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.)

Blake Griffin suspended four games, docked five games pay

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Clippers president/coach Doc Rivers said the NBA would lead any punishment for Blake Griffin, who broke his hand punching a team equipment manager at a dinner. The league investigated, and…

A suspension was announced by the Clippers.

Clippers release:

The following is a joint statement from L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer and President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach Doc Rivers:

The L.A. Clippers announced today that forward Blake Griffin has been suspended without pay for four games for striking a team employee on Jan. 23 and his wages will be withheld for one additional game for injuries he sustained. The NBA has assisted us in this process.

The Clippers will donate the salary from the five games to charities focused on disadvantaged youth in Los Angeles. At his request, Blake will support this activity with his time.

We have made it clear that this conduct has no place in the Clippers organization. Blake is remorseful and has apologized for his actions. He is a valued member of our Clippers family and we support him as he rejoins the team. He understands his actions have consequences, and is eager to get back to work with his teammates, the organization and Clipper Nation which starts immediately with rehab, appearances and attendance at games.

For our team and organization, it is time to move forward which begins today and ultimately concludes when we have Blake back on the court.

If you want to parse the statement, it doesn’t say the Clippers suspended Griffin. It’s in passive voice — “has been suspended without pay” — and leaves open the possibility the NBA suspended him. We just know the Clippers announced it, which would be strange for an NBA suspension. So, I believe the Clippers suspended him. I’m just not absolutely certain.

NBA suspensions typically begin only once a player is healthy enough to play. It’s unclear how that applies to this situation, but I’d guess – no matter who levied the suspension – the same rule will apply. Again, that’s not a given – especially given the hard-to-follow use of “which starts immediately with rehab, appearances and attendance at games.”

The Clippers announced on Jan. 26 Griffin would miss 4-6 weeks, a timeline unaffected by a second surgery on his swollen, scarred hand. But Rivers called a 4-6 recovery period “unrealistic.” So, if he can’t serve his suspension until healthy, good luck figuring out when that is. Probably just have to trust the Clippers.

For each game a player is suspended by the NBA, he loses 1/110th of his salary. If that applies to this suspension, it’d cost Griffin $859,442.

Teams also have their team salary as it applies to the luxury tax – which the Clippers are in line to pay – reduced by that amount. Again, more conclusion. It’s unclear whether the Clippers will get their tax bill trimmed. If they suspended him and don’t receive the savings, that’s a significant difference – $2,148,605 in tax payments (or $1,718,884 if you count only the four games actually suspended).

Four games and a fifth game of pay is probably a break for Griffin. This could’ve been much worse for him, including legal action. But Matt Barnes received just a two-game suspension for a similar situation – one NBA employee attacking another while away from official team business. What’s the difference here?

The Clippers want to move on, but this result provides more confusion than clarity.

Marv Albert gets contract extension to call NBA on TNT

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05:  Marv Albert attends the New York Knicks vs Brooklyn Nets game at Barclays Center on December 5, 2013 in New York City.  (Photo by James Devaney/WireImage)
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NEW YORK (AP) — Veteran broadcaster Marv Albert has agreed to a multiyear contract extension with TNT to call NBA games.

Albert will call this weekend’s All-Star Game in Toronto, his 21st year providing commentary for the event. He’ll continue to call regular-season and playoff games for the network.

The Hall of Fame broadcaster has been associated with the NBA for nearly 50 years.

Turner Sports executive Craig Barry on Tuesday calls Albert a “legendary broadcaster,” who has been “a true icon in the industry.”

Albert is in his 18th season as a play-by-play commentator for TNT. He has won five national Sports Emmy Awards and was inducted into the Sports Broadcasting Hall of Fame last year.

Miami Heat to retire Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey next season

Shaquille O'Neal Heat
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Shaquille O’Neal’s No. 34 jersey already hangs in the rafters at Staples Center for the Lakers.  He’s getting a statue there, too.

Next season, he will have his number retired on the other warm southern coast, this time in Miami.

The Heat have announced they will retire Shaq’s No. 32 jersey next season.

“Shaquille O’Neal is one of the truly elite players in the history of the game and one of the greatest players to ever wear a Heat uniform,” team president Pat Riley said in a released statement. “He took us to another level as a basketball franchise while leading us to our first NBA championship. Retiring his number in the rafters, along with Heat greats Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway, is something we are very proud of.”

Riley left out that the Heat also retired Michael Jordan’s 23, and Dan Marino’s 12 also hangs in the rafters of the arena. Neither of those make much sense, but whatever.

Shaq played three-and-a-half seasons in Miami, averaging 19.6 points and 9.1 rebounds a game. Shaq was a three-time All-Star with the Heat and was at the heart of the franchise’s first title, along with Dwyane Wade… and Mark Cuban would tell you the officials. But that’s another discussion. He was also bitter after being traded to Phoenix and slammed Miami management and players on his way out the door.

Time heals all wounds.

Bull for Bull: Pau Gasol to replace Jimmy Butler in All-Star Game

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Jimmy Butler is out of the NBA All-Star Game in Toronto this weekend due to a strained knee. Which suck, because he earned that spot, and while the fans didn’t vote him in the coach’s did.

Butler’s teammate Pau Gasol will replace him.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver gets to make the call on a replacement, and he stayed in Chicago, but he added a front court player to replace a guard. Keeping a Bulls representative might have been part of the thinking. The coaches’ votes on replacement players has been weighed in the past (Gasol may have been high on that list, coaches love him). Also, the East roster has a lot of wings and was light on bigs (Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap and Chris Bosh are the only real bigs), so this gives coach Tyronn Lue some flexibility up front.

The East leading Cleveland Cavaliers remain with just one representative, LeBron James (voted in by the fans).

Gasol is averaging 17 points, 10.9 rebounds, and a couple blocks a game, and is the only thing close to a consistent performer the Bulls have. Besides the injured Butler.