NBA awards debate: Someone is going to have to steal this MVP from LeBron

The NBA season is nearly a quarter complete and the contenders for the league’s top awards are coming into focus.

Will LeBron James be able to add a fifth MVP award to his trophy room? Or, can a center win the MVP for the first time in over two decades? Does the league’s most impressive rookie thus far reside in Sacramento, California? Which coaching performance has stood out this season?

Our experts answer the big questions and make their bold predictions about the NBA awards races.

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1. What are you watching most closely in the MVP race?

Bobby Marks: How much separation LeBron James gets from the rest of the pack. James is the early leader for MVP by a wide margin, shooting 50% from the field and a career-high 41% from 3, while averaging 25.5 points, 7.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists. The only question is if James can sustain that pace after having two months of rest in the offseason.

Chris Herring: Nikola Jokic‘s case — a near triple-double average despite Jamal Murray being banged up and Michael Porter Jr. being out of the lineup — is being vastly underplayed. A big part of that was Denver’s record, which was below .500 as recently as last week. But if the Nuggets finish near or above the Lakers, and if Philadelphia’s strength of schedule knocks Joel Embiid and the Sixers down a peg, the Joker’s case becomes harder to deny.

Royce Young: How much LeBron wants to win it. Because if it’s something he really wants, it’s his. There are other strong candidates, but the Los Angeles Lakers haven’t had a title hangover and James appears as motivated as ever. While LeBron doesn’t have to win MVP every season to be considered the league’s best player, he’s on track to do both this season.

Kevin Arnovitz: Whether the big guys maintain their standing near the top of the heap. Centers are an endangered species in the present-day NBA, where it’s entirely normal not to see one on the floor during the closing moments of crucial games. A center hasn’t won the MVP since the Clinton administration, but Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid are assembling strong résumés in the early season. Jokic’s box score numbers are particularly gaudy and Embiid has the Sixers atop the East standings. If Jokic can keep piling up those totals and Embiid can stay healthy for the season, our MVP ballots could read big this spring.

Tim MacMahon: Can another superstar make a strong enough case to earn votes over LeBron James? There is no debate that James is the league’s best player, as he reminded us with his dominance in the bubble en route to his fourth ring. We can discuss the semantics of best player vs. best regular season in MVP voting, but James’ status atop the league’s throne should at least be a tiebreaker.

2. Which rookie has impressed you the most thus far?

MacMahon: LaMelo Ball leads rookies in rebounds, assists and flash. He’s one of only seven players in the league with at least 100 boards and 100 dimes. You can nitpick the 19-year-old’s shooting percentage and defense — just like with most high-minute rookies — but he’s the most impactful and exciting player in his class.

Marks: James Wiseman. There was uncertainty in how Wiseman would adjust to the NBA, especially after not playing in a game in 13 months. While he is still a work in progress, the center has averaged 12.6 points and 5.9 rebounds this season. What is most important is that Wiseman put up his most efficient game of the season coming off the bench, scoring 25 points in a win against Minnesota. Instead of seeing it as a demotion, Wiseman has embraced his new role and accepted constructive criticism.

Herring: Tyrese Haliburton. He has been efficient, shooting almost 49% from the field and 46% from deep. He has shown he’s not intimidated by the moment, hitting three of the four triples he has taken in clutch situations. He made a key play on defense to seal a Kings victory over the Knicks recently as well. LaMelo certainly looks the part, but so does Haliburton — just more efficiently.

Young: Ball. The flash is easy on the eye, but there’s substance and style. Ball was seen by some as the most talented player in the draft, and he came in with the most attention. He has produced, becoming the youngest player to ever register a triple-double, and has shown the potential that makes him so intriguing.

Arnovitz: Haliburton looks like the portrait of the modern shooting guard, and he has already solidified his place as the steal of the draft. He has shown range, command in the pick-and-roll (1.16 points per chance), passing ability and instincts as an off-ball defender playing the gaps. Haliburton not only checks the boxes, but with a feathery floater and stage presence, he’s a blast to watch. The Kings have had a rough go of it for the past … how many years has it been? But they’ve scored big with Haliburton.

3. Who is one dark-horse candidate to watch?

Arnovitz: It’s easy to forget that Paul George finished third in the MVP balloting less than two years ago. Twenty-four points per game might clear the threshold for a legitimate MVP candidate, but George has a decent shot at a 50-40-90 season for a team that could win more than 70% of its games. If he can get fat on nights when Kawhi Leonard sits, and ramp up the individual defense, he could be squarely in the conversation.

MacMahon: Does Kevin Durant fit this category? I’ll argue that anyone returning from a ruptured Achilles tendon absolutely qualifies as a sleeper when it comes to the MVP conversation. But there’s no denying that Durant belongs, especially if Brooklyn finishes with one of the East’s top seeds. He’s a threat to win his fifth scoring title and has a career-best true shooting percentage (.648).

