Bernucca: Handing Out Our Midseason Awards

Martin Luther King Day is more than  a day of celebration and reflection for the NBA, which probably has done MLKmore positive things for race relations than any other sport in the Civil Rights Era.

It also has become the unofficial midway point of the season. By the completion of Monday’s action, more than half of the league’s 30 teams will have played half their games.

With that in mind, we present our midseason awards with this reminder from the bookie of hopeless degenerate James Caan in the grossly underrated 1974 film The Gambler: They don’t give out no prizes at halftime.

However, with our midseason awards, we do give out snarky remarks.

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: As much as Boston’s Danny Ainge, Philadelphia’s Sam Hinkie and Utah’s Dennis Lindsey have done to dramatically enhance their team’s long-term outlook, this is an annual award based primarily on improvement, not future flexibility or the squirreling of assets.

That narrows the field to Toronto’s Masai Ujiri, Portland’s Neil Olshey, Houston’s Daryl Morey, Golden State’s Bob Myers and Phoenix’s Ryan McDonough, a rookie GM who somehow is in this paragraph even though he was trying to be in the one above it.

If the Suns somehow make the playoffs, McDonough might just win it. But right now we believe the winner is Olshey, whose offseason acquisitions of Mo Williams, Robin Lopez, Dorell Wright, Thomas Robinson and rookie C.J. McCollum – at a total cost of Jeff Withey, cash, two Eurostashes and three second-rounders – have boosted an awful bench and helped the Blazers make a quantum leap from lottery to elite.

Of course, the trading deadline could change the picture.

SNARKY REMARK: Steve Mills is on the verge of having Knicks fans longing for the glory days of Isiah Thomas.

200px-Brad_Stevens_on_Butler_sidelineCOACH OF THE YEAR: Thirteen teams – thirteen! – changed coaches prior to this season, and nine hired head coaching rookies. Among that group is Boston’s Brad Stevens, who is doing his darnedest to disprove one of our long-standing beliefs: The NBA is no place for a college coach.

Also among that group is Phoenix’s Jeff Hornacek, who was expected to amass losses while his GM amassed draft picks. His best big man was traded during training camp. His most experienced player was returning from a life-threatening heart ailment. His two most skilled players played the same position. The only impact his lottery pick has made thus far was on Nick Young. And if the playoffs started today, the Suns would be in.

It will be a tremendous challenge for Phoenix to remain in the playoff picture without Eric Bledsoe. They are 7-9 without him, and there is no timetable for his return. But the Suns already have 23 wins, which is about what we had them with for the entire season.

SNARKY REMARK: With his preseason DWI arrest, Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer wrapped up Coach of the Beer.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: There are a whole bunch of candidates who have gotten better with increased minutes and responsibility, such as Jeremy Lamb, Reggie Jackson, Terrence Jones, Jon Leuer, Jared Sullinger, Tony Wroten, Khris Middleton, Mike Scott, Isaiah Thomas and about half the roster of the aforementioned Suns, including Bledsoe, Miles Plumlee, P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins.

And then there’s a whole bunch of candidates who already were good and have gotten better, such as John Wall, Arron Afflalo, Stephen Curry, Goran Dragic, Kemba Walker, Avery Bradley, Gordon Hayward, Evan Turner, Thaddeus Young, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond and Paul George, who won last season.

George won’t win this again, even though he should. With his minutes down a click, his scoring is up more than six points per game, his shooting has improved dramatically and his defense has remained at an elite level.

Indiana PacersSo if the writers won’t give George the award, perhaps they should give it to his teammate. In less than a year, Lance Stephenson has gone from inconsistent wild card to All-Star. Yes, All-Star. He leads the NBA in triple-doubles and is second on the Pacers in scoring (13.9) and rebounding (6.8) while leading them in assists (5.2). He also is among the league leaders in defensive rating and win shares, but we’ll get to that later.

SNARKY REMARK: Least Improved Player is a two-man race between Ricky Rubio and Iman Shumpert.

