Our Midseason NBA awards: MVP, Defensive Player of Year, Coach of Year, much more

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The NBA has no chill — Most Valuable Player talk started the first week of the season. Now that we’re about halfway through the campaign we have seen enough games, we have enough data to start saying who is the frontrunner for the NBA’s end-of-season awards. Here is who we have at the halfway point of the season.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Kurt Helin: James Harden (Houston Rockets)

This is basically a coin flip for me between Harden — who has been good all season on offense and has surged of late carrying the Rockets back up the standings — and Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has been more consistent on both ends of the court this season (and is by far the better defender of the two). Can Harden sustain this level of play long enough to win the award? I have Anthony Davis a clear third and then a host of players going for the final couple spots on the ballot: LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Joel Embiid, and others.

Dan Feldman: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Anthony Davis nearly got the nod. James Harden is surging. LeBron James could get into the race if he gets healthy soon. But Antetokounmpo has been consistently excellent all season. The Bucks’ system is built for Antetokounmpo to shine, and he’s doing it.

Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

If you use your head and check the statistics, you could come up with a couple other options outside of the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for MVP. James Harden immediately comes to mind. But if I am casting my vote here by who I think is going to win MVP, then Antetokounmpo is the clear-cut favorite. The NBA’s Most Valuable Player is as much about narrative as it is about on-court play, and Antetokounmpo is the man with the story and the stats to back it up. His per 100 rebounds, assists, and scoring are all on the rise, and he leads the league in defensive box plus/minus. I’m comfortable picking the guy from little ol’ Milwaukee any day.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

We knew coming into the draft last June Doncic was the most decorated European player ever entering the draft — he was the MVP of the second best league in the world — but some still questioned his athleticism and if his game would translate. GMs would rather miss on a player from Duke or Kentucky than Europe (less backlash). Well, the Mavs are Doncic team already and they are in the playoff mix in the West. Doncic isn’t just a ROY, he could be an All-Star. I would have Jaren Jackson Jr. second ahead of Deandre Ayton (Jackson getting it done on both ends for a team that, at least until the last couple of weeks, was in the playoff mix).

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

Doncic is so skilled and so polished. He’s on another level from a typical rookie.

Dane Delgado: Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks)

The Rookie of the Year race seems like it will perpetually be a source of conflict between people who believe a rookie must be a first-year professional in the NBA alone. Folks got all riled up about Ben Simmons last season, and if I look into my crystal ball I can only assume people will be using Doncic’s prior experience as a professional in Europe as a means to disqualify him from the award stateside. While many other rookies are fun to watch, it’s clear that the Mavericks are already Doncic’s team. That sets him apart in and of itself, and I don’t see another choice.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)

This race is still wide open (I have a feeling Rudy Gobert will win it again in the end, he and the Jazz are starting to come on), but right now George had brought it nightly for the best defense in the NBA. He’s the best in the league at getting over picks and disrupting plays.

Dan Feldman: Paul George (Oklahoma City Thunder)

With the NBA’s scoring explosion, no pick here feels great. But George has been the NBA’s top perimeter defender, and his versatility has spearheaded the Thunder’s top-notch defense. I wouldn’t quibble with Rudy Gobert or Draymond Green selections, either. Even if both are below their previous defensive levels, they still might be better than everyone else.

Dane Delgado: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

The player who wins MVP doesn’t typically win Defensive Player of the Year. Not unless that player is named Michael Jordan or Hakeem Olajuwon, the only two guys who have done both in the same season. But Antetokounmpo is leading the league in defensive box plus/minus, and his length and athleticism are some of the reasons Milwaukee has the second-best defensive rating in the league. Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, and Anthony Davis could all be listed here instead, but with the expectations Antetokounmpo is carrying with him I’m going with the young Buck.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks)

This is a crowded field — as it always is — but “Coach Bud” has put a modern system in place in Milwaukee (updating them from the Nirvana-era 1990s) and the team has thrived in it, the Bucks have the best net rating in the NBA. Doc Rivers, Dave Joerger, Mike Malone, Nick Nurse, Gregg Popovich, Billy Donovan, and a few others can stake a claim, too, but Budenholzer has had the most significant positive impact.

