Posted: Wed January 23, 2013 11:30AM; Updated: Wed January 23, 2013 12:44PM

Handing out awards at NBA's midway point

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Chris Paul drives past Kevin Durant
Chris Paul ranks first in the NBA in steals and second in assists, while Kevin Durant has led the Thunder to the league's best record.
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

With the 2012-13 season at the halfway mark, SI.com's NBA writers make their picks for the league's top performers. The MVP and Coach of the Year races have produced the most disagreement at the top, while clear favorites have emerged for Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man Award, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. Read on for all of the selections. (All stats and records are through Jan. 22.)

NBA Midseason Awards
MVP
Top 5
Chris Paul
Kevin Durant
LeBron James
Tim Duncan
Carmelo Anthony
Ian Thomsen
No leaders have squeezed more out of their teams than Paul and Durant. Paul has transformed the Clippers, while Durant has kept the Thunder focused on winning the championship despite the stunning trade of James Harden. I still think James is going to win this award for the fourth time in five years, based on the likelihood that Miami will peak over the second half. Duncan, at age 36, has been the most effective and important big man in the NBA. Next leadership assignment for Anthony: Coax All-Star production from Amar'e Stoudemire.

Paul
Top 5
Chris Paul
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Tim Duncan
Lee Jenkins
Thirty-six players score more points per game than Paul, but none makes a bigger impact on his team. The Clippers have morphed from the laughingstock of the NBA to the envy of the league and their stunning transformation began the moment they acquired Paul. He has remade the entire franchise, at times appearing as a de facto coach and general manager, along with leader and finisher. He is logging the fewest minutes of his career, but making them count, ranking second in assists and first in steals and creating an environment where no fewer than 10 capable teammates sacrifice for the Clips' cause.

Durant
Top 5
Kevin Durant
LeBron James
Chris Paul
Zach Randolph
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Mannix
Putting aside the numbers -- and they're up in virtually every statistical category -- Durant's biggest achievement this season has been keeping the Thunder at the top of the Western Conference despite Harden's absence. It's no slight on LeBron, who is having another, well, LeBron-like season. But Durant's superior play -- he's on pace for the coveted season of shooting 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from three-point range and 90 percent from the free-throw line -- and that the Thunder are on top of a much tougher conference gives KD the edge.

Durant
Top 5
Kevin Durant
LeBron James
Chris Paul
Carmelo Anthony
Tim Duncan
Ben Golliver
Durant and James have turned in A-plus seasons, but the separating factor in this neck-and-neck race has been the Thunder's league-best start. Oklahoma City is in the middle of one of the most statistically dominant seasons of the last decade, thanks to the No. 1 offense in the league and a much-improved defense that has joined the league's elite. Durant's stats (29.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.6 steals, 1.2 blocks) are pure silliness, and his shooting numbers are borderline incomprehensible. He's a threat to join the rare 50/40/90 club even though he's on pace to take more than 1,600 shots, and he's already challenging Kobe Bryant for the "best scorer since Jordan" title. This isn't the same man who lost to the Heat last June.

James
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Chris Paul
Carmelo Anthony
Kobe Bryant
Rob Mahoney
It's to the tremendous credit of the field that this is even a conversation, but let's not kid ourselves: LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet, and he's in the midst of another do-no-wrong regular season. He leads the league in Player Efficiency Rating while keeping the best team in the East (and a presumptive title favorite, warts and all) on course. His effective field-goal percentage (58.6) is a career best, thanks largely to significant improvements in his perimeter shooting. He's an all-world defender, one of the best playmakers in the league and a score-at-will threat. One could cobble together a case for another candidate, but James' comprehensive résumé speaks rather decisively for itself.
Rookie of the Year

