NBA Award After 3 Months

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    It has been far too long since we last surveyed the NBA awards landscape. Let's change that.

    First, allow me to deliver a mea culpa: The previous candidate check-in wasn't concrete enough. It was packaged as a predictive process rather than a look at the field as it currently stood, which led to some confusion and annoyed Twitter fingers.

    That's my bad. 

    This edition will take the more sensible approach and seek to identify the top-three candidates in every award spot at the present moment in time. Sustainability of performances will still play a part in every selection, but the games already played will shape the field more than anything else. Ergo, recent injuries suffered by LaMelo Ball (wrist) and LeBron James (ankle) have not yet seriously impacted their awards cases.

    Remember: The ladders for each category stand to change between now and the close of 2020-21. This is merely how the votes I definitely do not have would shake out if the season ended today.

Executive of the Year

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    Matt York/Associated Press
    1. James Jones, Phoenix Suns
    2. Daryl Morey, Philadelphia 76ers
    3. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Jones' case rests entirely on his offseason dealings and must overcome his decision to draft Jalen Smith instead of Tyrese Haliburton. That's all fine.

    Phoenix has one of the league's three best records and is thriving on the back of its offseason moves. Trading for Chris Paul was an obvious victory, but few could have predicted he would lay the groundwork for this type of rise. Getting Abdel Nader back in that deal has proved useful, too.

    Signing Jae Crowder has given the Suns a gritty defender and a fearless, if sometimes overly adventurous, shot-taker. He's burying 38.1 percent of his threes. His arrival is doubly impressive knowing Phoenix poached him from Miami.

    Bringing back Dario Saric after his performance in the bubble made sense but was hardly a sure thing. Instilling him as a full-time center (when healthy) has been literal, actual dynamite.

    Even the Suns' moves on the margins are enviable. Human boomerang Frank Kaminsky has helped them traverse some rocky stretches up front, and both E'Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway were rock-solid veteran adds. (Aside: Galloway might have finally usurped Moore in the rotation, and that should scare defenses.) Recently picking up Torrey Craig from the Milwaukee Bucks for absolutely nothing gives Phoenix defensive insurance on the wing.

    Perhaps others are prepared to ding the Suns for taking Smith or extending the Jevon Carter contract. Really, Jones' biggest obstacle is the trade deadline. Entire cases can be made with the right move. There's also the possibility voters fall in love with what Houston Rockets general manager Rafael Stone and Brooklyn Nets general manager Sean Marks did for their teams with the James Harden blockbuster.

    Morey and Presti still loom as more imminent threats at the moment.

    The Sixers have shown they're not inoculated against Joel Embiid's absence, but Morey has assembled a more sensible roster around his two stars. The Seth Curry-for-Josh Richardson swap worked out in their favor, and Tyrese Maxey looks like a great find at No. 21. Moving the Al Horford contract while forking over just one first-round pick still registers as a big win.

    Morey is also more likely than many of his peers to take a swing at the trade deadline that substantially beefs up his case.

    Presti, meanwhile, has steered the Thunder into a smooth rebuild. They continue to rake in future draft picks and scooped up a couple of intriguing youngsters beyond Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Theo Maledon and Aleksej Pokusevski. They can probably get an asset for Kenrich Williams at the deadline given how he's played.

    It's too soon to adjudicate the Hamidou Diallo-for-Svi Mykhailiuk (and a second-rounder) deal, but taking a flier on a 6'7" wing who has previously shown he can shoot is never a bad decision. Presti has already netted a 2027 second for Trevor Ariza, who never joined the team, and will glitz up this year's resume if he moves Horford or, more likely, George Hill for value prior to the deadline.

Coach of the Year

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
    1. Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
    2. Tom Thibodeau, New York Knicks
    3. Monty Williams, Phoenix Suns

    This ladder has changed quite a bit since we last met. Snyder wasn't even given an honorable mention and is now, probably, the runaway favorite. Such is the danger of gauging the awards races one month into the season.

    Thibodeau has the edge when measuring team performance against expectations. Most had the Knicks pegged as one of the three-to-five worst teams in the league. They are instead a legitimate Eastern Conference playoff hopeful with a top-three defense.

