One of the biggest knocks against the NBA is that when the season starts, there are only five or six teams that can truly win the championship, making the regular season and the early playoff rounds interminably tedious.
Not this season.
As we reach the midway point – 18 teams have played at least 41 games, another nine have played 40 – there are no less than a dozen teams with legitimate title aspirations, including a handful that haven’t been in the discussion in decades.
One of those teams is the Washington Wizards. And a guy who knows a little bit about winning championships believes the Wizards are in the picture.
“Why not?” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I don’t think anybody is that great. Golden State looks different from everybody because of their record, I guess. But still I think anybody can beat anybody else, top 10 or 12 teams in the league. It is anybody’s ballgame.”
Many of the individual awards are still up for grabs as well. Here’s a look at the leaders at the halfway mark, complete with snotty remarks.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: There’s no shortage of GMs who have been active since July 1, including several who have been behaving as if the trading deadline was in January rather than February. With all of the in-season movement thus far and certainly more to come, a clear-cut winner probably won’t emerge until April.
Among those who have been most active, Donnie Nelson of Dallas (Tyson Chandler trade, Chandler Parsons signing, Rajon Rondo trade) and Daryl Morey of Houston (Replacing Parsons with Trevor Ariza, trading for Corey Brewer, signing Josh Smith) have done very well. But perhaps less is more.
In addition to conference leaders Golden State and Atlanta doing very little, the subtletly of Portland’s Neil Olshey (Chris Kaman and Steve Blake to fortify a weak bench) and Washington’s Ernie Grunfeld (Paul Pierce, Kris Humphries and Rasual Butler to add veteran voices) has been outstanding.
PRESEASON PICK: David Griffin of Cleveland, who landed the two biggest fish of the offseason but is still casting his line.
SNOTTY REMARK: Sixers GM Sam Hinkie said he had a handshake deal that he had won this award.
COACH OF THE YEAR: You can make arguments for Houston’s Kevin McHale, who has carried out Morey’s analytic map; Toronto’s Dwane Casey, who has cultivated a legitimate 10-deep roster; and Milwaukee’s Jason Kidd, who apparently is better with youngsters than with veterans.
The media’s bigger voices will advance the cause of Golden State’s eminently likable Steve Kerr, a rookie coach who certainly deserves some consideration for making the offense more liquid. But if you factor in the conventional wisdom of preseason expectations, no one is close to Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer, who has transformed a team without a superstar into a monster.
PRESEASON PICK: David Blatt. Boy, I nailed that one, hunh?
SNOTTY REMARK: If owner Vivek Ranadive really wants the Kings to play like his daughter’s youth league team, I am available to coach.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: The glitzy pick is Pelicans big man Anthony Davis, who is first in blocks, ninth in rebounds, 24th in steals, 12th in defensive win shares and first in ESPN highlights. But right now, there are at least two better choices.
In the absence of Andrew Bogut, combo forward Draymond Green has become the defensive anchor for the Warriors. He is 18th in blocks and 19th in steals, but more importantly is first in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. And can we please talk about Tim Duncan? At 38 years old and 31 minutes per game, he is 12th in rebounds, sixth in blocks, second in defensive rating and fifth in defensive win shares.
PRESEASON PICK: DeAndre Jordan, who is first in rebounds, second in blocks, fourth in defensive win shares and certainly still in the running.
SNOTTY REMARK: Nerlens Noel might be in the discussion if he got to play against the Sixers.
SIXTH MAN AWARD: The majority of this season’s best reserves come from units with more than one viable option off the bench. The only top candidates who have been riding solo this season are two-time winner Jamal Crawford of the Clippers and sniper Ryan Anderson of the Pelicans, both averaging better than 15 points per game for teams with otherwise awful benches.
Among those from deeper bench units, the standouts include Bulls forward Taj Gibson, Thunder guard Reggie Jackson, Suns guard Isaiah Thomas, Raptors guard Lou Williams, Spurs guard Manu Ginobili, Warriors forward Marreese Speights and Kaman, whose numbers (9.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg) don’t really reflect how indispensable he has been for the Blazers.
Right now, the winner is Speights, whose career highs of 12.6 points and 52 percent shooting with 5.2 rebounds are being done in a scant 18.9 minutes with a stratospheric PER of 21.50. This is by far the best he has ever played. It will be interesting to see if he can maintain it.
