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Mid-Season NBA Award Picks: James Harden edges LeBron for MVP. For now.

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Three-games into the NBA season there were people trying to anoint Giannis Antetokounmpo MVP — end of season award talk cannot start soon enough for some. At NBC, we decided to wait until we were midway into the season — and had a healthy body of work to look at — before we threw our picks out there.

We’ve reached that point.

Nothing is decided 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 movie of 2017. Because we can. Below are the picks for Kurt Helin, Dan Feldman, and Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: James Harden
Two players have separated themselves from everyone else in this race for me — James Harden and LeBron James. Right now I’d give Harden the edge. The Rockets’ guard’s insane efficiency — not just scoring, but with more assists, fewer turnovers — gives him a slight edge. That said, durability is part of this award and with Harden likely out for a while with a hamstring issue LeBron could (and likely will) take over the top spot before season’s end. I’d have Giannis Antetokounmpo third and then things open up.

Dan Feldman: James Harden
Nobody has ever neared Harden’s combination of usage and efficiency. Like last year, he’s a big-time distributor, but now he has his turnovers under control. His injury absence will hurt his year-end case, making it more likely LeBron James — who’s not far behind — overtakes him. But, so far, Harden is MVP.

Dane Carbaugh: James Harden
I’m not really sure how it can be anyone else. Harden has been magnificent for the Rockets this season as the team has steadily climbed up the ladder in the Western Conference. They look like legitimate contenders this year for a Western Conference Finals run, and Harden has played well both beside Chris Paul and as they take over duties alternating in the rotation for the Rockets.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Ben Simmons
From opening night, Ben Simmons has looked every bit the No. 1 pick, a cornerstone player for Philadelphia for the next decade or so. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 7.6 assists per game, shooting 51 percent from the field (mostly without a jumper), and his passing is still the best part of his game. That said, Utah’s hot Donovan Mitchell is a close second, with Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma trying to find a spot in the top three.

Dan Feldman: Donovan Mitchell 
Ben Simmons looked like he’d run away with this award, but his play has slipped enough to leave the door open for someone else. Mitchell has burst right through it with a prolonged stretch of efficient scoring as the Jazz’s go-to player.

Dane Carbaugh: Ben Simmons
Simmons has been excellent this season, with high efficiency marks that offset his lack of shooting ability. In fact, Simmons is shooting better than 50 percent from the field this year, a stark contrast to many who thought his overall shooting abilities might hamper him. Of course, he’s getting many of his own points closer to the rim, while still dishing out assists and grabbing rebounds for Philly. Jayson Tatum is right there too, this race will be interesting down the stretch.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Joel Embiid
This is the most wide-open race on the board — two of the expected frontrunners (Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gobert) have missed time with injuries, and defending DPOY Draymond Green has been good but not quite his elite self. Embiid has been elite — the Sixers are 7.7 points per 100 possessions better defensively when he is on the floor, allowing less than a point per possession — but I don’t feel good about it because of all the time missed. That said, he is a defensive force. Green, Andre Roberson, and others could easily win this award.

Dan Feldman: Joel Embiid
Presumed candidates Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gobert have missed too much time with injury, and reigning champion Draymond Green isn’t quite locked in defensively. So, I guess that leaves Embiid, who’s effective protecting the rim and switching onto the perimeter while on the court. His missed games and somewhat limited minutes reduce his defensive impact, but nobody else has jumped into the forefront. Maybe that changes in the second half.

Dane Carbaugh: Draymond Green
Despite what Green says, it’s still not immediately clear that Kevin Durant is more important to the Warriors’ defense than he is. Green had a monster year on defense last season, and is still close to where he was a year ago despite some eye-popping stats from Durant, whose blocks are through the roof. Andre Drummond should get a mention here, too, as he has suddenly become the league leader in defensive rating, defensive box plus/minus, and defensive win shares. If that continues, perhaps we’re talking about Drummond here at the end of the year.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Lou Williams
Williams made his point Wednesday night dropping 50 on the Warriors (as a starter for a night, but still) — Los Angeles is still in the playoff hunt in the West despite a rash of injuries because of Williams. He has been the classic “gunner off the bench” sixth man. Eric Gordon could get in the mix for this award if the Rockets can ever get healthy and send him back to the bench regularly, he has started too much so far. Tyreke Evans has been good as well.

Dan Feldman: Lou Williams
Williams has provided steady, big scoring for the Clippers, who badly need it amid all their injuries. Given that he’s producing in the way most appreciated by voters — scoring — expect him to run away with the actual honor come spring (or summer if the NBA hasn’t given up on its award show).

