In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

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NBC Sports

In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

LeBron James was done hiding it. 

After getting swept in the 2018 NBA Finals, James sat at the postgame podium and briefly rested his hands on the table in front of him. A tsunami of camera flashes began flooding the room because, there it was, for all the world to see: a soft cast covering his right hand. James picked up the microphone with his left hand and began to take questions from the surrounding media.

Sitting at his Las Vegas home, Vic Salerno couldn’t bring himself to watch. The legendary Vegas bookmaker, who is the president of USBookmaking and was inducted into the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2016 for his innovation in the regulated sports wagering industry, thought he had seen it all in his 40 years of work in the sports betting industry. But nothing quite like this. 

In that presser, James admitted he played through what he described as “pretty much ... a broken hand,” confirming the stunning media reports that trickled out within moments after Game 4 final buzzer. Salerno was blindsided by the news that James had suffered a serious injury to his shooting hand in the aftermath of a bizarre Game 1. Multiple MRIs were taken, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, for his visibly swollen hand. Still, James kept playing through the injury and averaged 28.3 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds in the final three games, all losses. No one said a word about the hand.

To many, it was a Herculean feat by James.

But to Salerno, this was something entirely different. In Salerno’s eyes, this was a devastating blow to the integrity of the game, an inexcusable breach of trust. Perpetrated by, not LeBron, but the NBA itself. And Salerno was ready to battle the league office head on, in the courts.

* * *

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) on May 14, 2018, NBA lawyers had begun lobbying in various state courts and proposing that sportsbooks (like the ones Salerno helped operate across the US) should be required to pay the NBA a small percentage of every bet placed on its games to ensure integrity is being maintained.

“Call it a royalty, call it an integrity fee,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at his annual NBA Finals press conference two weeks after PASPA was reversed. “We will have additional expenses [to further protect integrity], and it’s ultimately our intellectual property and we ultimately believe we should be compensated for it.”

Salerno was incensed at James’ revelation, and so were other sportsbook operators, he says. Here was the NBA’s biggest star playing on the biggest stage, suffering what he says was a broken bone in his shooting hand, and laboring through it for multiple games.. Millions of dollars were wagered on these games with betting lines based on, in large part, official injury reports provided by the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. 

Nothing in those reports said anything about James’ injured hand and thus bettors went heavy on the Cavs. After Game 1, 94 percent of bets to win the series at William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook were placed on Cleveland and MGM’s sportsbook took six times more bets on the Cavs than the Warriors, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. As it turns out, the Cavs failed to cover the spread in any of the remaining games (though Salerno says the sportsbooks didn’t lose money on the bets, nor did they spot any irregularities in betting). 

But the issue raises a host of questions. How soon did the Cavs know about James’ injury? Who in the organization knew? Did the league know and if not, why not? And did anyone leak that information to bettors? 

Without citing concrete evidence, Salerno believes the league was aware of James’ injury and chose not disclose it.

“Oh, they knew,” Salerno says over the phone. “They knew.”

But when contacted by NBC Sports this week, NBA spokesman Tim Frank called that claim “100 percent false” and denied any knowledge of James’ injury before it became public following Game 4. Salerno finds that hard to believe, considering the stakes and, you know, the fact that the hand belonged to LeBron James.

Dan Spillane, NBA Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel who is leading the league’s efforts to lobby for royalty fees and a compensation package in state legislature, says the Cavs followed league policy that requires teams to detail whether a player is probable, questionable, doubtful or out due to injury, illness, personal matters or resting.

“In this particular situation, LeBron [James] played in all of those games and played very well,” Spillane explained over the phone. “This wasn’t, as I understand it, an injury that was going to affect whether he was going to play or not. LeBron was going to play in the rest of the series.”

John T. Holden, a leading sports law expert and an assistant professor at the University at Oklahoma State, worries that the NBA’s policy needs to be expanded to cover injuries like James’ that could affect the gambling world.

“These things need to be disclosed,” Holden says. “Otherwise, you’re just creating a market for people with that information. And that’s where integrity really gets threatened.”

Spillane believes it’s hard to imagine the NBA expands its injury-reporting policy to include injuries that might affect performance without “hundreds of reports being filed constantly” by NBA teams. 

