NBA Awards Watch: Who are the new leaders for MVP, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year?

The NBA Pacific Division is fascinating from a futures perspective.

Last season, this division gave us the team with the best record in the NBA in the Suns, whose 64-18 record was a full eight games better than any other team in the NBA and 11 games better than the second place team in the division... the Warriors, the team that would win the 2021-22 NBA Championship.

Add in the Clippers, who everyone has been waiting on to pop since they paired Kawhi Leonard and Paul George four seasons ago, and the Pacific was expected to be absolutely loaded and extremely close at the top. You know, much like the AFC West in the NFL.

Instead, more than halfway through the season, the only team in the division with a winning record is the Sacramento Kings, who are currently operating on the longest NBA playoffs drought of all time with 16 seasons (and counting?).

And of course, bringing up the rear are the Lakers, whose season ended in the first month when they got out the gates with five straight losses and a 2-10 record through November 9. The Lakers entered the season with obvious flaws like lack of shooting, redundant ball-dominant talent, and aging/injury-prone superstars. Outside of watching LeBron James walk down Kareem Abdul Jabbar's record for most points in NBA history, there's no reason to pay attention to them at all... wait, did you say they're only five games back?

And there-in lies the most intriguing angle for me, when I look at the Futures for this division: it is absolutely anybody's division to win. Here are the current odds to win the division according to Caesars Sportsbook, as well as how our Basketball Power Index (BPI) evaluates the teams at present and how many games back (GB) from first place each team at present:

Let's unpack. This list is in order of their BPI score. BPI has proven very effective at accurately estimating team caliber, particularly when projecting wins on a game-to-game basis. One of the strengths of BPI is that it builds from individual player impact (as measured by Real Plus Minus, RPM), and is thus agile in the face of injury.

Stephen Curry always measures out as one of the highest impact players in the league, particularly for what his presence and shot-making wizardry is able to do for a team offense, so it's not surprising that his return has boosted the Warriors back to the top of these rankings.

Similar story with the Clippers, now that Leonard and George are both back on the team as far as BPI is concerned. And, I'd agree that both the Warriors and Clippers have a higher ceiling than the Kings, who are playing well and lead the division but haven't had to deal with the injuries that either of the other four teams have.

But, what of the Suns? Their BPI is low, in large part because current injuries to best players Devin Booker and Chris Paul depress their score. But Booker, Paul, Cameron Johnson and Cameron Payne are all expected to return this month. This Suns team won 78% of their games last season with largely the same core. If they were to get healthy with 30 games to play, and go back to winning at that pace, they would still be on pace for 49 wins this season.

The division-leading Kings are currently on 47-win pace. So, with the fourth-longest odds in the division, the Suns could end up being a value play.

But the most intriguing, potentially highest value play in the bunch might just be the Lakers at +1500. After that 2-10 start, the Lakers have won at a 56% clip that is roughly equivalent to the 57% clip that the Kings have managed.

But, that time window includes an almost 2-week injury absence from LeBron in November and a one-month (and counting) absence from Anthony Davis from mid-December to present. Davis is scheduled to return early next month, and both he and LeBron have played at MVP levels for extended stretches this season.

Add in how effective Russell Westbrook has been since embracing the sixth man role, and if (huge, monster 'if') their main guys can stay healthy for the last two-plus months of the season, I'm quietly not sure that the Lakers shouldn't be considered the favorite to win right now, despite their current placement. On FanDuel, their odds to win are even longer at 20:1...could be worth a longshot flyer, with the way this season has gone on the West Coast.

Now, let's take an early look at how the Awards races look at this point in the season.

Most Valuable Player

Nikola Jokic (+130)

In the hunt
Luka Doncic (+225)
Jayson Tatum (+450)

Long shots of interest
Joel Embiid (+1000)
Ja Morant (+3000)
LeBron James (+15,000)

Two-time defending MVP Nikola Jokic has moved into the lead in the odds race, setting up what would be a surprising third win in a row with a nightly brilliance that can't be ignored. Jokic had led the Nuggets to the best record in the West so far, just a game behind the Celtics for best record in the NBA. He continues to be a nightly triple-double threat that puts up eye-popping stat lines (like his 40/27/10 triple-double last month) on the regular, and he remains third in our RPM stat to indicate that his presence on the court still correlates with as many wins for his team as the top players in the league.

Tatum and Doncic are 1-2 in the NBA in RPM at the moment. Tatum continues to lead the team with the best record in the league, and has even more on his plate of late with Jaylen Brown sidelined. Doncic is the only player in the league putting up more eye-popping stats than Jokic (60/20/10 triple-double!?), but the Mavs being further down the standings hurts his case.

On the longshot front, Morant is currently 30-1 despite him leading the Grizzlies to within a half-game of the Nuggets' record. If he's able to get the Grizz into a clear first place position and his own scoring average up closer to 30 PPG (he's at 30.1 PPG in the ten games since Christmas), Morant could make himself a stronger contender for the award in the second half of the season.

