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The NBA announced the All-Star Game starters for both conferences on Thursday. By the end of the week, most teams will have played 41 of their 82 game schedule. That can only mean one thing.
It's time for The Tribune's NBA midseason awards.
In an intriguing first half, we have seen a historic performance from the Thunder's Russell Westbrook. We've seen a big-time feud: Westbrook vs. his former OKC running mate Kevin Durant, now leading the Warriors. A month before the trade deadline, we've already seen wheeling and dealing, and the Knicks remain a basket case.
But who has been the best? Who has been the most deserving? Who has stood out the most? Our picks:
Most Valuable Player
You can make the argument that LeBron James continues to be the best player in the NBA, and thus deserves the first-half MVP But this award comes down to Westbrook and James Harden. One of the most athletic point guards in league history, Westbrook is averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game. Yes, the man is averaging a triple-double, which hasn't been accomplished since 1962 when Oscar Robertson pulled off the feat. But ... James Harden is our MVP. He's having the best season of his career, averaging 28 points, 11.6 assists and 8.3 rebounds per game. Yes, he's playing in a hyper-fast offensive system. But those numbers are simply insane. He moved to the point guard spot full-time this season, and has been the best in the league in that position. More importantly, the Rockets are 20 games over the .500 mark, and are in the third spot in the Western Conference, after they limped to eighth last season. That's the definition of most valuable.
This isn't close. Sixers center Joel Embiid is the easy choice. Embiid has been terrific on both ends of the floor, and the Sixers are winning basketball games. Sounds weird, yes, but Philly has won seven of its past 10. Embiid is still without Ben Simmons the top overall pick from the 2016 draft, who has yet to play a game due to injury. He's still without a real NBA point guard as a starter, and because of his past foot issues, he will spend the remainder of the season on a 28 minutes-per game restriction. But Embiid is a star on the floor, a star in the social media world and the biggest reason that the Sixers have real hope for the near future.
Mike D'Antoni was mocked as a retread hire when Houston hired him last summer. Turns out, the joke is on us. Rockets general manager Daryl Morey loves the go-fast and go-hard offense, an attack that never uses the full shot clock, and gets 3-pointers off at a breakneck pace. Who better to run that offense than D'Antoni, the inventor of the seven-seconds-or-less Phoenix Suns offense of a decade ago? That offense made Steve Nash a two-time MVP, and is about to do the same for Harden. It's one thing to employ a system. It's another to be a marvelous coach, and D'Antoni has done both this season. He took Harden and moved him from shooting guard to point guard, then he and Morey brought in a couple of sharp-shooters in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. The franchise smartly moved on from Dwight Howard, and made the athletic Clint Capela its center. And recognizing Harden is allergic to defense, the Rockets kept Pat Beverley in the starting lineup to harrass opposing guards. The result is one of the best offenses in the league, and a defense that has been upgraded to middle tier.
This can go a number of ways. The Jazz's Rudy Gobert, Clippers' DeAndre Jordan, Warriors' Draymond Green and Spurs' Kawhi Leonard are all candidates. But Gobert deserves the award. He's the anchor behind the best defense in the league. He's having a career season. And he's a rarity: A shotblocker, who is also a terrific team defender. He's one of the few big men defensively along with Jordan and the Cavs' Tristan Thompson who are comfortable chasing guards around on the perimeter. Gobert has been everything the Jazz hoped for when signing him to a contract extension before the beginning of the regular season. As a bonus, Gobert has developed into an offensive threat as well, becoming a great finisher at the rim, a dominant rebounder and one of the best screen and roll men in the league. He even has improved his free-throw shooting.
Nuggets center Nikola Jokic operates in almost complete secrecy in Denver, but he deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Towns and Embiid as young big men who are poised to rule the NBA in the future. He's averaging 14.2 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. He's already one of the best passing big men in the league, handing out 3.8 assists per game. His player efficiency (PER) rating is an eye-popping 25.3. And he seems to be getting better. Jokic is averaging 22.7 points and 10.1 rebounds and 5.3 assists in his past 10 games, and is averaging 23 points per game in January. A second round pick in the 2014 draft class, if there were a redraft, he'd almost certainly go top five.