“While it’s a fair question to raise, it’s not obvious how you would construct a rule that would require disclosure of that kind of thing without becoming all-encompassing and requiring a much more burdensome, intrusive and wide-range of disclosures than we have today,” Spillane says.

Still, Salerno isn’t satisfied with the league’s stance.

“This really blows their whole argument apart,” Salerno says. “That proved to me that we couldn’t count on the NBA to protect the integrity of the game.”

This isn’t just an opinion of a bitter bookmaker. Salerno is one of the biggest, most-trusted names in the sports betting industry. In October, as the director of sportsbook operations for BetChicago, Salerno testified in front of Illinois lawmakers at a sports wagering hearing and raised the Finals issue as an example of why sportsbooks should not be required by the law to pay an integrity fee to sports leagues. In that meeting, a National Basketball Players Association representative defended James’ right to withhold that information.

State legislatures, so far, are siding with Salerno and the sportsbooks. None of the eight states with legal sports betting have included an integrity fee, which is currently proposed by the NBA, MLB and PGA Tour as 0.25 percent of the amount of money wagered, otherwise known as the handle. (The compensation package was initially introduced as an “integrity” fee in January but has since been called a royalty). Still, Spillane and the NBA’s team of lawyers continue to make their case that the NBA deserves a cut off the top. It’s a big ask considering sportsbooks in New Jersey, for example, took home just six percent of the handle

“It has been a part of several bills that have been introduced in various states over the course of the year including a couple that came very close to passage,” Spillane says. “We view this as the very beginning of the process, though.”

Four years after Silver wrote a groundbreaking op-ed for the New York Times, the NBA has put on the full-court press to leverage the Supreme Court ruling and boost revenues for NBA owners. The integrity fee (or royalty fee) is just one revenue stream related to gambling. 

The others will undoubtedly change the way fans will experience the sport. Already, the whole NBA landscape is shifting before our eyes.

* * *

Sports leagues and the gambling world have long been embroiled in something of a cold war. 

For years, the NFL went as far as banning the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from advertising during the Super Bowl, even without any reference to sports betting or gambling in general. Now, the NFL will relocate the Oakland Raiders to Vegas in 2020 and commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday that it will hold its 2020 NFL Draft in Sin City, saying the NFL is "looking forward to working with" that same Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in its press release. As recently as 2012, then-NBA commissioner David Stern wrote in a declaration in a New Jersey case against legalized sports gambling: “The NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”

Like the NFL, the NBA also reversed its position recently. In one of his first landmark moves as NBA commissioner, Silver’s 2014 Times op-ed argued in favor of legalized sports gambling. Silver’s direct repudiation of his mentor changed everything and laid the groundwork for the current gambling-friendly climate. (Stern now backs legalized sports gambling).

“Silver’s op-ed was huge,” Holden says. “It was sort of the first professional sports league change in policy in about a hundred years. It was certainly a monumental change.”

But May 14, 2018 changed tides and opened up the floodgates. That afternoon, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went on CNBC and didn’t hold back when summarizing the SCOTUS decision: “Everybody who owns top-four professional sports teams just basically saw the value of their team double,” Cuban said. “At least.”

The NBA didn’t hesitate to line up business deals that industry sources say are amounting to millions of dollars of revenue. In late July, the NBA announced that MGM Resorts would become an official gaming partner of the NBA and WNBA, marking the first partnership of its kind with a sports betting operator in the United States. This week, the NBA landed another partnership, this time with the Stars Group, which operates in New Jersey under its BetStars brand.

Things have changed so quickly that Las Vegas is now seen as a potential safe harbor for an NBA team. On Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver was threatening to move the team to Las Vegas (or Seattle) if the city couldn’t agree on an arena deal. The NBA has developed strong roots in Las Vegas, holding its Summer League there since 2004 and making it the premier offseason showcase in recent years. In 2017, it became the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League through a marketing deal with the casino giant. 

With the climate softening on Vegas and NBA gambling in general, Cuban hired the most famous NBA bettor, Haralabos Voulgaris, and brought him into the Mavs’ front office to help him win games. Voulgaris’ nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter won’t have access to his keen insights into the NBA anymore. But soon, fans might be able to attend an NBA game and legally bet on it without having to look over their shoulder. Yes, in-arena betting may be coming sooner than you think.

