With the NBA season more than halfway over for all 30 teams, and just before we start to look towards things like the All-Star game in February and the trade deadline, it’s time to turn our focus to something a little more broad.
There really is no better time to take a step back and assess which players, coaches and administrators are making their mark on the NBA this season. You may think some of these awards are obvious and arguably they are – Ja Morant has one hand firmly wrapped around the Rookie of the Year trophy, for example – but a lot remain well and truly up in the air, with compelling arguments available for multiple candidates.
Without further ado – and with the understanding that these picks may change significantly as the season progresses – here are the Sportstips.com’s staff midseason picks for all of the NBA’s individual awards.
Coach of the Year
Nate McMillan: Indiana Pacers
Over last season and the offseason, the Indiana Pacers lost all but two of their top seven players, with Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis the only two starting calibre players who remain in Indiana amidst the losses of Victor Oladipo to injury and Bojan Bogdanovic in free agency.
Despite that, the Pacers are fifth in the East and just two games behind the second-placed Raptors at the halfway mark of the season.
What McMillan has managed to do by seamlessly integrating two apparently misfit centres in Turner and Sabonis, creating a top-10 defense and a surprisingly-capable offense behind the newly-acquired Malcolm Brogdon and turning Brogdon and Sabonis in to All-Stars in the process is nothing short of stunning.
Similar arguments could be made about teams like the Grizzlies and the Heat, but absolutely no one, us included, thought the Pacers capable of remaining competitive in the East, let alone representing a legitimate threat to come out of the East in the playoffs.
It’s largely thanks to McMillan that they’ve done so.
Runners-up: Taylor Jenkins (Memphis), Erik Spoelstra (Miami), Rick Carlisle (Dallas), Nick Nurse (Toronto)
Executive of the Year
Lawrence Frank: Los Angeles Clippers
Let’s get this straight form the get-go: it’s no accident that Kawhi Leonard and Paul George have ended up playing together in Los Angeles, and it’s also no coincidence that, despite shelling out a king’s ransom to acquire George, the Clippers have somehow built a deep, well-rounded roster to support their two stars.
The George trade was mind-blowing when it happened and is looking more incredible by the week, but it’s been Frank’s ability to attract free agents and retain quality roleplayers that is winning him this award. Frank somehow held on to Ivica Zubac, JaMychal Green, Rodney McGruder and – most importantly – Patrick Beverley in free agency, picked up Mo Harkless simply by being a bit part in the Jimmy Butler sign-and-trade and somehow convinced the wily Patrick Patterson to play in LA for the veteran’s minimum.
While not all of these moves have completely panned out – Zubac is already looking like a playoff liability – the Clippers are currently third in the West and coming with a bullet.
The Clippers are set up to be a force for the next half a decade (at least) thanks to Frank.
Runners-up: Pat Riley (Miami), Sam Presti (Oklahoma City), David Griffin (New Orleans)
Most Improved Player
Luka Doncic: Dallas Mavericks
It is startling what Doncic is doing in his second season in the NBA. Already named as an All-Star starter, we believe he’s also a lock to take home the NBA’s biggest backhanded award.
It’s not often you see a player make the leap from fringe All-Star to genuine MVP candidate in the space of twelve months – let alone as a twenty-year-old in the space between their first and second seasons – but that’s exactly what Doncic has done. His stats are mind-blowing; 28.9 points, 9.7 rebounds and 9.0 assists per game with shooting splits of 46.7/32.9/78.2.
His Mavericks are one of the most high-powered offenses of all time – hint: it’s not thanks to Maxi Kleber or Delon Wright. We all suspected Doncic might be special almost as soon as he played his first NBA minute, but no one could have predicted it could happen this quickly and with this level of dominance.
The most impressive of all his sophomore leaps has been the scoring; rarely, if ever, have we seen a player from Europe with the ability to score this volume of buckets in the variety of ways Doncic does.
While the leaps the runners up have made have all been significant, none have been as marked as Doncic’s, and it would not be a surprise to also see him poll votes in the MVP race. He is far and away the most improved player in the league.
