PBT Midseason Awards: James Harden or Russell Westbrook for MVP?

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We are at the NBA season’s midpoint, which means we finally have seen enough games and compiled enough stats to start a conversation about the NBA end-of-season awards. Nothing is close to locked in yet, this is more like a horse race that is just coming out of the backstretch and starting the sweeping turn towards the finish line — a lot of things can change, and there will be players making late runs at some of these awards.

That’s not going to stop us from making picks for all the major categories — plus the best album of 2016. Because we can. Below are the picks for Kurt Helin, Dan Feldman, and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Russell Westbrook
This is a coin flip between Westbrook and James Harden, with half a season to decide who gets the hardware. Right now I’d have a very slight lean to Westbrook, who is not just averaging a triple-double but has the Thunder in the playoffs on a 48-win pace — when he sits the Thunder are 17.5 points per 100 possessions worse (yes, that stat has noise and speaks to team depth, but point is without him this team is screwed).

Dan Feldman: James Harden
Russell Westbrook is averaging a triple-double — and Harden is still having a(n every so slightly) better season, which is just incredible. Unless Westbrook taps into his higher defensive potential more regularly, Harden’s efficiency gives him the edge.

Dane Carbaugh: James Harden
There’s obviously a strong case for Russell Westbrook here, but the thing that brings me back to James Harden is this: he’s increased his assists per-100 possessions this season despite his usage only going up by 1.5%. That’s ridiculous, and a prime example of the many ways Harden has been extra efficient this season.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Joel Embiid
Before the season I didn’t think he could win it because he was going to be on a minutes restriction, plus there would be pushback to having a third-year player win the award, but this race isn’t even close. Embed still got a lot of work to do defensively, but he’s far ahead of Malcolm Brogdon/Jamal Murray/Buddy Hield/Domantas Sabonis and the rest. Plus, Embiid is just fun to watch. And the league could use more fun.

Dan Feldman: Joel Embiid
It appeared Embiid would run away with this award, but Malcolm Brogdon has made it competitive. Still, Embiid’s talent, even if less refined, has made a bigger impact so far. He’s a force defensively, and his offense is diverse, albeit sloppy.

Dane Harbaugh: Joel Embiid
Not voting for Embiid here is voting against fun. It’s voting against hope. It’s voting against aesthetics. It’s voting against the culture. There’s real evidence Embiid is going to be a force in the league barring health for years to come, and to see it on display this year in unpolished form has been everything we wanted from The Process.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert
He is the anchor of the best defense in the NBA this season, and he’s not a slow-footed big who you can destroy when he gets dragged into pick-and-rolls (he can hold his own). There are others such as Kawhi Leonard still in this race.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert
The Jazz center erases the paint and is more than adequate when pulled outside. Teams haven’t found a way to run him off the court, the first test for any rim protector in this era. That allows Gobert’s interior skills to shine. Draymond Green is within striking distance, but this is Gobert’s award to lose.

Dane Carbaugh: Rudy Gobert
It’s hard to argue that Rudy Gobert is not the DPOY. He’s the anchor for the NBA’s most efficient defensive unit and he’s not only a paint clogger but a shot blocker that doesn’t give up rebounding chances as he chases swats. Utah is extremely fun to watch on defense — gasp! — and Gobert is a big reason why.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Eric Gordon
This is the most open race on the board, but right now what Gordon brings Houston has him in front. This is the Gordon the Pelicans thought they were paying for (injuries undid him there), averaging 17.9 points per game and shooting 41.1 percent from three. Lou Williams had the lead for me but has slipped of late (as have the Lakers).

Dan Feldman: Enes Kanter
I did little more than pick a name here. This race is WIDE open with serious consideration also going to Greg Monroe, Eric Gordon, Lou Williams, Patty Mills, Jon Leuer, Marreese Speights, Tyler Johnson, Dwight Powell, Wilson Chandler and…

Dane Carbaugh: Eric Gordon
It’s sort of unfair that the Houston Rockets get to bring Eric Gordon off the bench, and I bet most NBA opponents would agree. Gordon is not only having a great comeback season as a scorer — averaging better than 17 points per-game — but he’s doing it efficiently as well. Daryl Morey hit a home run with Gordon and Ryan Anderson this season.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike D’Antoni
Note to Lakers/Knicks management (and fans): Yes you can win with Mike D’Antoni’s system and him as coach, but you have to give him players that fit his system. He’s not bending. But when you give him his players — James Harden at the point, healthy seasons from Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon — he’s going to win a lot of games. And the man is a groundbreaking coach.