* * *

At the local level, teams are joining in on the betting biz boom. 

In October, the Philadelphia 76ers’ ownership group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, announced a multi-year partnership with Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Harrah’s Philadelphia just 30 minutes away from the Sixers’ home at Wells Fargo Center. Caesars also operates sportsbooks in Atlantic City, which will be the destination for Sixers in-game promotions such as “Score For The Shore” half-court shots or “Live Like A Caesars VIP” social media contest on the team’s official feed.

Was it a coincidence that they struck a deal just months after PASPA was repealed?

“It’s not,” says Caesars SVP Marketing & Chief Experience Officer Michael Marino. “For us, we think there’s a lot of value in meeting sports fans because we believe they’re highly likely to become sports betting fans as well. There’s certainly more interest now than five months ago in meeting these fans. We’re looking forward to the many different activations as a brand partner and then also, obviously, the more direct to the consumer we can get, the better.”

Caesars has reason to be bullish about officially getting into the NBA space. In less than six months of operation, gamblers in New Jersey have wagered nearly $1 billion. (Under the hypothetical of a quarter-percent royalty fee, a $1 billion handle would mean sportsbooks would have to write a $2.5 million check to sports leagues). On Thursday, Philadelphia’s first sportsbook, SugarHouse Casino, is set to open just a 15-minute drive from the Sixers’ arena.

Marino envisions that in early 2019 fans seated inside Wells Fargo Center can open up their Caesars app on their phone and bet on the game. The state of Pennsylvania legalized land sports betting in November, but online gambling hasn’t been launched yet. Now, fans on their phones can only bet legally in New Jersey, just a few minutes away. 

It’s partnerships like these that have people wondering how soon we will see a sportsbook at an NBA arena. Salerno believes fans will be soon able to bet on NBA games in a brick-and-mortar space at an NBA arena “within the year.” Think Churchill Downs, but with an NBA game as the live event.

Marino doesn’t think Wells Fargo Center will have a sportsbook any time soon, but it’s not out of the question for Caesars to open up a sportsbook on-site down the road.

“Someday,” Marino says, “we would love that.”

One theory is that legalizing sports gambling will make more fans tune into games and attend live events.

But that hasn’t happened just yet. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, ratings have been in surprising decline so far this season. Through last Friday, ESPN and TNT have seen a year-over-year drop in 24 of the 37 NBA games they have aired this season. Part of that might be due to Stephen Curry’s injury, general Warriors fatigue and the early struggles of elite teams in some of the NBA’s largest markets like Houston and Boston. Still, the gambling boom hasn’t led to more eyeballs quite yet.

“The numbers are well below what I expected this season with LeBron’s move to L.A.,” said Jon Lewis, who writes under the psyeudonym “Paulsen” at Sports Media Watch and has been covering sports ratings since 2006.

However, at the local level, it might be a different story. As Pennsylvania and New Jersey ramp up their sportsbooks offerings, the 76ers now rank No. 1 league-wide in attendance, averaging 20,339 fans per home game. What’s more, the team’s local broadcast partner, NBC Sports Philadelphia just posted its highest November average since 2001 -- the year Allen Iverson won MVP. It’s far too early to attribute that growth to the legalization of gambling in the Philly region, but these sort of viewership gains are the goal.

To Salerno, this is why lobbying for integrity or royalty fees is a waste of time. In his view, the NBA will make plenty of money on gambling-related private partnerships, advertising and increases in franchise value. The NBA, from his perspective, has already benefited greatly from gambling even before PASPA was repealed.

“Who’s going to watch the Nets-Celtics game when the Celtics are a 16-point favorite? If nobody’s betting on it, nobody’s going to watch the game,” Salerno says. “We’ve made them a lot of money.”

Holden believes that won’t stop the NBA from going to the courts and advocating for an integrity fee. A federal sports betting bill has recently been drafted and, though it’s unlikely to pass in Holden’s view, how Congress proceeds will be worth monitoring. Still, expect more NBA/MGM-like business deals to continue.

“I think the league is going to continue to press very hard to get a cut of the handle, but I think the best opportunities for the league to profit from legalized sports gambling is through these private partnerships,” Holden says. “There are a number of legal issues associated with states mandating integrity fees.”

