With the 2012-13 season at the halfway mark, SI.com's NBA writers make their picks for the league's top performers. (All stats and records are through Jan. 22.)
Most Valuable Player
Durant has been phenomenal, but credit James for maintaining a high level in spite of three consecutive visits to the NBA Finals (in addition to his leadership of an Olympic gold medalist) and the unrivaled burden he carries in all phases at both ends of the court. Why is his season viewed as half-empty? I don't see him "coasting"' so much as I see a star overcoming a strain of obligations faced by none of his rivals. He is positioning Miami to become the first team since 1987 to reach four Finals in a row. No other star is more valuable.
Statistically, Durant is having another superlative season, leading the NBA in scoring (again) while closing in on (another) rare 90/50/40 shooting season. But it's Oklahoma City's spot in the standings -- No. 1 in the West after Wednesday's victory at San Antonio -- that is Durant's most sizable accomplishment. With another third scoring option (Kevin Martin) gone and with Russell Westbrook in and out of the lineup with knee problems, Durant has lifted the Thunder onto his slender shoulders and has them on track for another deep playoff run.
It's a testament to James, and his dominance of this era, that Durant still has not captured an MVP award. But with James and the Heat biding time until the playoffs, a door has finally opened for Durant, who carried the Thunder without Russell Westbrook, with him, and then without him again. Given all of the Thunder's personnel losses over the past two years -- James Harden to trade, Kevin Martin to free agency and Westbrook to injury -- you could assume they would fall from the elite in the Western Conference. Durant, one scoring binge at a time, has ensured that didn't happen.
Ben Golliver: Kevin Durant, Thunder
Runners-up: LeBron James, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul George, Tony Parker
Durant beats James on stats (he ranks No. 1 in Player Efficiency Rating and win shares) his Thunder (33-10) beat the Heat (30-12) on record, and the league's leading scorer blows away the two-time defending MVP when it comes to narrative. As Miami continues to jog its way through a weak Eastern Conference field, Durant has been sprinting double-time to keep Oklahoma City -- minus Russell Westbrook -- among the leaders in the ultra-competitive West. If maintained for the entire season, Durant's 31 points per game would be the highest scoring average since Lakers guard Kobe Bryant hit for 31.6 points in 2006-07, and he's gone for 46 points or more four times in January. James and Miami are fully capable of reclaiming the throne by picking up the pace as the playoffs approach, but Durant deserves recognition as the best -- and most valuable -- player from the first half of season.
Circumstances all but demand that Durant max out his production for the Westbrook-less Thunder, but that he's done so with such ease and such ridiculous shooting efficiency launches him to the top of these rankings. It's not exactly a passing of the torch; a third straight MVP is still well within James' reach, though he has ground to make up after Durant's explosive turn as a do-it-all creator. Such a run could be coming as the Heat gear up for the playoffs, but for the moment I'll enjoy the sight of Durant at the NBA's summit.
Most Improved Player
These three young players have improved to take on positions of leadership for contending franchises, which strikes a higher standard than the extraordinary improvement of players like Miles Plumlee, DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond. Stephenson has matured to lead the Pacers in assists; as a shooting guard he is their second-leading rebounder, and his league-leading three triple-doubles are affirmation of his versatility. Jordan has become a reliable defensive leader and rebounder for the Clippers. Jackson has filled OKC's need for sixth-man production and stepped in as a starter when Westbrook has been out.
Before the season, there were whispers out of L.A. that Bledsoe could struggle in a starting role, that for all his speed and quickness he wasn't well equipped to run a half-court offense. Now? Bledsoe has answered those questions, and then some, driving Phoenix to a shocking -- repeat, shocking -- 19-11 start before being sidelined indefinitely with a knee injury. A terror in the open floor, Bledsoe has been efficient, too -- he is 32nd in the NBA in PER -- while improving his shooting to a career-best 48.6 percent. The aforementioned knee injury could cost him the award at the end of the season, but for the first half, it's his.
A year ago, Plumlee was sitting at the end of the bench in Indiana, on the fringe of the NBA as a rookie. The Pacers lacked depth, yet still they hesitated to call on Plumlee, who averaged a meager 0.9 points in 3.9 minutes. The Pacers fortified their bench by acquiring Luis Scola from Phoenix in the summer. Plumlee was one of the afterthoughts -- a throw-in, essentially -- they sent back to the Suns. Now, Plumlee is a starting center, averaging nearly a double-double for a young team fighting for a playoff berth. The Suns are well positioned for the future and Plumlee is a major reason why.
Golliver: Lance Stephenson, Pacers
Runners-up: Anthony Davis, Eric Bledsoe
Making the leap from "helpful" to "All-Star caliber" is a good formula for taking home Most Improved honors, and that's where Stephenson finds himself at the midway point. He's emerged as Indiana's second-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and their leading assist man, notching career highs in virtually every important category (points, rebounds, assists, field-goal percentage, Player Efficiency Rating). Stephenson is an invaluable piece of the Pacers' league-leading defense, capable of guarding multiple positions and generally causing headaches for opponents. That the 2010 second-round pick is doing it all in with the promise of a big payday looming next summer must be noted, but there's no sense in diminishing his many accomplishments solely because they are coming in a contact year.
