NBA awards debate – Early picks for MVP, ROY and dark-horse candidates

The NBA season is almost a quarter over and the league’s top contenders are in the spotlight.

Can LeBron James add a fifth MVP award to his trophy case? Or could the center become MVP for the first time in more than two decades? The league’s most impressive recruit still lives in Sacramento, Calif. What are the coach’s accomplishments that stand out this season?

Our experts answer the big questions and make bold predictions about the NBA awards race.

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1. What are you most looking forward to in the race for the MVP title?

Bobby Marks: How LeBron James stands out from the rest of the pack. James is by far the first MVP, shooting 50% from the field and 41% from 3, while averaging 25.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists. The only question is whether James can keep up this pace after two months away during the offseason.

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Chris Herring: The case of Nikola Jokic, who nearly tripled and doubled her average despite Jamal Murray being hit and Michael Porter Jr. not being in the lineup, is seriously underrated. Denver’s record, which was below .500 just last week, had a lot to do with it. But if the Nuggets finish near or above the Lakers, and if the strength of Philadelphia’s game plan takes down Joel Embiid and the Sixers, it becomes harder to deny the Joker’s case.

Royce Young: How badly does LeBron want to win? Because if that’s what he really wants, it’s his. There are other strong contenders, but the Los Angeles Lakers have no hangover from the title and James seems more motivated than ever. If LeBron doesn’t have to win the MVP title every season to be considered the best player in the league, he can do both this season.

Kevin Arnovich: Keep the big boys at the top of the pile. Centers are an endangered species in today’s NBA, where it’s quite common to not see them on the court in the dying moments of crucial games. The center hasn’t won an MVP since the Clinton administration, but Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are building strong resumes early in the season. Jokic’s boxing numbers are particularly faint, and Embiid tops the Eastern standings with six points. If Jokic can continue to rack up these stats and Embiid stays healthy all season, our MVP choices this spring could be very good.

Tim McMahon: Can another superstar get enough power to vote for LeBron James? There’s no denying that James is the best player in the league, as he reminded us with his bubble domination on his way to the fourth ring. As for the MVP vote, we can debate the semantics of best player versus best player of the regular season, but James’ status on the league’s throne should at least be a deciding factor.

Joel Embiid and LeBron James will likely compete for the MVP title all season. David Doe/NBAE via Getty Images

2. Which first-year student has impressed you the most?

McMahon: LaMelo Ball leads the rookies in rebounds, assists and lightning. He is one of seven players in the league with at least 100 boards and 100 coins. You can pick and choose the shooting and defensive percentages of the 19-year-old – as with most rookies who have good minutes – but he is the most productive and exciting player in his class.

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The stamps: James Wiseman. There was uncertainty about how Sage would adjust to the NBA, especially after not playing for 13 months. Although he’s not finished, the center is averaging 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds this season. More importantly, Sage had his most productive game of the season, coming off the bench and scoring 25 points in the win over Minnesota. Instead of seeing this as a demotion, Sage accepted her new role and accepted constructive criticism.

The herring: Tyrese Haliburton. It was effective. It drew nearly 49% from the field and 46% from depth. He showed he wasn’t intimidated by the momentum, hitting three of the four threes he hit in crucial situations. He also recently played a key defensive role in sealing the Kings’ victory over the Knicks. LaMelo certainly looks the part, but Haliburton too…. is just more efficient.

Young people: The bullet. The flash is easy to spot, but it has substance and style. Ball was considered by some to be the most talented player in the draft, and he came with the most attention. He managed to become the youngest player with a triple-double and showed the potential that makes him so intriguing.

Arnowitz: Haliburton looks like the portrait of a modern sniper, and he’s already made his place as a sniper. He showed distance, aplomb in the pick-and-roll (1.16 points per chance), pass skill and off-ball defensive instincts in playing the openings. Not only does Haliburton do the trick, but his feathered float and stage presence make him a sight to behold. Kings have had a difficult past…. For how many years? But they scored a lot of points with Haliburton.

3. Who are the Dark Horse candidates?

Arnowitz: It’s easy to forget that Paul George finished third in the MVP voting less than two years ago. Twenty-four points per game may exceed the threshold of a legitimate MVP candidate, but George stands a good chance of a 50-40-90 season for a team that can win more than 70% of its games. If he can get fat on the nights Kawhi Leonard sits and step up his individual defense, he could be in good conversation.

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McMahon: Does Kevin Durant fit into that category? I still maintain that anyone coming back from an Achilles tear absolutely qualifies as a sleeper when it comes to MVP voting. But there’s no denying that Durant has his place there, especially when Brooklyn eventually becomes one of the first settlers in the East. He is a contender for his fifth title and has a record success rate in his career (.648).

