Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors

PBT’s NBA Mid-Season Awards: All hail Kevin Durant


It’s the halfway point of the NBA season. To me having a serious discussion about end of season awards before this point is like discussing the 2016 presidential election today — it’s all speculation and wishful thinking.

Now we have enough games to have a body of evidence and a discussion. So here are my picks for all the awards, as things stand at the midway point of the season. I’ll give you my top five for MVP and three for everything else — including team to beat for the NBA title.

1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Chris Paul
4. Carmelo Anthony
5. Kobe Bryant

To me this is a two man race with a gap to the No. 3 spot. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth and both are having monster seasons — LeBron is averaging 26.5 points per game on 55 percent shooting, plus 7.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds a game, with a PER of 30.3. Durant is at 29.6 points a game on 52 percent shooting with 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game with a PER of 29.2. It’s tight.

What puts Durant on top for me is he is leading his team to more consistent play — the Heat appear bored and coasting to wins some nights, the Thunder seem to bring it every night. In the playoffs when the Heat are focused the outcome may be different, but this is a regular season award and I think Durant is getting more out of his team — James Harden was traded, he had to take on more playmaking load and the Thunder are better than last year. So he gets the big award for now.

Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard
2. Anthony Davis
3. Andre Drummond

This is not the runaway some fans think it is — Lillard is putting up 18.3 points and 6.6 assists per game and has taken charge of the Trail Blazers offense, but his defense is not good and his PER of 16.6 reflects some inefficiency in his game. He’s been fantastic, he’s the clear leader halfway home, but there are other good rookies, too.

Anthony Davis is not getting noticed because: 1) He’s on the Hornets and they only make news because they are about to be the Pelicans; 2) He has an unconventional offensive game — he doesn’t have a go-to offensive move, he doesn’t rack up a lot of highlights. What he does is space the floor well, play efficiently, defend well and he’s great on the roll or cutting off the ball. He’s going to be very special soon.

And my god Lawrence Frank, why are you playing so much Jason Maxiell and not so much Andre Drummond? You’re not making the playoffs, develop your young star. Drummond has the best PER among rookies at 22.9.

Sixth Man of the Year
1. Jamal Crawford
2. Jarrett Jack
3. J.R. Smith

This race is still really wide open for me. J.R. Smith puts up big numbers at times but he’s a little too streaky and inefficient for my taste. Jarrett Jack is right there because not only does he come in and anchor the second unit for the Warriors, he is a guy they trust with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He’s got the best PER of the group at 17. But he’s getting outscored pretty heavily by the other two, averaging 12.5 points a game.

Jamal Crawford’s flashy game — he finally practiced dribbling last summer! — fit with the Clippers “new Showtime” style, but the key is he is second on the team in scoring (16.6 points a game) and he leads the best bench unit in the NBA. He has been streaky and inefficient as well, but has had better results.

Defensive Player of the Year
1. Joakim Noah
2. Marc Gasol
3. Chris Paul

This is a tough and deep category — notice I don’t have any Pacers on here and they have the best defense in the land. Paul George easily could be on this list. Chris Paul makes it because he is leading the league in steals (2.6 a game) which is key to a pressure Clippers defense designed to set up fast breaks and highlight alley-oops to Blake Griffin. The Clippers have been good defensively and Paul leads them on that end, too. Marc Gasol is second because… have you watched him or Memphis? He just owns the paint and makes smart reads.

But the top spot goes to the Energizer Bunny that is Joakim Noah — the Bulls are a playoff team without MVP Derrick Rose because Noah has anchored their defense and brings it every night. Tom Thibodeau rightfully gets a lot of credit for what the Bulls do defensively, but it doesn’t work without Noah, who plays the role Kevin Garnett did in the scheme in Boston just as well.

Coach of the Year
1. Mark Jackson
2. Frank Vogel
3. Mike Woodson

Right or wrong, this award generally goes to the coach who exceeded expectations with his team. Woodson has gotten more out of the Knicks and got them to jell in a way Mike D’Antoni simply could not. Frank Vogel has the Pacers playing the best defense in the NBA by being smart and playing to their strengths. The Pacers have been without Danny Granger all season, have watched Roy Hibbert slump all season, and are still right there in the East and getting better.

But the award goes to Mark Jackson. And I’ll take my crow cooked medium rare — I thought this was a bad hire, taking the inexperienced coach out of the broadcast booth and it would backfire. But the fact is once he got a healthy team Jackson’s skill is getting guys to buy in and believe in the system and with that he has the Warriors impressing everyone (they beat the Thunder and Clippers in the last few days). Most importantly, Jackson got them playing good team defense, and that was a huge change.

