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.)

Report: Kawhi Leonard warming to playing for Raptors

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Shortly after the Spurs traded Kawhi Leonard to the Raptors, word leaked he didn’t want to play for Toronto.

That stance is apparently softening.

Adrian Wojnarowski on ESPN:

They’ve been in communication with Kawhi Leonard’s camp. He’s going to play. He’ll be in training camp. He’s healthy. He may be at USA Basketball’s minicamp next week which Gregg Popovich is coaching. That’s possible.

But the one thing I was told today he’s started to warm to the idea that he’s going to a contender. He’s got a team that could be as good as anybody in the Eastern Conference.

And now it’s on Toronto to try to recruit him, keep him. But in his mind right now, he’s headed to L.A. next year.

Leonard has little choice but to get on board. If he withheld services from the Raptors, they could fine him – eventually all the way up to his entire $20,099,189 salary for next season. Perhaps even more catastrophically, if it was determined he withheld services for more than 30 days of the season, he could be denied free agency entirely.

Maybe he could have finessed using his injury as an excuse rather than explicitly holding out. It has been threatened before. But that’s hard to manage and would have hurt his stock among all teams, including his preferred destination(s).

The best way for Leonard to get everything he wants is going to Toronto, playing well then becoming a free agent next summer.

I’d advise Leonard to keep an open mind until then. It might have made sense to posture against the Raptors to discourage a trade. But the trade has happened. Maybe he’ll join Toronto and like it more than he expects.

Paul George didn’t expect to stay with the Thunder, but he considered them throughout the season and found a long-term home. I don’t expect that to repeat with Leonard and the Raptors, but it could. Why close the option?

If not, Los Angeles will always be waiting.

Report: Spurs wanted to declare Kawhi Leonard out for the season, but he wouldn’t let them

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In February, Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again during the 2017-18 season. Leonard didn’t, but the Spurs never followed Popovich’s doubt with a clear statement on Leonard’s status. Instead, Popovich repeatedly deferred questions of Leonard’s health in the following months to Leonard’s “group.”

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

Privately, officials within organization had hoped Leonard would let the Spurs declare him out for the season due to his injury, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. Believing he’d eventually return, Leonard declined each time

Did Leonard not realize this made him – not the Spurs – look bad? Especially once it leaked he’d been cleared medically. Especially when he told the team repeatedly and public once he’d return soon but never did.

Perhaps, this was just genuine competitiveness. Maybe Leonard really thought, or at least wanted to believe, a return was around the corner. This could have been him valiantly never giving up.

But there’s a reason teams usually err on the side of caution in long-term injury announcements. It’s to protect the player from looking bad for remaining out if he’s not quite ready as quickly as initially projected.

The Pacers received a disabled-player exception for Paul George in 2014-15, and he still beat the odds to return late in the year. The Celtics called Gordon Hayward out for this season and weren’t going to stray from that public stance until he suited up, even when – for a moment – it appeared he had a chance of returning.

Even if the Spurs publicly declared him out for the rest of the year, nothing would have stopped Leonard from playing. It’s not a binding resolution. Instead, he repeatedly missing targeted return dates and looked soft to many because of it.

And he insisted on the strategy that led to that perception!

This is just more evidence those around Leonard might not know what they’re doing.

Report: Spurs wouldn’t trade Kawhi Leonard to 76ers unless they included Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid

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The 76ers reportedly refused to include Markelle Fultz in trade offers for Kawhi Leonard, which seems misguided to me. Leonard carries major questions about his future, but after his rookie year, so does Fultz! At least Leonard has proven he can reach an elite level. That’s not to say Philadelphia should have definitely dealt Fultz for Leonard. The 76ers definitely have a better understanding of Fultz’s behind-the-scenes progress, and they might have more information on Leonard’s health and willingness to stay long-term. I just wouldn’t have made Fultz a deal-breaker in negotiations.

But it seems the Spurs placed a far more unreasonable restriction on Philadelphia, though.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Spurs made it clear any deal with Philly would require Ben Simmons or Joel Embiid (likely Simmons), and the Sixers weren’t going anywhere near that, league sources say.

Given their age and contract status – and, in Simmons’ case, health – Simmons and Embiid are each way more valuable than Leonard. There’s no way the 76ers would have dealt either of those two for Leonard.

