With the All-Star weekend right around the corner, we have officially reached the midpoint of the NBA season. Here are my picks for some of the major NBA awards for the first half of the season:
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
The title of “most improved” is a difficult one, because it assumes that the player entered the season as an incomplete player. Considering that Antetokounmpo was already a household name, he’s not a conventional candidate for this award. However, even some of his most optimistic supporters could not have predicted this kind of dominance. The “Greek Freak” is currently averaging 23.7 points, 8.8 rebounds, 5.4 assists, as well as about two blocks and steals per game, all of which are best on the Bucks and all are improvements over last year’s already-stellar numbers. He is the definition of a stat-sheet stuffer, and he’s crazy efficient in doing so; his Player Efficiency Rating is fifth in the league. Harrison Barnes and Isaiah Thomas are both having much-improved years, but no one has elevated his game so quickly and dramatically as Antetokounmpo. He has transformed from an exciting upcoming talent into a franchise player, and he belongs among the NBA’s very best.
Coach of the Year: David Fizdale, Memphis Grizzlies
The clear favorite for this pick is Mike D’Antoni of the Houston Rockets, given Houston’s expectation-exceeding first half. And give D’Antoni credit: he made the highly risky decision of moving James Harden to point guard, which has proved to be a revelation, and turning the Rockets from a solid third-place finisher behind the Spurs and Warriors, into a team that can legitimately challenge either one. However, I give David Fizdale of the Grizzlies the hardware. The Grizzlies’ record (26-20, seventh in the West) is far from spectacular, but Fizdale has stepped into a difficult role. After being named head coach last May, he was forced to manage a roster that is constantly injury-depleted, especially to stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, who have already combined to miss 14 games this year. Most importantly? The Grizzlies are 4-0 against the Warriors and Rockets this year. The Grizzlies are the type of team that no one wants to play in the postseason, and Fizdale has done a fantastic job maintaining that reputation.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
This is an easy one. It was only a year ago that Embiid epitomized the 76ers, the laughing stock of the NBA, a team that has repeatedly secured high draft picks and has proceeded to do nothing with them. Drafted in 2014, many thought Embiid’s career may be over before it even began due to a nagging foot injury suffered a few weeks before the draft. After missing three seasons, expectations were low. Three months later, Embiid finished third in All-Star fan votes among Eastern Conference frontcourt players. “The Process,” as he is affectionately called, has averaged nearly 20 points per game to go along with 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks—all in only 25 minutes per game. Embiid remains far from a complete player—his defensive effort can be questioned at times and he leads the league among big men in turnovers —but he is everything you want in a rookie: mouth-watering potential, dynamic scoring ability and most of all, he’s incredibly fun to watch.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
Of all the awards, this is most difficult. Rudy Gobert is having an incredible season for the Utah Jazz. He leads the league at 2.5 blocks per game, and is basically the entire reason that the Jazz boasts the league’s second best defense. Bottom line: you do not attack the rim when Gobert is on the floor. I understand that Leonard has won the award the past two seasons, and that change is always welcome, so I wouldn’t be at all surprised, or disappointed, if Gobert wins. But no one is as consistently dominant on the defensive end as Kawhi Leonard. While not the rim protector that Gobert is, he is undoubtedly the most talented on-ball defender in the NBA. He currently averages 1.8 steals and 0.7 blocks per game, right in line with the stats of his past two DPOY-winning seasons. He is simply the NBA’s quietest superstar, and continues to be the most feared defender in the league.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Houston Rockets
The granddaddy of them all. The MVP race this year has been hotly contested, and has essentially become a two-man race between Harden and the other-worldly Russell Westbrook. And while my pick of Harden may surprise some, it’s not hard to see why. Don’t get me wrong, what Westbrook has accomplished this year has been nothing short of greatness, seeking to become only the second player in NBA history to average a triple-double over the course of a season. If he does manage to do this, that would be a major boost to his MVP case. But Westbrook is a flawed candidate. He is an inefficient scorer, he frequently appears to be “stat-chasing” and is, perhaps unfairly, hurt by the Thunder’s lackluster record. James Harden, on the other hand, has been simply astonishing. Just look at his stat line: 28.6 PPG, 11.6 APG, 8.2 RPG, 1.4 SPG, 45 percent FG. The 11.6 assists per game lead the league by a wide margin, and he accounts for 56 of his team’s points per game. He is a far more efficient shooter than Westbrook, and has masterfully guided the Rockets to a 34-14 record. He also had the best individual performance in the league this year, becoming the first player to ever post a 50-15-15 game. Westbrook has been phenomenal, but no one has been more valuable than James Harden.