Most Improved Player
The Most Improved Player award has always been the NBA’s strangest, since its birth in 1986. It commends the growth of a baller, but also delivers something like a slight to his previous résumé. And, often, it goes to someone based on inexplicably increased attention to their game — not an actual rise in talent. But fans of the game (like fans of everything) love narratives of change, and none has tickled them more than the rise of Chicago Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler this season. Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert comes in as a close second, but his explosion began a little too late in the year.
Prediction: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Sixth Man of the Year
No clear-cut candidate has emerged from the Sixth Man pack this season. Consummate microwave scoring man Jamal Crawford (who won these honors last season) has been injured for the Los Angeles Clippers, and 2014’s runner-up, Taj Gibson, has also missed significant time. Andre Iguodala is the league’s most talented player not starting, so you’d think the award is his to lose — but big man Marreese Speights has, actually, been an arguably more important reserve for the Golden State Warriors. Rodney Stuckey has come on as a late-season force for the Indiana Pacers, but his body of work coming off the bench is markedly less consistent in 2014-15 than our likely winner.
Prediction: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors
Defensive Player of the Year
There are a lot of guys who deserve this award for their work on defense. But few people in the game, or outside it, know how to accurately appraise the less highlight-laden side of the ball, and the winner of this trophy is often decided as a matter of publicity. Andrew Bogut and Draymond Green have both been spectacular for the Warriors, but they’ll steal votes from each other. The same goes for Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, with the San Antonio Spurs. Gobert has been a monster — but, again, his run started too late. So while the probable victor of this category may not be the most deserving, he does have a pretty momentous campaign already in motion.
Prediction: DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers
Rookie of the Year
Jabari Parker was in the lead for this award, until the Milwaukee Bucks’ forward of the future tore his ACL. Since then, Andrew Wiggins has been in the driver’s seat, and has had only a little resistance from a couple of guys in the backseat, reaching for the wheel: Elfrid Payton of the Orlando Magic, and the Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic. Both have come on strong at the end of the season, but neither has shown the sort of flashes of superstar brilliance on the level of Wiggins. His often sensational play has made some Cleveland Cavaliers fans regret their trade for Kevin Love, which just about says it all.
Prediction: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Coach of the Year
You couldn’t fault voters for going in any of two directions with this decision — only for taking any third option. Steve Kerr and his staff have transformed the Warriors from Western Conference playoff fodder into obvious favorites for the championship. Golden State has been historically impressive, outscoring the opposition by more then ten points per game on average. But Kerr’s competition, Mike Budenholzer, has pulled off an even more startling metamorphosis with the Atlanta Hawks. The world saw them as a fringe playoff team, but in 2014-15, they’ve been the only squad consistently on the Warriors’ elite, dominant level.
Prediction: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
Most Valuable Player
There’s a silver lining for Warriors fans if Steph Curry doesn’t win this award, and the rest of his team loses their races, too: extra motivation for a title run. Curry has been the NBA’s best player this season, but voters will favor the Houston Rockets’ bearded dynamo for appearing to do more with less. Dwight Howard has been out for much of the season, and the Rockets’ place high up in a toothy conference without him has been a surprise to many. James Harden has been incredible, but he’s also secretly benefitted from a ton of extra help on the wings, defensively — Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Trevor Ariza have all made life much easier for him. That’s not the popular story, however.
Prediction: James Harden, Houston Rockets
— John Wilmes