SI's 2015–16 NBA midseason awards
With half of the 2015–16 season in the books, it's time for SI.com's NBA team to hand out some hardware. Below you'll find our midseason picks for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year. To see our preseason predictions, click here.
Most Valuable Player
Lee Jenkins: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Last year, there was a debate, which ran all the way past Easter. This year, there is a coronation, which might as well be held at the All-Star Game. Stephen Curry captured MVP last season, but he is far more prolific now, while retaining peak efficiency. No one is better from the perimeter, of course, but in a switch, few have been better around the rim, either. The Warriors are obviously loaded, but their entire attack starts with Curry, and the fear he inspires the moment he crosses half-court. His shot, or the threat of it, sets up everything else. Kawhi Leonard could possibly challenge in the second half, but only if Curry gets bored.
Ben Golliver: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Care to guess what Golden State’s record is in the last 82 regular–season games in which Curry has appeared? 72-10. That pretty much says it all, but there’s so, so much more. The reigning MVP has dramatically improved his scoring, Player Efficiency Rating and True Shooting Percentage compared to last season, he spearheaded an NBA-record 24-0 start, he’s on track for what would be the most impressive 50/40/90 shooting season of all time, and he’s on pace to smash his own record for most three-pointers in a season. Curry continues to captain the NBA’s No. 1 ranked offense (by a lot), he mesmerizes audiences night in and night out like a true icon, and he has carried the Warriors through the absence of coach Steve Kerr and the loss of Harrison Barnes to an ankle injury. The advanced numbers love him too, as the league’s leading scorer ranks first in PER, first in Win Shares and second in Real Plus-Minus. Curry is the only possible candidate for first-half MVP.
Rob Mahoney: Stephen Curry, Warriors
This race has gotten a mite closer since the first month of the season, but Curry still projects a bigger impact on the game than any player in the league. Golden State’s offense is astronomically good when Curry is involved, which is to say that Golden State’s offense is astronomically good whenever Curry is on the floor whatsoever. The best scorers in the league seem unguardable. Curry is among them, but so profound is his influence on the game that he imbues that same unguardable aura to every Warrior on the floor. No player single-handedly forces a defense into more rotational failures and more gut-wrenching compromises. Give the man his trophy and be done with it.
Matt Dollinger: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard deserve consideration, but this is Stephen Curry’s award to lose, and the Warriors guard rarely misses big shots. The reigning MVP and league champion has the biggest target on his back in the league, yet he’s torching opponents and catching them off guard like he’s still an unassuming guard from Davidson. He’s upped his scoring average by six points (league-best 29.9) per game and is shooting a higher percentage from the field (50.9) and three-point range (44.9) than last year. He’s simultaneously doing more (32.5% usage rate, up from 28.9) and being more efficient (league-best 67.7% TS%), making him the most frustrating opponent in sports. He’s the most valuable player by every definition.
DeAntae Prince: Stephen Curry, Warriors
At this point, suggesting Stephen Curry isn’t the obvious choice for MVP would be asinine. The Warriors star spearheads a team unlike any we’ve seen in years past and continues to change how basketball looks on a nightly basis. Never before have we watched a player shoot from midcourt and considered it a decent shot, but there is no bad shot for Curry, as he will tell you in a heartbeat. The numbers prove his point: Curry attempts 54.7% of his shots from three and is a more efficient player as a result. Curry averages 29.9 points and 6.5 assists, but also raised his player efficiency rating (32.2) and true shooting percentage (67.7) to all-time highs.
Jeremy Woo: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
At risk of being completely disrespectful to our roundball demigod-in-the-flesh reigning MVP, give me Leonard, who has expanded his offense to another level while remaining the only guy in the league who can guard literally anybody and everybody. The Spurs’ suffocating, league-best defense stems from team principles but firmly begins with Leonard shutting down top scorers every night. It gets better: Leonard has quietly evolved into one of the NBA’s deadliest spot-up shooters. He will reel in rebounds, pound two dribbles and initiate breakneck three-on-twos that I’ve yet to see anyone effectively stop. He might be the best all-around player in the league at age 24, and the Spurs might be the league’s best team (it's close). But will he actually win the award? Wait…I think I hear Steph Curry’s music…
Rookie of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
Big guys don’t win this award, at least not often. The last four winners were guards or wings. The last center to finish first was Emeka Okafor more than a decade ago. But the race has been supersized this season, with Karl-Anthony Towns the clear choice, and Kristaps Porzingis running a respectable second. The Timberwolves are a mess, but Towns appears immune, demonstrating an array of scoring, rebounding, shot-blocking and ball-handling talents more dynamic than what he showed at Kentucky. Porzingis is almost as versatile, able to play inside and out at 7’3”, but Towns has a slight head start on him.
