Durant ahead of James in the MVP race

With over half of the season in the books and the All-Star break approaching, Sam Smith of Bulls.com takes a look at who could be on their way to winning MVP, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man and Most Improved

They never said there’d be math. So the NBA isn’t great at it. The season break, the so-called season’s halftime, comes about 50 to 52 games in at the Feb. 16 All-Star Game. But the league hit the mathematical halfway mark in the last week at 41 games. It’s often a time for consideration, and next week I’ll look at where the teams are. But this also is a good time to look at the stars of the first half, the players who are halfway to winning the league’s major awards.

Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder.

He’s moved ahead of LeBron James for now with his high scoring run of late without Russell Westbrook and the Thunder continuing to win. But I had Durant there even before the last two weeks. I’m fine with spreading around this award. Michael Jordan didn’t deserve to win it every season. It’s not for the league’s best player. That would be the Most Outstanding Player award. That Jordan deserved annually. There is a floating criteria for this award, like most. It’s essentially a subjective combination of how you do, how your team does and your impact on your team compared with others’ impact on theirs. In shorthand, the best player having the best season for the best team. Derrick Rose was not a better player than James when Rose won. The Heat has fallen back some, which makes this easier. Charles Barkley deserved his in 1993 and Karl Malone in 1998. It was no snub of Jordan. There can be multi-greatness. It doesn’t diminish James in the least. There are many deserving stars. Durant is for this season. James would be second followed by Paul George, LaMarcus Aldridge and perhaps Stephen Curry for now though I am beginning to lean toward Blake Griffin.

Coach of the Year: Jeff Hornacek, Phoenix Suns.

This often produces the worst winner because it usually goes to the team the media most underestimated. It’s why so many winners get fired so soon after winning and why the top coaches who rarely won, like Phil Jackson and Pat Riley, joked about it being bad luck. Hopefully, this won’t be the case for Hornacek, a rookie coach. Doc Rivers won it as a rookie and did OK afterward, though he was fired in his fifth season. There’s a lot of sentiment as well for Portland’s Terry Stotts, though he had more an underachieving team last season that collapsed down the stretch. Both managements in Portland and Phoenix should vie for executive awards as the addition of Robin Lopez has enabled LaMarcus Aldridge to emerge. The Suns trades have been terrific and they retain loads of No. 1 picks. The Suns were hard to read because they basically came in with a rotation of players who not only never played together but many of whom weren’t playing anywhere. We’ll find out in the future whether we underestimated them or overestimated Hornacek. But their style of play and consistent effort shows Hornacek has done exceptionally well in his first job. Stotts probably gets second and I go with Tom Thibodeau third. In fact, there hasn’t been a season since Thibodeau’s first as head coach in 2010-11 that he shouldn’t have been among the top three. He simply refuses to accept his team cannot win no matter who he has and no matter whom they are playing. It comes to rub off on the players, a rare and impressive trait. You’ll also hear cases made for Frank Vogel, Scott Brooks, Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Dwane Casey.

Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George, Indiana Pacers.

Another tough one because there are so few really good defensive players. Basically because it’s almost impossible to be a lockdown defender with the lack of hand checking and so little contact allowed above the free throw line. As a result and because so few watch defense, this becomes a consensus choice once someone gets promoted a lot. There’s no sense looking at the all-defensive teams because the coaches who vote on that tend to vote on highlight films as well. The consensus this season seems to be the Pacers’ Roy Hibbert. I know he is a factor and you have to take him into consideration. But it’s difficult to consider him a great defender when you have to seem to wind him up to get him to move. I’d have him third best defender on that team behind George and David West. It was like Marc Gasol winning last season. C’mon, Tony Allen was better. And he’s not great. I like individual defenders who move and deny. LeBron probably would be the best, but he does so mostly late in games, like Kobe Bryant did. They have so much else to do. George is the closest to a lockdown defender these days. I’d probably go with Serge Ibaka next for the best big man defender and then I’d take Joakim Noah for less his size presence compared to Hibbert but his all-around play in switching and taking small players. Good luck trying that with Hibbert. No offense, he is good. But hardly the best.

Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers.

There’s basically three guys in a poor draft class with top guys injured and not playing. It’s Carter-Williams, Victor Oladipo and Trey Burke. Carter-Williams and Burke have had the most effect on bad teams with their teams virtually unable to win any games without them. Carter-Williams with his size has been the most versatile of the three and doing the most. I probably go with Burke next, though it’s close with Oladipo for his quickness and ability to break down players off the dribble. The league is going to have a tough time with a rookie team at the All-Star weekend.

Sixth Man: Taj Gibson, Bulls.

Gibson has had by far his best NBA season in developing a post game and improving his shot. He perhaps exemplifies the historical standard of the award as being closest to Bobby Jones, the first winner in 1983. I’d guess Jamal Crawford gets the award again as he’s having a terrific season as the top scorer among the top sixth men. The award generally goes to an offensive player off the bench, like this season Nick Young, Reggie Jackson, Rodney Stuckey and Tyreke Evans. I go with Jamal second in a bit of a homer vote as Gibson deserves strong consideration for this award and his impact on winning. I could go with one of the Morrises in Phoenix if I knew who was who. So I’ll go third with Marco Belinelli, who has surpassed Manu Ginobili as the Spurs’ top reserve. And just ahead of Nate Robinson, who is having another good season.

Most Improved Player: Lance Stephenson, Indiana Pacers.

This is maybe the other consensus favorite early. And I can go with him. A second round pick that no one in the NBA but Larry Bird ever thought would be an NBA player, Stephenson’s play has no one thinking Danny Granger should start. Remember that big story? I don’t agree Stephenson should be an All-Star, though he is practically doubling his career scoring average and leads the league in triple doubles. When the Pacers needed a play in a comeback win over the Kings last week, they went to West every time. Stephenson never touched the ball. He talked a lot, though. This award produces the most candidates because of the varied definitions of improved. I generally eliminate top lottery picks because they were supposed to be good. Though I may have to change that if Anthony Bennett does something next season. I’d go with Miles Plumlee second because who saw that coming? And Terrence Jones. Really, did you even know he was in the NBA? But there are good candidates, like Isaiah Thomas, Goran Dragic, Arron Afflalo, Eric Bledsoe, Markieff Morris (OK, everyone on the Suns), Evan Turner and DeMarcus Cousins.

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