    There might still be an inclination to view the .500(ish) Knicks as a mirage. They don't do a great job dissuading looks at the rim and give up a bunch of threes. Are they really an elite defense? Maybe not in the long run. (Also: This season is weird.) But they're not letting teams chuck willy-nilly from behind the rainbow. They are selective in the threes they surrender and the players they're allowing to let 'er rip.

    Less debatable is the progress Thibs has overseen from RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, both of whom might be Most Improved Player candidates. Mitchell Robinson is even fouling less. Rebuilding purists will quibble with some of his rotation decisions—myself among them—but the Knicks are deliberate in how they play and obliterating expectations. Results to this point trounce everything else.

    Rolling with Snyder is still the right call. The Jazz are head and shoulders above where anyone projected them. They have the second-best offense, a top-four offense and the league's best record. Only the Brooklyn Nets and, ahem, the Suns have a higher winning percentage against teams above .500. Availability wonkiness ensures there's a lot of noise in the latter, but nevertheless: Wow.

    Question the Jazz's championship viability all you like. The "who will guard a healthy Anthony Davis or [insert superstar wing here]?" inquiry is fair. Right now, though, they are playing at a 60-win pace (in a normal season) and still own the league's top net rating by a light-year despite recent slippage.

    Anyone prepared to vote for Williams will receive exactly zero pushback from me. The Suns have the NBA's second-best record and net rating and are playing up to snuff against good teams.

    Chris Paul's arrival dictates a lot of what they're doing, but Williams deserves credit for fiddling with his lineups and making tough calls on Deandre Ayton's court time—including down the stretch of tight games. The Suns are likewise defending like a well-coached team; they limit their fouls and invite mid-range jumpers.

    Sussing out alternative possibilities takes zero effort.

    Gregg Popovich has the San Antonio Spurs defending well above their talent level on paper. Doc Rivers deserves kudos for how the Philadelphia 76ers play. (Tobias Harris is back!) Frank Vogel has instilled a defensive identity into the Los Angeles Lakers that includes buy-in from both Davis and LeBron James while transcending them. Terry Stotts is coaching a Portland Trail Blazers team that has navigated a truckload of injuries yet is still jockeying for a top-four playoff spot.

Rookie of the Year

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press
    1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets
    2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings
    3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks

    LaMelo Ball's likely season-ending right wrist injury does nothing to compromise his immediate Rookie of the Year stock. This ladder is a snapshot of the landscape to date, and he has now rather comfortably established himself as the best newbie.

    If this is indeed it for LaMelo, he'll finish the year averaging 15.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists and 1.6 steals while connecting on 37.5 percent of his threes. And he has outpaced those numbers since entering Charlotte's starting five.

    Making a net-positive impact is difficult as a rookie. LaMelo has done it. He elevated the Hornets' half-court offense and helped give certain small-ball combinations a prayer on defense.

    The real question: Has he done enough to retain the pole position hereafter? He will close the season having played in more than half of Charlotte's games, so this isn't quite Joel Embiid circa 2016-17. But the gap between LaMelo and second place needs to be large enough to span the last third or so of the season.

    It might not be.

    Haliburton is really good. His efficiency has explored solid ground after a heavenly start, but he's still shooting 53.7 percent inside the arc and 41.0 percent on three-pointers. His 12.4 points, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game are both modest and all-encompassing. Only three rookies have matched his true shooting, assist and steal percentages: Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan and Pablo Prigioni.

    Haliburton's usage is on the lower end at 17.2 percent. Starting in place of Marvin Bagley III following his left hand fracture doesn't guarantee that'll change. A Buddy Hield trade might go a longer way toward bolstering his Rookie of the Year case—anything that gives him more control over the offense without De'Aaron Fox.

    Quickley seems like a shoo-in for third place both now and overall. His 12.7 points and 2.3 assists per game aren't turning any heads, but he's been a revelation from beyond the arc, where he's shooting 37.1 percent. His floaters and step-backs need to fall at a higher clip. That he has those in his arsenal at all, though, is a fairly huge deal.

