NBA awards watch: Jimmy Butler grabs headlines
2014 is coming to a close in a hurry, and with Christmas in the rear view mirror, things are very real. Still, the calendar change is simply part of the yearly reality in NBA circles, and with teams having crossed the one-third threshold, there is plenty to evaluate while continuing to look forward toward the remainder of the calendar. That includes a more wide-ranging view of the league, and that's what we are here to provide.
With that on the table, we will be visiting you each week to fill out a mock "ballot" in each of the six major award categories, and while things are quite fluid, this should present a snapshot of where the league is over that seven-day period. There will almost always be upheaval from week to week, especially this early in the year, and that is fun for generating good, old-fashioned discussion.
Let's take a look at the choices:
Coach of the Year
1.) Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors
It's a simple recipe. The Warriors have the best record (24-5) in the league and the best net rating (+10.5 points per 100 possessions) in the league. That doesn't ensure Coach of the Year honors in itself, but Steve Kerr has navigated this group through several injury concerns, and with preseason expectations that did not include "best team in the league", he takes a positive bump. Kerr has managed to separate himself from his predecessor on the offensive end while keeping the team's defensive mindset, and that is a tightrope that he has navigated beautifully.
2.) Dwane Casey, Toronto Raptors
Much like Kerr, Casey has sustained big-time success despite challenges. The Raptors have been operating without their best wing player, DeMar DeRozan, for the past 15 games, but the team has arguably improved in his absence, and their 24-7 overall mark shows that. Casey isn't a household name, but he has visibly joined the elite group of coaches in this league, and he has Toronto in the driver's seat of the Eastern Conference.
3.) Terry Stotts, Portland Trail Blazers
All Terry Stotts does is win. His two previous stops, Atlanta and Milwaukee, weren't exactly littered with quality, but Stotts has developed quite nicely, and Portland is quietly the hottest team in the West, having won 8 of 10 to ascend to the number two spot behind Golden State. This season, the Blazers have done it defensively, allowing only 98.7 points per 100 possessions, and that is a testament to Stotts, especially after a season where they shot the lights out in 2013-2014.
Most Improved Player
1.) Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
This is an absolute no-brainer. Butler has transformed himself from a solid defensive stopper into a legitimate star in a matter of months. Just last season, the 25-year-old Butler failed to crack 40% shooting from the field (39.7%) or 30% from beyond the arc (28.3%), and that submarined his efficiency to the point where he was a clear negative on the offensive end. That has shifted violently this season, to the point where he is posting a 60.5% true shooting figure through 29 games, and with a defensive mindset that remains steadfast, a player averaging 22.2 points per game is closer to superstar than also-ran. In the grand scheme, this might be the easiest award nod of them all.
2.) Jonas Valanciunas, Toronto Raptors
Toronto's big man does not attract a great deal of attention, but that should change if he continues this level of performance. The raw numbers (12.4 points, 8.8 rebounds per game) won't blow you away, but the 22-year-old center is posting a true shooting percentage over 60% while anchoring Toronto's defense, and his peripherals have all greatly improved from his sophomore campaign. Because his game is not flashy, Valanciunas won't be joining any list of "stars", but at 22 years old, he plays like a veteran.
3.) Derrick Favors, Utah Jazz
Much like Valanciunas, Favors is simply coming into his own with the pedigree to match. The 23-year-old big man has posted career-bests in true shooting (57.8%) and scoring (15.6 points per game) while cutting down drastically on turnovers and visibly improving on the defensive end. The big knock on Favors to this point was that he operated as a player who was fully reliant on strength and athleticism, and while he still utilizes those positives to his advantage, there is real development and polish being attributed to his game.
6th Man of the Year
1.) Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
At 34 years old, Jamal Crawford is having the best statistical season of his career. Crawford has posted career-bests in PER (18.65), turnover rate (8.0), free throw attempts (5.8 per 36 minutes) and per-minute scoring (22.3 points per 36), and he is a key cog in the wheel for the Clippers. It is fair to say that Los Angeles revolves around the duo of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin (or even Doc Rivers), but Crawford has incredible value as a secondary ball-handler in that offense, and even with his trademark ineffectiveness on defense (it has to be mentioned), his overall impact is worthy of the top spot here.
2.) Isaiah Thomas, Phoenix Suns
The Suns have won six straight, and Isaiah Thomaskeeps on churning. Some pundits (myself included) have questioned the fit of the three-guard system in Phoenix, but Thomas has not sustained any sort of drop in production. In fact, the 25-year-old has put together a small improvement in the numbers that netted him a large contract in the off-season, besting those marks in PER (20.64), true shooting (57.6%) and even per-minute contributions in scoring (22.2 points per 36). The diminutive Thomas has struggled from the field this season (42.5% FG), but with an uptick elsewhere, there is no reason to knock him down or "punish" him for a situational handicap.
3.) Ryan Anderson, New Orleans Pelicans
Anderson has not been his typically efficient self this season, yet I would still maintain that he is the best understudy for Anthony Davis in New Orleans. The 6-foot-10 forward is averaging 15.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in less than 29 minutes, and even with ugly shooting numbers by his standards (42% FG, 33% 3-PT), the spacing he provides is extremely valuable for Davis and players like Jrue Holiday. Anderson could quickly rise on this list if he gets his shooting back to established norms (i.e. 38.1% career 3-PT), but he's been good enough to qualify even while struggling.
