LeBron James isn't up for a single award this spring. That, more than anything else, may be the biggest story regarding candidates for personal honors as the 2018-19 NBA regular season concludes. As NBA.com staffers wrote last May, the three-time champion realistically should've been a Most Valuable Player candidate literally every season this decade; that is, until now. James is the key figure in a Los Angeles Lakers squad on the outside looking in toward the postseason tournament weeks before the start of the playoffs, and there are real reasons to believe his window to win a championship has closed for good.
Neither of the top two MVP candidates for the current campaign has won a title at the highest level. One narrowly missed playing in, and probably winning, the Finals last June, while the other is an unstoppable force who is a championship away from becoming the new face of the Association. The race for MVP is a two-man competition this year, but it's the third-best candidate on the list who could play spoiler in the postseason and who could, when the dust settles, be the last valuable player standing.
Results matter, and no coach netted better results over the bulk of the season than Milwaukee Bucks leader Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer is guiding what many would say is the East's best lineup and roster into the postseason, and individuals such as Michael Shapiro of Sports Illustrated and Chinmay Vaidya of Watch Stadium credited the 49-year-old for helping Giannis Antetokounmpo evolve into an MVP candidate potentially ahead of schedule. Not bad for Budenholzer's first year on the job.
Like Mike Budenholzer, Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse has held his post for only a season, but he shouldn't be punished in voting just because many had high expectations for the club after it acquired Kawhi Leonard last summer. Pascal Siakam went from being somewhat of a forgettable member of Toronto's famed "bench mob" to a Most Improved Player candidate under Nurse, and the coach deserves praise for Kyle Lowry's excellent season and for the Raptors' high offensive rating.
It's possible Denver Nuggets coach Mike Malone goes unnoticed for this award because so many assume he and his squad will fall to the Golden State Warriors when it matters most. Mike Singer of the Denver Post believes those individuals should reconsider. Denver could have held the league's best record had multiple members of the roster not been downed by injuries during the campaign. Gary Harris, a potential top-five shooting guard, was out 25 games during the heart of the season, but the Nuggets barely missed a beat.
Few coaches were up against it during the second half of the season like Nate McMillan. The Indiana Pacers lost star guard Victor Oladipo for a period of time back in the fall, and then the 26-year-old went down for the season when he suffered a torn quadriceps tendon in late January. Despite such setbacks, McMillan's club stayed in the top-four portion of the standings' postseason spots much longer than many would've expected. Even if his roster has hit a wall as of the start of April, he deserves serious consideration for Coach of the Year.
No coach this decade did a better job than Doc Rivers during the 2018-19 season, and no, that's not an overstatement. Unlike Phil Jackson, Rick Carlisle, Erik Spoelstra, Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr and Tyronn Lue, Rivers had no superstar in the Los Angeles Clippers lineup last October. Tobias Harris enjoyed a breakout campaign under Rivers up through February when he was traded to the Philadelphia 76ers. Oh yeah. Did we mention Rivers' Clippers share a town and arena with a Los Angeles Lakers side that features LeBron James? Despite every setback and stress, Rivers has kept the Clippers in the postseason portion of the standings.
Aside from Doc Rivers, the Los Angeles Clippers are one of the better stories in the Association because the team has a pair of Sixth Man of the Year candidates. Montrezl Harrell won't win the award over his teammate who is on this list, but the 25-year-old deserves recognition for a breakout season in which he tallied career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists and minutes played. For those who care about such things, Harrell is well ahead of his fellow Clipper in win shares.
Miami Heat legend Dwyane Wade deserves to be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate, but the 37-year-old earning the honor this spring would be a tip of the cap for the end of his retirement tour more so than a deserved recognition of his efforts. This isn't a knock on the future Hall of Famer, who enjoyed his best season in three years and seemed to find a higher gear after the All-Star break. Knowing he's riding off into the sunset may have given him a boost. However, even Wade has acknowledged he shouldn't win the award.
In other years, Indiana Pacers forward Domantas Sabonis would be a favorite to win this award. The 22-year-old forward is his team's second-best scorer with Victor Oladipo out of the lineup, and he is far and away the club's top rebounder. Without Sabonis, the Pacers unquestionably would've fallen in the standings, potentially all the way to sixth or seventh in the East.