Marks: Patty Mills and the race for Sixth Man of the Year. The Spurs guard has quietly put together his strongest season since entering the NBA in 2009. In 25.7 minutes coming off the bench, Mills is averaging 14.3 points, 47% from the field and 41% from 3. He has scored in double figures in all but four games this season.

Herring: If Cleveland keeps winning enough? Coach J.B. Bickerstaff. The team posted two of the three worst defenses in NBA history over the past two seasons, yet it now ranks inside the top 10. No one will be surprised if that number slides — just like the Cavs’ 9-9 record likely will — but after a 19-46 campaign with largely the same cast, it’s been impressive to watch this club make a jump with Kevin Love hurt.

Young: Domantas Sabonis getting into the MVP conversation. His numbers should grab your attention — 20/12/6 on excellent efficiency — but it’s what he’s doing to push the Pacers. They traded Victor Oladipo, and the primary player they got in return, Caris LeVert, is out after surgery to remove a cancerous mass from a kidney. But behind the combo of Sabonis and Malcolm Brogdon, the Pacers are still good. If they finish as a surprise No. 3 seed in the East, Sabonis should get some real MVP consideration.

4. Besides MVP and Rookie of the Year, which awards race do you find most intriguing?

Young: Most Improved Player is the most ambiguous of all the awards, with the definition fluctuating on what makes a player the most improved versus one who just naturally developed to his expected potential. But this group of candidates is interesting — Jaylen Brown, Collin Sexton, Jerami Grant, Christian Wood and Julius Randle. It’s a wide range of backgrounds and a diverse style of players.

Arnovitz: It’s not sexy, but Defensive Player of the Year can produce some solid sports-bar debate. You’ve got the intimidating rim protectors like Rudy Gobert and Joel Embiid, the pogo stick all-purpose terrors like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis, and the spidery stoppers like Kawhi Leonard and Ben Simmons, as well as on-ball pests like Marcus Smart. Since traditional defensive stats often don’t tell the story, the award is ultimately an eye test.

MacMahon: I’ll go with Coach of the Year and mention two deserving candidates. Quin Snyder — recognized by his peers as one of the best X’s-and-O’s minds in the business — has the Utah Jazz playing beautiful, selfless basketball on both ends of the floor, resulting in the NBA’s best record. J.B. Bickerstaff has done a phenomenal job developing young talent and made a rebuilding team much more competitive than expected in Cleveland, which was 14-40 when he took over last season and is 14-15 since.

Marks: The race for Most Improved Player. We have talked at length about the strong starts of Christian Wood and Chris Boucher, but the All-Star play of Malcolm Brogdon has received little attention. The former Rookie of the Year is averaging a career-best 22.8 points (up from 16.5) and ranks No. 13 in real plus-minus among point guards. Last year, Brogdon ranked No. 27.

Herring: Most Improved Player, and the fact that at least two of the candidates will have Detroit ties: Jerami Grant (who has the inside track on the award), for efficiently exploding in a role as a No. 1 option for the Pistons, and ex-Piston Christian Wood, for putting up massive, All-Star-level numbers in Houston.

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5. What is your bold awards prediction?

Herring: I’m willing to guess Giannis Antetokounmpo wouldn’t receive any first-, second- or third-place votes in the MVP polling, despite the fact that his numbers are more or less on par with what he did last season, when he won his second straight award. That’s more a function of voter fatigue (and “Milwaukee needs to get over the hump” fatigue) plus other guys playing better.

Young: Kevin Durant will win MVP. Granted, the Nets need to win more consistently, but Durant has three things going for him: His team is good, his stats are great and he has an excellent storyline. He has squashed concerns about not being the same player post-injury, and in some ways, looks better. Sharing the load with both Kyrie Irving and James Harden reduces some of his impact and adds the “superteam” stigma to his candidacy, but if Durant leads the league in scoring on near 50/40/90 splits and the Nets are a top-three team, it’s a wrap.

Arnovitz: Chris Boucher will be in the mix for both Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player. The Raptors have been high on their backup big man for a while, but a deep rotation at center in recent years relegated him to spot duty. Now the first big off the bench for Toronto, Boucher is playing 24 minutes per game, draining 3s and swatting shots at an impressive rate. He has hit a rough patch of late, but if he can sustain his early-season exploits, he’ll appear on a lot of ballots.

MacMahon: At least two major awards will go to the small-market Jazz. I’ve already mentioned Snyder as a serious Coach of the Year candidate. It will be hard to deny Rudy Gobert his third Defensive Player of the Year if he continues to dominate as he has so far this season. And the Sixth Man of the Year conversation starts right now with Jordan Clarkson, who leads all full-time reserves in scoring (17.9 points per game) with a true shooting percentage (.610) that looks like a typo coming from a guy with a gunner’s reputation.

Marks: That Luka Doncic finishes outside of the top five in MVP voting. Doncic is a triple-double candidate every time he steps on the floor, but he is also a turnover waiting to happen (six games of five or more giveaways). Plus, the Mavericks are more of a candidate for a spot in a play-in game instead of a top-six finish.

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