    Anthony Edwards and Patrick Williams still have time to crash the party even if first place is out of reach. Ditto for Saddiq Bey. Jaden McDaniels and Jae'Sean Tate are worth monitoring, too.

Sixth Man of the Year

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    1. Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls
    2. Jordan Clarkson, Utah Jazz
    3. Chris Boucher, Toronto Raptors

    Some will claim I'm trying to be cuter than I actually am. Jordan Clarkson isn't a no-brainer selection anymore. His shooting splits have slumped after a molten-hot start, and defaulting to the most potent reserve scorer doesn't need to be the crux of the Sixth Man of the Year discourse.

    More than anything, Thaddeus Young is genuinely terrific. He's averaging 12.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and a career-high 4.5 assists while downing a personal-best 62.0 percent of his twos and playing generally excellent defense. Chicago's net rating explodes by 12.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and lineups featuring him at the 5 have managed to tread water on defense and nuke opponents on offense.

    "The correct pick is Jordan Clarkson" truthers have a leg on which to stand. They're also not without hope. Young has started at center in each of the Bulls' past five games. His Sixth Man of the Year case has a shelf life if they stick with that arrangement. He stands to fall off the radar if he's flipped before the trade deadline, as well.

    Clarkson warrants plenty of first-place votes. Even with his recent efficiency dips, he's still averaging 17.6 points and 2.2 assists in under 26 minutes per game while hitting 52.5 percent of his twos and 36.9 percent of his threes.

    Utah is essentially net neutral on offense and noticeably worse on defense during Clarkson's minutes. It's tough to dock him too much for that within this discussion. Both most-used versions of the Jazz's starting five are annihilating opponents, and Clarkson has spent a huge chunk of his time without Rudy Gobert.

    From-scratch offense means a great deal, too. Clarkson is banging in 38.2 percent of his pull-up triples. Stephen Curry and Zach LaVine are the only other players to match that clip on as many attempts.

    Assuming Young drops off the ladder, Clarkson's biggest roadblock might be Joe Ingles' own Sixth Man of the Year candidacy. He's a tempting third-place pick, but I'm sticking with Chris Boucher.

    Ingles has, so far, started more than a quarter of the games in which he's appeared. Boucher has tallied just three starts. He is still overstretched when treated as a pure 5, but his numbers are brain-bending: 14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 43.3 percent shooting from distance—all in under 24 minutes per game.

    Toronto's relative lack of success may prove prohibitive for Boucher. That's more of a worry if team president Masai Ujiri starts selling at the trade deadline. The Raptors will be better if they can ever stay at something closer to full strength. OG Anunoby, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have appeared in just 16 games together.

    Montrezl Harrell's case is worth eyeing. Tyrese Haliburton is starting in place of the injured Marvin Bagley III, but he's a quality option himself. Kyle Kuzma is probably going to start too many games with both Anthony Davis and LeBron James on the shelf. I so badly want to reward Dario Saric for destroying teams at both ends as a center and closing some games over Deandre Ayton, but he's logged under 500 minutes thus far.

Most Improved Player

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press
    1. Jerami Grant, Detroit Pistons
    2. Julius Randle, New York Knicks
    3. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder

    Jerami Grant's Most Improved Player case is the same as ever. His efficiency has come back down to earth, but he's still averaging 23.3 points, up from 12.0 last year, while hitting 35.4 percent of his triples. More importantly, the context of his role has drastically changed.

    Pull-up jumpers never accounted for more than 12.3 percent of his shots prior to this season. They make up nearly 28 percent of his looks now. A career-high 33.3 percent of his buckets are coming unassisted. He has finished more pick-and-roll possessions as the ball-handler this season than through the previous five...combined.

    Monstrous jumps in usage (nearly 10 percentage points) can be implosive for a player's efficiency. Grant's true shooting percentage has dropped by fewer than three points and is within the ballpark of league-average. Detroit is working with an ultra-low baseline, but he boosts the offensive rating by more than seven points per 100 possessions and continues to tackle difficult defensive assignments. This isn't Grant's ideal role, but he has shown he's capable of much more.

