Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors

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

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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.

MVP
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.)

Who should be the All-Star Game reserves? Besides Westbrook? Here is our picks.

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 16:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder dribbles during the first half against the LA Clippers at Staples Center on January 16, 2017 in Los Angeles, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The All-Star Starters are inyou don’t have to like them, but the choice has been made. In case you decided to spend Thursday night binge-watching Westworld, here are the All-Star Starters as selected by you, the fans (with a little help from the players and media so we didn’t have a Zaza moment).

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
Isaiah Thomas (Boston)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

Now it falls to the coaches, who vote this week for the reserves (to be announced next Thursday night, Jan. 29, on TNT). Who should the coaches pick? Here are our selections (we follow the format the coaches do with two guards, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards:

KURT HELIN:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Chris Paul (to become Damian Lillard)
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Frontcourt: Marc Gasol
Wild Card: Gordon Hayward
Wild Card: Mike Conley

Westbrook is a given, he should have started over Curry in my book (but I’m not going to make a big stink about the two-time MVP getting to start the ASG). Chris Paul should get the nod for the other guard slot, but with him out injured, I would give it to Lillard (despite his defense). Also, to me, Cousins, Green, and Gasol are all givens considering how well they have played this season. Hayward gets overlooked, but he is a cornerstone for Utah, the fourth-best team in the West. My hardest decision was between Conley and Rudy Gobert for the final wild card slot, I felt bad leaving the “Stifel Tower” off. C.J. McCollum and LaMarcus Aldridge also were on the bubble for me but just missed the cut.

EAST reserves:
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Frontcourt: Paul George
Frontcourt: Paul Millsap
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Kemba Walker

There are so many good point guards in the East and I wanted to get them all on the team, but that meant some sacrifices in the front court — no Joel Embiid, no Kristaps Porzingis. Which pains me, because I want to see those guys play, particularly Embiid, but I couldn’t put him on the list at the expense of Kevin Love (who has grown so very comfortable in his role with the Cavaliers).

DAN FELDMAN:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Chris Paul
Frontcourt: Rudy Gobert
Frontcourt: Gordon Hayward
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Wild Card: DeMarcus Cousins
Wild Card: Marc Gasol

Chris Paul was playing excellently before getting hurt. He deserves the recognition. Let Damian Lillard and Mike Conley duke it out to be his injury replacement. The rest of my West reserves lined up easily, though I wonder whether I should have found a spot for Blake Griffin, who was also stellar when healthy.

EAST reserves:
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Frontcourt: Paul Millsap
Frontcourt: Paul George
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Kemba Walker

Remember, I choose All-Stars by picking the best players, not parsing 40-odd games. Though both methods produce similar results, my way opens the door for Paul George, who has proven his ability over the years but has underwhelmed so far this season. There wasn’t much separation between Paul Millsap, George, Kemba Walker, Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Kristaps Porzingis.

DANE CARBAUGH:

WEST reserves:
Guard: Russell Westbrook
Guard: Mike Conley
Frontcourt: DeMarcus Cousins
Frontcourt: Marc Gasol
Frontcourt: Draymond Green
Wild Card: Rudy Gobert
Wild Card: Damian Lillard

CP3 and Blake Griffin not being here hurts, but that’s only due to injury. Conley has made improvement at age 29 and after signing a massive contract. Also, did I mention he broke his freaking back? Westbrook is averaging a triple-double, I’m not sure how we can ever as a nation start to heal after he wasn’t named as a starter. Meanwhile, I added Draymond and left off Klay. Green is the machine that powers Golden State, and given my 50/50 distribution I’d rather see some other guys make it than just see every Golden State player. That goes for you too, Zaza.

East reserves:
Guard: Kyle Lowry
Guard: Isaiah Thomas
Frontcourt: Kevin Love
Frontcourt: Kristaps Porzingis
Frontcourt: Joel Embiid
Wild Card: John Wall
Wild Card: Hassan Whiteside

I’m choosing here based off of both who deserves to be here and who I want to see play. It’s a 50/50 split, which is why both The Unicorn and The Process make the cut. Wall has played outstanding, but leaps by Lowry and Thomas move him to a Wildcard spot. I also want Whiteside to be the only guy in an exhibition game where nobody plays defense to just chase guys around for blocks and do nothing else.

