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  • Will 2017-18 be the year James Harden claims his first MVP trophy? He'll have to fend off one of the deepest fields in years. The Crossover fills out its ballot and dishes NBA first-quarter awards.
By Ben Golliver
December 01, 2017

Thanks to the pushed-up start to the 2017-18 season, every NBA team enters December with at least 20 games under its belt. With that in mind, let’s hand out some first-quarter awards. These selections are intended solely as a reflection of games played through Thursday, rather than as a projection of the final year-end results.

(Note: All stats and rankings through Nov. 30.)

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Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Rockets

Runners-up: 2. LeBron James (Cavs), 3. Kyrie Irving (Celtics), 4. Stephen Curry (Warriors), 5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

Will 2017-18 finally be the year that James Harden (31.5 PPG, 9.8 APG, 5.2 RPG) claims his first MVP trophy? For the third time in four seasons, Houston’s All-Star guard is putting together a well-rounded campaign composed of standout individual statistics, notable team success, and a compelling storyline to appeal to voters.

On the numbers front, Harden currently leads the league in scoring, assists, and usage rate while also ranking first in Win Shares, first in Real Plus-Minus and third in Player Efficiency Rating. His complete offensive game has helped Houston post the NBA’s No. 2 offense while serving as the foundation for the Rockets’ latest record-setting three-point shooting barrage. Like last season, Harden’s numbers are nearly unprecedented in the modern NBA: The only other player to match his current 31 PPG/9 APG averages during the three-point era is 2017 MVP Russell Westbrook.    

The Rockets, whose offense again ranks second only to the Warriors, aren’t just beating teams in shootouts. They’re breaking wills on a regular basis. Houston’s +10.8 point differential is the league’s best—topping even Golden State—and they have already racked up seven victories by 20 or more points. At 17–4, the Rockets are currently on track for 66 wins, giving them a strong chance to secure the first 60–win season of Harden’s career and to surpass their franchise record of 58 wins (set in 1994).

Harden’s consistent excellence, bundled within Mike D’Antoni’s super-spread, stands as the top reason the Rockets were able to cruise along during Chris Paul’s injury absence. One might assume that a team that launches an eye-popping 44.4 threes per game would be prone to major volatility, but Harden, long known for his explosive potential, has been steadying too. His worst night all season? Twenty points and eight assists. At this point, Harden could run D’Antoni’s offense blindfolded.

The real key to Harden’s 2018 MVP case could prove to be this: He gets to have his narrative cake and eat it too.  First, voters should credit him for his leadership and quality play without Paul. Injuries to key players have held back the Cavaliers, Spurs, Clippers, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Jazz and a host of other teams. Harden pulled the Rockets through Paul’s absence with a 10-4 record, even though Houston parted with numerous rotation players to acquire Paul over the summer.

On the flip side, though, voters must also acknowledge how well he has played with Paul, especially given the “two stars, one ball” hand-wringing that emerged during the off-season. When the two guards have shared the court this season, Houston has posted an ungodly 118.4 offensive rating. For years, Harden has made complementary teammates better with his ability to generate high-efficiency looks at the rim and beyond the arc. Now, he’s showing that his central presence can benefit an established star too. In fact, Paul, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, has smartly adapted his game and style to fit with Harden, rather than vice versa. That says a lot, at max volume. If Houston sustains this level of play, the long-held, and justified, criticisms of Harden for his rift with Dwight Howard should be replaced with praise for his fruitful new star partnership.

Like recent MVPs LeBron James and Stephen Curry, Harden has developed into an elite offensive system unto himself, one with a proven track record for winning big and for pulling quality contributions from his supporting cast. After losing a contentious race with Westbrook in 2017, Harden deserves to be viewed as 2018’s clear early favorite.

James (28 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 8.5 APG) is lurking, as always, if Harden or the Rockets falter. Like Harden, James ranks in the top five in Win Shares, Real Plus Minus and PER. Like Harden, James has carried his team through early-season injury issues (Isaiah Thomas, Tristan Thompson, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, etc.). Like Harden, James is posting an obscene stat line rarely seen in the modern era. Remarkably, if he maintains his current numbers, James would post his first career 28/8/8 line during his age-33 season. And like Harden’s Rockets, the Cavaliers are a top-five offense thanks almost entirely to James’ presence. When the four-time MVP leaves the court, Cleveland’s offensive rating plummets from 113.3 (top-two league-wide) to 101.1 (bottom-six league-wide).

