— Among the more egregious misuses of terminology in professional basketball is the frequent reference to what happens before the All-Star break as the “first half” of the season, with what occurs after the break being known as the “second half.”
This nomenclature is entirely inaccurate for the simple fact that some teams (such as the Celtics) have already played 55 of their 82 games. In case you’re wondering, that translates to 67 percent of the season. And let’s face it, the only instance in which 67 percent can actually be considered a “half” is when you’re divvying up a cookie to share with your younger sibling and you proceed to break off and award yourself the blatantly preferable portion.
Though the All-Star break isn’t technically a midway point in the NBA campaign, it does provide an excellent opportunity to survey the landscape of the league and handicap the chase for some key awards. Here is a look at where some of the critical races stand heading into the conclusive remainder of the season:
Most Valuable Player
Before we delve into who should win this award, let’s make it abundantly clear who should not:
Brandon Roy: He’s the best player on a very good, playoff-bound team and there could be an MVP award in his future, but now is not his time.
Anyone on the Celtics: They’re so balanced and alternate the duties of carrying the team so regularly that no one among Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen (or dynamic point guard Rajon Rondo) stands out enough to claim the award.
Dwight Howard: He’s the dominant centerpiece on a dangerous team and makes life unpleasant for opposing centers on a nightly basis, but there are more complete players on more complete teams who warrant more serious consideration.
Tim Duncan: The same reasoning applies as with Howard, with Duncan being less explosive, less intimidating and going about his business with considerably less panache.
Chris Paul: The value of the league’s best point guard can’t be overstated, but his team’s 30-20 record at the break leaves him on the outside of this year’s race.
Dirk Nowitzki: He is undoubtedly Dallas’ most valuable player, but at 31-21 the Mavs aren’t enough of a factor in the West.
Dwyane Wade: His season averages are borderline obscene (28.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 7.0 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.4 blocks), but Miami’s too close to .500 (28-24) to make Wade a bona fide contender.
Another reason none of the above contenders truly have a shot is that that Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are very clearly the only two players who can justly claim this award in 2008-09. Consider, for a brief moment, their respective credentials (see chart).
LeBron has an edge in most major statistical categories, and the difference in team wins and losses isn’t significant enough to be an issue. If the voters consider intangibles, the fact that Kobe is the reigning MVP and has shown a willingness to play (and play brilliantly, for that matter) through two badly damaged fingers on his shooting hand could have an influence.
But ultimately, LeBron’s combination of across-the-board statistical power-lifting coupled with the Cavs’ legitimate NBA title aspirations should be enough to net him his first NBA MVP award. Odds are that at age 24, it won’t be his last.
Rookie of the Year
Attention Mario Chalmers, D.J. Augustin, Eric Gordon, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and Greg Oden: Be sure to pick up your parting gift (a play-at-home version of Rookie of the Year, the board game) on your way out. There are currently four players still in the hunt:
No. 4, Russell Westbrook, Thunder: The Oklahoma City point guard is explosive, entertaining and his averages of 15.0 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.4 steals would be worthy of this award in certain seasons past. The only problem with that reasoning is that this is not a generic influx of rookies. Though Westbrook should continue posting big lines down the stretch (he currently has four 30-plus scoring outings this season), the combination of erratic shooting (40.7 percent), his team’s miserable record (13-40) and, most importantly, the three players ahead of him will be difficult to overcome.
No. 3, Brook Lopez, Nets: The only post player among the top contenders could stand out because of the difficulty of his position, and the ease with which he’s adjusted. The 20-year-old from Stanford has averaged 12.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 50.8 percent shooting, largely bypassing a learning curve that stalls a number of first-year centers. Featuring the ability to score on the block or step outside to hit jumpers, there’s nothing remotely fluky about Lopez’s production. The fact that he’s on a potential playoff team doesn’t hurt either, but it’s still not likely to be enough.