Dane Carbaugh: Lou Williams
Williams is still one of the best players off the bench in the NBA and he’s having an even better offensive season this year in LA than he did for Houston in 2016-17. His 3-point shooting and assist percentages are up, and his offensive box plus/minus is strong. Is he a net positive? Yes, barely. But Williams is also extremely important for a hobbled Clippers squad lacking CP3, Blake Griffin, and Danilo Gallinari. That sticks it for me.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Brad Stevens
Two coaches have found ways to keep winning despite radically shaken up rosters, Stevens in Boston and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, and that speaks to both the job they have done this season and the culture both have built with their franchise. Third on my ballot right now would be Dwane Casey in Toronto, but there are other coaches on the fringe of this discussion having strong seasons.

Dan Feldman: Gregg Popovich
LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol are his primary big men. Kawhi Leonard has barely played. Effective athletes Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons left in free agency. Yet, the Spurs still rank second in defense. Popovich has done an incredible job of getting everyone to fill their roles on a low-mistake defense.

Dane Carbaugh: Mike D’Antoni
D’Antoni has found a way to integrate both Chris Paul and James Harden into an offensive and defensive scheme that makes sense for the Houston Rockets. There was some real trepidation from fans and writers alike that Paul and Harden would be too much of a good thing: a duplication of services. That has proven not to be the case, and the man that revolutionized the NBA a decade ago has done it again in a new world order.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF YEAR

Kurt Helin: Victor Oladipo
If there is one run-away winner with an award at the mid-season mark, Oladipo with MIP is it. He spent the offseason putting in the work to improve his body, focused on the weaknesses in his game, then when presented the opportunity in Indiana he has thrived. He will be an All-Star and could make an All-NBA team if he keeps playing like this.

Dan Feldman: Victor Oladipo
Cast as a go-to player for the first time in his career, Oladipo is more efficient than ever. He developed a pull-up 3-pointer that’s dangerous on its own, but also opens up so much more for the Pacers.

Dane Carbaugh: Victor Oladipo
This one feels obvious. Oladipo has been the talk of the first half of the season as the Oklahoma City Thunder have floundered with Paul George, who was swapped in exchange for both Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Oladipo looks like a legitimate star after years of uneven development, and he’s made much of the NBA world re-think the value of the PG trade.

BONUS: BEST MOVIE OF 2017

Kurt Helin: The Shape of Water
I still have young children, which means most of my movie-going experiences this year were along the lines of making sure that if I had to sit through “Boss Baby” I at least went to the stylish new theater with a bar. (Not sure I make it through Boss Baby without drinks.) Of the handful of actual movies I saw, I like ones that do a good job creating their own universes, and my two favs were “Baby Driver” and “Shape of Water.”

Dan Feldman: Pitch Perfect 3
I haven’t even seen it yet, but after the first two, I believe it’ll be acca-awesome.

Dane Carbaugh: The Big Sick
2017 wasn’t a great year for movies. Another 38 comic book flicks came out, all with unintelligible titles and the kind of comic relief that plays well with the middle of the bell curve that consumes “The Big Bang Theory” on a nightly basis. Real movies were few and far between, with Get Out, and I, Tonya sticking out of the ones I saw. The Big Sick was solid, but lost some of its striking power in that the true life story felt too unbelievable. It’s packed with a great cast — Holly Hunter and Ray Romano steal the show as the parents — and the result is satisfying. At least it didn’t have Zoe Kazan flying around in space after being blown out of the bridge of a starship.

Report: Kawhi Leonard and Spurs must repair ‘broken’ relationship before San Antonio offers super-max extension

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The Spurs can offer Kawhi Leonard a super-max contract extension – which projects to be worth $219 million over five years – this offseason.

Will they?

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

The relationship between Kawhi Leonard is broken, and it’s got to be put back together again before the Spurs are going to make that kind of commitment to a player. And that’s going to take a lot of talking, communication and some comprise here in the next few months before the Spurs can make that offer. But the idea that an organization like the Spurs are going to just blindly walk in and give the biggest contract in franchise history to a player who has behaved the last few months like he doesn’t want to be a part of them, it’s not going to happen that way. So, there’s a lot of repairing that’s going to be done before they even make that offer, I believe.

Leonard will reportedly meet with San Antonio for an exit interview, and that’s the next big step toward mending fences.

Remember, LaMarcus Aldridge requested a trade last summer. Then, he and Gregg Popovich talked and got on the same page. Aldridge just had an excellent season for the Spurs. Handling unhappy players is part of the job. When they’re as good as Aldridge and Leonard, it’s worth making the effort to find common ground.

If San Antonio finds enough with Leonard to offer him the super-max extension, the next question becomes: Will he sign it? He might prefer to move on.

But nobody is that far. The big benchmark in this process is the Spurs offering or not offering the super-max extension. They must determine whether or not they will.

Report: Heat to explore Hassan Whiteside trade options

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Is there much demand for Hassan Whiteside around the NBA marketplace?

The pro-Whiteside camp can point to some raw numbers: He averaged 14 points and 11.4 rebounds a game this season (and 17 and 14 a season ago), he shot 54 percent from the floor, and had a PER of 24.1.

