Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma scores 35, wins MVP, leads USA to victory in Rising Stars dunkfest

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CHARLOTTE — Nobody comes to the Friday night Rising Stars Challenge — the All-Star weekend showcase of first- and second-year stars — for the defense. Which is good, because there isn’t any. Zero. Nada. Your Saturday blacktop pickup game at the local park has guys that care more about defense than you see in this game.

What the Rising Stars has are dunks. A lot of big dunks. And some threes. Then more dunks.

For example, the Hawks’ John Collins was showing off why he was in the dunk contest, complete with a pass off the backboard to himself.

As for the game itself, the USA won 161-144 over the World.

The Lakers Kyle Kuzma raced out to 23 first-half points and finished with 35 to earn MVP honors.

“Last year I didn’t really play that hard,” Kuzma said of his first time in this game. “This year I just came out, one, I wanted to get some conditioning, and, two, why not MVP? You’re in the game. So might as well just try.”

Kuzma also broke out the windmill.

D’Aaron Fox said before the game he wanted to break the assist record for the Rising Stars, and while he fell short of that number he had 16 for the USA. Boston’s Jayson Tatum had 30 and Donovan Mitchell had 20 for the USA. Ben Simmons led the Word team of 28 points.

As for highlights, there were plenty.

Atlanta’s Trae Young hit six threes and had this dime.

He also had the play of the night, nutmegging Deandre Ayton.

Philly’s Ben Simmons had a couple of throwdowns.

The Timberwolves Josh Okogie had the putback of the night (teammate and All-Star Karl-Anthony Towns sat courtside wearing an Okogie jersey).

Markelle Fultz’s tenure with 76ers ends historically quickly for No. 1 pick

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On June 17, 2017, 76ers fans exuberantly declared victory. Philadelphia’s standing within the league hadn’t really changed. The 76ers were stacked with assets from Sam Hinkie’s Process – Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and multiple extra first-round picks. But the 76ers were stacked with assets the day before, too. The only difference was Philadelphia consolidated a couple of those assets, agreeing to trade the No. 3 pick in the upcoming draft and a future first-rounder to the Celtics for the No. 1 pick, used on Markelle Fultz.

76ers fans were just that certain Fultz was the missing piece. They saw him as a surefire star and a perfect fit with Embiid and Simmons. That trio would lift Philadelphia to championships and fulfill the destiny of The Process.

Yesterday, the 76ers traded Fultz to the Magic for a potential late first-rounder, a second-rounder and Jonathon Simmons.

That closes a disappointing tenure in Philadelphia for Fultz, whose career has been derailed by a mysterious combination of injuries and mental blocks. Fultz played just 33 games with the 76ers – the fewest ever for a No. 1 pick with his original NBA team in the modern-draft era. It’s fewer than this season’s No. 1 pick Deandre Ayton has already played with the Suns. It’s fewer than Anthony Bennett played with the Cavaliers. It’s even fewer than the 34 games Pervis Ellison, the Kings’ No. 1 pick in 1989, played in his lone season with Sacramento before getting traded.

Here’s every No. 1 pick since 1966, the first draft without territorial selections, sorted by games with the player’s original NBA team. Traded players count with the first NBA team they played for (e.g., Andrew Wiggins with the Timberwolves, not Cavaliers). Only a player’s first stint with his original team counts (e.g., LeBron James‘ 2003-10 games, not 2014-18 games, with the Cavaliers).

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As little production as Philadelphia got from Fultz, it could have been worse.

The Hawks drafted David Thompson No. 1 in 1975. But after Atlanta (according to legend) wined and dined him at McDonald’s, he signed with the ABA’s Denver Nuggets. The Nuggets joined the NBA in the leagues’ merger the next year. Thompson stayed with Denver, the team he’s listed with above. But the Hawks got nothing from him – not even 33 games, a couple middling draft picks and a struggling veteran.

NBA Power Rankings: Pre-Trade Deadline edition topped by Bucks

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The trade deadline is stirring up the NBA, and we get into where teams stand with 25 hours to go (as of this posting) in these rankings. We also thought the Warriors would never surrender the top spot again, but the Bucks just keep on winning and impressing.