The stamps: Patty Mills and the sixth man of the year race. The Spurs guard has been quietly preparing for his best season since joining the NBA in 2009. In 25.7 minutes, Mills averaged 14.3 points, with 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from the field. He has scored more than 10 points in all but four games this season.

The herring: If Cleveland keeps winning enough? Coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The team has put up two of the three worst defenses in NBA history in the last two seasons, but is now in the top 10. It wouldn’t be a surprise if that number dropped – as did the Cavs’ record of 9-9 – but after a 19-46 campaign with nearly the same number of players, it was impressive to see the club take an offensive leap forward with Kevin Love.

Young people: Domantas Sabonis had a conversation with the MVP. His numbers should get your attention – 20/12/6 at higher efficiency – but that’s what he does to push the Pacers. They traded Victor Oladipo, and the key player they got in return, Caris LeVert, was released after surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her kidney. But for the Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon combo, the Pacers are still good. If they end up being the surprising number three seed in the East, Sabonis should really be considered the MVP.

4. Besides MVP and Rookie of the Year, what awards are you most interested in?

Young people: The reward for the most improved player is the most ambiguous of all, with the definition fluctuating according to what makes a player the most improved compared to someone who has simply developed naturally to his or her expected potential. But this is an interesting group of candidates – Jaylen Brown, Collin Sexton, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood and Julius Randle. It’s a wide range of experience and a diverse style of actor.

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Arnowitz: It’s not sexy, but the Defensive Player of the Year can spark some serious discussion in sports bars. They have intimidating rim protectors like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid, versatile terrorists like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, and spin stoppers like Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons, as well as ball parasites like Marcus Smart. Since traditional defensive stats often say nothing, price is ultimately a visual test.

McMahon: I’m going for Coach of the Year and I nominate two worthy candidates. Quin Snyder – recognized by his peers as one of the best X-and-O minds in the business – plays unselfish basketball at both ends of the court with Utah Jazz, giving him the best NBA record. J.B. Bickerstaff has done a phenomenal job developing young talent and making the rebuilding team much more competitive than expected in Cleveland, where he was 14-40 last season and 14-15 since.

The stamps: The race for the best player. We’ve talked at length about Christian Wood and Chris Boucher’s good starts, but little attention has been paid to Malcolm Brogdon’s performance as an All-Star. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging 22.8 points (versus 16.5) and ranks 13th among goalies in true plus-minus points. Brogdon was 27th last year.

The herring: Most Improved Player, and the fact that at least two of the candidates will have a connection to Detroit: Jerami Grant (who has the reward in the bag), for really exploding as the Pistons’ #1 option, and ex-Piston Christian Wood, for putting up huge numbers at the All-Star level in Houston.

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5. What are your bold price predictions?

The herring: I’m willing to bet that Giannis Antetokounmpo wouldn’t get first, second or third place in the MVP vote, although his numbers are more or less the same as last season, when he won his second consecutive award. It’s more a function of voter fatigue (and Milwaukee needs to overcome the fatigue pit), plus the other guys are playing better.

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Young people: Kevin Durant will win the MVP title. Of course, the Nets need to win more consistently, but Durant has three things in mind: He has a good team, he has good stats and he has a good story. He has allayed his fears that he wouldn’t be the same player after his injury and he looks better in some ways. If he shares the load with Kyrie Irving and James Harden, it lessens his impact and adds the stigma of a great team to his bid, but if Durant leads the league with 50/40/90 scores and the Nets are in the top 3, it’s over.

Arnowitz: Chris Boucher will compete for the title of sixth man of the year and most improved player. The Raptors were excited about their big reserve man for a while, but a deep rotation at the center position in recent years has demoted him. Today, Boucher is the first major Toronto player to leave the bench. He plays 24 minutes a game, shoots 3’s and rebounds with impressive speed. He’s been struggling lately, but if he can hold on to his initial successes, he’ll appear on many ballots.

McMahon: At least two grand prizes will be awarded to jazz up small markets. I’ve already mentioned Snyder as the serious coach of the year. It will be hard to deny Rudy Gobert his third defender of the year title if he continues to dominate as he has so far this season. And the conversation about the sixth man of the year now begins with Jordan Clarkson, who leads all full-time reserves in scoring (17.9 points per game) with a true shot percentage (.610) that looks like a typo from a man with a reputation as a shooter.

The stamps: That Luka Doncic would finish outside the top five in MVP voting. Soic is a triple-double candidate every time he’s on the field, but he’s also a pending rotation (six games with five or more dropouts). Moreover, the Mavericks are more likely to be contenders for a playoff spot than a top-six spot.

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