Holden warns that the NBA might be sending the wrong message to fans that, before the federal ban was lifted on sports gambling, the league wasn’t financially or systemically equipped to protect integrity of the game. If bringing sports gambling from the shady underground to above ground will be safer for bettors as Silver argued in his op-ed, why suddenly ask for integrity fees now?

“That’s a very contradictory statement that they’ve made,” Holden says. “I don’t know how sustainable it is to continue asking for the integrity fee. They are not going broke paying lobbyists to ask for integrity fees but at some point, how many times do you want to strike out, before you move onto something else?”

Holden then pauses.

“But it can’t hurt to ask for free money,”

Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

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NBC Sports

Weight and see: The Boogie Cousins conundrum

DeMarcus Cousins is an enormous human being. 

He is listed at 270 pounds, making him one of the 10 heaviest players in a league of mountainous men. According to a recent CDC study, the average American male in his twenties checks in at 5-foot-9, 187 pounds -- a 6-foot-2 male is considered to be in the 95th percentile. Cousins is 6-foot-11, and nearly 100 pounds above the norm.

As Cousins returns from a ruptured Achilles on Friday night against the Clippers, the NBA world will be watching closely. How will he look? Will the Warriors play through him? How many minutes will he play? Will he be a liability? Will he be All-NBA again?

Those questions won’t be limited to just basketball people. The medical community will surely be keeping an eye on Cousins’ return simply because he is such a rare case study.

Even in the NBA, where the average height is 6-foot-7 and the average weight is 218 pounds, there aren’t many examples of players as large as Cousins returning to play at a high level. And if they are that large, they aren’t All-NBA players. And even if they were All-NBA players, they aren’t returning to a team looking to win a third straight championship.

What’s at stake isn’t just the Warriors’ chances at a three-peat. Cousins is a free agent this summer. The key to maximizing both may be one simple variable: Cousins’ weight. 

Cousins’ weight and conditioning have been a talking point throughout his basketball career. At Kentucky, he was listed at 292 pounds by DraftExpress. He ballooned to 308 pounds by the end of the 2015-16 season, per Basketball Insiders’ Steve Kyler, before trimming down to 275 ahead of Team USA camp in the summer of 2016. 

“He’s gotten in unbelievable shape for this,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Cousins that summer.

His weight again swelled during the 2016-17 season around the time of the blockbuster trade from Sacramento to New Orleans. That following summer, he wanted to shed some pounds, so he hired a new personal chef and dedicated himself to yoga.

“I kind of let myself go in the second half of the season last year,” Cousins told NOLA.com in August 2017. “I got in a place where I didn’t really want to be.”

Cousins lost a bunch of weight to prepare for the 2017-18 Pelicans’ up-tempo pace, though he didn’t specify how many pounds he lost, telling ESPN: “I don’t know. I really don’t know. I lost a lot of weight.”

The funny thing is, despite the obvious body transformations, Cousins’ weight never wavered in his team’s official media guides over the years. His weight was listed at exactly 270 pounds for every season -- in Sacramento, in New Orleans and now, in Golden State. Hardly anyone around the league believes that to be an accurate figure. Just like his teammate Kevin Durant’s height of 6-foot-9.

But Cousins’ weight will be critical during his return from the Achilles injury. According to proprietary research done by the Sports Medicine Analytics Research Team (SMART) and obtained by NBCSports.com, one factor stood out in NBA players’ ability to return to pre-Achilles-tear levels: Weight loss.

The study looked at 40 Achilles tears in the NBA and tracked each player’s performance after surgery. Some went well. More did not. But of the list of positive outcomes, all but one case was associated with weight loss.

It’s not clear how much weight Cousins lost during his Achilles rehab, if any. While there were a slew of articles detailing his weight loss during the 2017 offseason, that hasn’t been a focal point this time around. The Warriors’ media guide lists him at 270 pounds, the same as it was in Sacramento.

The post-Achilles study found that no players above 285 pounds were able to return to greater than 70 percent of their PER or scoring average after injury. No players above 285 pounds were able to play more than 66 percent of their games or have performance levels within 50 percent of their prior level.

