After tonight’s game the Denver Nuggets will have officially played half of the 2017-2018 season. Overall most will agree the season is, if nothing else, on track. The Nuggets are off to their best start in years, are currently in playoff position (though they can still do a lot to improve their seeding) and despite some hiccups, for the most part the young core is developing as planned. However, have the Nuggets done well enough to earn some hardware at season’s end? That is a much murkier picture.
Most Valuable Player
NBA candidates: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, James Harden, Kyrie Irving
Nuggets candidates: Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris
Likelihood a Nugget wins: 5%
It’s a pretty strong MVP race this year. Lebron and Harden were always expected to be there and Giannis and Kyrie might have been dark horse picks but they aren’t anymore. The question will be whether or not the Milwaukee Bucks fail to get into a top 4 seed and whether or not Harden’s injury lingers. If both of those things happen then it almost seems as if this will be Kyrie’s award to win. That’s not to say LeBron isn’t deserving (he always is) but voters are likely still burnt out on the idea of him winning another MVP.
The Nuggets would need an epic run that vaulted them somewhere into the top three of the Western Conference on the backs of multiple triple-doubles from Jokic to even have a smidgen of a chance, and even then, Jokic isn’t a widely accepted superstar among the masses so it’s going to hurt him in the MVP vote, unfair as that is. Gary is really just listed as a hat tip to how well he has played this season but I’ve got about as much chance as he does to win the MVP. Unfortunately, until the Nuggets are viewed as championship contenders, or until Jokic breaks Russell Westbrook’s triple-double record, it’s unlikely to see a player in a Nugget uniform hoisting the MVP trophy.
Rookie of the Year
NBA candidates: Ben Simmons, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell
Denver Nuggets candidates: Torrey Craig
Likelihood a Nugget wins: 1%
Not much hope for the Nuggets on the ROY front as Simmons, Tatum and Mitchell all make strong cases. The strongest case is for Simmons who leads virtually every statistical category among rookies except scoring (Mitchell averages 19.2 points a game). Advanced stats mostly go the way of Simmons too, though Tatum gets a defense boost from playing on the Boston Celtics and also is just an offensive monster (as in a monster on offense...not a monster who offends). Still, stats test and eye test overall are going to Simmons. If you really want to know his impact then consider this, on average one out of every three baskets the Philadelphia 76ers score when Simmons is on the floor is assisted by him, while he still averages almost 17 points a game as well.
The Nuggets rookie cupboard is essentially bare. Tyler Lydon, their first round pick, is stuck behind no fewer than four power forwards on the roster and that number will grow to five once Paul Millsap is back. Lydon has spent all but two minutes of his season playing for the G-League Rio Grande Valley Vipers and it’s awfully tough to gain national recognition down there, let alone win an NBA award. Meanwhile, two-way player Torrey Craig has essentially been one-way player Torrey Craig. He was called up from the D-league on, get this, December 15th and hasn’t been sent back down since. Craig has provided stingy defense and timely shooting for the Nuggets and has certainly been a welcome addition to Denver who is starved for depth at the three. Still, unless Craig starts dominating the NBA like he did the G-league, he’s got no shot at winning Rookie of the Year.
Sixth Man of the Year
NBA candidates: Lou Williams, Jeremy Lamb, Dwyane Wade
Nuggets candidates: Will Barton, Trey Lyles
Chances a Nugget wins: 25%
For a while there this looked like either Tyreke Evans or Eric Gordon’s award to lose but those guys have been starting more as of late to the point that they both have now played at least as many games as a starter as they have off the bench. That opened up the opportunity for perennial 6MOY candidate Lou Williams to seize momentum and boy has he. Williams is averaging over 22 points a game and nearly 5 assists while coming off the bench for the Los Angeles Clippers. While a team’s record is likely to be considered in an MVP race, it’s less important for 6MOY so the Clippers being awful won’t hurt him and with Williams’ overwhelming numbers it’s hard to make a case he isn’t the favorite. Outside of him, Lamb is having a solid season with the Charlotte Hornets and Wade, who has adapted nicely to a bench role, is likely to get some reputation votes, but this is still Williams’ award at this point.
On the Nuggets side, Will Barton will once again compete for the honor of top reserve. Barton has been playing the most minutes of his career and which has also led to career high scoring numbers (though ever so slightly). He’s also been improved defensively as well as has cut back on his turnover rate. Despite not having the numbers Williams has, Barton has proven to be extremely valuable to the Nuggets both as a scorer and bench distributor. He’s likely going to need Williams to come back to earth to have a chance, but if that happens, Barton should be in the running for this award at years end. Meanwhile Lyles has been dominating off the bench since early December to the point he’s made himself a staple of the rotation. There’s still time for Lyles to get in the conversation for 6MOY but on top of a Williams regression, he’s going to need to keep up his torrid pace for the rest of the season.
