In a 72-game NBA season, when does a trend become a reality? 18 games? 27 games? 36 games? With teams at the quarter season mark, many of the early season anomalies (e.g., the Hawks having the best offense in the league) have regressed to the mean. However, a handful of the surprising trends that every new season brings about have a chance to become a reality and help tell the story of the 2020-21 NBA season should they continue much longer. Here are 15 early-season trends to keep an eye on for the rest of the season:

 

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Achilles injuries might be the new Tommy John surgery

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Until recently, an Achilles injury was considered to be a career-ending or at least a career-shortening injury. However, with the way the likes of Kevin Durant, Mike Conley, John Wall, and others have looked this season, we may need to recalibrate expectations for players who suffer this cruel injury moving forward. Durant literally looks exactly the same as he looked before he was injured in the 2019 NBA Playoffs. Now, with KD, we’re talking about one of the greatest players in NBA history, arguably the greatest scorer, so there’s a chance that he’s a statistical anomaly because of his generational athleticism and skill set. But then you look at guys like Mike Conley (two seasons removed from an Achilles procedure) and John Wall, and they both look pretty similar athletically to the versions of the players we saw pre-injury. Could this mean that Achilles surgery and rehabilitation technology and procedures are improving? Hopefully. We still need some more data points to say it with much certainty, but things are certainly looking better and better for Klay Thompson every day!!

 

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Home court advantage is gone

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One of the interesting trends this season has been the lack of home-court advantage. At this time, only 12 of the 30 teams are above .500 at home. Compare that with 18 teams last season. And 23 teams in 2018-19. What gives? Clearly, the lack of fans is allowing some of the visiting teams to jump out to early leads and maintain or extend them in a way that perhaps wouldn’t be as easy to do if there were 20,000 fans cheering on the home team. There’s also no “Miami Flu” or “LA Flu” (aka where visiting players go out all night in an awesome city and then play hungover the following day) this season with the pandemic restrictions. Finally, the NBA as a league is attempting and making more three-pointers than any year in league history, and the league-wide effective field goal percentage is also as high as it’s ever been – this has led to some wild variance from game to game as well as some historic blowouts early in the season. It will be interesting to see if the trend of diminishing home court advantage continues once fans or back in the arena due to this emphasis on shooting.

 

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Can this incinerating three-point shooting continue?

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Last season, the Jazz shot the highest percentage as a team from three-point land (38 percent). This season, seven teams – Clippers, Jazz, Lakers, Bucks, Nets, Wizards, and Bulls – are all shooting at least that well. The Clippers lead the way with an absurd 42.3 percent accuracy from downtown. Think about that for a second – the Clippers are making almost one out of every two three-pointers. If the season were to end today, they would finish second to the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets (42.8 percent) as the most effective three-point shooting team of all time. It’s even all the more impressive because the Clippers (35.6 attempts per game) are attempting more than double the number of threes per game than the Hornets did (16.9). 

 

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So every player is just going to score 20 PPG now?

© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Right now, there are 37 players in the NBA averaging over 20 PPG. 37!! That’s more than one per team! In fact, the only two teams in the league that doesn’t have at least one player averaging 20 PPG or more are the Raptors and Heat, the latter of which have eight players averaging double-figures. Offensive players are so gifted, and the rules are so skewed in favor of offensive players right now that nearly every player on the court, at all times, can give you 20-plus points on any given night. Players who can’t shoot and/or score at an above-average clip are becoming completely obsolete – even players with excellent playmaking skills and feel for the game like Lonzo Ball are struggling to fit into today’s game. Will the game of basketball continues to accelerate in this direction, or is there a market correction on the horizon? 

 

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The wacky playoff picture in the Western Conference

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Before the season, everyone predicted that the Western Conference playoffs would be a gauntlet, and the 2020-21 season is shaping up to give us just that come playoff time. In fact, if the playoffs were to begin today, the Play-In Tournament in the Western Conference would be so lit as it would feature the Suns, Spurs, Warriors, and Mavericks fighting for the seven and eight seeds. That would be thrilling, but it would also kind of suck if the regular playoffs didn’t include three of the game’s most recognizable superstars: Chris Paul, Steph Curry, and Luka Doncic. I’m sure the LA teams (currently nos. 1 and 2 in the conference) would be livid if their “reward” for finishing at the top of the conference was having to play the Suns, Warriors, or Mavericks in the first round. However, looking at the standings, only the Grizzlies (currently the sixth-seed) are outperforming their expectations, so buckle up people – we’re in for a wild ride out West!!

