As with all predictive studies, it behooves us to look to the past to try to guess what will happen in the future. As this pertains to basketball, we can look at previous award winners and trends to try to ascertain who the favorites are to win each regular season award as the seasons progress. In the NBA, the relevant regular season awards include the Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Sixth Man of the Year.
For the purposes of my speculation, I’ve limited my historical analysis to the past 30 years. Why 30? Because it’s a round number, and it means that each year fits on an 8.5 x 11 piece of lined paper. Furthermore, I’d argue that the modern NBA more resembles the state of the league back in the ‘80s. Too much change took place during the ‘70s, and Magic and Bird’s rivalry helped shape the league into its current manifestation.
In studying the Most Valuable Players of the last 30 years, I focused primarily on the advanced statistics Player Efficiency Rating (PER), Win Shares (WS), Box Plus-Minus (BPM), and Value Over Replacement Player (VORP). One aspect I also tracked was whether or not a given MVP played for the best team in the regular season. In the last 30 years, the representative frequency of the MVP leading the league in each statistic was 43% (PER), 56% (WS), 40% (BPM), and 47% (VORP). The MVP was also on the best regular season team 56% of the time. These percentages tell me that there is a good likelihood that this year’s MVP will lead the league in one or more of these categories.
Thus far into the 2016-17 season, the Warriors have the best record in the league. However, due to the widespread backlash of Kevin Durant signing with the team in the offseason, there is a common belief that neither Durant nor Stephen Curry will win the MVP (despite combining for the past three) because they will steal votes from each other. This is the same argument against Dwyane Wade and LeBron James during their stint as teammates for the Miami Heat, but James still won the award twice (2012, 2013). Curry’s numbers have certainly declined from his improbable 2016 campaign, but Durant actually ranks in the top 10 of each of the previously stated statistical categories – not to mention that he is top 10 in Defensive Rating – so I would argue that KD remains a frontrunner for MVP.
So far, the only players in the NBA that are top 10 in each of the four statistical categories are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, James Harden, and Kevin Durant. Surprisingly, LeBron James falls outside the top 10 in Player Efficiency Rating – a statistical category he has obliterated in his four MVP campaigns. Combine this with his lower numbers and the improvement of Kyrie Irving (not to mention Irving’s emergence as the go-to scorer in clutch time – see the Christmas Day game against Golden State), and I would argue that LeBron is not a true MVP contender this year (and probably will never win the award again because the largest gap between awards is *three years between Michael Jordan’s 1992 and 1996 seasons).
*I am omitting the five years between Wilt Chamberlain’s 1960 and 1966 seasons because he is the only player to ever win the award as a rookie.
Russell Westbrook also falls outside the top 10 in one of these four categories, ranking 11th in Win Shares. The dynamo leads the league in all three of the other categories, so I think we can forgive him given the fact that the Oklahoma City Thunder have no one else to turn to with Westbrook on the bench. His shooting percentages have dipped also, but if Allen Iverson can win the MVP in 2001 for carrying a heaping pile of dung in the Philadelphia 76ers to 56 wins then Russ deserves credit for keeping his otherwise lottery-bound team in the playoff hunt.
Given the six previously stated MVP contenders, I am going to suggest that this year’s winner will likely be James Harden. Although I like Westbrook as an MVP-caliber player (especially because he is on pace to average a triple-double for the season), Harden’s Rockets are currently third in a tough Western Conference, and he has emerged as the kind of player who makes his teammates better. Add to this the fact that Westbrook winning would be the third straight year a point guard has won the award, so I think that this is the year The Beard is honored as Most Valuable Player.
*I must acknowledge the fact that I neglected to compare Absolute Player Values, but seeing as how Westbrook leads the league in both PER and BPM we already know he is the leader in APV because those are the two components. My picking Harden as MVP is because that’s who I think the actual voters will pick; if the world worked according to my APV then Russell would be the obvious selection.
