NBA midseason report: LeBron for MVP, plus the biggest surprises and disappointments

Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid reacts after scoring against the Indiana Pacers on March 1.
Philadelphia 76ers star Joel Embiid has played at an MVP level through the first half of the 2020-21 NBA season.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)

The NBA concluded the first half of the season Sunday in Atlanta when Team LeBron won a fourth consecutive All-Star game that many players wished did not happen during a condensed season that has forced some games to be postponed because of COVID-19 issues.

While the pandemic presented its own challenges for the league and players, the teams that were expected to be contenders for the championship the Lakers now hold remain the favorites.

In the Western Conference, the Lakers and Clippers remain the top contenders despite being third and fourth, respectively, in the standings behind league-leading Utah and second-place Phoenix.

The thought is that the brilliant duo of LeBron James and a healthy Anthony Davis, who has missed 14 games this season, will make the Lakers too powerful to overcome while Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, two of the most dominant wing players in the league, will pull the Clippers into a Staples Center showdown in the West finals.

In the Eastern Conference, Philadelphia coach Doc Rivers has the 76ers playing at a high enough level to be first in the East, just ahead of superstar-laden Brooklyn, which picked up former All-Star Blake Griffin over the weekend. The Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and defending conference champion Miami Heat also should be in contention.

The question is which team will impose its will if the 76ers and Nets meet in the East finals?

Philadelphia center Joel Embiid has become a superstar and Ben Simmons is on the cusp, but can Embiid be the dominant force inside over the supremely talented Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden from the Nets?


Surprise teams

Utah Jazz standout Donovan Mitchell plays during a game.
Utah Jazz standout Donovan Mitchell gestures during a game against the Philadelphia 76ers on March 3.
(Matt Slocum / Associated Press)


UTAH: The Jazz have the best record in the NBA at 27-9, three All-Stars in Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Mike Conley and the top candidate for sixth man of the year in Jordan Clarkson. Utah is third in scoring (116.6) and three-point shooting (39.8%), second in rebounding (48.0) and fourth in points allowed (107.8) and field-goal percentage allowed (44.9%). To be sure, Utah has the goods to compete for the championship.

PHOENIX: The Suns have the second-best record at 24-11. They have two All-Stars in Chris Paul and Devin Booker, who missed the game Sunday because of an injury. The Suns are third in points allowed (107.1).

NEW YORK: Tom Thibodeau is doing his thing again as the first-year coach of the Knicks, making them play tough defense and with energy all the time. They are fifth in the East with a 19-18 record and have a first-time All-Star in forward Julius Randle. The Knicks are first in points allowed (104.4) and field-goal percentage allowed (43.5%).

CHARLOTTE: No one saw the Hornets improving this quickly, holding a 17-18 record that has them seventh in the East. They have seven players scoring in double figures, thanks in part to the stellar passing of rookie point guard LaMelo Ball.


Disappointing teams

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum drives against Clippers guard Patrick Beverley and center Serge Ibaka.
Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum, right, drives against Clippers guard Patrick Beverley, left, and center Serge Ibaka during a game on March 2.
(Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

BOSTON: Perhaps because of such high expectations, the Celtics have not been living up to the hype as a championship contender. They are fourth in the East (19-17) by ending the first half on a four-game winning streak. The Celtics had a stretch in which they lost 11 of 16 games and had a losing record until their recent streak. Defensive stalwart Marcus Smart is out with a calf injury and point guard Kemba Walker has been limited because of a left knee injury. So that has left it to young All-Stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown to carry the load.

DALLAS: At one point, the Mavericks were 9-14. They finished the first half by winning five of their last six games and are holding the eighth spot in the West with an 18-16 record. All-Star Luka Doncic has been sensational, averaging 28.6 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds, but Kristaps Porzingis has been inconsistent.


Most valuable player

Lakers star LeBron James shoots over Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn during a game on Feb. 20.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

This is an impressively crowded field.

From James to Embiid to Denver’s Nikola Jokic, to the on-the-rise candidates in Portland’s Damian Lillard and Golden State’s Stephen Curry, to Doncic, the MVP award is a tough call.

James leads the Lakers in scoring (25.8), rebounding (8.0), assists (7.8) and minutes (34.6). He’s shooting 50.9% from the field and 35.8% from three-point range. He’s had to hold it down for the Lakers while Davis is recovering from a right calf strain. And James has been impressive doing it all at 36 and in his 18th season.

Now healthy, Embiid is the best big man in the NBA. He’s a force down low, second in the league in scoring (30.2) and fifth in rebounding (11.6).

It’s really too close to call, but James gets the edge here.


Defensive player of the year

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert, left, tries to block a shot by Miami Heat guard Duncan Robinson during a game on Feb. 26.
(Lynne Sladky / Associated Press)


Gobert is seeking to win the award for the third time. But one player to take notice of is Indiana’s Myles Turner, who leads the league in blocked shots (3.4), ahead of Gobert (2.7). Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo is still a defensive force and 76ers forward Simmons can defend all five positions with his size, strength and quickness.

The winner is Gobert.


Rookie of the year

Charlotte Hornets guard LaMelo Ball plays against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 26.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

This is not a bad class, with more than just Ball. Sacramento has Tyrese Haliburton, Minnesota has Anthony Edwards and New York has Immanuel Quickley.

But the winner is Ball, who at just 19 leads all rookies in scoring (15.8), assists (6.4) and rebounds (6.0) and is fourth in the league in steals (1.6).


Sixth man of the year

Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson brings the ball up court in the second half during an NBA basketball game.
Utah Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson controls the ball against the Miami Heat on Feb. 13.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

Utah guard Clarkson leads the pack. Lakers backup center Montrezl Harrell, who won the award last season while playing for the Clippers, still has impressed. It’s just that Clarkson is second on the Jazz in scoring (17.9) and on the team with the best record.

Clarkson is the winner.


Coach of the year

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder looks on during a game against the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 10.
(Carlos Osorio / Associated Press)

Utah’s Quin Snyder, Phoenix’s Monty Williams, San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, Brooklyn’s Steve Nash, Thibodeau and Rivers have done outstanding jobs.

The winner is Snyder, whose team has the best record and a cohesiveness created by the sixth-year coach.