 

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And the Eastern Conference playoff picture is even more bizarre

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Let’s play another game of “If the Season Ended Today…” If the season ended today, the defending Eastern Conference Champions, the Miami Heat (6-9), wouldn’t even be in the Play-In Tournament. Ditto for the 2019 NBA Champions, the Toronto/Tampa Bay Raptors (7-9). Continuing down this crazy road, the team with arguably the three best offensive players in the game, the Brooklyn Nets (10-8), would be the five-seed, and the Cleveland Cavaliers (8-8) would be the six-seed. Finally, the New York Freakin’ Knicks (8-10) would be the eight-seed. Talk about chaos…

 

© Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We know that Bradley Beal is a certified superstar – but is he really this  great of a scorer? He’s putting up James Harden-esque numbers right now (34.5 PPG). If he truly is, then the trade package he’s going to fetch when he inevitably requests a trade? Through 11 games this season, Beal has been phenomenal, averaging 5.5 RPG and 4.9 APG to go along with the scoring. He’s also been extremely efficient despite the high volume, posting 49-37-87 shooting splits. His improved playmaking ability makes him even more valuable for any contender as he can seamlessly switch from two-guard to being the primary ball-handler. If he’s dealt, it could swing the title race. 

 

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve run out of adjectives to describe the Paul George and the Clippers’ collapse in the Orlando Bubble. However, I must give credit where credit is due: Paul George has been an absolute baller this season. Through 16 games, he’s putting up an MVP stat line, averaging 23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 5.4 APG along with insanely hot shooting efficiency (50-48-91 shooting splits). He and Kawhi Leonard have the Clippers (13-4) right there with the Lakers as the best team in the league at the quarter season mark. While I’m not ready to give PG13 his flowers until he proves he can replicate this dominance when it counts in the playoffs, he’s been one of the most impressive players in the league thus far this season. If he keeps this up, he’s going to swing the very negative “Way-off P” narrative that NBA Twitter and Damian Lillard popularized this past summer. 

 

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Even the most staunch Russell Westbrook defenders – however many are left – must admit that the former MVP looks pretty bad this season for the Wizards. Although he’s still averaging his customary triple-double type of stat line (18.0 PPG., 10.6 APG, and 9.5 RPG), he’s shooting the ball horrendously (37-31-64 shooting splits), turning it over like crazy (5.1 per game), and has reverted back to shooting far too many three-pointers (4.5 attempts per game). Perhaps the most concerning part of his performance so far this season is the fact that he’s not attacking the basket-like we’re accustomed to seeing him do – he’s shooting a career-low 4.9 free throws per game. Westbrook supporters are holding out hope that once he gets healthy, he’ll get back to being the attacking menace he’s been his whole career. However, if Westbrook doesn’t get healthy soon, you have to start wondering whether he’ll ever be healthy for a full season again.

 

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Is Zach LaVine a superstar hiding in plain sight?

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He’s definitely a star, that’s for sure. Even though the Bulls have sucked for his entire tenure, at a certain point, you have to give a guy credit when he passes certain statistical thresholds – like averaging almost 30 PPG. Zach LaVine is an elite scorer. He’s like a more bouncy, less refined version of Bradley Beal and he’s averaging 26.8 PPG, 5.4 APG and 5.2 RPG with 50-38-87 shooting splits. He’s still a sieve on defense, but he’s proven himself to be an elite, and efficient bucket-getter. While there aren’t a ton of teams that have the assets to swing a deal for Beal, there are certainly a few contenders and up-and-coming teams that could make a spicy offer for LaVine. Could a team like Denver or Philly or Miami get LaVine on the cheap while the rest of the contenders are busy jostling for Beal or eyeing up role players at the trade deadline? 

 

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Will we see this Lakers team separate itself from the rest of the league?

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After the shortest offseason in NBA history, some analysts predicted that the Lakers would ease into the 2020-21 season, start a little slow, and then ramp things up towards the end of the season before the playoffs. They were partially right – the Lakers have been on cruise control for much of the season, often coasting through games early and then flipping that switch that LeBron James’ Cavs teams were notorious for, locking down on defense (no. 1 rated defense in the NBA) and pulling out victories. They’re currently tied for the best record in the league (13-4), but you get the sense that they have another gear, especially on offense (no. 7 rated offense in the NBA). If everything starts clicking for this team, they could rip off one of those 2013-Miami Heat or 2015-16- Golden State Warriors runs where they win double-digit games in a row or win something like 23 of 25 games over a two-month stretch. Will we see that level of dominance from them? Or will they be content jogging to the playoffs and finishing around the same record as the likes of the Clippers, Bucks, and other contenders?

 

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Wait a minute….are the Cavs actually competent?

© Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

One of the more pleasant surprises of this season has been seeing the funky Cavs, with all of their centers and forwards, emerge as one of the league’s premier defensive teams. They currently have the seventh-best defensive rating in the league thanks to the likes of Andre Drummond (leading the league in rebounds, and near the top in defensive rating and defensive win shares)and Larry Nance Jr. (leading the league in steals with 2.2 per game and in the top-10 defensive win shares). And they just added Jarrett Allen, a shot-blocking menace with young legs from the Nets. If Collin Sexton continues his ascent on offense (averaging 25.5 PPG), this Cleveland team could be right in the thick of things come playoff time.

 

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The perfect fit of the Pacers

© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

If the Pacers didn’t have bad injury luck, they’d have no luck at all. They lost an All-NBA version of Victor Oladipo in the 2019-20 season. Then, after they traded Oladipo for a potential All-Star caliber player, Caris LeVert, a test revealed that LeVert had a mass on his kidney (he’s out indefinitely). They also lost TJ Warren earlier this season to a foot injury (he’s probably out for most of the season). It doesn’t matter though. The Pacers, behind Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Myles Turner, are still winning games (tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference) and having career years: Sabonis is averaging career highs in points, rebounds, and assists per game; Brogdon is averaging career highs in points and assists, and Turner is leading the league in blocks per game as well. 

 

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Is Christian Wood really an All-Star in the Western Conference?

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Yes. For all the “casuals” out there, get to know who Christian Wood is because he’s going to be named All-Stars this season. Wood is one of the best reclamation projects in a long time in the NBA. The spark notes version would show him crying at his draft party after going undrafted, getting cut by multiple NBA teams, getting cut from his team in the Chinese Basketball Association, grinding to get another shot in the NBA, putting up big numbers late last season, signing a big contract this offseason and playing like an All-Star this season (23.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG and 1.8 BPG). He’s suddenly the Rockets’ best player and franchise centerpiece and should be a front-runner for the Most Improved Player award as well. 

 

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Covid-19 having a major impact on the league

© Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The most unfortunate trend this season has been the impact Covid-19 is having on the league and its teams. Yes, the NBA expected there to be numerous positive tests throughout the year. And yes, in most cases, players have either been unaffected by the virus or at least have been able to return to their previous form after a couple of weeks. At the same time, the NBA has to be concerned about how the virus is causing certain teams to have to play with skeleton rosters or have games postponed, and they have to be worried about how certain players have contracted the virus for a second time. There’s hope on the horizon with the rollout of vaccines, but there’s also a concern that the league may have to resort to pausing the season and/or resorting back to another bubble environment for the postseason again – a scenario that the league, teams, coaches, and players would all love to avoid. 

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การแข่งขัน: รอบที่ 121 - 152 อันดับที่ 152

As most of the NBA approaches the quarter-season mark of what is supposed to be a 72-game season, the NBA’s awards races are starting to take form. In this exercise, I’ve ranked the top-five Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, and Most Improved Player awards race leaders and the top-three Sixth Man of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year awards race leaders. No coach or executive of the year rankings this early in the season – there’s just too little data for some of the teams that have had multiple games postponed for pandemic-related reasons.Enjoy!

 

© Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The only thing keeping Nikola Jokic from being the runaway favorite for league MVP at the quarter mark of the season is the Nuggets’ blah record (9-7). Assuming Denver gets back on track, expect Jokic to be on every MVP ballot when the season ends. Through 16 games, he’s averaging a near-triple-double (25.8 PPG, 12.0 RPG, and 9.6 APG) with 56-35-83 shooting splits. He has a chance to be the first big man since Wilt Chamberlain to lead the league in assists as well. The best part about Jokic is, unlike Russell Westbrook and Chamberlain, it doesn’t appear that he’s hunting for these rebounds and assist stats either. He’s just balling.

 

© Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

He’s not 85 percent or 90 percent of what he used to be, Kevin Durant is 100 percent the same player he was before he tore his Achilles in the 2019 NBA Finals. In other words, he’s neck-and-neck with LeBron James for the “Best Player in the World” title and is a bonafide MVP threat. What kind of hindrance could hurt Kevin Durant’s MVP case, you ask? I don’t know, maybe the two other insanely gifted offensive talents (James Harden and Kyrie Irving) playing alongside him. In all seriousness though, KD is once again arguably the best player in the world, as he’s averaging 31.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 5.8 APG while shooting a scintillating 54-48-87 from the field.  