 
Bucks small icon 1. Bucks (39-13, last week No. 2). What was most impressive about the win over the Raptors is how the Bucks identified the guy they wanted to stop (Kawhi Leonard) and then made him a non-factor (16 points). That’s the kind of defense that wins teams playoff games — and a lot of them. The Bucks have been mentioned in the Anthony Davis rumor mill, but sources tell me there’s not anything to it. Also with the Bucks, never forget that Giannis Antetokounmpo can do this.

 
Warriors small icon 2. Warriors (37-15, LW 1). They live by the three — more than live, the Warriors have won rings by the three — but there are nights they are off from deep and then they are vulnerable. That’s what happened in a loss to the Sixers, when Klay Thompson was out and everyone not named Stephen Curry had no range (1-of-20 from three). The Warriors want depth but are likely to get that through the buyout market, not trades. That Sixers loss meant Denver’s Mike Malone and his staff, not Steve Kerr and his, will be coaching the All-Star Game in Charlotte — and you can be sure Kerr is just fine with that.

 
Celtics small icon 3. Celtics (35-19, LW 5). Despite all the Kyrie Irving “does he want to be a Knick?” drama that drives headlines, the Celtics are playing their best basketball of the season. In the last 10 games they are 9-1 with a +10.7 net rating (third best in the NBA in that stretch) and they look like the team we predicted before the season would be the one to beat in the East. All that is lost in the Anthony Davis trade buzz — if he’s on the Pelicans still Thursday night the Celtics are in the driver’s seat to land him.

 
Nuggets small icon 4. Nuggets (37-16, LW 3). Denver’s name gets bounced around as a team that could be an all-in dark horse in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes, but that seems highly unlikely. Not that Davis wouldn’t fit next to Nikola Jokic, he would, and the Nuggets front office can be gamblers, but this would be a bad short-term bet and they know it. They like what they have. Denver has been pushing through injuries all season and had won five in a row without Jamal Murray, the last couple without Gary Harris, but it all caught up with them in an ugly loss in Detroit Monday. That the losses due to injury are rare are why Mike Malone deserves to coach in the All-Star Game.

 
Raptors small icon 5. Raptors (39-16, LW 4). They are 3-3 in their last six, with losses to the Rockets and getting thrashed by the Bucks. However, against the Sixers on Tuesday Kawhi Leonard was a defensive force, attacked the paint, and Toronto looked dominant again. The Raptors have been a roller coaster of late. They may need the All-Star break. Kyle Lowry will not get a break, he will represent Toronto in the All-Star Game (along with Leonard), and the fact he was an easy selection despite having what is, for him, a down year speaks to how much his reputation as a leader and player has grown around the league.

 
Thunder small icon 6. Thunder (34-19, LW 7). Russell Westbrook has been racking up triple-doubles — seven games in a row now — and seems to have broken out of his early-season shooting slump, having hit 32.5% of his threes in his last 10 games. In those 10 games the Thunder have the fourth best offense in the NBA but their elite defense has been more pedestrian. Fun showdown between James Harden and Paul George on Saturday night in Houston.

 
Sixers small icon 7. 76ers (34-20, LW 6). The Sixers felt like a team on a roller coaster — they end Golden State’s 11-game win streak, then Tuesday night Kawhi Leonard’s defense disrupts Philly’s offense and Toronto blows them out — that was good but felt a player short. The Tobias Harris trade changes all that. Only the Warriors have a better starting five right now on paper, if the Sixers can get it to mesh — and Harris will fit in well — they are now serious contenders to come out of the East this year. Then this summer owner Joshua Harris should have his checkbook ready to go.

 
Blazers small icon 8. Trail Blazers (32-21, LW 8). Portland at home is a different team — 22-8, vs. 10-13 on the road — with a +8 net rating. It’s not one end of the floor, the Blazers’ offense is 6.4 per 100 possessions better at home, their defense improves by 5.4 per 100. Portland at home plays like an elite team (fifth best net rating at home in the NBA). The challenge is they have seven more road games left on the schedule than ones at home, and starting Sunday in Dallas they have 9-of-10 away from the Moda Center. Rodney Hood is not going to be able to change that by himself.