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October calls for concern over Cleveland were utterly foolish, and James proved last season that he is capable of shrugging off the Cavaliers’ regular-season defensive woes and stomping through the East. His MVP case, however, could wind up being dimmed by his team’s one-sided nature, as it will likely hold back the Cavaliers from posting a monster win total. However, James does have two strong narratives working in his favor: He’s a perennial possibility as a “lifetime achievement” winner, and he’s kept Cleveland near the top of the standings despite the off-season departure of Kyrie Irving. For those reasons, James should hold up as the safest imaginable fallback option in a crowded race, even if Cleveland doesn’t finish as the East’s top seed.

Meanwhile, Irving (23.4 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.3 RPG) has emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate too, although there’s a healthy debate to be had as to whether he’s the most valuable player on the Celtics. While Al Horford (13.9 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 4.9 APG) doesn’t blow up the box score, he’s the most important piece on the league’s best defense, and he’s been a huge plus for Boston offensively too. The Celtics’ offensive efficiency improves by a whopping 14.3 points with the unselfish, high-IQ and spacing-friendly Horford on the court.   

Nevertheless, Irving remains Boston’s representative on The Crossover's ballot because Gordon Hayward’s opening night injury provided him the opportunity to answer long-standing questions about his leadership, defensive commitment, and his ability to make his teammates better. Irving has picked up right where Thomas left off last season, serving as the focal point for an outside-in offense and closing out wins with scorching play in clutch situations. The Celtics’ reliable defense, depth, and structure should help keep Irving in the MVP conversation for much of the season, even if their record fades after a red-hot start. If Cleveland riding its own 10-game winning streak to counter Boston’s 16-gamer, Irving would have a more compelling argument to top James on the ballot. As is, taking both players off their teams would leave Boston in respectable shape and send Cleveland immediately into tank mode.

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Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons, 76ers

Runners-up: 2. Jayson Tatum (Celtics), 3. Kyle Kuzma (Lakers)

If Ben Simmons (18.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG, 7.2 APG) keeps up his current pace and maintains good health, Rookie of the Year won’t do him justice. He’ll have a strong case as Rookie of the Decade, with 2011 Blake Griffin (22.5 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 3.8 APG) as his top competition.

As it stands, Philadelphia’s redshirt point forward leads all rookies in scoring, rebounds, assists, and steals. He’s also the class’s unofficial (but undisputed) leader in mouth-watering highlight-reel plays, thanks to his improvisational ball-handling, high-level chessboard reading, and forceful finishes. Simmons and Joel Embiid not only form the NBA’s most intriguing young duo, but they serve as the backbone for a starting lineup that has posted a whopping +20.4 net rating. Rookie point guards—even if they stand 6’10”—rarely play such a central role in winning, but Simmons’ excellent feel, unorthodox scoring ability, and surprising defensive impact have made him a shining exception to that rule.

Put it this way: Simmons has been so good, so quickly that his play demanded a full-length profile from Lee Jenkins, complete with LeBron James comparisons, less than two months after his pro debut.   

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Meanwhile, Jayson Tatum (13.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.5 APG) has made Boston the snap-take winner of the much-discussed draft pick trade that landed No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz in Philadelphia. While Fultz has been missing in action amid questions about his shoulder and mental readiness, Tatum has enjoyed a smooth acclimation as a full-time starter. Although he may grow into a lead scoring option down the road, Tatum has taken nicely to life as a complementary option, drilling nearly half of his three-point attempts and making the most of his offensive chances with a controlled, low-risk style. Defensively, his awareness, interchangeability and fit within Brad Stevens’ team context have helped him largely avoid the nightly struggles that many rookie wings endure.

Both Simmons and Tatum appear to have staying power, but the third spot should see a healthy competition given that the 2017 draft class is one of the deepest in years when it comes to instant-impact players. For now, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma (16.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.6 APG) gets the nod over the likes of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Dallas’s Dennis Smith Jr., Chicago’s Lauri Markkanen, Atlanta’s John Collins and his teammate, Lonzo Ball. The 22-year-old Kuzma is a year or two older than many of his fellow rookies, and his offensive polish and confidence have stood out from the crowd. Kuzma, a draft sleeper who turned into one of the top performers at Las Vegas Summer League, has surprisingly emerged as the Lakers’ leading scorer, even though he has shifted shifting in and out of the starting lineup. Unlike Simmons and Tatum, he is a clear liability on defense at this point. In theory, Kuzma has the right body type and positional versatility to make progress on that end going forward. 