PRESEASON PICK: Andre Iguodala, who isn’t even the best candidate on his own team.
SNOTTY REMARK: Betcha Deron Williams didn’t think he’d be eligible for this award.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: This category never has any shortage of candidates. A cursory look at the league’s sophomores reveals Shabazz Muhammad, Robert Covington, Ben McLemore, Solomon Hill, Rudy Gobert and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who were virtually lost as rookies.
In any other season, Green would be running away with this award. In addition to his defensive impact, all of his offensive numbers are career highs. His nine double-doubles are more than Serge Ibaka or Chris Bosh. And he is the only player in the top 20 in steals and blocks.
However, Bulls guard Jimmy Butler had this locked up before Christmas. In one more minute per game than last season, his scoring is up 7.5 points to better than 20 per game, adding a more consistent 3-pointer and a previously unseen post attack while sacrificing none of his dogged defensive posture.
PRESEASON PICK: Gorgui Dieng, whose improvement should have been better given Nikola Pekovic’s prolonged absence.
SNOTTY REMARK: For his part in keeping the Hawks in Atlanta, Kasim Reed won Most Improved Mayor.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Injuries to Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle made this a one-player race. The Chicago media will try to make it a two-player race by extolling the virtues of Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic, who does deserve some credit for becoming a contributing member of rookie-phobic coach Tom Thibodeau. But the truth is Mirotic is averaging less points per game than Andrew Wiggins’ rookie teammate.
We thought Wiggins would become a nightly 20-point scorer, but not this quickly. Minnesota’s multitude of injuries expedited his elevation to go-to guy, and the kid has handled it pretty well. Cleveland is going to regret trading Wiggins for a long time.
PRESEASON PICK: Nerlens Noel, who has trouble both scoring and rebounding in the same game.
SNOTTY REMARK: After signing a partnership deal with the NBA, FanDuel is Bookie of the Year.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: The best thing about 10 to 12 teams having a shot at the title is that there are almost as many MVP candidates. Cases can easily be made for Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. There’s also this guy in Cleveland averaging 26.0 points, 7.4 assists and 5.5 rebounds.
There are two players above that group – attack guards James Harden of Houston and Stephen Curry of Golden State, who are neck and neck. Harden has the edge in production; Curry has the edge in efficiency. Harden has less around around him; Curry has the better team. Both commit the amount of turnovers associated with their sheer volume; both are among the league leaders in steals and have taken necessary steps on the defensive end.
Here’s a message to my boss and the other voters. If you’re gonna vote for Curry, don’t do it because Golden State has become the darling team this season. Do it because you believe he deserves it.
PRESEASON PICK: James. Don’t count him out. In case you’ve forgotten, he’s still the game’s best player.
SNOTTY REMARK: If Harden wins the MVP, will the Kool-Aid drinkers in Oklahoma City finally admit it was a bad trade?
TRIVIA: Two teams have beaten conference leaders Golden State and Atlanta this season. Who are they? Answer below.
THE END OF CIVILIZATION AS WE KNOW IT: Former player and Turner Sports analyst Greg Anthony, whose Twitter page says “I truly have only one job … proud father,” may shortly have only that job following his indefinite suspension from Turner and CBS Sports after he was reportedly arrested in Washington for soliciting a prostitute.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: President Barack Obama, speaking to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs during their White House visit:
“If you guys need any tips on winning back to back, you know where to find me.”
TANKS A LOT!: With the dust finally settling at Danny Ainge’s Causeway Street Flea Market, here’s the final tally: The Boston Celtics have as many as eight extra future first-round picks, six extra second-round picks, potentially five waived players and seven players on rookie contracts. They are also one game in the loss column out of the final playoff spot in the East.
LINE OF THE WEEK: Mo Williams, Minnesota at Indiana, Jan. 13: 44 minutes, 19-33 FGs, 6-11 3-pointers, 8-9 FTs, four rebounds, seven assists, three turnovers, 52 points in a 110-101 win. In scoring the most points in a game this season, Williams established a career high and a franchise record – surpassing the 51 shared by Kevin Love and Corey Brewer – as he virtually singlehandedly snapped Minnesota’s 15-game losing streak.