Dr. Richard Ferkel of the Southern California Orthopedic Institute estimates that he’s operated on over a dozen Achilles tears of NBA players in his medical career. Cousins was one of them last January. He agrees that Cousins’ sheer weight makes for a trickier recovery, but he’s been very pleased by the collective effort by Cousins and the Warriors staff. Keeping his weight down has been a top priority.

“It certainly is a factor,” Dr. Ferkel told NBCSports.com. “The stress they’re putting on is a little different than for somebody who is a six-foot point guard. It probably extends the rehab a bit longer in bigger people than in smaller people.”

There’s a litany of cautionary tales for centers dealing with this injury, but former McDonald’s All-American center Stanley Roberts, Shaquille O’Neal’s 7-foot teammate at LSU and former first-round pick, is one of the more infamous examples. In December 1993, Roberts ruptured his right Achilles. Ten months after his surgery, Roberts showed up to Clippers training camp well over 300 pounds. Said then-Clippers GM Elgin Baylor: “He weighs too much, that’s what he weighs. You can quote that.” Three weeks later, Roberts ruptured his left Achilles tendon. He admirably fought his way back to play part of five seasons, but he played his last NBA game before turning 30 years old. 
 
The injury also ended the career of the 300-pound Jerome James, who famously signed a five-year, $30 million contract with the Knicks in 2005 and dealt with weight and health issues throughout his New York tenure before tearing his Achilles in 2008. In 2011, DeSagana Diop, listed at 300 pounds, tore his Achilles at the age of 28 and played just 49 games thereafter. None of these giants were near All-NBA players at the time of injury, but they shared Cousins’ colossal size.
 
Why is weight loss such a strong predictor? It has to do with one devastating side effect of a torn Achilles: Calf atrophy. Because of the post-surgery immobilization, the calf muscle shrinks from the lack of exertion. Simply put, the smaller muscle often times can’t support the same weight as it did before the surgery. That imbalance is super tricky to manage. Studies have shown that even after seven years post-surgery, the calf muscle on the injured side of Achilles tears showed decreased strength compared to the non-injured side.
 
After a recent full-contact practice at Santa Cruz, Cousins was asked whether he was nervous about his Achilles holding up.
 
"No nervousness at all," Cousins told ESPN.  "I'm more worried about pulling a hammy or something like that. It's been a while since I've played and reacted. The Achilles is the least of my worries."

Cousins’ nerves about other things being thrown off is a worthy concern. It’s exactly what happened to a star big man who suffered an Achilles tear about a decade ago.

* * *

Elton Brand is often cited as the closest Cousins comp. You’ve probably heard that Brand’s Achilles tear in 2007 derailed his career. Actually, you might have heard that directly from him, in a podcast interview with ESPN’s Marc Spears and Amin Elhassan. 

“The most frustrating part was the injuries,” Brand said. “That Achilles really changed the trajectory of my career.”

At the time of his injury, the two-time All-Star was 28 years old and listed at 254 pounds, down from his 275-pound rookie weight. In Brand’s post-surgery April debut, he scored 19 points in 26 minutes off the bench, returning in about eight months, three months sooner than Cousins’ timetable. Brand averaged 17.6 points and 8.0 rebounds in the final eight games of the season, down from his pre-injury levels of 20.5 points and 9.3 rebounds. But, surprisingly, after adjusting for playing time, Brand’s per-minute averages in 2007-08 were nearly identical to his pre-surgery norm. After signing with the Philadelphia 76ers, Brand averaged an impressive 17.4 points and 10.3 rebounds in 18 games to kick off his tenure. 

But in early December with the Sixers, Brand suffered a right hamstring injury against the Lakers, and two weeks later, he dislocated his right shoulder, which required season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum. Then, after all those injuries, he was never the same again. 

“That whole kinetic chain: Once you get the calf, it’s the ankle, the knee, the hips, the back,” Brand told ESPN. “No one’s really recovered from that Achilles injury and come back at the same level. I had a few serviceable seasons, but I wasn’t the same guy.”

It’s impossible to know how Brand would fare if he hadn’t busted his hamstring and then wrecked his shoulder. But those are certainly contributing factors to his post-surgery drop off and something to keep in mind while fortune-telling Cousins’ next few months. 