Defensive Player of the Year
1.) Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers
Hibbert remains the NBA's standard for tremendous rim protection. Indiana is struggling mightily this season with a cast of characters that isn't worthy of a playoff push even in the East, but Hibbert is chugging along, averaging 2.0 blocks per game and leading qualified players in deterring shots at the rim to the point where opponents are making only 39.4% of their shots in the basket area. The lumbering center does have a weakness in his lack of court coverage on the perimeter, but the difference between Hibbert and everyone else at the rim is so jarring that it almost doesn't matter.
2.) Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
Ibaka is "only" third in the league in blocks (2.3 per game), but he has visibly sacrificed his own numbers in favor of stronger positional defense. Oklahoma City's chief rim protector is extremely mobile in pick-and-roll coverage while remaining strong against interior play (41.9% allowed at the rim), and he is the main reason that OKC has maintained a top-five defense despite numerous injury issues. He will never get the proper respect as the "third banana" with the Thunder, but Serge Ibaka is pretty good.
3.) John Wall, Washington Wizards
Have you watched John Wall this season? I mean, really watched him? Washington's floor general has been extremely effective on both ends of the floor, but defensively, he is officially a terror. The Wizards are allowing only 95.9 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the court (one of the best marks in the NBA for any qualified player), and that number skyrockets with him off the court to the point where they allow 99.2 points per 100 overall despite Wall playing 35.9 minutes per game. The 6-foot-4 point guard has the length to disrupt everything that the opposition tries to start offensively, and with 2.2 steals per game (second in the league), he has the "traditional" statistic to lean on for candidacy. John Wall won't win this award, but he has morphed into a two-way monster.
Rookie of the Year
1.) Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
There is only one knock against Nikola Mirotic and that is playing time. The 23-year-old forward is penciled in as the fourth big man for a very good team in the Chicago Bulls, and as a result, he plays only 18.1 minutes per game. Still, Mirotic has been far and away the best rookie during his limited action, averaging 16.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per 36 minutes with highly efficient shooting numbers including 41.9% from beyond the arc. Mirotic's candidacy is cemented by his 18.70 PER and a true shooting percentage above 60%, but it undoubtedly helps that no other rookie has ascended. It will be interesting to see how the voters treat a player with his limited exposure, but on a per-minute basis, there is no contest.
2.) Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Wiggins leads all rookies in scoring (12.8 points per game), but that is largely a product of opportunity. He has been wildly inefficient, shooting only 39.9% from the field on the season, and without the benefit of a refined long-range game to make up for that, his offense is lacking. Wiggins has been the best perimeter defender in his class (with apologies to K.J. McDaniels) and that certainly helps, but until he can make strides in scoring with greater efficiency, his ceiling is limited.
3.) Nerlens Noel, Philadelphia 76ers
This is basically a battle between teammates, but we are going with Nerlens Noel over K.J. McDaniels this week. Noel leads all rookies in rebounding by a wide margin (7.1 per game) and he is the best rim protector in this class. Philadelphia has posted an above-average defensive rating (102.0 points per 100) thanks in large part to Noel's abilities around the rim and his athleticism to cover on pick-and-rolls, and if the offense comes, the Sixers will be pleased with their high investment in the NBA Draft.
Most Valuable Player
1.) Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
The gap is smaller this week, but Stephen Curry still takes the top prize. The 26-year-old guard has been out-of-this-world good this season, averaging 23.1 points, 7.6 assists and 5.1 rebounds per game, but his efficiency remains the reason for this selection. Curry's shooting line of 49% from the field, 39% from three, and 91% from the free throw line is comically insane, and when you add it up, he ranks among the NBA's top-10 in PER, win shares, VORP, and plus-minus. It doesn't hurt that Curry is the captain of the league's best team, but when you combine his defensive improvements with his offensive impact, he is the choice.
2.) Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Davis has been the most dominant singular entity this season. The 21-year-old (!) leads the NBA in PER by a wide margin at 32.56 for the season, and if he could keep that number for the entirety of the campaign, Davis would set the league record for the statistic. The raw numbers are there as well, with 24.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 3.0 blocks per game, and although his defense is probably overrated at this point, there is no question that he is impactful on that end of the floor at times. The Pelicans need to make the playoffs (and they are close at 15-15) for Davis to have a chance, but he's right there.
3.) Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
I'm aware that this seems crazy. As referenced previously, Jimmy Butler was a fringe starter last season, but now, he is the best player on a team that is arguably the favorite in the East. It is fair to say that Butler would not be featured here if the Bulls were not in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, but the numbers are in his favor as well. Butler is averaging 22.2 points and 6.2 rebounds this season with a 49/35/83 shooting line, and in terms of advanced numbers, Chicago's star swingman ranks third in the NBA in win shares (behind only Davis and James Harden) and among the top-10 in both plus-minus and value over replacement player (VORP). There might be a regression coming that makes his inclusion look silly, but Jimmy Butler looks like a superstar to me.
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