Mahoney: Paul George, Pacers
Runners-up: Lance Stephenson, Eric Bledsoe
As recently as last season, George was an up-and-coming star in a bit over his head. He was a first-option player on a team that ranked 19th in the league in offense, while individually he struggled with scoring efficiency and ball security. Since then, George has taken The Leap and stuck the landing. He's a steadier ball handler. His mid-range stroke is much improved, broadening his ability to create. He's made the jump in shooting percentages from shaky to star-quality, all while continuing to bear massive responsibility on defense. Not much in George's role with the Pacers has changed -- he's simply better at executing every phase of the offense.
Rookie of the Year
No other rookies besides these three are scoring in double figures in this unimpressive class. Carter-Williams leads all rookies in points, assists, rebounds and steals; the Sixers are 13-18 with him, and 1-10 without him. Burke has had a similar impact on the Jazz (13-18 with, 1-11 without) and may yet earn the award. The best draftee may ultimately be No. 15 Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Bucks' growing 7-footer who is averaging 8.1 points as a 19-year-old starter.
Playing the NBA's most complicated position on a team bound for the lottery, Carter-Williams has developed into a promising point guard prospect. Carter-Williams is on pace to become just the third player since 1951 to lead all rookies in scoring, assists and rebounding. As bad as the Sixers are, they are significantly worse in games Carter-Williams has missed.
Jenkins: Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers
Runners-up: Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo
Carter-Williams was not going to be able to sustain his unforgettable 22-point, 12-assist, nine-steal, seven-assist debut against the Heat, but he's proved it was no fluke. After missing most of December with a knee infection, Carter-Williams is again filling up nearly every column of the box score. He cannot shoot from outside, but at 6-foot-6, he sees over defenses and outrebounds opposing guards, triggering one-man fast breaks.
Golliver: Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers
Runners-up: Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo
It's tough to get excited about the Rookie of the Year race, which is led by three high-usage guards with poor shooting numbers on last-place teams. Each of the three favorites has his merits: Oladipo has proved to be the most durable and most highlight-friendly; Burke has done the best job limiting his turnovers and showing some semblance of three-point range; and Carter-Williams has had the biggest two-way impact, while also putting up the gaudiest all-around statistics (17.5 points, 6.7 assists, 5.9 rebounds, 2.5 steals, 17.8 PER). Although it remains entirely undecided after 41 games, it's fair to say this race is Carter-Williams' to lose.
Unrelated to anything: Cavaliers rookie forward Anthony Bennett's PER (1.1) has finally nudged past his spot in the 2013 draft order (1). Unfortunately, Bennett ranks second to last in PER and last in win shares (minus-0.9) among all players with at least 150 minutes.
Mahoney: Michael Carter-Williams, 76ers
Runners-up: Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo
It's not hard to pick out the statistical darling amid the rookie muck. It's been a trying season for first-year players, but Carter-Williams has separated himself from the pack through a promising command of the game. If nothing else, he's shown the ability to produce when given freedom. That's more than can be said of most other rookies this season, and even the more competitive candidates fail to measure up to Carter-Williams in terms of individual impact.
Defensive Player of the Year
The Pacers' phenomenal defense is layered around the paint coverage of Hibbert. The symbiosis between him, Paul George et al., makes them intimidating; if Hibbert wins, then it should be regarded as a team award. Iguodala (with center Andrew Bogut) has given the Warriors a defensive identity that will make them a frightening playoff opponent. Ibaka's case as a defender against all types will be strengthened further when Westbrook returns to handle the point defensively.
Mannix: Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Runners-up: Serge Ibaka, Andre Iguodala
As the anchor of the NBA's stingiest defensive team, Hibbert is a mountain in the middle. The transformation into an every-play defender that began in last year's playoffs has continued this season, with Hibbert leading all players in defensive rating, per Basketball-Reference. Hibbert has plenty of help- -- Paul George and Lance Stephenson are as good as any perimeter duo in the league -- but that doesn't diminish the intimidating defensive presence Hibbert has become.
Jenkins: Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Runners-up: Andre Iguodala, Dwight Howard
The Pacers' defense is historically dominant, allowing just over 89 points per game when no one else is under 92, and surrendering just over 41 percent shooting when no one else is under 42.5. Their starting lineup is full of long, aggressive individual defenders, but Hibbert makes the system hum. The Pacers can funnel ball-handlers to their 7-2 stopgap and he turns them away. Hibbert is the rare big man left, in a little guy's game, who inspires fear.
Golliver: Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Runners-up: Serge Ibaka, Paul George
In perhaps the easiest decision facing awards voters, Hibbert should run away with this honor, barring injury. The backbone of a Pacers defense that is the league's stingiest unit by a country mile, Hibbert ranks No. 1 in defensive rating, No. 3 in block percentage and No. 4 in defensive win shares. Opponents are shooting just 41.4 percent against the Pacers' starters, four points below league average, and Hibbert's success protecting the rim has made him an example for young big men around the league. Reward the man.
