Well, it’s been about two weeks and, when play opens up on November 11, most NBA teams will have played somewhere between seven and nine games. Already, surprises abound—who had the New Orleans Pelicans being the last team in the Western Conference to win a game? And who in the world thought that the Detroit Pistons would be inside of the playoff picture while the Washington Wizards find themselves on the outside?
On the individual front, there have been an equal number of surprises, both on the good side and the not-so-good. Each week, we’ll be taking a look at the top candidates for each of the NBA’s awards. Here’s how the races look thus far.
Defensive Player of the Year
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs – The only thing that’s more impressive than the way that Kawhi Leonard battles over screens and utilizes his good hands to strip opposing offensive players is the fact that he is doing that this season while scoring almost six more points per game than he did last year (16.5 points per game last season versus 22.1 points per game this season). Oh, and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year happens to be blocking 1.4 shots per game in the early part of the season.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami HEAT – By now, it’s safe to say that Hassan Whiteside is no fluke. Like DeAndre Jordan and Rudy Gobert, offensive players usually see Whiteside and head the other way. In the rare event that he is challenged, he routinely throws shots back in people’s faces. What’s most impressive about Whiteside is not that he is blocking four shots per game, it’s that he is doing it in just 29.7 minutes a night. That gives him an unreal 4.8 blocks per 36 minutes average. For perspective, it has been 20 years since any NBA player averaged four blocks per game. The accomplishment belonged to Dikembe Mutombo back in the 1995-96 season, and we’re sure that even he is impressed with Whiteside.
John Wall, Washington Wizards – John Wall has long been one of our favorites here. With his feline quickness, he has always been a sight to behold on the court. Although not necessarily renowned as a plus-defender, Wall is pesky and plays passing lanes exceptionally well. If we’re to be totally honest, though, we would admit to being swayed by the statistics here. Rarely in the NBA do you find a player who averages 1.5 blocks and 1.5 steals per game, much less a player who gives you two of each. Although it’s early, Wall has done exactly that: 2.5 steals per game and 2.2 blocks per game. For perspective, only Gerald Wallace and Hakeem Olajuwon have averaged 2.5 steals and two blocks per game over the course of an entire season.
DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers – DeAndre Jordan is simply a beast on the defensive side of the ball. Although his per-36 minute numbers aren’t as impressive as Hassan Whiteside’s, we think it fair to say that it is more difficult to exert oneself as fully with an increase in minutes. In other words, 3.9 blocks per game in 32 minutes is almost as good as four blocks per game in 29.7 minutes. Jordan is a true difference maker for the Los Angeles Clippers, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Most Valuable Player
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors – The league’s reigning MVP is leading the league with 32.4 points per game and is also chipping in a tidy 5.4 rebounds and 5.9 assists. His undefeated Golden State Warriors are the last team in the league to lose a game and Curry already has a 50-point effort to his credit. After eight games, he is on pace to convert 410 three-pointers on the season, and although we can’t imagine him keeping that up, it is something to marvel at.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder – When Kevin Durant calls you the best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder, that’s saying something. After effortlessly amassing triple-doubles last season, Westbrook is showing the same floor vision and willingness to distribute that we think was indicative of tremendous growth last season. The 10.9 assists per game he is averaging in the early going is evidence of the fact, while the 47.6 percent he is currently converting from the field represents a career-best. Clocking in at 26.3 points, seven rebounds, 10.9 assists and 2.1 steals, Westbrook has certainly picked up where he left off last season. That spells trouble for the rest of the league, but may spell “MVP” for Westbrook, who finished fourth in last’s season’s voting.
Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons – Most people began the season not knowing who Andre Drummond is, but we think it’s safe to assume that they have heard his name by now. And if you haven’t, what rock have you been living under? The Detroit Pistons are one of the surprise teams in the early going of the season, and after winning five of their first seven games, they certainly look like the team that was streaking in the aftermath of Josh Smith’s departure last season before Brandon Jennings ruptured his Achilles tendon. Playing without Greg Monroe, Drummond has had the paint all to himself and has simply been a one-man wrecking crew. The Eastern Conference’s reigning Player of the Week for two straight weeks wins the award by virtue of his 19.4 points and 19.6 rebounds per game averages. Drummond already has three 20-20 games this season, is shooting 53 percent from the field and is also giving Stan Van Gundy’s team 1.9 blocks and 1.9 steals per game. We have nothing to complain about.
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers – In many ways, life as LeBron James is unfair. His greatness has spoiled us to the point where he is attempting to live up to his own unattainable standard. James isn’t really doing anything we haven’t seen before, and he’s not even doing it up to the level that many of us expect from him. After seven games, James and his 24.4 points per game is his lowest output since his rookie year. That can be partially explained by his 34 minutes per game (again, the lowest since his rookie year), and his poor three-point shooting thus far this season gives us cause for concern. Still, 24 points along with 6.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals per game is more than “good,” it’s “MVP caliber” for any player not named LeBron. As he quietly approaches 31 years old and seeks to make his sixth straight NBA Finals appearance, though, don’t be surprised to see James’ numbers begin to regress a little.
Rookie of the Year
Jahlil Okafor, Philadelphia 76ers – Yes, the Philadelphia 76ers may still be searching for their first win of the young season, but it isn’t because of Jahlil Okafor. For the most part, we knew that Okafor was a pro-ready big man, and from day one, he hasn’t disappointed—not much, anyway. His shooting has been somewhat inconsistent thus far, and he certainly isn’t making a name for himself by distributing the basketball, but he has already shown considerable flashes as a post player. Although coming in a loss, his 21-point, 15-rebound effort against the Bulls on Monday night gave him his first career double-double and he entered play on November 10 with a clean 19.9 points per game. More wins would be nice, but Okafor has seemingly separated himself as the league’s top rookie over two weeks.
Karl Anthony-Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves – After his first six games, Towns clocks in at 10 rebounds per game and a fairly impressive three blocks per game. He was renowned as a defensive stalwart during his time at Kentucky, but his offensive repertoire has appeared fairly developed as well. What surprises us most about Towns is that, through November 10, he was converting 38 percent of his shots from beyond 16 feet from the basket. There is a lot to like about the number one overall pick, including the fact that in Minneapolis, he is surrounded by other guys who can play. During the 2014-15 season, the Timberwolves didn’t win their fourth game until their 14th. This year? They began the season by winning four of their first six. Towns is a major reason why.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks – For a young European who was deemed to be a “project,” Kristaps Porzingis has certainly come into the league ready to contribute. Installed as the starting power forward for the New York Knicks, Porzingis enters play on November 10 leading the team with 8.6 rebounds per game and has already shown impeccable timing. He has four highlight-reel worthy putbacks in the early goings of the season and has already given Knicks fans something to be happy about. In Sunday’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, Kobe Bryant had some positive feedback for the rookie while Magic Johnson tweeted that he was “the steal of the draft.”
Emmanuel Mudiay, Denver Nuggets – If you ask D’Angelo Russell or fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, they would probably remind you that it takes rookie point guards a little while to learn the NBA game. With Russell, playing under the bright lights of Los Angeles and with the distractions surrounding Kobe Bryant may have an effect. In that light, it’s easy to figure out why Mudiay might not be having such issues. Mudiay has been given the keys in Denver, as evidenced by his 30.1 minutes per game, which is second among all rookies, trailing only Okafor. He happens to be second among rookies in assists, trailing Okafor’s teammate, T.J. McConnell. Still, since turning the ball over 11 times in his debut, Mudiay slowly seems to be figuring the game out and has shown good, reliable point guard instincts thus far. Even if his numbers aren’t the best, we see flashes of potential.
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