NBA

James Harden earns first-half MVP in our midseason NBA awards

Jay Asser 21/02/2018
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James Harden leads the league in scoring with 31.3 points per game.

If the NBA season ended today… well, that would be weird. But hypothetically if it did, which players (and coach) would earn the league’s individual awards?

Let’s take a look at who would walk away with what honour, with our picks solely based on the first half of the season. These aren’t projections or what we believe will happen, but rather what would happen if, again, we decided not to play the remaining schedule and instead went straight to the playoffs right now.

MVP: James Harden

The case for Harden finally winning MVP is ironclad. He’s the best player on the best team in the league (record-wise) and has the stats befitting the award – first in the league in points, player efficiency rating (PER) and value over replacement player (VORP). While he’s not the two-way force that stars like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo are, his offensive arsenal is second to none and he’s simply performed the best of anyone so far.

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green

It’s easy to overlook Green, even though he won the award last season. He’s not the paint protector or perimeter hawk that some of the other candidates are, but the beauty of Green is his versatility and ability to do everything well on that end of the floor. He’ll have competition from both his team-mate, Durant, and Rudy Gobert, with the latter potentially leapfrogging him with a strong second half after an injury-riddle first few months.

Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons

After being the runaway favourite for most of the first half, the gap between Simmons and the field has closed thanks to the surge of Donovan Mitchell. However, the Philadelphia 76ers phenom remains the rookie to beat due to his all-around game. Mitchell is the better scorer and undoubtedly the better shooter, but Simmons’ playmaking has been crucial to the Sixers’ current position as a playoff team.

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams

When you nearly make the All-Star team as a bench player, you’ve got this award sewn up. Regardless of how many minutes Williams play – and he does play starter-type minutes with 32.4 per game – he technically comes off the bench (only 14 starts in 55 games), and is in the midst of a career year at the age of 31. Eric Gordon has been excellent as well, but Williams has this in the bag.

Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo

Of all the individual awards, Most Improved may be the most obvious. Not only have Oladipo’s stats significantly inflated this season, but he has a narrative working in his favour as well. When the Indiana Pacers traded a star in Paul George to Oklahoma City for a package headlined by Oladipo, almost everyone thought the return was underwhelming. But Oladpio has turned into a legit All-Star and is boasting career-highs in scoring (24.4) and efficiency (48.4 per cent shooting overall, 38.1 from 3).

Coach of the Year: Dwane Casey

Brad Stevens looked like a lock to win this as recently as a couple weeks ago, but the Celtics’ skid combined with the Raptors’ jump has seen Casey take the lead. It’s not just that Toronto have been the best team in the East, it’s that they’ve done it by changing their style of play to utilise the 3-pointer more, as well as their youth and depth. What Stevens has done without Gordon Hayward has been nearly as impressive though and there’s still time for him to retake pole position.

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NBA

Houston Rockets exemplary across the board in Western Conference midterm NBA report cards

Jay Asser 20/02/2018
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We’re at the unofficial halfway point of the NBA season, so it’s only right we take a look at how every team has fared so far and hand out midterm grades.

Keep in mind that these grades are fully based on context and expectations and not determined simply by how teams have done in a vacuum.

After handing out marks for the Eastern Conference on Tuesday, here are the grades for the Western Conference.

Dallas Mavericks

Smith1

Record: 18-40
Standing: 14th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 104.5 (20th)
Defensive rating: 107.4 (21st)
Grade: D+

Dallas aren’t stocked with talent, but they should be doing a little better than they currently are. However, being closer to mediocre would do them no favours and if anything, they’re better off near the bottom of the standings while Dennis Smith Jr gets minutes and the rebuild continues.

Denver Nuggets

Jokic1

Record: 32-26
Standing: 6th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 108.2 (7th)
Defensive rating: 107.8 (22nd)
Grade: C+

Denver were expected to make a jump this season and though they haven’t vaulted into the West’s upper echelon, they’ve made strides. Their offence and home-court advantage have predictably been their hallmarks and they’ve done most of it without their big free agent addition, Paul Millsap.

Golden State Warriors

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Record: 44-14
Standing: 2nd in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 113.7 (1st)
Defensive rating: 103.7 (5th)
Grade: B+

If any other team had the record the Warriors do, they would at the very least receive an A. But Golden State aren’t any other team and it was fair to wonder if they would improve on last year’s record. Instead, they’re already only one loss away from last season’s mark and have been in a malaise at times.

Houston Rockets

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Record: 44-13
Standing: 1st in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 113.2 (2nd)
Defensive rating: 104.6 (9th)
Grade: A+

Despite dealing with injuries to their two best players, the Rockets entered the All-Star break with the best record in the league. More importantly, they’re 33-6 when Chris Paul plays and beat the Warriors twice in three meetings to gain confidence if they clash again in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Clippers

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Record: 30-26
Standing: 9th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.1 (12th)
Defensive rating: 106.0 (15th)
Grade: B-

Even after trading away their best player in Blake Griffin, the Clippers remain very much in the hunt for a playoff spot. They chose not to move DeAndre Jordan or Lou Williams, and while their decision on the former could come back to bite them, the latter is having an All-Star calibre season.

