As we’ve moved away from the All-Star break and turn the corner toward the playoffs, talk naturally begins to turn to the NBA award races. While there’s still plenty of time left for things to change, the contenders are beginning to come into focus. Here’s a look at some of the award races and who we’re picking to take home the hardware at this point in the season.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer
Raise your hand if you had the Atlanta Hawks pegged as the runaway favorite to win the Eastern Conference. I didn’t think so. And yet, as we turn the corner toward spring, the Hawks are looking like the San Antonio Spurs switched jerseys and relocated about 800 miles to the east. Despite lacking a true superstar, the Atlanta Hawks are playing a beautiful brand of basketball built on the same selfless passing, knock-down shooting and tough, hard-nosed defense that has made the Spurs into a yearly contender. Steve Kerr has done a tremendous job with the league-leading Warriors and Jason Kidd has clearly overachieved with the young, injury-hit Milwaukee Bucks, but no one has done more with less than the Atlanta Hawks and Mike Budenholzer.
Runners-up: Steve Kerr, Jason Kidd
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
The Toronto Raptors ranked 27th in the NBA in bench scoring last season. They’re currently sitting at sixth this year, and Lou Williams is the biggest reason for the massive turnaround. At 22.3 points per 36 minutes, Sweet Lou is just outside the top 15 in the entire NBA. He’s put up big point totals when the team needed it most, including 15.6 points per game in DeMar Derozan’s absence. He’s also the only player this season to earn Player of the Week honors off the bench, which he did in late November after a stretch that included a 36-point outburst in a marquee win against the Cavaliers.
Runners-up: Marreese Speights, Jamal Crawford
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler
One of the most tightly contested award races this year, the Most Improved Player really comes down to Jimmy Butler and Draymond Green. Both players have risen from solid bit-part players to legitimate forces on their respective teams, and both are among the premier two-way players in the league. Green has become an elite defender and a spark plug for the best team in the league, but the nod here goes to Butler. He’s become a go-to threat on offense for the Bulls in addition to his excellent defense, and he’s thrived while being asked to carry a significant load for a team that can have trouble scoring the ball. In going from a role player to a potential max-contract candidate in the span of a single season, there’s no one more deserving for Most Improved Player than Jimmy Butler.
Runners-up: Draymond Green, Klay Thompson
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins
With players like Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle missing most or all of the season, the Rookie of the Year race isn’t much of a race at all. Nikola Mirotic has quietly been excellent for the Bulls, K.J. McDaniels has been an exciting, high-flying revelation and Nerlens Noel is showing regular glimpses of what made him such a high-profile prospect, but no rookie has shown the star talent that Wiggins has displayed in Minnesota. After getting off to a slow start, Wiggins’ numbers have improved each month as he becomes more comfortable and improves his skill set. Andrew’s averaging 15.6 points per game, including over 20 points per contest in January, and he’s shooting nearly 36 percent from three. His explosive athleticism is clearly evident, but it’s his rapid progression as a shooter and a skilled offensive player that should have Timberwolves fans drooling.
Runners-up: Nikola Mirotic, Nerlens Noel
Most Valuable Player: Stephen Curry
It’s been quite some time since the race for Most Valuable Player has been this hotly contested, with no fewer than five candidates all making a credible case. James Harden has been sensational in leading the Dwight Howard-less Rockets, and he currently sits atop the league in scoring by a comfortable margin. LeBron James has looked every bit his typical MVP self after an inconsistent start to the season, and it’s no coincidence that the Cavaliers have been one of the NBA’s hottest teams since his return from injury. Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook rightfully belong in the discussion for their superlative play as well. However, it’s the best player on the best team that gets the nod at the midway point in the season. Stephen Curry has been fabulous for the red-hot Warriors, averaging nearly 24 points and eight assists per night while flawlessly orchestrating Steve Kerr’s free-flowing offense. He’s been much better than expected on the other side of the ball as well, ranking seventh in defensive win shares and contributing heavily to the Warriors’ top-rated defense.
Runners-up: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James