Under the tutelage of general manager Daryl Morey the Houston Rockets ushered in a new age of team construction and statistics.
Earlier, I took a look at some of the players that are in contention for a few of the NBA’s yearly awards. I covered MVP, rookie of the year and most improved player.
There are three more big ones to go over – defensive player, sixth man and coach of the year. I feel that these awards are a little more difficult to evaluate early in the season with roles and overall team performances changing week to week, but there are definitely strong candidates in each spot.
Again, this is less about me making hard predictions as to who will win these awards and more about me directing your attention towards those who have stood out in the early going.
1. Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder SF
OKC may be struggling on the offensive end, but I still have hope in them mainly because they boast one of the league’s better defences. Their team defensive rating is 99.0, good for second in the league.
George has been a big part of that. He’s been a two-way star for years now but is really shining when it comes to on-ball defence this season. He’s leading the league in steals, swiping the ball at a rate of 2.8 per game.
Averaging nearly three steals per game over a 19-game slate is extremely impressive, but also unsustainable. Steals can sometimes be an empty stat that doesn’t necessarily reflect good, disciplined play.
Luckily, George is more than just a gambling, stat-stuffing maverick on defence. He has the athleticism to stay with anyone on the perimeter and plays passing lanes as well as anyone in the game.
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers C
Embiid is one of the league’s most impactful players on both ends of the floor. He’s been a bit overshadowed on offence by Ben Simmons’ strong rookie campaign, but it’s impossible to overlook his defence.
This shows up in both the statistics and the eye test. Embiid has one of the league’s higher defensive box plus/minus stats (which is essentially a stat relating how much better a player is than the league average per 100 possessions) at +3.3 and is top ten in blocks at 1.8 per game.
If you just watch 76ers games, you can see how things change when Embiid is on or off the floor. When he’s playing, more shots get contested and opponents are much more reluctant to attack the paint. His length and athleticism allow him to cover ground extremely quickly, making finishing at the rim extremely difficult for even the best players in the NBA.
3. Al Horford, Boston Celtics C
The Boston Celtics have both the league’s best record and its best defence, as they hold the number one defensive rating at 97.1. Fun fact: the difference in defensive rating (at the time of writing) between them and second place OKC (99.0) is greater than the difference between OKC and the fifth-place Warriors (100.7).
The Celtics have great perimeter defenders in Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown as well as an excellent coach in Brad Stevens, but Horford is flying under the radar as the anchor in the Boston scheme.
He’s been a strong interior presence and stands out for his excellent switching ability. He seems to always be making the correct rotations and is rarely late on closeouts. Horford’s ability to stay with smaller players and contest their shots has also been very impressive.
Rudy Gobert was the early front-runner here but has gone down with a knee injury that will keep him out for at least another month. Before that, he was the usual shot-blocking terror that we’ve come to expect.
DeAndre Jordan’s strong interior presence and ability on the glass keep him in this conversation year after year.
Jaylen Brown is blossoming on the defensive end this season. If his name isn’t being taken seriously this year, it will be once the 2018-19 season comes around.
1. Jonathon Simmons, Orlando Magic SG
There was some concern as to how Simmons would perform after leaving the Spurs’ system after his breakout campaign last season. Fortunately, he’s been proving that he’s a lot more than a one-hit wonder.
Simmons has been excellent off the bench for the Magic, shooting 49 per cent from the field and recording 14 points per game. His minutes per game have gone up to 24 (from 17 last year), and he’s improved both his field goal percentage and his three-point shooting.
He doesn’t provide much in terms of other stats, but he provides a nice scoring punch in limited minutes – which makes him an ideal sixth man of the year candidate.
2. Tyreke Evans, Memphis Grizzlies SF
Evans is looking like one of the steals of the offseason. He’s on a small one year deal but is producing like a big-time star, putting up a strong 17/5/3 line in 28 minutes per game.
He’s also been very efficient, shooting 50 per cent from the field and 41 per cent from three-point range. He’s contributing on both ends of the floor, with a positive offensive and defensive box plus/minus.
It’s great to see him being successful after getting bounced around the league over the past year, but I’m always a bit worried about Evans due to his injury history. I feel like it’s almost just a matter of time before another issue crops up, but I’m really hoping he stays healthy this season.
