Now that we’re past the All-Star break, I think it’s a good time to hand out the NBA midseason awards. I held an award show last month at the quarter-season mark, but most teams hadn’t even played 20 games at that point. That was as pointless an exercise as carrying two-pound weights on a leisurely walk. And, unsurprisingly, almost all the choices for the six major awards are different from the last article. But now that we’re almost 40 games through the season, we have a significant sample size and a good idea of the trajectory the league is going on. This is where award season gets serious. So, let’s jump right in.
Most Improved Player – Julius Randle (previous: Jaylen Brown)
Jaylen Brown deserved his all-star nod, to be sure, but it’s been tougher sledding of late. His improved playmaking has stuck around, but the shooting numbers have tanked of late, with a disappearing three-point shot being the main culprit. Brown’s really good, but he was last season, too.
He’s not the only one stumbling. Most of the other candidates for this award at the quarter-season mark have been down bad the last few weeks. Malcolm Brogdon spent a few weeks clanking everything. Christian Wood missed almost all of February. Jerami Grant’s still averaging over 23 a game, but he’s proving to be an inefficient scorer on a terrible team that lets him take 18 shots a game. This is the NBA midseason awards we’re talking about here. You got to give me more than that.
So, that leaves us with just Julius Randle.
The cynical Knicks fan in me doubted he would keep playing at an all-star level after a solid first 20 games, but it turns out he had another level to hit. Thanks to a scorching-hot February, the Kentucky alum is now just one of three guys averaging 23 points, 11 rebounds, and five assists per game. The other two are Jokic and Giannis.
The Knicks wouldn’t be a playoff team without Randle’s dramatic improvement.
I want to give a shoutout to a young point guard on a struggling team who’s taking a big leap in his third season. His scoring prowess has hit new heights this season, but don’t just think of him as a score-first guy, because he’s also made great strides as a ball distributor this season. Am I talking about Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Collin Sexton? The answer is yes.
Sorry Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Collin Sexton, and Jerami Grant
Sixth Man of the Year – Chris Boucher (previous: Jordan Clarkson)
At our NBA midseason awards, sixth man is a two-man race between Jordan Clarkson and Chris Boucher.
I thought Clarkson was going to take this wire-to-wire. He was scoring at an elite rate with high efficiency for the best team in the league, and it felt like he had found the perfect environment for his skill-set. He’s still getting 18 points in 26 minutes a night, but he’s forcing things now. He averaged 18/5/2 on 48/39/97 shooting in his first 18 games. The next 18, the slash lines went 18/3/3 on 42/36/97.
Clarkson’s still a solid candidate, but Boucher’s got a couple of things going for him. One, his already strong case has gotten even better in the past month. In his last 17 games, the 28-year-old is averaging 15 points, seven boards, and two blocks a game with a 55/44/77 shooting split. Damn.
Two, he plays a more complete game than Clarkson. There’s a tendency to reward score-first guards for sixth man, but I think we can all agree there are other important things you can do in basketball. In addition to 21 points, Boucher nabs 10 boards and blocks 3 shots per 36 minutes.
Third, I thought back in February that Toronto’s head coach Nick Nurse was going to get Boucher into the starting lineup, which made me favor Clarkson. Well, Nurse decided that 26 minutes a night off the bench is still the best course of action. Seems to go against common sense, but apparently, that’s why I’m not the reigning Coach of the Year.
Points are cool but give me the guy doing more than just scoring.
Sorry Jordan Clarkson
Coach of the Year – Quin Snyder (previous: Frank Vogel)
Here’s what this section said I picked when Frank Vogel was my pick for Coach of the Year:
“Quin Snyder’s a good choice, too, but I want to give the Jazz more time to see if they really are a top-five team.”
Well, we’re at the midseason point, and Utah isn’t just a top-five team, they’re the top team in the NBA.
They didn’t make any changes to the front office or staff. They didn’t make any big offseason additions. The only thing they’ve shown notable improvement on from years past is rebounding. They’re just…better. Quin Snyder deserves a heavy share of the credit for taking them from good to great. That’s what it means to be the best coach in the league, right?
As for the honorable mentions. I tapped Vogel as the pick last time, but the Lakers are 4-6 since Anthony Davis hurt his Achilles. Vogel made me look like a clown for thinking he was some underappreciated mastermind who had a hand in the Lakers’ success. Nope, he’s just a guy holding a clipboard with a good seat to watch LeBron and AD do all the work.
Doc Rivers has taken the Sixers to heights Brett Brown could never. Tom Thibodeau single-handedly turned the Knicks into one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Finally, Monty Williams. Things weren’t always pretty during his stint in New Orleans, but his work with the Phoenix Suns has been unbelievable. He inherited a 19-win team, almost got them to the playoffs last year thanks to an undefeated bubble stint, and now they’re second in the West.
