The 2014-2015 NBA regular season has come to a close, and before the playoffs begin, members of the media will divvy out their votes for this year’s MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Most Improved Player.
And in most cases, voters may have a difficult time making their decisions. The MVP race is arguably the closest it’s been in the last 10 to 15 years, while there are a number of worthy candidates in the Sixth Man and Most Improved categories.
This year it’s very possible the Golden State Warriors could sweep most of the awards. As the team with the best record in the league, the Warriors (67-15) have candidates in every award category except for Rookie of the Year.
Let’s delve into each award, with the contenders listed and broken down, and make some predictions in the process.
Candidates: Stephen Curry, PG, Golden State Warriors; James Harden, SG, Houston Rockets; LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers; Anthony Davis, PF, New Orleans Pelicans.
Curry’s been the frontrunner for the award all season, helping Golden State set a new franchise mark with 67 wins, and in most years this wouldn’t even be a discussion. The sharpshooting point guard and playmaker is the best player on the team that finished with the best record in the NBA.
However, Harden’s been the most electric and entertaining scorer in the league this season, and he improbably lifted Houston to the No. 2 seed in the West even with center Dwight Howard out for most of the season.
The four-time MVP James finds himself in the same position as former great Michael Jordan. He’s universally considered the best player on the planet, but voters have fickle attention spans, and James took some time meshing with a new batch of teammates in his second run with Cleveland. The Cavs were expected to post a record equal to that of Golden State’s and didn’t.
Davis was on pace for the most efficient season in NBA history and wound up with a league-best 30.8 PER, while carrying New Orleans into the playoffs in the very last game of the regular season. Davis did miss 14 games this season, which hurts his resume slightly, but it’s also strengthened by the Pelicans going 6-8 in his absence. Davis will be in the MVP conversation for the next decade, so voters might pass on giving him the award this year.
Prediction: Not since 2006 has an MVP race been this tight. The voting will come down to Curry and Harden, and though Harden’s routinely put on clinics all season, Curry will edge him out by a handful of first-place votes.
Rookie of the Year
Candidates: Nerlens Noel, C, Philadelphia 76ers; Andrew Wiggins, SG, Minnesota Timberwolves; Nikola Mirotic, PF, Chicago Bulls; Jordan Clarkson, PG, Los Angeles Lakers
This is another race with one player largely standing out for most of the season, but others making a push after the All-Star break. The No. 1 pick Wiggins took home the Western Conference’s Rookie of the Month award the first four months of the season, and his 16.9 points per game is five points better than the next best rookie (Clarkson) and he’s playing 36.2 minutes a game with only three other rookies getting 30 minutes or more of court time.
Missing all of what would have been his original rookie year because of a major knee injury, Noel’s become a jack-of-all-trades on the glass and the defensive end. He’s tops among rookies in rebounds, steals, blocks, and double-doubles.
Mirotic’s gradual improvement throughout the season is his biggest chip, and how he eventually helped Chicago rise to No. 3 in the Eastern Conference with a dizzying 20.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game in March.
Clarkson’s played so well over the last couple of months that he might have been Wiggins’ biggest challenger if he played more than 59 games this season. A second-round pick out of Missouri, Clarkson’s been the lone bright spot for the languishing Lakers, closing out the final month of the season with 19.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists per game on 44.7 percent shooting.
Prediction: From thundering breakaway dunks to numerous scoring outbursts, including his 27 and 33-point games against the team that traded him away, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wiggins has provided voters countless examples of why he’s the most talented rookie of this year’s class. No other rookie has the same highlight reel as Wiggins, so he’ll run away with the award. This race could have been very different if Milwaukee’s Jabari Parker didn’t tear his ACL.
Sixth Man of the Year
Candidates: Lou Williams, SG, Toronto Raptors; Isaiah Thomas, PG, Boston Celtics; Marreese Speights, C, Golden State Warriors
Similar to his Warriors teammate Curry, Speights will benefit from Golden State’s incredible run and is the likely favorite. He’s the Warriors top scorer off the bench with 10.4 points per game and shooting 49.2 percent from the field.
A trade deadline acquisition, Thomas exploded for 19 points over 21 games for a Boston bench that ranked first in the league with 41.4 points per game. His scoring presence is a big reason why the Celtics moved to No. 7 in the East. But the fact that he wasn’t in Beantown all season hurts the speedy point guard’s chances.
Averaging a career-best 15.5 points and a steal over 25.2 minutes per game, Williams has been a Sixth Man candidate for the last five years but hasn’t been able to win over voters.
Prediction: This should be a very close vote, but Speights will come out on top as Golden State’s best bench player.
Coach of the Year
Candidates: Steve Kerr, Golden State Warriors; Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks; Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
It was only a year ago that Kerr seemed like a lock to sign up with the New York Knicks. Instead he rebuffed those overtures and headed west to join the Warriors. In his first year as a head coach, Kerr helped Golden State improve from 51 wins and the No. 6 seed in the West, to 67 victories and the best record in the NBA.
A long-time San Antonio Spurs assistant and now in his second season with Atlanta, Budenholzer morphed the Hawks into the East’s best squad with a 60-22 record, by far the top mark in franchise history. It was a 22-game improvement for Atlanta, and now they could be primed for a deep postseason run.
Also in his second season on an NBA bench, the Celtics improved from 25 wins to 40 and made the postseason under the 38-year-old Stevens. He’s a promising young coach who will be up for this award plenty of other times.
Prediction: Curry might not be a 100 percent lock for MVP, but Kerr certainly is for COY. Budenholzer and Stevens will swipe away some first-place votes, but COY is an award that usually goes to the coach that led a team to the best record in the league.
Most Improved Player
Candidates: Jimmy Butler, SG, Chicago Bulls; Klay Thompson, SG, Golden State Warriors; Hassan Whiteside, C, Miami Heat
MIP honors are difficult to predict, with the standard for “improvement” being extremely relative. But in Butler’s case his improvements are rather easy to quantify. Named an All-Star for the first time in his four-year career, Butler surged to 20 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, all career-highs. The Bulls offense needed major support with Derrick Rose still working his way back, and Butler rose to the occasion.
Thompson jumped from 18.4 points last year to 21.7 this season, and set a new career mark with an astounding 43.9 success rate from three. And of course he has the Warriors-fever behind him.
Whiteside became one of the best stories in the league, coming out of nowhere to average a double-double of 11.8 points and 10 rebounds along with 2.6 blocks over 48 games. Previously, Whiteside scored 29 total points in 19 games (111 minutes) with the Sacramento Kings three years ago.
Prediction: Whiteside’s candidacy takes a hit because he didn’t play the whole season, and Thompson’s numbers, other than his long-range shooting, could be a bit inflated with defenses so distracted by Curry. Butler should take home the award by a comfortable margin.