If he continues to play this well and can participate in 65 games or so he has a great chance to win the award.
3. Rudy Gay, San Antonio Spurs SF
Gay also appears to be one of the better offseason pickups. He’s giving the Spurs 11/5/1 while shooting 47 per cent from the field. This is a very solid stat line for someone who’s only playing 22 minutes per game.
He’s been a good fit in the Spurs’ system, and this has been sorely needed with Kawhi Leonard still out with a lingering quadriceps injury.
Gay is another player who has an injury history, so his biggest challenge will just be staying on the court. If he can do this and increase his minutes by a little bit, he’ll have the stats to be a serious contender in this race.
Eric Gordon has started too many games at this point (due to Chris Paul’s injury) to qualify but has just returned to a bench role. He’s been fantastic this season and will certainly have the numbers to be considered.
Jeremy Lamb has also started too many games so far but has since returned the bench. He’s having a career season when it comes to three-point shooting, rebounding and assisting.
Jordan Clarkson boasts a high usage rate off the bench for the Lakers and has improved his game this year with a more aggressive approach on offence.
1. Brad Stevens, Boston Celtics
Stevens had a reputation as one of the best young coaches in the NBA coming into the year, but it’s time to recognize that he’s just one of the best coaches in the game, period. His work with the Celtics this year has been remarkable.
He’s integrated new pieces flawlessly, getting production out of veterans and rookies alike. He’s absorbed the loss of Gordon Hayward, one of the best two-way players in the league, without breaking a sweat.
However, the most impressive work has been in regards to the team’s defence, which has translated into the league’s best record.
As mentioned in the Al Horford section, Boston has the best defensive rating in the NBA, and they also allow the fewest points per game. Stevens has managed to get young players like Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to buy into his system, and it has paid off as the entire team switches flawlessly and rarely gives up open shots.
Another reason for their success has been improved rebounding. Boston has made a leap from one of the weaker rebounding teams in the league to a top ten unit on the glass. This has also translated into them allowing the fewest opponent second-chance points per game.
Stevens still needs to work on the team’s offence, but he has shaped what is looking like the best Celtics squad in a few years. His ability to get production out of young players has set him apart from the rest of the pack.
2. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Popovich is in this conversation every year, but this season has felt different. The Spurs have played the entire season to date without the two players who are the most crucial to running their offence – Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.
For most teams, losing your superstar would be a death sentence, but here the Spurs are, sitting at 12-7 and third in the Western Conference.
How does Popovich do it?
His teams seem to never have any glaring weaknesses. He continues to blend people into his heavy ball movement system and gets production out of mid-tier players. Guys like Kyle Anderson, Patty Mills and Danny Green serve as key pieces that are more than the sum of their parts.
Popovich has also gotten LaMarcus Aldridge back on track after a year where the forward seemed disinterested while the signing of Rudy Gay has provided a scoring boost that softens the impact of Leonard’s absence.
If the Spurs continue to hang around the upper half of the West until Leonard comes back, they have a good chance to end the season with decent playoff seeding. That in itself will be a huge victory and yet another addition to Popovich’s impressive resume.
3. Stan Van Gundy, Detroit Pistons
Did anyone see this coming? After 18 games played, Van Gundy’s Pistons boast a 12-6 record, placing them in second place in the Eastern Conference.
Key to their record has been their success at home – they currently have a 7-2 record playing in Detroit. It doesn’t seem like a completely fluky start either, as they have victories against quality teams like the Warriors and the Timberwolves.
Van Gundy has seemingly resurrected Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson after both turned in subpar seasons in 2016-17. This season, they are back to playing at levels that justify their contracts.
He’s also getting positive contributions from Tobias Harris and Stanley Johnson. New additions Avery Bradley (trade) and Luke Kennard (draft) have blended their talents nicely as well.
The result has been a balanced squad that plays solid basketball on both ends of the floor. The Pistons may not have the sheer star power that a lot of other teams seem to have these days, but finishing in the upper half of the East will mean that Van Gundy has exceeded expectations.
Dwane Casey has introduced a bit of a culture change to the Toronto Raptors organisation this year. At long last, he’s diversified their offence and brought about more ball movement. It’s nice to see something other than isolation ball all the time.