PBT’s Mid-Season NBA Awards: Curry, Harden, and love for Budenholzer

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We’re at the mid-way point of the NBA season — it’s time to hand out some virtual hardware.

Or, at least who we think should take home the NBA award hardware at this point. There’s still half a season to go and so every race is still open to change… except maybe Rookie of the Year.

The races feel wide open because some of the obvious front-runners have been injured and/or off their game — before the season everyone thought that MVP would be a two-horse race between Kevin Durant and LeBron James, but as of right now neither might make the top five for that award. So it goes on down the line.

The entire team at ProBasketballTalk — Kurt Helin, Brett Pollakoff, Dan Feldman and Sean Highkin — voted on all the major end-of-the-year awards and we’ve laid out our choices below below, with a little explanation of the thinking on each. As noted above, this is who would get our vote as of today, this list could look very different come the end of the season.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Kurt, Dan, Sean): Offensively he is a force of nature and is the only player in the NBA in the top 10 in scoring (23.2 per game), assists (8 per game) and he is doing it efficiently — he is taking 16.4 shots a game, and has a ridiculous true shooting percentage of .636. However, the real reason he’s the best player on the best player on the best team is his improved defense. It’s not just the 2.1 steals per game it’s his ability to fight over picks, plus his improved help defense. This race is far from over — with Kevin Durant and LeBron James down this season the field is wide open — but Curry is making a strong case for the MVP. —KH

James Harden, Houston Rockets (Brett): Stephen Curry has been the best player on the league’s best team, and usually that’s enough to warrant MVP consideration. But James Harden has simply been otherworldly offensively, and much more valuable to his team’s overall success. Harden leads the league in scoring, has scored 40 or more points on four separate occasions, and led the Rockets to an 8-3 record while Dwight Howard was sidelined due to injury. Curry may be able to similarly carry his team, but the wealth of talent in Golden State means he hasn’t had to. Harden has, and he’s more than risen to that challenge. —BP

ROOKIE OF THE HALF YEAR

Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves (unanimous): This category has felt cursed with guys like Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle out of the running due to injuries. But let’s not take away from the fact Andrew Wiggins has become a real shooter — he hit 39 percent from three in January — and is regularly notching 20 point games to go with his already solid defense and off the charts athleticism. This is not the most impressive rookie class so far, but Wiggins is starting to look like he could be special. He is developing quickly. —KH

COACH OF THE HALF YEAR

Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks (unanimous): There is a reason the Spurs didn’t want to see Budenholzer leave, that they wanted him to take over for Popovich someday, and you’re seeing it in Atlanta. The culture of selfless basketball, the player movement and ball movement, getting guys to buy in is all very Spursian and Budenholzer has brought it to Atlanta. Oh, and he’s got this team defending as well. Steve Kerr might be second in this race, he’s done a good job, but nobody has exceeded expectations and changed the feel of a team like Budenholzer. —KH

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SIXTH MAN OF THE HALF YEAR

Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors (Brett): It often takes two seasons for someone to fully recover from knee surgery and Williams is the poster child for that, bouncing back this season for the Raptors to score 15 points a game in better than 24 minutes a night. His athleticism has returned and with that he is attacking and getting to the line 4.8 times a game. He’s the energy the Raptors needed off the bench and is putting up numbers that warrant him winning the award.

Marreese Speights, Golden State Warriors (Kurt, Sean): While he’s playing fewer minutes (just below 19 a game) than any of the other candidates for this rather wide open award, he’s having a huge impact. There are the raw numbers of 12.6 points and 5.1 rebounds a game, but Speights is putting up his numbers far more efficiently than his competition with a .568 true shooting percentage and a 21.2 PER. Speights is also the best defensive player of the candidates, and is a central part of the Warriors’ league-best defense. —KH

Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers (Dan): Sixth Man of the Year is a wide-open race with at least a dozen legitimate candidates. I went with Thompson, who’s averaging 9.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, because he’s filled a large role while clearly making his team better when on the court. To be fair, Thompson earned a lot of his value while starting for an injured Anderson Varejao, but the award’s criteria doesn’t separate production when starting vs. coming off the bench. The only rule is a player must come off the bench more than he starts, which Thompson has (31 games off the bench, 11 starts). With Timofey Mozgov stepping in, Thompson probably won’t deserve this honor at the end of the year, but for the season’s first half, he’s got my vote. —DF