Dan Feldman: Dave Joerger (Sacramento Kings)

Mike Budenholzer came closest, but the Bucks’ front office positioned him for success (adding Brook Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova, stretch bigs who fit Budenholzer’s preferred scheme). Joerger has the Kings surprisingly competitive while overcoming Sacramento’s front office. That doesn’t reflect well on the Kings, but it makes Joerger’s coaching even more impressive.

Dane Delgado: Nick Nurse (Toronto Raptors)

As we have learned over the past couple of seasons, top NBA personalities don’t necessarily always love each other. In an era of infinite statistical analysis, the human side of basketball still remains a major factor. Yes, the Raptors were the best team in the Eastern Conference last season. And Nick Nurse was part of that success. But Nurse has had to incorporate Kawhi Leonard, who left the San Antonio Spurs under inauspicious circumstances, and a moody and oft-injured Kyle Lowry who doesn’t appear to be on good terms with the team’s GM. We just saw Jimmy Butler and Leonard become a major distraction for their respective former teams. That Nurse has been able to steer the Raptors’ ship atop the East yet again — and while replacing a player favorite coach in Dwane Casey, no less — is an impressive feat.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell  (Los Angeles Clippers)

This is a tight two-man race at the top for me, with Domantis Sabonis neck-and-neck with Harrell — fascinating because this award rarely goes to big men, mostly guards (the last big to win it was Lamar Odom in 2011, and he had a unique skill set). If you just watch a little of Harrell you think he’s a classic energy big — comes in off the bench and just outworks everyone — but the more you watch him (especially in person) you see the high IQ plays, and how he gets it done on both ends. Sabonis has been efficient picking teams apart all season. After those two a few guys are in the mix: Derrick Rose, Spencer Dinwiddie, Lou Williams, and Dennis Schroder.

Dan Feldman: Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers)

The Pacers big excels at making shots all over the court. He’s so efficient on both interior finishes and jumpers. I still expect some regression to the mean, but Sabonis’ production so far rates slightly ahead of Montrezl Harrell’s.

Dane Delgado: Spencer Dinwiddie (Brooklyn Nets)

It’s hard not to pick the fledgling Brooklyn Nets point guard here. Dinwiddie is a crucial part of Brooklyn attack on offense, and provides in a bench role which doesn’t allow opposing defenses to let up. Teams need to gameplan for Dinwiddie by himself, which sort of points to why he is deserving of the Sixth Man of the Year award. Dinwiddie has made himself into a better 3-point shooter this season, and cut down on his mid-range jumpers. He’s still just 25 years old, so it’ll be interesting to see if he eventually forms into a more all-around type of player and full-time starter. For now, Dinwiddie is happy to tear up opposing secondary rotations on offense.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Kurt Helin: Pascal Siakam  (Toronto Raptors)

He has become a crucial player for the team with the best record in the NBA. Siakam has improved seemingly across the board: His defense was always good, but this season he’s been a force on that end; his handles have improved by leaps and bound; and with those dribbling skills has come much-improved playmaking. Beyond that, he has a confidence now that he can make big plays in big moments for this team. I wouldn’t be shocked if at the end of the season Derrick Rose wins this award because his return to his best basketball since his MVP years is one of the best stories of the season.

Dan Feldman: De'Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings)

Like most rookie point guards, Fox was quite bad last season. Now, he’s nearly a star, if not just outright a star. That’s not a normal second-year leap. Fox deserves recognition for his advancement.