Mahoney: Roy Hibbert, Pacers
Runners-up: Joakim Noah, Serge Ibaka
No need to make this difficult. There isn't a single player who projects a wider defensive influence than Hibbert, and no single force more disruptive of elite offenses. My only regret here is that we're limited to three candidates for praise; George, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, and Dwight Howard have all done fine work, but alas.
Sixth Man Award
Injuries to J.J. Redick and Chris Paul have made Crawford's scoring especially valuable; he ranks among the league leaders in fourth-quarter scoring. The Clippers would not have remained so high in the standings without him. Ginobili is the No. 2 scoring per minute for the Spurs (No. 2 in the West), which is nothing new. Jackson will return to his vital sixth-man role when Westbrook is back.
The ageless Ginobili is proving, again, that when healthy, he is a force off the bench. Ginobili's numbers are up across the board from last season, and the Spurs have been at their best when Ginobili slides into the role of playmaker: San Antonio is 14-4 when Ginobili dishes out five or more assists. That Ginobili is playing for the second-best team in the West can't be overlooked, either. Like many awards, team performance matters.
Jenkins: Nick Young, Lakers
Runners-up: Reggie Jackson, Manu Ginobili
Young prompts a lot of jokes around the NBA, but this is not one of them. Mike D'Antoni, even at his worst, knows how to unleash a scorer and Swaggy P has been the beneficiary this season. Sure, Young still launches some questionable shots, but he has been unusually responsible with the ball and provided a bit of decent defense. On a team suffering from a talent shortage, Young has emerged as an improbable leader.
Golliver: Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Runners-up: Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson
A weak field has been further depleted by the starting lineup promotions of Kings guard Isaiah Thomas (following the trade of Greivis Vasquez) and Thunder guard Reggie Jackson (following another knee surgery for Russell Westbrook). Ginobili, who last won the Sixth Man Award in 2008 and is perennially one of the league's most effective and efficient reserves, continues to do more with less while playing just 24 minutes a game. Ginobili is the only reserve guard with a PER above 20, and he registers significantly more rebounds and assists on a per-minute basis than Clippers scorer Jamal Crawford. At age 36, Ginobili's role might be smaller than Crawford's, but he fills it beautifully, posting a plus-13.6 net rating, which ranks tops among San Antonio's rotation players.
Mahoney: Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Runners-up: Taj Gibson, Jamal Crawford
Picking a winner for this award meant choosing between creator and destroyer -- the catalytic spark behind the Spurs' offense or the secondary big man propping up the Bulls' defense. Ultimately, I went with Ginobili, whose contributions are more diverse and impact more profound. Gibson is just as qualified, though, and deserves the utmost consideration for his work as a co-anchor in coverage for one of the best defenses in the league.
Coach of the Year
Thomsen: Terry Stotts, Blazers
Runners-up: Jeff Hornacek, Gregg Popovich
No one -- not even Portland -- was predicting that the Trail Blazers would challenge for the best record in the league. And yet it's no fluke by Stotts, whose team surpassed expectations last year; this time he's integrated new center Robin Lopez and a deepened bench while developing strong partnerships with LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard. Hornacek has also done more with the Suns than was imagined, while Popovich's Spurs have remained in contention as if Game 6 never happened.
Mannix: Terry Stotts, Blazers
Runners-up: Jeff Hornacek, Frank Vogel
Raise your hand if you had the Blazers making the playoffs? Yeah, me neither. While I have real questions about Portland's ability to succeed in the postseason -- you can't surrender that many points, particularly in the paint, and expect to come out of the West -- Stotts has helped turn the Blazers into an offensive machine that can beat you in the post with Aldridge or under an avalanche of three-pointers. Pretty impressive.
Jenkins: Terry Stotts, Blazers
Runners-up: Frank Vogel, Jeff Hornacek
In his second year in Portland, Stotts is attempting to defy NBA logic: take a team that finished 11th in the West last season to the top of the conference without the benefit of a major acquisition. Stotts, an assistant in Dallas in '11, has sold the Blazers on the same principles that guided the Mavs to the championship. They selflessly move the ball and they genuinely believe the best shot is the one that's most open.
Golliver: Terry Stotts, Blazers
Runners-up: Frank Vogel, Jeff Hornacek
This ballot hasn't changed since the quartermark, as the surprising Blazers have shown impressive staying power thanks to their No. 1-ranked offense. Stotts' pass-heavy system has helped guide LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard and Wesley Matthews to new offensive heights individually, and he's done well to manage a bench that isn't much to write home about, save Mo Williams. Portland will have a more difficult schedule the rest of the way and it can't reasonably expect to maintain the pristine health it's enjoyed. Any slippage from the Blazers, who are still just getting by on defense, would open the door for Frank Vogel, whose Pacers look determined to claim the league's best record.
Mahoney: Jeff Hornacek, Suns
Runners-up: Terry Stotts, Frank Vogel
If a coach's primary responsibility is to put his players in a position to succeed, then none has done better work this season than Hornacek. It's from his design that the Suns have been utterly tank-defiant, and it's a testament to his rotation choices that Phoenix has few (if any) problematic lineups.