Three things we learned Thursday: Give the people what they want, and they want Curry

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 30:  Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors and Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder stand on the court in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 30, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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1) The All-Star Starters are in and Russell Westbrook is out. But was he screwed? In case you missed it, the Starters for the All-Star Game in New Orleans Feb. 19 were announced. Remember, this is a combination of fan votes (50 percent) plus players (25) and selected media (25). Here is who is in:

WESTERN CONFERENCE
Stephen Curry (Golden State)
James Harden (Houston)
Kevin Durant (Golden State)
Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio)
Anthony Davis (New Orleans)

EASTERN CONFERENCE
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland)
DeMar DeRozan (Toronto)
LeBron James (Cleveland)
Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee)
Jimmy Butler (Chicago)

The big outrage online: Stephen Curry is starting and Russell Westbrook is not. But is that really something to be outraged about? People are flipping out because the two-time reigning MVP is starting the All-Star Game? I will grant you that if you are voting based on who has had the best first half of the season, it should be a Westbrook/Harden backcourt, and if I had voted that would have been my call (it was the call of the media and players). What happened under the scoring system (where players were ranked where they finished in the three voting groups) was that Curry, Westbrook, and Harden all ended up tied. In the case of a tie, the fan vote breaks it and the fans voted for Curry first, Harden second, and Westbrook third. Westbrook will undoubtedly be there with the coaches picking the rest of the roster (that’s announced next Thursday).

This is an exhibition game, and while being selected can matter to a player it’s still just a show. The idea is to give the people what they want — within reason, no Zaza, and no Dwyane Wade starting — and they wanted Curry. So start Curry.

Westbrook is now my bet to come in and decide he wants to take over and win All-Star MVP. Because he can.

2) John Wall on one coast and Karl-Anthony Towns on the other put on the big shows for the night. While the Internet was arguing Westbrook/Curry, there was actual NBA basketball being played, and there were a couple of impressive performances.

John Wall had 29 points and 13 assists to lead the Wizards past the slumping Knicks 113-110, and he sealed the game with this rebound over Derrick Rose then taking it coast-to-coast for the slam (Wall will be an All-Star reserve picked by the coaches.).

Then on the other coast Karl-Anthony Towns had 37 points — 15 in the fourth quarter, including all the clutch shots when it mattered — to give Minnesota the win over a very shorthanded Clippers team.

3) Pau Gasol fractures hand in warmups, is going to miss some time. Not that the Spurs will lose games now. Pau Gasol fractured the fourth metacarpal in his left hand — the bone that connects the ring finger to the wrist — during warmups Thursday night and the former All-Star and NBA champion is going to miss time. The Spurs haven’t put a timeline on it, and it depends on how severe the break was, but he’s out at least a month and maybe two.

This isn’t ideal for the Spurs, but they have actually been better this season when Gasol is on the bench compared to playing (a stat with a lot of noise, but it speaks to the depth of the team). David Lee got the start Thursday night and expect to see more Dewayne Dedmon.

That first game without Gasol? Lee had 16 rebounds, Kawhi Leonard dropped 34, and the Spurs beat the Nuggets 118-104. That team just keeps on rolling. The best part of that game, watching Gregg Popovich get ejected.

 

John Wall has 29 points, 13 assists as Wizards top Knicks 113-110

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: John Wall #2 of the Washington Wizards looks on against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Verizon Center on January 6, 2017 in Washington, DC.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK (AP) John Wall scored the pivotal points and made the saving steal, though the Knicks thought the Wizards had another defender who impacted their final possession even before Wall ended it.

Carmelo Anthony and Courtney Lee said a Washington assistant coach standing on the court too close to Lee kept him from taking a tying 3-point attempt. He instead passed to Brandon Jennings, who had the ball stolen by Wall.

“He was on the court,” Anthony said. “They had six players on the court.”

Wall didn’t need extra help. He had 29 points and 13 assists and scored the surging Wizards’ final four points in the last 32 seconds of their 113-110 victory Thursday night.

Otto Porter Jr. made six 3-pointers for the second straight night and added 23 points, but the Wizards needed big plays from Wall to win their fourth in a row.

He made two free throws to put Washington back on top after New York had rallied to take a 110-109 lead, then rebounded Anthony’s miss and left all the Knicks in his dust as he raced down the floor for a dunk with 13.7 seconds to play.

“Just trying to make the big-time plays,” Wall said. “But, if it’s me scoring or me passing, I’m going to live with the results if it’s the right read and the right play, and tonight I came up with some big shots and we won.”

Anthony finished with 34 points but threw the ball to Lee near the Wizards’ bench on the last possession. Lee said he heard someone standing close to him and yelling as if he was a nearby defender, confusing him enough into thinking that if he took the shot, it could be blocked.

Replays showed Wizards assistant Sidney Lowe standing on the court near Lee, who dribbled left and passed the ball hurriedly to Jennings, who had it knocked away by Wall.

“I’m not sure if he had his hands up or not, but I mean, he fooled me,” Lee said, adding he thought the NBA should look into the play. “I still should’ve took the shot, I mean it’s at the end of the game, but I drove and tried to make a play. I seen Brandon standing there but it didn’t work out.”

