By Ben Golliver
With the 2012-13 season at the quarter mark, here are my picks for the league's top performers. (All stats and records are through Monday.)
1. Kevin Durant, Thunder
The MVP award always boils down to wins, stories and stats. Durant has edged past James in the first two categories and, perhaps most impressively, he has fought the reigning MVP to a draw in numbers.
The case for Durant begins with the Thunder's 17-4 start, excellent in any season but especially so this year in the wake of the James Harden deal. Much is made of the teamwork-first culture in Oklahoma City, but the Thunder's steady response after the unpopular trade of a budding superstar speaks first to Durant's elite reliability. Through five-plus seasons, he's appeared in more than 96 percent of his team's games, and this year he's averaging the third-most minutes in the league and has scored at least 20 points in every game he's played 30 minutes or more. He delivers night in and night out, regardless of matchups or schedule, and his game is growing: He's averaging a career-high 8.5 rebounds and registering more than a steal and a block per game, something James can't claim. He's shown flashes of an improved post game, his defense has gotten markedly better in the last two seasons and he continues to refine the one-two balance with Russell Westbrook late in games.
James is shooting a career-best 44.1 percent from three-point range, and yet Durant has shadowed him there, hitting 44 percent and threatening to join the hallowed 50/40/90 shooting club. There's one last factor: Durant is starving for a title, much as James was last season. His Thunder have played hungry, reflecting that urgency; James' Heat have taken their foot off the pedal enough to raise eyebrows, even if it's too early to generate real concern. James has been as dominant as always and has plenty of time to add another MVP award to his mantel. At the first-quarter mark, though, it's Durant by a hair.
Anthony, Paul and Duncan have all been typically excellent on very successful teams. But James and Durant are a cut above the other contenders.
Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
A tight two-man race between Anthony Davis and Lillard hasn't developed, as the No. 1 pick has spent more time on the Hornets' training table than on the court, battling a concussion and a series of ankle injuries. Lillard, meanwhile, has played to the high end of expectations for a Trail Blazers team desperate to squeeze every bit of potential out of him.
His transition from the Big Sky to the big leagues has been relatively smooth, especially in the departments that Lillard can control. He's handled a huge workload -- 37.8 minutes a game, No. 7 in the league and by far tops among rookies -- and delivered nice numbers: 18.4 points and 6.4 assists while shooting 36.7 percent from three-point range. His feel for controlling games and working through half-court sets has received praise and he's shown a desire to command the ball in late-game situations, even if he's yet to deliver a memorable game-winner.
Lillard has had a few rough shooting nights and his share of unforced turnovers, he doesn't always finish plays that he should around the basket and his individual defense has drawn scrutiny. Those are nit-picks, though, the kind of critiques reserved for players once it's no longer a question that they will stick in the pros. Lillard is a finished product whose maturity has impressed rival coaches and players. No other rookie has been asked to do as much and no other rookie, yet, has done more.
Kidd-Gilchrist remains one of the NBA's best-kept secrets, ranking No. 11 among small forwards in Player Efficiency Rating as a teenager and averaging 11 points and 6.3 rebounds. He has the look of a true franchise building block, something that couldn't be said for a host of previous Bobcats lottery picks. Barnes, averaging 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds, can lay claim to a title that no other lottery pick in his class can match: He's a full-time starter on a winning team.
Sixth Man Award
1. Kevin Martin, Thunder
2. Jamal Crawford, Clippers
3. J.R. Smith, Knicks
This race is so close that Martin and Crawford have identical 18.61 PERs. Their stories are similar, too: reserve scorers get a second lease on life by filling a niche perfectly on teams destined for a solid postseason push.
With Crawford, you get more spectacular highlights and volume (17.9 points per game compared to Martin's 15.8). Martin's game is all about efficiency: He's shooting better from the field (47.1 percent to 44.2 percent) and much better from deep (a blistering 47.9 percent to Crawford's strong 38.7 percent). The rest of the numbers -- free-throw attempts, rebounds, assists, steals -- are a virtual wash.
This tie breaks on Oklahoma City's stronger record and the appearance that Martin's start will be more sustainable. The Clippers will be juggling rotations as players get healthy and minutes could fluctuate; in Oklahoma City, the roles and responsibilities couldn't be much more clearly defined. In addition, Crawford's three-point shooting is up significantly over his numbers last year; Martin's numbers are showing a similar spike but he's been a bit steadier, even through injuries, over the last five years. Martin's dependability might not be as sexy, but his instant impact in Oklahoma City after arriving from Houston in the Harden trade is great news, and there shouldn't be any question about his motivation the rest of the way: He's in a contract year and is preparing for his first legitimate chance at a deep playoff run.
Smith, playing some of the best all-around basketball of his career, is only a half-step behind Martin and Crawford. He will wind up making a strong case by season's end if he stays locked in and productive even after Iman Shumpert and Amar'e Stoudemire return from injury. Smith is averaging 13.7 points, a career-high five rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting 37.2 percent from three-point range in 32.8 minutes.
