Just 53 days remain until the end of the 2017-18 regular season, but the first half officially ends with the league going on break from Friday until next Thursday. The Ringer staff took the extra time to reflect on the best of what’s already come, and hand out awards based on where we are at this “midway point.” (Except for Most Improved Player, because it’s a hazy concept that Victor Oladipo is going to win anyway.)
If the season ended today, what would your MVP ballot look like?
1. James Harden
2. LeBron James
3. Giannis Antetokounmpo
4. Stephen Curry
5. Kevin Durant
James Harden is operating on a higher plane offensively, and he’s held his own defensively. LeBron is LeBron, and always deserves to be in the MVP conversation. The Bucks are quietly in sixth place in the East, and have been very good since Jason Kidd was fired, but without Giannis they’d be bottom-feeders. Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant are both deserving with their insane numbers (and Durant’s defensive contributions), but I have a hard time giving Most Valuable Player to a team with four All-NBA players.
4. Kyrie Irving
Harden is the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA. The Warriors may be slacking in the regular season, but leading the Rockets to a better record is still really impressive. Harden is an offensive machine whose ability to carry an absolutely massive load on a nightly basis shouldn’t be overlooked.
Harden is killing it. I wasn’t sure how he’d look with Chris Paul by his side, but he’s been an absolute monster. Harden leads the league in points, PER, box plus-minus, and VORP, and he’s third in assists per game. Most importantly, the Rockets have the best record in the NBA. It’s still the Warriors’ world, but Harden and Houston are positioning themselves as the first real challenge Golden State has faced in the Western Conference in a while.
5. Jimmy Butler
Not only is Harden the best player on the best team, but, to borrow an idea from the Academy Awards, it’s time. He also gets bonus points for retroactively making everyone (cowards) regret their Russell Westbrook vote.
The Rockets have the best record in the league, and Harden is long overdue for an individual accolade. The narrative is there, and so is the empirical evidence. The Warriors are still light-years ahead of every other basketball team on the planet on offense whenever Steph is on the floor, though he is at least somewhat undercut by Durant’s emergence as a defensive stalwart. Giannis remains incredible, but with the reloaded Cavs, it’s hard to see the Bucks breaking through the established Eastern hierarchy.
5. Anthony Davis
Two years in New Orleans has turned me into a softie for the supremely gifted player saddled with lesser teammates. In addition to Harden, the best player on the best team and the best player, full stop, my ballot has a sympathetic bent for Giannis, the only player in the league whose elite offensive value is matched on the defensive end, and Davis, who is almost single-handedly keeping a Kentucky alumni rec-league team afloat in a suddenly intense West playoff race.
LeBron was neck-and-beard with Harden a month ago. But Cleveland’s slumpy January gave Harden breathing room at the top. Giannis at fifth is an easier sell now that Milwaukee has gone 9-2 in its past 11 games. Though he would have likely slipped in even if the Bucks were still struggling: Giannis improved in all scoring categories again this season. And besides, what are the alternatives? … Irving?
What do you think changes in your MVP ballot by the end of the season?
Chau: LeBron moves up and seriously challenges Harden for the MVP award. LeBron’s February thus far has been nothing short of magnificent, and it’s not difficult to imagine him keeping it going with his new supporting cast. And by keep it going, I mean averaging a triple-double for the rest of the season.
Verrier: The obvious one is LeBron, who now has more than two teammates he’s willing to let touch him. But there’s also Davis, who has been on a tour of destruction since DeMarcus Cousins went down: averaging 31.3 points (on 53.1 eFG%), 12.2 rebounds, 2.2 steals, and 2.1 blocks. The post-Boogie Pelicans have basically reverted back to 2014-15, with Nikola Mirotic serving as a more hairy Ryan Anderson and E’Twaun Moore as an Eric Gordon that gives a damn. The downside of that team was the Pelicans had to outshoot their opponent every night, but the upside was it provided Davis a platform for his otherworldly two-way talents. The Pels will need to stay in the playoff field (which could be dicey, according to the latest math), but anything close to recent production should vault Davis back In The Conversation for the first time since he first entered that exclusive club.
O’Connor: People will look for reasons not to vote for Harden because of the perception that he doesn’t defend, and there seems to be a fatigue with him based on how often he draws fouls with the skill of an Academy Award winner. So if the Cavaliers keep thriving, LeBron will surge to the top of the list. And that’s not such a bad thing, because he probably should’ve won the past 10 or so MVPs, anyway. Either way, it’ll be a close race.