 

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Philadelphia fans have to be thrilled with Joel Embiid’s production and conditioning this season. Through 14 games, Embiid is dominating the paint, averaging 27.7 PPG, 11.5 RPG, and shooting 55.4 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three. He’s second in the NBA in free-throw attempts and free throws made. And second in Player Efficiency Rating (31.0), third in Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, and fourth in Defensive Rating. He clearly took his offseason seriously, got into the proverbial “best shape of his life” and is doing everything in his power to make Philly a contender. 

 

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4) Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, LA Lakers

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What can you say about this guy at this point? After everyone prematurely declared Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo the two best players in the league last year, LeBron James destroyed everything in his path last season and took his game to an even higher level in the Orlando Bubble. After everyone assumed that he’d take it easy this season after the shortest offseason in NBA history, he came out and set the tone for the Lakers’ championship defense. Despite playing a career-low 32.4 MPG, he’s still averaging 23.9 PPG, 7.9 RPG, and 7.5 APG. He’s also shooting 38.9 percent from three on decent volume (6.4 attempts per game) as well. If he continues to play this efficiently and productively, and the Lakers finish with the best record in the league, he’ll absolutely have a legitimate MVP case. 

 

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5) Most Valuable Player: Paul George, LA Clippers

© Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

The Paul George Vengeance Tour is off to an excellent start. In fact, he’s playing so well that he, not Kawhi Leonard, is getting the nod to represent the Clippers in this MVP list. George is averaging 23.9 PPG, 6.2 RPG, and 5.4 APG on 52-48-91 shooting. That’s right, he’s shooting nearly 50 percent from three on 7.8 attempts per game. If he continues to play this way, the Clippers should be the team we thought they were last season. 

 

© Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Tyrese Haliburton is already a good NBA player. That alone makes him the frontrunner for Rookie of the Year.  LaMelo Ball and James Wiseman have the elite skills and the name recognition, but they’re both still inefficient players with obvious holes in their respective games (which is completely normal for rookies, by the way). Haliburton has a solid stat line (11.4 PPG and 4.9 APG) for a third guard, but it’s his efficiency that separates him from the rest of his class – he’s shooting an excellent 50.4 percent from the field and even more impressive 47.0 percent from three-point land. He also has the best Player Efficiency Rating (17.8) amongst all rookies. 

 

© Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

If you watch LaMelo Ball play for even a quarter of basketball, you’ll be able to see that he’s special. He has the combination of court vision, height, and love for playmaking that only the likes of LeBron James and Luka Doncic possess. He’s a joy to watch. He’s also producing at a nice level for a rookie, averaging 11.4 PPG, 6.3 RPG, and 6.0 APG. 

 

© Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

James Wiseman is another special rookie from a surprisingly good rookie class. The no. 2 pick from the 2020 Draft is one of the most athletic seven-footers you will ever see and has the potential to become a DeAndre Jordan-type rim-protector and lob threat with a sprinkle of Anthony Davis’ offense skill set (just a sprinkle). He’s averaging 11.8 PPG, 6.1 RPG, and 1.4 BPG, and seems to be improving now that Draymond Green is back and mentoring him on both ends of the court. 

 

© Pool Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Drafted with the 25th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Immanuel Quickley, the Greek God of Floaters, might end up being the steal of the draft. Quickley has exploded onto the scene in New York with his surprisingly good pick and roll game, rangy defensive ability, and incredibly accurate floater game. Despite playing only 17.8 MPG, Quickley is averaging 11.0 PPG and 2.6 APG and has swung a couple of games for the surprisingly solid Knicks. The Knicks appear to have struck gold in this draft with Obi Toppin and Quickley as their two first-round picks. 

 

© Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of steals of the draft, the player drafted one spot after Quickley, Payton Pritchard, has been a godsend for the Celtics with his mature game as the team’s backup point guard with Kemba Walker out. Pritchard plays a highly efficient brand of basketball, averaging 7.7 PPG and 2.6 APG with 49-43-90 shooting splits. Not to make lazy comparisons based upon stereotypes, but Pritchard’s game projects to be a better shooting version of TJ McConnell. It’ll be impressive if he’s still in the Rookie of the Year running now that Walker is back, but Pritchard at least deserves a shoutout through the first quarter of the season.

 

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1) Most Improved Player: Jaylen Brown, Boston Celtics

© Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Jaylen Brown has been the best player on the Celtics this season. That is by no means a knock on Jayson Tatum, who is enjoying an excellent start to the season. Brown has just been that good. Through 15 games, Brown is averaging 27.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, and 3.5 APG with 53-43-78 shooting splits. Increasing his points per game by more than five points and nearly doubling his assist totals, Brown has placed himself front and center in the early season’s Most Improved Player award race.

