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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.

Nuggets struck gold by drafting Nikola Jokic in second round. Now what?

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DETROIT – Asked whether he’s becoming a leader on the Nuggets, Nikola Jokic shook his head then turned to Gary Harris in the adjoining locker.

“Do you think I’m a leader?” Jokic asked.

“Who?” Harris responded.

“Me,” Jokic said.

“No,” Harris said.

“See,” Jokic said, turning back to me. “That’s what I’m talking about.”

It’s not entirely clear whether Jokic is serious or showing the self-deprecating humor of someone nicknamed The Joker.

Denver is trying to be patient with Jokic – a 22-year-old former second-round pick – but his production and contract status demand his ascent be expedited.

Jokic has arguably been the Nuggets’ best player every season of his three-year career. He definitely is now.

And that has caused Denver to adjust its plan on the fly – all for a player drafted No. 41 in 2014 and who entered the NBA in 2015.

Jusuf Nurkic was coming off a promising All-Rookie second-team season when the Nuggets signed Jokic. It was quickly clear there’d be complications with the two centers coexisting, but Nurkic’s injuries and second-year slump delayed adjudication. Finally, the Nuggets traded Nurkic to the Trail Blazers. Once Jokic became a starter in mid-December, Denver led the NBA in points per possession the rest of last season.

“His rapid development last year kind of changed how we view our organizational development,” Nuggets president Tim Connelly said. “His unique skill set is something we think we can build around.”

Jokic is a generationally good passer for a center, and he works in so many offensive sets. He posts up, screens on pick-and-rolls, spots up and cuts. He finishes well at the rim, and his range extends through the mid-range to beyond the arc, though he’s not quite a knockdown 3-point shooter. He’s a good rebounder on both ends of the floor.

But he’s not much a rim protector. His slow foot speed, especially laterally, hampers him in space defensively.

Power forwards who complement Jokic on both sides of the court are rare, but Denver found one in Paul Millsap, who can space the floor and cut strongly offensively and safeguard the interior and switch on the perimeter defensively. The Nuggets signed the 32-year-old to a contract worth $61 million over the first two years and with a $30.5 million team option for the third season – a clear win-now response to Jokic’s readiness to win.

On the other hand, Jokic’s youth presents a long window for success. Before the season, Denver also waived Jameer Nelson, a veteran point guard whom Nuggets coach Michael Malone often leaned on as a crutch when younger options were undependable. That forced Denver to rely on 20-year-old Jamal Murray and 21-year-old Emmanuel Mudiay at point guard. Murray has grown in his starting role and looks like a foundational piece with Jokic. Mudiay couldn’t hack it in the rotation and was replaced by Will Barton, who also plays wing. After all, the Nuggets (24-23, eighth in the Western Conference) are trying to win this season.

It’s a tough balancing act, and the next big question comes with Jokic’s team option next summer.

Jokic is due the minimum salary ($1,600,520) in 2018-19, and that’s obviously a huge bargain. But if Denver exercises the option, he’d become an unrestricted free agent in 2019. By declining Jokic’s option, the Nuggets could make him a restricted free agent this year.

As a restricted free agent, Jokic could probably draw a max offer sheet – which projects to be worth about $109 million over four years (about $27 million annually) – that Denver would surely match. In a direct offer, the Nuggets’ max projects to be about $146 million over five years (about $29 million annually).

Jokic is worth the investment at either price. There’s value in securing him for an extra season during his prime.

But the Nuggets hold leverage. They could condition declining his option on him pledging to accept a sub-max, but still large, contract. After all, that’d still be his quickest ticket to a life-altering payday. That route would require trust, but – Carlos Boozer and the Cavaliers potentially excepted – everyone usually follows through on those informal agreements.

Of course, if Denver offers too little, Jokic could wait until 2019 free agency. There’s even a case for delaying a new contract even with a max offer this summer. If he makes an All-NBA team in 2018-19, he’d be eligible for a super-max contract the following summer. That projects to be worth about $188 million over five years (about $38 million annually) – enough to offset a smaller salary, either the team-option amount or qualifying offer, next season.

To make this even more complex, the possibility of a super-max offer in 2019 could lead the Nuggets to exercise Jokic’s option. They could leverage his low salary next season then have potentially an even larger leg up financially over other suitors in 2019.

Keeping Jokic’s salary low next season is particular important, because Denver already has $110,169,322 committed to 12 players (Millsap, Gary Harris, Kenneth Faried, Mason Plumlee, Wilson Chandler, Darrell Arthur, Emmanuel Mudiay, Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, Juan Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Tyler Lydon). Maxing out Jokic could push the Nuggets so far into the luxury tax that trading either Faried or Plumlee alone wouldn’t be enough to avoid paying it. Chandler ($12,800,562) and/or Arthur ($7,464,912) opting out would provide relief, but moving Plumlee (due $12,917,808 and $14,041,096 the next two seasons) and/or Faried (due $13,764,045 next season) won’t be easy.

In simple terms, Denver has two choices:

  • Keep Jokic’s salary absurdly low next season, but risk he walks in 2019 unrestricted free agency
  • Pay Jokic big money beginning next season, but lose flexibility to spend on his supporting cast

Declining Jokic’s option then leveraging restricted free agency to re-sign him long-term is the safest path.

“I can say with complete certainty that Nikola is going to be here for a long, long time,” Connelly said. “We love him. I think he loves us.”