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Most Improved Player: Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks

Runners-up: 2. Jaylen Brown (Celtics), 3. Aaron Gordon (Magic)

Kristaps Porzingis (25.8 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 2.1 BPG) is in the midst of a superstar’s ascent, much like the one that carried Giannis Antetokounmpo to last year’s Most Improved Player award. Everyone’s favorite unicorn has responded to New York’s rebuilding effort with him as the centerpiece—and Carmelo Anthony’s departure—to emerge as one of the league’s scoring and usage leaders. Next stop: His first All-Star Game and, quite possibly, a starting nod.

Already this season, Porzingis has turned years of impossible hopes into reality. A 7’3” center shaking and baking into off-the-dribble, soft-touch jumpers? A giant pulling up comfortably from Stephen Curry territory and skying to finish transition alley-oops like gumby Grant Hill? Even the most creative basketball dreamers must go back to bed to concoct a new batch of visions for Porzingis to fulfill. The best part about Porzingis is that his substance matches his sizzle. New York’s net rating has jumped 11.3 points with Porzingis on the court compared to when he’s off this season, a certified star’s level of impact that can be attributed to both his alpha scoring and his interior defense.

In a best-case scenario, the Knicks will find a way to sneak into the 2018 playoffs, much like the 2017 Bucks, thereby granting Porzingis a postseason stage to test his progress. But even if the undermanned and inexperienced Knicks fall off their current 11-10 pace, Porzingis’s rapid rise has accelerated the franchise’s timeline. There’s no need to patiently build through the draft for two or three more years; the waiting period for Porzingis is already over.

As a top-three pick in his second season, Jaylen Brown (15 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.2 APG) was a strong candidate for substantial improvement. He’s delivered on those expectations, mostly by appearing like a prototype for the new-age wing on the defensive end, Brown is quick enough to defend guards, he’s long enough to defend forwards, he’s smart enough to switch effortlessly between defensive assignments, and he’s athletic and committed enough to regularly blow up plays and frustrate opponents. Offensively, his improved three-point shooting has generated plenty of deserved attention, but he’s made other strides too. Unlike many 21-year-olds, Brown regularly attacks with the intention of punishing his defender and the rim, and that’s paid off with more trips to the stripe. Like Jayson Tatum, though, Brown manages to pursue his scoring opportunities without drifting too often into reckless turnovers or poor shots.

Aaron Gordon (18.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 2.2 APG) has been worth the wait. It took the 2014 lottery pick four seasons, four coaches, and multiple role changes to finally enjoy a breakthrough, but he’s arrived as the closest thing Orlando has had to a potential savior in years. Gordon was miscast as a small forward in jumbo-sized lineups last year, and shifting him back to the four was a logical move. At the same time, though, Gordon’s improved three-point shooting – if it holds above league average – makes him much more flexible and easier to build around. There were times last season where Gordon seemed doomed to a future in which his athleticism consistently surpassed his impact. Now, his ceiling seems to be back on the rise. After six weeks, it’s safe to say that the active, ultra-bouncy Gordon has already become the best reason to watch the Magic since Dwight Howard left in 2012.  

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Defensive Player of the Year: Al Horford, Celtics

Runners-up: Joel Embiid (76ers), Paul George (Thunder)

New blood abounds by process of elimination: Two-time Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard has yet to suit up, 2017 runner-up Rudy Gobert is sidelined with a knee injury, and 2017 winner Draymond Green has been pacing himself in fourth gear for the defending champs.

Once he cranks it up, Green is a threat to go back-to-back. For now, though, Horford is a worthy early favorite given Boston’s No. 1 ranked defense and his long track record of captaining versatile, quality units. In some quarters, Horford might be a polarizing pick: He doesn’t post huge rebounding stats, he’s not knowing for spiking blocks into the 200 level, and he gets bullied around the hoop by top-shelf traditional centers. Nevertheless, his intelligence, mobility, and comfort defending pick-and-rolls provides the requisite support for Boston’s smothering perimeter defense. Joakim Noah and Marc Gasol both picked up Defensive Player of the Year awards in recent years for their roles leading elite team defenses, and Horford deserves serious consideration for similar reasons.

In his second season after missing multiple years due to injury, Joel Embiid has established himself as a force around the basket at both ends. One of the league’s leading shot-blockers and rebounders, the 7-footer has carried a young Philadelphia team to a top 10 defensive ranking. With Embiid on the court, the Sixers’ defensive efficiency improves 7.6 points, and they defend at a top-three level. He’s the type of imposing center who regularly makes opponents regret their efforts to test him. Postscript: Robert Covington, Embiid’s teammate, has also played well enough to garner All-Defensive consideration.