It's understood Minnesota Timberwolves guard Derrick Rose missed too many games before an elbow injury officially ended his season in the middle of March to win any honor. We're still giving the 30-year-old, one-time MVP a shout-out. Rose enjoyed his best season since he featured for the New York Knicks in 2016-17, averaging 18 points per game and shooting over 48 percent for the first time in a decade. Fifty-one games may not be enough of a body of work, but Rose's play this season should earn him a solid payday, so long as he is healthy, this summer.
Dwyane Wade isn't the only person who understands Los Angeles Clippers guard Lou Williams is winning the award. The 32-year-old once again led the league in scoring among eligible bench players, and Williams breaking the record for most points off the bench in NBA history ended any argument. Don't take our word for it. Ask the man yourselves.
It's silly that second-year players don't win Most Improved Player in the modern NBA, but they don't and that's just the way it is. Sacramento Kings guard De'Aaron Fox is skyrocketing toward superstar status nearly as quickly as he speeds down the court, with his improved shooting standing out during games and in stats. He may be the steal of the 2017 draft.
Since De'Aaron Fox isn't winning, teammate and third-year pro Buddy Hield deserves consideration. The 26-year-old guard averaging over 20 points per game for the first time is again shooting over 43 percent from beyond the arc while firing off more threes than ever. As James Ham of NBC Sports Bay Area explained, in March Hield broke the franchise record for three-pointers.
Spoiler: Get used to seeing Paul George throughout this piece. The 28-year-old notched the best season of his career en route to becoming the Oklahoma City Thunder's best and most important player and also a candidate to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. We're no longer waiting for George's production to return to what's been the norm. We're now curious to see if he can guide a team to a championship this spring.
There are several reasons to explain how the Brooklyn Nets are better than expected ahead of schedule. D’Angelo Russell may top the list. Once a Los Angeles Lakers castoff, Russell emerged as Brooklyn's leading scorer and helped keep the Nets afloat after Caris LeVert, a revelation during the fall, suffered what was thought, at the time, to be a season-ending injury. The 23-year-old won't take this award home because the next man on the list probably has it locked up heading into the playoffs. Russell, nevertheless, has many reasons to hold his head high.
In less than one season, Toronto Raptors forward Pascal Siakam went from existing as a member of the team's bench mob to a pivotal starter averaging well over 30 minutes per game and sitting second on the team in scoring. The 24-year-old more than doubled his PPG, is guaranteed to average more assists and rebounds than over his first two seasons and improved his shooting from the field, from deep and at the charity stripe. All due respect to other candidates, but this award is rightfully Siakam's. He may be the biggest argument for why Nick Nurse deserves to win Coach of the Year.
The Boston Globe's Bob Ryan was right to refer to the Boston Celtics as the NBA's most disappointing team. Kyrie Irving is Boston's most important star, of course, but imagine where the Celtics would be in the standings and on the court without the defensive acumen of Marcus Smart. The 25-year-old is one of the best defenders at the position, per real defensive plus-minus, and he deserves an All-Defensive nod even if he won't win this particular award.
Milwaukee Bucks unicorn Giannis Antetokounmpo is such a runaway leader in the clubhouse for MVP that some aren't giving him enough love for Defensive Player of the Year. The Greek Freak heads the East's best defense, and his size and length make him arguably the last person opposing players want to see in the paint. In late March, The Ringer's Danny Chau wrote why Antetokounmpo could and may hoist at least two awards.
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard has played better defense in prior seasons, which says plenty about our expectations for him considering he's a deserved candidate this spring. The 27-year-old often tasked with guarding against an opponent's top weapon will finish the season second in steals among players at his position, and when fully healthy and not in need of rest, he's arguably the best two-way player in the NBA.
Will Utah Jazz big man Rudy Gobert be punished in voting because he's blocking shots at a slightly lower rate than a year ago? This may be the biggest question to consider when pondering if the 26-year-old who should've been an All-Star this season will repeat as Defensive Player of the Year. As great as Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are, Gobert is the Association's best rim protector.
This is the award Paul George wins. Yes, we will absolutely admit this is a consolation prize since George won't win MVP,. But this doesn't eliminate the fact the 28-year-old is the league's top perimeter defender leading the league in steals among all forwards. OKC's tumultuous March shouldn't cost him this honor.