Ben Golliver: Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
After running neck-and-neck through the first quarter of the season with Kristaps Porzingis, Towns has opened up a noticeable statistical edge over his top competition for this award. The No. 1 overall pick has made the transition from college to the pros look relatively easy, and he ranks second in scoring, first in rebounding, first in Player Efficiency Rating and first in Win Shares among 2015 draft class members. Although Porzingis has the benefit of playing on a bigger stage, Towns has proven himself to be a polished and intelligent centerpiece who is capable of even more offensively than he’s shown so far in Minnesota’s archaic system. So far, his best statistical comp as a 20-year-old rookie is Chris Webber, who won the 1994 Rookie of the Year award before going on to have a Hall-of-Fame-caliber career. No one should be surprised if Towns’s career ends in Springfield, too.
Rob Mahoney: Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
While I’m sure there will be an understandable clamor for Kristaps Porzingis to win ROY, I honestly don’t know of a single area of the game in which he bests Towns at this stage. When in doubt, I go with the do-it-all scorer, top-10 rebounder, and positional anomaly who’s well ahead of the learning curve on defense.
Matt Dollinger: Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
Karl-Anthony Towns and Jahlil Okafor have put up better numbers, but no rookie has impressed more than the long Latvian. Kristaps Porzingis has assimilated to New York quicker than Prince Akeem. The NBA has never seen a big man quite like him: poster dunks, highlight blocks, three-point range and a deft touch. Not to mention a thick skin. He’s helped do the impossible (restore hope in the Knicks) and has made the biggest impact of any rookie in his class. Unlike Okafor and Towns, who are performing at a high level on a small stage, Porzingis is shining under the harsh Broadway limelight. New York looked like a franchise without a plan entering this season, but thanks to Porzingis’s arrival, Phil Jackson is looking like a genius once again.
DeAntae Prince: Karl-Anthony Towns, Wolves
There were two factions at the start of the season: Team Okafor and Team Towns. Well, it didn’t take long to figure out which group was on the wrong side of that debate. Sixers big man Jahlil Okafor has produced nice surface numbers, but on a team that is the laughing stock (again) of the NBA. In fact, Kristaps Porzingis’s season, which has made the Knicks playoff contenders, might have pushed him into second place. Towns remains the most complete player of the bunch, however. There are still improvements to be made, but he outpaces Okafor and Porzingis in rebounding, shooting percentage, and PER.
Jeremy Woo: Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
Karl-Anthony Towns is number one in the stats, but Porzingis has played his way to number one in our hearts (sorry). And while his output (14 points, 7.9 rebounds and 2.0 blocks) has been outstanding, particularly relative to expectations, more importantly, his performance has played a huge part in reshaping the outlook for the much-improved Knicks. A motivated Carmelo and some shrewd off-season moves also matter, but Porzingis being a legitimate starter and versatile two-way player has jolted his team into the playoff conversation. He’s the surprise of the season.
Most Improved Player
Lee Jenkins: Andre Drummond, Pistons
This award usually goes to somebody who made the leap from good player to star player, so while many have improved dramatically, only one has shot into the upper stratosphere. Like Jimmy Butler and Paul George before him, Andre Drummond is now a star, thanks to his incessant double-doubles and uncanny rebound totals. Drummond is in the right place with the right coach—at the center of Stan Van Gundy’s five-out one-in offense—and he has emerged as a reasonable facsimile of Dwight Howard. Drummond has much work left to do offensively, but you won’t find a more natural rebounder or a more solid building block for the Pistons’ future.
