There aren’t many fringe benefits that come with a 66-game schedule, but one cool quirk is that All-Star Weekend is splitting the season almost exactly in half.
When the Lakers and Thunder wrap things up late Thursday night, all but six teams will have played half their games as the league takes a four-day break in Orlando, where the forecast is less than ideal.
Speaking of less than ideal forecasts, below are our midseason award winners, delivered with the complete understanding that “they don’t give out no prizes at halftime.”
And of course, also delivered with snotty remarks.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Donnie Nelson of the Mavericks and Masai Ujiri of the Nuggets get props for remaining competitive while overhauling their rosters. In a frenemy moment, they even helped each other.
Larry Bird could have grumbled about the amnesty clause being put in place as soon as Indiana’s five years of cap hell came to an end. Instead, he used it on James Posey, stole David West from the Celtics and maintained flexibility to extend All-Star Roy Hibbert and George Hill while popping for another free agent this summer.
Thus far, however, the winner has to be Clippers VP Neil Olshey, who pounced when David Stern vetoed the first Chris Paul trade (and gave up next to nothing for an MVP candidate), won the bid for Chauncey Billups and added frontcourt toughness with free agents Caron Butler, Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin. This is a darkhorse championship contender, folks.
SNOTTY REMARK: Sorry, commissioner, you’re not eligible.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Not an easy one. Do you lean toward culture changers? Doing more with less? Overall nightly acumen? At this point of the season, any parameter produces multiple candidates.
It’s nice to say you want your team to play “smashmouth basketball,” but Frank Vogel has the Pacers actually doing it. Meanwhile, Doug Collins has the 76ers playing for each other on offense, where they don’t have an alpha dog, and defense, where they lead the league without a rim protector.
Lionel Hollins has the Grizzlies in a playoff spot despite missing both his power forwards and having a pair of not-ready rookies as his backup point guard. And Rick Adelman has the Timberwolves jockeying for the postseason, even though his point guard can’t shoot, trade bait Luke Ridnour is his best 2-guard and his small forward slot has been abdicated.
But at this point, the leader may be Gregg Popovich. Manu Ginobili has played just nine games and Tim Duncan is a part-time player, but the Spurs have the NBA’s fourth-best record and suddenly are unbeatable on the road, where they couldn’t buy a win in the early going. Richard Jefferson has become a dead-eye shooter, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard can be trusted in crunch time, and the Spurs – thought to be too old to compete – are going to be an extremely tough out this spring.
SNOTTY REMARK: DeMarcus Cousins and Andray Blatche are neck-and-neck for Coach Killer of the Year.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Since 1996, Ron Artest is the only perimeter player who has won this award. But there are a handful of highly viable perimeter candidates this season in Tony Allen, Shawn Marion and Andre Iguodala. Among bigs, Anderson Varejao and Serge Ibaka have been difference-makers.
And when it comes to impacting the game on a nightly basis as a defender, none of them come anywhere close to Dwight Howard.
In addition to reclaiming the league lead in rebounding – which, if you recall, is how you finish a defensive stand – Howard discourages drives and protects the paint in a far more imposing and effective manner than any of the four players who are averaging more blocks. And he does it while taking the worst beating of any player at the offensive end and playing on a Magic squad that would stop next to no one without him.
SNOTTY REMARK: If you really want to see Howard’s defensive prowess, ask him about his trade demands.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Our thought process remains that it is much easier to make the jump from nobody to somebody, because it is usually facilitated by the trampolines of playing time and a coach’s confidence. Making the jump from somebody to star is much tougher. In that latter category are Marcin Gortat, Andrew Bynum, Ryan Anderson and James Harden, whose game has taken the biggest jump with the smallest boost of burn.
But Harden will be overlooked, because there are too many players in the former group and too many writers who too often default to the “little engine that could” when voting on this award. The difference is there is a truly deserving candidate this season.
While Byron Mullens, Alonzo Gee, Nikola Pekovic, Paul George and Greg Monroe all have made quantum leaps from last season, Jeremy Lin is in a category by himself. A year ago – heck, a month ago – Lin was a third-string point guard whose roster presence was as much novelty as necessity. Simply put, he has elevated his game to a level that saved the season for the Knicks.
There will be an inevitable return from the stratosphere, but as long as there isn’t too much burnoff on the re-entry, this award is Lin’s to lose.
