Posted March 12, 2013

Assessing NBA awards races as season hits stretch run

Ben Golliver, Damian Lillard, Gregg Popovich, Jamal Crawford, Joakim Noah, LeBron James, Paul George
LeBron James

LeBron James (right) is poised to win his fourth MVP award in five years. (Marc Serota/Getty Images)

By Ben Golliver

With less than a quarter of the season remaining for most teams, here are my picks for the league’s top performers. (All stats and records are through Monday.)

MVP

1. LeBron James, Heat
2. Kevin Durant, Thunder
3. Chris Paul, Clippers
4. Tony Parker, Spurs
5. Kobe Bryant, Lakers

James has spent the last two months methodically squashing any and all arguments against him winning his fourth MVP award in five years. Though I selected Durant as MVP at both the first-quarter and midseason marks, James has swallowed whole the possibility of such dissenting opinions.

For starters, the Heat have re-established their supremacy. They are an NBA-best 47-14, own a nine-game lead in the Eastern Conference and have won a franchise-record 18 consecutive games. Arguments for the best player on a team with a better record — a la Derrick Rose in 2011 and Durant earlier this season — have been neutered.

Judged solely on a player-to-player basis, no one can compare to James — not even Durant, who is in the midst of an impeccable season himself. James is averaging 26.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.7 steals. He has a 31.2 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the sixth straight season he’s topped the NBA in this metric.  He’s shooting career highs of 56.2 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three-point range. His string of six consecutive games last month with at least 30 points and 60 percent shooting was sensational, but it wasn’t all that far away from his day-to-day standard.

One can’t help but marvel at James’ incremental improvements — shot selection, post game, comfort level in defending anyone on the court — and wish more of his peers took the pursuit of perfection as seriously as he does. According to NBA.com, the Heat are five points per 100 possessions better on defense and 11.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense when James in on the court compared to when he sits. He does it on offense, he does it on defense, he does it every night (he hasn’t missed a game) and he does it for the league’s premier team. Voting for James again is boring, but he’s forced everyone’s hand.

Durant headlines a strong list of candidates for second place. The sixth-year forward is heading for his fourth scoring title in a row and, even more remarkably, is still tracking toward the 50/40/90 shooting club while on pace to launch more than 1,400 shots. Continuing at that volume from the field and accuracy with his two-point shooting (50.5 percent), three-point shooting (41.4) and free-throw shooting (91) would put Durant in a club with only one other man: Larry Bird, who did it in 1986-87 and ’87-88. Durant’s Thunder join the Heat and the Spurs as consensus title favorites, and he ranks second to James in PER with a career-best 28.6.


Damian Lillard

Damian Lillard has been consistently productive for Portland. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)

Rookie of the Year

1. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
2. Anthony Davis, Hornets
3. Bradley Beal, Wizards

Lillard has been the clearest wire-to-wire awards favorite this season by a country mile. The circumstances in Portland broke exactly right for a monster rookie season: The Blazers entered the first year of a rebuilding effort with no pressure to win immediately, and first-year coach Terry Stotts promised a long leash for Lillard to learn on the job at a position at which the front office didn’t acquire a competent backup point guard, ensuring that the No. 6 pick would be playing every last minute he could handle. (Portland finally addressed the reserve position by trading for Eric Maynor last month.) That Lillard entered the mix with four years of college experience at Weber State, a steady demeanor and a body that has proved to be reliable (he’s yet to sit out a game) turned this into a match made in award heaven. He’s averaging 18.9 points, 6.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds while winning four straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.

“[The other rookies tell me] I fell right to the perfect team, I’m in the perfect position,” Lillard told SI.com during All-Star Weekend last month in Houston. “And it’s true. I said it even in the draft process I would be playing with really good teammates and I would have the opportunity to play. I get the chance to play through mistakes some other guys might not be allowed to. I play a lot of minutes, my team depends on me. I’m in a really good situation. Some [rookies] are in unfortunate situations.”

