Midseason awards go to ...
Kobe Bryant has a slight edge on LeBron James in the MVP race
Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings are, hands down, the top rookies so far
Other first-half stars include Jamal Crawford, Kevin Durant and Ron Artest
Injuries among so many stars and inconsistent performances by so many contending teams make it difficult to fill out a midseason awards ballot. But here it is anyway: The best of what we've seen so far, with the hope that something better -- and healthier -- is on the way. (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.)
All stats and records are through Jan. 20.
1. Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Thanks to Bryant, the Lakers have overcome lulls of defending-champion complacency, as well as the early-season injuries to Pau Gasol, Ron Artest and Bryant himself (broken right index finger, back spasms). But in this race, James is running just off Bryant's shoulder as LeBron has succeeded in leading the Cavs to the top of the East while overcoming early season questions created by Shaquille O'Neal's arrival and Delonte West's troubles. Nowitzki, Duncan and Pierce are mainstays who have kept their teams in contention despite a number of issues.
Rookie of the Year
1. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
What were the Grizzlies thinking when they passed on Evans (20.9 points, 5.0 assists, 4.9 rebounds, 1.5 steals) in favor of center Hasheem Thabeet (2.8 points) with the No. 2 pick? Apart from his talent, the former Memphis Tiger might have helped fill the worst-attended arena in the league. More teams (the Knicks especially) should be second-guessing themselves for not seeing the promise in Jennings, the No. 10 pick who has provided unexpected hope as the Bucks turn over their roster. And then there is Blair, whose knees scared off everyone but the Spurs. He is providing 7.1 points and 6.4 rebounds off the bench to a contender, including 28 points and 21 rebounds in a win last week at Oklahoma City while Tim Duncan had the night off.
Sixth Man Award
1. Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks
This is a big year for sixth men. Crawford is headed to the playoffs for the first time in his 10-year career while augmenting the Hawks with 17.1 points off the bench. Landry has helped fill in for Yao Ming by providing the Rockets with explosions of low-post scoring. Terry, the defending award winner, remains as dangerous as he was last year.
Coach of the Year
1. Rick Adelman, Houston Rockets
Once again this is the hardest category to choose. For now I'm going with Adelman, who is winning in the tougher conference in spite of having no stars. He kept his players believing after the season-ending diagnosis of Yao Ming, and he didn't enable the frustrations of Tracy McGrady to throw the Rockets off course. I wish I could make room on this ballot for Nate McMillan (who is keeping the Blazers in contention despite an epidemic of injuries, including McMillan's own ruptured Achilles) and Alvin Gentry (who has restored much of the Suns' old ways in spite of a depleted roster), but they must wait their turn behind the coaches of the NBA's two youngest teams. Brooks has galvanized the Thunder with a defensive system around Kevin Durant, while Hollins overcame the 1-8 hangover of Allen Iverson's opening month to lead the Grizzlies to playoff contention.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Ron Artest, Los Angeles Lakers
Last year, the Lakers won the championship while finishing sixth in defensive efficiency (104.7 points allowed per 100 possessions). Now, they rank No. 2 in that vital category (101.1 points per 100 possessions), and much of the credit goes to Artest. The Magic aren't quite as strong defensively as last year, when Howard won this award, but he is positioned to repeat by leading the league in shot-blocking (2.4 per game) and rebounding (13.0). Charlotte has improved to rank No. 1 in defensive efficiency and No. 6 in field-goal defense, and Wallace is in the middle of it as a 6-7 small forward who rates No. 2 in defensive rebounds per game (9.1) and 13th in steals (1.7) while adding 1.2 blocks.
Most Improved Player
1. Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Durant's scoring is up, he's finding his way to the free-throw line more often, and midway through his third season he has emerged as a legit star as well as the go-to leader of a team positioned to make a run for the playoffs at least one year ahead of schedule. Smith has refined his game (he has practically done away with those blasted three-point attempts) while becoming more disciplined at both ends of the floor, which is another reason for the Hawks' strong start. Gasol has improved his body and, by no coincidence, his numbers across the board.
Roy is like the chef who puts forth three-star dishes while the kitchen is on fire; the depleted Blazers would be nowhere near contention for home-court advantage if not for him responding with the best performances of his career. Nowitzki has the early edge over Duncan by dint of Dallas' superior record; the same goes for Williams' presence on the third team at the expense of Chris Paul. It is troubling to fill out one of these ballots and not include Paul, but room must be made for Johnson, who has lifted the ever-improving Hawks to No. 3 in the East.
Executive of the Year
1. Mitch Kupchak, Los Angeles Lakers
The only job more difficult than building a title team is improving that team, with the risk of ruining a very good thing. When Trevor Ariza asked for more money than the Lakers wanted to pay, Kupchak instantly pivoted to sign Artest, who has improved them defensively without (so far) disrupting their championship balance. Sund acquired Crawford last summer while keeping his payroll at a lean $65 million, making the Hawks far and away the best NBA team under the luxury-tax threshold. After the devastating loss of Yao, Morey acquired Ariza and David Andersen while providing Adelman with an interim team capable of reaching the playoffs without stars; rookie shooter Chase Budinger has been a second-round find.
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