    He will still be a difficult sell for people who view Most Improved Player as a search for the next potential star. Both Julius Randle and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are better fits for that interpretation.

    Randle has emerged as a triple-double threat and viable offensive engine for one of the NBA's most surprising teams. He's averaging 23.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 6.0 assists while finding nylon on 41.4 percent of his threes. Larry Bird and Nikola Jokic (in progress) are the only other players to hit those benchmarks for a single season.

    Backing Randle is difficult if you view the Knicks as fool's gold, or if you ascribe him blame for their offense. They are 24th in half-court efficiency, and Randle doesn't much help the cause. That goes a touch too far. Randle isn't working with a ton of space, and he is by far New York's most talented playmaker. Better defensive engagement on and away from the ball counts for something, too.

    Gilgeous-Alexander deserves more consideration in the larger Most Improved Player discourse, period. He's averaging 23.5 points and 6.0 assists while notching career highs on twos (55.3 percent) and threes (40.9) percent) as the focal point of the offense.

    This transition isn't as stark as that from Grant, but it remains significant. Almost 90 percent of Gilgeous-Alexander's buckets are going unassisted, up from almost 71 percent last season, and his off-the-dribble three is a real weapon. The hardest leap to make is that jump from fringe star to primary cornerstone. Gilgeous-Alexander is on the verge of completing it.

    Feel free to shout-out Christian Wood. He has some time to re-enter the fold following his return from a right ankle injury. RJ Barrett also deserves a tip of the cap if you're fine with sophomores entering the fray.

Defensive Player of the Year

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press
    1. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
    2. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
    3. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

    Gobert and Simmons have some groundbreaking thoughts on the Defensive Player of the Year race: Each would vote for themselves. Simmons played the "I guard 1 through 5" card, which is very effective. Gobert countered with the impact he has on both his running mates and the other team, which is another extremely effective approach.

    Choosing between the two—and they're not the only candidates—is, to some degree, a matter of preference. They do very different things. Gobert is someone around whom the Jazz have built their entire defense. Simmons is more disruptive from the outside in and can lock up pretty much any No. 1 option.

    Forced to choose (and I am), Gobert gets the overall advantage. Utah's defense has not been elite over the past few weeks but remains so on the season when the Stifle Tower is in the lineup.

    Opponents are shooting 4.7 percentage points worse (90th percentile) at the rim and 5.7 percent less often (98th percentile) during his time on the floor. That is remarkable given how much he plays. And while he isn't someone assigned to superstar wings or ball-handlers, rival offenses cannot just scheme around him. 

    Gobert leads the league in shots blocked between four and 14 feet, according to PBP Stats. Settling for longer jumpers is the only real way to escape him, and that shot-profile manipulation is impact in and of itself.

    It is harder to leave a supersized dent when your focus is more central. That's not a criticism of Simmons. Increased optionality is its own asset. Among all players who have logged at least 700 minutes this season, Simmons ranks ninth in defensive versatility score, according to BBall Index. And much of that comes versus the toughest assignment. Only seven players spend more time guarding No. 1 options.

    That Gobert shapes this much of the Jazz's defense without other first-rate stoppers around him has to matter. Simmons' success is not predicated on the availability of Joel Embiid, but the Sixers are defending at a league-average clip during his solo stints.

    Penciling in Turner at No. 3 is somewhat of a mea culpa from my first crack at this exercise. It is not an overcorrection. He isn't a menacing shot-blocker; he's an all-consuming one.

    Turner leads the league in attempts sent away at the rim by almost a 40-block margin, per PBP Stats, and opponents are converting just 47.7 percent of their looks at the iron when being challenged by him—the second-stingiest mark among 57 players contesting at least four point-blank attempts per game.

    Indiana lacks the upper-echelon defensive ranking to buoy Turner's case, but his minutes on the floor speak volumes. The Pacers allow 7.6 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court, and opponents are shooting seven percentage points worse at the rim. He endears himself further by covering ground away from the basket.

