The NBA is a league chalk full of incredible talents. Unfortunately, the Association can only recognize a few of the league’s best at the end of the year. Whether it be Most Improved, Sixth Man of the Year, or the highly anticipated Most Valuable player, there’s no denying that almost every player wouldn’t mind having their name on one of these awards. Sure, a lot of guys say that “it’s not about individual accolades,” and while that may be true, receiving an award of this caliber has a lot of hidden meaning to them. I’ve decided to take a crack at predicting who will ultimately win each major award, so without further ado, here are the guys who I think will be taking home some hardware at season’s end.
Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson
In my opinion, Golden State Warriors’ head coach, Mark Jackson, should be the man to receive Coach of the Year honors. While he isn’t a “landslide candidate,” he has certainly made a case as to why he should be one of the front runners. Jackson enjoyed a very successful 17 year career in the NBA. A career that saw him win Rookie of the Year, receive one All-Star bid, and lead the league in assists in 1997. He was a floor general that truly understood the game in its entirety. If his playing career isn’t proof enough when it comes to deciding whether he knows the game or not, consider his broadcasting stint with ESPN. Whenever you tuned in to an NBA game aired on ESPN, you could fully expect to hear Jackson dissecting both the players and the action. He could explain a sequence of plays to the casual fan in mere minutes.
When I heard that Jackson would be patrolling the sidelines for the Warriors, I was excited to see what he could do at the helm of an organization. In his first year as head coach in Oakland, Jackson’s squad managed to produce a 23-43 record in the lockout shortened season. A poor season to say the least, their dismal record translated to a .348 winning percentage for the season. In turn, the Warriors found themselves in fourth place in the Pacific Division when the season came to a close.
At this point you’re probably wondering what last season’s numbers have to do with THIS year’s Coach of the Year award. Well, it has a lot to do with it actually. Jackson has taken this cellar dweller team and has turned them into a quiet contender in the Western Conference after just one off season of changes. So far this year, the Warriors have managed to post a 33-23 record through 56 games. In 10 fewer games, Golden State has already surpassed last season’s win total by 10. They have also shaved off 20 games worth of losses from last season’s loss column.
Right now, the Warriors have played well enough to earn themselves a .589 winning percentage which is an exceptional turn around from last year’s .348. If they continue to win at this clip, Jackson’s team is on pace to finish off the year at 48-34. Had last season been a full one, the team would’ve finished with a 28-54 record over 82 games. 20 games up and 20 games down in the win and loss column respectively is an incredible improvement between seasons. 56 games into the 2012-13 campaign, Golden State is sitting somewhat comfortably in the 5th seed spot in the Western Conference. Obviously, barring any major issues, this young team is set to make the playoffs this year, something they couldn’t do in 2011-12.
Mark Jackson is a more than worthy candidate for this year’s Coach of the Year award. As I said before, he turned his club from a losing team into a team that is on its way to the post season. Personally, I love his philosophy: If you play hard and give him 110% on the defensive end, you have the green light on offense. That’s good news for the group of shooters he has in Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and rookie Harrison Barnes. However, I have a feeling he’d still let Curry and Thompson launch it from downtown if they were playing mediocre defense. Without those two scoring the heck out of the ball, they may not have won as many games as they have. With all the great work and success Jackson is realizing in Oakland this season, don’t be surprised if his name is etched in the 2012-13 Coach of the Year trophy at the conclusion of the regular season.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard
New Orleans Hornets center Anthony Davis hasn’t exactly lived up to all of his hype just yet. Whether he has been injured or just not producing consistently at a high rate, he hasn’t warranted all of the RoY talk. Don’t get me wrong, Davis will be a star in this league for years to come but he won’t be this year’s best rookie. As a matter of fact, that honor will more than likely go to Portland Trail Blazers’ point guard, Damian Lillard.
Perhaps the biggest reason for all of Lillard’s success is the one nobody really talks about. This young man has experience. He played all four years in college and that allowed him to develop into the player he is today. All of his time at Weber State gave him a quiet advantage over a lot of the guys that entered the draft alongside of him. The Blazers took Lillard with the 6th overall pick and not a single guy picked ahead of him was a four year college player. Thomas Robinson was the 5th overall pick and he played at Kansas University up until his junior year. Each selection before Lillard and Robinson were either freshmen or sophomores.
Lillard’s extra time at school has been a major factor in how he has translated his game from the NCAA to the pros so seamlessly. According to NBA.com, Lillard is the first player in NBA history to score 900 points and hit 100 plus 3-pointers in his first 50 career games. Not only that, he became the first player since Lebron James to accumulate 1000 points and 300 assists in his first 55 games. Anytime you find yourself in the same company as Lebron, you know you’re doing something right. How many rookies can say that they’ve done what Lillard has done this year? Absolutely zero.
Through 60 games, the rookie has posted 18.6 points per game on 42% from the field and 35% from distance. Perhaps what’s the most impressive about his offense is that he is the only rookie in the league averaging over 15 a game. In addition to his scoring numbers, he dishes out a little more than 6 assists per game while handing the ball over to the opposition 2.97 times per contest. Those two figures translate to a 2.14 assist to turnover ratio which is an exceptional number for a rookie point guard.
