Rueter’s Digest: First quarter NBA awards

By Sam Rueter
ruetersa@grinnell.edu

The 2017-2018 NBA season has been one of the most exciting to date, as numerous new players and teams stake claims to the top spots in the NBA pecking order. As this column is written, five teams who made the playoffs last year are currently out of the postseason hunt, including the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose roster boasts reigning-MVP Russell Westbrook, along with new additions and perennial All-Stars Carmelo Anthony and Paul George.

With one of the strongest rookie classes in recent memory supplementing an already embarrassingly rich player talent pool, NBA fans should look forward to the continuation of a season featuring jaw-dropping individual performances as well as refreshingly intentional team play. Against this backdrop, we examine who deserves to win individual NBA “First Quarter” Awards.

Most Valuable Player

The notion of a “Most Valuable Player” in sports is widely misunderstood and hotly contested. Some would argue that “Most Valuable” denotes specific value to a team, in which case a superstar shouldn’t be penalized for playing with mediocre teammates. Others, however, would argue that the award should go to the best player on the best team, or that things like regular-season record and playoff performance should be taken into account. Rarely, however, does the award go to the most talented player in the league.

With the sole exception of Russell Westbrook last year, all NBA MVP award winners of recent memory came from extremely successful teams. As such, some of the big names averaging big stats on bad or mediocre teams (Giannis Antetokounmpo, Demarcus Cousins, Kristaps Porzingis, Russell Westbrook) can be crossed off at this point in the season. Of the remaining superstars on good to very good teams, one stands out above the rest. James Harden, who finished in the top three for MVP in two of the last three years, is leading the league in both scoring (31.4) and assists (9.8) and is the best player on the best team in the Western Conference. Though still at best a net zero defender, Harden’s ability to facilitate an offense and score the basketball is nearly unparalleled in the NBA, and it deserves to be rewarded with an MVP trophy if his pace continues.

Others in the Mix: Kyrie Irving (Boston Celtics), Kevin Durant (Golden State Warriors), LeBron James (Cleveland Cavaliers)

Defensive Player of the Year

This isn’t the sexiest pick, but Marcus Smart of the Boston Celtics deserves to be recognized as the best defender in the league at this point in the season. Though the award often goes to a big man (Tyson Chandler, Marc Gasol, Dwight Howard) or a rangy wing defender (Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Metta World Peace), Smart takes the top spot due to his superior lateral quickness (he draws charges at one of the highest rates in the league), ability to guard multiple positions (he can be switched onto point guards through power forwards) and sheer tenacity on the court. The Celtics are, by all conceivable defensive metrics, the best defensive team in the NBA, and Marcus Smart is at the heart of their defense.

Others in the Mix: Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors), Anthony Davis (New Orleans Pelicans), Andre Roberson (Oklahoma City Thunder)

Coach of the Year

Though not on the court, coaches play an incredibly important role in any successful team dynamic. Brad Stevens, in his fifth season with the Celtics, is the obvious choice for coach of the year. His team currently holds the best record in the NBA, and boasts the league’s best defense. Furthermore, his group is doing all of this without their highest paid player Gordon Hayward, who is likely out for the season following a horrific broken ankle. This circumstance, combined with the fact that the Celtics returned only four players from last season and have the youngest team in the NBA, only adds to his stellar credentials. Long considered one of the best rising coaches in the game and, in particular, a wizard when calling plays out of timeouts, Stevens deserves to be recognized for his work so far at the quarter mark of the season.

Others in the Mix: Stan Van Gundy (Detroit Pistons), Terry Stotts (Portland Trailblazers), Greg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)

Rookie of the Year

Lonzo Ball … will not be mentioned at all in the following paragraph.

There have been many rookies putting up impressive stats and playing major minutes during the young season, but none have made more of an impact than the Magic Johnson-Lamar Odom-Hakeem Olajuwon hybrid known as Ben Simmons. Dragging a young Sixers team to a surprisingly successful start to the season, Simmons leads all rookies in points (18.5), rebounds (9.1) and assists (7.7). We might as well put Simmons’ name on the trophy right now — the more prescient question is whether or not he will make the all-star game.

Others in the Mix: Jayson Tatum (Boston Celtics), Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers), Dennis Smith Jr. (Dallas Mavericks)

6th Man of the Year

This award belongs to Eric Gordon of the Houston Rockets, who won the “Sixth Man of the Year” last year and is averaging over 20 points a game. However, due to injuries to Chris Paul and a disruption of the Rockets’ preferred back court partnership, Gordon has started most games this year (thereby disqualifying him for this award). As such, the award can go to Lou Williams, of the underwhelming Los Angeles Clippers. Although Williams, who finished second in the award voting last year, plays about as much defense as the Lincoln Christian University Men’s Basketball Team does, he is a skillful scorer who can fill up a stat sheet off the bench. Really though, he is just keeping this award warm for Gordon, much in the same way that Clippers coach Doc Rivers is keeping his golf swing warm in anticipation of his upcoming dismissal.

Others in the Mix: Rudy Gay (San Antonio Spurs), Malcolm Brogdon (Milwaukee Bucks), James Johnson (Miami Heat)