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Ian Thomsen
Lillard has been a revelation while driving the surprising Trail Blazers into playoff contention. All of a sudden LaMarcus Aldridge has a fellow star to help him lead the Blazers into post-Greg Oden/Brandon Roy contention. Lillard and New Orleans' Davis are the two instant stars of this class, and they may yet engage in a terrific ROY race as long as Davis stays healthy. Charlotte's Kidd-Gilchrist has been the steadiest (and hardest-working player) of the other rookies, with a ready-made talent for producing across the board.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Andre Drummond
Lee Jenkins
This race will get closer, as Davis distances himself from the ankle injury that hampered his first half, but it will be hard to catch Lillard. Most rookie point guards are tantalizing in some areas, terrible in others, but after four years at Weber State, Lillard has few holes in his offensive game. He is rejuvenating the Blazers by scoring like a lead guard, setting up Aldridge on pick-and-rolls and sinking the late-game shots that so many rookies are reluctant to take.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Bradley Beal
Dion Waiters
Chris Mannix
How many writers desperately wanted to put Lillard -- a monster scorer in college who was already adept at the pick-and-roll -- at the top of their preseason Rookie of the Year ballot, only to be scared off by the looming presence of Davis? I did. Lillard is a dynamic scoring point guard with the savvy under pressure that belies his experience. The Wizards have a very good player in Beal, but this award is Lillard's to lose.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Andre Drummond
Ben Golliver
Lillard hasn't been perfect, but he's been very productive and, most important, he's played a lot more than his top competition. He is averaging 38.5 minutes and has started all 41 of Portland's games; Davis has missed 13 games because of injury and Drummond inexplicably has played fewer than 20 minutes a night. Lillard has made the most of his giant opportunity, keeping Portland near .500 while asserting himself late in games and running an offense that ranks in the league's top half. His defense leaves much to be desired, and he'll need to get to the free-throw line more often, but he's exceeded all reasonable expectations this season.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Andre Drummond
Rob Mahoney
An open-and-shut case in a year of close calls. Lillard's emergence is the biggest reason why the Blazers' record is dramatically better than expected, and his offensive game is every bit as good as advertised. What's most striking about Lillard is how comfortable he is in almost any given situation; he thrives against double teams, against the clock, going left, going right, at the rim and from the perimeter. His scoring instincts are incredibly sophisticated for a rookie guard, and though his defense can be disastrous at times, that's to be expected from a first-year player adapting to the NBA game.
Sixth Man Award
Top 3
Jamal Crawford
J.R. Smith
Manu Ginobili
Ian Thomsen
The Clippers' Crawford and the Knicks' Smith are engaged in a strong two-man race, as each has been crucial to his team's rise in the conference standings. Crawford gets the edge because he is the better playmaker and provides more reliable leadership, even though Smith has been producing his steadiest season to date. Ginobili's recent hamstring injury threatens to drop him out of contention, which would enable Jarrett Jack (Warriors), Kevin Martin (Thunder), Andre Miller (Nuggets) and Ray Allen (Heat) to move up the ranks.

Crawford
Top 3
Jamal Crawford
J.R. Smith
Kevin Martin
Lee Jenkins
Last year, Paul and Blake Griffin were worn down by the Western Conference semifinals, giving the Clippers the impetus to build their bench. They courted Crawford, who was coming off his worst season in almost a decade, and he has been on a hot streak ever since. Among the best one-on-one players in the NBA, Crawford provides instant offense, and he makes the Clippers' second unit as prolific as some starting fives. It's not uncommon to see the Clips' reserves close games while the starters stand and cheer.

Crawford
Top 3
Jamal Crawford
Kevin Martin
J.R. Smith
Chris Mannix
If Crawford had been a sixth man his whole career, we might be talking about one of the best ever. He's uniquely suited for the role, with the size, scoring and ball-handling skills, along with an ability to play two positions, and he is now the leader of the NBA's best bench. Martin has eased concerns about the loss of Harden, while a more mature Smith has become a go-to guy in New York.

Martin
Top 3
Kevin Martin
Jarrett Jack
J.R. Smith
Ben Golliver
How do you prefer your bench production? Flashy like Crawford? Up and down (with some huge ups) like Smith? Steady and heady like Jack? I'll go with the (relatively) vanilla and uber-efficient Martin, who is averaging 15 points in his first season with the Thunder. Martin uses just 10 shots a game to get his points and he's shooting 43.5 percent from deep, an essential task given the Thunder's need to keep the floor spaced for Durant and Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City undoubtedly puts its players in a position to succeed better than just about any other franchise, but Martin's smooth transition after an unexpected trade by the Rockets is worthy of individual recognition.