Dane Delgado: Jusuf Nurkic (Portland Trail Blazers)

This is a tough one to call just because you could pick guys like Jamal Murray or one of several Brooklyn Nets and come out looking okay. But the reality is that Portland Trail Blazers big man Jusuf Nurkic has quickly made himself into one of the best centers in the Western Conference, and part of the reason the Blazers have steadied themselves against a difficult winter schedule. Nurkic has changed how he plays on offense considerably, adding feel to his game where I just didn’t think it was possible. He has all but eliminated most of his bad habits, and that’s to say nothing of how he plays on defense. Nurkic is a shot-alterer, a defensive anti-gravity machine whose importance largely shows up on film but not in the box score. Portland should be struggling this season, especially with CJ McCollum not playing up to snuff, but Nurkic’s emergence is a big reason why they’re a Top 4 team in the West.

Brooks given one-game suspension for shot to Mitchell (who was fined)

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Dillon Brooks did earn a suspension for hitting Donovan Mitchell in the “groin,” but he got off light.

Brooks was suspended one game and Mitchell got a $20,000 fine for their altercation during the Cavaliers’ win against the Grizzlies on Thursday night, the league announced.

“Brooks initiated the altercation by striking Mitchell in the groin area in an unsportsmanlike manner,” the NBA said in a release announcing the fine. “Mitchell then escalated the situation by throwing the game ball at and pushing Brooks, after which both players continued to physically engage with one another.”

Both Brooks and Mitchell were given Flagrant 2 fouls and ejected.

Brooks will serve his suspension Sunday against the Raptors. The one-game suspension is going to cost Brooks $78,621 in salary.

It’s difficult to watch the video of the altercation and not think that it was an intentional act by Brooks. As such, a one-game suspension seems soft and certainly isn’t sending a message of deterrence to other players. After the game Thursday, Mitchell fired shots at Brooks for the act.

The two teams do not meet again this season.

Reports: Kyrie Irving demands trade before Feb. 9 deadline

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Kyrie Irving‘s agent tried to spark contract extension talks with the Nets recently, but Brooklyn felt no rush to dive into those talks, and the offer they did make — not for a full four years and filled with guarantees for Irving to meet — increased Irving’s frustration with the organization. The Nets, wisely, wanted to see more out of Irving before talking about the future, while Irving has felt everything with Brooklyn has been conditional.

Irving responded with a bombshell, demanding a trade before the Feb. 9 deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic was first with the news, but Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report have since confirmed it.

 

So much for a quiet trade deadline.

There are so many angles to this bombshell, but the sense of Irving feeling disrespected by Nets management and ownership is not new. Charania added this detail in his story at The Athletic:

The Nets recently offered Irving an extension with guarantee stipulations, according to league sources, an offer which was declined.

Irving wants a four-year, full max extension, no stipulations, Charania reports. That’s also what he wanted when he pushed for a contract extension with the Nets last summer, but after a couple of seasons of disruptions and him missing a lot of games due to his COVID vaccination status, the Nets were not interested in cementing their relationship long-term (Irving did look around for a new home, but that went nowhere).

The disruptions carried over into this season when Irving was suspended for what became eight games due to a Tweet promoting an antisemitic documentary. Through all this, the Nets fired Steve Nash as coach.

Whatever has happened off the court, when Irving has been on the court he has been his elite playmaking self, averaging 27.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists per game. Fans voted him in an All-Star starter, and he has carried the Nets while Kevin Durant has been out.

While the Nets don’t want to give away Irving in a trade, if he’s gone this summer as a free agent they need to find a deal to get something in return (and ideally keep their status as a potential, maybe fringe, contender in the East). The Nets are not wrong that all the places Irving would want to go as a free agent will require a sign-and-trade, which gives Brooklyn some leverage. Irving has some leverage here, too: If Team X comes up with a trade the Nets like but Irving lets it be known he won’t re-sign there as a free agent, it limits what teams will offer.

When checking with league sources,  the first name on everyone’s lips are the Lakers, with a package centered around Russell Westbrook and both of the Lakers’ unprotected future picks (a trade that was discussed last summer). The Lakers likely have to sweeten that pot a little with another young player. Adding Irving to the mix with LeBron James and Anthony Davis does make the Lakers a threat to come out of a West with no dominant team, and Los Angeles might be willing to extend or re-sign Irving to a longer deal, they are all in on winning now.

