The NBA is nearing the end of the unofficial midway point of the season, also known as the All-Star break, which started March 5 and closes out today, March 10. Ironically, in a typical year, most teams would have already completed around 50 of the 82 games by the time the All-Star Game rolled around so calling it the halfway mark would be a bit of a stretch. However, in just the latest example that the past year has been anything but typical, the majority of teams have played exactly 36 of the 72 contests that will take place this season. There have been some surprises, namely the Utah Jazz and the Phoenix Suns owning the league’s best records and the New York Knicks — yes, the Knicks! — holding down a playoff spot at 19-18. On the whole, though, the season has gone about as expected with the Los Angeles teams, the Brooklyn Nets and the Milwaukee Bucks remaining title favorites. Given that this is as close to an “official” midpoint as there will ever be, it’s the perfect time to hand out some midseason awards. Just a quick note: these are my personal picks for who should win, not necessarily who would win. Got it? Good. Then let’s get started.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jordan Clarkson, Shooting Guard, Utah Jazz
This award used to be reserved for Lou Williams, who won it three times between the 2014-2015 and 2018-2019 seasons. It won’t be his this year though, as the Clippers guard has seen his scoring drop off significantly with the addition of Marcus Morris. Last year’s winner was actually Williams’ former teammate, Montrezl Harrell. Harrell left the Clippers in free agency for their local rivals and the defending champions, the Lakers, where he has carved out a solid role on the second unit behind LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Nonetheless, Jordan Clarkson is an easy call. He’s become somewhat of a sixth-man specialist having previously played the same role on the Lakers and the Cavaliers. The four-year contract he signed in the offseason now looks like quite the bargain, as Clarkson is averaging nearly 18 points in just 26 minutes per game. He’s leading the NBA in free throw percentage at 96.7 percent and making 3.2 threes per night. As the second-leading scorer for a team that sits atop the Western Conference at 27-9, this decision isn’t a complicated one.
Honorable Mentions: Montrezl Harrell, LAL; Eric Gordon, HOU; Chris Boucher, TOR
Coach of the Year: Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz
Remember when I mentioned that the Jazz currently sit as the best team in the NBA? Well, Quin Snyder is a large reason why. This team is much improved from the one that has been knocked out in the first round of the playoffs each of the past two seasons. They score the third most points per game while holding their opponents to the fourth least. Snyder has developed Donovan Mitchell into a bona fide superstar, turned Rudy Gobert into a dominant rim-protector and helped Mike Conley find his place as a floor general. The only question that remains is whether he can translate the regular season success to the postseason.
Given this award selection, I still owe three quick shoutouts. First, Monty Williams has carried over the Suns’ success in last year’s playoff bubble to this season. Next, in his first season in Philly, Doc Rivers has coached the Philadelphia 76ers to the one-seed in the East. And finally, Tom Thibodeau has dramatically changed the culture and reputation of the Knicks in his maiden season in New York. But given the Jazz’ massive improvement, the choice is still Snyder.
Honorable Mentions: Monty Williams, PHO; Doc Rivers, PHI; Tom Thibodeau, NYK
Most Improved Player: Julius Randle, Power Forward, New York Knicks
Aside from MVP, “most improved” is the hardest to define. Traditional thinking would fashion Jerami Grant as the favorite. He put up 12 points per game last season to help the Denver Nuggets reach the Western Conference Finals. Upon departing for the Detroit Pistons in free agency, he has nearly doubled his scoring output to 23.4 per game. But the fact that he’s the number one option on the second worst team in the league takes some luster off of his impressive stats. I’d prefer to give the trophy to a player that has taken a noticeable step forward alongside not despite his team. That leaves Zach LaVine and Julius Randle as the finalists. LaVine has consistently improved every year of his career. This is undoubtedly his best, as he’s one of five players to average 25+ points, 5+ rebounds and 5+ assists while shooting at least 50 percent from the field. The other four are Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Nikola Jokic, just to give you an idea of his elite company. Meanwhile, Randle is producing career highs in almost every relevant statistic. He’s raised his three-point percentage from an abysmal 27.7 percent to an excellent 40.8 percent. Jokic is the only other player to shoot above 40 percent from three while also averaging 20+ points, 10+ rebounds, and 5+ assists. It’s truly splitting hairs between LaVine and Randle. However, Randle’s team is the one in playoff position, and Randle’s rise has been more unexpected. Therefore, he gets the slight edge.