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE HALF YEAR

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Kurt, Dan): You really need to watch Golden State’s league-best defense to see how Draymond Green is key, how he is the glue that makes it work and how he should be DPOY. The advanced stats show it, he leads the NBA in defensive rating and defensive win shares. If you get caught up in his traditional numbers — not bad at 1.5 blocks and 1.4 steals a game but not eye popping — you miss the point. This is more like Marc Gasol winning a couple of years ago, when you watched closely he deserved it. There are other deserving candidates this year but Green should be at the top of the list. —KH

Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs (Sean): Father time is losing the foot race with Duncan and he has anchored another strong year from the Spurs defense. Duncan has some raw numbers — two blocks a game while being in the top-five of both defensive rating and defensive win shares — but it is his intangibles leading that defense and make the Spurs dangerous. It doesn’t matter what age he is. —KH

DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers (Brett): Remember that part of defense is rebounding — you need to end the other team’s possession — and nobody has been better at that this season than Jordan, who is pulling down 13.4 boards a game. Combine that with his 2.4 blocks a game (second in the league) and you have a guy in charge of the glass when he is on the court.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF THE HALF YEAR

Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls (Kurt, Brett, Dan): If you’re going to improve, do it in a contract year. Butler and the Bulls couldn’t agree on a contract extension number and now the Bulls are going to really pay for him because in addition to his quality defense Butler has found his shooting stroke, hitting 39.7 percent from three (up from 28.3 percent a year ago), and is shooting 46.5 percent overall (up from 39.7 percent last season). He’s averaging 20.6 points a game for an improved Bulls offense, and while he’s been in a bit of a slump the past few weeks he’s still the leader in this category. —KH

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors (Sean): Under head coach Steve Kerr Green has jumped both in his production and role to become a key part of the West’s best team in the first half. He’s scoring more points (11.5 a game) but is doing it more efficiently and he is taking more threes and helping spread the floor for a team that loaded with dangerous shooters. He’s also a very good defender who has been the glue for making what the Warriors do on that end work. His improvement, and the trust Kerr has shown in him, make him a Sixth Man of the Year.

Rumor: Al Horford thinks 4-year, $100 million contract awaits him in free agency

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Things have already gone sideways for the Boston Celtics. Kyrie Irving is set to leave, reportedly for the Brooklyn Nets. Al Horford opted out of his contract with the team this week, and reports have it that the integral big man is looking to go elsewhere.

Horford had $30 million left on his contract at age 33, so there had to be some belief that he would get a job elsewhere for more money than the Celtics would be willing to pay. Now, according to a new report, that is exactly the case.

It was floated on Tuesday night that Horford already knew that somebody was looking to sign him to another long-term deal. New York Times writer Marc Stein tweeted as much late Tuesday night, saying that Horford and his camp believe there is a deal around $100 million waiting for him in free agency.

Via Twitter:

It is — and we can’t stress this enough — freaking June. It’s literally and figuratively too early for this.

We all laughed last season about the arbitrary deadlines of free agency creeping forward. Deals were already done well before it was permitted to actually sign free agents in July. But this… is getting ridiculous.

Horford is a leader, the glue that apparently kept the Celtics from breaking apart last season. Reports surfaced this week that Brad Stevens’ dedication to former Butler Bulldog Gordon Hayward was at least one reason for the team chemistry starting to unfurl.

Whichever team grabs Horford will be getting a player who still has much left to give, and who can help guide a team into the playoffs. Whether he’s heading to a contender or an overpaying bottom-feeder, we don’t yet know.

This league just keeps getting weirder and weirder.

Daryl Morey denies that Chris Paul requested trade in James Harden dispute

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Things are not all that great for the Houston Rockets. They were bounced in the second round by the Golden State Warriors, and Chris Paul and James Harden appear to be at each other’s throats.

There been reports that Paul and Harden have each issued ultimatums to team management asking the executive branch to instigate a trade. This of course essentially means that the Rockets need to look for a trade partner for Paul.

The problem is that Paul has a massive $125 million left on his deal. It was an insane sum when Paul signed it, but the thought was that even a declining CP3 would be able to help the Rockets as they went all-out expecting a Warriors decline.

