12 NBA Sleeper Bets to Think About Right Now

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistNovember 25, 2021

12 NBA Sleeper Bets to Think About Right Now

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Building NBA awards ladders becomes painfully repetitive after a while. The hierarchy for each honor cycles through a handful of obvious candidates, and though the order may shift, we end up harping on the same names for months.

    Spotlighting less likely contenders with a puncher's chance of crashing every race is way more fun. 

    This process inevitably surrenders intrigue as the regular season soldiers on and the field for most awards gets etched in stone. Fortunately for us, the 2021-22 campaign isn't at that point.

    Our crop of dark-horse candidates will use betting odds from FanDuel as its guide. Long-shot picks will be made as follows:

    • Executive of the Year and Coach of the Year: Odds aren't available for these categories. One dark-horse candidate for each will be provided, just in case that changes.
    • Rookie of the Year: Two newbies will be included. Since the field of possibilities is so narrow relative to others, anyone laying worse than 25-to-1 odds can be chosen.
    • MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player: Two dark-horse picks will be made for each. Anyone with 50-to-1 odds or better will not be considered an underdog option.

    None of these honors are even close to being settled. Select favorites enjoy a certain permanence, but there remains enough time and variety to consider expanding the scope of every race.

Executive of the Year: Tommy Sheppard, Washington Wizards

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    There may be an element of "duh" here. That speaks more to a finite field of Executive of the Year candidates than the lack of inventiveness behind Tommy Sheppard's selection.

    Granted, the Washington Wizards team president isn't exactly the smack-you-in-the-face choice. Chicago Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas, Golden State Warriors team president Bob Myers and Miami Heat team president Pat Riley all seem more likely to curry Executive of the Year favor, which is not voted on by the media, even if only because they work in splashier markets.

    Philadelphia 76ers team president Daryl Morey can also sneak into the running if you don't consider the Ben Simmons debacle part of the criteria.

    Sheppard has as strong of a case as anyone. Washington dramatically overhauled its depth during the summer, most notably by turning Russell Westbrook into a smorgasbord of key rotation players (Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell) and drafting Corey Kispert. He also finagled the arrivals of Spencer Dinwiddie and Aaron Holiday, creating a roster that has survived long-term absences from Davis Bertans, Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant.

    Hiring Wes Unseld Jr. to replace Scott Brooks is part of Sheppard's resume, as well. Rolling the dice on a first-time head coach was hardly a no-brainer with Bradley Beal entering the final year of his contract (player option for 2022-23), but Unseld has revamped the defense and guided the Wizards to a top-four spot in the Eastern Conference.

Coach of the Year: J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Coach of the Year is never short of viable candidates. This season is no different.

    Voters typically gravitate toward those who headline elite championship contenders or newcomers who transform a sub-middling product into a high-level one. J.B. Bickerstaff doesn't quite fit that bill.

    The Cleveland Cavaliers are hovering around .500 and may not have the staying power to ascend the Eastern Conference ladder long term. Collin Sexton is expected to miss the rest of the season with a torn left meniscus, and Evan Mobley will be out the next few weeks with a right elbow sprain. Regression seems inevitable.

    But context matters.

    Nobody had the Cavs emerging as the one of the league's pluckiest teams. They have played the NBA's toughest schedule while traversing a slew of absences. Bickerstaff has been unafraid to lean on a three-big lineup and deploy Mobley as a quasi-wing on defense. Cedi Osman has been empowered to fire threes off the dribble. Ricky Rubio seems interested. Kevin Love is smiling on the sidelines again.

    Players deserve most of the credit for Cleveland's feel-good start. But if the Cavs continue hanging near the play-in discussion while maintaining a top-10ish defense founded on unconventional, short-handed lineups, Bickerstaff should meaningfully work his way into the Coach of the Year discourse.

Rookie of the Year: Franz Wagner, Orlando Magic (+2900)

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    Jessie Alcheh/Associated Press

    Franz Wagner should not be a dark horse in the conventional sense. He has been the third-best rookie, behind Evan Mobley and Scottie Barnes, and should only feel threatened by Cade Cunningham among those behind him.