Ben Golliver: Andre Drummond, Pistons
Detroit’s mammoth starting center was already on the map last year, as he averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds with a strong 21.4 Player Efficiency Rating, but he’s ascended to truly rare air in 2015-16. Entering Friday’s action, Drummond was averaging 17.6 points and a league-leading 15.4 rebounds; 2011 Kevin Love is the only player to match those averages since 1992. There are signs of improvement everywhere: His offensive game is showing a little more diversity, his Real Plus Minus has jumped from +0.7 last year to +3.8 this year, Detroit’s defense has jumped from No. 21 last year to No. 10 this year with Drummond as its main interior stopper, and the Pistons are tracking to what could be their first season above .500 since 2008. Yes, he needs to keep working on the free throws, but even that glaring weakness is unlikely to hold him back from his first All-Star selection.
Rob Mahoney: Kent Bazemore, Hawks
Of all the realistic candidates for this award, I went with a player who didn’t look qualified to be a full-time starter as recently as a year ago. Bazemore has always held intrigue; an athletic wing with a seven-foot wingspan tends to bring basketball people to daydream. Atlanta’s coaching staff, however, has taken that vision and made it something tangible. This year’s Bazemore is a fully realized role player—not as much of a scorer as some of the other MIP candidates, but a solid all-around player maturing nicely.
Matt Dollinger: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks
This is the most arbitrary decision of all the annual awards, so I'm going to get creative with my answer. Sure, the Knicks star is scoring fewer points and attempting less shots this season, but he's improved in the sense that he's become the Carmelo Anthony we’ve all dreamt about for years. He’s sharing the ball, he's making smart decisions, he’s making his teammates better and his team is winning. Carmelo doesn’t need another scoring title to boost his legacy—he needs playoff appearances, postseason runs and, ultimately, a title. Carmelo’s taken a huge leap in that regard this year and is worthy of recognition. Sometimes less is more.
DeAntae Prince: C.J. McCollum, Blazers
McCollum is an improved player by every measurable metric. After fighting off foot injuries for two years, he’s thriving with a clean bill of health. The sizable increase in shot attempts doesn’t hurt, either. McCollum’s quick trigger has resulted in a career-high 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists. He’s paired with Damian Lillard to fortify the Blazers’ backcourt and provide a glimmer of hope to a team that was expected to plummet in the Western Conference standings after losing four of its starters over the summer.
Jeremy Woo: C.J. McCollum, Blazers
The Blazers not being a dumpster fire post-team exodus comes largely thanks to this guy, who has lived up to his lottery-pick status in his third season and become a borderline All-Star. McCollum has found shots and been highly effective alongside one of the league’s highest-usage players in Damian Lillard, giving Portland a new one-two punch. No team lost more than Portland in the off-season, and no player has stepped up more to keep his team afloat.
Defensive Player of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Kawhi Leonard and Draymond Green are going to be jostling for this honor every season, it seems. Leonard has accepted more responsibility on offense for the Spurs, but he hasn’t let it diminish his efforts on the other end at all. Leonard’s physical gifts are obvious – the interminable wingspan, the massive hands – but, at 24, he has also learned the nuances of his opponents and the tricks of his trade. San Antonio’s defense is historically stingy, and plenty of players deserve credit, including 39-year-old rim protector Tim Duncan. But the list starts with Leonard, who sets the Spurs’ tight-fisted tone.
Ben Golliver: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Although the “best player on the best defense” shouldn’t necessarily be gifted this award every year, it’s very difficult to look past that designation this time around. The Spurs have put on a defensive clinic this season: Not only are they ranked first in defensive efficiency, but they lead the No. 2 Warriors by 5.5 points, a monstrous chasm that is equivalent to the gap between the Warriors and the No. 17 defense in the league. Leonard, the 2015 Defensive Player of the Year, continues to reign supreme. He’s the total package on defense: big, strong, fast, quick, smart, disciplined, versatile, experienced, confident and instinctive. What’s more, he has risen to the challenge of locking up high-profile wings on numerous occasions this season, he’s enjoyed good health all season long, and he’s logged 150+ more minutes than any of his teammates. He’s San Antonio’s most important and most irreplaceable defensive piece, and that should make him this year’s DPOY.
Rob Mahoney: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
That this award is traditionally the province of big men is all the more reason to reward the perimeter players who transcend basic defensive roles. Leonard is one of them. Not only does he have the power to control a given matchup, but his ability to seek out steals without completely selling out on his defensive positioning helps him lock down an entire side of the floor at a time. Proceed near Leonard with the ball at your own risk.
