This article is part of our Handicapping the NBA series.
Julius Randle for Most Improved Player (+600) – BetMGM
Jerami Grant is the significant favorite at -200, but he's trailed off lately. Over his past nine appearances, he's shot just 38.1 percent from the field has committed more turnovers (2.9) than assists (2.7) per game. The Pistons are also an abysmal 10-26, which could weigh into the award discussion. Detroit may try to get even worse at the trade deadline. The Pistons being bad isn't Grant's fault, but it's also important to keep in mind voters hate nuance as much as they hate losing teams. They also love narrative, and Grant and the Pistons are very dull.
Considering Randle is playing in the New York market, and the Knicks are shocking the world (one game over .500), it's surprising his odds aren't shorter. He's unquestionably the best player on the team, and he's been steady all season with averages of 23.2 points on 17.2 shots, 11.1 rebounds and 5.5 assists to 3.2 turnovers. His leap isn't as dramatic as Grant's, who went from a role player to a No. 1 option, but Randle's feels more meaningful. I'm not entirely convinced Randle will win it, but 6-to-1 odds is good value. My main concern is that the city might burn to the ground if he wins.
LaMelo Ball for Rookie of the Year (-500) – DraftKings and BetMGM
Betting on heavy favorites is for nerds and squares, but sometimes you just have to slide in the pocket protector and bet $500 to profit $100.
First off, Tyrese Haliburton is very good and is unquestionably the second-best rookie in the class. But the Kings (14-22) suck – anyone with a worse record than the Thunder, who are trying to lose games, deserve that label – and Haliburton has negative flair. He doesn't have elite athleticism, he doesn't break anyone's ankles or throw crazy passes, and he has your uncle's jumpshot form.
Should flair matter when talking about Rookie of the Year, or any award not handed out by Bleacher Report? No, of course not. But, when Haliburton's only competition for the award is putting up gaudier numbers and is the flashiest player since White Chocolate Jason Williams, style just plays a factor.
LaMelo Ball's last 16 games:
- 21.1 points on 48/46/87 shooting
- 6.8 assists in 3.2 turnovers
- 6.1 rebounds (1.5 offensive)
- 1.9 steals
- Hornets go 9-7 with wins over Milwaukee, Miami, Golden State, Phoenix
At this point, it would take a historic meltdown by LaMelo and/or historic development from Haliburton for the latter to win the award. I'm just not going to bet on that happening.
Jordan Clarkson for Sixth Man of the Year (-333) – BetMGM
The other candidates for this award are:
- Eric Gordon (+750) – Houston sucks.
- Chris Boucher (+1,000) – Toronto is underwhelming, and he's inconsistent.
- Goran Dragic (+1,400) – Miami is underwhelming, and he's missed 14 games already.
- Terrence Ross (+1,800) – Only on this list because he comes off the bench and averages 15 points
The argument for Clarkson is crystal clear. He's the driving force off the bench for the best team in the NBA. He's averaging the second-most points on the Jazz (17.9) and doing it efficiently. That's in addition to a positive assist-to-turnover ratio and solid rebounding for a guard. Also working in his favor is the fact that only two big men have won the award over the past 10 years. Last year, Montrezl Harrell won it, but he's out of contention this season because he's playing definitively worse. And in 2010-11, Lamar Odom won. Aside from that, it's always the small, quick scoring guard.
I also think consistency is essential for this award. Voters don't want to give the nod to someone, like Boucher, for example, who puts up 23 points one night and eight points the next. Clarkson has scored in single-digits just once (!) this season, and that was way back on New Year's Day. It was also the closest you can be to double-digits (nine points). He also has a 40-point game to his name this season.
Indiana Pacers to make the playoffs (-195)
The Pacers hit a brick wall after having extended time off due to game postponements. Heading into the All-Star break, Indiana went just 1-5, with their only win being a three-point win over the Cavaliers, who are starting Dean Wade – yes, that Dean Wade. (I actually have no idea who he is, but I'm hoping diehard college basketball fans will be shocked that he's starting for an NBA team).
I think the break will give Indiana a nice chance to regroup – please ignore that a break caused them to go on a losing streak. One wrinkle to consider is that Caris LeVert is hopeful to make his team debut this month after undergoing surgery for left kidney carcinoma. He'll instantly become either the third- or fourth-best available player on the team, depending on how you feel about Myles Turner. Plus, T.J. Warren could return in mid-April, which would help with a playoff push.
The Pacers are 10th in the standings, but the middle of the East is expansive. Indiana is just 2.5 games back of the fourth-place Celtics. Ultimately, I think the Pacers have the talent and experience to make it into the playoffs, and -195 feels like a good number.