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PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, and more

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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.

Giannis Antetokounmpo looks like an MVP with 32 points, 17 boards vs. Boston

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MILWAUKEE — Giannis Antetokounmpo had 32 points and 17 rebounds, Khris Middleton scored 23 and the Milwaukee Bucks held off the Boston Celtics 128-123 on Thursday night.

With the victory, the NBA-leading Bucks (37-6) extended their winning streak to five games.

Kemba Walker scored a game-high 40 points to lead the Celtics, who took the floor without Jaylen Brown. The 6-foot-6 forward suffered a sprained right thumb in a 13-point loss to Detroit on Wednesday.

“We saw a play late in the first half and we think that might have been when it happened,” Boston coach Brad Stevens said. “Maybe it got worse as the game went on. He didn’t say much about it at halftime. Certainly, after the game it was sore. Today, more sore.”

Stevens said they will do more tests on Brown’s thumb on Friday.

Marcus Smart, who started in place of Brown, had 24 points.

Antetokounmpo, who also had seven assists, had his 35th double-double of the season.

After trailing by as many as 27, the Celtics outscored Milwaukee 36-22 to pull within 127-123 with 38 seconds to play. But Smart missed a 3-pointer and Middleton knocked down one of two free throws to seal the victory.

Antetokounmpo scored the first basket of the night and the Bucks never trailed.

Milwaukee hit seven of their first 10 shots, including their first four attempts from 3, and led 36-20 after the first quarter. Brook Lopez had three of those 3-pointers and had 11 points in the opening quarter. Lopez finished with 16 points.

Milwaukee set a new season-high with 76 points in the first half. The Bucks had a 76-58 lead at the break.

Boston stormed out in the second half, cutting Milwaukee’s lead to 87-81 with 5:16 left in the third. But the Bucks ended the quarter on a 19-6 run.

Gordon Hayward, who finished with seven points on 1-of-10 shooting for the Celtics, scored his only field goal on a 3 at the end of the third.

Jayson Tatum had 17 points and Daniel Theis added 12 points and 10 rebounds in the loss.

Donte DiVincenzo had a career-high 19 points off the bench for Milwaukee.

Malcolm Brogdon: I would’ve loved to stay with Bucks ‘if they had valued me the way the Pacers value me’

Malcolm Brogdon
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Malcolm Brogdon left the Bucks last summer for more money and a bigger role with the Pacers.

It didn’t have to be that way. Milwaukee controlled Brogdon’s future with restricted rights and could have kept him.

Brogdon, via Eric Woodyard of ESPN:

“I would’ve loved to play for this team, if they had wanted me. If they had valued me the way the Pacers value me. That’s all I gotta say.”

This is somewhat self-evident, somewhat unfair.

Of course Indiana valued him more. That’s why he’s there. The Bucks preferred a first-rounder and two-rounders gained in the sign-and-trade plus the flexibility of not having Brogdon’s four-year, $85 million contract.

But that same deal would’ve cost Milwaukee far more. The Bucks would’ve either had to go into the luxury tax or not re-signed Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez, two players who meant more to the team than Brogdon. Milwaukee also already had a point guard in Eric Bledsoe.

The Pacers had a more clear need at point guard with Darren Collison retiring. They also had clearer room to pay Brogdon without entering the tax.

Of course, the Bucks could have traded Bledsoe to make Brogdon their starting point guard and remain out of the tax. Milwaukee showed an ability to regroup at shooting guard. But that’s tough to say without knowing what Bledsoe trades were available.

The Pacers probably valued Brogdon more. It was also simpler for them to show they valued Brogdon more.

Three Things to Know: Luka who? Dallas ends Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA.

1) Luka who? Dallas ends Milwaukee’s 18-game win streak despite 48 from Giannis Antetokounmpo. Maybe part of it was Mavericks players rallying for their first game without leading scorer Luka Doncic. Maybe no Doncic meant the Bucks mentally relaxed coming in. Maybe part of it was the Bucks looking ahead to the Lakers coming to town Thursday. Or, maybe it was just one of those games that happens to every team over the course of 82, a game the Bucks need to flush and move on from.

Whatever the reason or reasons, the Dallas Mavericks beat the Bucks Monday and ended the NBA’s longest winning streak at 18.

Giannis Antetokounmpo came to play and dropped 48, but it was not enough against a balanced Dallas attack led by Seth Curry and Kristaps Porzingis, each with 26 points. Dallas raced out to an early lead, held off several Bucks rallies, including one in the final minutes, and won 120-116.

The Greek Freak got little help. Bucks not named Antetokounmpo shot 35.1 percent on the night, with Brook Lopez 1-of-8, Khris Middleton 4-of-12, and Eric Bledsoe sidelined with an injury. As a whole, the Bucks shot 26.8 percent from three.

In contrast, Dallas was making shots from the start (well, not the very start, the Bucks got off to an 8-1 lead) and by the end of the first were up 36-22, a lead that swelled to 16 points in the second quarter.

Then, as was the story of the game, the Bucks came storming back and cut the lead to three at the half. To start the third, Antetokounmpo tried to take over and scored 11 straight, but he couldn’t do it on his own, the Mavericks got hot the rest of the way and stretched their lead out to 11 points and keeping it at double digits most of the fourth quarter… until the Bucks made another rally in the final minutes. Another one that just fell short.