SNOTTY REMARK: If the Clippers can sign Paul to an extension, Donald Sterling clinches Most Improved Payer.
SIXTH MAN AWARD: This award traditionally (and correctly) has gone to a member of a winning team, and there are plenty of folks who fit the bill. In addition, former winners Ginobili (injured), Lamar Odom (slumping) and Jamal Crawford (grumbling, and now starting) are most likely out of the picture, opening up the balloting.
While C.J. Watson, O.J. Mayo, Thaddeus Young and Mo Williams all deserve mention, they are probably a click below Jason Terry (another former winner) and Al Harrington (whose numbers will probably be impacted by the impending return of Wilson Chandler). And we believe those two are another click below Harden and Lou Williams.
Harden is highly intriguing, because in addition to leading all reserves in scoring, he adds a playmaking dynamic. There are times where Oklahoma City’s offense looks better with Harden initiating it rather than the speedy but sloppy Russell Westbrook.
But Harden is almost always sharing the floor with Westbrook, Kevin Durant or both, which makes his job much easier. Williams also makes plays for teammates and often has the added burden of go-to guy down the stretch, and handles it pretty well. According to 82games.com, which defines clutch time as under five minutes left with a margin of five points or less, Williams is the not the NBA’s most efficient reserve. He’s the NBA’s most efficient player.
SNOTTY REMARK: Betcha Stephen Jackson didn’t think he would be eligible for this award.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: While the overall rookie crop is not bad, the bigs are coming up mighty small. The best of the bunch has been Phoenix’s Markieff Morris, who averages a pedestrian 8.2 points and 5.0 rebounds. Sheesh.
On the flip side, all six newbies averaging double digits and 10 of the top 11 rookie scorers are guards. That list includes Kemba Walker, who probably has been surpassed in the overall race by Brandon Knight, who has a chance to be a spectacular player.
However, Knight is a distant third to two other floor generals who already are spectacular players – runner-up Ricky Rubio and midseason leader Kyrie Irving, who would have to fall on his face to lose this award. In addition to his 18.5 points and nearly 50 percent shooting, his steely nerve has lifted the Cavaliers out of laughingstock status.
SNOTTY REMARK: Derrick Williams says he’s now targeting Most Improved Player next year.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: No major award winner has ever changed teams during that season, although Larry Brown probably should have won Coach of the Year in 1991-92, when he was fired by San Antonio before guiding the Los Angeles Clippers to a 23-12 finish and their first playoff berth in 16 years.
But let’s say Howard continues to ring up 20-20 games and pushes Orlando to a 28-16 mark and a top-four seed in mid-March. On March 15, GM Otis Smith works a deal with New Jersey or Golden State for Howard, who racks up more 20-20 games as he lifts that team from a certain lottery slot to an eighth seed. Is he the MVP?
Probably not. But we love stirring the pot.
Howard, Kevin Love and the suddenly emerging Tony Parker are the only candidates who really don’t have a top-notch sidekick. Unlike my boss, however, I cannot entertain Love as a serious candidate unless the Wolves finish above .500 and make the playoffs. And Kobe Bryant’s remarkable individualism has the Lakers buoyant but not brilliant.
On a higher level, the smaller discussion includes Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and LeBron James, all of whom have strong arguments. Paul should and will get most of the credit for elevating the Clippers to elite status, where Durant’s Thunder and James’ Heat already resided.
Durant won’t win another scoring title, but his other numbers are up dramatically from last season. And his penchant for late-game heroics provides an alternative to the James haters, who become far more invasive and persuasive beginning in mid-April.
But James should have the award locked up by then, because he is tearing through the NBA the way wolves attack raw meat. Playing the fewest minutes of his career, he is shooting and rebounding better than ever. He has had bad quarters here and there, but really hasn’t had a true clunker game. And he has the Heat at the top of the NBA. The haters better hope he is peaking too early.
If you’d like a more simplistic argument, the season is eight weeks old, and James has won Player of the Week four times. If you’d prefer a more technical argument, his PER of 32.68 would be the best in NBA history.
SNOTTY REMARK: Javaris Crittenton is the runaway winner for Most Valuable Slayer.
Chris Bernucca is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear every Wednesday and Sunday. You can follow him on Twitter.