However, his shortcomings were on full display in the playoffs. In the first two games, when Philadelphia played small, Whiteside didn’t have a place on the court and saw limited minutes. When Joel Embiid returned things got worse — in the three games matched up against Embiid, when Whiteside was on the court the Heat were outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Whiteside played just 10 minutes in Game 5, where he was 0-of-4 from the field, picked up three fouls, and was -14. All through the series, Whiteside complained about his lack of minutes.

Whiteside and Erik Spoelstra are not on the same page, and the Heat would like to move him in a trade… but good luck with that. From Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald.

The Heat is expected to explore a Whiteside trade, with the center due $24.4 million and $27.1 million in the final two years of his contract.

In a tight financial market, the Heat are going to struggle to find a team with the space (or willing to create the space) to take on $51.5 million over two seasons. Even if they do, the Heat are going to have to attach sweeteners — multiple first round picks, or a pick and young players that interest teams (Kelly Olynyk or Bam Adebayo, for example). It’s going to be a lot to give up to get out of that contract. Maybe in the summer of 2019, when the market loosens up and Whiteside is an expiring contract, they more easily can find a deal. This summer it would be difficult.

But expect the Heat (and Whiteside’s agent) to look for a trade. It’s time to part ways, it just may not be that simple to do.

PBT Podcast: What went wrong and what’s next for Trail Blazers?

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It was embarrassing, and left both fans and players of the Trail Blazers angry and frustrated — Portland was unceremoniously swept out of the playoffs by the New Orleans Pelicans.

Now what happens in Portland? Is Terry Stotts in danger as the coach? What about GM Neil Olshey? Would they consider trading C.J. McCollum? Is there any way to offload the contract of Evan Turner?

Kurt Helin and the Northeast’s own Dane Carbaugh of NBC Sports break it all down in this latest podcast, and Blazers fans may not like the answers. The pair also touch on other series around the league, like do the Pelicans have a shot against the Warriors? And, as required by NBA law, they touch on the Sixers run.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Pacers head to Cleveland looking to put pressure back on Cavaliers

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CLEVELAND, Ohio (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are in no better position to pull off a historic upset in this first-round playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers than when they awoke Sunday morning.

The Pacers had a chance to put the Cavs, at the time reeling with playoff inexperience and the crushing weight of expectations with LeBron James, squarely behind the eight ball in this series by winning Game 4.

But Indiana fell behind by a huge deficit in the first half for the second consecutive game, erased it in the third and early fourth quarters again, but couldn’t sustain the momentum. Kyle Korver and James made enough plays down the stretch for the Cavs to win, 104-100, tying this series at 2-2 with Game 5 on Wednesday in Cleveland.

James has never lost a first-round series in 12 previous playoffs. Now, he has two of the next three games at home to try and keep his streak alive.

“I think just tying the series up and coming back home is something we feel good about,” said Kevin Love, who like every other Cav not named James has mostly struggled in this series. “We feel like it’s a best-of-three type series and at the end of the day, if it comes to it, we have two games at home. We like our advantage and we’re going to use that to our advantage (Wednesday) night.”

The Pacers trailed by 17 at halftime of Game 3 but steamrolled the Cavs in the second half and pulled out a 92-90 win behind 30 points from Bojan Bogdanovic, a playoff career high. They were down 10 through two quarters in Game 4 but fought back and were ahead 93-91 with 3:49 remaining before Korver connected on two deep 3s.

Indiana won Game 1 behind a playoff career-high 32 points from Victor Oladipo, who has struggled since (19-of-53 shooting in the last three games). Domantas Sabonis played a big role in the Pacers’ comeback Sunday, scoring a playoff career-best 19 off the bench.

The Pacers are getting the best night of someone’s playoff career almost each game of this series, and it’s been good enough for two wins. Then again, the Cavs’ two wins were by a combined seven points, and outside of James (32.5 ppg this series) almost no one is scoring.

Love is the next closest at 12.0 points in this series and JR Smith is third with 10.0 points.

“We’re not losing confidence,” point guard Darren Collison said, according to the Indianapolis Star. “This team is the defending Eastern Conference champions. Whatever you want to say about them, this is a very good team. They’ve been through a lot over the last few years. We’re fine. There’s no need to overreact or panic. We’re going to go into their building and we’re going to give the same effort.”

The Cavaliers say point guard George Hill (back spasms) is questionable to play in Game 5. He missed Game 4 with the same injury — four injections before the game were not enough to ease the pain to the point where he could play.

Jose Calderon started for Hill on Sunday and scored five points in 19 minutes. The Cavs are 24-9 this year (regular season and playoffs) when Calderon starts.

Hill is the only player on either team listed on the injury report. But Love suffered an injury to his left thumb in Game 1 and it’s affected him. He’s shooting 17-of-47 in the series with 11 turnovers. Catching and gripping the ball have been obvious problems.

“I’ve been able to get up a lot of shots,” Love said. “I think initially it was painful and in the few days that followed, but now it’s kind of subsided and I’m just getting my feel back in my left thumb.”