Could the winners of all six top NBA awards come from inside the Lone Star State?
No. In an effort to be succinct and to avoid the type of clickbait headline that poses but does not answer a question, the answer is an emphatic no. Non, nein, ne. As long as Steph Curry is stalking parquet, ruining defenders’ lives nightly, he’s the NBA’s Most Valuable Player. Even if Curry blew out an ACL tonight—earmuffs, basketball gods—he still might win MVP as the Warriors inevitably regressed toward .500. Or he might hit a three from Mars someday if Elon Musk figures out how to get him there.
Regardless, as we breach the second half of the 2015-16 season, there’s a case to be made for the six major NBA accolades—MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year, and Coach of the Year—to go to Mavs and Spurs. Sorry, Rockets.
Most Valuable Player
Again, this is Curry’s award to lose. But if the next ankle the newest Rockette breaks is his own, there’s an outside chance that Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is the next man up.
But still, the only way Leonard will hoist the Maurice Podoloff Trophy this spring with a healthy Curry is if semantics come into play. What does “most valuable player” mean, anyway? Best player? Most complete? Most valuable to the success of his team? If it’s the first one, Curry is the first unanimous NBA MVP in history.
But what about the most complete? It’s probably Leonard. Take a look at Leonard’s statistical averages so far this season: 20 points, 7 rebounds, 2.6 steals, .9 blocks. He’s also shooting above .500 from the field, holds the league’s second-highest three-point shooting percentage at .481, and is hitting 87 percent of his free throws, the best numbers of his young career. On the other end of the court, he’s regularly tasked with clamping down on the opposition’s best scorer.
Leonard is also arguably just as valuable to the success of his team as Curry. If Leonard goes down, the Spurs are a trio of low-minutes elders (in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili), LaMarcus Aldridge at his worst, a streaky Danny Green, and Boban Marjanovic.
Even if Curry is the MVP—and again, Curry is the MVP—Leonard warrants at least a consolation prize in the next-best NBA award.
Defensive Player of the Year
The best offensive player in a generation, Curry isn’t exactly liability on defense—and his two swipes per game help cover up some of his deficiencies—but he also isn’t eliciting any Gary Payton comparisons.
Leonard earned a reputation as an elite perimeter defender during the 2013 NBA Finals when he “shut down” LeBron James to a reasonable degree. I use the qualifier because Dan Patrick’s adage of “you can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him,” was seemingly introduced in the early nineties with the prescience that a point-forward in a linebacker’s body would emerge someday. James still got his, but not without Leonard buzzing around him all series, forcing the same inefficient play that offensive stars run into when San Antonio is on the schedule.
Since then, Leonard’s Spurs have been a top-five team in points-per-100 possessions, and head of the pack this season at 93.3, a full five points higher than the next team. According to another important advanced stat, defensive win shares (just go with it), Leonard is the best in the NBA at 3.5, meaning the Spurs have won an estimated more than three games thanks to his defensive prowess.
And if these newfangled statistics don’t pass muster, just watch a Spurs game to see Leonard ace the eye test. See that pinballing Stretch Armstrong slicing through screens? The gargantuan mitts slapping the ball from frustrated guards and forwards, seemingly stuck like honey to a hive on every opponent? That’s Kawhi Leonard. It’s always Kawhi Leonard.
Even as the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard isn’t a lock to take the award, but expect some consolation votes when Leonard is likely shut out as MVP.
Most Improved Player
I promised to get to the Mavericks. Thirteen-year veteran Zaza Pachulia has historically been a mere role-player; center depth at a position where most teams lack even a competent starter. But the Georgian-born Pachulia, acquired by the Mavericks in July for a second-round draft pick, has experienced a rejuvenation in Dallas. Good for a nightly double-double in points and rebounds, Pachulia has started 42 of Dallas’s 44 games this season, and is an integral piece of the team’s surprisingly good showing this season (the Mavs are currently the five seed in the West). He’s also been much more efficient this season, with a higher player efficiency rating than both Tim Duncan and Marc Gasol, and a top-ten rebound rate.
It’s odd that it would take a player a decade-plus to figure it out in the NBA, but this change of scenery, a chance to start, and a new system under Rick Carlisle (more on him in a second) makes Pachulia a shoo-in for the award that has always seemed like kind of a backhanded compliment. (You used to be dead cap space, and now you’re a borderline All-Star!)
Speaking of, Mr. November Wyclef Jean is campaigning for a Pachulia appearance in next month’s All-Star Game in Toronto. When a Fugee gets involved, perhaps the hype is real.
How many times has Manu Ginobili won this award? Five? Eight?
Once. A prolific scorer and the greatest flopper in league history, Ginobili was built to win this award on a consistently deep Spurs team. In Memphis or Milwaukee he’d have been a starter, but less effective as such. For the past 15 years, the Argentinian guard has mostly come off the bench, his fresh legs capitalized upon in the Spurs’ second unit and a way to keep starting-quality talent on the floor seemingly all game. This season is no different. Although Ginobili’s minutes have dipped in the last few seasons, he’s remained remarkably efficient, according to advanced statistics. His PER is hovering just below 20 this season, just behind fellow shooting guard Dwyane Wade and above Klay Thompson.
This could also be a legacy awarding, just like how the poet Kobe Bryant will start for the West in the All-Star Game next month. Ginobili might take this one partially on reputation.
Rookie of the Year
This award is undoubtedly going to the Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis or the Timberwolves’ Karl Anthony-Towns, but based on his Lisztomania-worthyappearance at a San Antonio Wingstop last week and his debasing of Jeremy Evans with this dunk, Boban Marjanovic at least deserves consideration.
Coach of the Year
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich should win this award annually for guiding the Spurs to top-three Western Conference finishes every year since Titanic was released in theaters and for his cutting witticisms in the face of absurd, inane mid-game questions. But he won’t win this year based on the same rationale that gave Karl Malone the MVP award in 1997—because voters grew tired of writing “Michael Jeffrey Jordan” on ballots. Pop is a given every spring.
Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, winner of the award in 2002 as coach of the Detroit Pistons, should be in serious consideration. The Mavericks currently sit, as I mentioned above, as the five-seed in the West, just below the Clippers—and the team doesn’t have a Curry or Leonard or Russell Westbrook-type playmaker. Dirk Nowitzki, as good as he’s been early this season, isn’t pre-grifted Dirk. Carlisle has transformed castoffs Pachulia and former Nets point guard Deron Williams into borderline All-Stars.
Carlisle has, at times, taken a page out of Pop’s playbook this season, resting his stars—to their chagrin—on the tail end of back-to-back games. Carlisle understands the grind of the 82-game slate and is playing for the playoffs. With the roster he trotted out on opening night, no one thought the Mavs would be sniffing the top of the Western Conference. And yet, here they are. That’s on Carlisle.
Although a six-award parlay in which Stephan Curry doesn’t win the MVP this season is a bet any Vegas bookie would trample their grandmother to take, it’s a testament to how proficient the Texas teams have been this season in the Western Conference. Except the Rockets. Again, sorry Rockets.