We’re ditching our usual Monday Musings format for this week to take a look at where things stand at the quarter mark of the season. Over the weekend, we gave you our made-up awards, so now we bring you our official NBA awards, following the ballot rules voters have to follow. A couple of caveats out front:
1) These awards are designed to reward players based on achievements over the first 20 games of this season. They are not based on past accomplishments, and they are not predictions for who will actually win at the end of the year.
2) Ranking players is impossible and causes me much angst. You can watch all the games and marshal dozens of stats, but ranking, say, Manu Ginobili above Deron Williams amounts to a judgment call that can never be definitively “correct.” In other words: Grains of salt, people.
(All stats and records through Dec. 5)
Without further ado …
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
1. Dwight Howard, C, Orlando Magic
The field of possible MVP candidates is as deep as ever, particularly since a handful of teams in the Western Conference — Utah, New Orleans, Dallas and San Antonio — are all playing better than expected.
But Howard still leads the race here by a nose. Half of the Magic’s roster has started the season in a shooting slump, yet Orlando sits at 15-5, right where we expected it to be. Howard is the centerpiece for everything Orlando does on both ends, and he remains unmatched in his ability to both protect the rim and rush out to disrupt pick-and-rolls. His traditional stats are as good as ever, and he ranks fourth in the league in Player Efficiency Rating.
2. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Dallas Mavericks
Nowitzki, who is shooting a ridiculous 55 percent from the floor and doing his usual low-turnover thing, means everything to a Dallas offense that has been at the edge of the league’s top 10 all season, despite the lack of a consistent second shot creator. When a Dallas guard penetrates on a pick-and-roll and kicks out to a shooter for an open three, it’s often because Nowitzki’s man holds his position instead of sliding over to cut off the ball-handler — a decision that stems from the terror Dirk’s outside shot inspires.
His sound positioning and length make him an underrated contributor to Dallas’ top-five defense. For what it’s worth, Nowitzki’s on-court, off-court plus/minus numbers — which measure how well the Mavs play with him on the floor versus on the bench — lead the league, according to Basketball Value.
3. Chris Paul, G, New Orleans Hornets
Paul leads the league in PER and has turned an otherwise ho-hum roster into a threatening team in the Western Conference. The Hornets’ offense is a disaster without Paul’s ability to create for others and turn the likes Marco Belinelli and Jason Smith into capable scorers. Paul will ball-watch and gamble now and then on defense, but he’s physical, communicates well and gets his hands and arms in the way.
4. Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
If there’s a guy who’s going to fall off the MVP ballot as the season progresses, it’s Westbrook, who is carrying the Thunder as Kevin Durant struggles with cold shooting and injuries. But for now, Westbrook belongs on this list given his second-best PER in the league, career-best passing numbers, a slowly improving elbow jumper and elite rebounding for his position. Perhaps most important: Westbrook leads the league in made free throws, and Oklahoma City’s league-leading free throw rate is the biggest reason the Thunder are 14-7 despite having a point differential profile of a .500 team.
It’s fair to blame Westbrook a bit for the defensive struggles of Oklahoma City’s starting lineup, but that problem runs much deeper than its point guard.
5. Kobe Bryant, G, Los Angeles Lakers
He’s still sixth in the league in PER with his usual 27-5-5 line despite a dip in shooting accuracy and a dangerous increase in shot attempts. Bryant has been guilty of using too many of his team’s possessions late — and (especially) of taking too many three-point shots — but his ability to remain efficient even with this huge burden still fuels the champs and his competitive hunger.
The burden on Bryant will only get bigger if a sore hamstring continues to nag Pau Gasol, and Kobe will have to scale things back once Andrew Bynum returns.
• Manu Ginobili, G, San Antonio Spurs. You could put Ginobili at the top of the ballot, and I wouldn’t have any issue with it. He has turned into one of the league’s best three-point shooters, he remains San Antonio’s go-to player in the clutch and he makes everyone better with his pick-and-roll wizardry. Just ask Matt Bonner.
• Deron Williams, G, Utah Jazz. Having a career year, Williams could easily be — and you could argue he should be already — part of the top of the ballot by season’s end.
• Pau Gasol, F, Los Angeles Lakers. An incomparable, all-around big man, and perhaps L.A.’s best player through the first three weeks of the season.