Stotts has gotten every ounce out of Lillard, who is tied for fifth in the NBA in minutes at 38.5; Beal is the only other rookie averaging at least 30, and he plays nearly seven minutes fewer per game. Lillard has made good use of the time, keeping the 29-33 Blazers on the outskirts of the playoff chase and showing that he is capable of balancing his scoring instincts with a level of distributing necessary to keep his more veteran teammates, including All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, satisfied.

The 6-foot-3 Lillard looked like he might be running into the “rookie wall” when he sputtered with his shooting before the All-Star break, but the acquisition of Maynor has seemed to renew his spirit (and shooting numbers). Moved off the ball for stretches, Lillard has flashed an off-the-dribble attack instinct that occasionally gets lost when he’s operating from the top of the key and in pick-and-roll situations when he’s expected to be a facilitator first.

Lillard told SI.com that he expects to fill out his offensive repertoire this summer. Nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts come on long twos or three-pointers. He can be a crafty finisher in the basket area, but he would like to add some depth to his portfolio.

“I think the biggest thing is developing a middle game, floaters, finishes, instead of going in and challenging the big men every play,” he said. “Other than that, start going to my right hand. I like going to my left even though I’m right-handed. I can go right, but there are more things I can do better going right.”

Davis, the No. 1 pick, slots in well behind Lillard mostly because of his bum luck with injuries. As The Point Forward’s Rob Mahoney noted in mid-January, Davis has played effectively and efficiently when he’s been on the court. He’s averaging 12.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. His PER of 21 leads all rookies averaging at least 20 minutes (Lillard’s is 16.6). Davis, who turned 20 on Monday, has shown flashes of All-Star potential. His length and timing instincts along the baseline have led to many a point-blank look, and he’s proved to be a productive rebounder despite his slender frame.

Beal’s statistics — 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 40.9 percent shooting — don’t inspire awe at first glance. But the real story in Washington is the No. 3 pick’s progress, as the 19-year-old has improved his scoring and shooting percentage every month.

“I’m a lot more comfortable and have a lot more confidence,” Beal said in Houston.

Beal dug himself too deep of a hole early to be a true factor in the Rookie of the Year discussion. But a number of his fellow rookies, including Lillard and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, peg Beal as a contender to become the first All-Star from the 2012 class.

“He’s been lighting it up lately,” Charlotte’s Kidd-Gilchrist said. “He’s real good.”

bradley-beal-shooting


Jamal Crawford

Clippers guard Jamal Crawford is contending to win his second Sixth Man Award. (Mark Halmas/Icon SMI)

Sixth Man Award

1. Jamal Crawford, Clippers 
2. Kevin Martin, Thunder
3. Jarrett Jack, Warriors

Martin, the quieter and less flashy option among the top two candidates, was my pick at the first-quarter and midseason marks. He continues to fit his role nicely, delivering 14.3 points and a career-best 42.9 percent three-point shooting as the top bench scorer for Oklahoma City, which leads the NBA in points per possession. Though he doesn’t do much else and the Thunder post significantly better defensive numbers when he’s not on the court, Martin has filled a key niche created by the James Harden trade.

Crawford has continued to improve his strong case, though. The 2010 winner is averaging 17.2 points while cutting back on his penchant for difficult shots to hit 44.4 percent overall and a career-high 38.6 percent from three-point range. He’s separated slightly from Martin and Knicks guard J.R. Smith in PER (17.5 to 15.9 and 15.8, respectively) but, more important, he’s the linchpin of the NBA’s most devastating second unit. Crawford, with his free-flowing style and crazy lob-tossing, is the symbolic face of a reserve group that has made a habit of blowing open games. Sixth Man is not often viewed as a team award, but the singular impact of the Clippers’ reserves is a solid tiebreaker between Crawford and Martin in a close race.

The value of Jack’s consistency, experience and ability to supplement Stephen Curry as a ball-handler for Golden State shouldn’t be overlooked. He’s helped his stock in a contract year by playing such a crucial role for a team that will almost certainly make the playoffs despite a recent slide.


