Writer: Caleb Akpan

All-Star Weekend is officially over and the second “half” of the NBA season is upon us. The playoffs will be here in less than two months and that means it’s time for media voters to start taking a hard look at who is most deserving of the league’s end of season awards. Some have obvious leaders, while others are extremely tight races, here are some names you should expect to see nominated at the NBA Awards on June 23rd.

Coach of the Year:

Coach of the Year seems like it will come out of the East this year. Mike D’Antoni of the Rockets won the award in 2017 after unexpectedly coaching Houston to 55-27 record, good for third in the West. D’Antoni’s squad is doing even better this year, but they’ve also added future Hall of Famer Chris Paul to the roster, and we all know NBA voters seem to hate giving the same award to a person in back-to-back years, usually cited as “voter fatigue”.

A likely winner for the award is Dwayne Casey of the Toronto Raptors. Casey’s team currently sits at first in the East 41-16. Many are saying this is the best iteration of the Demar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry Raptors, but this 2018 team will likely finish with the greatest regular season record in Toronto franchise history period. The team is doing so well that many are beginning to take them seriously as a possible Eastern Conference championship.

It would be Toronto’s first Finals appearance if it happened, but even if it didn’t, Casey has done an excellent job. The Raptors seem deeper and more cohesive than they ever been and a lot of the credit for that should go to Casey. There’s been a lot of bumps in the road since he was hired in 2011, but everything seems to be reaching its peak now.

 

Brad Stevens could challenge Casey for the win, but with the Celtics recent struggles, it seems that Stevens may be falling out f the race. Tom Thibodeau of the Timberwolves could also be a candidate as Minnesota appears to be headed towards its first playoff appearance in fourteen years.

Sixth Man of The Year:

Coach of the Year wasn’t the only award the Houston Rockets went home with last year. Shooting guard Eric Gordon also took home the Sixth Man of the Year, and did so without much disagreement from fans and analysts. This year, a former teammate of Gordon’s will likely do the same.

Traded from the Rockets to the Clippers in the Chris Paul megatrade, Lou Williams is currently having the best season of his career. Once the inspiration for a Drake hit, Williams is now living even more of the superstar life playing in LA averaging 23.1 points per game along with a career high 37.6% from three. Likely to hold, this will be the first time Williams will average over 20 points in a season.

This career-best play is the main reason why the Clippers are still in the western conference playoff race despite a pile of injuries and the trade of Blake Griffin. Williams is playing like an All-Star and deserves to be recognized in some way for it. He wasn’t selected to the All-Star team this season, a surprising omission to many including himself, so the Sixth Man of the Year award will have to do.

Defensive Player of the Year:

 

Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors won his first Defensive Player of the Year award last season, one that many feel he deserved earlier. This year, Green is once again a candidate, but not a clear favorite, with a crowded field of pretty equal defenders where no one player stands out.

Al Horford could get his first major award in his eleven-year career as he leads the Celtics league best defense. Horford’s raw defensive stats don’t jump off the page, but he’s not alone in that regard, and when you see that he ranks tenth in defensive win shares while Boston ranks first in defensive efficiency, it could be easy for media voters to award the center anchoring a more team-oriented defense.

If Horford isn’t enticing enough for voters, there’s another candidate that voters will likely consider. Though unhealthy at times, it seems more likely the award would go to Utah’s Rudy Gobert. He’s only played in 32 games, but Gobert ranks third in defensive win shares for a Utah team that ranks fifth in defensive efficiency. It also helps that Gobert was the runner-up for the award last year. If voters can get past him only playing in around 50 games this season, he should be able to squeeze out a win with no clear favorite in sight.

Most Improved Player:

Giannis Antetokounmpo took the league by storm last season on his way to the 2017 Most Improved Player Award. He truly became an NBA superstar and to start this year, he seemed like a legitimate candidate for MVP. This year’s winner likely won’t be a superstar or MVP, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t made a tremendous jump in their play.

When he was traded from Oklahoma City to Indiana, no one expected anything amazing from guard Victor Oladipo. In Orlando and Oklahoma City, Oladipo seemed like the ultimate “good” NBA player, throwing in a couple of great games in a solid complimentary role year in and year out. Maybe it was being back in Indiana, where Oladipo went to college for three years, or having no one to try and compete with him for team leader, but Oladipo has played exceptionally for the Pacers, enough to gain an All-Star appearance last weekend that no one could argue.

Oladipo is currently averaging 24.4 points per game, ranking eleventh in the league. Indiana is also in the playoff hunt, something almost no one expected coming into the season, currently in fifth place in the East, three games above eighth place Miami. Along with his team, Oladipo has shocked the basketball world and should easily take home Most Improved because of that.

Rookie of The Year:

 

The good news for fans and analysts is that this year’s NBA draft class is clearly stacked with players that should be able to carry the league forward for decades to come. The bad news is that it creates a Rookie of The Year race that’s almost too close to call.

Jayson Tatum, Kyle Kuzma, and Dennis Smith Jr. have all played well, but they don’t even seem to be in the discussion this year, when in ost they would be frontrunners. Instead, this year’s race seems to be between two players who don’t look like rookies at all, two playing at a level some would consider to be All-Star worthy, for two teams in the hunt for the playoffs.

Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons are currently in about as tight of a race as you could have for Rookie of The Year. You can’t really go wrong with either choice, as Mitchell had the Jazz on an 11-game win streak prior to the All-Star game, becoming the first rookie to lead their team in scoring during that kind of stretch. Mitchell has averaged 23.3 points per game since December 1st.

Simmons has led the 76ers from day one along with Joel Embiid. The Australian native has drawn comparisons to LeBron James as he averages 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 7.4 assists per game in his first year. Those all-around averages and his performance from the start of the season may help Simmons edge out Mitchell for the award, but it’s definitely gonna be close. No matter who wins, both will likely be faces of the NBA in the near future.

Most Valuable Player:

 

Every year it seems like James Harden is in the MVP race, and every year it also seems like someone is just a little bit more deserving than he is for the award. 2018 seems a bit different, and for the better for The Beard, he is once again in the race, but this time, it seems like he is truly the most deserving candidate.

Harden leads the NBA in points per game at 31.3 points on a 44.8/38.4/86.5 shooting split. The scoring average is a career high for Harden and he also averages nine assists and five rebounds a game, while also leading the league in player efficiency rating and offensive win shares.

Harden’s had a plethora of stunning performances this season, including a 60-point triple double against the Orlando Magic, the first of its kind in the history of the NBA. Due to outings like that, Harden as the Rockets in first place in the West, holding the best record in the league at 44-13. It’s that league-leading record that helps to put Harden over the top of candidates like Stephen Curry and LeBron James, but even if the Rockets don’t keep the league’s best record, Harden’s personal statistics should finally be enough to win the league’s most coveted individual prize.

The 2018 NBA Awards will take place on Monday, June 25th at 9 PM EST on TNT. Will see how many of these predictions come true then or if any late-season surges have changed the biggest storylines in the league.

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