Each team's best candidate to win an award this season

Each team's best candidate to win an award this season


Each team's best candidate to win an award this season

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As we approach the end of the 2018-19 season, we’ve decided to take a step back and evaluate who are the NBA’s likeliest award winners this season.

Rather than just predict who’s going to win every individual award, we decided to go through all 30 teams and pick their most probable award winner, for everything from Rookie of the Year to Coach of the Year.

Of course, not every team has someone legitimately worthy of taking home major hardware once the season comes to a close. Nevertheless, for the fun of it, we went ahead and picked one for every single team, even though a few are pretty big longshots.



Had he not started the year off so coldly, and if there wasn’t another rookie putting up insane numbers out in Texas, there’s a good chance Trae Young would have had a legitimate shot at winning this award. Alas, it appears Young will have to settle for second in Rookie of the Year voting this season.

Nevertheless, that’s nothing to be ashamed about, as Young has pretty easily been the second-best first-year player in 2018-19. Overall, his raw numbers – 18.4 points, 7.7 assists and 1.9 three-pointers nightly – are quite strong, and if we take a look at his more recent marks, once he got his feet wet, they’re all the more impressive. Since Jan. 26, the Oklahoma product is averaging 23.5 points, 8.6 assists and 2.8 three-pointers per game on extremely healthy 44.7/41.1/84.4 shooting splits, proving that his game – predicated upon creative passing and pristine pull-up shooting – does translate well at the NBA level.

If Young can carry over his recent form into 2019-20, the Atlanta Hawks could be a team to look out for in the Eastern Conference.



Had this season gone a little more according to expectations for the Boston Celtics, their players would have had a much better shot at landing some major hardware. Unfortunately, that has not been the case, and though they boast a decent 43-28 record, they sit just fifth in the weaker Eastern Conference, when many expected them to push for first.

So as far as their best candidate to win a major award this year, we’re going with Marcus Smart as Defensive Player of the Year.

We only need to watch a single Celtics defensive possession to realize how impactful Smart is on the bucket-denying side of the floor, but the advanced numbers love him, too. The 25-year-old ranks eighth league-wide in nightly steals at 1.8, sixth among guards in Defensive Win Shares at +2.8 and sixth among guards in Defensive Box Plus/Minus at +1.3.

Sure, it’s a major long shot which we don’t actually expect to happen, but Boston didn’t give us many other options. With a stronger season as a team, Gordon Hayward or Terry Rozier could have garnered some attention as potential Sixth Men of the Year, Brad Stevens could have pushed for Coach of the Year or Kyrie Irving could have even gotten some MVP love. But a disappointing campaign will undoubtedly depress the Celtics’ real chances of taking home any award of note for 2018-19.



After a hot start and early flameout to 2017-18, D’Angelo Russell has maintained a consistently high level of play this season, one that has helped catapult the Brooklyn Nets to playoff contention for the first time since 2014-15.

Russell is averaging a career-high in nightly points (20.4), assists (6.8) and three-pointers (2.8) in his fourth campaign, shooting a career-best 43.0 percent from the floor, 36.5 percent from three and 80.1 percent from the foul stripe.

For his efforts, the 23-year-old Russell was named an All-Star in 2018-19, the first of what could be many nominations for the supremely talented southpaw ball-handler.



If it was hard to find a worthy end-of-year award winner for Boston, it’s downright impossible to do so for the Charlotte Hornets, so we decided to go with Kemba Walker as Most Improved Player, considering the seventh-year pro is having arguably the best season of his career.

Walker is putting up a career-high 25.0 points per contest this season, to go with 4.3 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.3 steals per game. What’s more, with him on the floor, Charlotte is 9.2 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits, proving that his stats are far from empty, and exemplifying how lost the Hornets would be without him.

This selection isn’t perfect, as there are other players who improved a good amount more from last year to this one, but it’s the best we could do with our limited options.



Now this Most Improved Player candidate is much more plausible.

Zach LaVine has taken a major leap this season, averaging 23.8 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game (one of just six players to be doing so), and slashing efficient 46.7/37.2/83.0 shooting splits. Even more importantly, for the first time in his career, LaVine boasts a positive swing rating, which shows that he’s no longer just a shoot-first, ineffective gunner.

If the UCLA product, who only just recently turned 24, can maintain this trajectory going into next year while continuing to get stingier defensively, we could be looking at the league’s next great shooting guard. His upside is that massive.