Tjarks: I think LeBron could move pretty high up on the list if Cleveland’s new roster continues to jell. It’s just hard to see him winning the award given how little he’s tried on defense this season, and how he basically gave up on the first edition of this team. Steph is the other guy who would probably end up in the top five in my hypothetical ballot. I don’t have him in there now because of the time he missed with the ankle injury.
Gonzalez: The Cavaliers have 26 games left. I still think the award is Harden’s to lose, but there’s a scenario in which LeBron—newly energized by the overhauled roster—Hulk smashes the league during the final quarter of the season. At which point this race would get really interesting. As Jason Concepcion said in our Slack, 90 percent of Regular-Season LeBron is just getting him to try to be LeBron. Who knew the key to unlocking his inner King James was spending a little quality time with Jordan Clarkson?
Ryan: A Boston revival could catapult Kyrie into the top five, or even the top three. And if the Cavs win 20-plus of their remaining games, LeBron will make himself a nuisance at the top.
O’Shaughnessy: LeBron drops to fourth or fifth if the Cavs’ current four-game win streak is a mirage. The expectations are higher for LeBron because he has successfully taken mediocre surrounding casts past where they should’ve gone.
If the season ended today, who would win Rookie of the Year?
O’Shaughnessy: Darrell Griffith prodigy Donovan Mitchell. I shout this proudly rather than whisper “Ben Simmons” because if the season ended today, the Jazz would finish on an 11-game win streak. Mitchell is the first rookie in league history to lead a team in scoring during that lengthy a run. His style and athleticism are also making the Utah Jazz’s (!!!!) offense a must-watch.
O’Connor: Ben Simmons. Even though he shoots with the wrong hand and can’t score outside the paint, Simmons has made a tremendous offensive impact with his interior scoring and playmaking. There just aren’t many players who can make plays for teammates like Simmons can, and he’s only 21. Factor in his impact on the boards and on defense, and the choice is easy. For now, at least. Donovan Mitchell is closing the gap.
Verrier: Mitchell. There are a lot of numbers in Mitchell’s favor, like the team-high 21.3 points he’s averaging through Utah’s 11-game win streak, or that he accounts for nearly 30 percent of the offense of a team projected to finish with the fifth-best point differential in the league. Instead, let’s watch some cool dunks:
Gonzalez: I want to state for the record that I love Don Mitchell. (I call him Don. That’s how close we are.) That said, it’s Simmons, and I’m not sure it’s particularly close. Among rookies, Simmons is first in assists, rebounds, and steals per game, second in points per game, and third in blocks per game. Simmons posted 18 points, 12 rebounds, and 10 assists in a comeback win against the Heat in the Sixers’ last game before the All-Star break. That gave the Sixers five consecutive wins and moved them into seventh place in the Eastern Conference. It was also Simmons’s sixth triple-double of the season. Magic Johnson is the only other rookie since 1980 to have that many triple-doubles. Just give him the hardware now.
Chau: Mitchell. Winning will always be factored into awards voting, but for some categories more than others. Utah’s stunning win streak has helped narrow the gap in Mitchell’s campaign over Ben Simmons, but it’s Mitchell’s numbers that have done the heavy lifting. Mitchell is already the Jazz’s go-to scorer at all stages of the game, and his clutch performance has been illuminating. Simmons has been amazing and deserved to be an All-Star, but he isn’t the most impactful player for his team on either end of the floor. It’s a perilously close race, but Donovan now has the scoring numbers to tip the scales in his favor.
Ryan: [Types “Donovan Mitchell” while literally sitting underneath a Ben Simmons Fathead.]
Paolo Uggetti: It pains me not to pick Mitchell, but I’m gonna avoid being a prisoner of the moment and say it’s still Simmons. He’s becoming underrated with all of the attention shifting to Mitchell, and Philly, unlike Utah, would make the playoffs as of today. Simmons does a little bit of everything and does it very well, including scoring without having a long-range shot.
Tjarks: Simmons. Mitchell has been great over the past month, but Simmons has been great since Day 1 and there’s much less infrastructure around him in Philly than Mitchell has in Utah. Their supporting casts have similar talent levels, all things considered, but the Jazz have a core of vets from a 50-win team who have been together for a while.
If the season ended today, who would win Defensive Player of the Year?
Chau: Joel Embiid. It can often seem as though DPOYs are graded on degree of difficulty. When there is no clear-cut winner, what can set one candidate apart is how much responsibility he has on the other end of the court, as irrelevant as that sounds. Durant and Paul George get brownie points for being as good offensively as they are on defense, but I’ll toss Embiid’s name in for consideration as well. Embiid takes Rudy Gobert’s rim protection strategy and tacks on rocket thrusters. He doesn’t just own the paint, he is a roving geometric barrier on the floor. The Sixers are quietly a top-three defense in the league, but play with the effectiveness of a no. 1 defense when Embiid is on the floor. He is a defensive specimen unlike any other in this era. It’s not too early to anoint him as such.