Teams Most Likely to Win NBA Title This Season
1. Thunder
2. Heat
3. Clippers

When the Heat and Thunder were playing last year, I was saying not to be surprised if we saw that same finals three out of the next five years. It looks as if we might get a rematch this June. The Thunder are better — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both 24, they are still at the point in their careers where their games make big strides each year. After their first Olympic experience, both came back better playmakers and that helped because when James Harden was traded the Thunder needed them to fill that gap. They did. Throw in the improved Serge Ibaka and good production from Kevin Martin and the Thunder are the team to beat in the West. The one team that can do it — the Clippers. Vinny Del Negro may run simple sets, but when you have Chris Paul letting him make decisions and improvise is smart coaching. Most importantly for the Clippers, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have learned how to defend as a unit on the back line (most of the time) and when the Clippers defend they are hard to beat. They are also much deeper now.

The Heat are coasting to the best record in the East. You only see their pressure defense and full intensity for a quarter here or a half there — but when you do you wonder if anyone can beat them when they are focused. And as we head into the playoffs they will get focused.

(Note: There are no picks for Most Improved Player because I can’t stand the award in concept and how it is usually handed out to a guy who just got more minutes because his coach finally woke up.)

Kobe Bryant: “Do I want to play again or don’t I… the reality is no, I don’t.”

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant has known the answer for a while, he just wasn’t ready to admit it to himself. Let alone the world.

He wanted to try to wring one more season of good basketball out of his 37-year-old body. He wanted to try to talk himself out what his body was telling him. If he put in the work like he always had — if he lifted weights and stretched and took ice baths and watched film obsessively — he could still have a dramatic, positive impact on an NBA court.

A month into the season, Kobe admitted to himself he couldn’t will himself to do it anymore.

“Ultimately it’s a decision I had to make in life: Do I want to play again or don’t I?” Kobe asked. “It’s a very simple question, but it’s hard question to really answer. And the reality is no, I don’t. So why belabor it?”

Kobe announced that he will retire from the NBA at the end of this season.

Speaking to the media at Staples Center after another Lakers’ loss Sunday, what was clear was Kobe was comfortable with his decision. As Byron Scott had said before, Kobe was at peace with it.

“I’ve known for a while,” Bryant said. “I’ve always said if anything changes, I’ll change my mind. The problem for me, you can’t make a decision like this based on outside circumstances. It has to be an internal decision. Finally I just had to accept it, I don’t want to go through this anymore. And I’m okay with that.”

For two decades of his NBA career — in reality, much longer than that — basketball had been Kobe’s obsession. It drove his every decision, his every action. But even that had begun to change. He regularly meditates (thanks, Phil Jackson) and it was there he started to realize what was happening.

“Sitting in meditation for me, my mind starts drifting, and it always drifted to basketball. Always. And it doesn’t do that anymore,” Kobe said. “It does that sometimes, it doesn’t do that all the time. That was the first indicator that this game was not something I can obsess over much longer.”

Not that Kobe was going to give up the game without a fight. Kobe is not going to just roll over. However, after 20 seasons, 55,000 NBA minutes, a torn Achilles and major knee injury, hard work was not enough. Obsession was no longer enough. His body was quitting on him.

He’s accepted and come to peace with that.

“I honestly feel really good about it. I really do. I’m at peace with it…” Bryant said. “I’ve worked so hard and I continue to work really hard even though I played like shit, I’ve worked really, really hard not to play like crap and I do everything I possibly can. And I feel good about that.”

Make no mistake he is playing like crap. He’s a shell of his old self on defense. After a 4-of-20 shooting performance against the Pacers Sunday night, Kobe is shooting 30.5 percent on the season. He was 2-of-15 to start the game.

But a flash of vintage Kobe is what everyone will remember from Sunday’s game — they will talk about his two late fourth quarter three pointers, one a ridiculous leaner, that helped a Lakers’ comeback and brought the team within two points of the Pacers late in the fourth. After a Paul George free throw (George had 35 on the night), Kobe got a chance for a three to tie the game. He sprinted up off a down screen, caught the ball and moved along the top of the arc, getting enough space to get off a quick shot. And he airballed it. Which speaks to where his legs are now.

Kobe still loves putting in the work, which is one reason he’s not walking away mid-season (that $25 million contract may be a factor as well). He said “there is so much beauty in the pain of this league.” He still loves the effort of trying to get better every day.

He’s just not seeing results anymore. If he were playing better, if the young Lakers like D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle were coming along more quickly, if this Lakers’ team was more respectable, then his decision might be different. But none of those things are happening.

That doesn’t mean anyone gets to talk smack to Kobe.

“We were playing Portland and some kid from the bench said something to me, said ‘we’re going to beat you tonight.’ I looked at him and said ‘I’ve got one rule: If you weren’t born when I started playing you can’t talk trash. It’s a simple rule’ And he looked and said, ‘Yes sir.’”

Coach Byron Scott and GM Mitch Kupchak have not talked about how Kobe will be used going forward after this decision, although don’t expect much of a change. This is the Kobe Bryant farewell tour now, and at home and on the road he will have adulation rained on him by the fans. They want to see Kobe be Kobe, and it’s not like he’s suddenly going to change playing styles.