Runners-up: Devonte Graham (Charlotte), Pascal Siakam (Toronto), Brandon Ingram (New Orleans)
Defensive Player of the Year
Rudy Gobert: Utah Jazz
This may be the most tightly run race of all the awards, but Gobert slightly edges out Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis for his third straight Defensive Player of the Year title.
The stats are beyond incredible for what Gobert is achieving on the defensive end this season. Opponents are making less than 50% of shots within six feet against Gobert, the Frenchman leads the league in block percentage, Utah allow 9.6 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and his 9.8 shots defended per game leads the NBA.
Finally – and perhaps most convincingly – Gobert leads the league by a staggering margin in FiveThirtyEight’s celebrated RAPTOR defensive rating.
Without Derrick Favors to ease the load, Gobert has been asked to shoulder a monstrous defensive burden in Utah, and he’s doing it with ease. The Jazz have a top-10 defense, and while Gobert’s stats are incredible it’s also his eye-test impact which stands out; he’s everywhere on the defensive end, blocking shots in the paint and defending guards on the perimeter with consummate ease.
Davis’ time will come, and we’ll see Antetokounmpo later in this article.
Runners-up: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee), Anthony Davis (LA Lakers), Ben Simmons (Philadelphia)
Sixth Man of the Year
Montrezl Harrell: Los Angeles Clippers
We never thought we’d write this sentence: Dennis Schroder is incredibly unlucky not to win this award.
While Schroder is thriving as a surprising key piece on a resurgent Thunder, we simply can’t go past the consistent impact that Harrell is having off the bench for one of the league’s elite teams. The stats aren’t fancy for Harrell but they’re convincing nonetheless; the backup big leads the league in bench scoring (18.8 points per game), is shooting nearly 60% from the floor and also pulling down over 7 rebounds per game.
While Schroder’s marriage with Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been idyllic, we just can’t come around to the prospect of him being a proper NBA piece for a full season.
For the moment, Lou Williams and Harrell are the two incumbents and should be treated as such.
Runners-up: Lou Williams (LA Clippers), Dennis Schroder (Oklahoma City), Norman Powell (Toronto)
Rookie of the Year
Ja Morant: Memphis Grizzlies
The caveat of Zion Williamson’s injury may always hang over this year’s award, but for the moment there’s no doubting that Morant is the NBA’s rookie of the year.
Williamson aside, though, Morant has been spectacular. His rim-destroying ability on dunks is what draws the highlight views, but it’s Morant’s court vision and distribution to his teammates which gets us the most excited.
Morant’s statistics – 17.9 points and 7.0 assists per game – are nothing to sniff at, but it’s his revitalization of a tired Memphis from Western Conference also-ran to playoff contender is what we’ve loved the most. Morant is also on pace to have the highest true shooting percentage of any rookie guard to play at least 25 minutes per game with a usage rate above 25 percent, and is shooting better than 40% from three despite most pre-draft projections showing his three ball as a weakness.
While Williamson is a puncher’s chance of at least contending with Morant in the back half of the season, for the moment there’s no argument. Morant is the run-away Rookie of the Year.
Runners-up: Tyler Herro (Miami), Kendrick Nunn (Miami), Michael Porter Jr. (Denver)
Most Valuable Player
Giannis Antetokounmpo: Milwaukee Bucks
James Harden is an all-time scorer, Luka Doncic is compelling and Anthony Davis’ resume grows by the day, but for the moment there’s no one with the night-on-night brilliance to compete with the Greek Freak.
Antetokounmpo ticks all the boxes. His Bucks are flying away with the No.1 seed in the East, he’s adding components to his game on a nightly basis and is doing so whilst playing almost no minutes comparative to the rest of the MVP candidates.
Antetokunmpo is playing less than 30 minutes per game and yet is also on pace to put up the first 30-point, 12-rebound, five-assist season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66. The Bucks lead the league in wins, Antetokounmpo leads the league in PER (and may put up one of the highest PERs of all time).
Oh, and there’s also the fact that he’s a candidate to win the DPOY as well.
Frankly, there’s no convincing argument for anyone besides Antetokounmpo to win a back-to-back MVP award. He’s just that good.
Still looking for more NBA info? Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Just visit our NBA hub page for all the information you need.
Image by: Keith Allison