Derrick Rose added 20 points and Kristaps Porzingis came off the bench for 15 in his return from a sore left Achilles tendon.

The Wizards trailed 67-66 at halftime after Anthony scored a Knicks-record 25 points in the second quarter, then outscored New York 34-19 to take a 100-86 lead into the fourth.

The Knicks came all the way back to take a 110-109 lead when Rose put back his own miss with 48 seconds to play. Wall handled things from there as the Wizards won for the seventh time in eight games. They are 20-10 following a 3-9 start.

“It’s good to get a road win. We’ve had so many last-second shots on the road that didn’t go our way,” coach Scott Brooks said. “It’s nice to get a close-out tonight.”

Porter, who matched the career high for 3-pointers he set Wednesday against Memphis, had 15 points in the third quarter. The Wizards are 12-2 when he makes three or more 3s.

TIP-INS

Wizards: Wall, the NBA leader in total steals, has one in a career-best 30 straight games. … The Wizards have won six straight at Madison Square Garden.

Knicks: Joakim Noah missed his second straight game with a sprained left ankle. The Knicks lost for the first time in six games this season without their starting center. … Hall of Famer Willis Reed and Allan Houston shared the previous franchise record, having both scored 24 points in a quarter. Reed also did it in the second period, while Houston’s outburst came in the fourth.

BACK-TO-BACK FACTS

Washington improved to 2-7 on the second night of back-to-back games – with both victories against the Knicks, who are even worse in that situation. New York is 1-9, including a loss at Washington on Nov. 17.

UP NEXT

Wizards: Visit the Pistons on Saturday. The Wizards won 122-108 at home against Detroit on Dec. 16 behind 29 points and 11 assists from Wall.

Knicks: Host the Suns on Saturday as coach Jeff Hornacek tries to beat his former team for the first time. Phoenix pulled out a 113-111 overtime victory against New York on Dec. 13.

Kawhi Leonard has 34, Spurs overcome Pau Gasol’s injury to top Nuggets

San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard runs up the court after scoring during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Indiana Pacers, Monday, Dec. 21, 2015, in San Antonio. San Antonio won 106-92. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) Kawhi Leonard scored 34 points, rookie Dejounte Murray added a season-high 24 and the short-handed San Antonio Spurs overcame a pregame injury to Pau Gasol in beating the Denver Nuggets 118-104 on Thursday night.

Denver’s three-game winning streak was snapped despite a career-high 35 points from Nikola Jokic.

Leonard had his fifth straight 30-point performance, right after learning he will start for the Western Conference in the All-Star Game for the second consecutive season.

The Spurs were unexpectedly without Gasol, Tony Parker and then coach Gregg Popovich. Gasol and Parker were both late scratches due to injury, and Popovich was ejected for the first time this season.

Gasol broke the ring finger on his left (non-shooting) hand by jamming it against Kyle Anderson‘s shoulder during pregame warmups while attempting a running hook. The 16-year veteran center immediately clutched his hand and left the court.

X-rays revealed the break, and the Spurs said there is no timeline for Gasol’s return.

Murray started in place of Parker, who sat out with a sprained left foot. The rookie responded by shooting 7 for 11, including 3 of 5 on 3-pointers.

Popovich did not get to see the Spurs improve to 15-2 at home since Nov. 11 after picking up his fifth and sixth technical fouls. Zach Zarba ejected Popovich with 1:36 remaining in the first half after he became incensed over a foul called on Davis Bertans against Jokic.

Minutes earlier, Popovich was upset over a non-call for Bertans.

TIP-INS

Nuggets: Jokic has led the team in scoring or shared the high mark in 10 of Denver’s past 18 games after doing so just once in the previous 22 games. . Jokic was the only Denver player who did not have a losing record as a starter until Thursday’s defeat. He is 11-12 as a starter. . C Jusuf Nurkic had five points, leaving him one shy of 1,000 for his career. . F Juancho Hernangomez made his second career start. . During Popovich’s ejection, Nuggets G Emmanuel Mudiay shadowed Zarba and mimicked the official calling a technical foul and ejecting the Spurs’ coach. . Denver has had two three-game winning streaks this season. The previous streak was snapped 119-102 by the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 20.

Spurs: Gasol missed his first game due to injury this season. He sat out two games for rest. He is averaging 11.7 points and 7.9 rebounds in 39 games. . Parker has missed eight games this season, including two for rest. The point guard missed three games with a sore right knee, one due to a bruised left quadriceps and another because of a bruised left knee. . At least one Spurs player has appeared in the All-Star Game in all but two of the franchise’s 40 years in the NBA – 1989 and 1997. … Leonard has scored in double figures in 74 straight games, the longest streak by a Spurs player since Duncan had 75 in 2004-05.

UP NEXT

Nuggets: At the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday night.

Spurs: At the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday night.