• Derrick Rose, G, Chicago Bulls. Single-handedly carried Chicago’s offense with Carlos Boozer out, and he’s working hard to improve his defense, outside shot and foul-drawing. Let’s see how he does with Boozer.
• Al Horford, F/C, Atlanta Hawks. Third in the league in PER, and an elite player who’s been held back by his coach’s refusal to let him play through nonexistent foul trouble. Easily Atlanta’s top guy.
• LeBron James, F, Miami Heat. His numbers are still fantastic, and he’ll be on a bunch of ballots at year’s end.
• Steve Nash, G, Phoenix Suns. Leads the league in adjusted plus/minus (per Basketball Value), and the Suns’ offense is lost at times without him. But you can’t ignore the role Nash’s limitations play in Phoenix’s horrific defense.
• Amar’e Stoudemire, F/C, New York Knicks. Proving he’s fine without Nash, and passing better than ever. Can he keep it up when New York’s schedule gets tougher?
• Carmelo Anthony, F, Denver Nuggets. The scoring will always be there, but Anthony deserves credit, amid all the trade hoopla, for putting up career-best rebounding numbers as Denver has struggled to field a credible front line.
• Rajon Rondo (G) or Kevin Garnett (F), Boston Celtics. The MVP candidacy of the transcendent Rondo suffers a bit because of his high turnover rate, the fact that this team has a different MVP each night and because Garnett remains the key to Boston’s league-best defense.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
1. Blake Griffin, F, Los Angeles Clippers
He should be the unanimous choice right now. Forget the highlights. He’s shooting 52 percent, getting to the line a ton and rebounding like crazy. What’s scary is there’s still a lot of room for improvement.
2. John Wall, G, Washington Wizards
He can’t touch Griffin at this point because of his mediocre shooting (41 percent) and injury issues that have limited him to 13 games. But he’s going to be a star, and he’s producing pretty well in a difficult situation.
3. Landry Fields, G, New York Knicks
The draft pick of the year (he was selected 39th overall). Fields is averaging 11 points and 7.5 boards per game, and he’s a study in smart decisions and heady cuts to the rim. A huge help in New York’s surprising 12-9 start.
Toughest omissions: None.
COACH OF THE YEAR
1. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs sit atop the league using a style that is part Old Spurs (elite defense, many threes, foul avoidance) and New Spurs (fast pace, crashing the offensive glass now and then, drawing a ton of fouls and forcing lots of turnovers). Popovich deserves credit for his willingness to adapt and for finding — and nurturing — the young players who have made that adaptation possible.
2. Monty Williams, New Orleans Hornets
The Hornets are 2-6 after starting 11-1, and Williams’ place here is obviously insecure. But he has juggled a bunch of forgettable role players around his four core starters (Paul, David West, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza), and few expected the Hornets to win with a top-five defense.
3. Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz
Sigh. He’s never atop this ballot, is he? Just another great job from Sloan and his staff (he especially credits assistant Phil Johnson for much of Utah’s game-planning), who have integrated Al Jefferson into their flex system, experimented with Deron Williams’ role and coaxed a surprising defensive performance from an underwhelming collection of bench guys.
• Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks. An absolutely fantastic job helping turn the Mavs into a top-five defensive team, getting Shawn Marion to contribute off the bench, reining in J.J. Barea when needed and using the league’s best zone defense.
• Mike D’Antoni, New York Knicks. This team is playing hard on both ends, and D’Antoni has them ranked fourth in points per possession. The schedule has been kind; it gets harder next week.
• Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics. Rivers, as usual, has a collection of strong personalities playing well together despite injuries and age. Boston leads the league in defense even though the mastermind behind its system (Tom Thibodeau) now coaches in Chicago.
• Jim O’Brien, Indiana Pacers. The Pacers are finally meeting O’Brien’s high standards, particularly on defense. But they’ll have to score more efficiently and avoid turnovers to continue their solid play.
• George Karl, Denver Nuggets. He has Denver at 13-6 and solidly on track for the playoffs despite all sorts of obstacles — the Carmelo trade drama, massive holes in the frontcourt and an epic early-season shooting funk from Chauncey Billups. If Denver keeps this up, Karl is going to get serious consideration for this award.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
1. Dwight Howard
No one can do what he does.