An absence of legit options on one of the worst teams in the league left us with no choice but to go with Cedi Osman as Most Improved Player for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In all fairness, Osman’s numbers have improved a good amount this season, as the Turkish swingman is putting up 13.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. At the same time, one has every right to wonder if he legitimately has gotten that much better or if these more noteworthy averages have only come as a result of him getting a huge uptick in playing time this year. Osman is averaging nearly 20 more minutes per contest in 2018-19, which at least partially explains how he’s contributing almost 10 more points per game as a sophomore in the NBA.

Regardless, Osman has proven to be a rotation-level player in the Association if nothing else this year, so that’s one positive we can take away from this brutal Cavs season.



The overwhelming frontrunner for Rookie of the Year this season, Luka Doncic has been downright spectacular in his inaugural NBA campaign, even despite a late dip in shooting efficiency.

The Slovenian ball-handler is averaging 21.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game in 2018-19, making him just the second rookie in league history to put up a 21/7/5 stat line over a full season, joining Hall-of-Famer Oscar Robertson on the impressive, and short, list. Additionally, on Mar. 18, Doncic became the youngest player in NBA history to amass five career triple-doubles after a ridiculous 29-point, 13-rebound and 10-assist performance against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Doncic is the type of franchise-changing talent a team can build around, which would explain the Dallas Mavericks’ actions at the trade deadline. The Mavericks, by acquiring a player in Kristaps Porzingis who won’t even be ready until next season, made it clear they have the future in mind, and are ready and eager to build around their 6-foot-8 playmaker.

And Doncic, for his part, looks more than prepared to eventually guide Dallas back to prominence.



After being left out of the playoffs five years in a row, with each of the last two eliminations coming by one game, the Denver Nuggets came into 2018-19 with something to prove.

And prove themselves they did.

Denver was the second team to lock up a playoff spot in the Western Conference this season, behind only the Golden State Warriors. Their net rating – +5.1 – ranks fourth league-wide, while their offensive and defensive rating both rank comfortably in the Top 10. Basically, the Nuggets have been a juggernaut this year, and a lot of that is thanks to their head coach, Michael Malone, who has instilled a system that not only makes their star players shine, but helps their role players, underrated guys like Malik Beasley and Monte Morris, flourish.

At the end of the day, although we could have gone with Nikola Jokic as MVP in this category, and he’ll surely receive some attention for that distinction once the season culminates, we decided to go with Malone for Coach of the Year as Denver’s best shot at an award in 2018-19.



Before we get started, one thing should be clear: We don’t actually think Blake Griffin is a legitimate MVP candidate, despite how great he’s been. But the Detroit Pistons didn’t give us many other options as far as potential award recipients, so we had no choice but to go with Griffin winning the Association’s most important distinction.

For the year, Griffin is averaging 24.7 points, 7.6 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game, shooting 46.8 percent from the floor and a career-high 36.3 percent from three (minimum: 100 attempts). There are only two other players posting a 24/7/5 stat line this season, and they’re two of the absolute best the game has to offer, so Griffin is making a big-time statement with his numbers for 2018-19 – that he’s one of the league’s top players.

So no, Griffin probably won’t get much MVP love at the end of the year, but his massive nightly impact shouldn’t go unnoticed.



Warriors big man Draymond Green came into the season with winning Defensive Player of the Year as a personal goal in mind. However, Golden State’s struggles on the less glamorous end of the floor (the two-time-over reigning champs sit 14th in defensive rating) have made that goal coming to fruition unlikely.

Even Green would agree with that:

Even so, Green is still one of the most tenacious defenders the NBA has to offer, with the ability to stifle back-down bigs, smother perimeter ball-handlers, protect the paint and jump passing lanes. Green is one of just six players with 55 blocks and 79 steals on the year, and his 108.4 Defensive Points Saved, per NBA Math, puts him 19th in the NBA.

Green may not be the defender he was when he took home Defensive Player of the Year a couple of seasons ago (he’s probably saving his highest energy point-stopping methods for the playoffs), but there aren’t many non-centers who can make the defensive impact he can on a game-to-game basis.



One of the top contenders for MVP in 2018-19, James Harden makes a very strong case to take home the award for a second year running.