Whether or not one chooses to fret over Oklahoma City’s choppy offense, the Thunder’s defense has ranked near the top of the efficiency tables for most of 2017-18. Newcomer Paul George has been a major driver of that success, leading the league in both steals and deflections. Long one of the league’s top perimeter defenders thanks to his quickness, length, hands, and instincts, George’s work has been more evident than usual this season, probably because Leonard hasn’t been around to hog the adoration.    

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Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Clippers

Runners-up: Rodney Hood (Jazz), Tyreke Evans (Grizzlies)

Honestly, the Sixth Man of the Year race is a bit of a mess right now. Lou Williams (18.7 PPG, 4.1 APG) has picked up where he left off last season, posting career-high scoring numbers as a quintessential instant offense/no-defense gunner. That doesn’t mean he’ll last in the Sixth Man conversation, however, because the staggering Clippers are likely headed for the lottery and Williams will likely be forced to continue starting due to numerous injuries to his teammates. Utah’s Rodney Hood (17.7 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.8 APG) opened the season as a starter, but has found greater success since shifting into a super-sub role. Minor injury issues and the possibility of additional role changes muddy his forecast. Tyreke Evans (18 PPG, 5 RPG, 3.5 APG), off the national radar for the last two seasons due to injury issues, has been a rare bright spot for the Grizzlies, who are mired in an extended losing streak and fired coach David Fizdale this week. If Memphis can’t regain its playoff footing, his hopes will likely fade.

Meanwhile, past Sixth Man of the Year winners don’t offer much clarity to this year’s picture, at least not right now. After an off-season move to Minnesota, the 37-year-old Jamal Crawford’s scoring production is at its lowest mark in more than a decade. Houston’s Eric Gordon, the 2017 winner, will surely reemerge as a 2018 favorite, but he’s spent much of this season starting due to Chris Paul’s injury. Golden State’s Andre Iguodala, a leading candidate for years due to his strong positive impact on a winning team, has jogged along with the rest of his teammates. His his per-game numbers are at career-low levels.   

If Gordon (19.2 PPG, 2.7 APG, 2.1 RPG) plays out the rest of the season from a reserve role, he’s the smart money pick to win this award again, especially if his lagging three-point shooting returns to his career standard. Houston’s team success, Gordon’s volume scoring, and his name recognition make him a logical pick given voting behavior in past years. Bottom line: Check back on this race in March.

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Coach of the Year: Brad Stevens, Celtics

Runners-up: Gregg Popovich (Spurs), Mike D'Antoni (Rockets)

Under normal circumstances, the coach overseeing the league’s winningest team and its stingiest defense should be leading the Coach of the Year conversation. Brad Stevens lays claim to both of those titles, but it’s the Celtics’ calm and discipline through chaotic circumstances that makes him the clear early favorite.

The coaching challenges facing Stevens have been many: He had to replace his leading scorer (Isaiah Thomas), he had to shift Kyrie Irving into a No. 1 role, he had to lean heavily on youngsters Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown for major minutes, he had to withstand an opening-night injury to Gordon Hayward, he had to compensate for the loss of many key contributors (Avery Bradley, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk, Amir Johnson and others), and he had to piece together a rotation composed of many new faces (Irving, Tatum, Marcus Morris, Aaron Baynes and others). Go ahead and exhale. That really was a long list.  

Somehow, Stevens has made it all look easy. Go right down the line, and virtually all of Boston’s key players – especially Irving, Horford, Tatum, and Brown – have bested expectations to start the year. Collectively, of course, Boston (19-4) has blown away the dampened expectations that followed Hayward’s injury.

It’s a testament to Gregg Popovich’s greatness that the Spurs have barely garnered any attention playing so well without Kawhi Leonard. Like LeBron James, San Antonio has been the standard of excellence for so long that the vast majority of observers, even careful ones, just assume it will continue on forever. Consider: How many coaches could lose a two-time Defensive Player of the Year and still oversee a top-five defense? How many could lose their leading scorer and only All-Star without their offensive efficiency falling off a cliff? How many could lose both – in the same player – and still track towards 55 wins? Anyone besides Popovich? Doubtful.

Similarly, Mike D’Antoni, the 2017 Coach of the Year, deserves a good chunk of the credit for how well the Rockets plugged along during Chris Paul’s injury. Hopefully, the modern NBA is moving towards a new reality in which a “system” and “system players” are viewed as prized commodities rather than objects to dismiss. 

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