The NBA season is 80 percent complete. The Eastern Conference playoffs are virtually set, while the Western Conference is going to go down to the wire. Award season is nearly upon us, and with that comes the forming of narratives for each candidate. The traditional candidates will receive plenty of praise, but who are some weird guys who probably will not win but might be able to sneak into the conversation and steal some votes?
Most Improved Player
Real Candidates: Victor Oladipo, DeMar DeRozan, Andre Drummond
My Weird Pick: Jaylen Brown
Why He Won’t Win: Brown won’t win because he’s a 2nd year player. Sophomores are expected to improve. Using ESPN’s RPM, the average sophomore player has improved their impact by +2.0 points per 100 possessions. Because of that fact, Brown will likely be discounted as it comes to the real vote. On top of that, much of Brown’s improvement has come on the defensive end which is generally not rewarded by a MIP award.
Why He Should Win: Jaylen Brown should win because he has perfectly stepped up to fill a Gordon Hayward shaped gap on the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. He has improved his 3PT shooting, his role size, his passing, and his defense. His Player Impact Plus-Minus has seen the largest improvement out of every player in the league, his RPM has had the 7th largest jump. Brown has become a leader, wiser far beyond his years. He should be a contender for this award alone by becoming one of the woke players in the league, always dropping brilliant quotes dripping with intellectual acuity.
Sixth Man of the Year
Real Candidates: Eric Gordon, Lou Williams
My Weird Pick: Fred VanVleet
Why He Won’t Win: VanVleet is not a flashy scorer. This award has essentially become the top scorer off the bench award, with Jamal Crawford lining his shelves with them despite not being a positive impact player on offense since 2013-14. Pushes in recent years to give the award to Andre Iguodala always fell short because he does not match this mold. Neither does VanVleet, likely leading him to fall short.
Why He Should Win: The Toronto Raptors have the best bench in the NBA this season, and VanVleet is the captain of the ship. Taking up Cory Joseph’s spot, VanVleet has had the best luck-adjusted on-off impact of any rotation player on the Raptors: The team has been 6.1 points per 100 possession better with him on-court than off. Fred VanVleet has per 36 minute averages of 15.0 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds on near average efficiency with elite defense. Let us finally break the mold and give the award to the most important player on the best bench in the NBA.
Defensive Player of the Year
Real Candidates: Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Rudy Gobert
My Weird Pick: Jrue Holiday
Why He Won’t Win: Frankly, the Pelicans’ defense overall is not that good. The luck-adjusted defensive rating for the team is 108.9 points per 100 possessions, ranking 18th overall in the league. On top of that, Jrue isn’t a big man. Kawhi Leonard was the first wing to win the award in a decade. The narrative is not there for Jrue Holiday compared to the historical norms.
Why He Should Win: Jrue Holiday is a master at defense. The Pelicans’ DRTG with Jrue on the court is 106.9, a respectable level that would rank 7th in the league. Without him though, the defense tanks to a horrendous 115.7, a difference of 8.8 points per 100 possessions. A DRTG of 115.7 would be the worst in the league by over 3 points per 100 possessions. Holiday does a great job using his size to stay in front of other players and is a perfect pairing with the rim protection that Anthony Davis offers. Jrue will not win, likely won’t even get that many votes, but his defense has been one of the keys to the Pelicans staying afloat after DeMarcus Cousins went down.
Rookie of the Year
Real Candidates: Ben Simmons, Donovan Mitchell
My Weird Pick: Let’s get weird, give it to Royce O’Neal
Why He Won’t Win: Who? O’Neal is an undrafted rookie for the Utah Jazz and has played fewer than 1,000 minutes so far this season. He has no name recognition, no huge stats, no 40 point games. Let’s be honest, this award is going to Simmons or Mitchell and no wacky contrarian pick matters. But O’Neal has been a wonderful find for the Jazz and is going to be a key role player for them for years to come.
Why He Should Win: Royce O’Neal is just a super fun role player. He has the best luck-adjusted on-off impact of any rotation player on the Jazz with the team playing 7.3 points per 100 possessions during his minutes on-court. He is shooting nearly 37 percent from three, 80 percent from the line. He’s a really solid defender, quick enough to be able to stay in front of shooting guards while being strong enough to body larger wings. A really solid 3&D option, O’Neal should be a nice piece for the Jazz going forwards.
Most Valuable Player
Real Candidates: James Harden, LeBron James, Stephen Curry
My Weird Pick: Damian Lillard
Why He Won’t Win: Lillard won’t win because he is entering the conversation too late in the season. Minds are already made up on who the candidates are, and Lillard misses the cut because people have not been paying attention to the Blazers. On top of that, James Harden is really freaking good. The Rockets are projected to win 64 games per my in-season projection model. LeBron is doing historically impressive things for a player his age. Curry has a career high in scoring efficiency, topping both of his previous MVP seasons. The competition is stiff, and Lillard probably does not have enough time to really get his name and story into the mix.
Why He Should Win: The Trail Blazers are on their way to being the 3 seed in the Western Conference. Per my model, they are projected to win nearly 49 games. And Damian Lillard has clearly been by far the best player on the team. Player Impact Plus-Minus only has one other player on the team with an impact greater than +1.0 points per 100 possessions: Al-Farouq Aminu at +1.3. Lillard is at +5.0, responsible for an estimated 10.4 wins this season. Lillard is on fire right now, and hopefully he can ride this streak into the conversation. Because he deserves to at least have his name brought up during his career year. He has massively improved his defense and has a career high in scoring and efficiency. Damian Lillard is the best player on a top team in the Western Conference. He deserves recognition.