Jack
Top 3
Jarrett Jack
Jamal Crawford
J.R. Smith
Rob Mahoney
Any of the top candidates would make for a worthy winner. Jack is my preference, largely because he brings impressive production to a role of high importance. He anchors the second unit, sure, but the Warriors trust Jack to initiate the offense at the most vital moments, even, at times, moving Stephen Curry off the ball alongside Jack. The 29-year-old Jack comes off the bench, but he's far more than a sub or a spot scorer; he's the player the Warriors turn to when they're in need of stability, and Jack's incredible success in that capacity should more than validate his placement at the top of these rankings.
Coach of the Year
Top 3
Tom Thibodeau
Mark Jackson
Frank Vogel
Ian Thomsen
Despite a weakened bench, Thibodeau has kept Chicago in contention while waiting for the return of Derrick Rose. Jackson has positioned the surprising Warriors (minus Andrew Bogut) to earn a playoff spot for just the second time in 19 years. When Vogel's Pacers struggled to score in the absence of Danny Granger, he turned them into the league's best defensive team while liberating Paul George to become a star. I could name at least 10 other coaches who deserve consideration, but the ballot limits me to just these three.

Brooks
Top 3
Scott Brooks
Frank Vogel
Vinny Del Negro
Lee Jenkins
There's no way a team can benefit from trading Harden, but the Thunder have arguably been better without their third star. First, Brooks guided a young locker room past the disappointment of losing part of its core. Then, he successfully ingratiated Martin into the bench role previously occupied by Harden. And now, the Thunder look as potent as ever, with Durant and Westbrook growing into better all-around players and Serge Ibaka emerging as a more effective scorer.

Woodson
Top 3
Mike Woodson
Mark Jackson
Scott Brooks
Chris Mannix
Woodson has tailored an effective offense around Anthony and a bunch of three-point shooters, developed Smith like no other coach has and instilled a defensive mindset into a group of largely weak defenders. Credit Jackson for turning the Bogut-less Warriors into a solid defensive team, too, while the even-keeled Brooks survived a seismic roster-altering trade without missing a beat.

Woodson
Top 3
Mike Woodson
Gregg Popovich
Frank Vogel
Ben Golliver
Here's a partial list of Woodson's qualifications: 1. The 25-14 Knicks are leading their division and have dramatically exceeded preseason expectations. 2. He's gotten the most out of his best player, Anthony, and constructed an offense around him that ranks No. 3 in the NBA. 3. He's flawlessly navigated a touchy situation by shifting Anthony's position and moving Stoudemire to the bench. 4. He's tapped into the good side of Smith and maximized his potential. 5. He's created a culture of unselfishness, with help from Jason Kidd, that has produced some of the best ball movement in the league. What more do you want?
Top 3
Mark Jackson
Frank Vogel
Terry Stotts
Rob Mahoney
There wasn't anything special about Jackon's first year in Golden State, but since then, with the time to hone his strategy and the training camp and practices necessary to get his team on message, he's pulled off one of the more surprising feats in the NBA. The Warriors were pegged for defensive improvement once Bogut returned, but Jackson's team didn't bother waiting -- Golden State ranks 12th in points allowed per possession, up from 27th last year without any noteworthy defensive additions. I credit Jackson and his staff, who have been clever and adaptable in making the most out of limited defensive resources.
Defensive Player of the Year
Top 3
Serge Ibaka
Joakim Noah
Tony Allen
Ian Thomsen
Ibaka blocks shots and rotates to cover all types of threats for one of the league's top defensive units -- and he does so at a level that has helped lead the Thunder to one NBA Finals and positioned them to reach another this June. Noah has anchored the Bulls' defense in the absence of Rose and other important pieces. The Grizzlies' Allen is the league's best perimeter defender and, considering that the league's best players operate closer to the three-point line than the paint, he could win the award if he played more minutes.
Top 3
Joakim Noah
Tony Allen
Andre Iguodala
Lee Jenkins
The Bulls perennially rank in the top three in opposing field-goal percentage and it can't just be because Thibodeau is smarter than everybody else. Thibodeau has the luxury of a few defenders who are above average and one who is exceptional. Noah is the prototypical big man for the pick-and-roll era, long and active, quick enough to harass guards and scramble back to recover against centers. Even without Rose, the Bulls are within striking distance in the East, thanks to all of Noah's dirty work.
Top 3
Joakim Noah
Larry Sanders
Chris Paul
Chris Mannix
Thibodeau deserves credit for his defensive system, but it's Noah -- like Kevin Garnett in Boston -- who is the linchpin of the defense. Noah is averaging a career-best in blocks (2.1) while contesting countless other shots on Chicago's third-ranked defense. Sanders has kept Milwaukee in the middle of the pack defensively despite a pair of average-defending guards, while Paul has emerged as a physical defender at the point guard spot.
Top 3
Joakim Noah
Paul George
Serge Ibaka
Ben Golliver
The NBA's three best defenses -- Indiana, Memphis and Chicago -- boast a number of excellent individual defenders, making this a very difficult choice. Noah seems to combine the best of his fellow defensive difference-makers. He plays huge minutes like teammate Luol Deng and the Pacers' George; he protects the paint like the Grizzlies' Marc Gasol and the Pacers' Roy Hibbert; and he plays with endless energy like Allen. The departure of Omer Asik has pushed Noah's playing time up to more than 38 minutes per game, and he's responded on both ends of the floor. That the Bulls have remained near the top of the Central after losing several rotation pieces and playing the entire first half of the season without Rose only underscores Noah's impact.
Top 3
Joakim Noah
Kevin Garnett
Marc Gasol
Rob Mahoney
This be the most difficult award race of all, with defensive impact almost impossible to divorce from team imperatives and teammate performance. Noah seems a fitting choice, though, as the agent of action in Thibodeau's vaunted schemes. Maybe Noah wouldn't be quite as formidable without the benefit of this system, but the same could be said of Thibodeau's clever defensive framework. Noah is the kind of piece that makes the entire defense work, and that has smoothed the learning curve for the Bulls' new arrivals to the point that Chicago has maintained its standing as one of the top defenses in the league.
Most Improved Player
Top 3
Paul George
Serge Ibaka
Greivis Vasquez
Ian Thomsen
George has emerged as a star at both ends of the floor -- and the transformation has happened throughout this season, driven by the Pacers need to replace Granger's production. After a 10-11 start, they're back in contention because of their 22-year-old swingman. The Thunder have overcome the loss of Harden because Ibaka has turned into a knockdown mid-range shooter while continuing to build on his strengths defensively. Vasquez has almost doubled his assists to 9.2 per game (third best in the NBA) while improving his three-point shooting and producing huge gains in points and rebounds.
Top 3
Paul George
Jrue Holiday
J.J. Hickson
Lee Jenkins
The Sixers' Holiday has taken the bigger leap statistically, with massive improvement in almost every major category, inching him toward the point guard elite. But George has kept the Pacers near the top of the Eastern Conference despite a horrendous start and an injury to Granger that threatened to derail them. Not only has George become a more consistent scorer and rebounder, but he also sets the tone for the Pacers' top-ranked defense, smothering many of the league's transcendent wings.