Matt Dollinger: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Much like a shutdown corner in football, Kawhi Leonard has become so dominant defensively he essentially eliminates an entire side of the court for opponents. Thanks to Leonard, the Spurs own the best defensive rating in the league (93.3) by a margin as long as the San Antonio riverwalk. The Spurs rank second in the league in opponent field-goal and three-point percentage. With Leonard shutting down star players on a nightly basis, the Spurs are able to put the onus on other teams’ supporting casts. Unfortunately for everyone else, few teams are a deep as Leonard’s Spurs.
DeAntae Prince: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
The NBA’s second-best team is anchored by the league’s premier perimeter defender, a pest who can give pause to LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and every player in between. Leonard’s length and instincts shine through in traditional and advanced stats, as he averages 2.6 steals per game and boasts a 93 defensive rating while taking on the toughest assignment every night.
Jeremy Woo: Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Kawhi Leonard is one of maybe a handful of players that can make one-on-one defense extremely fun to watch, except he does it every single game for the entire game. It’s entertaining and fascinating to watch him match up with a wider range of players than anyone around, until you imagine you are the person he is guarding and then want to curl up in a ball and contemplate your own purpose on the planet. Automatic matchup-problem wing players like LeBron, Kobe and Durant dominated this league for years: perhaps Leonard arriving perfectly and uniquely equipped to stop them is just nature running its course. He deserves this award a second time.
Sixth Man of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Victor Oladipo, Magic
Victor Oladipo does not fit the profile of a sixth man, a No. 2 overall pick who averaged close to 18 points in the starting lineup last season. Oladipo may still be Orlando’s best player, but he agreed to come off the bench for Scott Skiles, a move that unlocked Evan Fournier and boosted the Magic toward the Eastern Conference playoffs. Oladipo’s scoring has dipped this season, down to 13.5 points per game, but he is not your typical second-unit gunner. He’s grabbing 4.9 rebounds and dishing out 4.0 assists—in line with career norms—while doing something else he’s never done on a consistent basis before: winning.
Ben Golliver: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
The 2015 Finals MVP has enjoyed one heck of a carry-over season. Iguodala, long known for his defensive versatility, athleticism, transition skills and play-making ability, has added another weapon to the mix: a more-than-reliable three-point jumper. Through Thursday, Golden State’s sixth man is shooting 39.3% from deep and a remarkable 51.3% on corner threes, an individual skill development that has taken the Warriors’ attack from “unbelievably good” last season to “completely unstoppable” for long stretches of this season. So far this season, Iguodala has posted a +16.9 net rating and the Warriors have enjoyed an astonishing +33 net rating when he shares the court with Stephen Curry and Draymond Green. His willingness to accept a demotion out of the starting lineup last season was a key to Golden State’s title run, and his ability to master his new role this year is critical to his team’s hopes of repeating as champions.
Rob Mahoney: Andre Iguodala, Warriors
Iguodala seems to have mastered the art of leading the second unit while only scoring when absolutely necessary. Defenses that stray too far from Iguodala are punished with threes (he’s shooting 39.3% from deep) and cagey drives. His real value, though, comes as a multi-positional defender and instrumental playmaker. It’s because of players like Iguodala that the Warriors’ best lineups pivot quickly from one action to the next on either side of the ball. ‘Sixth Man’ is appropriate given how seamlessly (and interchangeably) Iguodala meshes with Golden State’s first five; they’re all part of the same devastating unit.
Matt Dollinger: Will Barton, Nuggets
The Magic have been great since bringing Victor Oladipo off the bench, but the Orlando guard isn’t driving the team’s success so much as the squad’s improved balance. The best sixth man this season is a guy who has been a 12th man for most of his career. Will Barton emerged from the depths of Portland’s bench to finish 2014-15 off strong and start 2015-16 on fire. The results: 15.6 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while hitting 38.9% of his three-pointers. He’s come off the bench in all but one game, yet is the Nuggets’ second-leading scorer and rebounder.
DeAntae Prince: Will Barton, Nuggets
This award has been reserved for veterans with a penchant for scoring in the past, but Barton’s inclusion here represents an influx of new talent. Denver isn’t playing for much this season, but you’d never know that from watching Barton, whose unpredictable game and relentless energy stand out. Similar to past winners, he’s capable of an offensive outburst on occasion, but it is his all-around solid play and consistency that has been impressive thus far.
