Handing Out Awards For NBA's 2012 Season First Half
CP3 and LeBron have reason to celebrate the tweaks to the awards schedule
A lockout-compacted season shortened from 82 to 66 games mandates adjustments. For players, coaches, team execs, refs, agents and, way down there at the bottom of the NBA food chain, even media pests.
The usual routine here at Stein Line HQ had to be altered slightly. The season's too short for our usual Trimester reports, which typically take stock of the season through the prism of the major award categories every 27 or 28 games or so. It made far more sense in 2011-12 to opt for a midseason look at the various award races before our official ballots are revealed to the world at the end of April.
And, yes, we're really almost halfway through this 123-day grind. Already.
The Bulls' Saturday night home date with New Jersey will make them the first team to play 33 games, with several more teams scheduled to get there before next weekend's All-Star break.
Eastern Conference MVP of the First Half
LeBron James, Miami Heat
I remain skeptical about a majority of my peers, at season's end, voting for LeBron to win his third MVP trophy. No matter what his stats say. This is indeed a new season that theoretically should be judged 100 percent separately from last season, but Bron knows better than anyone that he'll never have peace from know-it-all gnats like me until he wins a championship or three. Not after the way Miami, and specifically LeBron, collapsed in the Finals last June.
So it'll be very, very interesting this May, if LeBron continues to average 28, 8 and 7 with a PER of nearly 33, to see how MVP voting turns out. Will he be graded solely on what he's done over the course of 66 games? Maybe I'm being overly cynical here, but instinct tells me to expect an MVP vote that's well short of a runaway.
At this juncture, though, it's not even a discussion. Trimester, half-term, whatever … you needn't bother looking for challengers to LeBron in the East when you're talking MVP candidates. Not an ailing Derrick Rose. Not an up-and-down Dwight Howard. Whether or not Dwyane Wade has been healthy enough to join him in Miami's lineup, James has been a better-than-ever wrecking ball. You could see it the other night in Indiana when the Heat dismantled Indiana on the Pacers' floor, with James picking up on Frank Vogel's play calls and disrupting Indy's offense as spectacularly as he was flushing Wade's lobs at the other end.
In a season where the Heat aren't supposed to be able to impress us with anything they do until the playoffs, LeBron ain't listening.
Western Conference MVP of the First Half
Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Kevin Durant is shooting just over 50 percent from the field and has nudged his nightly rebounds and blocks averages to a career-best 8.2 and 1.4, respectively, alongside that sparkly scoring average of 27.0 and his unyielding determination to tune out all the naysayers and do whatever it takes to make his partnership with Russell Westbrook work. Kobe Bryant, meanwhile, seems intent on trying to supplant Jerry West (31 years and 298 days old when he averaged 31.2 points per game in 1969-70) as the oldest player in league history to ring up 30 a night, ignoring whatever's going on in that banged-up wrist as well as those of us chirping haughty warnings from press row that he'll never make it to the end of the season with the scoring load he's shouldering.
Tony Parker is another Westerner who merits a strong mention for averaging 19.0 points and a career-best 7.6 assists in piloting San Antonio to a 15-7 record while Manu Ginobiliwas out with a broken hand, but the choice in this conference is clear-cut in its own way. The biggest threat to LeBron's MVP campaign, based on what we've witnessed so far, is unquestionably CP3.
Paul's numbers are killer/borderline spotless, he's closing games in the fourth quarter better than ever and, perhaps most crucially, he's combined with Blake Griffin to make the Clippers -- yes, we said Clippers -- a prime destination for free agents. Can't ask for more than that from your new-to-town franchise player.
"You're just payin' a little bit more attention," Paul told me Monday night, trying to suggest that this is what he's always done.
Maybe so, but I've been studying Clipperland for a lot longer than he has. And it's never looked like this. The clock is already ticking loudly down to the summer of 2013, when both CP3 and Blake can flee, but this is all new ground for one of the league's longtime punching bags. Which is why Paul would have ranked as the best in the West with us even if he kept missing Thursday night in Portland ... as opposed to torching the Blazers in TNT crunch time like he did.
Coach of the First Half
Rick Carlisle, Dallas Mavericks
If I had a dollar for every time I whined about how hard it is to zero in on two or three gents in this category, let alone one, I could probably buy the Dodgers.
Yet this is another one of those years (surprise!) when whining is unavoidable, because Doug Collins has the Sixers winning two out of every three games with no discernible star apart from the coach himself … and because Tom Thibodeau just keeps stacking up the wins in Chicago no matter how many Bulls are hurt … and because others in the neighborhood (most notably Atlanta's Larry Drew, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy and Boston's ever-reliable Doc Rivers) have made a habit of winning in the face of all sorts of distractions. Whether it's injuries or franchise-shaking trade demands or plain old age.
And that's just in the East.
It's two coaches in the West, though, who have ultimately nudged ahead of a chasing pack that should probably also include Minnesota's instantly impactful Rick Adelman and Indiana's Vogel. Two guys who've been around and who can be found in the Southwest Division: San Antonio's Gregg Popovich and Dallas' Rick Carlisle.
