By Ryan Decker
As the National Basketball Associate continues to mourn the loss of Craig Sager, who passed away Thursday at the age of 65, basketball will go on. Not because the business side of the league says it has to go on, but because if you listen to all the people that knew Sager well, they say he would want it to continue.
It is also at this time that a majority of teams have played the first third of the regular season.
We’ve had some surprise teams and players, and some disappointing teams and players like we do every year.
Teams and players that fall into those categories, and more, will be highlighted in the “Now On Deck’ Early Season NBA Awards.
Sixth Man of the Year – Louis Williams, LAL
Drake said it best, “Sixth man like Lou Will.”
Louis Willams has taken on the role as an experienced player that comes off the bench on an incredibly young Los Angeles Lakers team to give them a spark.
Despite playing just 25 minutes a game, Williams is averaging 19.1 points per contest, seventh-best amongst shooting guards in the league.
He is also in the top 10 of shooting guards in assists (3.3) and steals (1.4) per game, as well as field goal percentage (45.1%).
He’s been consistently good for the Lakers all year long, especially during this four-game stretch.
Rookie of the Year – Joel Embiid, Phi
Joel Embiid has sat out each of the past two season due to injuries after being drafted third overall out of Kansas in 2014.
The seven-foot tall center, though, is starting to show the promise that surrounded him when he was drafted.
In 17 games Embiid is both the leading scorer and rebounder for Philadelphia, averaging 17.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game. He also trails only Rudy Gobert in blocks per contest, at 2.5 swats a game.
Philadelphia has already been more competitive this season than they have been the past few years, and is on pace to easily eclipse its win total from a season ago. Embiid is right at the forefront of those efforts.
Coach of the Year – Mike D’Antoni, Hou
Mike D’Antoni helped turn the struggling Phoenix Suns around in the early- to mid-2000’s with the help of an exciting point guard – Steven Nash.
Houston is currently tied for the third-best record in the Western Conference at 20-7 and has already registered major wins over San Antonio, Portland (twice), Golden State and Boston.
Not only that, but D’Antoni and company haven’t lost in the month of December, and with their win over the Pelicans Friday night have won nine consecutive games.
Houston has the second-best offense in the NBA, statistically, not surprising of a D’Antoni-led team.
Most Surprisingly Good Team – Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets weren’t supposed to be a good team the season. Maybe in the East a team with a roster that appears just kind of thrown together could compete like this, but in the heralded Western Conference it didn’t look likely at all that Houston would be competing for home court advantage.
But they are.
James Harden is putting together an MVP-caliber season – 27.7 PPG, 11.8 APG, eight RPG, 20 double-doubles and six triple-doubles – and continued that Friday night in Houston with 29 points, 13 assists, and 11 rebounds in the win over New Orleans.
Behind Harden, every starter is averaging between 12 and 17 points per contest, and the veteran Patrick Beverly is adding a healthy supply of production off the bench.
Sam Dekker is starting to figure things out. And you know what? So are the Rockets.
Most Surprisingly Good Player – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Mil
Maybe it’s not totally surprising that someone named the “Greek Freak” is this good, but Giannis Antetokounmpo is certainly among the most improved players in the league.
Antetokounmpo leads a young, studded Milwaukee team in scoring (22.6) and rebounds (9.1), while also pacing the Bucks in steals and blocks.
His production has certainly improved this year over his totals from a year ago.
Antetokounmpo’s scoring per game is up by nearly six points, and he’s averaging 1 ½ better in both the rebound and assist category.
He is not only one of two players to scoring in double figures for the Bucks this season, but he is on pace to become one of two players in league history to do this:
Most Disappointing Team – Minnesota Timberwolves
Earlier this week a colleague of mine at U92 asked what is wrong with the Minnesota Timberwolves?
The T-Wolves have been disappointing. There’s no doubt about it.
Sure they’re one of the youngest teams in the NBA, but with a trio of budding superstars in Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns, and Zach LaVine – each of whom are averaging more than 20 points per game –, and with one of the best coaches in the league in Tom Thibodeau, you’d think they’d have more than just seven wins at this point in the season.
But that’s where Minnesota is at; the bottom of the Northwest Division and second-worst record (7-18) in the West.
The Timberwolves are conceding three more points a game, on average, than they are scoring, and opponents are shooting over 47 percent from the floor against them, the second-worst opponent FG% in the league.
Oddly enough, Minnesota’s next game is against my Most Surprisingly Good Team, Houston.
Most Disappointing Player – Joakim Noah, NYK
The addition of Joakim Noah has not been as fruitful as the Knicks and their fan base had hoped.
Sure New York is currently the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, but its performance thus far this season has had little to do with the production, or lack thereof, from Noah.
Noah, who has started every game he has played in this season, is averaging just 4.5 points a game. To be fair, Noah is the team’s leading rebounder (7.9). However, when he’s being paid $18 million a year to play in MSG, fans should expect much more production than that.
The center scored a season-high 16 points in the Knicks fifth game of the year, but since has tallied 10 or more points in a game just once.
All-NBA First Team selections
Point Guard – Russell Westbrook, OKC
Shooting Guard – DeMar DeRozan, Tor
Small Forward – Kevin Durant, GS
Power Forward – Anthony Davis, NO
Center – Hassan Whiteside, Mia
Russell Westbrook is an obvious choice for an All-NBA selection. He’s the leading scorer in all of basketball (30.5 PPG), and has registered 20 double-doubles and 12 triple-doubles. Not only was Westbrook the first player since Oscar Robinson to enter the month of December averaging at least 10/10/10, but he has continued that pace to this point.
The Toronto Raptors are no longer Kyle Lowry‘s team; they are 100 percent owned by DeMar DeRozan. The seven-year vet continues to improve his craft, on pace to have the best season of his career, averaging 28.3 points per game and shooting just over 48 percent from the floor. He has scored 30+ points in 14 games this year, already as many as he had last regular season.
It would’ve been crazy of me to not include a Golden State Warrior on my All-NBA team, wouldn’t it? Insert Kevin Durant. Durant’s addition to the Warriors has been a smooth transition. The All-Pro small forward not only leads his team in points (25.5), but is Top 2 at his position in points, rebounds and blocks per game, as well as total 3-pointers made.
If there was starting to be any doubt in your mind of whether or not Anthony Davis could take his game to the next level like we all hoped he would, you can check your doubt at the door. Davis’ numbers are up across the board – points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals, field goal percentage, and free throw percentage. Everything is up from last year, and/or nearing career-highs.
KAT is having a great season, but no center is having a better year thus far than Miami’s Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside is producing around 17 ½ points and 14 ½ rebounds per contest, and has recorded a league-leading 21 double-doubles amongst players at his position. His 2.3 blocks per contest is the best total in the Eastern Conference.
Most Valuable Player – Russell Westbrook
No matter how you look at the definition of the award for Most Valuable Player, Russell Westbrook fits that description.
If you’re looking at it from a “best player in the league” standpoint, there hasn’t been anyone better than Westbrook this season. If you’re looking at the award from truly a “most valuable” standpoint, there isn’t anyone more valuable to his team than the OKC point guard.
In year’s past Westbrook’s triple-double outbursts were sometimes looked at in a negative light, due to the Thunder’s record in such games. This year that hasn’t been the case at all, as Oklahoma City is 9-3 in games he records at least 10/10/10.
OKC may only be the seventh seed in the West at the moment, but with Westbrook leading the way don’t expect this team to not make the playoffs. And don’t expect Westbrook, should he continue to play at the record pace he as set for himself thus far, to not be named league MVP at season’s end.