Dan Feldman: Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni’s touch has brought out the best in the Rockets’ offense, starting with the subtle tweak of making James Harden the point guard. Houston’s defense has even neared league average, a credit to how D’Antoni organized his staff. His coaching prowess is limited to players who fit his style, but the Rockets do, and D’Antoni is doing a very nice job with them.

Dane Carbaugh: Mike D’Antoni
Let’s put Houston’s rise to the upper tier of the Western Conference on hold for a second. Is there anyone who was more unfairly written off than Mike D’Antoni? His SSoL Suns were the prerunner to today’s modern NBA offenses, but because of some awkward years in New York and LA with some mismatched rosters, everyone wrote him off. Apparently he’s been in the lab, with a pen and a pad, trying to get the Rockets off the ground. It’s worked by turning Harden into a point guard and surrounding him with shooters who get rid of the ball like it’s made of molten rock. I, for one, am here for SSoL II: Electric Boogaloo.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF YEAR

Kurt Helin: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Entering his fourth season, his improvements have been as big as his strides. Jason Kidd made the brilliant move (in the second half of last season) to move him to a point-forward position and put the ball in his hands, and he is driving and dishing with the best of them. He leads the NBA in points in the paint per game at 13.4 — more than DeMarcus Cousins, Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis and the rest of them.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Antetokounmpo is the runaway winner here. He has improved so much, so quickly, he’s probably due for regression to the mean. But he still has plenty of leeway to come down to earth and still cruise to this award.

Dane Carbaugh: Giannis Antetokounmpo
I think many of us were expecting Andrew Wiggins to grab this spot, but if it weren’t for Giannis Antetokounmpo’s meteoric rise the Timberwolves guard might come in second to his own teammate in Zach LaVine. Meanwhile, the Greek Freak has garnered the second most All-Star forward votes in the East, (only to LeBron James has more). If you aren’t watching Bucks games, you’re missing out.

BONUS: BEST ALBUM OF 2016

Kurt Helin: A Moon Shaped Pool (Radiohead)
Dan Feldman: Lemonade (Beyoncé)
Dane Carbaugh: Still Brazy (YG)

Report: Kevin Love was frustrated with move to center

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With Derrick Rose having to start at point guard (until Isiah Thomas returns sometime in early 2018) and Dwyane Wade starting at the two, Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue had no choice but to move Kevin Love to starting at center. The Cavaliers desperately need the floor spacing to open up driving lanes and options for LeBron James. Start Tristan Thompson at the five (with Love at the four and Jae Crowder coming off the bench) and it adds another non-shooter to the mix that allows opposing defenses to just pack the paint and force LeBron to be a jump shooter.

That doesn’t mean everyone liked the change.

Love admitted to Chris Fedor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer he was frustrated with the move at first.

“It’s been a little bit of a change for me,” Love admitted. “I still find myself spacing a little bit wanting to roll a little bit more and on the defensive end just playing the primary big on their team the whole time on the defensive end. It’s been a little bit different figuring things out on that end, but it comes with the growth I’m talking about. We need to do that and hopefully be a machine when things start clicking.”

Lue put it this way.

“We’re going to try it out and see how it works. He was frustrated at first, but now he’s enjoying it.”

While in certain matchups, when the opposition has a more traditional center, the Cavs may go back to the Love/Thompson front line for a stretch. But the small ball lineup is the way Cleveland should be leaning, even with its clear defensive deficiencies. We saw that in the opener with Love’s dagger three in the fourth quarter.

Love is adjusting, he’s already sacrificed a lot to play with LeBron. This is just another step in that evolution.

Another wing down? Celtics’ Marcus Smart likely out vs. Sixers

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The horrific, probably season-ending injury to Gordon Hayward has left the Celtics with a shortage of players on the wing.

Going up against Philadelphia Friday night, that might be getting worse, reports A. Sherrod Blakely of NBC Sports Boston.

Looking at the pictures, I doubt Smart plays.

As noted, Smart said he hurt both ankles in the second night of a back-to-back against Milwaukee, the left one in a collision with teammate Jaylen Brown. Smart started that game and played 32 minutes. That’s a lot of time to go to lesser players.

If he’s out Friday, that likely means either Terry Rozier or Abdel Nader get the start, and both are going to see a healthy bump in minutes. Whatever happens, the Celtics would miss Smart in a game where they need to defend Ben Simmons on the wing.

