First half of NBA season awards, second half predictions

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So much for the little rest stop in Orlando. It was fun.

The breakneck pace of the NBA’s condensed post-lockout season picks up again Tuesday night. The pedal goes to the metal and we head for the playoffs.

Before the engines fully rev up again, we’re going to take stock. But rather than just give you some midseason awards, we’ll give you some thoughts on if these players and teams can keep it up.

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat
In the second half: LeBron should be able to keep up his pace because what he’s done — 27.1 points per game on 54.7 percent shooting with 8 rebounds and 6 assists per game — is not happening just because he’s simply on a hot streak. He’s matured his game, he’s getting better looks in transition with the Heat’s up-tempo offense and because he’s traded in some threes for shots in the post. If he does falter a little, Kevin Durant is there to scoop up the pieces, with Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose lurking.

Top Team in East: Miami Heat
In the second half: The East is a two team race, Miami and Chicago. The Bulls may have the better record right now but the Heat have been the better side of late. If both teams are fully healthy, I think the Heat are the better squad, but the gap is so narrow that nagging little injuries, a hot bench player, just about anything can swing that series. The Eastern Conference Finals are going to be epic.

Top Team in West: Oklahoma City Thunder
In the second half: The Thunder are one of the true elite teams, one of the NBA’s contenders. Yet, there are moments you wonder about OKC and their end-of-game execution, their play that seems to go a bit too isolation, there is a feeling among some scouts in the league they can be stopped. Except nobody has really done it. Who in the West can really best them? San Antonio? Dallas? The Lakers? None of them without making a trade. The Clippers may be the most likely, but they strike me as OKC a year ago, a team learning to win. The Thunder likely will come out of the West and they will push anyone in the East in the finals.

Most Disappointing Team: Boston Celtics
In the second half: You knew that the condensed schedule would be hard on the Celtics older legs (as we expected and have seen with the Lakers and for stretches the Mavericks and Spurs). But in Boston, it’s not just the losses (or 15-16 record), it’s how the losses are happening that gives you feeling they held on too long and there is no way to salvage this short term. Rajon Rondo seems more testy than normal (throwing the ball at the ref? Really?). The defense is still good but come the playoffs will that be enough? Danny Ainge may make a big move, if he can find one he likes.

Biggest surprise player: Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks
In the second half: Lin may not keep dropping 20 a night consistently, but he doesn’t have to — he has to learn to mesh with Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and now J.R. Smith. If he can, the Knicks could be the third best team in the NBA entering the playoffs (not by record, but by how they are playing). But Deron Williams said over the weekend that other point guards are seeing the hype around Lin and they are gearing up for him. It’s something to watch.

Coach of the year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers
In the second half: The Sixers started out playing fantastic team ball — good defense and a balanced offense. But that has fallen off since Spencer Hawes got hurt, he is the guy who made their offense work because he moved the ball side-to-side quickly. The ball gets stuck now and they are easier to defend. And Hawes is going to be out at least another couple of weeks. My guess is the Sixers slip and we can move Gregg Popovich into the coach of the year spot — he has the Spurs playing fantastic ball this season, as he did last year. He deserves it.

Report: Rival teams expect Paul George to consider 1+1 contract with Thunder

AP Photo/Chris Szagola
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Paul George has openly stated the appeal of playing for his hometown Lakers. He has also openly stated the appeal of staying with the Thunder.

That has created significant confusion about his upcoming free agency.

Could George find a compromise outcome?

Marc Stein of The New York Times in his newsletter:

More than one rival team has suggested to me that they expect George to strongly consider a two-year deal with the Thunder at $30.3 million next season and $32.7 million in 2019-20 that includes a player option to return to free agency next summer.

This makes sense on paper.

A 1+1 contract would give George more time to determine whether he and Russell Westbrook can win together in Oklahoma City without getting stuck there long-term if they can’t. The Thunder were starting to put it together when Andre Roberson got hurt. Perhaps, Roberson getting healthy would swing Oklahoma City’s fortunes.

George would also be eligible for a higher max salary in two years – 35% of the salary cap, up from 30% if he signs now. So, a short-term contract would allow him to maximize his potential earnings.

But George said he wanted to sign somewhere long-term this summer. He also suffered an extremely gruesome leg injury just a few years ago. He might not want to bypass guaranteed money to gamble for a little more later.