Other teams that come up in conversations are the Heat (a team looking for point guard help and a spark, but does Irving fit the Miami team culture?), the Mavericks need another star next to Luka Dončić, and the Clippers are always active and aggressive at the trade deadline. Shams Charania of The Athletic reports the Suns are interested. Other teams looking to make the leap up to contender status may try to throw their hat in the ring. Considering Irving’s reputation as a challenge for coaches and front office staff, it will be interesting to see how many teams are interested in Irving’s extensions/contract demands.

Whatever direction this goes expect the Irving trade rumors to fly for the next six days.

 

Damian Lillard reportedly to take part in 3-point contest All-Star weekend

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The All-Star Saturday night 3-point contest has passed the Dunk Contest in watchability because the stars still do it. Look at this year’s Dunk Contest, there are some interesting athletes involved, and maybe it becomes a memorable event. Still, there will be no Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, or Anthony Edwards (the way that Jordan, Kobe, and other greats took part in the contest back in the day).

However, the stars turn out for the 3-point contest. This year, that starts with Damian Lillard, according to Chris Haynes of Bleacher Report and TNT.

The coaches selected Lillard as one of the All-Star Game reserves, he was already headed to Salt Lake City. This is Lillard’s third time in the 3-point Shootout.

Over the coming week, expect a lot more big names to jump into the 3-point contest — the best shooters in the game want to do this event (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson have each done it multiple times, although whether they will this year is unknown).

All-Star Saturday night: Come for the 3-point Shootout, hang around for the Dunk Contest.

Lakers reportedly exploring Westbrook trade in talks with Jazz

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This feels like a “let’s leak this so our fan base thinks we’re trying” report rather than something that will come close to happening.

The Lakers have re-engaged the Jazz in Russell Westbrook trade talks, reports Chris Haynes at Bleacher Report.

The Los Angeles Lakers and Utah Jazz have had exploratory conversations centered around star guard Russell Westbrook, league sources tell Bleacher Report. However, the Lakers are said to be in communication with most teams to sift through the most reasonable and logical options available.

If the Lakers couldn’t pull off a trade like this over the summer, what has changed now?

The Lakers would be more than happy to move on from Westbrook and bring in more shooting and depth, but this is Danny Ainge they’re dealing with — the price would be both the 2027 and 2029 first-round picks, likely unprotected. The Jazz would send back some combination of Mike Conley, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk — do any three of those players make the Lakers title contenders this season? Are the Lakers willing to give up those two picks to be a team that could make the second round of the playoffs?

Now, if the Raptors get in the trade game, would the combination of Fred VanVleet and Gary Trent Jr. get the Lakers to surrender Westbrook and both picks? John Hollinger at The Athletic says that scenario is floating around, although everyone continues to wait to see if the Raptors are going to jump into the trade market with both feet.

The smart money is on the Lakers making a smaller move close to the trade deadline, likely involving Patrick Beverley and some second-round picks. Something similar in size to the Rui Hachimura trade, although the Lakers want — or at least are going to project they want — to hunt bigger game.

The Lakers continue surveying the market for premium shooting. Detroit Pistons sharpshooter Bojan Bogdanović remains a principal target, but there is league-wide skepticism on whether the Pistons are really willing to unload the nine-year veteran. It’s been reported that it would take at least an unprotected first-round pick to get the Pistons’ attention.

The belief within the Lakers’ organization is that they need to make at least one more move by the Feb. 9 trade deadline to give themselves a legitimate shot at competing for a championship, sources say.

Road wins over the Knicks and Pacers have the Lakers thinking they are a player away from contending? Los Angeles is unquestionably better with Davis back, and there is reason for some level of optimism in a flat Western Conference. But we’re talking “we can make the playoffs” optimism, there is still a chasm between these Lakers and contending — the gap between their second and third-best players (and the rest of the roster) is just too great.

Still, look for some kind of Lakers trade at the deadline. They are one of the more active teams out there. Just don’t expect it to be Westbrook.