 

© Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

So it turns out that Christian Wood is, in fact, a certified All-Star caliber player. Houston must be absolutely thrilled by Wood’s performance thus far this year as he’s averaging 23.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG, and 1.8 BPG while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and 36.2 percent from three. Get familiar with Wood’s game because he’s a stud – unless you want to get called a “casual”.

 

© John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

After making his first All-Star team last season, Domantas Sabonis might be too good in many voters’ eyes to elicit a Most Improved Player vote. And that’s a shame because he deserves to be considered for the improvements he made this offseason. Sabonis is averaging a career-high in points (20.9), rebounds (12.9), assists (5.8), and free throw attempts (5.8) per game this season. The Pacers (9-7) run their offense through Sabonis in the half-court in a way that isn’t so different from the way the Nuggets use Nikola Jokic as their primary offensive facilitator, making his continued development all the more impressive. 

 

© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sabonis’ teammate, Malcolm Brogdon, has also made a sneak leap this season, improving his points per game by over five points (16.5 PPG to 21.9 PPG) and tying a career-high in assists per game (7.1). He’s realized this increase in production while remaining a highly-efficient player (45-40-89 shooting splits). If the Pacers finish with a top-five record in the East, and his teammate Sabonis doesn’t steal the award from him, Brogdon should be right in the running for the Most Improved Player award. 

 

© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As bad as the Pistons are this season (and they’re baddd), we all owe Jerami Grant an apology for mocking him when he decided to leave the Nuggets because he wanted to be a go-to guy of an offense. Brace yourself for these numbers, Grant is averaging career highs in points per game (24.3) and rebounds per game (6.4) to go along with 44-38-85 shooting splits!! If Grant continues to play like this, he’ll definitely be a strong Most Improved Player candidate at the end of the year – especially when you look and see that his previous career-high in points per game was 13.6.

 

© Russell Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

When Jordan Clarkson was an inefficient volume scorer on the Cavs, I would have never guessed that a couple of seasons later, he’d be the front-runner for Sixth Man of the Year. But he is. Clarkson is scoring in bunches this season, averaging 17.4 PPG with super-efficient shooting numbers (49-41-96 splits). Best of all, he’s a winning player as seen by his career-high (by far) 21.1 Player Efficiency Rating.

 

© Mary Holt-USA TODAY Sports

Who?? The latest hidden gem developed by the Toronto Raptors is Chris Boucher, a 28-year-old, 6-foot-9 rail-thin center out of Oregon who can block shots at a high level (2.3 BPG) and bomb away from three with the best of them (48.3 percent from three this season). Forced into a bigger role than most expected this season, Boucher has responded beautifully, averaging 14.6 PPG and 6.5 RPG to go along with an eye-popping 26.8 Player Efficient Rating. If he continues to play this well, he’ll have a shot at winning both the Sixth Man of the Year award and the Most Improved Player award. 

 

© Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner, Montrezl Harrell, may have switched locker rooms in the Staples Center, but he remains one of the game’s best bench players. Although his scoring average has dropped from 18.6 PPG to 13.6 PPG, he’s shooting 62.8 percent from the field and averaging his career-high in rebounds per game (7.1). He’s also doing this in only 24.8 MPG (he was at 27.8 MPG last season), which is all the more impressive considering how good the Lakers are and how many mouths there are to feed. 

 

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1) Defensive Player of the Year: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers

© Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Why is Myles Turner the front runner for Defensive Player of the Year? Because he’s averaging 4.2 BPG and 1.5 SPG this season!! No other player is even close to approaching him in blocks per game (Rudy Gobert is at 2.7 BPG) and only 12 players are averaging more steals than Turner is per game. The advanced metrics back up Turner being an elite defender as well as he is first in defensive box plus/minus and seventh in defensive rating.

 

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2) Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, LA Lakers

© Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Despite playing most of this season on cruise control, Anthony Davis remains the league’s most devastating defensive force. He’s fourth in the league in blocks per game (1.9) and third in defensive rating and defensive win shares. He’s the anchor of the league’s best defense (no. 1 in defensive rating) and has the Lakers back at the top of the league with an NBA-high 13 wins. If he keeps this up, he’ll have a chance to win his first career Defensive Player of the Year award.

 

© David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Did you know that Andre Drummond is leading the NBA in rebounding (14.5 RPG), third in defensive rating (99.8 points per 100 possessions), and third defensive win shares (1.0)? Did you know that the Cavs have the seventh-best defensive rating in the NBA? You didn’t? Well, now you do, and now you know understand why Drummond is in the running for Defensive Player of the Year, no matter what people thought of his perceived empty-calorie stats in Detroit. 

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