As the season passes game 41, which lottery players are in line to win the year-end awards?
As the NBA passes the halfway point of the season, it’s a perfect time to take stock of the top performers. Who is leading for the MVP award? Which guards deserve an All-NBA berth? Will Kawhi Leonard win Defensive Player of the Year for a third straight season?
These questions are entertaining and illuminating, providing a template for evaluating the first 41 games of the season. Unfortunately, they end up focusing exactly where most media outlets focus: on the best NBA teams and their star-studded roster.
Here at The Lottery Mafia we dedicate ourselves to the less discussed, the less highlighted, and the less heralded. There are plenty of top-flight players performing at elite levels among the teams battling it out in the league’s bottom half.
To give those players their due, we’ll look at the current leaders for each major NBA award, looking only at those teams currently under .500. Monday we picked our All-Star rosters from among that crew, and today we look at the year-end awards. First up, MVP.
MVP: Anthony Davis
There are a number of players putting up top-flight numbers among lottery teams, from Eric Bledsoe filling up the box score on a defunct Phoenix team, to Karl-Anthony Towns coming on lately with monster stat lines. But ultimately this is a two-man race.
Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Davis as the only two lottery players to be starting the All-Star game, and both have more than earned that distinction. Antetokounmpo is dropping a stat line that boggles the mind, not only scoring but rebounding, assisting, stealing and blocking at career levels. He leads his team in each of those categories, and his 27.89 PER is sixth in the league. No other player is averaging at least 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks in the entire NBA, and Antetokounmpo is clearing both thresholds easily (1.77 and 2.05 respectively).
That being said, Davis is taking the Bucks’ star’s numbers and raising him even better ones. Davis ranks third in PER, third in scoring, third in blocks and seventh in rebounds, all while playing on a middling and injury-ravaged team. ESPN’s Game Score metric ranks Davis as the third-best player in the league this season, behind just James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
As excellent as Antetokounmpo has been, he doesn’t have a singularly dominant stat line that can hold a candle to Davis’ opening night explosion. 50 points, 15 rebounds, five assists, five steals and four blocks. As the Pelicans claw back into playoff contention, Davis has been magnificent and deserves the honor of Lottery MVP at the halfway point.
Defensive Player Of The Year
MVP may have been a two-man race, but this contest is more of a brawl. Nine of the league’s top ten defenses are currently in the playoffs, and the exception – New Orleans – is closer to 23rd than to first.
Anthony Davis is clearly the best defensive player on the Pelicans, and his 2.4 blocks per game are third in the league. Andrew Bogut is second in the league in defensive real plus-minus, but he has only played in 22 games and averages just 23 minutes when he does suit up for a Dallas team that ranks just 20th in defense.
Hassan Whiteside has the raw numbers to win the award, with a league-leading 14.2 rebounds per game – 10.4 of those on the defensive end – and 2.0 blocks per game. The Miami Heat, despite their offensive woes, are tied for 11th in defensive rating.
But Whiteside comes off terribly on defense by most advanced metrics, from RPM (70th in defensive RPM, just behind teammate Luke Babbitt) to defensive rating (95th). His focus on chasing offensive rebounds often puts him behind the play in transition, leading to easy scoring opportunities. He leaps for blocks and often puts himself out of position to contest a second shot, or to gather in the rebound. Hassan Blancote will need to wait for another year to chase this award.
Instead the winner at the halfway point is the league’s new darling, Joel Embiid. Although playing limited minutes and games due to his health, the Philadelphia center is dominant when on the court. His 2.47 blocks per game are second only to Rudy Gobert, and per-36 minutes no player averages more than Joel’s 3.5.
Per defensive rating Embiid ranks fourth in the league, behind two contenders for the All-Defensive team crown (Chris Paul and George Hill) and the aforementioned Andrew Bogut. The 76ers are tied with Miami for 11th in the league in defensive rating, and that ranking has increased over the last month. Embiid is the dynamic engine anchoring a surprisingly stout defense and deserves this spot through three months.
We’ll move more quickly now through the other awards.
Coach Of The Year
This is the most tightly-contested category at the league level, with ten deserving candidates. Unsurprisingly, those candidates are all at the helm of playoff teams. Luke Walton has fallen off after an early run at the award, and preseason pick Tom Thibodeau will only get back into this race if the Timberwolves surge into the postseason.
The front runner for now is Jason Kidd, who has the Bucks on the edge of the playoffs despite losing key wing Khris Middleton before the season. Kidd has overseen the growth of young players into true stars, as Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker are straight up balling this year. Tony Snell has been formed into a real rotation player, Greg Monroe has been redeemed, and Malcolm Brogdon was snatched out of nowhere to become their starting point guard of the future. If the Bucks climb into the playoffs, Kidd should win this award.
Most Improved Player
The crowded field for this award – Parker, Julius Randle, Kristaps Porzingis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, Harrison Barnes – are all fighting for second. This award belongs to Giannis Antetokounmpo, hard stop.
Rookie Of The Year
Joel Embiid. Even harder stop. Insane per-minute numbers, complete stranglehold on the national spotlight, and the 76ers are winning games (victors in nine of their last 12). A weak rookie class has failed to present any serious challenger.
Although there are no serious challengers, a handful of rookies have impressed enough to be worth mentioning:
PG – Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks – Starting (up until the last couple games) for a borderline playoff team, Brogdon is locking down on defense and shooting well on offense.
SG – Jamal Murray, Denver Nuggets – Increasing his workload seemingly every game, Murray is combining highlight plays with consistently strong offensive contributions for a Denver team currently in the eighth seed (although six games under .500).
Other SG – Buddy Hield, New Orleans Pelicans – Shooting like we thought he would after a bad start, Hield is fitting well into the 4-out system Gentry has now built around Anthony Davis.
SF – Brandon Ingram, Los Angeles Lakers – With Luol Deng in and out of the starting lineup due to injuries and ineffective play, Ingram has put up numbers for a Lakers team that may or may not have a bright future.
C – Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers – He’s been magnificent.