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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.

Which Nikola Jokic pass was better, full-court touch pass or self-alley-oop?

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Nikola Jokic is the best-passing center of all-time.

His court vision and creativity were on full display in the Nuggets’ win over the Clippers last night.

First, he grabbed a rebound with one hand so he could immediately assist Jamal Murray on a long pass:

Then, Jokic passed to himself off the backboard to set up a wide-open layup:

Jokic finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists.

As for which highlight was better? I prefer the self-alley-oop, but I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said the full-court touch pass. Both plays were beautiful.

Three Things to Know: Aldridge has 56 to beat Thunder in season’s wildest game

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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) Spurs rain threes, Aldridge scores 56 to beat Thunder in season’s wildest game. The Spurs made their first 14 threes of the game. Russell Westbrook had an insane triple-double of 24 points, 13 rebounds and 24 assists. The game went to double overtime.

Eventually, the Spurs prevailed in the wildest game of the NBA season, 154-147.

This game had everything.

LaMarcus Aldridge had a career-high 56 points. He did it on 20-of-33 shooting, doing his damage at the rim, going 8-of-13 from the midrange (with his patented fadeaway) and getting to the free throw line 16 times. Oklahoma City is the best defense in the NBA this season and it had no answer for Aldridge.

• Russell Westbrook’s 24-13-24 triple-double was the stuff of legend and his best game of the season. Westbrook was making good decisions, finding the hot hand, and still getting his. This was the most assists in a game since Rajon Rondo had 25 in 2017.

• The Spurs made their first 14 threes and finished the game 16-of-19 from deep. On the season the Spurs have the highest team three-point percentage (40.5 percent) but they take the fewest threes per game (24.2 on average) and this kind of just fit in with that but was a hotter version of it.

• Gregg Popovich passed Jazz legend Jerry Sloan for third most NBA coaching wins all-time

at 1,222.

• This was only the third time the Spurs have scored at least 150 in franchise history, the last time being in 2010.

• The Thunder’s Jerami Grant scored a career-high 25 points

• The Spurs’ Derrick White scored a career-high 23 (he has stepped up this season, next season I want to see them play White with DeJonte Murray and see how that fits). White also had maybe the defensive play of the game, a blocked shot on Grant in the second OT that helped preserve the win.

2) Nikola Jokic’s triple-double leads Nuggets past Clippers. People keep asking me (it seems every sports talk radio interview I do includes the question):

Yes, the Nuggets are for real.

This team didn’t come completely out of nowhere. They won 46 games last season and the last two seasons just missed the playoffs by a game. This season everything has come together for them, including better defense, Jamal Murray breaking out as a more consistent second scorer…

And Nikola Jokic is even better. An All-Star, and All-NBA level talent. He had 18 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists (his fifth triple-double of the season) in the Nuggets’ 121-100 victory against the Clippers. Jokic also threw a one-handed touchdown pass for the highlight of the night.

3) Miami handles the Celtics 115-99. Wednesday night the Celtics looked like they were back, like the best team in the East blowing out the Pacers… except that Indiana looked tired and flat-footed on the second night of a back-to-back. That didn’t stop some Celtics fans from crowing online.

Turnabout is fair play.

Thursday night in Miami on the second night of a back-to-back with travel, the Celtics weren’t the same team, floundered on offense, and fell to the Heat, 115-99. Boston didn’t look good at all, but much like that Pacers’ win, don’t overreact to it.

Rest matters people. When you catch teams matters.

Also, Kyrie Irving ended up in a poster.

Three Things to Know: Ryan Saunders gets win for “Flip,” is 1-0 as Timberwolves coach

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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) Ryan Saunders gets the win for “Flip,” is 1-0 as Timberwolves coach after victory over Thunder. Minnesota needed that. After the firing of Tom Thibodeau as coach and GM, the Timberwolves came out in their first game under coach Ryan Saunders — the son of legendary coach Flip Saunders, and Ryan wore a “Flip” pin on his lapel through the game — and played like the Timberwolves fans had hoped they would see all season.

Andrew Wiggins stepped up with a difference-making — not just stat stuffing — 40 points and 10 rebounds, he took over the offense with Karl-Anthony Towns battling foul trouble. Wiggins was aggressive, hit his free throws, and played one of those (all too rare) games from him where he looks like a max player.

After the win, the Timberwolves celebrated like a young team finding some joy in the game again.

I’m not sure that there is a run in the Timberwolves (especially with Robert Covington and Derrick Rose out injured), but for a night things looked better and this team is just two games out of the playoffs.

That was not the biggest news out of this game.

Oklahoma City’s Nerlens Noel took an unintentional elbow to the face from Wiggins then had a nasty fall and had to be stretchered off the court.

We don’t know much. Noel was held overnight at the hospital for evaluation. Our thoughts are with him and the Thunder.

2) Good night for the Warriors: Klay Thompson drops 43 in a win, DeMarcus Cousins target return date set. While we continue to watch a disinterested Warriors team coast through the regular season, there are nights we’re reminded how much talent this team has and why most expect them to just flip the switch sometime after the All-Star Game and dominate again.

Tuesday night it was Klay Thompson’s turn, he dropped 43 on the Knicks on 18-of-29 shooting, including 7-of-16 from three.

Klay Thompson is back: In his last five games he’s shooting 55.1 percent overall and 51.3 percent from three.

The other bit of good news for the Warriors: The target dates for DeMarcus Cousins’ return has been set, on the road in Los Angeles either Jan 18 (Clippers) or Jan. 21 (Lakers). The Warriors have been lacking at the five spot all season — they miss JaVale McGee far more than they thought they would — and they hope that Cousins can fill that need. (If not, look for them to target Robin Lopez or other centers expected to be available on the buyout market.)

3) Nikola Jokic drains game-winner for Nuggets in Miami. “The floater is kind of my game. I love that shot just because I cannot dunk.”

That was how Nikola Jokic described his game-winner in Miami Tuesday. It was a simple pick-and-roll with Jamal Murray, Jokic rolled, got the ball in the lane, and showed off his floater skills.

The Nuggets defense has not been great of late (although it was better in Miami Tuesday) but an elite offense has kept the Nuggets on top of the West. Plus it helps to have shots like that from Jokic, who should be an All-Star reserve this season.

Watch Nikola Jokic hit the game-winning shot to beat Heat

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Nikola Jokic is the future for the Denver Nuggets. He’s a franchise cornerstone, and not only one of the best big men in the NBA, but one of the best players, full stop.

That’s why it was no surprise when Jokic took the final shot for the Nuggets as they took on the Miami Heat on Tuesday night. What was surprising was the way in which Jokic won the game.

With time winding down and the score tied, 99-99, Jokic took the ball on a pick-and-roll play and threw up a wild, high-arching shot. It touched nothing but net as it came straight through the basket to give Denver a two-point lead.

Via Twitter:

The Heat turned the ball over on their next possession, and Jamal Murray sealed the game with two free throws, 103-99.