Brand is just one example of a big man who struggled to regain his pre-surgery form. But it’s instructive to look at some possible potholes to avoid with Cousins. In Brand’s first full season after his Achilles tear, he played in both parts of a back-to-back in the second game and third game of the season. In the second night, after flying overnight from Philadelphia to Atlanta, Brand played 45 minutes. Yeah, it was a different league back then.

Sitting out the second half of a back-to-back was once considered taboo but not anymore. Team sources indicate that they haven’t discussed whether Cousins will play in back-to-backs this season, choosing to play it by ear. But it could be wise to sit him in those games. When Brand suffered his pulled hamstring on Dec. 3 against the Lakers, it was his third game in four nights. He played 41 minutes in the first game and 43 minutes in the second. In the third game, also the second night of a back-to-back, Brand came up limp halfway through the third quarter. He pulled his right hamstring, the opposite leg of his Achilles tear.

As good as Brand was, the Duke product was never quite the caliber of Cousins, who already has twice the number of All-Star appearances as Brand. Add the backdrop of a championship quest and this is uncharted territory. 

Cousins is returning to a new team and a new, high-octane league. He will be suiting up for a Warriors team that is averaging 101.7 possessions per game, the 10th-highest pace factor in the league. That’s actually a tad faster than the Pelicans’ pace -- 100.6 possessions per game -- at the time of Cousins’ injury in late January. 

Can Cousins play at that kind of pace? It’s a question that will be on Dr. Ferkel’s mind when he watches Cousins in person on Friday in Los Angeles.

“No. 1, how does he feel and look on the court?” Ferkel says. “How comfortable is he? How comfortable is he to keep up with the pace of the game?”

The Warriors have slowed down lately, perhaps in anticipation of bringing in Cousins. In the month of December, the team ranked second in fastest offensive possessions, pushing the ball at every opportunity, per Inpredictable.com tracking data. But in January, they’ve tapped the brakes down to eighth-fastest, most notably after turnovers, where the offense ranks below-average in speed. The Pelicans were demonstrably faster when Cousins hit the bench last season. The Warriors figure to follow suit.

In some ways, Cousins’ return couldn’t happen at a better time. The Warriors have a preposterous 130.1 offensive rating this month, and that’s before they add a guy who averaged 25.2 points last season before going down with his Achilles injury. 

But Dr. Ferkel emphasized that what we’ll see on Friday isn’t the final product. In some ways, it’s the beginning.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that even if he’s released, we, as part of DeMarcus’ team, feel this current release [to play] is really the final phase of his rehabilitation. We’re not saying he’s 100 percent like he would be if he was uninjured. He’s done everything he can do but be in a game situation with elite players.”

After Cousins passed his conditioning tests, the final barrier to play, he was cleared to play for the champs. The wait is over. But for his long-term health, the weight watch has just begun.

Haberstroh's NBA midseason awards: MVP, best coach and rookies

Haberstroh's NBA midseason awards: MVP, best coach and rookies

As most teams hit the 41-game mark this week, what better time to hit the pause button and see how the award races are shaping up?

With All-Star break about a month away, here’s one person’s opinion on the major awards. 

Most Valuable Player: James Harden 
Runners up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Paul George, Joel Embiid

Harden checks every box. Traditionalists will love his eye-popping scoring average (he’s leading the scoring title by full 5.0 points, which would be the largest gap since Michael Jordan's 1986-87 season when he averaged 37.1 to Dominique Wilkins' 29.0) and triple-doubles combined with the narrative that he’s “carrying” the Chris Paul-less Rockets. The nerdier voters will appreciate his freakish efficiency (his current true-shooting percentage tops Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant’s best) and off-the-charts offensive RPM. Both ends of the spectrum can get behind Harden.

Put it this way: Who has raised a team’s championship odds more this season? 

You could make a strong case for Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo, whose Bucks have the NBA’s best net-rating at plus-9.2. But the addition of head coach Mike Budenholzer, who overhauled both ends of the floor, muddies the picture for the Greek Freak. Who deserves credit for the Bucks’ rise?

That question is easier to answer for the Rockets. It seems like a lifetime ago, but only one month has passed since Houston general manager Daryl Morey came on The Habershow podcast with the 11-12 Rockets reeling in the wake of the Carmelo Anthony debacle. Rather than retreat, Morey doubled down: “We feel like we can be better than last year. I know I sound crazy saying that.”