Are these rival teams just looking at the general outlook for a player in George’s position without considering his specific circumstances? Or do they know something? George could have informed teams he might become available in 2019 or 2020 so they should prepare.

I’m skeptical this is more than speculation by opposing teams. But the possibility that they’re basing their expectations on inside information makes this worth monitoring.

Heartbreaking: Watch Mikal Bridges explain joy of joining hometown 76ers while they trade him to Suns (video)

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Mikal Bridges‘ mom jumped up, pumped her fists and screamed “Yes!” through her giant grin.

The 76ers – the organization she works for in human resources – had just drafted her son No. 10 overall. Bridges, a Philadelphia native who played at Villanova, seemed as if he’d stay home for his pro career.

Bridges:

She’s very, very excited. She’s been wanting this. She’s probably more excited than I am. She was about to cry and all that. She said she didn’t want to ruin her makeup, so she’d try to hold it in. But no, she’s very excited. I’m her only son. I’m a little mama’s boy. Her son is right there around the corner again, and it’s just really cool.

Except, as Bridges was talking, the 76ers were trading him to the Suns for No. 16 pick Zhaire Smith and the Heat’s unprotected 2021 first-rounder.

That extra pick carries major value. Even if you like Bridges much more than Smith – which I did, especially considering their fits in Philadelphia – that’s hard to pass up. The NBA is a business after all.

But it’s lamentable how this played out.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: ‘My team is a super team. Just young’

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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The Kings drafted Marvin Bagley No. 2 last night (seemingly for bad reasons, which doesn’t at all eliminate him from being the right pick but makes it less likely he is). He’ll join a young core also comprised of Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.

That group excite you?

Kings general manager Vlade Divac isn’t reducing expectations.

Lina Washington of ABC 10:

To be fair, in 2012, the Warriors were coming off a 23-43 season with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson already on the roster and had just drafted Draymond Green and Harrison Barnes. Everyone would’ve laughed at calling Golden State a “super team, just young” then. But those four (plus Andre Iguodala) eventually led the Warriors to a championship.

But, really: Nah.

Entering the 2016-17 season, then-Knicks guard Derrick Rose said, “They’re saying us and Golden State are the super teams.” We mocked Rose relentlessly, and of course, the Warriors went 73-9 while New York finished just 32-50.

How long until Divac’s young super team reaches even 32-50?

Spurs GM still optimistic relationship with Kawhi Leonard can be salvaged

Associated Press
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — General manager R.C. Buford acknowledges star forward Kawhi Leonard is unhappy with the Spurs.

He remains optimistic the relationship can be salvaged.

Leonard has requested a trade from San Antonio because he is unhappy after missing most of last season with a right quadriceps injury. Buford would not comment on “speculation” of a trade demand, but agreed there is a fractured relationship between Leonard and the only franchise he has played for.

“Kawhi and his family mean a lot to the organization and to the community and while none of wish we are where we are, we’re going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said Thursday night as the Spurs made two late picks in the NBA Draft. “We’ll explore all of our options, but the first one would be to do what we can to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”

Leonard missed the first 27 games of the season but returned to play in nine games. He complained of discomfort and pain in the leg in his final game. Leonard sought an outside opinion after the Spurs cleared him to play, working with his own medical team in New York in an attempt to return to the court. The 6-foot-7 forward reportedly grew upset that the Spurs had questioned his rehabilitation process.

The Spurs listed him as out on their injury reports for much of the year citing “injury management.” While San Antonio was in the playoffs, losing in the first round to eventual repeat champion Golden State, Leonard was rehabbing in New York – which meant that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, when asked for the situation, deferred all comment to “Kawhi and his group.”

“I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently,” Buford said.

The Spurs held a team meeting late in the season where veterans, led by Tony Parker, implored Leonard to return. Leonard said he was unable to due to the injury.

In the 2016-17 season, Leonard averaged a career-best 25.5 points and was third in the MVP voting. The 2014 NBA Finals MVP and two-time NBA defensive player of the year is due just over $20 million next season, and can become a free agent in the summer of 2019. He is eligible to sign a $220 million extension with San Antonio.

He is reportedly willing to walk away from that to play elsewhere, possibly in Los Angeles.

“I don’t know that timing is a factor in this from today … he’s under contract for another year, our goal is to keep him as part of our program for a long time,” Buford said.