 
Rockets small icon 9. Rockets (31-22, LW 10). James Harden’s historic offensive run continues — 27 straight games with at least 30 points — but what goes unnoticed sometimes is he can make plays on the other end. In Houston’s blowout win against Utah (the Rockets’ best win in a while) Harden had six steals and four blocked shots. But that was just one night — in the 11 games since Clint Capela went down the Rockets are allowing 114 points per 100 possessions, fifth worst in the league. They can hang on to a playoff spot with that defense, but not climb the ladder.

 
Spurs small icon 10. Spurs (32-23, LW 11). Don’t expect a lot of trade deadline activity from San Antonio, but one big deal that went down may have bothered them a little — they were a team hoping to poach (or trade for) Kristaps Porzingis. Dallas had a better package right now than San Antonio could have put together (considering the Knicks’ goals) but if KP signs long-term in Dallas that will sting a little. DeMar DeRozan has been slumping lately, trying to play through a sore knee, the All-Star break will be good for him.

 
Jazz small icon 11. Jazz (30-24, LW 9). All kinds of Mike Conley to the Jazz buzz is flying around the league and it wouldn’t be a shock to see that trade go down before 3 ET Thursday. Considering Conley is more of a big-picture question for the Jazz: Do they want to lock down that much money in one player, and give up a pick, pushing the tax and reducing flexibility for the small market team? No doubt Conley would make the Jazz better, if he can stay on the court — he has missed significant time two of the last four seasons with an Achilles issue.

 
Pacers small icon 12. Pacers (35-19, LW 12). The Pacers lost their first four games after the Victor Oladipo injury, but have bounced back to win their last three (including a thumping of a distracted Lakers’ team). In those seven games, the Pacers have had a bottom-10 offense but a top-10 defense, and a net rating of -1.6. Which is pretty impressive, considering. Don’t expect any trade deadline moves from the Pacers, and any moves they might make will be more about next season and beyond than this one.

 
Clippers small icon 13. Clippers (30-25, LW 14). Los Angeles made a smart play in trading Tobias Harris — even if we are all going to miss the Bobi and Tobi Show in L.A. The Clippers could have fought to hang on to the eight seed, made the playoffs, and got crushed in the first round. Now they likely fall back into the lottery, meaning they keep their own first-round pick (otherwise Boston gets it) and they get the much-coveted Miami 2021 unprotected pick. The Clippers are in the mix for Kawhi Leonard this summer, and now they have the assets to go after a big trade (Anthony Davis) or put an interesting team around him. Plus, I want to see what a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander/Landry Shamet backcourt looks like.

 
Kings small icon 14. Kings (28-25, LW 18). Everyone around the league expects the Kings to be involved in a trade deadline deal, one way or another. While they have expiring veteran contracts they can move — Zach Randolph, Iman Shumpert, and Kosta Koufos — what matters more is the $11 million in salary cap space, more than any team in the league. The Kings can go after a more expensive player (Kent Bazemore, Harrison Barnes) or be the facilitating third team in a trade, taking on a bad contract for assets. One way or another, expect a deal.

 
Nets small icon 15. Nets (28-27, LW 13). The banged-up Nets — no Spencer Dinwiddie or Caris LeVert, although the LeVert could be back soon, he and Allen Crabbe are working out in the G-League — have lost three in a row and 4-of-5. The problem has been the offense, which has scored less than a point per possession in those five games. D’Angelo Russell is a deserving All-Star — and it has to sting the Lakers’ front office he made it — but he’s not a guy who can carry an offense nightly on his own, he needs some help. Don’t expect deadline trades out of Brooklyn, their eyes are on free agency.

 
Hornets small icon 16. Hornets (26-27, LW 17). There was a lot of buzz (no pun intended) about Marc Gasol being traded to Charlotte, and maybe that comes together last minute, but the Grizzlies have had a high asking price and the talks have cooled, according to sources. Still, the Hornets would like to make one or two moves at the deadline to shore up their roster and make sure they get into the postseason (and help convince Kemba Walker to re-sign this summer).