Honorable Mentions: Zach LaVine, CHI; Jerami Grant, DET; Jaylen Brown, BOS
Rookie of the Year: LaMelo Ball, Point Guard, Charlotte Hornets
This was far and away the simplest choice. Ball was selected third overall in the past draft and has already made both the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors look like they may have made a mistake by passing on him. He was the favorite to win the award before the season began, and he was still the frontrunner before he had even started an NBA game. Since entering the starting lineup, he’s contributing All-Star caliber numbers at 20.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game on 46 percent shooting from the field and 45 percent from beyond the arc. Did I mention he’s only 19 years old? Lavar Ball finally has a son living up to the hype, as the ceiling for LaMelo is limitless.
Honorable Mentions: Tyrese Haliburton, SAC; Anthony Edwards, MIN; Immanuel Quickley, NYK
Defensive Player of the Year: Ben Simmons, Point Guard, Philadelphia 76ers
This is another honor that is hard to evaluate because it requires comparing players across a range of different positions. Centers often dominate the award, as they’re able to produce gaudy stats in the rebound and block departments. Giannis claimed it last season with his intimidating presence at the heart of the Bucks’ stout defense. Before that, Rudy Gobert had won two in a row playing for this year’s Coach of the Year pick, Quin Snyder. They are certainly in the mix alongside Myles Turner, who is blocking 3.4 shots per game — the highest mark by a player since the 2015-2016 season. However, I’ve chosen to take a more holistic approach.
The modern NBA is more fluid than ever before. Everyone is shooting threes, big men are handling the ball more and teams are playing with smaller lineups. Versatility is key, and Ben Simmons is the most versatile defender in the league. His shooting deficiencies are well-documented, but his defensive prowess has never been in question. Although his 7.9 boards, 1.6 steals and 0.7 blocks per game are nothing to write home about, these numbers don’t tell the full story. No other player possesses his ability to defend any position on the court at any given time, night in and night out. His defense is a key factor in why the 76ers have a real chance of lifting the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Honorable Mentions: Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL; Myles Turner, IND; Rudy Gobert, UTA
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Small Forward, Los Angeles Lakers
I’ve saved the best (and also most difficult) choice for last. “Valuable” is another tricky word to define, but I see it as measuring how vital a player is to a team’s success. That means that the player has to be the leader on an excellent team. So apologies to Steph Curry and Luka Doncic, who are putting up amazing stats on average teams. It was always going to be an uphill battle for Giannis to win a third straight MVP, and despite another season of video-game-level numbers for him, the Bucks have been slightly disappointing as a team (not to mention their failures in the playoffs). Nikola Jokic is quite possibly the best playmaking center the NBA has ever seen. He’s upped his scoring to 27 points per game and is leading the NBA in double-doubles, where he can do it with either rebounds (11 per game) or assists (8.6). But his defense leaves something to be desired and the Nuggets have regressed somewhat from last season (although they’ve been hot of late). Finally, Joel Embiid has been a monster this year. He would be the first player since Moses Malone in the 1981-1982 season to average 30+ points, 10+ rebounds and 1+ block per game. He’s making 42 percent of his threes, 52 percent of all his shots and getting to the line almost 12 times per night — which is why it’s so tough to say that, in the end, LeBron James is the MVP.
Look, Embiid has played phenomenally, and there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s been the “best” player in the NBA. However, LeBron is still more valuable. It’s not so much his stats, although he is scoring 25.8 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out 7.8 assists per game. It’s not even his defense, stellar as it may be. It’s that the NBA takes LeBron for granted. He plays at an MVP-caliber level every season, so much so that people have become immune to it. Everyone knows that LeBron is an MVP contender and is going to turn it up several notches in the playoffs, so they want to see who will emerge to challenge him. Despite his co-star Anthony Davis missing 13 games, the 76ers are only a half game better than the Lakers. The truth is that LeBron deserves the MVP award almost every season that he walks out on the court. And halfway through this season, I’m giving it to him.
Honorable Mentions: Joel Embiid, PHI; Nikola Jokic, DEN; Giannis Antetokounmpo, MIL