Watching Lillard play is a real treat. If you had never heard of him and saw him play, you’d figure he was a 4 year player. He knows exactly what he’s doing out there on the court and shows a maturity beyond his years. He hardly forces the issue on offense and understands when he has the shot. I noticed that he isn’t bashful when it comes to shooting the ball. Lillard has a lot of confidence in his jumpshot and he should. A quick release makes it hard to defend and it falls at a relatively good clip. Damian Lillard is a special player and the only reason why he “fell” to 6th overall in the draft is because New Orleans, Washington, Charlotte, Cleveland, and Sacramento all have their point guards for the future. We should all fully expect to see this kid in numerous All-Star games and he’s going to end up doing great things in Oregon. Lillard will win Rookie of the Year by a landslide.
Sixth Man of the Year: J.R. Smith
Choosing the winner of the 2012-13 Sixth Man of the Year award was the most difficult to choose. The decision ultimately came down to either Jamal Crawford of the Los Angeles Clippers or Smith, a two-guard for the New York Knicks.
If you were to compare the current season’s stats of the veteran shooting guards, you’d notice that Smith has the edge in most of the major statistical categories. However, I will admit that Crawford is a much more efficient scorer as his percentages prove. If you look at the player as a whole though, Smith brings more production to the floor. Smith has a stat line of 16.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, and 0.3 BPG. Crawford owns a stat line of 17.1 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, and 0.1 BPG. As you can see, Smith gives the Knicks more overall production than Crawford gives to Lob City. Crawford has never been known for much more than his scoring and ball handling throughout his career. He is an extremely talented player and I would take him on my team any day, unless I could choose Smith.
After watching J.R. Smith play during most of his career, his averages honestly tell the story of his game. Smith is a stat sheet stuffer and he’s going to give you 110% night in and night out (Mark Jackson would love him). There aren’t all that many shooting guards that pull down almost 5 and a half rebounds per game but I’ve realized that seeing this guy collect double digit rebounds in a game isn’t all that foreign. As recently as March 3rd, Smith corralled 12 rebounds in a game against the Miami Heat. Miami doesn’t have a true inside presence but its also not easy to rebound the ball with a guy like Lebron James trying to pull it away from you.
Overall, Smith can offer more to a team than Crawford can. I’ve seen J.R. play anywhere from point guard to small forward. He is unbelievably athletic and quick enough to guard the smallest guards but he’s also tough enough to guard bigger small forwards. Not only that, he isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty underneath the basket after the shot goes up. His quickness also helps him stay in front of the ball handler and get into the passing lanes for easy steals and fast break points. These are all things you’re not going to see from Jamal Crawford on a nightly basis. Both guys can go off for 30 points one night but only one of them can grab 10 rebounds and register 3-4 steals the next. It will be close between these two, numbers don’t lie though. That is why J.R. Smith will be this season’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Most Improved Player: Greivis Vasquez
I can honestly say that Greivis Vasquez has shocked me with how well he’s been playing this season. He came out of nowhere and he’s starting to show what he can be in this league. Between him and Anthony Davis, the New Orleans faithful have a lot to be excited about in the future. Through 62 games this season, the Maryland product is doing things that nobody could have predicted prior to the season.
First and foremost, Vasquez is averaging 9.4 assists per game which is good enough for 3rd best in the league. He’s in pretty good company as the two men in front of him are Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo. How far is he from the number one spot though? Essentially, it’s him and Chris Paul dueling for the assist crown since Rondo tore his ACL and will miss the remainder of the season as we all know. Technically you could say Chris Paul is in first with 9.5 and Vasquez is second with 9.4. I’m completely ok with putting it that way and that’s coming from a Celtics fan. Anyways, you did read those numbers correctly. Greivis Vasquez, of all players, is trailing the best in the business by a tenth of an assist a night. Pretty impressive for a guy who only averaged 5.4 dimes per contest last season.
Assists aren’t the only category he has improved in however, as he is averaging career highs in minutes per game, 3-point%, rebounds per game, and points per game. A lot of people argue that all of his career highs are just a product of getting about 9 more minutes per game and that’s a reasonable argument to make. What they fail to realize is that if he’s playing more then he must be taking more threes in each game, right? So if he is taking more threes and he has a higher percentage than last year, he must have improved his jumper. Also, in 9 more minutes his assist average has increased by 4 while his turnover average has increased by less than 1. As a result, he has a better assist to turnover ratio than last year and he’s distributing the ball more effectively. That argument I mentioned before suddenly doesn’t seem so legitimate.
Greivis Vasquez has the potential to be a top 10 point guard in this league and that’s only if he isn’t already. In no way am I suggesting that he is better than the players I am about to mention, but as a point guard’s job is to pass and set up their teammates, it’s certainly interesting. Vasquez is averaging more APG than top tier point guards like Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Deron Williams, Kyrie Irving, etc. Granted they all do a lot more scoring than Vasquez does but hopefully you can see my point. I’m old fashion in a sense that I think the amount of assists point guards can rack up is more valuable than the points they can put on the board. I know that isn’t how the game is played today but that’s my opinion. Bottom line: unless a guy like Kenneth Faried or Earl Clark swoops in for the MIP, it’s Vasquez’s to lose.
