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.)

Ryan Saunders reportedly likely to stay on as Minnesota head coach

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When Glen Taylor, the owner of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said this a few weeks back, it was pretty clear interim coach Ryan Saunders was probably staying on after the season and getting the job full time.

“I think he has a good chance [to get the job]. It’s like everything, we’re going to wait until we play out these last 20-some games and I think we’ll know and he’ll know at that time if it works out. But he is off to a good start. I would just say I really like him as a person. I have known him since he was a young man, and I am really pleased with how he is starting out coaching this team.”<

Saunders was thrust into the big chair after Jimmy Butler sabotaged the team’s season early on in a push to get out of town, a move that came with a high price coach/GM Tom Thibodeau. Remember Thibodeau wanted to speed up the winning and to get Butler traded Zach LaVine and just drafted Lauri Markkanen, but when Butler didn’t work out in Minny Thibs was doomed.

If you want more evidence that Saunders is staying on, there is this reporting from the well-connected Marc Stein of The New York Times in his weekly newsletter.

Saunders, who turns 33 in April, is known to have a strong relationship with the All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns, who has played some of the best basketball of his career since the departures of Butler and Thibodeau.

The growing expectation around the league is that the credit Saunders will get for his impact on and the buy-in from Towns will more than offset ownership’s disappointment about returning to the draft lottery.

Towns is the franchise cornerstone, one of the top centers and top 10-12 players in the league, if Saunders can get the most out of him — and so far he has — then that is a good reason to keep him around.

When Sauders got the coaching job, Scott Layden took over as GM. His job is not as secure. There have been rumors about Taylor wanting to go big game hunting — specifically Chauncey Billups — but it seems the Timberwolves are likely to go another direction.

Calvin Booth, a Denver executive who the Nuggets hired away from the Timberwolves before the 2017-18 season, is increasingly mentioned as a strong candidate to replace Layden if Taylor does make a change.

Whoever gets the GM job, retooling the Timberwolves roster around Towns will now be difficult — Thibodeau showed no patience and now they are paying the price. Towns’ well-deserved max extension kicks in next season and that gives Minnesota two of max deals for young players — Andrew Wiggins is maxed out as well and an anchor on any rebuild (he has four years at the max after this season, good luck trading that). Don’t forget Gorgui Dieng will make $16.2 million next season. If Jeff Teague opts into his $19 million for next season, the Timberwolves will have very little room to maneuver and shore up the roster.

All of that will make Saunder’s job a real challenge.

Report: Knicks talked Kristaps Porzingis for De’Aaron Fox trade with Kings last draft

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The Knicks had made their minds up and were considering moving on from Kristaps Porzingis long before this trade deadline (when he was sent to Dallas), they were testing the waters all the way back to last June and the draft.

Last draft, the Sacramento Kings had a decision to make, too: How much did they believe in De'Aaron Fox? As a rookie, Fox had shown flashes and promise, but at No. 2 the Kings could pick Luka Doncic (or even Trae Young) and have gone in another direction.

That led to an interesting story from last June’s draft: The Knicks reached out to the Kings about a possible Porzingis for Fox swap, reports Zach Lowe of ESPN (in a fascinating piece on how this season changed things in Sacramento).

Sacramento moved up in the lottery again — to No. 2 — and faced a pivotal moment: the chance to reorient their team around Luka Doncic. Rivals sensed the dilemma and made offers for Fox — including a template from the New York Knicks centered around Kristaps Porzingis that would have required Sacramento to either send something beyond Fox or take unwanted Knicks salary (or both), sources say.

The Kings might have been able to leverage Doncic fever by trading down, but they wanted a guaranteed chance at Marvin Bagley III. The pick doubled as a vote of confidence in Fox. They didn’t need another ball handler. They wanted a springy big who could run with perhaps the league’s fastest player.

The Kings bet big on Fox. In the short term, that has worked out incredibly well for them, Fox made the kind of leap this season that will earn him a lot of Most Improved Player votes. He found his identity in pace and dragged the Kings with him to maybe the most surprising season of any team (and they were everyone’s league pass favorites). Bagley started to come on the second half of the season as he figured out how to fit his game in the NBA. How it works out long term for both teams remains to be seen, but the Kings have to feel good about how things look now.

Talks like this happen more than fans think — a lot of things are explored, very become trades. Kings fans should be glad this one didn’t.

 

Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic undergoes surgery to repair leg, full recovery expected. Eventually.

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As expected, Jusuf Nurkic underwent surgery on Tuesday repair the frightening leg injury he suffered on Monday night, a fractured left tibia and fibula that left his leg bending in a way that no leg should ever bend.

The good news is the surgery went as well as could be hoped, according to the team and Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Even with a successful surgery, this is going to take a long time to come back from.

As Jeff Stotts of In Street Clothes noted, the only comparable injury like this in the NBA was Paul George‘s frightening leg injury with Team USA. George made a full recovery, but it was eight months before he got back on the court and much longer until he was comfortable enough to be the MVP candidate he is this season.

Nurkic had made a leap this season, averaging a career-high 15.4 points per game this season on 50.7 percent shooting. The advanced stats loved him — his PER of 23.1, true shooting percentage of 57, value over replacement player of 3.5, and other advanced stats are all career bests. He was the anchor in the middle of the Portland defense, using his big body to cut off drives on pick-and-rolls. He was serving as a playmaker on offense: When he’d set a high pick for Damian Lillard, teams would trap the guard, Lillard would pass to Nurkic, and the Bosnian had become a good passer or he just take it in and scores himself

All of that came after Nurkic signed a four-year, $48 million contract extension last summer.

His injury also devastates the Blazers heading into the postseason, where they could have been a tough matchup but have now lost a key piece of their puzzle.

 

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving to rest against Cavaliers, his former team

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Kyrie Irving said returning to Cleveland tonight won’t mean anything to him.

He won’t even play.

The Celtics will rest rest the star against his old team, the Cavaliers.

Irving is averaging 23.8 points and the Celtics want to keep him as fresh as possible going into the postseason.

The Celtics have lost four straight and are fifth in the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday night’s game in Cleveland.

Irving played his first six seasons with Cleveland. The six-time All-Star demanded a trade following the 2016-17 season and was dealt to Boston. He hasn’t played in Cleveland since the 2017-18 opener.

Celtics center Al Horford (sore left knee) and forward Jayson Tatum (back contusion) could return Tuesday. Coach Brad Stevens said both were “questionable to probable” at the team’s shootaround.