    Still, his odds paint him as an afterthought—though they have improved since last time (+4500 on Nov. 3). He's averaging 12.4 points, 2.0 assists and 1.1 steals per game while banging in 46 percent of his twos and 36 percent of his threes and proving to be an instrumental part of a Magic starting five that, believe it or not, continues to truck its opponents.

    There are real layers to Wagner's game. He can attack open spaces, work off the dribble with either hand and has the capacity to throw down thunderous dunks at the rim. That he's survived playing the 3 without getting torched on defense is a huge vote in his favor.

    Any slippage (or prolonged absences) from Mobley or Barnes will open the door for him to take home Rookie of the Year honors.

Rookie of the Year: Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets (+4500)

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    Somehow, some way, Alperen Sengun isn't even laying top Rookie of the Year odds for his own team. That badge belongs to Jalen Green (+470), who has been noticeably worse, verging on detrimental to the Houston Rockets' performance.

    This isn't a knock against the No. 2 pick. Green should be fine in the long run. But Sengun is offering more net-positive glimpses into his bag. He passes with flourish off the dribble, disarms defenders inside the arc with artful footwork after picking up his handle and capably stretches the floor beyond the arc.

    Even his defense has been better than expected. He has shown the ability to avoid getting flame-broiled in space. His big-picture trajectory on the less glamorous end is up in the air, but he has moments in which he turns his hips and moves his feet to perfection against quicker attackers.

    Houston is rapidly approaching alarming levels of unwatchability. That shouldn't completely dampen Sengun's Rookie of the Year case. Daniel Theis' playing time ahead of him is the larger concern, aside from the other first-year standouts he's competing against.

Most Improved Player: Desmond Bane, Memphis Grizzlies (+1200)

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    Desmond Bane is a dark-horse Most Improved Player candidate by virtue of his experience alone. Voters tend to pluck out more established players making star and fringe-star turns. Monta Ellis is the last sophomore to win the award—and he did so in 2006-07.

    This puts only a slight damper on Bane's case. His role with the Memphis Grizzlies has included a stark upswing in usage during his second pro season, but he's not building off a rock-bottom baseline. He was ultra-efficient in limited usage as a rookie.

    Many players would see a drop in their clips from the floor while undertaking appreciably more volume. But Bane's 57.7 true shooting percentage is within proximity of last year's 60.0 mark—and comfortably above the league average of 54.9. His 15.6 points per game, meanwhile, come on more complex usage.

    Over 39 percent of Bane's shots are coming as pull-up jumpers, up from 25.5 percent in 2020-21. Memphis hasn't seriously experimented with him as a pick-and-roll initiator, but he does have more on-ball agency. He's averaging 4.6 drives per game, on which he's shooting 54.8 percent—a top-10 mark among 93 players who have attempted as many field goals in these situations.

    Without question, he belongs in the Most Improved Player discussion.

Most Improved Player: Seth Curry, Philadelphia 76ers (+13000)

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    Basketball elders seldom wedge their way into the Most Improved Player conversation. Darrell Armstrong is the only person to win the award in his age-30 season or later.

    Seth Curry is an even bigger anomaly. He's in his age-31 campaign. Eyes will naturally wander toward someone younger. His chances are further hamstrung by modest functional adjustments. The Philadelphia 76ers have marginally increased his pick-and-roll initiation from last season, but he has not authored any wholesale transformations, and his usage has risen by under two points.

    Whatever. Cases can be rooted in efficiency explosions. And he is, quite literally, having one of the most dead-eye seasons in NBA history.

    He's on pace to become the sixth guard to average more than 15 points per game on a true shooting percentage north of 64. His potential company: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Reggie Miller, Steve Nash and JJ Redick.

    Curry may have hinted at the bandwidth to handle more minutes and shots last season, particularly in the playoffs. What he's doing now, even after cooling off from his volcanic start, trounces the career-best version of himself.

