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Sam Smith of Bulls.com details award-winning performances from the first half of the season
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By Sam Smith | 1.26.2015 | 4:59 p.m. CT
It’s off to Hollywood this week for the Bulls, and there’s nowhere that they honor themselves quite as much. So considering the NBA season just reached the halfway mark, here’s a look at the best of the half season. No one gets anything for it, but it gets me one column closer to All-Star break.
Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Houston Rockets
It’s a more wide open race this season because the two best players in the NBA, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, have been dealing with injuries, rest and rotating rosters. By the end of the season one of them could be back on top. There’s no formula for the award, though it generally goes to the best or top player whose team is having the best season. That general definition best describes the Warriors Stephen Curry. I’d have no argument with his selection, but I go for Harden as the single most impressive player this season. His team has been very good, if not quite great, with injuries up and down the roster while he probably is the single most difficult player to stop, assuming, of course, James and Durant are not fully involved. Harden has tried to play some defense, no one gets to the free throw line as effectively and he regularly makes big shots and leads the league in scoring for a team with basically no other shot maker or hardly anyone else to guard. I have Curry second, then James third—though he could be first or second by season’s end—LaMarcus Aldridge fourth and John Wall fifth.
Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks
This is a fairly easy one, though Steve Kerr should be right there. The coach of the year more often comes with the most surprising team. The theory is it must be coaching if we didn’t see it coming. The Warriors had been a 50-win contender and we also knew who was on the team. Though for a never-coached-before, Kerr is the winner of that category. The remarkable element with the Hawks—and not only their runaway record—has been their dominance over Western teams as well. The fans of West teams always cry that if their team were in the East. Well, if the Hawks were in the West, they’d be first or second. That’s been an amazing run for a team without anyone in the top 10 All-Star voting or even projected to be an All-Star. Their team first, unselfish play has become a new model. Sort of, hey, if they can do that with those guys. Kerr is second, though Jeff Van Gundy’s ballot has a 30-way tie for first, and Jason Kidd third with an equally surprising season for a team of who-are-those-guys.
Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
This is also an easy one as Butler’s rise to November Player of the Month—and that’s when LeBron was playing—the team’s leading scorer and a two-way go to guy has been equally unexpected in a season of great non expectations. It would have been an equally easy vote for Draymond Green if not for Butler. Green was a second round pick, thus even later than Butler, and has not only become a starter for the league’s best team but their best defender, a reliable three-point shooter and team energizer. He’s as close to a runaway leader as one can be. It’s also good to see the top choices being low draft picks as sometimes voters will go for a top talent and high pick who was hurt or didn’t initially play well. These awards should be to players who no one saw coming. It’s too small a sample for now with Hassan Whiteside. He was showing that sort of play before the triple double with blocks against the Bulls. And not only did no one see it coming, but no one much wanted to give him a chance. It shows opportunity often transcends talent. So go with Rasual Butler third giving a big boost to the Wizards.
Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
It’s also a near unanimous selection, though Bulls rookie Nikola Mirotic was in there until losing playing time of late with Joakim Noah’s return from injury and having to become a fourth power forward/center. A much anticipated rookie class became much injured with Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and Julius Randle gone and Marcus Smart and Aaron Gordon hurt. Wiggins started tentatively, but has produced some big scoring games and is the only rookie averaging in double figures. He’s still suspect given Minnesota’s poor record and how little he dominates even with them. But the numbers for now are enough. Mirotic is the only one truly contributing with a contending team, so he gets second. I don’t vote for any 76ers for anything since they are throwing the season and should be investigated by the state attorney general for fraud. I’ll go with Jusuf Nurkic third barely over Elfrid Payton given his tough play and really making a lot of veterans mad.
Defensive Player of the Year: Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs
I know there’s a lot of sentiment for Tim Duncan, who is having another good season, though the Spurs aren’t playing quite the team defense they did. And Leonard has missed a number of games. Lot of buts there. But if I want one guy to play defense, it’s Leonard. I also like actual defenders. No offense to big guys as they do impact the game defensively. But I prefer the guys who have to defend all over the court, take on the great scorers individually and are exposed on the court. That was James, but he drifts in and out defensively depending on the quarter. Leonard maintains little expression and bothers top players with his size, length and quickness. Probably Draymond Green second, though Klay Thompson also is an excellent perimeter defender for the Warriors along with Jimmy Butler and Luol Deng in that class. Though they should be better defensively, I’ll reluctantly add Anthony Davis third for his threat at the rim like it is with Dwight Howard. It’s just Davis has to often play outside by playing with Omer Asik.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors
So the Hawks aren’t perfect in giving away Williams. But, hey, the Spurs gave away Luis Scola in a salary dump and won a title. Williams has been terrific in this role for a long time and bailed out the Raptors with DeMar DeRozan hurt. It’s tough to not vote for Jamal Crawford, who defines this award. But he’s won it twice. All the kids like to get trophies. So give him second. The entry should be the Warriors’ Andre Iguodala/Marreese Speights as the Warriors bench has been integral to their success and one of Steve Kerr’s strengths, especially for a rookie coach, in getting an All-Star to buy in and admitting he didn’t know who Speights was and then using him extensively. Maybe Speights for third as Iguodala has won a lot of stuff already. Perhaps Isaiah Thomas here as well, though it’s tough to figure who really is the reserve guard with the Suns given they play 12 of them.