Gregg Popovich

Two-time winner Gregg Popovich of San Antonio could repeat as Coach of the Year. (Eric Gay/AP)

Coach of the Year

1. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
2. Frank Vogel, Pacers
3. Mike Woodson, Knicks

Early favorite Woodson’s case looks less convincing now that the Knicks have gone 20-18 over the last three months. Injuries and an average defense have gotten in the way of an offense that remains among the league’s best, even if the insane three-point shooting that powered New York’s 18-5 start predictably leveled off. Woodson has juggled a lot of moving pieces, constructed a vastly improved offense and managed the eccentricities of J.R. Smith. Awards voting can often be about momentum, though, and he’s lacking in that department, especially with the news of Amar’e Stoudemire’s knee injury.

Popovich, the 2011-12 and ’02-03 winner, is the LeBron James of the Coach of the Year race: He’s always an excellent, deserving candidate, ready to seize the award should an unimpeachable alternative fail to emerge. The West-leading Spurs are neck and neck with Miami for the best record, and they rank third in both offense and defense. Parker’s absence because of an ankle injury offers a mildly interesting plot amid another year of routine excellence; if San Antonio continues to reel off victories without its MVP candidate, Popovich and his system are sure to receive a lion’s share of the credit, and rightfully so.

Vogel has excellent credentials and may well prove to be Popovich’s top competition. His case is straightforward and no-nonsense, much like his team: The Pacers boast the NBA’s best defense and are pushing for the East’s No. 2 seed, and Vogel has survived the loss of Danny Granger and overseen third-year swingman Paul George’s development into a first-time All-Star. As SI.com’s Ian Thomsen noted recently, this is a deep field for Coach of the Year, and Tom Thibodeau’s work without Rose in Chicago raises the question of whether Vogel is even the best coach in his division.

When in doubt, go with Popovich until someone rips the award away from him. Woodson, Vogel, Thibodeau and the other contenders — including Golden State’s Mark Jackson, Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, Memphis’ Lionel Hollins and hard-charging George Karl of Denver — have 20 or so games to make their closing arguments.


Joakim Noah

All-Star center Joakim Noah anchors the Bulls’ fourth-ranked defense. (Brian Kersey/Landov)

Defensive Player of the Year

1. Joakim Noah, Bulls
2. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies
3. LeBron James, Heat

The NBA’s most effective team defenses are so loaded with individual talent that, without Dwight Howard playing to form, the discussion here quickly enters “there isn’t a correct answer” territory.

Try this out for some perspective: Each of the top-nine defenses have multiple players worthy of some level of recognition — Roy Hibbert and George (Indiana); Gasol and Tony Allen (Memphis); Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio); Noah and Luol Deng (Chicago); Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley (Boston); Nene and Emeka Okafor (Washington); Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha (Oklahoma City); Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe (Los Angeles Clippers); and James and Dwyane Wade (Miami).

Now, some of those names don’t play huge minutes, some lack ideal play-to-play consistency, some get by more on highlight plays than technique, some play for teams with bad records and some might be past their prime. There might even be additional names from those nine teams who deserve mention, too. Then, you have to note that New York’s Tyson Chandler (last season’s Defensive Player of the Year), Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders (the league’s leading shot-blocker) and Denver’s Andre Iguodala (perhaps the league’s most cerebral defender) weren’t included.

The point here is that we’re in Baskin-Robbins territory, where there are practically 31 flavors to choose from for an award that lacks the precise statistics to narrow the discussion. My favorite flavor of defense happens to be controlled chaos, and there Noah stands above the pack. His activity level has remained high even while he’s played by far the most minutes of his career, and he embodies so many great defensive virtues: motor, instincts, spacing, timing, intelligence and length. He’s filling up the box score for the NBA’s No. 4 defense, averaging 7.4 defensive rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals. Chicago gives up 97.7 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game and 102.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.

Gasol makes a similar impact on the Grizzlies, who are second in points allowed per possession. When he’s on the court, they concede just 95.5 points per 100 possessions; when he’s not, they fall to 101.2 points per 100 possessions. His presence on the back line allows Allen and point guard Mike Conley to apply intense on-ball pressure, one of the Grizzlies’ defining qualities.