Los Angeles Lakers

Luke1

Record: 23-34
Standing: 11th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 102.8 (26th)
Defensive rating: 105.6 (13th)
Grade: B-

At one point, it appeared as if things were going south fast, but since LaVar Ball called out coach Luke Walton in early January, the Lakers have gone 12-7. They also made a trade to clear enough cap space for potentially two max contracts in the summer, all while continuing to develop the young guys.

Memphis Grizzlies

Tyreke1

Record: 18-38
Standing: 12th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 102.7 (27th)
Defensive rating: 106.9 (21st)
Grade: D

It’s hard to be too critical of Memphis, considering they’ve been without Mike Conley for most of the season. But this grade is more an indictment of their front office, who’ve chosen to stand pat instead of being proactive to net assets for an aging Marc Gasol or Tyreke Evans, who could walk in the summer.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Wolves1

Record: 36-25
Standing: 4th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 111.3 (3rd)
Defensive rating: 108.3 (26th)
Grade: B+

The young Timberwolves have finally taken a step forward and look like a lock to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2004. Their defence has improved only slightly though and until they figure out that end of the floor, their ceiling remains capped, even with the amount of offensive talent they possess.

New Orleans Pelicans

Davis1

Record: 31-26
Standing: 8th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.7 (8th)
Defensive rating: 106.7 (19th)
Grade: C+

Just when it seemed like they were picking up steam, DeMarcus Cousins went down with a season-ending Achilles tear. Fortunately for the Pelicans, they still have Anthony Davis who went into the All-Star break on fire and even with the talent drop-off after him, New Orleans will fight for the playoffs.

Oklahoma City Thunder

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Record: 33-26
Standing: 5th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 107.2 (10th)
Defensive rating: 104.0 (7th)
Grade: C-

Simply put, they haven’t lived up to the lofty expectations that they rightly earned when they put together their ‘big three’. It’s taken them a while to figure out chemistry and fit issues, but as long as they peak by playoff time, the process will have been completely worth it.

Phoenix Suns

Booker1

Record: 18-41
Standing: 15th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 101.5 (29th)
Defensive rating: 110.6 (30th)
Grade: C-

This is what you get when you have a bunch of young players and hardly any top-level talent. Devin Booker continues to trend upward, but prospects like Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss need a strong finish to the season to give Phoenix more hope that the future will be brighter.

Portland Trail Blazers

Lillard1

Record: 32-26
Standing: 7th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 105.4 (14th)
Defensive rating: 105.0 (11th)
Grade: C

Portland have been the definition of middle class in the West, where they appear to be stuck for now. Jusuf Nurkic hasn’t played as well as he did in the second half of last season and while Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum keep putting in work, the rest of the roster is lacking in firepower.

Sacramento Kings

Fox1

Record: 18-39
Standing: 13th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 100.9 (30th)
Defensive rating: 109.9 (29th)
Grade: D

They tried to blend youth and experience in the offseason, but the results have been downright ugly. Sacramento are horrendous on both end of the courts and are arguably the worst team in the league. At least rookie De’Aaron Fox has been bright spot and shown some promising flashes.

San Antonio Spurs

Pop1

Record: 35-24
Standing: 3rd in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 105.1 (16th)
Defensive rating: 101.9 (2nd)
Grade: A-

What more can you say about the Spurs and Gregg Popovich? Despite not having Kawhi Leonard for all but nine games, San Antonio have cruised along to sit in the tier below Golden State and Houston. That’s a good sign for the playoffs if Leonard comes back at full strength, but that’s a big ‘if’ at the moment.

Utah Jazz

Mitchell1

Record: 30-28
Standing: 10th in Western Conference
Offensive rating: 106.0 (13th)
Defensive rating: 103.9 (6th)
Grade: B

Their 11-game winning streak entering the All-Star break has saved their season and turned around what was a floundering campaign. Utah’s defence hasn’t been as stout as they would like, but they’ve unearthed a real gem in Donovan Mitchell, who has quickly turned into their go-to scorer.

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NBA

Toronto Raptors earn top marks in Eastern Conference midterm NBA report cards

Jay Asser 19/02/2018
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We’re at the unofficial halfway point of the NBA season, so it’s only right we take a look at how every team has fared up so far and hand out midterm grades.

Keep in mind that these grades are fully based on context and expectations and not determined simply by how teams have done in a vacuum.

Here are the grades for the Eastern Conference, with the West marks coming on Tuesday.

Atlanta Hawks

Record: 18-41

Standing: 15th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.9 (22nd)
Defensive rating: 108.0 (24th)
Grade: C-

It’s no surprise how much they’ve struggled considering the roster is bare of top-end talent. They’ve at least been developing some of the younger guys in the process – John Collins, DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince – but are knocked slightly for being tied with the worst record in the league.

