The NBA has undergone a marked transformation since the 2018-19 season ended in Golden State in June. The Warriors dropped from the peak of the Western Conference to the cellar, and the Lakers reloaded into a juggernaut. We have new contenders in Dallas and Miami, and a slew of superstar relocations have the Finals picture as open as any period in recent memory. So much has changed in nearly seven months. But with 40 games until the postseason, the greatest twists could still be ahead.
We’ll save our postseason prognostications for a later date. With midseason just briefly in the rearview mirror and the All-Star break rapidly approaching, it’s time for us at The Crossover to dole out or midseason awards, leading with a familiar face atop the league.
Most Valuable Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)
Runners-up: Luka Doncic (Mavericks), LeBron James (Lakers), James Harden (Rockets)
Giannis Antetokounmpo is trending toward a runaway MVP campaign for the second straight season as the Bucks run roughshod over the Eastern Conference. The only drama may be whether the honor is unanimous. Antetokounmpo has sprinted ahead of the pack after some early-season jostling, seizing the mantle as the game’s most dominant force.
Antetokounmpo’s sheer volume is staggering. He’s on pace to put up the first 30-point, 12-rebound, five-assist season since Wilt Chamberlain in 1965-66, adding a block and steal per game for good measure. The Bucks aren’t pushing Giannis to the brink. He’s coasting of late, averaging fewer than 30 minutes per game as Milwaukee has won 10 of its last 11. Antetokounmpo leads the league in PER. The Bucks lead the league in wins. They’re playing like a superteam with only one superstar. Rewarding anybody else but Antetokounmpo is foolish.
Coach of the Year: Erik Spoelstra (Heat
Runners-up: Mike Budenholzer (Bucks), Rick Carlisle (Mavericks), Nate McMillan (Pacers)
There’s a little more to sort out with this race, with no shortage of impressive coaching jobs this season. Erik Spoelstra will earn the nod, though, with the Heat entering Friday second in the Eastern Conference at 31–13. This isn’t simply a conversation over win totals. Spoelstra creates a culture of empowerment in Miami, one that sets each member of its roster in a position to succeed. Bam Adebayo is deployed as a fulcrum atop the high post. Intricate sets are designed to spring open rookie Tyler Herro and second-year forward Duncan Robinson. Energy and effort is never a question in Miami. It’s been an organizational tenant for decades. But playing hard can generate only so much success. Devoid of a true superstar, Spoelstra has made the most of Miami’s parts, enjoying perhaps the most impressive season of his career.
Let’s briefly touch on the other considered candidates. Yes, Budenholzer is blessed with Giannis, but the deployment of Milwaukee’s supporting cast is truly impressive. Milwaukee is even more lethal in Year 2 of the Budenholzer era. I suspect a Finals appearance is on the way.
Carlisle hasn’t quite nurtured Doncic as much as give the young phenom the requisite freedom, though Dallas’s coach deserves serious props for managing one of the game’s best benches. McMillan continues to mine wins without Victor Oladipo. Similar to Spoelstra, each Indiana player is gifted a carefully considered role. Impressive years by all three, with each finishing just a hair behind Spoelstra.
Sixth Man of the Year: Dennis Schroder (Thunder)
Runners-up: Normal Powell (Raptors), Montrezl Harrell and Lou Williams (Clippers)
Plenty has been written about two-thirds of Oklahoma City’s three-headed backcourt. Chris Paul’s steady brilliance has been one of the best stories of the season, and Shai-Gilgeous Alexander is the jewel of Oklahoma City’s Paul George trade. But don’t forget about Dennis Schröder. He leads all Thunder players in net rating and has fit seamlessly next to either of his fellow point guards. Schroder and Gilgeous-Alexander are outscoring teams by 9.5 points per 100 possessions. Pair Schroder with Paul, and the mark balloons to an obscene plus-16.5 points per 100 possessions. Schröder is thriving as a transition ace and slasher, and he’s shooting a career high from three. He’s an underrated cog in the Thunder machine.
Schroder’s win wasn’t a runaway by any stretch. Powell is bombing away at 41.2% from three, though he has missed 11 games. Harrell and Williams run into the old Curry-Durant conundrum. It can be hard to separate the two, even if both are spectacular in their own right. Schröder earns a slight edge amid a shaky bench in OKC.
Defensive Player of the Year: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)
Runners-up: Giannis Antetokounmpo, (Bucks), Ben Simmons (76ers), Anthony Davis (Lakers)
Anthony Davis has a pretty convincing case for the award, but he still falls short of Utah’s dominant defensive anchor. Gobert should finally secure an All-Star Game appearance this season, and he continues to grow as the game’s best rim protector. Gobert is, of course, a great interior defender. Opponents are making less than 50% of shots within six feet against Gobert, and he leads the league in block percentage. But Gobert is also a great rim deterrent. Just 32% of opponent’s shots come at the rim when Gobert is in the game, and opponents’ free throw rate plummets to the league’s No. 29 mark. Attack the rim at your own peril with Gobert on the floor. He’s been Utah’s catalyst in its recent hot stretch.
Davis’s first DPOY should arrive at some point in his Los Angeles career if he doesn’t win this year. He’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game, and only two players (congrats to Deandre Ayton and Justin Holiday!) have a better defensive field goal percentage.
Antetokounmpo and Simmons are less conventional candidates, though they have intriguing cases, nonetheless. The Greek Freak leads all starters in defensive rating. Simmons leads the league in loose balls recovered, and he trails only Kris Dunn in deflections. Two worthy perimeter candidates, but the award will once again skew toward the rim protectors.
Rookie of the Year: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)
Runners-up: Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro (Heat) Michael Porter Jr. (Nuggets)
No real debate in this year’s Rookie of the Year race unless Zion Williamson goes nuclear over the next 40 games. Even then, it may not be enough to surpass the Murray State product.
Morant has injected a massive dose of energy into Memphis, destroying rims with a hyper-athletic flair. Morant is almost Iverson-esque in his forays to the rim. He finishes at every conceivable angle. Morant isn’t afraid to put a big on a poster, and he’s already trash-talking former MVPs. Morant in Los Angeles would be a delightful storyline in the first round. He’ll have plenty of chances to steal the Western Conference crown in the next decade. Nunn and Herro have been impressive, and Porter Jr.’s potential feels limitless. But their rookie campaigns pale in comparison with Morant’s brilliance.
Most Improved Player: Brandon Ingram (Pelicans)
Runners-up: Bam Adebayo (Heat), Luka Doncic (Mavericks), Devonte' Graham (Hornets)
Perhaps Doncic’s ascension to All-NBA status is enough to swing this award, but I prefer to leave MVP candidates out of the Most Improved conversation. Brandon Ingram has approached All-NBA play in spurts this season. He’s an entirely reformed player compared with his three years in Los Angeles, morphing from a talented ball stopper to a reliable top option.
Ingram is canning 2.5 triples per game at a 39.4% clip this season, and his turnover rate has decreased despite a significant spike in usage. Ingram has always been an impressive scorer, but it’s his growth as a playmaker has been truly startling this season. He’s snaking patiently in the pick-and-roll, finding shooters in the corner with either hand. Ingram has already shown connection with center Jaxson Hayes in the Texas product’s rookie year. The duo is one of the Pelicans’ few pairings with a positive net rating in significant minutes. New Orleans is lurking in the Western Conference playoff race, largely thanks to Ingram. We can only hope he and Zion make a run for the eighth seed after the All-Star break.