Whenever Jokic gets his massive raise, it’ll be overdue based on his production. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game. Denver plays like a 55-win team with him on the floor and a 27-win team without him, based on points scored and allowed.

He theoretically could have signed a shorter contract initially, proven himself then hit free agency sooner. But he expected to acclimate slowly from the Adriatic League to the NBA, and he appreciated the long-term security a four-year deal afforded.

There’s less slow-playing now, though.

The Nuggets are throwing more on his plate, and that starts defensively.

“Last year, I don’t think he played much defense at all,” Malone said.

Jokic’s athletic limitations will probably prevent him from ever being an elite defender. But his size and basketball intelligence give him a chance to hold his own as a positional defender – if he puts in the effort. Jokic has dedicated himself more this season, and as a result, Denver’s defense has gone from awesome to middling.

The Nuggets also want Jokic to become a more aggressive scorer. He’s such a willing passer, and he’s always looking to make what the right play would be if all players were equal. But they’re not. Denver is 10-4 when Jokic attempts at least 15 shots and 14-19 otherwise.

“He takes greater satisfaction out of making his teammates better than he does scoring himself,” Malone said. “…He needs to be a guy that’s looking to score, regardless if he’s double-teamed or not.”

These are good problems to have. Teammates love the player who’s too unselfish, and so do executives.

“As a person, he embodies everything that we’re trying to be organizationally in terms of work ethic and team-first mentality,” Connelly said.

Those are great traits for a young second-round pick as he develops. But the best player on a team is inevitably turned to for leadership.

So, back to the original question: Is Jokic ready to lead?

“He has some natural leadership ability in terms of, he’s a connector,” Connelly said. “Everyone in the locker room really likes him on and off the court. But we also don’t want to force something prematurely. He’s still a kid.

“We don’t want to put too much weight on his shoulders.

“We’re going to let him grow up on his own timeline.”

There’s no blueprint here. If named an All-Star this year, Jokic – who turns 23 the day after the game – would be the youngest-ever All-Star drafted below No. 30. Heck, even if he doesn’t become an All-Star until next year, he’d still be the youngest All-Star picked below No. 30 in what anyone would consider the modern-draft era.

There’s plenty of time to wait for Jokic to come fully into his own.

But it also might already Jokic’s time already.

Clippers go to third-string coach after Doc Rivers and Mike Woodson ejected (video)

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Remember when Doc Rivers vowed last year to stop getting technical fouls? He actually followed through for the rest of the season.

But the pledge apparently expired with the season.

Rivers got a technical foul and ejection late in the Clippers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night. Lead assistant Mike Woodson followed suit before play even resumed.

That meant assistant coach Sam Cassell – who already got his own technical foul earlier in the game! – took over for the final 7.4 seconds.

Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. throws down 360 dunk against Wizards (video)

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The Wizards are in a rough place.

They’ve lost three of four, including a 23-point setback to the Mavericks last night, and Dennis Smith Jr. is out here practicing for a dunk contest on them.

Report: Damian Lillard meets with Trail Blazers owner, but doesn’t request trade as Paul Allen feared

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Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen was reportedly investigating whether his team’s problem was roster or coaching. In other words, it sounded as if he were determining whether he should fire general manager Neil Olshey or coach Terry Stotts amid a disappointing season. Portland has the NBA’s fifth-largest payroll and is on track to pay the luxury tax, but the team is just 25-22 and seventh in the Western Conference.

In these turbulent times, Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard – who has strongly supported Stotts publicly – wanted to address Allen directly.

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

Portland Trail Blazers star point guard Damian Lillard met with team owner Paul Allen to gather an understanding of the organization’s direction, league sources told ESPN.

Lillard, who turns 28 on July 15, requested the meeting in part to reaffirm his commitment to the only professional franchise he has ever suited up for, but also to gain assurances that the organization was just as devoted to expeditiously crafting a title-contending team, sources said.

In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Allen feared Lillard would request a trade, sources said, but a trade request was not made.

The meeting, which sources described as a productive, open forum to share opinions and express concerns, could also lead to more sit-downs in the future.

Lillard issued a heartfelt vote of confidence for head coach Terry Stotts, sources said.

They also discussed players to target.

In addition, Lillard sought an explanation from Allen as to why Will Barton was traded to Denver in February of 2015, sources said. Lillard made it known he didn’t agree with the move.

The Trail Blazers traded Barton, because he wasn’t ready to lock down a rotation spot. They got Arron Afflalo, who was more ready to help a team still trying to win with LaMarcus Aldridge. The move was completely logical at the time, and it’s the type of gripe brought up now because Barton has developed with the Nuggets, and Portland is frustrated and in a funk.

Lillard surely suggested win-now moves leading up to the trade deadline, because that’s what players prioritize. I wouldn’t be surprised if Allen would rather shed a few million in salary to avoid the luxury tax in an underwhelming season.

How would Lillard feel about that? Did this meeting open a productive line of communication? Or would he just feel ignored?

Lillard has repeatedly pledged his loyalty to the Trail Blazers. A trade request would have been a huge reversal from his public statements. But did Allen have any reason to suspect Lillard would ask out other than the meeting request and Portland’s middling record?

That Lillard would seek this meeting shows his growth as a player. He’s taking an active role in his team’s fortunes, spreading his reach beyond the court – or at least trying to.

The big question now: Where will that lead him and the Trail Blazers?