 
Lakers small icon 17. Lakers (27-26, LW 16).
Clearly the trade rumors hit the young Lakers hard, they were distracted and disinterested in Indiana and got smoked by 42 points on Tuesday. Thing is, just the deadline passing will not be enough, Ingram/Ball/Kuzma all know they could get traded this summer now, they have to learn to be pros and deal with it. With the Clippers trading Tobias Harris and throwing in the towel, and with LeBron back, the Lakers should make a push into the playoffs. What does LeBron’s return mean? Here is what Josh Hart said after 23’s first game back: ”He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”

 
18. Timberwolves (25-28, LW 19). Don’t expect a trade deadline move, if there are going to be roster shakeups it will be with the new regime — whoever that is — over the summer. With the Clippers throwing in the towel, did the playoff door crack open just a little for Minnesota? Maybe. But they are 4 games back and have to leapfrog the Lakers and Kings, which is a longshot. Especially considering they have lost 4-of-5, and the one win required Karl-Anthony Towns doing this in overtime.

 
Heat small icon 19. Heat (24-27, LW 15). There’s a lot of trade speculation around Wayne Ellington, a veteran shooter a lot of playoff teams could use. But there has been less buzz about where he might end up than expected, maybe the interest in him is not sincere around the league. Tuesday night’s win in Portland kicked off a six-game road trip with a victory, a tough stretch for a Heat team currently the eight seed in the East and trying to hold off Detroit and Washington to keep that spot).

 
Mavericks small icon 20. Mavericks (24-28, LW 20). They went all-in on the future with the trade for Kristaps Porzingis — a good gamble if he can stay healthy and return to full unicorn status (there’s a lot of uncertainty about a 7’3” guy coming off an ACL). Dallas believes in its training staff and thinks they may have Nash/Nowitzki 2.0 now. Speaking of the future Hall of Famer from Germany, classy and smart move by the league office to put Nowitzki (and Dwyane Wade) in the All-Star Game for one final time.

Pelicans small icon 21. Pelicans (23-31, LW 21). As NBC has reported since the start of the saga, don’t expect Davis to be traded before the deadline, there are powerful people in the Pelicans’ organization who want to be patient (and don’t want to help Rich Paul or the Lakers). The interesting question: If Davis is not traded, will he play between the deadline and the end of the season, or will he be shut down. Injury concerns would make it logical for both Davis and the Pelicans to want him to sit, but Davis says he wants to play, and what would the league say about a top-five player in the league being a healthy scratch nightly? It would not be a good look.

Pistons small icon 22. Pistons (24-29, 23). The Pistons have traded away a lot of wing depth this week sending Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson out, although I like the roll of the dice on Thon Maker for a year. While Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk is a Summer League favorite and a shooter, I’m less sold on his ability to help Detroit. The Pistons are just 1.5 games back of the Heat for the final playoff slot in the East, but these trades make you wonder how much they prioritize making it as an organization.

 
Magic small icon 23. Magic (22-32, LW 24). Maybe the most interesting team to watch at the trade deadline. They have players that playoff teams would want — Terrence Ross in particular, but also Nikola Vucevic — but the Magic also want to make the playoffs more than any other team on the back end of the East. As of Wednesday morning, the Magic are four games out of the playoffs (and five games back in the loss column), it would take a little run to just get in. That said, will management keep the price fairly high for those two, thinking that if nobody meets it they will just keep them and try to make the postseason?

 
Wizards small icon 24. Wizards (22-31, LW 22). While the Wizards should be sellers at the trade deadline, the buzz around the league is they plan to keep Trevor Ariza and Otto Porter and try to make a playoff push (they are four games back in the loss column). The John Wall Achilles injury raises some big-picture questions about what this franchise does going forward, and does it start to re-tool around Bradley Beal? Wall is missing a lot of his prime with injuries, and a torn Achilles is especially bad for a guy whose game is based on speed. He’s a fighter, but it’s fair to wonder with him “what if?”