What happened to Willy Hernangomez’s minutes with Knicks?

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When talking about the Knicks’ young core going forward, Willy Hernangomez was one of the names that got mentioned by the front office (alongside players such asFrank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway Jr.). The Knicks are crowded at the center spot — Enes Kanter got the start in the opener Thursday night, and Kristaps Porzingis should get minutes there (it’s ultimately going to be his NBA position), and this isn’t even mentioning Joakim Noah — but Hernangomez looked like a developing young player who needed some run.

He got just 3:46 minutes in the opener, and that was during fourth quarter garbage time. Kyle O'Quinn got nearly 22 off the bench at the five. That follows a preseason where Hernangomez saw his minutes drop seemingly game-to-game.

What gives? Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News asked the same question.

“We have a lot of bigs,” Hornacek said. “(O’Quinn) and Enes earned the minutes in training camp. Willy’s not far behind. He’s got to keep working. When you got that many bigs, you can’t play them all. The other guys earned the minutes. I told all three of them it doesn’t matter if you’re in the rotation or out of rotation. If you’re in it, you’ve got to earn it to keep it.”

“I can score. It’s not difficult for me. I think the coach wants to see my effort on defense. That’s why I have to keep working hard everyday,” said Hernangomez, who is also Kristaps Porzingis’ best friend on the Knicks.

Without question, Hernangomez needs to work on his defense, but then again this is a Knicks team starting Kanter so it’s obviously not a requirement.

Hornacek needs to find a balance here — it’s early in the season, he wants to win games, he wants to put his best foot forward. But the Knicks are not a playoff team this season, and they are in the player development business. That means Hernangomez — as well as rookie point guard Ntilikina — need to get minutes, need to be thrown to the wolves a little, and need to learn from their mistakes. Hornacek needs to be coaching for a few years down the line… the problem is he knows he may not have this job that far down the line, so he’s coaching to get wins now.

Patrick Beverley talks a lot of smack, taunts Lonzo Ball in opener

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LOS ANGELES — Welcome to the NBA Lonzo Ball. Guys are gunning for you.

“He’s a great talent, but he’s got to go through the tough times. I just had to set the tone,” the Clippers’ Patrick Beverley said of his physical play on Ball from the opening tip. “I told him after the game, due to all the riffraff his dad brings he’s going to get a lot of people coming at him. He’s got to be ready for that, and I let him know after the game…

“(I had to) welcome his little young a** to the NBA.”

Beverley said a lot more than that.

Beverly is known as a physical defender who talks a lot and tries to get under the skin of opponents. Throw in an overhyped rookie — one who other players feel hasn’t earned his place yet, one with a Facebook reality show, one with a father who talks a lot — and you get the full Beverley treatment from the opening tip.

Maybe Snoop Dogg put it best, as he often does.

Both Lakers coach Luke Walton and team president Magic Johnson said they warned Ball what was coming, but words don’t always do justice to the reality of a guy in your grill all night.

In the second quarter, Beverley stole the ball from Ball from Ball shouted “first team!” three times while holding up his index finger — a reference to him being First Team All-Defense last season.

Thing is, it wasn’t just Beverley. When he sat Austin Rivers had the Ball defensive assignment, and on a couple of occasions Ball tried to drive past Rivers but couldn’t. All night long a Clippers team that always prioritizes getting back in transition took away the look-ahead passes that Ball was known for over the summer (he had a couple, but there were few opportunities).

Ball sat the entire fourth quarter and finished the night 1-of-6 shooting with four assists and nine rebounds. The Lakers were blown out by Beverley’s Clippers 108-92, a game the Clippers led by 30 at one point.

To his credit, Ball handled it well.

“He plays 94 feet,” Ball said of Beverley. “That’s what you’re supposed to do. He’s a good defender. I just tried to do what I can.”

“It was good for (Lonzo),” Walton said of the rough first night. “Beverley is as good as anyone, if not the best, at the point guard position of getting into other people and getting under their skin. I thought Zo kept his composure.”

Ball is going to need that composure over a long season — Beverley is right, other guys will come at him. Lonzo’s father LaVar wrote a lot of checks with his mouth this summer — he called out LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and others — that will come due on Lonzo. There are more learning experiences ahead for the rookie, especially on a young Lakers team without nearly enough shooting around him to create the space he needs for his passing to thrive.

However, hold his own this season, improve, and keep that composure and he will win over NBA players. Respect is earned in the league, and Ball is just starting that process as far as other teams are concerned.