No. 2, O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies: If Mayo’s rookie campaign required an official title, one appropriate moniker would be “Project Greenlight.” Given the blessing to fire up shots at will, Mayo has instantly proven himself a high-volume NBA scorer, averaging 19.3 points on 44.2 percent shooting from the floor, 87.3 percent from the line and 38.5 percent from 3-point range. However, for a player with his ball-handling skills and ability to draw defensive attention, averaging 2.8 assists per game is somewhat rotten (not unlike the smell that wafts outward when the condiment called to mind by Mayo’s surname is not properly refrigerated). His gun-slinging mentality draws enough attention that he should be able to average 4.0 assists a game with minimal effort. And while that alone won’t lose him the race, the fact that he plays on one of the league’s worst teams just might.
No. 1, Derrick Rose, Bulls: One other factor that could hurt Mayo’s candidacy is the difference in respective roles between him and fellow frontrunner Rose. While Mayo’s role with the Grizzlies has been relatively uncomplicated (score as many points as you possibly can), Rose has had to adapt to the nuances of running an NBA offense. And he has done so in standout fashion, averaging 17.0 points and 6.3 assists on 47.3 percent shooting. It wouldn’t be altogether shocking to see a tie for Rookie of the Year (which would be the first since Elton Brand and Steve Francis in 1999-00), but Rose appears to have a slight edge heading into the stretch run.
Coach of the Year
One approach to picking this award would be to simply look at the teams with the top records in the league and break down which of those coaches has done the best job leading his team.
But that approach would overlook one individual who has fought through an incessant string of injuries to keep his embattled team in the playoff hunt, all while sporting a trademark curmudgeonly scowl that radiates competitive intensity.
Consider for a moment what Jazz coach Jerry Sloan has had to deal with this season:
1. Deron Williams missing 13 of the team’s first 18 games due to ankle problems (and one game since due to a bruised quad);
2. Carlos Boozer sitting out 41 games (and counting) after a knee problem that required surgery;
3. Mehmet Okur missing eight games due to back issues and personal issues;
4. and Andrei Kirilenko missing 11 games prior to the break due to ankle surgery.
Despite his four most established players missing a total of 74 games thus far, Sloan had the Jazz at 30-23 entering this week. A number of prominent coaches have done a stellar job this season, but few have had to fight through the same sort of roster decimation as Sloan, a perennially outstanding motivator and tactician who has never won NBA Coach of the Year.
Most Improved Player
With apologies to Danny Granger and Jeff Green — who have both elevated their scoring by nearly six points per game this season — few players’ strides have been as inspiring as those made by Kevin Durant, who has gone from impressive but occasionally overmatched rookie in 2007-08 to relentless scoring force in his second year in the league. Durant’s 25.5 points per game ranks fifth in the NBA, and at age 20, it is almost absurd to ponder the force he could become.
Comeback Player of the Year
After playing just 51 games each of the past two seasons, Dwyane Wade surpassed that total prior to the All-Star break in 2008-09. That renewed durability has allowed him to post the stratospheric all-around stats mentioned above, thanks in part to a staggeringly vast repertoire of highlight-reel maneuvers.
Sixth Man of the Year
Jason Terry (19.9 points per game) should be able to return soon enough from his broken hand to capture the award, but watch out for Manu Ginobili (16.1 points per game and climbing) and freshly-crowned dunk champ Nate “KryptoNate” Robinson (16.0 points per game).
Defensive Player of the Year
It’s hard to overlook Dwight Howard (the league’s leading shot-blocker at 2.9 per game), but the nod here has to go to LeBron James, who’s capable of locking down anyone from an opposing point guard to power forward, and will at times come up with some of the most ferociously stifling blocks you’ll ever see (for my next trick, I will make this basketball disappear).
That defensive wizardry is yet another factor boosting LeBron’s status as favorite for the league’s most prestigious individual award (the MVP). But the beauty of this time of year is that even though we technically have less than half a season left, there’s still ample time remaining and enough deadlocked chases for the landscape to shift dramatically in the games, weeks and months to come.