 
Hawks small icon 25. Hawks (18-35, LW 25). Will Dewayne Dedmon and/or Jeremy Lin have new homes after the trade deadline? What about Taurean Prince? All three are being shopped around, and there is a lot of Dedmon buzz in particular. Atlanta would love to find a new home for Kent Bazemore, but the $19.5 million he is owed next season is keeping trade partners away. Despite the distracting buzz around them the Hawks have played fairly well of late, going 4-3 on a just ended road trip.

 
Grizzlies small icon 26. Grizzlies (22-33, LW 26). There’s a lot of interest in Marc Gasol (Charlotte) and Mike Conley (Utah and Detroit) but reports are Memphis is keeping the price high, asking for multiple first-round picks. Teams are hesitant to pay that, and we’ll see if the Grizzlies blink or if they are willing to just play out the season with this roster. If this is the end, Gasol and Conley did it right leading the Grizzlies to a couple of wins.

 
Bulls small icon 27. Bulls (12-41, LW 29). What is Chicago going to do with Bobby Portis, who is a restricted free agent this summer and has played well next to Lauri Markkanen the past couple of games? Do they trade him, or do they see what the market will pay for him this summer then decide whether or not to match. Ideally they would like to trade Robin Lopez, but more likely they buy him out and every contender comes out to try and pitch him.

 
Cavaliers small icon 28. Cavaliers (11-43, LW 28). The Cavaliers keep stockpiling picks with their Rodney Hood trade, and don’t be surprised if Alec Burks has a new home before the deadline as well. The Cavaliers would love to move Kevin Love or Tristan Thompson, but those veterans with healthy contracts are the kind of trades that get done in the summer, not at the deadline. By the way, just a reminder that the Cavaliers remain on pace to have the worst defensive rating in the history of the NBA — not just this season, but the worst ever. It’s impressively terrible.

 
Suns small icon 29. Suns (11-44, LW 27). The Suns have lost 11 in a row, and while the offense hasn’t been good in that stretch (26th in the league) the defense has been abysmal — a couple points per possession worse than the Cavaliers “worst defense ever” mark. That’s not all on Deandre Ayton either, he missed time in there. Devin Booker will be back to defend his crown in the All-Star Saturday Night Three-Point shooting contest, so… there’s that.

 
Knicks small icon 30. Knicks (10-43, LW 30). The Knicks gambled big on cap space in trading away Kristaps Porzingis and it got the league buzzing: Do they really have a back-channel commitment from Kevin Durant? Will Kyrie Irving take up the second max contract slot? If not, can they lure Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker to Manhattan? It’s a bold stroke by the Knicks. There’s also been a lot of “if they land the top pick and Zion Williamson” buzz, just remember if the Knicks have the worst record they have a 14% chance of picking first and a 48% chance of picking fifth. Welcome to the new NBA lottery odds to discourage tanking.

Luka Doncic, Ben Simmons, Kyle Kuzma headline All-Star Friday Rising Stars participants

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A couple of deep drafts has led to young stars in big markets — and a really impressive lineup for the All-Star Friday Night Rising Stars Challenge.

The Friday night of All-Star weekend — this year in Charlotte on Feb. 15 — is when the NBA tries to highlight the future of the league with first-and-second year players facing off in a USA vs. The World format. Which, considering the international influx of talent in the past couple of years — led by Luka Doncic and Ben Simmons — makes this matchup a little more interesting.

Here are the competitors.

Kyrie Irving will be the honorary coach for Team USA, while Dirk Nowitzki will coach The World. Nowitzki should make The World players do one of his Holger Geschwindner warmups.

There’s a lot of offensive talent on the floor for this one. Which in a game that usually sees all the defense of a pre-draft solo workout against a chair should make for an entertaining show. De'Aaron Fox throwing lobs to Jaren Jackson Jr., or Lonzo Ball finding Jayson Tatum in transition. Luka Doncic and Deandre Ayton being teammates, There’s a lot to like.

Plus, it’s good to see some under-appreciated good young players — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, OG Anunoby, Josh Okogie — getting a little prime-time run.

What do you think of the uniforms for the game?

The Rising Stars Challenge will be broadcast at 9 p.m. Eastern of Feb. 15, exclusively on TNT.

It is the first event of All-Star weekend, leading up to the All-Star Game itself on Sunday, Feb. 17.

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.