The first quarter of the 2018-19 NBA season was an unpredictable — and turbocharged — ride. Pace was up, scoring reached peak levels for the post-Jordan era and the playoff pictures in both conferences remained murky at best, as would-be contenders such as Houston and Boston slumped and cellar-dwellers including Sacramento and Orlando surprised.
To help sort through this dizzying start, let’s examine the major award races and hand out some first-quarter hardware. These selections are solely meant to reflect games played through Wednesday, rather than as a projection of year-end winners. Here’s Part I, which touches on most valuable player, defensive player of the year, and coach of the year. Part II will include rookie of the year, sixth man of the year and most improved player. (Note: All stats and rankings through Dec. 4.)
Most valuable player
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo | 2. LeBron James | 3. Kevin Durant | 4. Joel Embiid | 5. Anthony Davis
While the NBA intelligentsia spent years fawning over “Unicorns” — centers who could protect the rim and shoot the three — an even rarer prototype emerged. Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo dunks, blocks and rebounds like a center, defends multiple positions like a versatile power forward, runs the court like a wing and, most importantly, runs an offensive juggernaut like a point guard. In the modern pace-and-space game, which is dominated by ballhandlers and creators, this combination of skills makes the 6-foot-11 Antetokounmpo the NBA’s Pegasus.
It’s taken years of gradual improvements for Antetokounmpo to transform from a raw project to a most improved player to an all-star and now to the early 2019 MVP leader. Finally fitted within a spaced offensive system that allows him to attack the paint at will, Antetokounmpo is producing superhuman results. His basic stat line (27.6 points, 13.2 rebounds, six assists per game) has never been matched in NBA history, and he ranks in the top-five in the league in scoring, rebounding, win shares and player efficiency rating. More importantly, his sensational individual play has translated to team success like never before: Milwaukee boasts the NBA’s top point differential and most efficient offense, and the oft-overlooked franchise is off to its best start since 1990-91.
Antetokounmpo’s great flaw is obvious: He has yet to master the three-pointer, shooting an anemic 11.5 percent on a career-high number of attempts after getting the green light from new Coach Mike Budenholzer. This hole might catch up with him in the playoffs, but he’s compensated brilliantly by doing more damage than ever in the basket area, shooting a whopping 80.1 percent from within three feet. Last year, Antetokounmpo ranked fifth in the NBA with 161 dunks. Through 22 games in Milwaukee’s new five-out offense, he had already dunked 99 times, putting him on pace to more than double last year’s output.
In turn, this constant threat to the rim has set up a devastating drive-and-kick game, with Milwaukee leading the league in three-point makes per game and Antetokounmpo averaging a career-high in assists. Through this combination of top-shelf finishing and high-efficiency shot creation for others, Antetokounmpo bends the conventional wisdom that modern star playmakers must be able to shoot.
LeBron James heads up the MVP chase pack, with typically excellent numbers (27.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 6.7 assisters per game), a fresh narrative as L.A.’s savior and a double-headed impact on winning. Consider: The Cavaliers are on track to win 18 games after winning 50 with James last year, while the Lakers are on pace for 49 wins this year after winning just 35 last year. Even the nit-pickers who point to James’s increasingly lax approach on defense must admit that there aren’t many players in NBA history who could potentially swing a combined 46 wins with a single summer decision.
Kevin Durant remains one of the league’s most complete, lethal and consistent talents, Joel Embiid has somehow emerged as an Ironman, and Anthony Davis has been as destructive as ever despite his team’s uneven start. After missing time early on, look for Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard to gain momentum in the MVP conversation as the season unfolds.
Defensive player of the year
1. Robert Covington | 2. Paul George | 3. Joel Embiid
Wings rarely win this award because it’s usually difficult for voters to argue that an elite perimeter player can match or surpass a top center when it comes to defensive impact. The vaunted “one-man defenses” of the past few years are almost always big men such as Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Embiid and Marc Gasol.
For now, Minnesota’s Robert Covington represents a fascinating counterexample. The 2018 all-defensive first team selection has helped transform the Timberwolves’ defense since he arrived in the Jimmy Butler trade in mid-November. Minnesota, which ranked 28th in defensive rating, has improved to second since Covington’s arrival. If Tom Thibodeau had a laboratory to create his dream players, Covington would make for a natural prototype: tireless, physical, smart, versatile and relentless. With teams playing faster and utilizing more positionless lineups this season, perhaps Covington will emerge as a new model for the defensive player of the year award as well.
Paul George and Embiid again are proving to be linchpins for stingy defenses in Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, respectively. Like last year, George ranks among the league’s leaders in steals and deflections for a Thunder defense that currently ranks first in the league, even though stopper Andre Roberson has yet to return from injury. Meanwhile, Embiid is one of the league’s leaders in rebounds and blocks for a 76ers unit that ranks seventh. Perhaps most impressively, the 7-foot center is averaging a career-high 34.5 minutes per game and has yet to miss a game.
Coach of the year
1. Mike Budenholzer | 2. Doc Rivers | 3. Dave Joerger
Milwaukee’s early success under Coach Mike Budenholzer should serve as a cold shower for fans and media who obsess over NBA free agency, spending countless hours previewing, predicting and then analyzing offseason player movement. Outside of James and Leonard, which summer additions can claim to have made a greater impact on their new organizations than Budenholzer?
The Bucks (15-7) have the look of a genuine contender thanks to a league-leading offense built around Antetokounmpo and a top 10 defense. While Budenholzer’s formula isn’t rocket science, it has been magical. By removing bodies from the paint and giving virtually everyone on the team the green light to shoot from deep, he’s overhauled the Bucks’ shot selection and freed Antetokounmpo to do what he does best. Budenholzer’s long coaching track record and recent success in Atlanta appear to have earned him instant respect in the Milwaukee locker room, which collectively appears more serious and more aligned than in years past.
Doc Rivers deserves credit for forging the anti-Clippers out of the wreckage of “Lob City.” With Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan all gone, the new-look Clippers (16-7) have hovered near the top of the standings and contradicted the franchise’s negative stereotypes. Instead of being held back by interpersonal clashes and lapses in intensity, the other Los Angeles team is ego-free and endlessly energetic. Instead of building with a top-heavy roster construction, the Clippers are deep, coming at opponents in waves and with the league’s top bench. And instead of relying on injury-prone cornerstones, the Clippers have so far enjoyed excellent health and game-to-game lineup continuity. A favorable schedule has helped, but Rivers has L.A. looking like a surprise playoff team.
A Tuesday night blowout of the Suns served as a nice milepost for the Kings’ progress under Dave Joerger. Expected by most analysts to battle Phoenix for the Western Conference’s worst record, Sacramento (12-11) has scratched out a winning record despite an incredibly young roster and more than a decade of recent futility. Joerger has been rewarded for turning over the keys to De’Aaron Fox and ratcheting up the pace, as the Kings have compensated for a forgettable wing core and a mishmash of young big men through sheer speed and electricity. The 44-year-old coach also deserves bonus points for degree of difficulty, given reports that a member of Sacramento’s front office has been angling for Joerger’s ouster.