LeBron earns a mention because he's a whopping 150-1, but as I laid out above, it's possible the Lakers could get back into the race to win the Pacific. If LeBron were able to lead them to a shocking division win while averaging anywhere near the 32 PPG, 8 RPG and 7 APG that he's posted in his last 23 games, and oh-by-the-way breaking the biggest record in NBA history on the way, he'd at least get mentioned.

But, my biggest dark horse for MVP is Joel Embiid. Embiid has been second to Jokic in each of the last two MVP votes, and he currently has the 76ers within 4.5 games of the best record in the NBA. Considering the unofficial impediment of "the culture" to Jokic winning a third straight MVP without having ever won a ring, and that Embiid is also posting remarkable stat lines nightly and may have a bit of "it's his turn" sentiment, and I like him to make a hard charge for this award down the stretch.

Rookie of the Year

Paolo Banchero (-1200)

In the hunt
Bennedict Mathurin (+800)

Longer shot
Jaden Ivey (+3,000)

The odds here have moved to the extreme. Barring injury, Banchero will be the runaway Rookie of the Year selection. And if he maintains for another month or so, even injury might not be enough to derail him. Shaping up toward a potential unanimous vote. Mathurin and Ivey are still playing well, though, and should be First Team All Rookie selections if they maintain their pace.

Defensive Player of the Year

Jaren Jackson Jr. (-160)

In the hunt
Brook Lopez (+500)
Nic Claxton (+900)

Longer shot
O.G. Anunoby (+1600)
Bam Adebayo (+1800)
Evan Mobley (+2200)

There has been a shakeup at the top in the last month, with Jaren Jackson Jr. returning from injury to anchor a Grizzlies' that has the best team defensive rating in the NBA. He is also blocking 3.3 shots per game, which would lead the league if he had enough games to be eligible, and he led the league in blocks last season. That's probably a more important stat to the voters than the fact that he only ranks a respectable but not dominant 11th in Defensive RPM on the season.

Nic Claxton has jumped into the race by leading the NBA in blocked shots on an upstart Nets defense that helped make them the hottest team in the NBA before Kevin Durant's injury, and he ranks seventh in DRPM.

Adebayo and Mobley may have the best overall cases, with Adebayo sporting the fifth-best DRPM score and Mobley the third-best on teams with the fifth and second-best team defensive ratings in the league. Mobley, in fact, likely has the best individual case for the award, but the presence of teammate Jarrett Allen (also +2200 to win) may split the vote and keep him from getting the credit he deserves for what has been a remarkable defensive season to date.

Sixth Man of the Year

Russell Westbrook (-165)

In the hunt
Jordan Poole (+450)
Malcolm Brogdon (+400)

Longer shot
Bobby Portis (+2500)
Christian Wood (+7500)
Immanuel Quickley (+7500)

Westbrook has grabbed hold of this race in the last month, moving to odds-on favorite status and expanding the gap with Poole.

Brogdon has moved up a bit recently, particularly with how he's performed since Jaylen Brown's injury.

Portis is a nightly double-double who is carrying more responsibility with the Bucks' frontcourt injuries, and Quickley has stepped up as a big spark plug off the bench for a surprisingly successful Knicks squad.

But keep an eye on Wood. His odds are so long because he has started in recent weeks and may not end up eligible for the award. But, keep in mind, Wood didn't move into the starting lineup until Dorian Finney-Smith goth injured, and Finney-Smith is expected back soon. There are five Mavericks with a higher start percentage than Wood's 16 starts in 41 games, and if Wood does remain eligible, his 18.3 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.8 3PG and 1.2 BPG on a likely playoffs-bound Mavericks squad could make him much more competitive for this award than 75-1 would suggest.

Most Improved Player

Lauri Markkanen (-110)

In the hunt
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (+100)
Jalen Brunson (+1400)

Longer shot
Tyrese Haliburton (+1800)
Desmond Bane (+8000)
Anfernee Simons (+10000)
Tyrese Maxey (+3000)
Anthony Edwards (+10000)

Along with MVP, this is probably the most competitive award on the board. There are a series of amazing candidates in the midst of huge breakout seasons, currently led by new odds-on favorite Lauri Markkanen. Markkanen has averaged 30.3 PPG and 9.4 RPG in his last month of play, and has a Jazz team that was expected to lead the Wembanyama sweepstakes in postseason contention.

SGA also continues to put up All NBA numbers on a game Thunder squad that would be in the play-in tournament if the season ended today. Brunson is putting up MVP numbers since the calendar flipped to 2023, averaging 31.6 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 5.3 APG for a Knicks team currently in the playoffs, not even the play-in.

Haliburton was in a prime position as the NBA leader in assists on a Pacers team in the postseason race, but his recent injury pushed him down this list. Injury also derailed Desmond Bane, who was averaging more than 28 PPG when he got injured in December and is just rounding into shape after his return. But, keep an eye on Anthony Edwards, who is playing through injury but has yet to miss a game.

Edwards' Timberwolves are also in postseason position, and if he can get them into the playoffs while averaging near the 26.6 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 5.1 APG he's posted in the last month he has much better than 100-1 odds even in this crowded field.