Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2011
Posted: 1:20 p.m.
By Aggrey Sam
Before every NBA season, there are players and teams that the so-called experts (this writer included) believe will dominate headlines and then fail to live up to the hype right away. After the first few weeks of the season, more predictions are made based on the early returns, with observers going out on a limb to proclaim that those who have made immediate impacts will sustain their effectiveness over the course of the campaign. The halfway point of the season, while not a crystal ball, is a much more accurate way of determining future successes or failures. But instead of making any hare-brained claims, let's take a look at the NBA's top first-half performers.
MVP: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
Forget about this being the obvious homer pick and let's examine his candidacy. One front-runner, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki has missed significant time due to injury, leading to the Mavericks' recent slide. Another, New York's Amar'e Stoudemire, has been excellent, but his Knicks have also swooned lately. Miami's duo of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have effectively separated themselves from the other, potentially splitting votes--or garnering less momentum because of their partnership--at season's end. Kobe Bryant hasn't had a vintage season and at least right now, neither are his Lakers. The only other player in the league who presents a credible threat at the midseason point is Orlando's Dwight Howard, but since winning does play a factor--it might be prudent to see how the Magic's overhaul plays out in the long run--Rose's guidance of the Bulls to success (without co-stars Joakim Noah andor Carlos Boozer for long stretches) wins out at this juncture.
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
Is there any other choice? Not only is Blake Griffin already arguably the league's most exciting player, but he's managed to not only lead the perennially-lowly Clippers to the brink of respectability as of late, he's reinvigorated enigmatic point guard Baron Davis, possibly extending former Bulls head coach Vinny Del Negro's Hollywood shelf life in the process. Griffin isn't just good for a rookie, he's a dominant force, as evidenced by his NBA season-high 47 points Monday. The scary thing is, he's only going to get better.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs
Maybe the Spurs are still boring as far as personalities are concerned, but nobody can accuse them of playing that way this season. Popovich has completely flipped their style of play, turning San Antonio into a run-and-gun team, de-emphasizing future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan on the offensive end (which many suspect is a ploy to save his legs for the grind-it-out, halfcourt-heavy playoffs) and making the up-tempo nature of backcourt stars Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili the team's new focal point. In addition to having likely the league's best backcourt, "Pop" has gotten through to small forward Richard Jefferson and has melded a seemingly haphazard bunch of role players (such as 26-year-old sharpshooting rookie Gary Neal and roly-poly undersized second-year bruiser DeJuan Blair) into an exemplary complementary unit, resulting in the league's best record.
Most Improved Player: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves
Another no-brainer, as Love, the league's top rebounder, has become the bizarro Dennis Rodman this season. The wide-bodied, ground-bound power forward Kevin Love is a freak of nature on the glass in today's NBA, recording multiple 20-point, 20-rebound games, including a high of 31 boards in one night. Defensively challenged, Love is a savvy and versatile offensive performer, with comfortable 3-point range, excellent passing ability and old-school sensibilities. Although he toils for an awful Minnesota squad, Love a must-see attraction, despite his decidedly below-the-rim game.
Most surprising team: New York Knicks
Although they haven't been as good lately--losing the element of surprise is a factor--the fact that the Knicks are one of the better teams in the Eastern Conference is a bit of a shocker, especially given their slow start to the season. Much of the credit can be given to the elite play of their top offseason acquisition Stoudemire (getting his former player back, as well as others who fit his "Seven Seconds or Less" system is obviously a big part of Mike D'Antoni's turnaround of the team), but the squad's supporting cast--the likes of floor general Raymond Felton, sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari, versatile forward Wilson Chandler and rookie Landry Fields have all played significant roles--has been much better than advertised, bringing legitimate excitement back to the Big Apple for the first time in more than a decade.
Most disappointing team: Milwaukee Bucks
After last season's "Fear the Dear" run, expectations were high for the Bucks, particularly after an offseason that many observers thought was quietly among the league's best. But injuries to second-year point guard Brandon Jennings and others, as well as star center Andrew Bogut's not-yet-complete return to form have derailed Milwaukee. One of the NBA's most inept scoring teams, they have simply been unable to regain the magic that carried them last season. In the top-heavy East, there's still time to make a run, but it's doubtful they'll be able to build on the progress made a year ago.
Aggrey Sam is CSNChicago.com's Bulls Insider. Follow him @CSNBullsInsider on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Bulls information and his take on the team, the NBA and much more.