Kobe appreciates and said he loves the fans, but it’s what he hears from other players — guys who have gone to him for advice such as Damian Lillard, Mike Conley, James Harden — that matters most to Bryant.

“The coolest thing is the messages I receive from the players,” he said. “They say thank you for the inspiration, thank you for the lessons, for the mentality. Those things honestly mean the most from me, that respect from the peers, there’s nothing in the world that beats that.”

It’s hard to walk away from that. To willingly step back from the only life you’ve known for two decades. Even if it’s been obvious for a little while it was time.

Bryant had to admit to himself it was time. Now he has, hopefully he can savor every moment of this season and leave it on his own terms.


76ers tie NBA worst with 0-18 start after loss to Grizzlies

Matt Barnes, Nik Stauskas, Jerami Grant
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Zach Randolph had 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead the Memphis Grizzlies to a 92-84 victory over Philadelphia on Sunday, sending the 76ers to their record-tying 18th straight loss to start the season.

The Sixers have lost an NBA-record 28 consecutive games dating to last season and at 0-18 matched the New Jersey Nets’ start in 2009-10.

Mike Conley led the Grizzlies with 20 points, while Matt Barnes and Jeff Green finished with 13 apiece as Memphis won for the seventh time in the last nine.

Isaiah Canaan led the Sixers with 16 points, while Robert Covington and Hollis Thompson scored 12 points apiece. Jerami Grant finished with 11 points.

The Sixers led 76-71 with 7:38 remaining and Memphis fans were booing their team. But the Grizzlies went on a 15-1 run to retake control of the game, with Randolph scoring eight points in the rally.

Byron Scott: Kobe Bryant “at peace” with decision to retire after season

Kobe Bryant

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant was never going to go quietly into that good night. He would rage, rage against the dying of the light — and torn Achilles, knee ligaments, shoulders, and everything else holding him back.

But now, the end is near, and Kobe will face the final curtain at the end of this season. And he is at peace with it, if you ask his coach.

“It was so matter of fact, and he was so at peace with (the decision),” Lakers’ coach Byron Scott said of when Kobe told him this season would be it. “After I thought about it, I felt better about that. It wasn’t like he was agonizing over it or anything, it was like ‘I’m announcing I’m retiring’ and just kind of went on from there.”

Bryant told Scott before anyone else in the Lakers’ organization, and told him sometime Saturday (when the Lakers played and lost in Portland).

“I said, ‘what?’ He just told me at a very awkward time; we started laughing about it,” Scott said. “He said ‘you looked like you were saying ‘what they hell are you talking about’ but it just caught me off guard.”

It’s been an ugly season for Kobe, his body can no longer do what he expects of it — he can’t get the separation, the lift needed for his shoots. He was shooting 31.1 percent on the season going into Sunday’s game against Indiana, and he started 1-of-11 from the floor Sunday night. Yet he kept gunning.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

Kupchak added hoped this decision would ease the pressure on Bryant.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Kupchak said. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Kobe got plenty of appreciation from Lakers’ fans on Sunday night with a massive ovation when he was introduced. Kobe had wanted to avoid a Derek Jeter style farewell tour, but with that announcement and the Lakers playing 13-of-17 on the road in December you can bet there will be some of that.

“One of the best ever to play the game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said pregame. “I don’t know if there’s any one moment, just throughout the course of his career you didn’t want him to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, period. Because you knew he was going to beat you.”

No doubt Kobe goes down as one of the game’s all-time greats — five-time NBA champion, MVP, two Finals MVP’s, 17 All-Star Games, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — but what Scott ultimately wants is Bryant to leave the game on his terms.

“What I want from Kobe is basically his last game to be able to walk off the court, wave to the fans, and be able to go into the locker room standing up,” Scott said.


Here is Kobe Bryant’s letter given to every fan at Lakers’ game Sunday

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers

LOS ANGELES — In a classy move — and one done in a very Kobe Bryant tone — every fan coming into Staples Center Sunday night to see the Lakers take on the Pacers received a letter from No. 24.

Inside a sealed black envelope, on quality, embossed paper, was this letter from Bryant (photo below):

When we first met I was just a kid.

Some of you took me in. Some of you didn’t.

But all of you helped e become the player and man in front of you today.

You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.

Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.

You witnessed my fears morph into strength.

Your rejection taught me courage.

Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.

What you’ve done for me is far greater than anything I’ve done for you.

I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.

I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.

My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.

Thank you for this incredible journey.

It speaks to Kobe’s mindset over the years that he talked about the fuel from the rejection of Lakers’ fans motivating him. As a Los Angeles native (and former Laker blogger), let me tell you there was precious little rejection of Kobe from this fan base. There were questions and doubters early on, but even when Shaquille O’Neal was seen as the driving force of the team Kobe was beloved in Los Angeles. Something that continued through his trial in Colorado — Lakers fans have almost always had his back.

But Kobe finds fuel everywhere. Which is why he is a future Hall of Famer.