Tjarks: Al Horford. The captain of the best defense in the league. I think KD is the better overall defender, but he hasn’t played the 5 much in the regular season, which is where his defensive utility is maximized.
Gonzalez: I could write a lot of words here and make a case for Durant, but Jonathan Tjarks already did that. Go read his piece on KD. It’s good.
Verrier: Pour one out for the defensive Bash Bros, Paul George and Andre Roberson. The latter of whom probably would have earned this spot if not for a ruptured patellar tendon that ended his season and may have ended OKC’s shot at a conference finals berth. In his stead, let’s go with Gobert, who allows just 55.8 percent shooting at the rim despite seeing heavy traffic.
O’Connor: Draymond Green gets the nod over his teammate, Durant. Gobert hasn’t appeared in enough games because of injury. But by season’s end, Gobert certainly could leapfrog Green, because, yeesh, the Jazz are rolling.
Ryan: It would have been Gobert if he hadn’t gotten hurt, so instead it’s Paul George, based almost entirely off his one-man vacuuming of Golden State this month.
Uggetti: You should read Tjarks on why Durant’s case for DPOY has some holes in it. But right now, I’m still willing to hand KD the award by a hair. It’s about time the best two-way player in the league not named LeBron gets some love for something other than his dynamic scoring.
O’Shaughnessy: Green, purely because his fourth-quarter performance against the Trail Blazers on Wednesday is so fresh in my mind.
If the season ended today, who would win Coach of the Year?
O’Connor: Dwane Casey modernized Toronto’s system with more ball movement and shooting, and the team is flourishing as a result. Brad Stevens belongs in the conversation because of Boston’s fast start after losing Gordon Hayward, but the Celtics are fading. Mike D’Antoni also deserves heavy consideration for maximizing his Rockets roster. But Casey is the leader now.
Tjarks: Stevens. He had to completely change his team over the offseason, and then change it again on the fly after Hayward went down on opening night. He’s able to get the most out of his players and turn them into the best possible versions of themselves. The complete collapse of Jae Crowder in Cleveland might be the biggest point in his favor. Avery Bradley wasn’t that great in Detroit, either.
Chau: Casey. Here is where ESPN predicted the Raptors would be before the season:
ESPN's win projections score the Raptors poorly, DeRozan objects.— William Lou (@william_lou) August 3, 2017
It's an annual tradition like no other. pic.twitter.com/AU6vnl7FOY
Credit goes to Casey for adapting to the times, taking advantage of the youth on his bench, and emphasizing the 3-pointer and ball movement. Of course, it’s been about three years coming, but better late than never.
Gonzalez: This would have been Stevens a couple of weeks ago, but things have not gone well lately in Boston. The Celtics have fallen behind the Raptors in the Eastern Conference, and they limped into the All-Star break on a three-game losing streak. Celtics fans are concerned.
Give it to Steve Kerr—if not for his coaching, then for moments like this.
I wanna know what KD said to get cussed out by Coach Draymond pic.twitter.com/u3lykLVYDe— Master Tesfatsion (@MasterTes) February 13, 2018
1-0, with a plus-46 point differential!
Verrier: I’m wavering on my stance that it’s almost always Gregg Popovich, even though the Spurs have managed 35 wins with eight players receiving double-digit starts, none of them being Kawhi Leonard. But the Raptors rising to the top of the East with largely the same core that ended the franchise’s playoff drought five years ago is a testament to the incremental improvements made by Casey and the coaching staff. Apparently you can teach old dinosaurs new tricks.
O’Shaughnessy: Stevens and Popovich are in the running before either of their teams play a single game. But Boston just dropped four of its past five games. The Spurs, bless them, are in third place in the Western Conference without Leonard playing a majority of the season. But this one goes to Quin Snyder, who lost his highest scorer in free agency, had a notoriously poor shooter replace George Hill, and still somehow got Utah into a good position.
Uggetti: Casey. The Raptors being the no. 1 seed in the East would already be enough, but Casey turned the pressure of an eternally warm seat into an opportunity to improve for the better. He got his group to adapt to a different style, and has gotten the most out of young guys like OG Anunoby and Fred VanVleet.
If the season ended today, who would win Sixth Man of the Year?