Defensive Player of the Year
NBA candidates: Andre Drummond, Kyle Anderson, Kevin Durant
Nuggets candidates: Mason Plumlee, Nikola Jokic
Chances of a Nugget winning: 0.1%
DPOY is one of the hardest awards to predict because there is so much about playing defense that is not quantifiable. In terms of the counting stats it’s actually Durant who leads the league in blocks per game right now, with DeAndre Jordan on top of defensive rebounds and Paul George on top of steals. Blocks can win this award alone (just ask Marcus Camby) so there’s reason to think that Draymond Green was onto something when he said Durant should when DPOY. Still, going off advanced stats, which are admittedly flawed when it comes to defense, the two names that pop up consistently are Drummond and Anderson. Anderson’s numbers are getting a bump from being on the San Antonio Spurs, but Drummond pretty much stands alone among Detroit Pistons in league leaders for DRPM, DBPM, DWS and DRTG. In fact, Drummond IS the league leader in DPBM, DWS and DRTG while being 14th in DRPM. This year will be an interesting one in terms of seeing whether more advanced metrics, or traditional counting stats plus reputation, will influence the vote.
For the Nuggets, DPOY is but a fevered dream. The team has been struggling on the defensive end after a decent start and no one on the team strikes as a defensive stalwart. Plumlee rates out the highest in terms of DBPM, whereas Jokic rates out the highest in terms of DRPM. Plumlee leads the team in blocks per game (excluding Millsap) and Jokic leads in DREB. Gary Harris probably also deserves a mention here as the team leader in steals as well. Point being though, the numbers don’t compare with the likes of Drummond or Durant and the eye tests says all of these guys aren’t complete defenders. None of them are likely to have the type of impact on the defensive end needed to be DPOY.
Most Improved Player
NBA candidates: Victor Oladipo, Tyreke Evans, Aaron Gordon
Nuggets candidates: Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles
Chances a Nugget wins: 10%
Sort of like 6MOY, this award is starting to become a one horse race really fast. Oladipo seems like the obvious winner after the first half of the season. He’s raised his scoring average by 8.6 points a game, he’s shooting a career high 3pt percentage (while also averaging a career high in 3pt attempts) and has blown away career highs in virtually every all encompassing advanced metric we have. It’s also important to note that Oladipo isn’t the traditional MIP candidate who essentially is just getting more minutes. He’s playing only 0.9 more minutes a game than last season. He is getting a much higher usage rate in Indiana, but he’s also averaging career highs in terms of efficiency. Indeed, in Oladipo’s case it looks to be a mixture of not only opportunity, but also genuine improvement. Shout out to Tyreke Evans here though, a guy pretty much left for dead in the NBA has turned it around big time to be a major contributor for the Memphis Grizzlies. Oladipo is going to overshadow him in this race but its incredibly impressive to see a guy in the hunt for MIP in his 9th year in the league.
On the Nuggets end, it’s pretty clear that Murray and Lyles have been the most improved. Murray is going to lose votes though because he’s a sophomore and most people view improvement from rookie to sophomore years as the easiest to accomplish. He also just doesn’t have the sheer improvement statistically that Oladipo does. Lyles meanwhile is a third year player so he’s got a better chance, but again, he lacks the volume of improvement in his counting stats that Oladipo has. It’s also been a trend as of late for MIP to go to a player who ascends from good player to star player. The previous three winners (Giannis Antetokounmpo, C.J. McCollum and Jimmy Butler) all have followed that pattern so it’s unlikely for a guy going from bench player to solid role player, like Lyles has, to win the award.
Coach of the Year
NBA candidates: Brad Stevens, Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich, Dwane Casey
Nuggets candidates: Michael Malone
Chance of a Nugget winning: 5%
Lots of good candidates for the COY award this season. It looks like Stevens is the front runner right now though. Generally two stats drive the COY award: wins and win differential between the current season and the previous one. Stevens likely won’t have much in the way of win differential (the Celtics were 53-29 last season), however he is headed towards another #1 overall seed in the east and has the Celtics just one game behind the vaunted Golden State Warriors for best record in the league. Oh by the way, he’s doing this despite only one of last years starters returning and the Celtics biggest free agent signing, Gordon Hayward, breaking his leg 3 minutes into the season. After being a strong candidate last year and losing out to Mike D’Antoni, it’s Stevens award to lose this season. Meanwhile, Thibodeau is likely going to lead the league in win differential while Popovich has kept the Spurs near the top of the Western Conference standings despite his star forward playing all of 8 games this season. Finally, Casey has the Toronto Raptors in second place in the East while also maximizing the efficiency Demar Derozan, he definitely deserves a mention here.
Obviously the only candidate for COY the Nuggets can have is Michael Malone and unfortunately the team just hasn’t been consistent enough to merit consideration for coach. That doesn’t mean he’s having a bad year, Denver had the best first half of a season in his tenure despite missing Millsap for the majority of it and the improvements from guys like Murray and Malik Beasley assuredly have a lot to do with how coach has developed them. Still, Jokic hasn’t looked as effective on offense this season and the team still struggles with defensive consistency despite coach’s claims of being a defensive guy. Unless Denver goes on a crazy run in the second half of the season and gets themselves into the top three seeds of the West, there’s no chance of coach Malone winning this award.