by Peter Walsh and Leo Sepkowitz
It’s been a fun season thus far and now with a few days off, here’s a chance to take a look back at the best of the first half. Leo and I have been putting in a ton of work so take a ride with us as we give you our picks for MVP, ROY, COY, plus our Playoff picks and a few more fun categories. Agree with us? Not a chance in hell! So be sure to drop a comment and let us know what you think.
MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat
Leo: LeBron is shooting 56 percent from the floor, averaging a career-high in rebounds and a career-low in turnovers. He’s an unstoppable force who can seemingly do whatever he wants on the floor—be it get to the line, hit a three, get a guy open in the corner or anything else. I’ve always been reluctant to give LeBron MVP love simply because Miami would be pretty good with Wade and Bosh alone. But he’s simply too good this season. I give in.
Pete: What more needs to be said? The man is a superhero.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Portland Trailblazers
One of the only unanimous decisions between the two of us and for good reason; Lillard has been nothing short of sensational. With Portland’s unfortunate history in the Draft and last year’s point guard Feltdown, it’s refreshing to see the Blazers finally get it right. Lillard is currently averaging 18.4 points, 6.5 dimes, 3.3 rebounds over 38.5 minutes per game. While those numbers will either plateau or taper off due to the dreaded “rookie wall”, Lillard has been hands down the top rookie this season and will be a Top-10 point guard heading into next season.
With Lillard at the helm, Nic Batum on the wing, and LaMarcus Aldridge and J.J. Hickson (who is coming on strong as a Most Improved candidate) holding it down in the paint, the Blazers have a nice core. All they need to do now is strengthen their awful bench to become a legitimate threat in the West. –Pete
Defensive Player of the Year:
Pete: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Thibs may be the one barking orders from the sidelines but on the court, the Bulls defense thrives off the play of Noah. He doesn’t just have the stats (11.4 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.3 steals per), he also makes all the hustle plays that make good defensive players great. Whether it’s hustling for loose balls, deflecting passes, taking a charge or boxing out on every shot, Noah is in the middle of every play and has been the Bulls MVP this season. Honestly, I can’t stand the guy, but if he were on my team, he would be my favorite player.
Leo: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
The Pacers rank near the top of every major defensive category. Roy Hibbert has lots to do with that, but George is the real defensive star. He gets in the face of whoever he’s guarding. He doesn’t back down, he forces good scorers to play bad games and great scorers to–at the very least–take bad shots.
Pete: Paul George, Indiana Pacers
After a slow start to the season, many talking heads and fans questioned whether Paul George was ready to handle the spotlight in Nap Town. Well, anyone who still doubts this talented young man’s ability is downright crazy. George’s numbers have jumped from 2011-‘12’s 12.1 points/ 5.6 rebounds / 2.4 assists to 17.5 / 7.7 / 3.8 and he has become an absolute terror on the defensive end. With Danny Granger out, PG has stepped up and taken on the go-to role for the Pacers and will rightfully be suiting up on Sunday night. George came out of college as a project but had scouts salivating over his potential. After some bumps along the road, he is coming into his own and is leading Indy’s assault on the Eastern Conference.
Leo: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
Last year, Jrue was a solid third-year guard who actually regressed from his second season. His nightly numbers of 13.5 points and 4.5 assists were simply average. This year has been a different story. He’s made improvements in nearly every stat and is averaging roughly 19 points and 9 dimes this season and is the sole reason the Sixers are anywhere close to playoff contention. Holiday has gone from an interesting young player to a legitimate All-Star in 45 games. That’s serious improvement.
Sixth Man of the Year:
Pete: Jarrett Jack, Golden State Warriors
Jamal Crawford and J.R. Smith have all the attention for this award and deservedly so. But out West, Jarrett Jack has quietly been putting together a great season while playing a huge role on the rejuvenated Warriors. Whenever Steph Curry goes down with an injury, Jack steps right in and Golden State doesn’t miss a beat. He provides a tough, veteran presence on a young team and it’s no coincidence that he is thriving with Mark Jackson as his coach. David Lee and Curry are both having great years and Jack has been overlooked but make no mistake; this team wouldn’t have the success it has had over the first half of the year without his play off the bench.
Leo: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have the NBA’s best second unit, and Crawford is the leader of the pack. The trigger-happy guard is averaging 17 points on 42.5 percent shooting this year. Are there more efficient shooters? Yes. Does he love every shot he sees? Yes. Can he forget to show up some nights? Yes. Can he shoot you out of a game? Yes. But can he come into the game and ignite a stalling offense in a big way? You’re damn right he can.