Shortly after that, Paul got hurt, and the Rockets went on a tear, Harden leading the way. Over the past 14 games, Harden has averaged 40.3 points and 9.4 assists while shooting 40.2 percent on a whopping 14.9 3-pointers per game. To put that into perspective, Harden averaged 30.4 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 36.7 percent on 10 3-pointers per game during his MVP campaign last season.

The difference between last year’s campaign and this one? Harden has turned the step-back 3 into a basketball superpower. He’s getting defenders off balance and routinely racking up three-shot fouls, which is the most profitable play in the game. Peruse the Basketball-Reference logs and you’ll find that Harden has accumulated 38 three-shot fouls this season. That’s more than Damian Lillard (16), Stephen Curry (10) and JJ Redick (8) combined. He used to hunt for the three-shot foul in pick-and-rolls, but the league started cracking down on it. Now, he’s getting it with the step-back 3.

While Harden has my vote for first-half MVP, I’m a tad concerned that he’ll wear down. He’s leading the league in minutes per game and the Rockets are paper-thin at the guard position. Case-in-point: Free-agent pickup Austin Rivers is averaging a team-high 38.5 minutes per game in his eight contests with the team. Harden’s MVP candidacy may be dented by Paul’s eventual return, but they need more bodies to win at the highest level.

Antetokounmpo may have taken the lead in the larger MVP conversation after Wednesday’s victory over the Rockets, but I’m still leaning Harden, who is averaging 20.2 assist points per game in addition to his own scoring. Also in the running is Joel Embiid, who is putting up Shaq-like numbers for the Sixers, and Paul George, who might be the best two-way player in the game. Speaking of George...

Defensive Player of the Year: Paul George
Runners up: Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Jrue Holiday

The Thunder have the NBA’s best defense by a good margin despite not having Andre Roberson, who might've been the best perimeter defender in the league last season.

George has snatched that distinction from Roberson this year. Here’s a list of guys he’s guarded for at least 10 possessions this season: James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kemba Walker, Luka Doncic, Jrue Holiday, Klay Thompson and Devin Booker. That versatility enables the Thunder to blanket opponents on the perimeter while Steven Adams mans the middle and owns the backline. George’s on-court defensive rating of 99.9 is second-best for any player among the 84 players averaging at least 30 minutes per game, per NBA.com. Some of that is due to Adams, but George leads all players in deflections and loose balls recovered. He’s everywhere.

Gobert may end up winning this award again now that the Jazz have overcome a funky start on that end of the floor, but his on-off splits haven’t been nearly as stark as last season. Embiid, for his part, has defended the most shots at the rim in the NBA and held opponents to a crazy-low 54.2 percent on those shots. Holiday is a 6-foot-4 straitjacket, but for this award, I can’t ignore that the Pelicans have a bottom-six defensive rating.

Ultimately, George has earned this spot. In today’s 3-point-heavy league, lock-down perimeter defenders are more valuable than ever. With Kawhi Leonard sitting out games to rest, George has ascended to become the gold standard on that end of the floor. 

Coach of the Year: Dave Joerger
Runners up: Mike Malone, Mike Budenholzer, Doc Rivers

It feels odd to hand this award to the coach of a team that’s been hovering around .500 all season, but the Kings might hit their Vegas over/under projection before the All-Star break. 

It’s not just some lucky wins here and there. Joerger has completely overhauled their playing style and tailored it for young legs. Last season, their offensive possessions lasted 15.4 seconds on average, the third-slowest pace in the league, per Inpredictable.com. This season? Joerger has handed the keys to De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield and the results are a group averaging 13.1 seconds on offense, which is the second-quickest rate in the league. They’re running teams out of the gym.

Despite the fifth-youngest roster in the league, the Kings are also holding their own in clutch situations. Per NBA.com tracking, the Kings are 14-10 when the game is within five points in the final five minutes, a better record than the Boston Celtics, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and the LeBron-led Los Angeles Lakers. 

Who says young teams can’t win in the NBA? To me, the Kings are the biggest surprise of the season and this award reflects that.