Which apparently took a still-viable suitor off the table for San Antonio.

Between Fultz, Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Zhaire Smith, the Heat’s 2021 first-rounder and Philadelphia’s own picks, the 76ers could have assembled a better package than the Raptors sent the Spurs for Leonard. Maybe the 76ers wouldn’t have. But it would have been worth at least exploring.

It seems San Antonio placed too much on remaining competitive, which led to a deal revolving around DeMar DeRozan. There’s nothing wrong with that strategy per se, but it gets more difficult to defend when the Spurs got so little. In this Western Conference, they could slip out of the playoffs, even with DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl. A long-term approach should have at least been considered.

To be fair, I’d also caution against taking this report at face value with no skepticism. Today, 28 teams – especially those, like Philadelphia, linked to Leonard – are trying to explain why they didn’t get the star. This could easily be the 76ers’ spin and not an accurate reflection of the Spurs’ stance.

But Lowe is a great reporter, and I tend to trust this – which raises red flags about San Antonio.

NBA players bothered by Raptors trading DeMar DeRozan

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DeMar DeRozan is clearly upset with the Raptors for trading him (for Kawhi Leonard).

Is DeRozan’s frustration justified?

To a certain extent, he’s entitled to feel however he wants. I would never tell him his reaction is “wrong.”

But that’s not the same as endorsing his outlook. Should we rally behind him and hold Toronto accountable for mistreating him? Answering that question relies on so much hearsay, I’m not sure it’s possible to answer fairly.

In what I find a telling illustration of the situation, ESPN has updated its story on the trade multiple times today. In an early version:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto brass in Las Vegas during summer league and was told he would not be traded.

That got changed to:

Sources close to DeRozan told ESPN’s Chris Haynes that DeRozan met with Toronto officials in Las Vegas during summer league and believed that he would not be traded.

That’s a subtle, but meaningful, distinction.

Did the Raptors tell DeRozan he wouldn’t be traded? Different people involved in the conversation would probably give different answers.

Did DeRozan take away that Toronto wouldn’t trade him? It seems so, and maybe it’s because team officials told him that directly. But it’s also possible he misinterpreted team officials. Not that he’s willing to grant that possibility.

David Aldridge of NBA.com:

Without being privy to the exact wording, I don’t know where to side.

Unsurprisingly, other players are backing DeRozan – some publicly and quite strongly, others anonymously.

Lou Williams:

Isaiah Thomas:

Damian Lillard:

Anthony Morrow:

Enes Kanter:

Chris Haynes of ESPN:

DeRozan meant a lot to the Raptors, and he deserves a proper sendoff. But some of this strikes me as an overreaction.

The Spurs didn’t thank Leonard in their press release, either. Both teams posted cursory messages of gratitude on social media to their outgoing players. Gregg Popovich held a press conference today and said many kind things about Leonard, though. The main difference appears to be Masai Ujiri just hasn’t happened to hold his press conference yet. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t effusively praise DeRozan in it.

And to Kanter’s claim the Raptors gave away DeRozan for nothing? They got Kawhi freaking Leonard.

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the spotlight-seeking Kanter just saying something outlandish to draw attention.

Even if that were Kanter’s intent, that just feeds into this spiraling into a bigger deal than it probably should be.

If the Raptors told DeRozan they wouldn’t trade him, they shouldn’t have done that. If they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him while they were secretly putting the final touches on this deal, they shouldn’t have done that.

But if they told DeRozan they didn’t plan to trade him and truly didn’t at that moment, I wouldn’t blame them. Plans can change, and it would have done them no good to warn DeRozan of that possibility. If he expected more loyalty, that’s on him.

Ujiri will get a chance to explain himself. So will DeRozan – though his narrative is already gaining significant traction, especially among his peers. Maybe we’ll actually become positioned to make an outside judgment.

Most likely, this will remain a he-said, he-said situation that wanes in significance. DeRozan will probably play hard in San Antonio and grow to enjoy it there. Players – even, I bet, including DeRozan – will forgive the Raptors in time. As much furor as these things evoke in the moment, players rarely hold a grudge to the point of avoiding franchises.

But for now, Toronto is dealing with a perception hit right as it begins its courtship of one of the NBA’s top players, Leonard.