LINE OF THE WEAK: Solomon Hill, Indiana at Charlotte, Jan. 17: 32 minutes, 0-1 FGs, 0-0 3-pointers, 0-0 FTs, four rebounds, two assists, zero steals, zero blocks, one turnover, three fouls, zero points in an 80-71 overtime loss. It was the lowest-scoring overtime game of the shot clock era, and Hill was a major contributor.
TRILLION WATCH: The heroes of zeros got off to a slow start this week until a flurry of trillions Wednesday, led by Grizzlies forward Jon Leuer’s 4 trillion Wednesday at Brooklyn which fully illustrated the need for Jeff Green. At the halfway mark, the season leader remains Lakers guard Xavier Henry, who had a 9 trillion at Golden State on Nov. 1.
GAME OF THE WEEK: Oklahoma City at Washington, Jan. 21. A good game, for sure, with Russell Westbrook matched up against John Wall in a battle of relentless point guards. But also a pot-stirrer for ESPN, with the Thunder scrambling to make the playoffs, Kevin Durant playing in his hometown and his free agency 17 months away.
GAME OF THE WEAK: Brooklyn at Sacramento, Jan. 21. The Nets have lost eight of nine. The Kings haven’t won consecutive games since Mike Malone was their coach. And has any game ever had more players undeserving of max contracts?
TWO MINUTES: When it comes to shooters in this league, there is Kyle Korver, and there is everyone else. Cory Joseph is the only small shooting better from the field than Korver’s 51.5 percent. No one is shooting better from the arc than Korver’s 53.6 percent. In fact, no one is within 50 percentage points. And only Jerryd Bayless and Nick Young are shooting free throws better than Korver’s 92 percent. Korver is on pace to become the first player with a 50-50-90 season while qualifying for all three categories. His adjusted field-goal percentage of .708 trails only dunker DeAndre Jordan and is 124 points better than Stephen Curry, the next small on the list. It’s not even close, folks. … The season is only half over, and the Pelicans already have road losses to Denver, Indiana, Charlotte, Boston and Philadelphia. When they miss the playoffs, this will be the reason why. … OK, so Suns forward Markieff Morris has been kind of a tool lately. First off, he is second in the NBA with nine technical fouls, trailing only Russell Westbrook. After getting T’d up in a game last week, coach Jeff Hornacek questioned his emotions, and Morris responded with a series of loud expletives in the bench area that forced teammates and assistants to step in and separate the men. Morris later apologized – on Twitter, and not to Hornacek. Then after scoring a career-high 35 points in Tuesday’s win over Cleveland, Morris blew off reporters in the locker room, refusing to speak. … Since leaving the Magic, Dwight Howard is 67 percent (35-of-52) from the line in Orlando and 52 percent (814-of-1,567) everywhere else. … The arrival of Dion Waiters in Oklahoma City has raised questions about the role of supersub Reggie Jackson, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer and has said he wants to be a starter. Kevin Durant said he’s not holding anybody’s hand. “We’re all professionals here, man,” Durant told the Oklahoman. “We know the nature of this game. This is not day care. We’re not babying anybody here. We all know that Reggie is such a good professional … he knows that. He knows how to come to work every single day. And he knows that him and Dion are going to have to play together. And Dion knows that. So we’re not spending any of our energy on that type of stuff because this is a professional game. It’s a business at that as well. So, nah, we’re not going to do that.” Over the last four games, Waiters is averaging 29 minutes and 13.8 shots while Jackson is averaging 19.5 minutes and 8.8 shots. … Who needs big markets? Not the NBA or its TV partners, which cannot get out from under the awful Knicks and boring Nets fast enough. This week, NBA TV dumped next Saturday’s New York-Charlotte game for Detroit-Milwaukee and the Utah-Brooklyn game on March 8 for Toronto-Oklahoma City. ABC simply dropped Cleveland-New York on Feb. 22, replacing it with nothing on that day but adding Cleveland-Houston on March 1. And TNT made a rare switch, dumping New York-Indiana on Jan. 29 for Denver-Memphis.
Trivia Answer: San Antonio and the LA Lakers. … Happy 49th Birthday, Tito Horford. … This is not what the Bucks had in mind when they wanted Larry Sanders to light it up this season.
Chris Bernucca is the managing editor of SheridanHoops.com. His columns appear Monday during the season. You can follow him on Twitter.