As noted above, the Heat’s defense is significantly better with James — shocking, I know — and his ability to defend elite wings without fouling or wearing himself out is unmatched. He’s a true lockdown guy who can defend all five positions and hold his own on the boards against big men. Though it’s difficult to regard James as being underrated considering his level of popularity, his defensive abilities remain at least somewhat underappreciated.


Paul George

The Pacers’ Paul George made his first All-Star team in his third season. (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Most Improved Player

1. Paul George, Pacers
2. Larry Sanders, Bucks 
3. Jrue Holiday, Sixers

Andray Blatche’s productive play for Brooklyn after Washington amnestied him made him my early-season favorite, but this blossoming trio of youngsters has succeeded in pushing that storyline to the back burner. George and Holiday were both rewarded with their first All-Star appearances, while Sanders has transformed his reputation from “guy who is too volatile for no good reason” to “guy who is really, really, really effective at defending the basket while being too volatile only occasionally.”

I ranked Holiday ninth in my recent list of the NBA’s top 10 point guards. As noted there, he’s been essentially the sole redeeming quality of a lost Sixers season. The 22-year-old has scaled his numbers considerably in an expanded offensive role and he continues to play committed defense. He’s a textbook Most Improved candidate in that he’s averaging career highs in scoring (18.5 points) and assists (8.7) while putting up a 17.7 PER, tops in his four-year career.

Sanders, 24, has had an even steeper increase, in large part because he was buried on coach Scott Skiles’ bench in 2011-12. He’s shifted into a starting role and is averaging 8.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and a league-best 3.2 blocks in 26.5 minutes. He is among a rare class of players who make complicated blocks look effortless, and he’s right at the top of the list of reasons Milwaukee has improved from No. 17 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 10 this year. It’s not often a big man goes from lightly used rotation piece to potential franchise building block in less than 12 months, but that’s not an overstatement of Sanders’ rise.

Topping Holiday and Sanders is no easy task, but George is certainly up for it. Granger’s absence opened the door and George went sprinting through it, posting career highs across the board as Vogel has had no choice but to play him heavy minutes. George is averaging 17.6 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.8 steals, and he’s not too far behind James, Iguodala and Allen in the “best perimeter defender” conversation. His reliable range — 38.5 percent three-point shooting — opens up the rest of his offensive game and it was a key factor in his emergence in December. The scariest part is that George, just 22, still has so much more growth and refinement ahead of him.

16 comments
Sam5
Sam5

Why would you put Kobe 5th?!  His team may not even make the playoffs!  Don't get me wrong, he's having a great season, but if your team doesn't make the playoffs, you shouldn't be in the discussion.  We write off plenty of other players as "good stats, bad team" players... Kobe's stats are good, but until the last 10 games or so (since Howard has started playing well) his team has been putrid.  

dinohealth
dinohealth

All being said, boring, or, not, Lebron should be the MVP. He is the most valuable glue for the Heat, and, the League! A 19 game win streak speaks for itself, as well as his memorable stretch of individual, historic, performance level achievement (also, speaks a bit about his coach). Mark Jackson has done a great job with the Warriors, turning that team around, without any great trade results from the Bogut/Ellis trade (Bogut has been a non-factor this year). His most notable contribution is the jelling of the backcourt pieces, and the team's overall defensive capability/improvement over last year. agree on Jack for 6th man contention, his recent slight slump, notwithstanding. I would throw JJ Redick in that list, as he has been extraordinarily consistent and a critical factor off the bench for TWO teams, without losing a stride; VERY hard to do!

OmarChavezJr.
OmarChavezJr.

What does Erik Spoelstra have to do to get COY consideration!? The man has redefined positions in the NBA and adopted the perfect system to win with HIS players. Remember in 2010-11 when he carted out Ilgauskas and Dampier for heavy minutes? Best team in the NBA. 19 game winning streak. You think that's all talent? Give credit where credit is due.

