Who are the early leaders and surprises in the NBA awards races?
Our experts answer the big questions and make bold predictions after a month of games
1. Who is your MVP so far?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN: LeBron James. This is a pick ’em with Giannis Antetokounmpo of the 13-4 Milwaukee Bucks. But James has put up some of his best production since Miami, and he’s doing it for a team with no player — save JaVale McGee — playing anywhere near his potential. His outburst over the weekend against Miami was vintage LeBron, while his transcendent performance against Portland a week ago was an uncanny display of range and finesse.
Royce Young, ESPN: Giannis. It’s pretty straightforward: His numbers are monstrous, the efficiency is sparkling and the Bucks are really good. Giannis’ overall impact on a night-to-night basis is felt as much as any player in the league, on both sides of the ball. The Bucks are headed for potentially a 60-win season and nothing connects more directly to that than Giannis’ evolution.
Tim MacMahon, ESPN: Have you seen the Warriors without Stephen Curry? Need any more evidence of his value? The two-time MVP was off to a terrific start before suffering a groin injury. He’s leading the league in scoring (29.5 points per game) and has been ridiculously efficient even by his standards, shooting an unfair 49.2 percent from 3-point range. The Warriors average 119.6 points per 100 possessions with Curry on the floor and 107.3 without him. Put another way: Curry is the difference between Golden State being the greatest offense in NBA history and a little better than average.
André Snellings, ESPN Fantasy: Giannis. His unique freakiness gets the Bucks to play winning basketball for today’s era. On offense, Antetokounmpo’s inevitable drives force defenses to pack it in, which allows the four shooters surrounding him to knock down an NBA-best 14.8 3s per game. Meanwhile, on defense, Antetokounmpo’s versatility and rebounding anchor the fifth-best unit in the league, while allowing the perimeter players to press and Brook Lopez to challenge at the rim without ever having to touch a board.
Kevin Pelton, ESPN: LeBron James. After a relatively slow start, LeBron is back on top of the league in terms of my wins above replacement player (WARP) metric, as well as real plus-minus (RPM) wins, thanks to two huge performances in the past week and a half. I think Curry has been more effective when on the court — as reflected in part by the Warriors going 2-5 in his absence — but he has missed too large a percentage of the season to be considered MVP.
2. Who is your Rookie of the Year so far?
Snellings: Deandre Ayton, surpassing Luka Doncic, Trae Young and an all-around solid class. Ayton controls the paint on offense but also has the touch and passing ability to step out of the lane, giving the Suns an interior anchor to build around on both ends of the floor.
Arnovitz: Statistically, Ayton has a claim on the award because he’s filling up the box score on a nightly basis as a capable starter on an awful team. But I like Doncic and his stylings as a big playmaker who has talent to display from every spot on the floor. He’s shooting 38 percent from beyond the arc, generating offense for teammates, and hasn’t been the defensive liability some projected (and has defended his position better than Ayton).
Young: Doncic. He has met the hype, and in some ways, exceeded it. And really, at this point you have to wonder if he could be in position to make an All-Star team. The Mavs have been quietly solid and Doncic is putting up progressively impressive nightly numbers.
Pelton: Doncic. While Young has been more efficient than expected and Ayton has put up big box-score stats, Doncic has been — as expected — the most valuable rookie thus far. He’s playing more minutes (33.9) than any other first-year player and has been impressively efficient given his large role in the Dallas offense (25 percent usage rate).
MacMahon: Doncic, and it’s really not close. He’s leading rookies in scoring (19.3 points per game), ranks second in assists (4.1) and third in rebounds (6.9). The list of rookies who have averaged 19/6/4: Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Elgin Baylor, Sidney Wicks, Larry Bird and Grant Hill. Each of those players won Rookie of the Year — and none of them were as young as Doncic, who has a swagger and fearlessness that just isn’t seen in NBA teens. The only possible argument against Doncic is that he shouldn’t qualify as a rookie due to his extensive experience playing high-level pro ball with Real Madrid.
3. Which award contender has been the most pleasant surprise?
Young: How about Mike Conley for an All-NBA team? It almost seems as if we all forgot he’s one of the premier point guards in the NBA, but now that he’s back and healthy, he’s playing at his typical high level all while the Grizzlies have been one of the bigger surprises so far.
Arnovitz: De’Aaron Fox as Most Improved Player. Fox showed glimpses last season of the speed and spirit that could turn him into a potential All-NBA point guard in the future. This season, the distant future crossed the space-time continuum into the near future. He’s not just scoring efficiently, but he has learned to manage possessions, put his larger imprint on each game, and has become reasonably capable at navigating coverages as a defender at the top of the floor.
MacMahon: Six seasons after winning Defensive Player of the Year, 33-year-old Marc Gasol has established himself as an early front-runner for the award. The Grizzlies give up only 98 points per 100 possessions when Gasol is on the court. He sits atop ESPN’s defensive RPM rankings by a wide margin. He’s a dominant force despite athletic limitations, controlling Memphis’ defense with his mind and physicality, like a middle linebacker. Credit J.B. Bickerstaff — who could find himself in the Coach of the Year conversation if Memphis keeps winning ugly — for designing a scheme around Gasol’s strengths.