Sixth Man of the Year: Domantas Sabonis
Runners up: Montrezl Harrell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Derrick Rose

This guy is an absolute stud. The 22-year-old has been a monster for the Pacers’ nasty second unit along with Tyreke Evans and Cory Joseph. Over the last 10 games, the son of the legendary Arvydas Sabonis is averaging 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds on 60.7 percent shooting and providing stout defense up front. He doesn’t have Anthony Davis’ wingspan, but he doesn’t need it to make an impact defensively. He has allowed the fewest points per possession on plays against him (.771), according to Synergy tracking (minimum 300 plays defended).

The only red flag here? Sabonis might not be a bench player for long. Thaddeus Young just won an East Player of the Week award, but Sabonis deserves the starting gig, and soon. Sabonis is averaging 21.3 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per 36 minutes this season with great touch around the rim and a nice pick-and-pop game in the mid-range. If he can re-discover his 3-point stroke, he could be Kevin Love 2.0 (who also came off the bench at the beginning of his career).

With Myles Turner, Young and Sabonis, Indiana suddenly has a logjam in the frontcourt, but don’t be surprised if the Pacers -- who also have Kyle O’Quinn as insurance -- make a move to free up some starter minutes for Sabonis. He’s earned them.

If Sabonis does move off the bench, there are several other candidates of consideration. Spencer Dinwiddie is the new Lou Williams (who also deserves plenty of votes). Derrick Rose has started over a third of his games, which might disqualify him in many eyes, but he’s been a revelation this season. When it comes to picking between Sabonis or Montrezl Harrell, you’re splitting hairs at this point. Both have been incredible supersubs, but Sabonis’ playmaking and rebounding gives him the edge. 

Rookie of the Year: Luka Doncic
Runners up: Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr.

You could make a case here for a few guys in this loaded class and I wouldn’t mind. But to me, no one has been more dominant than Doncic, who is the only rookie in the top 50 of ESPN’s RPM. As last week’s BIG Number illustrates, Doncic, as a teenager, is putting up numbers we haven’t seen since LeBron James. Only James Harden tallied more free throws than Doncic in the month of December, which is downright absurd for a teenager.

Like Harden, Doncic has used the “slow” or “unathletic” label to his advantage -- starting and stopping on a dime and capitalizing on the defender’s overeagerness to draw fouls. Doncic’s expert tempo and court awareness has more than made up for a perceived lack of athleticism. Only 6.6 percent of Doncic’s 2-pointers have been blocked this season, per pbpstats.com, which is lower than that of leapers like LeBron James (7.0), Giannis Antetokounmpo (8.0) and Andrew Wiggins (8.8 percent) -- and nearly half that of Zach LaVine (13.6). 

In any normal year, Ayton, Jackson and Carter Jr., could win but not when Doncic is averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.8 assists for a team that holds a positive point margin. The seemingly slow Doncic has picked up the NBA game mighty quick.

Most Improved Player: De’Aaron Fox
Runners up: Pascal Siakam, Monte Morris, Thomas Bryant

Often times, Most Improved Player is misinterpreted as Most Minutes-Improved Player, but you can’t say that about Fox, who is just plain better than he was last season. The 21-year-old went from averaging 11.6 points, 4.4 assists and 2.7 free throw attempts per game last season to 18.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.3 attempts per game this season (he’s only playing 3.9 more minutes per game). Usually, we see turnovers soar with the larger burden, but not in Fox’s case.

There’s some pace inflation in those stats because of the Kings’ new run-and-gun offense. But you know who makes all that possible? That’s right: Fox. Despite only playing 31.7 minutes per game, he’s sixth in the NBA in total transition points, per Synergy Sports tracking, while also helping Buddy Hield rank second on that same list. This season, Fox has posted a higher player-efficiency rating (19.0) and win-shares total (3.0) than his draft classmates Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Lonzo Ball and Kyle Kuzma. Who saw that coming?

Fox often times looked lost in his rookie season. This year, Fox has often looked like the best player in his class. That’s improvement.

Some feel that sophomores shouldn’t win this award because improvement is almost expected after a rookie season. If that’s your philosophy, then Siakam is your guy. The third-year forward has become a go-to scorer for the Toronto Raptors, who have gone 8-2 without Kawhi Leonard this season in no small part because of Siakam’s continued improvement. Denver’s Monte Morris and Washington’s Thomas Bryant were G-Leaguers last season but have rescued their teams with their stellar play this season at the NBA level.