Jeremy Woo: Will Barton, Nuggets
Barton also has a case for Most Improved, but pencil him in here for now in a year where we’re a little short on strong candidates. Guys like Victor Oladipo and Zach Randolph have sacrificed egos, adjusted to bench roles and helped their teams in the process, but Barton has kept the injury-stricken Nuggets (who will eventually be better than you think) hanging around and might be the team’s MVP to date. His slashing and hyper-activity lent itself to an especially impressive January (20.8 points, 6.8 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 47% shooting) and has earned him this one at the halfway mark. At age 25, the three-year deal he just signed looks like grand theft.
Coach of the Year
Lee Jenkins: Gregg Popovich, Spurs
The choice in almost every category that matters comes down to a Warrior or a Spur. Do you go with 35-year-old Luke Walton, who had never even been an official assistant, yet stepped in for the ailing Steve Kerr and helped the Warriors to the best start in the history of professional sports? Or do you defer to Gregg Popovich, who has been steering the Spurs for more than half of Walton’s life, and blended LaMarcus Aldridge and David West into the organizational framework. Popovich is the choice, for this reason: Many teams in the NBA, and particularly in the Western Conference, were demoralized by the Warriors stunning start. Popovich kept the Spurs on track, and nearly on pace.
Ben Golliver: Luke Walton, Warriors
Voters succumbed to overthinking this category last year by passing over Steve Kerr for Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer. Don’t make the same mistake twice! Not only did Walton preside over a 37-4 start which was just one win shy of the best first half ever, but he did it with very little advanced notice due to Kerr’s unexpected complications following back surgery and without any previous NBA head coaching experience. Under Walton, the Warriors have received career years from both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green, they’ve plugged away despite the pressure of significant media attention and the loss of Harrison Barnes to an ankle injury, and they’ve avoiding running up significant playing-time mileage on any of their key players. What more could he have done?
Rob Mahoney: Rick Carlisle, Mavericks
Another year of overperformance from the master of the art. Give Carlisle a can of tuna and he’ll serve you a plate of beautiful sashimi. Bring him a Radio Flyer with a box fan attached and he’ll win you the Indy 500. Drop some sheet metal and a half-broken bottle on the table in front of him and he’ll build you a telescope strong enough to glimpse the surface of distant planets. Dirk Nowitzki, Zaza Pachulia, Wesley Matthews, and Co. all deserve credit for their season to date. Most every Maverick in the regular rotation is playing his part. Yet it’s Carlisle that somehow makes it all click at a 47-win pace through injury recovery, defensive awkwardness, positional redundancy, and all.
Matt Dollinger: Gregg Popovich, Spurs
Like Madonna or Michael Jackson, the Spurs continue to reinvent themselves while staying atop of their craft. It’s easy to look at San Antonio's gaudy record and think, “these are the same old Spurs,” but they're anything but. After watching Golden State win the Finals, Popovich realized the Spurs couldn’t beat the Warriors at their own game, so he decided to create his own, going big while the rest of the league goes small. The result? The Spurs have been historically good this season. Their offense is more diverse, their defense is even more suffocating and their wins are coming easy. They're genuine Pop Stars.
DeAntae Prince: Luke Walton, Warriors
While he won’t take home the wins, Luke Walton deserves considerable credit for his role as interim coach during the Warriors’ 24-0 start. Now at 39-4 on the season, the Warriors are on pace to make history or come pretty close to it, and that would be impossible if Walton didn’t step in as a suitable short-term replacement for Steve Kerr. Walton has transcendent pieces to play chess with, but his steady hand has helped Golden State remain on track as Curry, Draymond Green, and Harrison Barnes missed time for injuries and rest.
Jeremy Woo: Luke Walton, Warriors
Barring a 180 from the league office, Luke Walton will not be credited with any wins, but he should win this award anyway. You can argue that it’s pretty easy to coach the Warriors, but it’s certainly not easy to coach any team to 24 straight wins, keep a title-winner highly-motivated and generally hold down the fort for half a season when you're not the actual boss. The Warriors have the league’s best record and Walton has probably earned himself a full-time head coaching job very soon.