Coach of the Year
1. Mike Woodson, Knicks
2. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
3. Jacque Vaughn, Magic
There's a strong temptation to give the nod to Popovich in solidarity for the fine levied by commissioner David Stern to the Spurs for Popovich's decision to strategically rest key players during a nationally televised game against the Heat. (San Antonio's league-best 18-4 record is a pretty good reason, too.) Popovich would be the play here if the Knicks weren't out to such a surprising and sensational start. New York embodies so many of the virtues we look for in well-coached teams: unselfishness, overachievement, good shot selection, trust in self and others and the ability to put big personalities and egos aside for a common good. The Knicks' veterans -- especially Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler -- get some of the credit, but clearly Woodson has fostered the ideal environment in a place that has been more hellish than heavenly for a decade-plus.
Don't get it twisted: This case isn't built on warm fuzzies. The Knicks' fundamentals -- best record in the Eastern Conference, No. 2 offense in the league, an above-average defense despite the heavy use of small lineups -- are all strong. Perhaps the highest compliment for Woodson is that he's already answered a key preseason question: whether anyone in the East besides the Celtics could push the Heat. Not only have the Knicks pushed Miami, but they've also soundly beaten the defending champs twice in two games. Even James admitted after last week's game in Miami that the Knicks "kicked our a--."
How did Vaughn sneak onto the list with an 8-12 record over the likes of Memphis' Lionel Hollins or Golden State's Mark Jackson? Because the rookie coach has won as many games in the first quarter of the season as many expected him to win the entire first half of the season with a thrown-together roster that lost its two best players, Dwight Howard and Ryan Anderson, without receiving any replacement star power and has dealt with injuries to veterans Jameer Nelson, Al Harrington and Hedo Turkoglu. Five of Orlando's wins have come against bottom-dwellers (Pistons, Cavaliers and Suns), so Vaughn isn't necessarily guaranteed to become the league's next coaching prodigy, but his early work deserves some recognition.
Defensive Player of the Year
2. Serge Ibaka, Thunder
Noah was left off the All-Defensive teams last year after being a second-team selection in 2010-11 -- but getting passed up for Howard and Chandler is no shame. The Bulls' big man deserves a little shine now. He's No. 2 in the NBA in minutes per game, a major increase after Chicago's decision to let Omer Asik sign with the Rockets. His numbers have jumped even more than you would expect, and he's averaging 10.8 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.3 blocks. More importantly, Chicago is tied (with Memphis) for No. 1 in points allowed per possession and finds itself back on top of the Central Division without Derrick Rose. There have been rough spots, including a three-game losing streak on the road in November, but Noah's energy has been key in keeping it together.
Whereas both Howard and Chandler have seen their respective teams' defensive numbers decline this season, Ibaka's Thunder remain a top-10 defense, and he ranks first in blocks. His defensive-rebounding numbers remain solid, too. Allen's reputation as an elite and relentless perimeter defender is well-established, and if Memphis continues to lead in defensive efficiency, there's an outside chance that he could make a run at becoming the first guard to receive this honor since Gary Payton in 1996. It's also quite possible that he simply gets lost in the trees again, even if the Grizzlies continue to win and post solid defensive numbers.
Most Improved Player
1. Andray Blatche, Nets
3. Omer Asik, Rockets
It's hard to show more improvement than Blatche, who was essentially sent home by the Wizards last season for conditioning issues and then deemed not worth the trouble and amnestied over the summer. That's the NBA's version of a dumpster pile. Blatche has climbed out of it to be an effective reserve and fill-in starter for the Nets, averaging 11.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. Leaps don't get much bigger than going from worse than worthless (the Wizards paid him $23 million to go away) to one of the league's better values (the Nets have him on a minimum deal). That might be a slightly twisted version of what "Most Improved" is supposed to stand for, especially this late in the eight-year veteran's career, but the turnaround shouldn't go completely unnoticed.
The smart money says that this is Mayo's award to lose as he appears to be the best "conventional" candidate. Mayo has exploded in his first year with the Mavericks, in part thanks to the freedom he's received because of the absence of Dirk Nowitzki and poor guard play around him. After spending the last two seasons on Memphis' bench, Mayo hasn't just scaled his per-minute numbers in a big opportunity; he's taken them to another level altogether. Mayo is averaging a career-high 20.8 points, four rebounds and 3.5 assists and shooting 48.7 percent from the field, including a league-leading 53 percent from deep on more than five attempts per game.
The notion of Mayo's chucking 15 shots a game would have probably been viewed as an efficiency nightmare as recently as September, and yet he trails only Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and Harden in PER among starting shooting guards. He's also helped keep the Mavericks above .500 as they await Nowitzki's return. Mayo's shooting percentages will come back to earth and his scoring will take a hit once Nowitzki is back as the No. 1 guy, but he's proved he deserves to be a starter in the league.