The Warriors are easily the NBA's best team through the first half, and are significant favorites to win the title in June. As of Thursday, the Warriors are 36-6 and outscore their opponents by almost 13 points per game the only team in the league with a double-digit point differential. They are averaging almost 118 points per game, and made a statement in their recent blowout of their fiercest rival, the Cavs. The rest of the league has far to go to catch the Warriors.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City; James Harden, Houston; Kevin Durant, Golden State; LeBron James, Cleveland; Anthony Davis, New Orleans. NBA Power Rankings
1. Golden State Warriors • They absolutely obliterated Cleveland, reinforcing their status as NBA title favorites.
2. Cleveland Cavaliers • No need to overreact to the Warriors' loss. It was the finale of a 12-day road trip. They had no legs.
3. San Antonio Spurs • Keep rolling along with no let-up in sight. Kawhi Leonard scored at least 30 points in four straight games.
4. Houston Rockets • Saw what happened when 3-point shots aren't falling in loss at Miami. Their fate is tied to perimeter shooting.
5. Toronto Raptors • Are 9-1 in their division. The one loss? To Philadelphia last Wednesday. Embrace the process!
6. Los Angeles Clippers • Their hold on this spot is tenuous with Chris Paul out for up to 8 weeks following thumb surgery.
7. Utah Jazz • Joe Johnson's clutch 3-pointer capped a rally in Phoenix. They're winning without Rodney Hood, for the time being.
8. Boston Celtics • Isaiah Thomas having one of the best seasons for someone under six feet tall since Allen Iverson.
9. Memphis Grizzlies • How good is this team? Good enough to beat the Warriors. But can also lose at home to the struggling Bulls.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder • A man averaging a triple-double should be a starter in the NBA All-Star Game. Period.
11. Washington Wizards • One of the hottest teams in the league. John Wall's playing on an extremely high level, as is Otto Porter.
12. Atlanta Hawks • Meh. Good players, good record, playoffs in its future, but nothing truly exciting.
13. Indiana Pacers • Fared pretty well on their road trip out west. Jeff Teague is playing much better.
14. Charlotte Hornets • At one point, the Hornets were third in the East. The burden on Kemba Walker is catching up with him.
15. Milwaukee Bucks • Giannis Antetokoumpo was deservedly named an all-star starter. He's one of the best players in the league.
16. Chicago Bulls • They're in a scary place a superstar (Jimmy Butler) surrounded by mediocrity. You don't want to waste his prime.
17. Denver Nuggets • Currently in the eighth playoff spot in the West. That would be one high-scoring series with Golden State.
18. New Orleans Pelicans • Still toiling below .500, but the feeling is they could make a playoff run in the second half of the season.
19. Portland Trail Blazers • Lillard and McCollum have all-star numbers. But do they really deserve it, given team's underachievement?
20. Detroit Pistons • Very good on some nights, putrid on others. The inconsistency must be maddening to Stan Van Gundy.
21. New York Knicks • Carmelo Anthony drops a franchise record 25 points in a quarter against Washington. Of course, they still lost.
22. Sacramento Kings • Rudy Gay ruptures his Achilles tendon. Brutal injury for Gay, who could've been a free agent this offseason.
23. Minnesota Timberwolves • Yes, the Clippers were without Chris Paul. But beating L.A. on the road was a huge win for this team.
24. Orlando Magic • No Jodie Meeks, no Evan Fournier. This team is looking for a shooting guard. Everyone else is hurt.
25. Philadelphia 76ers • This looks like the young team with the brightest future in the league. Embiid is sensational.
26. Dallas Mavericks • Went on a three-game win streak before loss to Miami. Seth Curry has been a revelation as a shooter.
27. Los Angeles Lakers • The bottom has fallen out defensively. The Lakers started the season 10-10. They're 6-21 since then.
28. Phoenix Suns • Had the Jazz beaten on their home floor, and let it slip away. Those are the trials of a young team.
29. Miami Heat • The bright spot? Goran Dragic is playing great basketball. That's about it, though.
30. Brooklyn Nets • Their current free fall coincides with a brutal schedule against Cleveland, Toronto, Utah, Atlanta and Houston.