As James Ham wrote, Sacramento Kings coach Dave Joerger named Marvin Bagley III his Rookie of the Year in March. Nice try, coach, but the forward remains in the second tier of candidates. Bagley had a stellar debut season and is certainly one reason for the Kings' rapid improvement from a season ago. Would anybody take Bagley over Luka Doncic in a 2018 redraft? They would not, but the 20-year-old finished strong and posted his best month in March.
Kevin Nye of Hashtag Basketball is spot-on in writing center Deandre Ayton can't help that the Phoenix Suns are essentially unwatchable for those of us with no passionate feelings about the organization. The 20-year-old averaging a double-double leads in win shares over the other candidates, and he's draining over 58 percent of his attempts from the field. It's actually somewhat of a shame so few watch him play on a nightly basis.
Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton needs to improve on defense, and fans of the 20-year-old won't want to look at win shares when singing his praises. Sexton improved dramatically during the second half of the season, including a run of games that saw him match Tim Duncan by scoring at least 23 points in six straight outings. The score-first guard is giving Cleveland fans some hope the future may not be as bleak as feared in November.
Luka Doncic was the undisputed Rookie of the Year heading into All-Star weekend. Then, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote, Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young caught fire and, at the very least, started a conversation about the award. The best rookie in franchise history who has averaged over 23 points since the start of February made history in late March by becoming the first rookie to tally four games of at least 30 points, 10 dishes and five converted three-point attempts. He's leapfrogged three candidates and created a race when none existed during the dark days of winter.
SportsDay's Brad Townsend isn't the only person who thinks those voting for Trae Young over Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year need to pump the brakes. There was no learning curve with the Dallas Mavericks forward, as he was ready for prime time immediately out of the gates. Doncic will lead all rookies in scoring, and he's near the top of the assists, rebounds and steals lists. As John Hancock of the Dallas News pointed out in late March, only two other rookies in history posted numbers similar to Doncic's: Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.
Nikola Jokic doesn't light up a scoreboard like James Harden, nor is the Denver Nuggets center a European freak of nature. The 24-year-old who entered the fall already the best passing big man to ever play in the Association improved his scoring a third straight season to get into the 20 PPG range for the first time, and he's outrebounding and outassisting his previous bests. He's the MVP of what may be the only Western Conference team capable of keeping the Golden State Warriors out of another Finals. That should count for something.
Joel Embiid is already a superstar and the face of the Philadelphia 76ers, and The Process is headed toward winning an MVP award...eventually. The 25-year-old worthy of an honorable mention is scoring as well as the man seen by many as the league's MVP, and he's averaging well over 13 rebounds per game. Embiid will have opportunities to prove his value to doubters and non-voters during the playoffs.
You're probably sick of seeing Paul George's name mentioned. That just shows you how tremendous he's been throughout the campaign. OKC's March swoon officially ended George's MVP chances, but one cannot overstate his value and importance to the Thunder, especially when Russell Westbrook enters into one of his cold snaps.
If you've made it this far, you probably know Houston Rockets star James Harden will easily win the scoring title, that he scored at least 30 points in 32 straight games, the second-longest streak in NBA history and that the reigning MVP may win the award again. Go back to October when the Rockets were 1-5 with the shell of Carmelo Anthony a handful of appearances away from being without a job. Starting then, Harden was as valuable as anybody in the league. The Rockets wouldn't be a playoff team without him.
James Harden is the NBA's best scorer. No debate there. The last player to dominate opponents and appear as unstoppable and unguardable as Giannis Antetokounmpo was Shaquille O’Neal in his prime. Antetokounmpo will finish the season with career bests in points, assists, rebounds and shooting percentage, he's the best player in his conference playing for the team with the league's best record and he's also probably the Association's best overall talent. Don't kid yourselves and say you'd take Harden over Antetokounmpo if building a roster. You wouldn't — and neither would any other intelligent observer.
Zac Wassink is a football and futbol aficionado who is a PFWA member and is probably yelling about Tottenham Hotspur at the moment. Erik Lamela and Eli Manning apologist. Chanted for Matt Harvey to start the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2015 World Series at Citi Field. Whoops. You can find him on Twitter at @ZacWassink.