    On-off splits favor him over Simmons for second place. Leaning that way is not egregious. But it seems fair to weigh the difficulty of Simmons' job description and the range of his covers. Turner is also far more likely to get pulled during crunch time, though that's less an indictment of his defensive value and more of a nod to Indy's late-game lineup proclivities. The margin between him and Simmons isn't cosmic.

    The same can be said about the distance between Turner and the next men up. Both Giannis Antetokounmpo (doing a lot of heavy lifting) and Jimmy Butler (Miami has the league's best defense since Feb. 1) will have a chance to creep into the top three by the end of the season.


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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press
    1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
    2. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
    3. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets/Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Let's start with who's not above. Joel Embiid would be the pick if he never suffered a bone bruise in his left knee. Quality of minutes should take priority over sheer volume, but the most optimistic projections have him missing more than 20 percent of the regular season.

    On to the actual ballot: LeBron will not, in all likelihood, finish in second place when we do this again. He's expected to miss several weeks with his high right ankle sprain, according to The Athletic's Shams Charania.

    LeBron's pre-injury case at once seems overblown and understated. The "Age 36, Year 18" stuff is fun but doesn't have any bearing in this conversation. It is not Jokic's or Giannis' fault that they're 26 instead of 36.

    The context of his performance is more powerful. Anthony Davis missed 19 games prior to LeBron's own injury. It didn't necessarily matter. The Lakers have outscored opponents by 6.4 points per 100 possessions in the time LeBron has played without his co-star. The team's overall net rating has improved by 14.4 points per 100 possessions with him—the seventh-highest swing among every player who has logged at least 500 minutes.

    Not all of the advanced metrics paint him in top-spot light. Some still do. He ranks first in ESPN's real plus-minus (RPM) and second in NBA Shot Chart's luck adjusted real adjusted plus-minus (LA-RAPM).

    Voter fatigue will probably prevent Giannis from winning a third consecutive MVP award. It shouldn't. His per-game averages compared to last year are largely the same—29.0 points, 11.7 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.3 blocks—but he appears to be passing with more feel and is finishing at a career-high 79.0 percent clip around the rim.

    Giannis still lacks bankable counters to the feistiest defenses. He has an effective field-goal percentage of 41.3 on pull-up jumpers and is hitting just 35.5 percent of his fadeaways. But he's once again shooting better than 50 percent on post-ups, and the Giannis-without-Brook Lopez lineups are feasting on opponents.

    His defense offsets whatever he leaves on the offensive table. He is still a harrowing presence around the basket and has logged more time versus No. 1 options, according to BBall Index. Milwaukee has been willing to go away from Giannis in crunch time, but the sample is painfully small

    The bigger picture speaks volumes: The Bucks are 17.9 points better per 100 possessions with him on the court, giving him the absolute highest swing among every player who has cleared 500 minutes.

    I couldn't bring myself to pick between Jokic and Lillard. Jokic is the lifeblood of a top-five offense and averaging 27.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists while shooting 60.4 percent inside the arc and 42.5 percent from downtown. He might be the NBA's best offensive player this season.

    Lillard has his own argument in that department. He's averaging 30.3 points and 7.6 assists while drilling 54.1 percent of his twos (career high) and 38.3 percent of his mostly difficult 11.2 three-point attempts per game. His crunch-time numbers read like a typo: 70.0 percent on twos (21-of-30), 48.5 percent on threes (16-of-33) and a perfect 38-of-38 from the foul line. Portland is 18-6 in games that include clutch minutes, almost entirely because of him.

    This Jokic-or-Lillard dilemma might work itself out. There's room for both in the top three if LeBron's injury costs him a slot. Lillard has the storyline advantage. He has kept the Blazers afloat amid lengthy absences from CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic. But the Nuggets have been far from healthy. Jamal Murray's early-season roller-coaster persisted in part because he was banged up.

    Denver and Portland have identical records. The Nuggets have the better point differential per 100 possessions and record against teams above .500. Jokic and Lillard have similar net-rating swings. Jokic is 11th in RPM and 10th in LA-RAPM. Lillard is 13th and 67th, respectively.

    This is hard. My head hurts. It's a tie...for now.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and are accurate entering games on March 22. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

    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 Adam Fromal.