For starters, the bearded one is leading the league in scoring for the second season in a row, putting up an insane 35.9 points per contest. For reference, no player has averaged that many points nightly over a season since Michael Jordan back in 1986-87. Additionally, Harden had a streak at one point this season where he scored at least 30 points over an absurd 32-game stretch, which doesn’t even seem possible when you really think about it. Harden has also been non-discriminatory with his bucket-giving:

Harden has been so good that even despite the team suffering a boatload of injuries, including to Chris Paul and Clint Capela, the Houston Rockets still sit comfortably third in the loaded Western Conference. In fact, dating back to the departure of a certain ill-fitting piece, Houston boasts the league’s second-best record:

Ultimately, although it seems like another name is trending harder for MVP at the moment, it’s hard to believe anyone else has been as important to their team this season as Harden has been for the Rockets.



The case for Myles Turner as Defensive Player of the Year isn’t a complicated one. The former Texas Longhorn leads the league in nightly rejections (2.8) and in block rate (8.6 percent), is fifth in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (4.8) and seventh in Defensive Win Shares (3.9).

Turner’s impact goes far beyond individual numbers, though. The Indiana Pacers, even without star guard Victor Oladipo, sit fourth in the East with a 44-28 record, and a lot of that is thanks to their elite defense. Indiana has the league’s third-stingiest defensive rating at 105.4, a feat that wouldn’t be possible without their paint-protecting big man, Turner, deterring opponent rim forays.

He may not be the favorite, but Turner deserves serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year with how impactful he’s been on that side of the floor all season long.



This one is pretty open and shut: It would be an absolute shock and a downright travesty if Lou Williams didn’t win his third Sixth Man of the Year award this season.

Williams leads all bench scorers at 20.4 points per game. He also became the all-time leading reserve scorer this year, surpassing Dell Curry:

He’s a clutch shot-maker with multiple game-winners on the season, and without him, the Los Angeles Clippers wouldn’t be anywhere near playoff contention.

Williams is the rightful Sixth Man of the Year for 2018-19.



Now this one is a little less open and shut.

LeBron James won’t win MVP this year. He missed too much time due to a Christmas-Day groin injury that forced him to miss over a month of action, his numbers have fallen off a bit and, most glaringly of all, the Los Angeles Lakers have been a complete disappointment this season.

Even despite heightened expectations after signing the four-time MVP, Los Angeles fell out of playoff contention with over a month left in the season, and though part of that is due to James getting hurt, he didn’t do anywhere near enough to turn things around when he got back. Now there’s talk of the Lakers shutting James down fully for the year, in hopes of getting the 34-year-old some rest before an important offseason and even more important 2019-20.

Overall, James is still a monster, averaging 27.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game this season, so it would be foolhardy to completely rule him out of ever winning another league MVP award.

But this year, there’s just no chance it happens.



Prior to going down with a deep thigh bruise that will likely end his rookie campaign at 58 games, Jaren Jackson Jr. was one of the top first-year players in the NBA.

If he doesn’t play another game, Jackson will end the year having averaged 13.8 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per contest, shooting 50.6 percent from the floor and 35.9 percent from beyond the arc. He can not just protect the paint on defense, he can also space the floor on offense, putting him in one of the NBA’s rarest, but most impactful, archetypes.

Jackson also has a magnitude of ways he can score with the rock in his hands, both as a face-up threat and with his back to the basket, making his upside, considering he’s still just 19, massive.

Even if he didn’t get hurt, Jackson probably would have finished third, at best, in Rookie of the Year voting, but that probably speaks more to how stacked the 2018 class is than anything else.



Shifting from position to position without making enough of a consistent impact, missing layups at an alarming rate and struggling with his confidence, Justise Winslow had a mostly disappointing first three-and-a-half seasons in the NBA.

Then, midway through this year, 2018 All-Star point guard Goran Dragic suffered a knee injury, allowing Winslow to run the point full time – and the Duke product hasn’t looked back since. Since getting the starting point guard job for the Miami Heat, Winslow has averaged 13.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game, nailed a healthy 37.6 percent of his threes and overall found his niche in the NBA. With him on the floor, Miami is 7.6 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits, mostly thanks to Winslow’s playmaking, improved scoring and shutdown perimeter defense.

Now, the Heat appear to have their point guard of the future locked up.

Will that be enough for Winslow to make a real run at Most Improved Player this season? Probably not, but there’s no doubting how much more consistent the fourth-year pro has gotten with a more well-defined role.



If Harden doesn’t win his second league MVP trophy in a row this year, then that means it’s probably going to Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The player known as the Greek Freak is posting an insane year statistically, averaging 27.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.4 blocks per contest, becoming just the second player ever to have a 27/12/6 campaign, joining The Big O on the list. Even despite shooting a paltry 24.9 percent from three on the year, the Bucks are 9.2 points per 100 possessions better with Antetokounmpo on the floor, proving that a questionable jumper isn’t enough to stop the 24-year-old from utterly dominating all competition.