For the Bucks, they need to shrug this game off and move on — the measuring stick game is Thursday when LeBron James and teammates come to town.

For the Mavericks (now 10-2 on the road this season), this is the kind of confidence-boosting win they needed. No Doncic for the next two weeks, through a difficult part of the schedule where little was expected. In a tight Western Conference, one stretch of a couple of bad weeks can bounce a team out of home court in the first round. Dallas got the kind of win it needs help keep them afloat while Doncic’s ankle heals.

Dallas also can look at it this way: The Bucks and Lakers have the two best records in the NBA, they sit on the top of their conferences, and it was the Mavericks that snapped each of their double-digit win streaks and handed them their most recent losses.

2) Night of the comebacks: Rockets rally from 25 down to beat Spurs, Thunder come back from 26 down to beat Bulls. This is the NBA. No lead is safe.

San Antonio got up by 25 on Houston late in the first half, but the Rockets opened the second half on a 15-3 run and it was game on from there. San Antonio’s 22-season playoff streak seems like it’s coming to an end, and the reason is the Spurs poor defense (19th in the league) — they could not slow James Harden (28 points, eight rebounds seven assists) or Russell Westbrook (31 points, 10 rebounds, four assists). Throw in a late corner three from P.J. Tucker and the Rockets win 109-107.

That loss dropped the Spurs two full games back of the Thunder for the eighth seed in the West — because the Thunder rallied from 26 down against the Bulls.

Chicago has made a habit of blowing big leads this season, but they outdid themselves on Monday night. Chicago led by 26 in the second quarter and by around 20 for the first part of the third until a 20-7 Oklahoma City run started to change things. Then Chris Paul took over in the fourth quarter.

The Thunder may be just 12-14, but in a surprisingly soft bottom of the West that has them in the playoffs if they started today. Sources around the league don’t expect that to change Oklahoma City’s mindset heading into the trade deadline — the Thunder are starting a rebuild and they know it — but it may make the price to pry a player away from them just a little higher.

3) G-League players to vote in coming week on forming a union. NBA players have a union, the body that negotiates the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the owners and sets the financial and other terms for the league. Compared to the NFL and other sports, NBA players have a powerful union that has gotten them a lot of advantages.

G-League players want the same thing.

Starting Thursday in Las Vegas is the G-League Showcase, an event where every G-League team comes to the desert for a series of games — a chance for NBA GMs and scouts to see every player in one place and get an idea who they might want to grab on 10-day contracts later this season. (It’s also when all those GMs start talking seriously about trades.)

While in Vegas, the National Basketball Players Association — the NBA players’ union — is going to speak to the G-League players about unionizing. The players will cast ballots at the end of the showcase (Sunday), and it’s expected the players will vote to unionize.

What do the players want? More money, of course (the base salary for a G-League player is $35,000 for the season, although players on two-way contracts get more, and players who went to team training camps also usually get a buyout bump for signing with that team’s G-League affiliate). But the players also want some freedom of movement and other perks (more money for travel or housing).

The league is not getting in the way of this. From Shams Charania of The Athletic.

“We support the players’ right to unionize,” G League president Shareef Abdur-Rahim told The Athletic. “We view this as a positive thing and are looking to continue to grow our league for the players to develop and accomplish their dreams.”

This is going to happen — and at a time minor league baseball is at risk of contraction and is fighting with the major leagues, this is a good sign for the NBA.

G-League salaries are not going to see a serious increase unless, in the next CBA, a little of that NBA money starts flowing to G-League players. That’s down the line. For now it’s about the small gains. That’s a start.

Jabari Parker wishes things ended differently with Bucks, would not rule out return

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Jabari Parker was the No. 2 pick of the Milwaukee Bucks back in 2014. He was projected as a big who could step in right away and provide scoring on the block and possibly spacing out the floor in a Carmelo Anthony kind of way. He just needed to work on his defense, but there were reasons he got picked ahead of the risk that was Joel Embiid and his injuries, or Aaron Gordon, or Marcus Smart, or Julius Randle.

Within three years, the Bucks were bouncing him between the G-League and the big club. By the summer of 2018 the Bucks let him walk and get signed as a free agent by Chicago. Milwaukee had moved on.

Parker, however, still has a place in his heart for the city of Milwaukee — and he would consider a return under the right circumstances. Here is what the current Hawk told Eric Woodyard of ESPN about the new Fiserv Forum.

“It’s real special, man, how they were able to build this building,” Parker told ESPN. “I haven’t played here, but just seeing like the growth of the city, I really like the way that it’s developing.

“It’s just so sad that I’m not able to share it with them and that they moved on, but that’s fine, that’s business. But I do have like a little homesickness from being here. I just miss being here.”

Would he rule out coming back?

“Never. I would never rule out a possible return here,” Parker told ESPN. “I would never do that. It’s just so sad how it ended and I wish I could’ve stayed.”

You have to like that he wishes it ended differently, and better for both sides. Parker has found a rhythm in Atlanta, averaging 16.9 points a game for the Hawks.

Never say never in the NBA, but Parker is not the kind of defender or floor spacer the Bucks prioritize (think Brook Lopez). It seems a longshot he returns.

Milwaukee, however, has a growing and vibrant downtown around their new building — and a lot of people coming to it because of the team they have built.