As the second half of the 2015-2016 NBA season opens, so do the individual award races and the ongoing debates over who deserves Most Valuable Player, Sixth Man and Rookie of the Year honors.
In at least one case, one player has likely already crossed the MVP finish line with more than two months remaining in the regular season. However, the other two awards appear to be wide open and may hinge on intangibles.
Let’s take a look at each of the three races, and our early predictions for each award.
Candidates: Draymond Green, F, Golden State Warriors; Stephen Curry, G, Golden State Warriors; LeBron James, F, Cleveland Cavaliers; Kawhi Leonard, F, San Antonio Spurs; Russell Westbrook, G, Oklahoma City Thunder
Only 11 players in the NBA’s history have claimed consecutive MVP awards, and Curry’s a shoe-in to be the 12th. The Warriors point guard has established himself as the league’s best and most unstoppable scoring force, and his team is on pace to notch the best regular season in league history.
Some will point to Green, and how much of the Warriors No.1-ranked offense flows through him, as a top candidate. However, while Green might garner some votes, it's clear that Curry has been the driving force on the Warriors.
Leonard has become one of the most complete players in the league, even edging Curry with a 48.2 success rate from three-point range, and he’s nearly taken hold of the Spurs' baton from Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. But the Spurs' success is rarely due to one player, which hurts Leonard's case.
James, a four-time winner and the last to win consecutive MVPs, has the Cavs again in line for a trip to the Finals. But the Cavs have looked weak in stretches, and James has often deferred to Kyrie Irving.
Prediction: Curry. It should be a unanimous first-place finish for the Warriors star.
Rookie of the Year
Candidates: Karl-Anthony Towns, C, Minnesota Timberwolves; Kristaps Porzingis, F, New York Knicks; Jahlil Okafor, C, Philadelphia 76ers
Much like Curry, Porzingis burst out of the gate to help New York re-enter the Eastern Conference’s playoff race after a dismal performance last season. And his case is only furthered by how Knicks fans reacted to his No. 4 selection in last year’s draft. The Latvian big man came out of nowhere and even exceeded expectations while claiming the East’s Rookie of the Month honors three out of three times.
Towns, the No. 1 pick who could help Minnesota win the award two years in a row on the heels of Andrew Wiggins, has also claimed the Western Conference’s top rookie honors each month of the season. He’s tied for the rookie lead with 17.1 points per game, beats out all others with 10.1 boards a contest, and is third in field-goal percentage at 54.4.
Okafor has helped erase his early off-the-court troubles by equaling Towns’ output of 17.1 points per game, but the Sixers dreadful record keeps him out of serious contention.
Prediction: Porzingis.The Timberwolves aren’t making the postseason, which gives Porzingis a big advantage should the Knicks sneak in. If they don’t, Towns becomes the frontrunner.
Sixth Man of the Year
Candidates: Will Barton, F, Denver Nuggets; Victor Oladipo, G, Orlando Magic; Jeremy Lin, G, Charlotte Hornets
All three candidates have solid cases to make, but just like the rookies, the choice may come down to who helps guide their team to the postseason.
Both Lin and Oladipo deserve a mountain of credit for leading the Hornets and Magic benches, respectively. Lin already has the Hornets clinging to the East’s final playoff spot and his 12.1 points and improved defense make for a nice redemption story after his poor run with the Lakers last season.
After starting 71 out of 72 games last season, Oladipo’s accepted his role as Orlando’s first man off the bench and the move’s made him a more efficient player. The third-year guard’s rebounding and three-point shooting have improved, and he’s drastically cut down on his turnovers by a third.
Barton reached the national stage during All-Star weekend with some impressive jams in the Slam Dunk Contest, but he should’ve been noticed well before for his 15.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game while hitting 38.0 percent of his threes.
A second-round pick by Portland in 2012, Barton has the underdog story on his side but unless Denver can erase its five-game deficit and make the playoffs he probably won’t be hoisting any hardware at season’s end.
Prediction: Lin. But Lin's chances are slim if Charlotte fails to reach the playoffs. Otherwise, it will probably go to Oladipo if Orlando climbs back up the standings.