It’s hard to believe, but we’re about to enter the home stretch of the NBA season, and awards-wise, there’s a lot left up in the air. It’s now time to pretend that I was “just kidding” about my early season predictions and make some new ones.
Sixth Man of the Year: Isaiah Thomas, PG, Phoenix Suns
This past offseason, the diminutive former Sacramento starter found himself traded to a team with two of the most exciting young point guards in the league, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe. Thomas seemed to be the odd man out, doomed by the prospect of being “trade bait” and having a permanent “disgruntled” status.
However, Thomas’s play has been one of the most important factors in Phoenix, staying in front of Oklahoma City and New Orleans in the West playoff race. In just 25.7 minutes of play a night, he’s chipping in 15.2 points, dishing out 3.7 assists and getting to the line almost five times per game. His per-36 numbers are comparable to his starting numbers back in Sacramento, and he continues to improve passing the ball and slowing down enough for his own teammates to catch up to him.
Though he ultimately may get squeezed out of Phoenix in a deadline trade, whoever gets him will be receiving an absolute offensive sparkplug.
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls
It’s really not even close. Butler, who was known for so long as a guy who played great perimeter D but didn’t do much more on the offensive side of the floor, has broken out of his shell this year.
While playing the most minutes per game in the league, he’s averaging over 20 points per game, the highest number of his career, while continuing to play his usual suffocating defense. He’s getting to the line more than ever, and shooting at around 46% percent and taking the most shots per game of his career.
Although he’s had some shooting issues lately, resulting from a sore shoulder and general fatigue, Butler has proven himself to be a central tool for the Chicago Bulls.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
It’s been said a thousand times already, but that’s only because it’s true: what Mike Budenholzer has managed to do in Atlanta is a modern basketball miracle. This roster isn’t much different than last year’s, yet they’ve already surpassed last season’s win total and are on pace for the best season in team history.
Budenholzer has molded the already talented Hawks roster into something more, incorporating the Spurs’ brand of motion offense and staggered minutes in Atlanta with stellar results.
While Steve Kerr certainly has an argument to be made for the success of his squad, he has the benefit of having a much stronger top-to-bottom roster than Budenholzer has.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tony Allen, SG, Memphis Grizzlies
There are a host of players who could lay claim to this award. Draymond Green, Anthony Davis, Tim Duncan and DeAndre Jordan have all put together dominating seasons on the defensive side of the ball, and it wouldn’t be an egregious mistake if any of them were rewarded for their successes. However, it’s Allen who plays for the number one defense in the league in Memphis, bringing his particular brand of insanity every second of every night he’s on the floor. Trick-or-Treat Tony has been doing this for years now, and it’s time for him to be officially recognized.
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, SG, Minnesota Timberwolves
No rookie has shown the improvement and flashes of brilliance that Wiggins has. He has gotten better with each passing game and is the oly rookie averaging above 10 points per game.
His defense, though a little frenetic at times, has been pretty much as advertised, and he’s displayed a strong shooting game. If he could eliminate some of the tougher shots that are customarily taken by rookies, he could really become a real threat by this time next year.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets
In my mind, besides Harden, there’s really only one other possible candidate. He plays for Golden State, and his name’s Steph Curry. Let’s play a little game: pick the MVP out of these two stat lines.
Player A: 27.4 ppg/5.7 rpg/6.8 apg, .455/.383/.870, 27.3 PER
Player B: 23.6 ppg/4.7 rpg/7.9 apg, .481/.399/.900, 27.4 PER
You can’t right? Player A is Harden, and player B is Curry. Both are having absolutely otherworldly seasons, and each has a legitimate claim to the MVP title. When you consider that Curry plays for the best team in the NBA this year, you might even be inclined to give him the award.
But let’s take a second to compare the teams that each player leads. Curry’s cast includes All-Star starter Klay Thompson, DPOY candidate Draymond Green, Andrew Bogut, super-sub Mareese Speights, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston. Meanwhile, Harden has played largely without his best teammate – a hobbled Dwight Howard – spending the majority of his time on the floor with Josh Smith, Donatas Motiejunas, Trevor Ariza and Joey Dorsey.
If both Curry and Harden went down with injuries today, whose team would be in better shape? Golden State might even still make the playoffs without Curry, whereas Houston would be lottery-bound without Harden’s Herculean effort. For that reason, this year’s MVP has been James Harden.
Bernstein is a member of the class of 2018.