Yaya_Other
Yaya_Other

Kobe is 5th really? Why do people feel they have to put his name in MVP discussions. I'd put Melo over Kobe. What is Kobe really doing this season....get'n his all star team to the 8th spot???? Stop patting Kobe on the ass for stuff you would kill other stars for doing. 

AaronDunckel
AaronDunckel

Some of the Lebron hate really has gotten to an amusing level

 

hes the best player in the league, on the best team in the league, who does it in every facet of the game.... let go of your bias and give the award to who's earned it - like it or not thats LeBron James

JonathanWoyke
JonathanWoyke

Whoa some of your award races are off its not even funny. for MVP, Kobe shouldnt be in the Number 5 spot. MVP is the MOST VALUEABLE PLAYER on a team. Lebron has been great this year no doubt but its not like Wade hasnt been a huge part in the Heats success either. Kobe is the SOLE reason they are even in the 8th spot, amongst the season the Lakers had, Kobe has been the solid rock that they could rely on day in and out. Has he been more instrumental to his teams success than Lebron? maybe not but Kobe had NO help. whereas LBJ had Wade and Bosch at times to help carry the load. Durant doesnt deserve the MVP until he gets Westbrook under control. I dont care how good he is, the team falls and rises with Westbrook. Tell me im wrong, dont worry, Ill wait. CP3 has been good. but MVP? i dont think so, hes not on the level Kobe or Lebron are on. He is instrumental to his team and without him the Clippers go nowhere, but his impact just isnt as great as the other candidates.

WHERE IS JR SMITH IN THE 6th Man race????? ill just rest my case but other than J. Crawford, Smith clearly is the only true runner up.

LBJ once again has been great but he is not DPOY. I think Chandler should be in that conversation but NOah is very deserving of this one.

Lacentral
Lacentral

if james or durant win it again than the nba needs to get a life!

dinohealth
dinohealth

@Yaya_Other If ever there was a year that Kobe is playing an MVP-caliber role, it is this one. Coaching change, aging team, new faces, injuries, dysfunctionality, etc., and, Kobe is doing it all to carry the Lakers. He has sacrificed a sure scoring titile for the good of the team, he has been a locker-room motivator, and, he has squeezed every ounce of playability from whatever teammates he has had around him. His recent role of playmaker and defensive specialist to get them back in contention has been extraordianary; practically, spoonfeeding his mates easy buckets, and getting all of them involved. Not to mention critical stops, exemplary defense, and key, game deciding 3pters in the clutch, last minute, of every game. I was never a "great" Kobe fan, but, I have marvelled at what he is doing the last few weeks. Truly one of the greatest ever!

JamieBreslow
JamieBreslow

 @Yaya_Other Maybe you should actually watch some basketball before saying such inane things. 

JonathanWoyke
JonathanWoyke

 @AaronDunckel

 its not hate. Nobody is saying hes not a great player, the Best if you want. But that doesnt qualify him for every award out there. Jump off the bandwagon already.

dinohealth
dinohealth

@JonathanWoyke I agree with you on Kobe. Definitely MVP on his team, and, personally, willing and carrying the Lakers to the payoffs. Having said that, what Lebron is doing, is on another level of MVP! Miami is definitely defending its title, and, performing at a levelof excellence that the league sorely needed for years! The difference-maker is LBJ!

wizzla761
wizzla761

Remember How when MJ played they made an effort to give it to someone else saying he can't get it again or every year.

Now things have flipped and they look for any reason to give it LBJ every year.

dinohealth
dinohealth

@JonathanWoyke @AaronDunckel Oh, yes, it does! Let's face it, as he goes, so does Miami, and, the League. He is at the Jordanesque level of impact within his team, and, within the Leagues. Should be runaway MVP if he keeps this up! One more, with many more to come...

dinohealth
dinohealth

@wizzla761 No, they are still looking not give it to LBJ, every year. This year, he clearly deserves it!

Lacentral
Lacentral

 @wizzla761 damn shame! i'm a lakers fan but i think well i know cp3 should win it! hell parker, or even rudy gay yea i said his name but anyone but james!