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!
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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”.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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
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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.
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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.