    This, of course, guarantees nothing. He may not even be the strongest Most Improved Player option on his own team. Tyrese Maxey (+3500) is working off a lower baseline and just flat-out lighting it up. But make no mistake: Curry has a case. 

Sixth Man of the Year: Bobby Portis, Milwaukee Bucks (+8000)

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    John Fisher/Getty Images

    Sixth Man of the Year is the award that comes closest to already having found its next winner. Picking anyone other than Tyler Herro (-140) to win it feels futile on most nights.

    Bobby Portis looms as the sexiest long-shot option if you're looking to call a big-picture bluff and embrace risk. His potential payout is not only 80-to-1, but it also isn't yet clear whether he'll come off the bench enough to qualify. The Milwaukee Bucks have him starting while Brook Lopez is out with a back injury.

    You can overlook the reserve appearances with a fair amount of confidence. Portis will eventually rejoin the backups unless Lopez's back issue is more sinister than advertised.

    Once you get past that, Portis has the performance vitals to headline Sixth Man of the Year consideration outside the T.H.T. (Tyler Herro Tier). He's averaging nearly 15 points per game while swishing 51.0 percent of his twos and 41.4 percent of his threes. His floor-spacing is integral to Milwaukee's half-court balance, but he can dribble his way through light traffic and soak up situational work in the post, where he's shooting 54.5 percent.

    Defense won't kill his candidacy, either. He has held up around the rim this season and can switch liberally when rival offenses don't have multiple bodies who can relentlessly punish mismatches. It would be a stretch to say Portis is having a two-way impact, but he's doing enough to entrench himself among the most important second-stringers.

Sixth Man of the Year: Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (+24000)

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Fair or not, microwave scorers and playmakers have a mainline to prominent Sixth Man of the Year consideration. And Immanuel Quickley comes closer to meeting that criteria than his numbers suggest.

    Averaging around nine points and two assists per game won't move the voting needle. But Quickley's role is on the come-up, and with that extra exposure comes output more befitting a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. Since Nov. 7, he's averaging 12.2 points and 2.9 assists while converting 46.9 percent of his threes, including a 48.0 percent clip on off-the-dribble triples.

    The pressure he puts on a set defense matters. His finishing and timing inside the arc are all over the place, but he's skilled at maintaining his dribble through tight spaces, and opponents respect his stop-on-a-dime floater. There will never be an effective answer for someone comfortable with launching super-deep and frequently unassisted threes.

    More conventional Sixth Man of the Year studs loom. Quickley will need to see other second-stringers suffer through protracted slumps. His case will disappear entirely if the New York Knicks insert him into their disastrous starting five. For now, though, he has a puncher's chance. And that's something.

Defensive Player of the Year: Marcus Smart (+10000)

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Positionless defense is normally reserved for suffocating wings and bigs with fast-twitch feet. Marcus Smart doesn't just break the mold. He shatters it.

    Standing 6'4", he can just about guard all five spots on the floor. The Boston Celtics have no qualms about lining him up opposite quasi-bigs. He can body up players with their back to the basket and derail pick-and-roll divers. He grades out as a "B" in BBall Index's metrics for help rim protection, post defense and screener rim defense.

    Smart marries his interior strengths with hyperactivity and a generally monstrous workload. Only seven players average more deflections per game, he competes like hell for loose balls and nearly two-thirds of his possessions are spent guarding opponents with top-three usage rates on their team, according to BBall Index.

    Defensive Player of the Year recognition is forever more likely to land with a big or whatever Giannis Antetokounmpo is. Gary Payton was the last guard to win the award...in 1995-96. Both the odds and history are against Smart edging out candidates such as Rudy Gobert (+200), Bam Adebayo (+600), Draymond Green (+750), Giannis (+750), et al.

    That's the point. Smart is the most important stopper for the league's fifth-best defense. His case may not be airtight, but it exists.

