If All-Star Weekend is all about celebrating the individual, then as we head into the NBA's mid-season break it's only appropriate that we offer up our annual assesment of who deserves to win the league's top six individual awards months before they're officially announced.
With 60 percent of the season already behind us, it ain't too early to crown the most deserving candidates in the categories of MVP, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth-Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, and Coach of the Year. There's definitely a healthy debate as to who deserves for just about every award with roughly 30 games left on the calendar before the postseason rolls around and we laid out our reasons why—either via the eye test or backing up our assesments with cold hard stats. As an added bonus, we threw in our favorite beef from the season's first four and a half months of play because the only thing the NBA does better than annointing and celebrating its stars is reveling in petty.
Chopz: I know Giannis is a heavy betting favorite right now and will almost assuredly win the award, but I’m going to give it to LeBron James. We’ve become so conditioned to LeBron being this good that people just take it as the norm and don’t realize how insane it is for this man to be putting up the numbers he is at his age. He’s been the best POINT GUARD in the NBA this season. Unreal.
AC: It’s so clearly Giannis Antetokounmpo that it’s laughable to seriously suggest anyone else. Sure, LeBron James is worthy of MVP love considering the Lakers own the best record in the West and their offense is a nightmare when he’s not on the floor. But he’s playing with another top 5 player in Anthony Davis while Giannis’ top sidekick is a marginal All-Star. The Greek Freak is averaging 30.0 PPG and 13.5 RPG over 30 minutes a night—preposterous numbers. He owns the game’s best PER and leads the league in a number of metrics like defensive win shares, defensive rating, and defensive box plus/minus. Take him away from the Bucks and Milwaukee is barely a playoff caliber squad in the East. With Antetokounmpo, who has become a more reliable 3-point shooter this season and is on the verge of being basketball’s most unstoppable offensive force since prime Shaq, the Bucks own the best record in the NBA and could become just the third franchise in league history to reach the magical 70-win plateau. Come June, he’ll be the 12th player to win back-to-back NBA MVPs.
Rookie of the Year
Chopz: I’ll go with Ja Morant for ROY. I know Zion has shown some crazy flashes since returning from injury, but Morant has been consistently good since the opening day of the season. Zion will have a shot to make his case through the rest of the season, but if you're looking purely at the right now, it has to be Morant.
AC: Make an argument for anyone other than Ja Morant means you’re a clown. The Grizzlies franchise player is leading all NBA rookies in PPG (17.6), APG (7.0), and PER (18.3) as he runs a Memphis squad that’s astonishingly in playoff contention in the West. Morant was the obvious frontrunner to win this award when Zion Williamson was ruled out for the season’s first few months, but the diminutive point guard from tiny Murray State has been may more impactful than just about everyone expected. We’ve seen him hit game winners, throw down ferocious dunks, and establish himself as a future superstar at age 20.
Defensive Player of the Year
Chopz: Anthony Davis is the easy answer here. He's turned the Lakers into a defensive powerhouse and deserves this award. Yes, you could argue Rudy Gobert and Giannis are also deserving, but Davis has turned the Lakers from poor defensive team last season into one of the best this year. Give AD that honor.
AC: Shot blockers historically tend to win this award, as evidenced by Rudy Gobert taking back-to-back DPOY Awards the past two seasons. But at the All-Star break, the man who came in second to Gobert last year, Giannis Antetokounmpo, deserves the recognition. The Bucks are by far the best defensive squad in the NBA and, as mentioned above, Antetokounmpo leads the league in a number of defensive metrics. Plus, the Bucks’ defensive rating with Antetokounmpo on the court compared to off it—while still impressive—is significantly different.
Sixth-Man of the Year
Chopz: Can we just change this to the Lou Williams award. He's going to win it again and he should win it again. This isn't even really a debate, either. You could argue Montrezl Harrell deserves some votes, but Lou Williams runs that bench unit. Next.
AC: Everyone knows that the combo of Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell is the best in the NBA coming off the bench. Williams has won the award three times, Harrell’s deserved major consideration the past few seasons and arguably deserves more this year since he’s the only big Doc Rivers plays down the stretch on the NBA’s favorite to win the title. But I’m looking at somebody playing for a squad that’s over-achieving like crazy in Oklahoma City and crowning Dennis Schröder as a worthy Sixth-Man of the Year award winner. He’s the league leader in points off the bench and a big reason why the Thunder are headed to the playoffs when almost nobody thought they’d sniff the postseason. He’s averaging career highs in just about every category, most especially his shooting percentages, while playing starter minutes (31 mpg). Williams is scoring as usual. Harrell continues to be a beast. But who saw this out of Schröder?
Most Improved Player
Chopz: I'm honestly not sure with this one. Pascal Siakam continues to improve at a crazy level, but should he really get it two years in a row? That's a little odd to me, so I'll go with Bam Adebayo, who earned his first All Star appearance this year and is an anchor for the Miami Heat's impressive season.
AC: Pascal Siakam is probably going to win this award for a second straight year since he’s taken his game to an All-Star level in the absence of Kawhi, but what about another first time All-Star in the East who is putting up incredibly impressive numbers? I’m giving MIP to Bam Adebayo. The third-year forward for the Heat has seen his numbers boosted significantly across the board compared to his sophomore campaign and rightfully earned his first All-Star nod. Siakam is a perfectly logical and appropriate choice—and it’d be unprecedented—but he missed 10 games with an injury while Adebayo has played every game, helping Jimmy Butler and company to a surprising 35 wins. If you haven’t been paying attention to Adebayo, open your eyes and get on the Bam bandwagon before it fills up.
Coach of the Year
Chopz: I think Nick Nurse and Erik Spoelstra both have a good case for this award. I'd lean with Nurse because nobody thought that Raptors team would be as good as they are this season after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency. A fun honorable mention is Memphis Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins. He has that team in a better spot than anyone predicted.
AC: There are plenty of surprises around the NBA, but who saw the Raptors running out to second place in the East after losing Kawhi Leonard? Nobody. The defending champs have been playing incredible basketball under the guidance of Nick Nurse so if you ask me, give it to the man who took over unceremoniously for Dwane Casey two seasons ago and has led Toronto to its two most successful seasons. Nurse is one of the few coaches in the league willing to make major in-game or game-to-game adjustments when most squads strictly stick to the same script.
Chopz: This was a late contender to the mix, but I have to go with Joel Embiid vs. Philly fans. Not only is Embiid an elite troll, but Philly fans are ruthless, which makes this a perfect storm of petty agression. Who knows if this will actually lead to Embiid leaving the 76ers, but at this point, it's all good fun.
AC: Jimmy Butler blew kisses at TJ Warren when the forward was ejected during the Heat-Pacers game in early January in Indianapolis. The two had been going at it so tempers were bound to flare on the court, but Butler took the beef up a few notches off it when he eviscerated Warren in a post-game interview. Butler called him “soft”, adding “he’s not even in my fucking league.” But Jimmy wasn’t done. He then took to Instagram and posted a photo of the circled date when the two teams play again. Clear your schedule and get your popcorn ready for Friday, March 20. That’s when the Heat return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse.