The first quarter of the NBA season is about to wrap up and things are starting to (kind of) shake out. The West is still an insanely tight fourteen team race (sorry Phoenix), but the top-eight in the East are starting to set. This year has had so many twists and turns and it's hard to get a full grasp on what's happening. There's new drama and trade rumors popping up just about every week and it's been so hard to make sound predictions. Like every year, there's a group of players that have stood above the rest and they will ultimately be awarded with some special hardware to celebrate their sheer dominance.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis is the new Superman. Yesterday, the original Superman, Shaq, gifted Giannis his nickname on The Stephen A. Smith Show. That's major praise, especially because Shaq didn't even acknowledge Dwight Howard as Superman during his time with the Magic. Giannis is clearly the most valuable player right now as he's lead the Bucks to a 15-6 record, good for the second spot in the East. They sit atop numerous power rankings and have been solidifying their place as a contender. Kris Middleton has proven to be an All Star-caliber sidekick while Eric Bledsoe and Malcolm Brogdon are providing solid backcourt support. The supporting cast also features Brook Lopez, a bad rebounding center who has enjoyed a semi-career resurgence as a three-point shooter. The bench support runs deep and is spread wide, and new coach Mike Budenholzer has truly rejuvenated Milwaukee's offense and made them deadly from all over the court.
It's crazy how good Giannis is. He's so damn long, watching him take two steps, spin like a Greek tornado, and then drop the ball in the basket is beyond mesmerizing, and I can't imagine what it's like for a below-average defender to go up against him. Unless you're an All-Defensive First Team forward 6'8" or taller, it must be so scary to guard Giannis. He's shredding defenses this year and his stat line is mind-boggling. Through 20 games, Giannis is averaging 27.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 1.5 steals, and 1.3 blocks on shooting splits of 57.7/11.8/68.2. He also sports a 29.07 PER (Player Efficiency Rating) which just proves how good he's been this season. When Giannis steps on the floor, he's ready to go. The summer training with Kobe this summer has definitely paid off, as you can see Giannis channeling his inner Mamba Mentality. Giannis can't shoot a three to save his life this year, but he doesn't need a shot. It's nearly impossible to stop him driving to the basket or his paint moves, so Giannis takes advantage of his ability to do whatever he wants. The Bucks and Giannis himself keep saying a three-point shot is coming, and once that comes, it may be over for the league. If Giannis and the Bucks can keep up their current production, the Greek Freak should take home the MVP pretty easily.
Dark Horse Candidate: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
Is anyone shocked that he's good? Doncic was the MVP in the second-best league in the world as a 19-year-old, he was bound to do big things in the NBA. The Mavs pulled off a draft night trade to land Doncic, as the Atlanta Hawks agreed to send the rights for Doncic to Dallas in exchange for the rights to Trae Young. Young has shown elite court vision, but the Hawks have struggled mightily and Young hasn't been shooting like his Oklahoma days. At this point, Doncic is clearly the better player, but it's way too early to declare winners in the trade. Doncic's arrival has proven beneficial to a Mavs team that finds itself in the Western Conference playoff hunt (10-9, 8th seed) and he's starting to separate himself from the rest of his draft class.
Through 19 games, Doncic is putting up legit numbers: 19.1 points, 6.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and a steal on 45.7/39.8/79.6 shooting. It's clear that Doncic is going to emerge into a megastar in the NBA... he's 19 putting up numbers that would make him an All Star in the East (probably). Just about every night he lights up Twitter with a new highlight, whether it be toying with James Harden before a corner three, or just simply pulling up from the logo for a buzzer-beater. Doncic is still adjusting to the NBA and once he has a few seasons under his belt, the Mavericks are going to have another international darling to keep them in the playoff hunt for years to come.
Dark Horse Candidate: Deandre Ayton, Phoenix Suns
Sixth Man of the Year: Derrick Rose, Minnesota Timberwolves
Could it be? Is Derrick Rose actually back? He's not the MVP that he once was, but Rose is back playing high energy basketball. The Timberwolves actually seem like a good team after the Jimmy Butler trade, and they're only a half game behind the Mavs for the 8th seed in the West (11-11). KAT has caught his second wind, and Robert Covington is proving to be an excellent addition on defense. Andrew Wiggins still sucks for some reason, but at least Derrick Rose is around to make up for it off the bench.
For the first time in a while, Rose has been healthy throughout the season. He's only missed two games, and is playing 29.5 minutes a night while making cuts to the basket we haven't seen since "the injury". In his 20 appearances this season he's averaging 19.0 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 4.4 assists on 49.8/48.6/85.5 shooting. Rose has not only returned to being a threat cutting to the basket, he's extended his game. Three-point shooting was never a big part of Rose's game, but he's changed that this year and has been one of the best shooters in the league so far. It's not impossible for Rose to have a 50/40/90 season, something that has only been enjoyed by seven players in NBA history. For a Timberwolves team that seems to be on the rise, Rose has been a great bench leader and deserves recognition if he can lead them to the playoffs. Hopefully Rose can stay healthy and the Timberwolves can enjoy success, then maybe D-Rose can officially be back.
Dark Horse Candidate: Julius Randle, New Orleans Pelicans
Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder
This may as well be a dark horse candidate. I'm not going to lie, this was a tough category. It's way too early to know who the best defenders are right now, so I'm going out on a limb based on a few stats.
The Thunder have been really good as of late and they're currently the 4th seed in the West (13-7), and Paul George has been a big part of that. George is currently averaging 23.7 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.4 assists a night on 41.8/35.4/81.8 shooting. Imagine if he was making more of his shots, that line would look really nice. I haven't heard George's name in any MVP discussions, but if he got his scoring up at a better shooting clip, those kind of look like MVP numbers; especially if the Thunder can finish top-4 in the West.
George isn't getting this award for how well he can facilitate offense, though. His defense has been excellent so far, but he's been known as a good defender for a few years now. PG is getting 2.2 steals and just about a block a night, and his defensive rating (100) looks great in this scoring-heavy league landscape. He's looking really good and his performance seems to be slipping under the radar a bit, but keep an eye out for George, especially what he's doing on the defensive end.
Dark Horse Candidate: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks
What a difference a coach can make. Under Jason Kidd and Joe Prunty, the Bucks ran a very isolation-heavy, stagnant offense that resulted in multiple first round playoff exits. Things have completely turned around under Budenholzer's faster offense and the Bucks have been able to space the floor and score from inside and beyond the arc. They look to be genuine contenders with MVP-favorite Giannis at the helm, and Budenholzer deserves a significant amount of recognition for inserting some life into Milwaukee's offense.
Dark Horse Candidate: Doc Rivers, Los Angeles Clippers
Next day edit: I honestly forgot to put a Most Improved winner on here last night. Hunter said De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings) and that works for me. The Kings are only a half game back of the Mavericks for the 8th seed, quite the change for a team that has been clinically depressing for as long as I've been an NBA fan. I can only imagine how draining it must be being a Kings fan, I'm glad to see them finally enjoying some success. Fox has broken out this year averaging about 17 points and 8 assists behind his blazing speed. Hopefully the Kings don't fizzle out and wind up back in the lottery, but it's the Kings, so, yeah.