2. Kevin Garnett
KG hasn’t looked this good since before he injured his knee in Utah in February 2009, and he is by far the biggest reason Boston has the league’s stingiest defense despite giving heavy minutes to a center (Shaquille O’Neal) who can’t approach Kendrick Perkins’ skill on that end.
Garnett is everywhere again, disrupting pick-and-rolls and rotating back to his guy like a maniac, grabbing a higher percentage of defensive rebounds than all but three players and making up for Shaq’s pick-and-roll limitations with creative switching and loud communication.
3. Tyson Chandler, C, Dallas Mavericks
He has leaped past Andrew Bogut for now as the league’s second-best defensive center. Chandler is healthy again, and his ability to jump out on guards and slide back to his man has keyed the Mavs’ emergence as a defensive force. Another plus: Only four players have grabbed a higher percentage of available rebounds than Chandler.
• Al Horford. Atlanta asks him to guard centers and (sometimes) switch on to point guards, and he does it all very well. Perhaps the league’s most underrated player, at least among casual fans.
• Pau Gasol. He’s back to defending centers in Bynum’s absence, and he’s doing fine. Few big men possess Gasol’s combination of shot-blocking, rebounding and quick movement.
SIXTH MAN AWARD
1. Jason Terry, G, Dallas Mavericks
Just another year of Terry serving as the Mavs’ second offensive option and playing all the crunch time minutes. Bonus: He’s putting up his best passing numbers in years and remains a capable pick-and-roll facilitator.
2. Wilson Chandler, G/F, New York Knicks
Chandler is averaging 17 points per game and has recovered from an early three-point shooting slump. His ability to swing between three positions on offense and credibly guard everyone from Jerryd Bayless to Andrea Bargnani (to use Sunday’s win in Toronto as an example) is crucial in D’Antoni’s system. His game comes and goes on both ends, but it has been there more than not this season.
3. Glen Davis, F/C, Boston Celtics
You’ll find other guys with higher PERs and better traditional numbers than Big Baby’s 11-and-5 line, but we’re rewarding Davis for emerging as Boston’s unofficial sixth starter. He has logged important minutes in the absence of Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O’Neal, he’s shooting a career-best 50 percent from the field and he’s converting both jumpers and close shots.
• Shannon Brown, G, Los Angeles Lakers — A knockout season. Loses points for playing just 19 minutes per game.
• Brandon Bass, F, Orlando Magic
• Wesley Matthews, G, Portland Trail Blazers
• Jamal Crawford, G, Atlanta Hawks
• Charlie Villanueva, F, Detroit Pistons
• Thaddeus Young, F, Philadelphia 76ers
• Antawn Jamison (F) and Daniel Gibson (G), Cleveland Cavaliers
• Nick Young, G, Washington Wizards
• Al Harrington, F, Denver Nuggets
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
1. Russell Westbrook
There’s nothing wrong with using this spot to reward someone who has jumped from “very good” to “absolute superstar,” and so we’re going with Westbrook here over some more traditional up-and-comers. His PER has jumped eight full points, and he has managed to take on a huge load on offense while becoming even more efficient — a tough thing to do.
2. Roy Hibbert, C, Indiana Pacers
The popular choice, and my preseason pick for this award. Hibbert’s reduced weight has turned him into an agile pick-and-roll player, a quicker post-up threat and a much better rebounder. It has also helped him reduce his foul rate so that he can stay on the court and pile up a line of 16 points, nine rebounds and three assists per game.
3. Kevin Love, C/F, Minnesota Timberwolves
The counterargument is that Love only needed the minutes everyone but Kurt Rambis knew he deserved, and that his improvement therefore isn’t a big surprise. But 19 points and 15 rebounds per game? Oh, my. Toss in 39 percent shooting from three-point range, and I’m convinced he belongs on this ballot — and possibly in the All-Star Game. He still has issues finishing at the rim and with his positioning on defense, but this has been fun to watch.
• Eric Gordon, G, Los Angeles Clippers
• Michael Beasley, F, Minnesota Timberwolves
• Shannon Brown
• Rodney Stuckey, G, Detroit Pistons
• Wilson Chandler
• Joakim Noah, C, Chicago Bulls
• Dorell Wright, F, Golden State Warriors
• Luis Scola, F/C, Houston Rockets
• Darrell Arthur (F) and Mike Conley (G), Memphis Grizzlies
• Jrue Holiday, G, Philadelphia 76ers
• Richard Jefferson, F, San Antonio Spurs