Thanks to Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee was the first team to qualify for the playoffs this year, sitting first in the East through 71 games with a 53-18 record. The Bucks’ net rating – +8.9 – is the best in the Association in 2018-19, and the NBA’s best mark since Golden State’s +11.3 two years ago.

All in all, Milwaukee has been the best team in the league this year, and Antetokounmpo has been their best player. That, plus his unfathomably good numbers and nightly highlight reel plays, might just be enough to land him MVP honors for the season.



This one would have looked better a month or two ago, when Derrick Rose wasn’t hurt and he was piling up impressive performance after impressive performance.

Rose’s best night came on Halloween, when the 2011 league MVP went for 50 points against an elite Utah Jazz defense:

For the year, Rose is averaging 18.0 points and 4.3 assists per game mostly off the bench, shooting a career-high 37.0 percent from three and career-best 48.2 percent from the floor.

It won’t be enough for Sixth Man of the Year, but it was nice to see Rose post such a strong bounce-back season, one that’ll make his upcoming free agency an interesting one to observe.



Truth be told, there was a better chance of Julius Randle winning this award last year when he made a huge breakthrough as a member of the Lakers. That doesn’t mean Randle hasn’t been better this year than last, because he has, it’s just that there may be better candidates for this award this time around.

In 2018-19, Randle is putting up a career-high 21.3 points per contest, chipping in 8.8 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game to boot. Randle is one of just eight players with a 21/8/3 stat line this season, and the fact that the other seven were All-Stars in February proves how impressive the feat is.

Of course, part of Randle’s improved numbers stem from him playing over 30 minutes nightly for the first time in his career, but that shouldn’t take away from how good he’s been for the Pelicans. New Orleans’ season as a whole has been a disappointment, but looking back, signing Randle to a two-year, $17.7 million deal last summer was a downright coup.



Arguably the worst team in the league this season, it was tough to find many deserving award candidates for the New York Knicks in 2018-19, so we went with Emmanuel Mudiay as Most Improved Player.

This almost certainly won’t happen, but Mudiay does deserve credit for a career campaign as a member of the Knicks, averaging 14.3 points and 3.7 assists per game this season.

If nothing else, Mudiay flashed some potential as an athletic backup point guard who can score at the cup and knock down some shots against second units.



Though the advanced stats may not love his case, Paul George is seen as one of the favorites for 2019’s Defensive Player of the Year award. His athleticism, long arms and tenacity make him arguably the top perimeter defender the league has to offer at the moment, while his instincts on the point-stopping end of the floor have helped him lead the NBA in steals this year at 2.2 nightly.

Most important of all is that George’s exploits have aided the Oklahoma City Thunder to boast one of the Association’s stingiest defenses, allowing just 105.7 points per 100 possessions, the fourth-best mark in the league.

It’s somewhat rare for purely a wing defender to get enough acclaim to garner this award, but that’s how impactful George has been on that end of the floor.



Orlando Magic big man Nikola Vucevic had been one of the league’s most underrated centers for a few years now. But this season, he’s taken his game to another level.

Vucevic, a first-time All-Star in 2019, has been filling up the stat sheet all year long, averaging 20.7 points, 12.1 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.1 blocks per contest. For a 7-footer, he spaces the floor from three quite well, knocking down 37.4 percent of his outside looks, and 52.2 percent of his shots overall.

Considering Vucevic has taken his game from merely interesting to worthy of a spot on the All-Star roster, he will undoubtedly merit attention as a Most Improved Player candidate.



Last season, Joel Embiid finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. This year, however, he probably won’t get that many votes.

Although his blocks per game are up to 2.0 nightly, the Philadelphia 76ers as a team have fallen to 11th in defensive efficiency (108.1) after finishing last year at third, which will all but kill Embiid’s case to win the award. Still, the Kansas product is one of the NBA’s elite defensive big men, capable of dominating the paint defensively, cleaning up on the glass and even switching onto guards on the perimeter.

But his overall point-stopping impact, be it due to injury or whatever else, simply hasn’t been as dominant as it has been in the past. And that’ll cost him any chance he would have had at Defensive Player of the Year.



With just over 10 games left in the season, Deandre Ayton is probably staring a third-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting dead in the face, as he hasn’t been quite on the level of a Doncic or a Young.