Defensive Player of the Year: LARRY SANDERS!!!
I have to give it to him, Larry Sanders is having a heck of a year. Whether its been rebounding the ball or blocking shots, the man has been a force to be reckoned with. Essentially, my Defensive Player of the Year candidates boil down to just four players. Those players are Larry Sanders, Serge Ibaka, Dwight Howard, and my sleeper pick, Avery Bradley. Bradley isn’t likely to win it because I feel like anyone who isn’t a Celtics fan doesn’t really know just how disruptive he is on defense. I believe that he is the best on ball defender in the league but there isn’t a great number of people who think that outside of Celtics Nation.
Dwight Howard is almost laughable at this point because he has been a shell of himself the whole season. I understand that he’s been recovering from back surgery and other nagging injuries but the voters for the award aren’t going to wait for you Dwight. He is still fifth in the league in blocks per game with 2.3 but I feel like every time I watch him play, he isn’t the scary post presence he was in prior years. He’s been biting on the simplest of shot fakes and some guys aren’t as hesitant to take it to the rack when he’s in the vicinity of the paint. That was the biggest aspect of Howard’s defensive game. He was a great shot blocker but he was also a great shot alterer. Altering a players shot and giving them a worse look at the basket can be just as effective as sending their shot into the fourth row.
I don’t see Ibaka winning the award only because he has seemed to developed offensively to make himself a more complete player. There’s nothing wrong with that, it brings another valuable dimension to the Oklahoma City Thunder’s already potent offense. Unfortunately the award isn’t for the guy who makes their teams offense even better, it’s for the best defensive player in the league.
The man who more than deserves this accolade is Larry Sanders. Sanders is leading the league in blocks per game with a ridiculous 3.2, good enough for 3 tenths of a block more than Ibaka at 2.9. Sanders has been the defensive anchor the Milwaukee Bucks needed since their two best players are 100% offensive minded. The center out of Virginia Commonwealth has turned himself into an intimidating post presence on the defensive end. His improvement has been drastic too because at this point it isn’t exactly a huge shock when he sends back 5, 6, 7 shots in a single game. It’s more of a “shake your head and smile” kind of surprise. For good measure Sanders has been kind enough to record about a steal each game. I know, it’s not spectacular but the amount of blocks he records makes up for it. With a struggling Howard, static Ibaka, and under appreciated Bradley, look for LARRY SANDERS to take home Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Most Valuable Player: Lebron James
If you scrolled down and skipped everything else just to see who I picked to win MVP, shame on you. You all know who I’m picking, as much as I might not want to choose him, I’m not naive enough to actually pass him by. There are a few other candidates hoping to get their hands on an MVP trophy such as Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, and Carmelo Anthony. Unless there is a massive case of “voters fatigue,” it’s not going to be this year for anyone not named Lebron James.
As of right now, James is averaging 27.0 PPG, 8.1 RPG, and 7.2 assists per game. The dude is nearly a walking triple-double which is just stupid in a good sense of the term. His 8.1 boards per game are a career high as are his 56 and 40% clips from the field and behind the arc respectively. As if Lebron wasn’t already good enough, he’s becoming a much more efficient shooter and his 3-point stroke is much improved.
Lebron, as we all know, has the ability to play every position on the floor. He runs the point and distributes the ball in a way that’s reminiscent of Magic Johnson. He has mastered the art of the no-look pass and can deliver the ball to his teammates with pinpoint accuracy. James also has an above average post game that is only getting better as he’s getting more confident in post-up situations. I guess that’s the result of working out with Hakeem Olajuwon who is known as one of the best offensive big men on the low block. There is no doubt in my mind that Lebron is working as hard as he can every single day to become the best basketball player he can possibly be.
Back to his efficiency, how does a +32.24 PER sound? To put it into perspective, the league average PER is +15.00. A big part of his efficiency comes from his assist to turnover ratio which is around a 4 and also from his sky high field goal percentages. A streak of 6 games with 30 points on at least 60% shooting will help you bump those numbers up too. Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that Lebron James is on a whole different level than everybody else in the league. Kevin Durant is close and you can never count out Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul is the best point guard and Carmelo puts his team on his back night in and night out. It’s never going to be enough as long as James is on the floor. No disrespect to Derrick Rose, but Lebron should probably be a 4-time league MVP and if he keeps it up at this rate, he could win the next 5 MVP awards. The man is scary good and unless you can find a player with the same freakishly strong, athletic body and similar skill set, Lebron will be at the summit of the Association just laughing at anyone trying to come for his crown. As much as I hate seeing him go to work against my Celtics, it’s a privilege to watch someone as good as him play the game. He may never be better than Jordan when it’s all said and done but that doesn’t mean he won’t leave us with our jaws hanging open every single night he suits up. At this point of the season, King James is your 2012-13 MVP.