DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Although there’s a fair amount of analytics on this stuff, I still treat good defense like pornography: I know it when I see it.
And this season, I’ve seen good individual defense from some of the usual suspects such as Serge Ibaka, Joakim Noah, Tony Allen, LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Tyson Chandler, last year’s winner. I’ve also seen it from relative whippersnappers such as Nic Batum, DeAndre Jordan, Larry Sanders and Avery Bradley, whose return gave the entire Celtics’ scheme a tremendous boost.
But the most impactful individual defender thus far has been Chris Paul, who has exhibited an ideal balance of principle and risk as the first line of defense for the Clippers. Yes, he has Jordan behind him. But he is the only starting point guard taking the ball more than he gives it away, and his don’t-give-an-inch disposition has infiltrated the entire team.
PRESEASON PICK: Dwight Howard. You can’t backstop a defense this porous with a bad back.
SNOTTY REMARK: Contrary to popular belief, the Rockets are playing defense. They’re guarding Manti T’eo’s girlfriend.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: The one-and-done college rule ensures that there will never be a shortage of candidates for this award. I’m sure your team has someone whose improvement this season from last has been a pleasant surprise. And I’m sure I will neglect to mention him. So let’s move on.
Using per-36 numbers as a helpful guide, I always lean toward the already good player who finds a way to elevate his game, such as Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, who is knocking on the door of the Elite Point Guard Club, or Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant, who is on pace for a rare 50-40-90 shooting season.
However, it will be hard to go that route this season because there have been quantum leaps by some of younger guys. The short list includes Portland’s J.J. Hickson, Toronto’s Ed Davis, Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic, Charlotte’s Kemba Walker, Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders and New Orleans’ Greivis Vasquez.
It also includes current front-runner Paul George of Indiana, who should get strong All-Star consideration for his considerable two-way skills. In the absence of Danny Granger, he has made Danny Granger trade bait.
PRESEASON PICK: Derrick Favors, who has no chance unless the Jazz trade Al Jefferson.
SNOTTY REMARK: Pau Gasol should win Most Impugned Player.
SON OF SNOTTY REMARK: Jan Vesely is running away with Least Improved Player.
SIXTH MAN AWARD: You have a much better chance of winning this award if you (a) score a lot and (b) are not part of some bench mob. So reserves whose impact is greater on the defensive end such as Taj Gibson and JaVale McGee get overlooked at the expense of guys like Ryan Anderson and J.J. Redick.
Golden State’s Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack will somewhat cancel each other out. So will Atlanta’s Lou Williams and Zaza Pachulia and Denver’s Andre Miller and Corey Brewer. But former winner Jamal Crawford has somehow stood apart on the best bench in the NBA.
OKC’s Kevin Martin has thrived in his new role with a new team and New York’s J.R. Smith now plays some defenss with his fearless scoring, which includes two game-winners. But the Clippers are a nearly unbeatable 12-1 when their leading scorer is Crawford, who also has a higher PER than Martin or Smith.
PRESEASON PICK: Ray Allen, whose true worth as a bench player may not reveal itself until the postseason.
SNOTTY REMARK: James Harden is utterly thrilled to be ineligible.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: The number of zero-impact lottery picks is somewhat alarming – Thomas Robinson, Terrence Ross, Austin Rivers, Meyers Leonard, Jeremy Lamb, Kendall Marshall. Even top pick Anthony Davis of New Orleans and No. 3 pick Bradley Beal of Washington have been somewhat disappointing for stretches.