With NBA teams reaching the midpoint of the 82 game regular season marathon over the past week, we have a pretty good idea of which teams are legitimate championship contenders, which teams are likely to make the playoffs, and which teams are starting to focus on lottery odds.
Right now, the Bucks, Lakers, and Clippers look like the class of the league, with teams like Philadelphia and Boston in the East and Denver and Utah in the West hoping to challenge for a spot in the Finals.
With just three weeks to go until the NBA trade deadline on February 6, it will be interesting to see which of the contending teams are able to strengthen their rosters. You can expect to see veterans like Andre Drummond, Marcus Morris, Markieff Morris, Danilo Gallinari, Andre Iguodala, Hassan Whiteside, Kent Bazemore, Robert Covington, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Malik Beasley, former Bulls Derrick Rose and E’Twaun Moore, and possibly current Bulls Thaddeus Young and Denzel Valentine to be mentioned in a variety of trade rumors as we get closer to the deadline.
Utah already got a big boost with their trade for combo guard Jordan Clarkson, and the Minnesota Timberwolves started their sell-off on Thursday by trading veteran point guard Jeff Teague and reserve Treveon Graham to Atlanta for swingman Allen Crabbe.
Plus, the two L.A. teams are competing to add free agent point guard Darren Collison, who unexpectedly retired after last season. And, as always, there will be a number of veterans who get bought out of their contracts and are free to join contending teams before the March 1st deadline for playoff eligibility.
So, as we anticipate an active month of personnel moves ahead, let’s take a look at how some of the traditional NBA awards would play out and our "most surprising" and "most disappointing" teams at the midway point:
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
When Giannis Antetokounmpo was presented his 2018-19 MVP award outside of Fiserv Forum last year, he told the adoring crowd not to call him MVP anymore until he won the award next season. Giannis dedicated himself to an offseason of working on his short list of weaknesses (outside shooting, late-game decision-making), and he came back an even better player. Antetokounmpo has increased his numbers in just about every major statistical category, and his 3-point shooting has improved enough to open up driving lanes. The Bucks are currently on pace for a 70 win season, thanks to Antetokoumpo's play.
Sixth Man of the Year: Montrezl Harrell, Los Angeles Clippers
Harrell’s teammate Lou Williams has pretty much owned this award in recent seasons, and Sweet Lou is still the leading scorer among non-starters. But Harrell’s play on both ends is one of the keys to the Clippers’ championship hopes. He’s currently averaging 19.2 points and 7.3 rebounds, shooting 57.3% from the field. Plus, he plays much taller than his listed height of 6-foot-7 with all-out hustle and relentless work on the boards.
Most Improved: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans.
The 2nd overall pick in the 2016 draft had been viewed as largely a disappointment during his three seasons with the Lakers. Matter of fact, when the Lakers were negotiating the Anthony Davis trade with New Orleans, their priority was finding a way to keep Kyle Kuzma out of the discussion, not Ingram. Well, all Ingram has done since joining the Pelicans is average 25.1 points (11th in the NBA), 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, while keeping the team afloat as they wait for the regular season debut of Zion Williamson next week.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant, Memphis Grizzlies
Unless Zion averages 25 points and 15 rebounds per game in his half-season with the Pelicans, this award will go to Morant in a landslide. Morant has been nothing short of sensational, leading the young Grizzlies into playoff position at the midway point. Morant’s athleticism is off the charts, and his spectacular ball-handling and high-flying dunks have been featured nightly on highlight shows. He’ll be one of the faces of the league over the next decade.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
This award could probably go to Antetokounmpo as well, since the Bucks are No. 1 in the league in defensive rating, and Antetokounmpo can defend all five positions. But the recent trend has been to go with the best rim protector, and Gobert has established himself as a defensive force for the Jazz. Gobert is currently 3rd in the NBA in rebounds and 7th in blocked shots.
(By the way, did you know the much-maligned Hassan Whiteside leads the league in blocks and is 4th in rebounding? P.S., he won’t win the award!)
Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Indiana Pacers
With apologies to the coaches of the conference leaders, Mike Budenholzer and Frank Vogel, no coach has done more with less to this point than McMillan. While waiting for the return of star guard Victor Oladipo from a serious leg injury (expected to be on January 29th against the Bulls), McMillan has the Pacers in 5th place in the East with a 26-15 record. Not only has Oladipo missed the entire season, but key players Malcolm Brogdon, Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb have all been out for multiple games because of injuries.
Most Surprising Team: Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks (TIE)
We could probably throw the Oklahoma City Thunder in here as well, but not many analysts expected the Heat or Mavericks to be competing for a top-4 seed in their respective conferences. Jimmy Butler has been the leader of the overachieving Heat, who are getting better than expected production from young players Bam Adebayo, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro. While out West, the incredible Luka Doncic is a top-5 MVP candidate, leading the Mavs to a 26-15 record (currently 6th) with incredible stats of 28.8 points, 9.8 rebounds and 9 assists per game. The international duo of Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis will be fun to watch for years to come.
Most Disappointing Team: Portland Trailblazers
Plenty of options here, but Portland gets the nod. Don’t forget, the Trail Blazers were in the Western Conference Finals last spring. To be fair, injuries have played a role in their 18-24 start, but with a backcourt of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, Portland’s record should be significantly better. The Blazers even brought Carmelo Anthony out of exile to provide some much-needed scoring support. Big man Jusuf Nurkic should return after the All-Star break, and the Blazers are only a game and a half out of the final playoff spot in the West but don’t be surprised if the front office decides to blow up the roster ahead of the February 6 trade deadline.
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