Defensive Player of the Year: Aaron Gordon, Denver Nuggets (+24000)

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    A recent five-game losing streak for the Denver Nuggets compromises whatever Defensive Player of the Year stock Aaron Gordon owns. Yes, the slide has coincided with missed time from Nikola Jokic (wrist) and Michael Porter Jr. (back), on top of Jamal Murray's absence (ACL). But the Nuggets defense is dead last in points allowed per possession over this span and 16th for the season.

    Gordon is not responsible for this retreat. He hasn't quite been the same level of lockdown defender over the past few games, but the Nuggets liberally saddle him with point-of-attack assignments. That job description isn't conducive to the extra offensive responsibilities he's gobbled up on the short-handed nights.

    Anyway, his defensive reps still work in service of his value. Denver doesn't have many other weapons to deploy against primary offensive engines. Gordon has guarded everyone from Trae Young and Ja Morant to Luka Doncic and Jimmy Butler to Christian Wood and Jaren Jackson Jr.

    No one else on the Nuggets has rivaled his on-ball value. He is difficult to shed on screens and works well in aggressive half-court coverages. And while he spends loads of time on the perimeter, Jokic is the only Denver player to contest more looks around the rim.

    Voters don't flock toward options from mediocre defenses. The Nuggets' ability to shoot back up the Association's defensive ladder will invariably determine Gordon's DPOY merit. But the Nuggets were fourth in points allowed per possession before their recent plunge. Gordon's case is not without legs.

MVP: DeMar DeRozan, Chicago Bulls (+6500)

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    While other NBA stars have grappled with efficiency amid tighter whistles, DeMar DeRozan is turning in the best season of his career. Notably, he's doing that for a brand-new team that's raging through the Eastern Conference at age 32 in year 13.

    Virtually every MVP candidate's case hinges on whether his squad can bag a top-three playoff seed and register as at least a fringe contender. The Chicago Bulls meet that standard, and they've played enough basketball to treat their place in the Association's pecking order as this year's normal.

    All of which paves the way for DeRozan to crash the MVP race. He's clearing 26 points and four assists per game on true shooting above 59. His free-throw-attempt rate has been unaffected by the emphasis on natural offensive movement, and the Bulls are reaping the benefits from his steadying hand inside the half court. 

    DeRozan ranks in the 88th percentile of scoring efficiency on iso possessions and in the 71st percentile out of the pick-and-roll. Chicago's net rating improves by 23.4 points per 100 possessions when he's on the court, a swing that places inside the 97th percentile, and it's blasting opponents whenever he plays without both Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic.

    Stephen Curry (+200), Kevin Durant (+500) and Nikola Jokic (+800) would all receive more MVP votes if the season ended today. But DeRozan has played his way into the Giannis Antetokounmpo (+800) and Jimmy Butler (+2000) tier of consideration—with the odds of someone much, much, much less relevant.

MVP: Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns (+10000)

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    Too much value gets placed in anecdotal MVP cases. Put another way: Narrative matters. No argument should be built purely on "He's giving the middle finger to Father Time!" or "He's the best player on a contender!" or "Look at how many games his teammates missed!" slants. They all matter. Not one of them is everything.

    Chris Paul does a good job of tying just about everything together.

    The Phoenix Suns aren't missing any mission-critical players, but they are one of the NBA's five most serious contenders. And though Paul may not be their best player (Devin Booker is ridiculously good, folks), he is a 36-year-old trolling Father Time and has intense value ascribed to his leadership qualities.

    Oh, and then there's the little matter of CP3 remaining a star. His scoring doesn't leap off the page, but he's a fourth-quarter killer. Since the Suns began their 14-game winning streak, only four players have averaged more points in the final frame—a block of time over which he's shooting 62.5 percent on twos outside the paint and 41.7 percent from distance.

    Paul's defensive activity has also perked up after a lackluster start. He leads the league with 10.3 assists per game for good measure. And he ranks 11th in Dunks & Threes' estimated plus-minus.

    Material changes must hit the larger MVP field for Paul to finagle his way to the fore of this battle. But, well, narrative matters. More importantly, he meets the most fundamental criteria: an irreplaceable star on a championship favorite.


    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball ReferenceStathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Tuesday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.

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    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.