Coach of the Year:
Pete: Doc Rivers, Boston Celtics
Twenty-five games into the season, I was ready to write the Celtics off this season and thought it would be in their best interest to blow up the team and start over. After Rajon Rondo went down with an ACL tear, most shared the same feeling…except the Celtics. Rivers has gotten the most out of his players and despite the injuries piling up (Leandro Barbosa, Jared Sullinger, Rondo), Boston is right in the thick of the things and one of the hottest teams in the L at the break. The most impressive part: Boston is doing all of this without a healthy point guard on their roster!
Rivers has already proven himself as a great coach from his impressive body of work but this season really shows the impact he has had on his players. Some coaches are masterful at X’s and O’s, but few can inspire their players in that fashion and will their team to victory without touching the ball like Rivers can. With everyone else counting them out, Rivers has believed and in turn, kept his team believing in themselves. The other shoe may very well drop on the Celtics season soon, but that is no fault of Rivers who has been nothing short of masterful.
Leo: Mark Jackson, Golden State Warriors
The Warriors don’t look too hot right now. They’ve lost five in a row—a big deal when you play in the West. But I still have faith.
There’s a lot to like about this Warriors team: Stephen Curry has been one of the League’s best point guards this season. Klay Thompson has embraced his role as Monta Ellis-minus-the-distractions and David Lee is having an awesome season. Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry have been great off the bench. Harrison Barnes is the king of showing up only when he feels like it but can certainly erupt some nights. Andrew Bogut is slowly working his way back in shape. Rookies Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green add some defense and attitude to the club. Mark Jackson has a very young team playing great, team ball.
Most Surprising Team:
Pete: Indiana Pacers
When Danny Granger went down, things looked bleak for the Pacers. Instead of sulking or using his best player’s injury as an excuse, coach Frank Vogel rallied his team and got his team to win with defense. He has brought the best out of guys like George Hill, has turned Lance Stephenson into a legitimate NBA player and turned Paul George into a star. The Pacers currently hold opponents to a league best 89.9 points a game and will be a serious threat in the second half if Granger can come back healthy and productive.
Leo: Chicago Bulls
Here are a few numbers for you—Chicago ranks behind the Bobcats in points and behind the Kings in field goal percentage. Only Memphis makes fewer threes than them on a nightly basis. Derrick Rose has missed all 50 games this year. Rip Hamilton has missed 12 games. Kirk Hinrich has missed 10 games, Luol Deng has missed 5 games, Joakim Noah has missed 4 games and Carlos Boozer has missed 3 games. First-round pick Marquis Teague plays shy of seven minutes per game.
What does all of add up to? A team that is 30-22 at the break and fifth in the East with more road wins than anyone in their Conference. A team that has won in New York twice and Miami once.
I can’t believe how good Chicago is this year.
Most Disappointing Team:
Pete: Memphis Grizzlies
I’ll let the OG Peter Vescey tell it:
Leo: Los Angeles Lakers
Before the season I simply refused to put a cap on how many wins these guys could stack up.
They’re like two great teams in one. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol have always had amazing chemistry. Those two, plus a not-yet-great-and-always-injured Andrew Bynum and some quality role players won a pair of rings a few years ago. Then, there’s the Steve Nash-Dwight Howard duo which had a chance to be as good a pick and roll tandem as we’ve ever seen.
The Lakers aren’t a letdown. Going 42-40 would have been a letdown. In the West, going 52-30 would have been a letdown to some degree. But LA sits with four more losses than wins with only 30 games left to play. I was the last guy to jump off the Lakers bandwagon before it smashed into the pole that was the Pau Gasol injury. I always thought Kobe would wake the team up. But it’s over for them. It’s over. This is an absolute mess, and it might get worse before it gets better.
Best Game Winner:
Pete: J.R. Smith vs. Suns
C’mon, you thought I was gonna do a whole first half review without mentioning the Knicks?!
Leo: Dame Lillard vs. Hornets
I love this shot for two reasons. (1) It was clutch. (2) It was against the Hornets, who probably left the arena thinking, “should we have drafted this dude?
Pete: Harrison Barnes over Pekovic
The Warriors have a lot to look forward to with their promising rookie who is looking more and more like the player everyone thought he would be coming out of high school instead of the player he was at Carolina.
Leo: Harrison Barnes over Ersan Ilyasova
I could watch this dunk with my eyes closed a thousand times. I’ve never seen a dunk that sounded like that. That makes sense right? (Nope. –Ed.)
Best Uniforms: Bucks Throwbacks
Former Post Up writer Abe Schwadron and I have been loving all the throwback jerseys teams have been rockin’ this season but the Bucks’ throwbacks stuck out more than the others to us. It’s funny, they were considered awful when they were donned in the ‘90s but look amazing now.