The way Pop has quietly worked in a bunch of kids (Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green alongside the slightly older Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter) to help Parker and 35-year-old Tim Duncan weather Ginobili's 22-game absence to keep the Spurs in the West elite is some of Pop's best-ever work. The only coach who can realistically trump that effort, to date, is Carlisle from the auld enemy in North Texas, where slow starts for Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kiddand Lamar Odom -- as well as the departures of defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and defensive coordinator Dwane Casey -- haven't stopped the defending champs from turning "into an incredibly good defensive team" in the words of Denver's George Karl.
If you saw the Mavs' first three games … you understand how impressive it is now to see Carlisle presiding over a 19-11 team that ranks in the top five in scoring D and defensive efficiency.
Rookie of the First Half
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Voting against Ricky Rubio is literally painful. I can't name three players in the sport I'd rather watch than him.
Especially with Adelman and future MVP contender Kevin Love as co-pilots and with Rubio surrounded by a bevy of athletes who can finish so much better than any supporting cast he ever had in Europe..
There's little choice here, however. Irving has so spectacularly exceeded expectations in his first half-season that Rubio's brilliance, even with a lot of fourth-quarter success, can't fully make up the gap created by the Spaniard's .374 shooting from the floor.
Not when Irving is shooting 49.9 percent from the floor, 42.6 on 3-pointers and making dazzling, spinning drives as often as Rubio lifts you out of your seat with one of his tasty dishes. Alongside a resurgent (until he got re-injured) Anderson Varejao, Irving has given Cleveland hope far faster than seemed possible if you caught any of Year 1 post-LeBron.
When you've got Irving's skill, feel and instincts -- when you've clearly got a pro game -- it doesn't matter that you only played 11 games in college.
Sixth Man of the First Half
Lou Williams, Philadelphia 76ers
James Harden. Jason Terry. Al Harrington. Mo Williams. Jamal Crawford.
Maybe I'm just getting older, but I don't remember too many Sixth Man Award races with five or six worthy contestants.
I also can't quite put any of the above ahead of Lou Williams at this juncture.
Something tells me Harden will be a more popular choice among the masses, given how critical he is to the Thunder's success and his career-best production in terms of scoring average (16.8 points per game), field goal percentage (.469) and 3-point percentage (.373). Yet for once I'm going to give the edge to the righty, rewarding Williams for quietly playing a more efficient game than Harden statistically.
Playing roughly five fewer minutes per game -- and without scorers like Durant and Westbrook flanking him to divert attention -- Williams is shooting the ball better from 3-point range (even though he's not thought of as a shooter) while leading his team in scoring and ranking No. 3 in the NBA in assist-to-turnover ratio. He's the closest thing Philly has to a go-to guy, averaging nearly six points in fourth quarters, which has helped put Williams in position to possibly become the league's first player since Charlotte's Dell Curry in 1993-94 to lead his team in scoring (total points) without starting a single game.
Harden is obviously the better overall player, but I'd argue that Lou Will is no less important to his team. He's clearly the captain of the most productive bench (averaging 43.9 points nightly) in the NBA.
Defensive Player of the First Half
Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia 76ers
You should by no means discount Dwight Howard's chances of winning another DPOY trophy. Even though Orlando was only 13th in the league in defensive efficiency entering Friday's play, don't forget that Howard remains largely surrounded by non-defenders. He remains an undeniable game-changer on that side of the floor, even amid all the uncertainty surrounding Howard's future and the all-over-the-map play we've seen from the Magic as a result.
The inevitable fatigue that stems from voting for Dwight year after year for this award and the rise to prominence for a handful of previously under-the-radar defenders raises the real possibility that there will be a new DPOY at season's end.
The list of possible Dwight successors is certainly a long one. You could make a passionate case for pretty much all of these havoc-wreakers: Dallas' Shawn Marion, New York's Tyson Chandler, Chicago's Luol Deng, Memphis' Tony Allen, Atlanta's Josh Smith, Boston's Kevin Garnett, Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka, and, yes, James.
But great, standout D is what earned Iguodala his first-ever invite to the All-Star Game ... and it's why he'll start the season's second half with a slight DPOY lead over Marion and Co. As Professor Hollinger likes to remind me, Philly ranks No. 1 in the NBA in defensive efficiency with a makeshift cast of bigs behind him thanks to Spencer Hawes' ongoing injury woes. Iguodala thus gets the early DPOTFH nod.
Most Improved Player of the First Half
Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks
If it bothers you that a player could land in a spot of such prestige after all of seven good games, I understand.
But I'm not changing my vote, either.
The seven games in question have been that eye-popping. The comparisons to Steve Nash are ridiculously premature, but the Nash-like manner in which Lin can keep his dribble until he makes something good happen has undeniably helped spawn a run so historically special (See Box 7) that the Harvard grad, without hesitation on this scorecard, goes straight to the front of a queue that's amazingly even longer than the lines forming in the battle for COY and MIP honors.
Detroit's Greg Monroe, Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins, Atlanta's Jeff Teague, Houston's Kyle Lowry, Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic, Indiana's Paul George, Denver's Al Harrington, Phoenix's Marcin Gortat and Orlando's Anderson are just nine of the names you could comfortably nominate in this category.
Yet only Lin can say he's resurrected his glamour team's lost season, triggered an unforeseen national media frenzy reminiscent of Fernandomania in 1981 and somehow managed to shift the leaguewide focus away from all the talk about injuries ... and the craziness of the compacted schedule ... and the bad basketball we've been frequently seeing as a result.