Boston Celtics

Record: 40-19
Standing: 2nd in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.4 (21st)
Defensive rating: 100.9 (1st)
Grade: A-

No one expected them to be doing this well after Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome injury just five minutes into the season, yet they’ve been one of the top contenders in the East. Their recent dip is fairly concerning, but in the context of the bigger picture, they’re well ahead of schedule.

Brooklyn Nets

Record: 19-40
Standing: 13th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.1 (24th)
Defensive rating: 107.9 (23rd)
Grade: C-

This is a team that has zero incentive to tank because they of course don’t own their draft pick this year. So 19 wins at the All-Star break is a little disappointing, but they’ve also been without Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell for most of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie, however, has been a pleasant revelation.

Charlotte Hornets

Record: 24-33
Standing: 10th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.9 (17th)
Defensive rating: 105.8 (14th)
Grade: D

A return to the playoffs was the expectation ahead of the season, especially with the addition of Dwight Howard, but Charlotte have become stale. And unlike other lottery-bound teams, the Hornets don’t have much up-and-coming talent they can build around and take solace in.

Chicago Bulls

Record: 20-37
Standing: 12th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 101.8 (28th)
Defensive rating: 108.2 (25th)
Grade: C+

Chicago were widely considered the worst team in the league coming into the season, so they’ve done well to overachieve with 20 wins so far. Promising player development, however, has costed them a more favourable position in the draft lottery, but they’re still in position to nab a top pick.

Cleveland Cavaliers

BeFunky Collage4

Record: 34-22
Standing: 3rd in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 110.1 (5th)
Defensive rating: 109.8 (28th)
Grade: C

If we were grading Cleveland up until the trade deadline, they would undoubtedly receive an F. But the moves they made to overhaul the roster and breathe new life into the team have so far appeared to work. After floundering early, the Cavaliers look poised to reach the NBA Finals again.

Detroit Pistons

Record: 28-29
Standing: 9th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.6 (18th)
Defensive rating: 105.0 (10th)
Grade: C

They’ve been the definition of average, but the trade for Blake Griffin before the deadline added some life and a foundation piece for the future. If the Pistons can get their act together on the road (19-12 at home, 9-17 away), they should be able to snag one of the final playoff spots.

Indiana Pacers

Record: 33-25
Standing: 5th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 108.4 (6th)
Defensive rating: 106.4 (17th)
Grade: A-

Are the Pacers a serious threat to make noise in the playoffs and reach the Finals? No, but considering how much grief they endured after trading Paul George in what seemed like a lopsided deal, they’ve come out smelling like roses with the leap Victor Oladipo has made into a legit All-Star.

Miami Heat

Record: 30-28
Standing: 8th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.1 (25th)
Defensive rating: 104.4 (8th)
Grade: B-

Even though they haven’t played like the same team that went 30-11 at the end of last season (what a surprise), Miami continue to have grit and an identity that makes them tough for any opponent, night-in and night-out. It’s hard to argue Erik Spoelstra isn’t getting the most out of his players.

Milwaukee Bucks

Record: 32-25
Standing: 6th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 107.3 (9th)
Defensive rating: 106.0 (16th)
Grade: C

The Bucks would receive a lower grade if not for their recent surge in the wake of firing coach Jason Kidd. Milwaukee are 9-3 since making the necessary change, but many of those wins have come against low-tier squads. At least their defence appears to finally be heading in the right direction.

New York Knicks

Record: 23-36
Standing: 11th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.7 (23rd)
Defensive rating: 106.6 (18th)
Grade: C-

Their grade isn’t for failing to meet expectations – because those were low in the first place – but for trying so hard to win. The Knicks’ primary objective should be developing Frank Ntilikina and Kristaps Porzingis (now injured), but they’ve had this delusional mentality they’re good enough to fight for a playoff spot.

Orlando Magic

Record: 18-39
Standing: 14th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.6 (19th)
Defensive rating: 108.6 (27th)
Grade: D

The Magic were red hot coming out of the gates and it seemed like they might finally step out from the league’s basement. Alas, it was a mirage and since then, Orlando have arguably been the worst team in the NBA. And most damaging of all, they’ve yet to develop a franchise player.

Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 30-25
Standing: 7th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 105.4 (15th)
Defensive rating: 102.6 (3rd)
Grade: B

‘The Process’ is no longer processing; it’s happening. The Sixers have turned into a playoff team fairly quickly, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both looking like foundational pieces. The only downside of the first half has been the bizarre case of Markelle Fultz, who has given them nothing so far.

Toronto Raptors

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Record: 41-16
Standing: 1st in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 110.7 (4th)
Defensive rating: 102.6 (4th)
Grade: A

There was a lot of talk about Toronto switching up their style of play this season and they’ve backed that up by being a modern team. They’ve been the best team in the East and are the only side, along with Golden State, to rank top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Washington Wizards

Record: 33-24
Standing: 4th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 107.1 (11th)
Defensive rating: 105.3 (12th)
Grade: B

If it wasn’t for the Cavaliers, the spotlight would burn a lot brighter in Washington, where there always appears to be drama. They’ve fared well in John Wall’s absence, but there are lingering chemistry issues and for as much talent as they have, they often act like bullies despite not earning that right.

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