But Rockets GM Daryl Morey has refuted the idea that either player has issued an ultimatum. Morey told Marc Stein of the New York Times as much, and reiterated this stance on ESPN radio on Tuesday.

Morey is a veteran general manager, and openly noting that a player has requested a trade cuts his leverage. It has been widely reported that Morey has been looking for trades for Paul and his gargantuan contract for some time, with no apparent taker as of yet.

Now is the time to jump on things in the West. The Warriors are weak, particularly with injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson. Who knows what that roster will look like next season (and beyond)?

Houston has been the perennial contender against Golden State in the playoffs, but now they appear to be bursting apart at the seams. Morey is one of the best general managers in the NBA, and he has a history of taking big risks and turning wheat into gold. But until he can offload Paul’s contract, things will be tenuous in Texas.

Report: Brad Stevens’ dedication to Gordon Hayward caused chemistry issues with Celtics

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Things are not all well in Boston. The Celtics are already in a free fall when it comes to free agency, and it’s not yet July. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are reportedly poised not to return to TD Garden next year. Now, a team that was aiming for the NBA Finals next year could be in serious trouble.

Things have quickly fallen apart for Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens, who are left with a team that also has an apparent enemy in one of the biggest agencies in Klutch Sports. Boston reportedly backed out of serious offers in trade negotiations with the New Orleans Pelicans in part because they felt as though Klutch client Anthony Davis would not re-sign after one year.

Basketball is a game of chemistry, and the Celtics seemed to lose theirs over the course of the year. At least externally, it appeared Boston was disintegrating. Now, according to a report from Jackie MacMullan, we have some confirmation of this rift.

Via NBC Sports Boston:

“You hate to pick on Gordon Hayward because he was coming back from injury and he was doing the best he could, but I really think that’s where it started,” she said. “They were force feeding him on his teammates, Brad [Stevens] knew Gordon well, he wanted to get his confidence back.

“I would contend that Brad Stevens would have done that for any player on that roster that had a catastrophic injury, he would want to fill him with that same confidence, but that’s not what happened,” MacMullan continued. “He gave the benefit of the doubt over and over to a player that wasn’t ready, to a guy who had history with him, and it rankled that locker room, and it bothered that locker room.”

The Celtics have a roster on paper that should have been good enough to get them deep into the playoffs. But Hayward returned and never really looked like himself, and Stevens devoting his faith to his former Butler Bulldog was obviously misplaced.

Chemistry issues for Boston we’re not all to blame on Stevens and Hayward. Irving is perennially mercurial. Given a situation where he got his own team (whatever that means) he didn’t lead the way folks were expecting.

Unless something drastic can be done — and don’t put it past Danny Ainge to get wild — Boston could be taking a step back next season.

Their saving grace, ironically, could be a fully healthy Hayward who has more reign to do what he wants and an unrestricted role on offense. We’ll see how that goes.

Report: Kawhi Leonard focusing on Clippers in free agency

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Kawhi Leonard might not be with the Toronto Raptors next season. That much has been apparent ever since the Raptors traded for Leonard last year, but the team did just win the 2019 NBA Finals. You know what they say: winning fixes everything.

But we are now into the thick of the NBA offseason, and that means crazy rumors and a wild game of Free agency musical chairs. Leonard could end up in many places, including Toronto. But the talk all along has been how Leonard prefers to land in Los Angeles.

The only problem for fans in L.A. county? His landing spot is unlikely to be the Los Angeles Lakers.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, Leonard’s focused on Los Angeles but only with the Clippers. In Wojnarowski’s opinion, Leonard is not interested in joining LeBron James and Anthony Davis as a third wheel on a superstar, big three type of Team. Instead, Leonard wants to have his own team match the way he does in Toronto. That could easily be the case with the Clippers.

Via ESPN:

The Lakers are trying to open up enough cap space for a third max-level player, which Leonard obviously is. But if things stand how they are now, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers will need to go elsewhere to find a third star to play alongside LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

Obviously the Lakers would be better suited by using their cap space to fill out their roster around their two superstars, but they probably won’t do that. In the end, Leonard focusing on the Clippers seems like the right choice.