Not that that’s some sort of terrible indictment on the 2018 No. 1 pick’s inaugural campaign or anything, but rather, that’s just how good the class has been overall. After all, a rookie big man averaging 16.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists per game is nothing to scoff at. Furthermore, the fact that Ayton actually boasts a positive swing rating (+1.7) for one of the worst teams in the Association speaks volumes on his Year-1 effectiveness.

Ayton does need to work on certain elements of his game, namely, his outside shooting (he has only attempted four threes all year so far) and his defense (sure, his perimeter defense is interesting, but a player with a 7-foot-6 wingspan manning the paint and only averaging 0.9 blocks per game is troublesome), but considering he’s not even 21 yet, there’s every reason to believe Ayton is in store for a huge career.



The odds of Damian Lillard winning MVP this year are slim, but that hasn’t stopped the star guard from believing in his own abilities:

Of course, Lillard is absolutely right in his sentiments. He ranks 10th in the league in scoring at 26.2 points per game, while chipping in 6.6 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.9 threes per contest. With him on the floor, the Portland Trail Blazers are an astronomical 14.5 points per 100 possessions better than when he sits. And among players with at least 500 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler, Lillard’s 1.083 points per possession ranks 1st overall according to Synergy Sports.

He may not be a legitimate MVP candidate, but there’s zero doubt Lillard is one of the Association’s very best players.



From Year-1 to Year-2, De’Aaron Fox has transformed, becoming a more confident shooter and attacker on offense, which has helped him to start realizing his massive potential.

Fox is averaging 17.6 points, 7.2 assists and 1.7 steals per game this season, one of just six players with a 17/7/1.5 stat line on the year. The biggest transformation with Fox, though, has been with his three-point shooting. Once thought of as a weakness, Fox is knocking down a noteworthy 37.8 percent of his three-point looks this year, and 35.8 percent of his pull-up three-pointers. That newfound ability to make defenders pay for going under screens has opened up a lot more opportunities for Fox, who has done well to take full advantage of them.

It’ll be exciting to watch Fox, who’s still just 21, as he continues to develop. He’s got the upside to become one of the better point guards the NBA has to offer.



Most pundits thought the San Antonio Spurs had a bad summer, losing their best player and overpaying for complementary pieces. Some thought it may have even been bad enough to knock San Antonio out of playoff contention entirely.

Those pundits probably forgot who’s coaching the Spurs.

Gregg Popovich has San Antonio comfortably in the Western Conference playoff picture with just a few weeks left in the 2018-19 campaign, and after the offseason they had, and with their relative lack of star power compared to their counterparts, that’s a feat in and of itself.

Popovich probably won’t take home the award this year, but there is no other Spur more deserving of hardware for their contributions this season.



The announcement for Most Improved Player is merely a formality this year, as the winner is probably the most obvious out of any of the major awards. And that’s because no other player has made the jump this season that Pascal Siakam has.

Siakam has gone from averaging 7.3 points last year to 16.4 this season, from securing 4.5 rebounds nightly to 6.9 in 2018-19, and from dishing out 2.0 assists per contest last season to 3.0 this one. All across the board, Siakam has improved immensely, becoming one of the best role players in the Association.

We could go on and on, but there’s not much else to say except: If anyone but Siakam wins Most Improved Player this season, it would be borderline criminal.



If George doesn’t take home Defensive Player of the Year this season, then it’ll probably go to Rudy Gobert for the second campaign in a row.

Gobert protects the paint and huffs down defensive rebound like no one else, and his presence allows the Jazz to funnel opponents away from the three-point line, and forces them to decide between trying to score on Gobert down low or pull up from the midrange, one of the least efficient shots in basketball. More often than not, Jazz foes opt for the latter.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Utah ranks third in defensive rating this year (105.4), something that would not be the case without their elite big man manning the paint.



Bradley Beal probably won’t win Most Improved Player this year since the leap he’s made doesn’t quite rival Siakam’s, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t made an impressive jump in his own right.

In 2018-19, Beal has taken his game from All-Star level to that of an All-NBA-caliber player, carrying a massive load for the Washington Wizards on a nightly basis, and more often than not, delivering. Beal is averaging an insane 26.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game this year, becoming one of just nine guards ever to put up a 26/5/5 stat line, joining the likes of Stephen CurryJerry West and Dwyane Wade on the list.

Beal’s huge year wasn’t enough to push Washington into the playoffs this season, but he has still legitimately been one of the best guards in the league for the entirety of 2018-19.

You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @FrankUrbina_.

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