Worst Uniforms: Every Christmas Jersey
These were just awful. Each team wore unis which, if you weren’t actually on the floor, looked like a single color without numbers or names. The Rockets looked like they swapped jerseys with Ohio State, Melo looked like he went back to Syracuse in the Knicks’ orange jerseys and the Lakers played at home in seemingly all-white. Plus, the Bulls’ red was too red and the Thunder didn’t look like themselves. Awful.
Eastern Conference Finals:
Pete: Heat over ??
Whoever the Heat play is irrelevant. Not one team in the East has what it takes to win a seven game series against Miami.
Leo: Heat over Pacers
I won’t spend too much time talking about Miami. They’re the best team in the East and should roll into the Conference Finals. The second team in is a tough pick though. New York matches up well with Brooklyn. Indiana matches up well with New York. Brooklyn doesn’t match up particularly well with anybody, but they’re too weird to rule out. To me it’ll be up to those three to take down the Heat in the Conference Finals. I think Brooklyn will move into the fourth seed with Chicago fifth by the end of the season, meaning if all the favorites win (which they usually don’t), it would be Heat-Nets and Knicks-Pacers in the second round. The Heat would knock the Nets off in 5.
Assuming New York stays in the two seed with Indiana right behind them, the Pacers would have to steal a road game to win the series. That’s a tall order, but I have faith in Frank Vogel’s squad… Until they run into Miami in the Conference Finals. Heat in Five.
Western Conference Finals:
Pete: Thunder over Clippers
The Spurs currently hold the best record in the NBA and have no doubt been playing tremendous basketball. But they have a lot of miles on those legs and in a seven game series, I can’t see them hanging with the younger teams out West in an extended series—no matter how many games their stars sit during the regular season. Tony Parker is playing out of his mind but since 1990, only two point guards have won Finals MVP (Chauncey Billups in ’04 and Parker in ’07). As great as Parker has been, he’s going to need all the help he can get when the Playoffs arrive. Even though Duncan has also been playing great, it would be an act of God if his legs hold up for that long and he can remain this effective through the spring. BUT, if they do in fact make a move for Josh Smith, I’m all in on San Antonio.
The Clippers are deep and when healthy, are one of, if not, the best team in the NBA (See their 18-0 December for reference).They have the ability to run teams out of the gym and CP3 is a maestro at the point and showed just how important he is to this team when he missed a stretch due to a nagging knee injury. They have so many guys who can score in a variety of ways and they look to be back on track now that Paul is back from an injury.
But it’s not their time. The Thunder, especially Kevin Durant, are too focused and too determined after last year’s loss in the Finals. KD has been on a mission to get this team back to the Finals and nothing will stand in his way. OKC will no doubt be tested by the Clippers but will prevail in the end. Thunder in Six.
Leo: Spurs over Thunder
There are a bunch of really good teams in the West, but it’ll be down to the Clippers, Thunder and Spurs. The Clippers are great at outrunning everybody, but their halfcourt offense will do them in.
The Thunder downgraded from James Harden to Kevin Martin without upgrading anywhere in the short-term. Martin is a really good complimentary scorer, but Harden wasn’t just a complimentary guy. He was the team’s backup point guard, shooting guard, security blanket for when Westbrook loses his mind as well as sparkplug and, every once in a while, best player for a night.
Without the Beard, I don’t think Oklahoma City has enough to get past the Spurs. Tony Parker is having one of his best seasons ever. Tim Duncan has been great. Manu Ginobili’s been dinged up but can always ball. Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard are huge X-factors. Gary Neal, Matt Bonner and Danny Green can rain from three.
This would be a great rematch of last year’s WCF, but I like the Spurs to get over the hump this time. Spurs in Six.
Pete: Heat over Thunder
I originally picked the Thunder to win it all but after Thursday night’s game, it’s clear that LeBron is in a different stratosphere. He’s not going to lose. Not this year. Heat in Six.
Leo: Spurs over Heat
We all know how good Miami is, and, to me, there’s a pretty good chance that LeBron rips right through the East (say, 12-2 over three series?) and maybe the Finals, too. Of course I’m frightened of that when I pick San Antonio here.
But the Heat have flaws. They’re weak on the glass. They struggle on the road. The bench unit, when playing without the big three, looks terrible. D-Wade will have played roughly a 100-game season by the time the Finals rolls around. Most important to me, though, is that they seem to back down from teams that aren’t afraid of them.
Teams that can keep their composure and not be intimidated when LeBron gets hot can give Miami serious problems. The Spurs aren’t intimidated by anybody. I think this matchup is a secret nightmare for the Heat, and it’ll show when they face off with a title on the line. Spurs in Seven.