SON OF SNARKY REMARK: J.R. Smith is the runaway leader for Most Impugned Player.

SIXTH MAN AWARD: It’s hard to win this award if your team stinks (Nick Young) or you are a frontcourt Crawfordplayer. However, there are some forwards in the mix, including Danny Granger, Harrison Barnes, Taj Gibson, the Phoenix pairing of Gerald Green and Markieff Morris and the Washington duo of Nene and Martell Webster.

There is another terrific two-headed monster in San Antonio, where Manu Ginobili (13.0 ppg, 4.6 apg, 21.3 PER) and Marco Belinelli (11.0 ppg, NBA-best .496 on threes) may cancel each other out.

However, we believe this is currently a two-man race, with Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who leads the NBA – not bench players, the entire NBA – in fourth-quarter points, holding a slight edge over Blazers guard Mo Williams, whose savvy at both backcourt positions has given that team a dramatic boost.

SNARKY REMARK: Betcha O.J. Mayo, Greivis Vasquez and Chris Kaman didn’t think they would be eligible for this award.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: One of the nice things about analytics is that they have created concrete numbers to evaluate defense. One of the bad things about analytics is that they have created concrete numbers to evaluate defense.

For example, the Pacers have the top three players – and their starting five in the top 10 – in defensive rating. Does that mean David West is really a more impactful defender than DeAndre Jordan or Serge Ibaka? No. It means Indiana’s primary unit plays better collective defense than any other unit.

Paul George is third in defensive rating (behind Roy Hibbert and West) and leads in defensive win shares, which is impressive for a guy who draws the opponent’s top scoring wing and still plays the other end of the floor. George is the pick right now, although Clippers center Jordan is tops in rebounds, third in blocks, seventh in rating and second in win shares. Those are Dwight Howard numbers when he was winning this award, and Jordan is getting better.

SNARKY REMARK: Imagine how bad the Lakers’ defense would be if Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash were healthy.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: This draft class has been an utter embarrassment thus far – the Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 6 picks have scored a combined 133 points – but there is a three-player race that should come down to the end of the season.

Philadelphia’s Michael Carter-Williams has had the most wow factor but has been a bit fragile. Orlando’s Victor Oladipo began as a starter, was moved to the bench and is now starting again in an extremely small lineup.

But Utah’s Trey Burke has been the most consistent. Throw out Burke’s first three games after he came back from a broken finger suffered in training camp, and the Jazz are 13-14 and have not lost consecutive games since mid-December.

georgelebronSNARKY REMARK: Nerlens Noel said he is having a better rookie season than Anthony Bennett.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Although things can change, IMHO there are currently four players in the MVP conversation – Tony Parker, Paul George, Kevin Durant and You Know Who.

Parker’s numbers don’t compare to the others, but his ability to take over down the stretch for the Spurs and win games by himself does. George is the unquestioned alpha dog on the league-best Pacers and the best two-way player this season. Durant’s campaign might actually be enhanced by the injury to Russell Westbrook if the Thunder can maintain their 8-5 pace without him.

And then there’s You Know Who. There’s been talk that You Know Who is coasting – except the Heat are one game ahead of last season’s pace despite dropoffs from Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen. And You Know Who’s numbers are down a bit – except his shooting, which is off the charts. And hey, You Know Who doesn’t even lead in PER!

You can give the award to whomever you want. But LeBron James owns this league, and everyone else is just paying rent.

SNARKY REMARK: Every owner under the luxury tax threshold agrees that Mikhail Prokhorov is Most Valuable Payer.

TRIVIA: Prior to Jared Sullinger’s 25-20 outburst Wednesday, who was the last member of the Boston Celtics to collect 25 points and 20 rebounds in a game? Answer below.

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    • says

      He probably is right now, Rob, and thanks for reading. But he was the MVP at the midway point last season, too. And he’s not the best player. He is a distant No. 2 to LeBron James.

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