When Philadelphia followed a win over Toronto by beating Boston on Thursday, and Joel Embiid became Philly’s first All-Star starter since Allen Iverson, it was more than a banner day for the 76ers.
It pushed the NBA across the midseason threshold, with Philadelphia being the last team to hit the 41-game mark.
The season’s first half has carried the usual themes of Golden State’s dominating ways, Miami’s deceiving success and Cleveland’s distressing stretches.
There is a commonly good team fading to dark (Memphis) and a commonly bad team on the rise (Minnesota). There are teams turning it around from last season (Philadelphia) and the start of the season (Oklahoma City) with all eyes noticing, and one improving with barely a continental U.S. glance (Toronto).
And there are the individuals who drive the league’s storylines. Here is a look at the midseason front-runners for the NBA’s major awards:
Most valuable player
To call a 15-year pro on a sliding team the MVP front-runner might sound like a career achievement award, but not when Cleveland’s LeBron James is outplaying 2013 MVP LeBron James.
This would be far from a unanimous vote considering what league-leading scorer James Harden is doing in Houston — a new 50-50 mark of more than 50 points a game by score or assist and having a shooting percentage above 50 — how Golden State’s Kevin Durant has transformed defensively while still being a monster offensively, and how quickly Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo has ascended.
But as much as the Cavaliers have struggled early and late this season, where would they be without James and how do you discount the team’s 18-1 stretch against hadthe East’s elite? He not only is a top-five scorer and passer but is the only non-big man to rank among the league’s top 18 in field-goal percentage.
Coach of the year
Throw a dart at the top of each conference’s standings and the team will have a worthy coach.
Stevens lost a star but San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich essentially lost an MVP candidate, with a quadriceps injury limiting Kawhi Leonard to nine low-impact appearances. He also drew the best out of a previously unhappy situation with LaMarcus Aldridge.
Also, consider how offensive savant Mike D’Antoni has worked the Chris Paul-James Harden dynamic and guided the Rockets through injuries to each player, how Duane Casey restructured Toronto’s offense without a hiccup and how Erik Spoelstra squeezes every drop of juice out of Miami’s orange.
Rookie of the year
The obvious choice is Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons for one of the remarkable rookie stat lines on a possible playoff team, but it is hard to pass on what Utah’s Donovan Mitchell is doing.
Mtichell was an early-season surprise but an even better midseason improvement, going from 39% shooting from the field in October and November to 50% shooting in December and January. Only four rookies have posted five 30-point games faster than Mitchell (42 games) and all of them were No. 1 overall picks (Iverson in 15, James in 29 as well as Blake Griffin and Shaquille O’Neal in 34). Mitchell was the No. 13 pick.
And then there is Simmons, a 6-foot-10 point guard who grabs more than eight rebounds a game and shoots 51% from the fieldwithout having a consistent jump shot. He has made as many career three-pointers as center Zaza Pachulia — zero. Simmons plays with a cool beyond his 21 years after sitting out last season because of a fractured right foot and playing one college season on a non-tournament team.
Defensive player of the year
Golden State’s Draymond Green volunteered Durant for this award. Though improved as a shot-blocker, Durant has slipped outside the top 200 in ESPN’s defensive real plus/minus rankings.
That would leave Green as the front-runner to repeat in a year that injuries took out Leonard and Utah center Rudy Gobert but “The Process” introduced a new favorite — Embiid.
The 76ers give up nearly eight more points per 100 possessions when Embiid is not on the floor to protect the rim and handle pick-and-roll switches. He still misses chunks of time but he is playing more often, in appearances and minutes, to give him the nod over standouts such as Oklahoma City’s Andre Roberson, Detroit’s Andre Drummond and Boston’s Al Horford.
When Lou Williams won this award in 2015 with Toronto, it was the typical nod to the volume scoring of a gunner.
He is so much more deserving this season. He is making three-pointers at a career-high clip (41%) that is higher than what he shot overall from the field in 2015 (40%).
Williams has kept the injury-plagued Clippers in the playoff mix with an array of shots and a career-high five assists per game.
Houston’s Eric Gordon will get attention for all the wrong reasons because he is a low-efficiency scorer and has bulked up his numbers by starting about half of Houston’s games. Memphis’ Tyreke Evans is resurrecting his career nicely but it will be lost in the Grizzlies’ mess.
Most improved player
Victor Oladipo. End of conversation.
In a pseudo homecoming to his college stomping grounds, Oladipo has taken the opportunity to be a go-to scorer during his third NBA stop in Indiana and run with it like Usain Bolt.
The Pacers were wrongly criticized for being fleeced in the Paul George trade with Oklahoma City because Indiana got a 25-year-old franchise centerpiece in Oladipo and a young, skilled big man in Domantas Sabonis. Oladipo is putting up career-high averages and percentages across the board, with his scoring-average increase of more than eight points the most noticeable improvement.