LeBron James leads tight MVP race, more awards at quarter mark of season
Coach of the Year
1. Terry Stotts, Blazers
2. Frank Vogel, Pacers
3. Jeff Hornacek, Suns
This is always one of the trickiest awards to get a handle on early in the season, as 20-24 games usually aren’t enough to establish true tiers. The conference disparity this season just makes it that much more difficult. Ten teams in the West are separated by only four games (ranging from 15-8 to 10-11), and 12 teams in the East are separated by just 4½ games (from 11-11 to 6-15). Who are the sleepers? Who are the true disappointments? Where are the turnaround teams? Who knows.
Stotts and Vogel won their conference Coach of the Month awards thanks to their teams’ strong starts. They are both worthy candidates, and the chief reason for selecting Stotts over Vogel might be considered fairly touchy-feely (“No one saw it coming!”). Still, Portland leads the NBA in points per possession by a good margin after finishing 15th last season, relying on three-pointers, an intelligent understanding of their players strengths and weaknesses, and lots of unselfish play. This has been one of the league’s most entertaining teams, just as Stotts’ strongest advocates (his former boss in Dallas, Rick Carlisle, and Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki) predicted when he was in the running for the Blazers’ job in 2012. To see a vision realized in such a manner is worthy of (early) recognition.
Much of the same can be said for Vogel, and there’s a feeling here that his candidacy is more likely than Stotts’ to last the entire season. Indiana’s top-ranked defense has been historically good, and there’s no reason to expect an unraveling: The Pacers topped the league in defense last season, and now they have the benefit of playing against the hapless East as Tanking Season ramps up. Vogel’s bunch seems fully motivated to earn home-court advantage in a hypothetical grudge match against the Heat in the conference finals. A lofty win total and top defense would be a powerful one-two punch for Vogel when it comes time for final voting.
At 12-9, a gutted Suns team is in the running for “biggest overachievers.” Full credit to Hornacek, who set the tone by developing relationships with some of his younger players while coaching the franchise’s entry at the Las Vegas Summer League. The Suns are an annoying, relentless opponent because of their high-pressure defense and an ability to score in transition. The best is yet to come, given general manager Ryan McDonough’s accumulation of draft picks, but the current results aren’t too shabby.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Roy Hibbert, Pacers
2. Paul George, Pacers
3. Tim Duncan, Spurs
Who says two guys from the same team shouldn’t rank 1-2 on an awards ballot?
It would take an unexpected turnaround for James, who finished second to Grizzlies center Marc Gasol last season and then griped about it, to worm his way into this discussion. Indiana has just been too dominant, and its defensive linchpins — Hibbert and George — have all the necessary components. Both play for a top-ranked defense, both are All-Stars, both have established defensive reputations, both are capable of highlight plays, both get the benefit of lots of attention during high-profile matchups against top teams and scorers, and both grade out amazingly in on/off numbers. Hibbert’s defensive rating is 90 and George’s is 91.3. Those are ungodly, and they represent major net differences compared to when either of them leaves the court. To underscore their collective dominance: George ranks No. 1 in defensive win shares and Hibbert ranks No. 2; Hibbert ranks No. 1 in defensive rating and George ranks No. 4.
We’ve seen players chase scoring titles over the years with late-season ball-hogging. I’m imagining a world in which Hibbert and George realize in March that they are clearly the top two candidates for this award and then they decide to chase it full on, smothering weak competitors, pummeling shots back in people’s faces, ripping guards before they get across half court, etc. This must happen!
If it does come down to these two, it seems a safe bet that this award’s big-man bias will carry Hibbert past George. (Metta World Peace and Gary Payton are the only perimeter players to win since 1989.) Should that happen, I don’t think we’re likely to hear many complaints.
Settling on a third name is a toss-up, what with the Grizzlies’ Gasol injured, the Bulls thrown into injury hell, the Spurs’ refusal to play anyone more than 31 minutes a game, the Heat off to a loose (by their standards) start and Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders blocking more club punches than shots. Duncan gets the slot as a sign of appreciation for San Antonio’s No. 2 ranking in points allowed per possession and his individual defensive rating, which is among the league leaders. James, Oklahoma City’s Serge Ibaka, Chicago’s Joakim Noah, Golden State’s Iguodala and Andrew Bogut, Houston’s Dwight Howard and the Clippers’ Paul should figure into the trailing pack as this one unfolds.
Most Improved Player
1. Michael Beasley, Heat
2. Anthony Davis, Pelicans
3. Eric Bledsoe, Suns
I guess I’m a sucker for a good “turn your life around” story. Last season, my first-quarter Most Improved Player was Nets big man Andray Blatche, who transformed from an amnesty victim with five years’ worth of red flags into a PER darling in a matter of months. Now, Beasley is making a similar leap from down-and-out to super efficient.
In case you ignored the 2012-13 Suns — and no one could blame you if you did — Beasley registered more shots than points and posted minus-1.5 win shares, the worst rating in the league. That performance, coupled with off-the-court problems, prompted a contract buyout. Phoenix sent him packing with a sternly worded press release about character standards.
Reborn in a reserve role in Miami, Beasley ranks 15th with a 22.2 PER (more than double his 2012-13 mark) and his offensive rating has soared from 87 to 109. It’s hard to be more improved than that. He’s kept his nose clean with the Heat, too, which is probably more important than the on-court stuff when you take into account his track record of substance-abuse issues.
Davis and Bledsoe have dealt with injuries, but let’s give them some due for keeping their respective teams in the mix in the loaded West. Even if Davis’ improvement was anticipated, you can’t argue with the eye-popping results mentioned above. Bledsoe, a logical preseason pick after a summer trade from the Clippers to the Suns promised an expanded role, has delivered by more than doubling his scoring and doubling his assists. His 21 PER is easily a career high and sixth among point guards. Bledsoe’s teammate Morris has made big strides this season, too.
Sacramento’s Thomas, my Sixth Man Award pick, is another strong option here, as is his teammate Cousins. Two established guards — Portland’s Wesley Matthews and Orlando’s Arron Afflalo — have enjoyed monster starts that warrant mention, but both are subject to a high likelihood of regression, a la O.J. Mayo last season, because their early shooting numbers far outpace their career standard. The same can be said for Celtics guard Jordan Crawford, whose numbers make him look like a new man. Let’s not forget about the Pistons’ Drummond or 76ers center Spencer Hawes, either. Drummond’s draft class includes other second-year players who have drawn attention such as Celtics big man Jared Sullinger, Sixers guard Tony Wroten, Rockets forward Terrence Jones, Bucks power forward John Henson and Suns center Miles Plumlee. In short, there are lots of intriguing candidates to monitor.