Handing out midseason awards
LeBron James has the upper hand over Kobe Bryant in the MVP race
Derrick Rose, O.J. Mayo and Brook Lopez lead a strong rookie class
Other first-half standouts: Jason Terry, Devin Harris, Kevin Garnett
There never being a bad time to pass out trophies, here's a look at the best performances over the first half of the season. (The NBA's official awards ballot includes five spots for MVP and three for the other major awards. The media vote on all the awards below except Executive of the Year.)
No one is covering all of the bases like LeBron, who is averaging 27.8 points, 7.2 rebounds, 6.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.3 blocks. Not only is he defending -- his Cavaliers rank first in scoring and shooting defense -- but he also has led a roster lacking in All-Star assistance to the top of the Eastern Conference. James has always been surrounded by talented role players, but this season he and his teammates are achieving at a level their franchise has never seen.
The other stars in championship contention -- Kobe, Howard, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan -- all have more accomplished support than LeBron. As for Bryant, he's giving off the strong vibe that he couldn't care less about winning another MVP, that's it all about preparing his team to win in June; Wade and Paul are each fighting like mad just to maintain a winning record (in Wade's case) or home-court advantage in the first round (Paul's); and then there is Howard, who is in MVP contention even though he should be even more frightening and dominant in another two or three years.
Connect all of the dots and it looks like LeBron's year ... with the possible payoff of a LeBron vs. Kobe Finals waiting in June.
Rookie of the Year
Rose has been a revelation. Everyone knew his shooting would need work; the news is that he can get to the rim anytime he likes, and he has NBA-ready leadership skills after one year at Memphis. Mayo arrived with a pro's game and he has made the most of it in averaging 19.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists. Lopez (11.3 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks) has helped New Jersey's surprising drive to playoff contention as an overlooked No. 10 pick. This is turning out to be an excellent rookie class.
Sixth Man Award
Terry is averaging 20.3 points off the bench, more than he ever has over the previous nine seasons as a starter in Dallas or Atlanta. Kirilenko has adjusted well to his first full-time reserve role in six years. Ginobili remains the standard of selflessness, availing himself to come off the bench with energy that inspires the Spurs in the postseason.
Coach of the Year
1. Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers
These Cavs are a culmination of Brown's teachings: Defend first, play through LeBron and team up to overcome superior talent at the other positions. Van Gundy, as ever, has his players maxing out and believing in themselves. Karl has emphasized defense and is building new confidence toward the playoffs.
Others worth considering include Lawrence Frank, who wrote up a new playbook for Vince Carter, Devin Harris and Brook Lopez; Rick Adelman, who has kept the Rockets in playoff contention despite injuries to three of his top four players; and the usual suspects (Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers).
Defensive Player of the Year
Garnett remains the standard in his defensive leadership of the Celtics and his ability to guard all positions. Howard's numbers are extraordinary (3.2 blocks, 9.6 defensive rebounds) as he works to replicate Garnett's intensity every night. Camby ranks first in defensive rebounds (10.6) and second in blocks (2.6).
Most Improved Player
Harris and Granger have emerged as go-to scorers while exceeding expectations. Millsap has taken advantage of Carlos Boozer's absence to establish himself as Boozer's potential long-term replacement at power forward.
In this category, a player from a losing team has to be spectacular to beat out a star who contributes to a winner. Thus a rejuvenated Shaq noses out Minnesota's Al Jefferson at third-team center. Toronto's Chris Bosh falls out of the mix, too, because how can he be awarded at the expense of Gasol or Pierce? The toughest omissions were the following, in order: Carmelo Anthony, Vince Carter, Tony Parker, Rashard Lewis, Devin Harris and Steve Nash.
Executive of the Year
The top offseason move was Ferry's acquisition of Mo Williams, who has provided LeBron with a deep-shooting point guard to space the floor and make big plays. Warkentien has shed payroll and climbed under the tax while improving the team with the November trade for Chauncey Billups; Both Denver and Cleveland have the flexibility to continue improving their teams at the trading deadline next month. Pritchard had another strong draft while importing Rudy Fernandez, giving Portland a young team with a ton of flexibility and options to explore through the summer. The Nets' management team of Rod Thorn and Kiki Vandeweghe also should be noted for drafting Brook Lopez, acquiring Yi Jianlian and building a surprisingly promising roster while rebuilding toward 2010, when they'll have major cap space.