You can learn a lot about a person working in the NBA by asking them how they feel about the season’s midway point.
The optimists, the ones who are watching winning basketball free of locker-room drama, can’t believe how time has been flying. For them, it was just yesterday that we first saw LeBron James in a Lakers uniform, Tony Parker in a Charlotte jersey, and Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan trading places.
The pessimists are mired in the muck of the regular season, beset with injuries and unhappy stars. Jumpers never fall, the schedule won’t relent and having to play 41 more games seems like a hell-bound eternity.
And the contenders? Like Golden State’s Klay Thompson said, those teams have way more than 41 games to play.
Still, the midway point of the season is as good a time as any to take stock of what’s happened and what’s to come. Here’s a look at the award races in mid-January:
Most valuable player
The candidates: Lakers F LeBron James, Milwaukee F Giannis Antetokounmpo, Houston G James Harden.
The field is as crowded as ever, with Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Denver’s Nikola Jokic and Toronto’s Kawhi Leonard also having credible arguments to be in the MVP conversation, but these three candidates are just more compelling.
James’ MVP case extends beyond the numbers — and the numbers (27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists) are really good. But the Lakers are almost unrecognizable without him, a team that would be on the outside of the playoff race. With him, they look like a team that could get to the Western Conference finals.
The same, in a lot of ways, goes for Harden, who has gone absolutely nuclear in the last month to put the Rockets right back in the middle of the Western Conference race. He loses points for being part of their slow start, though. Still, his offensive workload is incredible and he’s been carrying the Rockets as Chris Paul comes back from a groin injury.
Antetokounmpo’s been on the MVP path for years, and now that he’s on a title-contending team, this could be his season. He’s an unguardable Terminator, a dunking machine that drives the Bucks’ offense. The only real hole in what he does is a dreadful three-point stroke, but he’s so good at so many other things (scoring, rebounding, passing, defending), that amounts to a bent nail file on a Swiss Army knife.
The pick: Antetokounmpo
Defensive player of the year
The candidates: Oklahoma City F Paul George, Utah C Rudy Gobert, Philadelphia C Joel Embiid.
This award is usually one of the hardest to handicap because of how subjective it is. The job of a rim-protecting big man is just so different from that of a perimeter-swarming wing.
Gobert is an absolute defensive stud, especially in the paint, where he twists up shooters and deters attacks when he’s not altering or blocking shots. The same goes for Embiid, a total talent package who can defend pick-and-roll plays and at the basket.
But George has been terrific for the Thunder, the NBA’s best defensive team. With wing Andre Roberson out, the Thunder needed George to be a star on both sides of the ball. He’s a three-time All-Defensive Team member, but he’s never been better than this season.
The pick: George
Rookie of the year
The candidates: Dallas F Luka Doncic, Phoenix C Deandre Ayton, Memphis F/C Jaren Jackson Jr.
Here is the list of rookies who averaged at least 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game as a rookie in NBA history: Oscar Robertson.
Doncic is doing it. This is easy.
The pick: Luka Doncic
Most improved player
The candidates: Toronto F Pascal Siakam, Sacramento G DeAaron Fox, Indiana F/C Domantas Sabonis.
Another wide-open race heading into the year. Siakam looked like the favorite since the early part of the season. He’s a rangy defender who is skilled enough to grab a rebound and go coast to coast on the fastbreak. He’s a huge reason why the Raptors have their best shot at a first trip to the NBA Finals.
Fox has been a huge reason why the Kings have had their best first half in years, one of the fastest players in the league who also is rapidly improving.
But Sabonis has just been too good — a backup big man who is insanely efficient for the rock-solid Pacers. A part of the Paul George trade last season, Sabonis is only 22.
The pick: Sabonis
Sixth man of the year
The candidates: Clippers F/C Montrezl Harrell, Indiana F/C Domantas Sabonis, Clippers G Lou Williams.
The Clippers are one of the biggest surprises, and a massive reason why is their bench. Williams, the reigning sixth man of the year, is leading the NBA in bench scoring, but not far behind is Harrell, who is in a lot of ways the engine of the Clippers.
The pick: Harrell
Coach of the year
The candidates: Milwaukee’s Mike Budenholzer, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Toronto’s Nick Nurse
This is a packed field. Denver’s Mike Malone, Brooklyn’s Kenny Atkinson and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers also could make a strong case to win.
Budenholzer totally revamped Milwaukee’s offense, turning the Bucks from from a team allergic to the deep ball to one of the most launch-happy places in the NBA — with tremendous results. Nurse has had to navigate an awkward situation in Toronto, where he replaced a coach of the year and had to deal with the fallout of the Kawhi Leonard-DeMar DeRozan trade.