Pelton: Gary Clark isn’t realistically going to challenge for Rookie of the Year, but the undrafted forward from Cincinnati could be a contender for an All-Rookie spot because of his key role in the Rockets’ rotation — one that was previously ticketed for Carmelo Anthony. Because Houston has played so much better with Clark on the court, he’s one of only three rookies with a positive rating in RPM in at least 50 minutes. (Mikal Bridges and Mitchell Robinson are the other two.)
Snellings: Last season Kawhi Leonard played only nine games because of a lingering quad tendinopathy issue that still has him sitting out half of back-to-backs, and he’s playing for the Raptors when every report said that he wanted to play in Los Angeles. Despite this, Leonard is playing MVP-level basketball while leading Toronto to the top of the league.
4. Besides MVP and ROY, which awards race are you most intrigued by?
Pelton: The All-NBA battle now has the most actual basketball impact, since All-NBA — along with MVP and Defensive Player of the Year — determine eligibility for the supermax for eligible players on their third contracts. As Bobby Marks detailed in an ESPN+ piece before the season, a handful of players will have a huge potential payday riding on this year’s All-NBA results. Kemba Walker‘s strong start has improved his chances of making that list and giving the Charlotte Hornets a tough choice whether to offer him the full five-year, $220-plus million estimated contract he’d be eligible to receive.
Snellings: Defensive Player of the Year is fascinating. Rudy Gobert finally validated his title of best defender in the league last season, but this offseason the previous DPOY, Draymond Green, stated that he needs to win the award bad. Factor in players such as Joel Embiid, who has also loudly lobbied for the award in the past, and even superstar wings like Kevin Durant claiming that only “pure hate” keeps him from contending for an award like DPOY, and suddenly it has seemingly become one of the most coveted trophies this season.
Arnovitz: It’s an interesting season for Executive of the Year. If the Raptors exorcise their playoff demons behind Kawhi and consistent play from Danny Green, is it Masai Ujiri’s award? If Jimmy Butler vaults the Sixers to the top of the conference, does Elton Brand earn the honors? How about Jon Horst if the Bucks join the elite behind the hiring of Mike Budenholzer and the Brook Lopez Perimeter Experience? If the Clippers win more than 50 games in rebuild-on-the-fly mode, how about Lawrence Frank? And if the Pacers win 50, does Kevin Pritchard get a belated EOY award for the Victor Oladipo deal, one year later?
MacMahon: Lou Williams, who won his second Sixth Man of the Year Award last season, leads all bench players in scoring (18.8 PPG) but he might not even be the best candidate on the Clippers. Montrezl Harrell (15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) has been a high-energy monster for one of the West’s best surprises. Some other Sixth Man candidates: New Orleans’ Julius Randle, Oklahoma City’s Dennis Schroder, New York’s Enes Kanter, Brooklyn’s Spencer Dinwiddie, Indiana’s Domantas Sabonis, Boston’s Marcus Morris, Utah’s Jae Crowder and Dallas’ J.J. Barea.
Young: Draymond Green and the Defensive Player of the Year supermax conundrum. Things are already a little awkward for the Warriors, especially with Green, and if he can qualify himself for an even bigger payday it could grow even more uncomfortable. Green would be eligible for an extension projected to be worth about $225 million over five years with an MVP, DPOY or an All-NBA selection. Considering, ahem, current circumstances, that’s pretty intriguing.
5. What is your bold NBA awards prediction for the end of the season?
MacMahon: LeBron will end up winning his fifth MVP, putting him in a class with only Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As deserving as Curry might be, it’s hard to see the award going to a Warrior given all the talent on the Golden State roster. Giannis and Anthony Davis — a couple of candidates to become first-time MVPs — might be the biggest challengers. But if the Lakers get 50-plus wins — and I’ll bet that they do — the unquestioned best player in the league will end up winning MVP for his third different franchise.
Arnovitz: Marc Gasol wins Defensive Player of the Year, becoming the first player to go more than four seasons between honors.
Young: The Raptors will repeat as Coach of the Year winners. Nick Nurse has Toronto rolling and the integration of Leonard has been seamless. Nurse earned a lot of credit behind the scenes last season as Dwane Casey reformed the Raptors and won the award himself, but now as the top man, Nurse will get his claim to the trophy this time.
Snellings: The Houston Rockets — who wouldn’t be in the playoffs if the season ended today — will end up repeating as the top seed in the Western Conference, qualifying multiple members of the team for end-of-season awards. The Rockets have righted the ship, and they still need the top seed more than the Warriors do to contend in the playoffs. They know it, so they’ll do what they have to do to get it.
Pelton: Kevin Durant and Draymond Green publicly make up and improbably share the Twyman-Stokes Teammate of the Year Award.