Sorry Monty Williams, Tom Thibodeau, and Doc Rivers
ROY – LeMelo Ball (previous: Tyrese Haliburton)
What was once a tough decision to make has now become the easiest of the NBA midseason awards.
It wasn’t the smoothest sailing right off the bat for LaMelo Ball. The teenager dealt with some not-all-to-unexpected shooting struggles over the first 20 games of the season, but the rebounding and playmaking prowess were there.
Well, I don’t know what happened, but he went on an absolute tear in the second quarter of the season. And when I say “an absolute tear,” I mean this 19-year-old has played like an All-Star over the past 16 games. During that span, Ball averaged 21/6/7 a night on 48/46/87 shooting along with two steals. He’s now on pace to join Magic Johnson and Ben Simmons as the only rookies to ever average 15/6/6 with an effective field goal percentage over 50. I doubt even LaVar Ball expected his kid to play this well right off the bat.
I really wanted to give this to Tyrese Haliburton. Most any other year, a sharpshooting combo guard with an advanced basketball IQ and a nose for forcing turnovers would run away with this award. And it’s not like he’s done anything wrong. In fact, he’s been playing even better since I posted the quarter-season awards, averaging 17/3/5 with an absolutely bonkers 52/46/83 shooting split since then. He just hasn’t been LaMelo. He’s not leading a playoff team in usage rate and PER like LeMelo is for the Hornets.
Sorry, Tyrese. I still would love to have you on the Knicks though.
Sorry Tyrese Haliburton
Defensive Player of the Year – Rudy Gobert (previous: Myles Turner)
The complexities of good defense are difficult to capture, and I’m not some advanced analyst who pours over the tape and ridiculously specific stats. I don’t know who leads the league in field goal percentage allowed within seven feet of the basket on Tuesday when there are fewer than five minutes left in the third quarter. I’m just another idiot hosting fake NBA midseason awards. But you don’t need a beautiful mind to see that Rudy Gobert is fucking incredible at defense.
The 2.8 blocks per game and a league-best net defensive rating of 101 are nice, but it’s the intangibles that make him an all-time defender. Since Gobert can bail them out if they get dusted or lose on a gamble, Utah’s perimeter defenders don’t give their assignments any breathing room.
Shit, Kristaps Porzingis has open space inside the arc. should we slide down to give weak-side help? Nah, Rudy’s got it.
It’s that trickle-down effect that gives Utah the second-best defensive rating in the league. Sure, Mike Conley’s a plus defender. Joe Ingles and Royce O’Neal aren’t bums. But Donavan Mitchell? Bojan Bogdanović? Fucking Jordan Clarkson? Ew. Replace Gobert with just about anyone else at center and things go downhill fast.
You could absolutely give this to Ben Simmons. He’ll win at least one DPOY before he’s done. Myles Turner still elevates the Pacers from a bottom-five defense to a top-10 unit, but they’re still just middle-of-the-road on that side of the floor. Gobert also tops him now in key defensive metrics (although on that note, people need to stop shooting the ball around Jakob Poeltl).
The Stifle Tower becomes the fourth player in NBA history to win DPOY three or more times.
Sorry Ben Simmons and Myles Turner
MVP – Joel Embiid (previous: Joel Embiid)
A lot of factors go into being an MVP. Let me rattle off names that deserve mention in the same sentence as “Most Valuable Player” but come up short for one reason or another.
I wouldn’t feel right picking James Harden over Kyrie Irving or vice versa. Ditto for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Giannis doesn’t deserve a three-peat, but he’s still playing like an MVP. Sorry Luka, you and the Mavs spent the first 20 games of the season bullshitting around.
That means we’re down to Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and LeBron James. Many of the advanced stats say Jokic, but I’m waiting for the Nuggets to break into one of the top four spots in the conference. And you can tell LeBron really wants to win another MVP. The stink of that recent 3-5 stretch when he played without AD is still ripe though. What can I say? You need to nitpick with things like this.
Embiid’s still the guy. The Nets may be climbing up the standings, but the 76ers are still kings in the East, and it’s because of Embiid. Philly outscores opponents by 11.6 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court and they’re outscored by 6.4 points per 100 without him. That gives the big guy a league-leading net +/- of 18.
Based on his injury history, I was worried that Embiid would start missing too many games to justify being MVP, and what do ya know, he’s going to miss at least two weeks after suffering a bone bruise Friday night. Quite honestly, I don’t think JoJo’s going to crack 50 regular-season appearances. He won’t be winning this award. But for purposes of the NBA midseason awards, he’s undoubtedly the pick.
Sorry Nikola Jokic and LeBron James