George
Top 3
Paul George
J.J. Hickson
Omer Asik
Chris Mannix
Indiana was in trouble when Granger went down. That is until George, 22, morphed into a go-to scorer. There were flashes of this emergence last season, but George -- an improved defender to boot -- has exceeded expectations. Hickson has been a surprise double-double machine in Portland, while Asik has added a little offense to his already strong defense and rebounding in his first season in Houston.
Top 3
Andray Blatche
Jrue Holiday
Larry Sanders
Ben Golliver
Last season, Blatche was sent home by the Wizards, one of the worst teams in the NBA, because he was out of shape. Over the summer, he was released by those same Wizards using the amnesty clause because he was, presumably, not worth working back into shape. He then waited, and waited, for the phone to ring, before working out with John Lucas to rehabilitate his body, his game and, most important, his image. The Nets finally threw him a lifeline. How did he respond? By averaging 11 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20.3 minutes and posting a 23.44 PER that ranks No. 8 in the league. Yes, Blatche is an unorthodox candidate because he tanked his own career before resuscitating it, but how can a player possibly improve more than this? Unfortunately, his embarrassing off-court decision-making has not shown similar progress.
Top 3
Kevin Durant
Greivis Vasquez
Andray Blatche
Rob Mahoney
Hear me out. Improvement in the NBA is often assumed to be a linear progression, but it's really almost logarithmic. Once the production starts to pile up, it gets harder and harder for good players to become great, and great players to become legendary. But Durant has managed to climb that slope with an incredible ease, and is shockingly close to LeBron at the NBA's summit. Harden's departure has been a complete nonissue for Oklahoma City, in part because Durant has become so much more comfortable as a ball-handler. His court awareness has dramatically improved, and he's begun to make the kinds of next-level passes reserved only for elite playmakers. His individual and team defense are both better than ever, and his chemistry with his teammates on that end has also improved. All of this on top of a famed 50-40-90 season and a 29.15 PER. Even if we expected Durant to be this good eventually, no one could have reasonably expected him to make these kinds of improvements in a single bound.
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