The 2019-20 NBA season is officially underway, which means the race for the end of season awards has begun, even if it’s not on anyone’s mind yet. The exception to this is James Harden — the MVP award is probably the first thing he thinks about when he wakes up in the morning and the last thing he thinks about before he dozes off to sleep and dreams about winning the MVP again.
Luckily for Harden, he will be among the favorites to win MVP again this year, but the field is as wide-open as its ever been with the NBA being as balanced as its been in years. The same can be said of every award, which is why we here at Dime have compiled a list of dark horse candidates for every individual honor the league gives out.
These are the players that weren’t on any preseason lists or betting favorites going into the season, but could feasibly sneak into the race as the season progresses. All odds are via Bovada, with a h/t to Odds Shark.
Rookie of the Year: Coby White (+1800)
More often than not, the Rookie of the Year award goes to the highest-scoring rookie at the end of the regular season. While Zion Williamson could still be that at the end of this year, the 30-40 games he’s expected to miss because of the torn meniscus he suffered in the preseason could hurt him a lot if someone emerges.
Naturally, the expectation is that the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, Ja Morant, will put forth a year worthy of Rookie of the Year honors, but there’s another crafty rookie point guard that could enter the conversation: Coby White.
Unlike Morant, White won’t be the starting point guard for his team to start the regular season, but he’s expected to get starters minutes and — most importantly — the green light off of the bench. With White running the Bulls’ second unit, he’ll be able to play to his strengths which, as of now, are scoring and sharing the ball. If his offensive production is part of the reason Chicago makes the postseason in the wide-open Eastern Conference, his case becomes even stronger.
Coach of the Year: Alvin Gentry (+2000)
After trading away six-time All-Star Anthony Davis in July, the New Orleans Pelicans weren’t expected to make the playoffs with their young roster this season. Then, in the preseason, the Pelicans went unbeaten thanks to a string of historically dominant performances from Williamson and some stellar coaching from Alvin Gentry.
A member of the coaching staff of the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns, Gentry likes to play fast, and he’ll get the opportunity to do just that with a young team featuring Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday, Brandon Ingram and, of course, Williamson. While Williamson is expected to be out until at least December, the Pelicans have the talent to stay afloat while their star rookie is out and Gentry is the perfect man to lead them.
If the Pelicans can hang around a .500 record while Williamson is sidelined, perhaps they’ll be able to sneak their way into the postseason once he gets healthy. And if they do that, Gentry should be on the shortlist for Coach of the Year at the end of the season.
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Simmons (+4000)
Ben Simmons is not a shooter, that much has been made clear since he entered the league in 2017. What Ben Simmons can do, though, is defend, and he’s really, really good at it. At 6’10, Simmons has the size and strength to defend positions 3-5, but he also has the mobility and discipline to defend guards. Outside of Draymond Green, there aren’t too many players that can do that.
The usual suspects — including two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard — will also be in the running for the award this season, but perhaps Gobert runs into the issue of voter fatigue, while Leonard will be on a load management plan that limits him during the regular season. Simmons’ Philadelphia 76ers teammate Joel Embiid has a great shot, too, but a combination of health issues and a new frontcourt mate in Al Horford could tilt the scales in Simmons’ favor.
The best defensive player on the best team in the Eastern Conference? That’s a strong case, and one Simmons has the chance to make this season.
Sixth Man of the Year: Derrick Rose (+1800)
In a lackluster Eastern Conference, the Detroit Pistons are expected to punch their second consecutive ticket to the postseason after a productive offseason in which they added Tony Snell, Markieff Morris and, most notably, Derrick Rose.
Rose had a bounce-back season with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season, averaging 18 points per game, the most he’s averaged since the 2016-17 season in nearly five less minutes per game. He also averaged a career-high 37 percent from behind the arc on 2.9 attempts per game. Before the All-Star break, he was averaging 40.2 percent from three-point range on 3.2 attempts per game.
With a shortage of reliable options at point guard, Rose will have free rein off the bench with the Pistons and one goal in mind: Put the ball in the basket. As long as Lou Williams is alive and breathing, there will be a favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award, but Rose could make the competition interesting if for no other reason than the fact that he’ll have the green light in Detroit.
Most Improved Player: Markelle Fultz (+4000)
Markelle Fultz may not live up to the hype of being the No. 1 pick in his first year with the Orlando Magic, but he has the chance to be solid under Magic head coach Steve Clifford. Given the hurdles Fultz has had to clear to get back to where he is, that should be enough to earn him consideration for the Sixth Man of the Year award, even if his numbers won’t be as jaw-dropping as other players in the field like Jayson Tatum.
Fultz’s case for Most Improved Player could become even stronger if he starts to look more comfortable at the end of the season and forces DJ Augustin out of the starting lineup. Again, his season averages might not be all that impressive, but all that matters is he consistently gives us reminders why he was such a highly-regarded prospect out of Washington.
Most Valuable Player: Damian Lillard (+2800)
After single-handedly dismantling the Oklahoma City Thunder with one of the most memorable postseason buzzer-beaters of all time, Damian Lillard’s star has never shined brighter. Now, he’ll have the opportunity to prove his dominant run in the postseason wasn’t just a fluke.
The Portland Trail Blazers won’t have the depth they had last season this season, so Lillard will have to share the burden offensively with his back court mate CJ McCollum. Fortunately for Blazers fans, it’s a burden Lillard is more than capable of baring.
Lillard has been among the top-15 scorers in the NBA in each of the last four seasons. This season, with more responsibility on offense, he could feasibly fight for a scoring title. Granted, the MVP isn’t given to the player that scores the most points like other awards are, but it would be a good starting point for Lillard’s campaign.
The biggest thing Lillard has going for him is his case to establish himself as the best point guard in the NBA. Stephen Curry has held the title for the last five years and he likely will again this season, but with the Golden State Warriors potentially on the outside looking in of the playoff race, Lillard could take the throne from Curry, even if it’s a conditional throne.
Lillard will be going up against some stiff competition from players on teams that are expected to be better than the Blazers, but voters love a good underdog story, and Lillard — a perennial underdog — leading Portland to another top-three seed and leading the league in scoring would be the perfect one.