O’Shaughnessy: Name another sixth man who garnered All-Star support—and had fans crying snub with sincerity when he wasn’t picked. Lou Williams has filled every gap that injuries have caused to the Clippers’ backcourt and dropped 15 30-point games along the way. (Let’s not forget his 50-piece on the Warriors in January.) Having a career year at 31 is the stuff we all hope LeBron is made of. Lou Will is just doing it off the bench.
O’Connor: Lou Williams started for 14 games, but he’s still the selection after his outrageous midseason scoring streak. After all, isn’t it the role of a sixth man to step up when needed? Lou Will’s production kept the Clippers in the playoff race.
Ryan: T.J. McConnell.
Tjarks: Eric Gordon. He’s been incredible since coming over to Houston, and he has stepped in for both Harden and Paul at times to be a consistent second option. The only question is whether he would be eligible for the award since he has already started 24 games this season because of the injuries to the Rockets’ stars.
Chau: JUSTICE FOR LOU WILLIAMS, THE MAN WHO WOULD BE AN ALL-STAR (IF THE WORLD WERE FAIR).
Verrier: Lou Williams almost made an All-Star team while (primarily) coming off the bench, so this one seems pretty cut-and-dried. But instead of honoring the best “bench” player in the league—who usually plays a starter’s minutes anyway—what if the award were rebranded as Fifth Man of the Year? In other words, who’s the best worst starter in the league?
The candidates, after consulting with a league source (it’s Danny Chau), would look something like: Taj Gibson (Timberwolves), Kyle Anderson (Spurs), Carmelo Anthony (Thunder), OG Anunoby (Raptors), and The Ringer’s own J.J. Redick (Sixers). Of the group, I’d go with Anunoby, whose net rating for the East’s best team (plus-11.3) is almost double his average scoring output (5.9).
Gonzalez: Tough one. Gordon has been excellent for the Rockets, but I’ll take Williams. I can’t believe he’s only 31. It feels like he’s been in the league for two decades. This might be the best season he’s ever had. He’s averaging 23.2 points per game and 5.3 assists, both of which are career bests. Plus, despite all the changes to the roster, he’s somehow helped keep the Clippers relevant. Amazingly, they’re just a half game out of the final Western Conference playoff spot.
Uggetti: Lou Williams. This award tends to go to a scorer, and no player has been better at pouring on points off the bench this season—so much so that the Clippers were forced to start him for 14 games. Williams is averaging 23.2 points per game, which is nearly five more points than his previous career best, on 44 percent shooting from the field. It’s pretty remarkable that he’s having his best season 13 years into his career.
If the season ended today, who would win Executive of the Year?
Gonzalez: Danny Ainge. Some of the biggest moves of the past year trace back to Boston. Ainge got Bryan Colangelo to cough up an extra first-round pick for Markelle Fultz, then took Jayson Tatum, the guy he liked best anyway. He also offloaded Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder right before the bottom fell out on their value and spun them into Kyrie Irving. He had to finally loosen his kung-fu grip and hand over the Brooklyn pick, but the Celtics won that trade by a lot. Oh, and he also signed Hayward. Yeah, the Celtics have struggled recently, but if Hayward hadn’t been injured in the first quarter of the first game, Boston would likely be looking at an even better and more surprising season than it’s already had.
Chau: The Pacers’ Kevin Pritchard. The Slap is, truly, back.
O’Connor: Not Koby Altman, because the Cavaliers have played only two games with their reinforcements, so it’s too soon. You can look at Ainge after adding Irving and Hayward, and giving Colangelo a swirly with the Tatum-Fultz trade. Or maybe Masai Ujiri deserves credit for tweaking the Raptors’ roster, which enabled Casey to coach in the style he has. But my bet would be on Daryl Morey, who added Chris Paul and a host of defensive players who have made the Rockets real contenders.
Uggetti: Morey. Paul, Harden, and Clint Capela are 28-1 when playing together. Also, he has the best Twitter account for a GM.
Tjarks: Ujiri. His ability to identify young talent in the draft has allowed Toronto to retool on the fly and continue building around an expensive core. What’s happening in Washington is proof of how hard that can be. I would take the Wizards’ stars over the Raptors’ stars, but Toronto has managed so much better that it might not matter.
Verrier: Ainge. The Celtics added two 2017 All-Stars and one 2023 All-Star in the same summer, all while Allen Iversonesque high-stepping over the most toxic situation in the league. They may be slumping, but they’re so far ahead of schedule it’s tough to muster up much panic over it.
O’Shaughnessy: Morey. Placing two high-usage point guards next to each other could have been an ugly (albeit high-scoring) disaster. But Harden and Paul are clicking to the tune of first place in the NBA, and look like a franchise with an actual chance against the Warriors.