The Defensive Player of the Year is much harder to project, but the categories that ought to be considered first and foremost are Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM), Defensive Rating (DR), Defensive Win Shares (DWS), Blocks, and Steals. Over the past 30 seasons, the award has been given to a big man (PF or C) 24 times, while only three guards – Cooper, Payton, and Jordan – and two small forwards – Artest and Leonard – have been honored. This tells us that big men have the greater likelihood of being awarded.
In 23 out of 30 years the award has been given to a player who has either been a member of the best regular season team or led the league in one of the aforementioned statistical categories. Thus far into the season, our leaders are Rudy Gobert (Blocks/DWS), Andre Drummond (DR), John Wall/Trevor Ariza (Steals), and Draymond Green (DBPM). We are, of course, obligated to include Kawhi Leonard as a contender since he has won the award the past two seasons.
Personally, I see Green and Gobert as the real two frontrunners for the award, especially because Leonard is more concerned with his offensive contributions this season. Given Draymond’s role as the defensive cornerstone of the league-best Warriors (and the fact that he is top 20 in all five of the aforementioned categories), he would be my selection for Defensive Player of the Year in 2017.
Rookie of the Year is an interesting award to project based on the fact that rookie classes are unpredictable and can occasionally suck far worse than expected. The fact that the award was even given out in 2001 tells us that top picks aren’t shoe-ins for the distinction. The trend that we can tell, however, is that the eventual Rookie of the Year was typically counted among the top 20 in multiple statistical categories. The average number of categories was 12.78, so we can assume that the current rookie ranking top 20 most frequently will probably be the Rookie of the Year.
This appears to be a down year in terms of rookie contributions; Joel Embiid, Malcolm Brogdon, Marquese Chriss, Buddy Hield, and Brandon Ingram are the only ones to start a significant number of games. With that being said, Embiid is the runaway choice for Rookie of the Year since he is top 20 in blocks and is the cornerstone of his Philadelphia 76ers. He is also the only rookie that was considered for an All-Star selection.
Sixth Man of the Year is such an abstract, arbitrary award that we cannot safely project it by looking at statistics. Some worthy candidates have often been overlooked in previous years based on another’s better narrative. If only for having some names to debate, my favorites for the 2016-2017 season are Andre Iguodala (for being snubbed previously), Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Zach Randolph, and Enes Kanter.
Personally, I hate when a player wins the Sixth Man of the Year award multiple times (like McHale, Pierce, Schrempf, and Crawford), so I’ll count out Lou Williams. Of the remaining four, all playing in the Western Conference interestingly enough, my favorite two are Gordon and Kanter. I’m going to side with Eric Gordon because his Rockets have a better record than Kanter’s Thunder, and he seems to be experiencing a resurgence in what was otherwise considered an injury-plagued career.
This brings us to Coach of the Year award, but it would be my preference if this honor was abolished entirely. The fact that an asshat like Doc Rivers can win the award for going .500 in Orlando the same year that Phil Jackson arrived in Los Angeles and led the Lakers to their best season since the days of Magic destroys all credibility for voters and the distinction in general. There is little consistency as to whether the winning coach is chosen due to leading the best team in the league or just a team that improves significantly from the year before. Sometimes it’s just a compelling storyline that contributes to the selection.
Of the 30 current head coaches, we can probably eliminate all those who have already won the award: Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau, Rick Carlisle, Steve Kerr, Mike D’Antoni, Doc Rivers, Gregg Popovich, and Scott Brooks. Of the remaining 22 coaches, the ones I would consider to be realistic candidates are Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder, David Fizdale, and Billy Donovan. My pick would be Stevens since his Celtics are 2nd in the East and his team is on pace to finish with their highest win total since 2011 and the Big Three/Four.
The second half of the 2016-17 season will certainly be a marvel to behold. We may see the rise of a new champion in addition to first-time award winners. Either way, you ought to stay tuned just to see what plays out and how many of my picks prove to be wrong.