By Ben Golliver
With less than a quarter of the season remaining for most teams, here are my picks for the league's top performers. (All stats and records are through Monday.)
1. LeBron James, Heat
James has spent the last two months methodically squashing any and all arguments against him winning his fourth MVP award in five years. Though I selected Durant as MVP at both the first-quarter and midseason marks, James has swallowed whole the possibility of such dissenting opinions.
For starters, the Heat have re-established their supremacy. They are an NBA-best 47-14, own a nine-game lead in the Eastern Conference and have won a franchise-record 18 consecutive games. Arguments for the best player on a team with a better record -- a la Derrick Rose in 2011 and Durant earlier this season -- have been neutered.
Judged solely on a player-to-player basis, no one can compare to James -- not even Durant, who is in the midst of an impeccable season himself. James is averaging 26.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 1.7 steals. He has a 31.2 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), the sixth straight season he's topped the NBA in this metric. He's shooting career highs of 56.2 percent from the field and 40.2 percent from three-point range. His string of six consecutive games last month with at least 30 points and 60 percent shooting was sensational, but it wasn't all that far away from his day-to-day standard.
One can't help but marvel at James' incremental improvements -- shot selection, post game, comfort level in defending anyone on the court -- and wish more of his peers took the pursuit of perfection as seriously as he does. According to NBA.com, the Heat are five points per 100 possessions better on defense and 11.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense when James in on the court compared to when he sits. He does it on offense, he does it on defense, he does it every night (he hasn't missed a game) and he does it for the league's premier team. Voting for James again is boring, but he's forced everyone's hand.
Durant headlines a strong list of candidates for second place. The sixth-year forward is heading for his fourth scoring title in a row and, even more remarkably, is still tracking toward the 50/40/90 shooting club while on pace to launch more than 1,400 shots. Continuing at that volume from the field and accuracy with his two-point shooting (50.5 percent), three-point shooting (41.4) and free-throw shooting (91) would put Durant in a club with only one other man: Larry Bird, who did it in 1986-87 and '87-88. Durant's Thunder join the Heat and the Spurs as consensus title favorites, and he ranks second to James in PER with a career-best 28.6.
Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
2. Anthony Davis, Hornets
Lillard has been the clearest wire-to-wire awards favorite this season by a country mile. The circumstances in Portland broke exactly right for a monster rookie season: The Blazers entered the first year of a rebuilding effort with no pressure to win immediately, and first-year coach Terry Stotts promised a long leash for Lillard to learn on the job at a position at which the front office didn't acquire a competent backup point guard, ensuring that the No. 6 pick would be playing every last minute he could handle. (Portland finally addressed the reserve position by trading for Eric Maynor last month.) That Lillard entered the mix with four years of college experience at Weber State, a steady demeanor and a body that has proved to be reliable (he's yet to sit out a game) turned this into a match made in award heaven. He's averaging 18.9 points, 6.4 assists and 3.2 rebounds while winning four straight Western Conference Rookie of the Month awards.
"[The other rookies tell me] I fell right to the perfect team, I'm in the perfect position," Lillard told SI.com during All-Star Weekend last month in Houston. "And it's true. I said it even in the draft process I would be playing with really good teammates and I would have the opportunity to play. I get the chance to play through mistakes some other guys might not be allowed to. I play a lot of minutes, my team depends on me. I'm in a really good situation. Some [rookies] are in unfortunate situations."
Stotts has gotten every ounce out of Lillard, who is tied for fifth in the NBA in minutes at 38.5; Beal is the only other rookie averaging at least 30, and he plays nearly seven minutes fewer per game. Lillard has made good use of the time, keeping the 29-33 Blazers on the outskirts of the playoff chase and showing that he is capable of balancing his scoring instincts with a level of distributing necessary to keep his more veteran teammates, including All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, satisfied.
The 6-foot-3 Lillard looked like he might be running into the "rookie wall" when he sputtered with his shooting before the All-Star break, but the acquisition of Maynor has seemed to renew his spirit (and shooting numbers). Moved off the ball for stretches, Lillard has flashed an off-the-dribble attack instinct that occasionally gets lost when he's operating from the top of the key and in pick-and-roll situations when he's expected to be a facilitator first.
Lillard told SI.com that he expects to fill out his offensive repertoire this summer. Nearly two-thirds of his shot attempts come on long twos or three-pointers. He can be a crafty finisher in the basket area, but he would like to add some depth to his portfolio.
"I think the biggest thing is developing a middle game, floaters, finishes, instead of going in and challenging the big men every play," he said. "Other than that, start going to my right hand. I like going to my left even though I'm right-handed. I can go right, but there are more things I can do better going right."
Davis, the No. 1 pick, slots in well behind Lillard mostly because of his bum luck with injuries. As The Point Forward's Rob Mahoney noted in mid-January, Davis has played effectively and efficiently when he's been on the court. He's averaging 12.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks while shooting 50.8 percent from the field. His PER of 21 leads all rookies averaging at least 20 minutes (Lillard's is 16.6). Davis, who turned 20 on Monday, has shown flashes of All-Star potential. His length and timing instincts along the baseline have led to many a point-blank look, and he's proved to be a productive rebounder despite his slender frame.
Beal's statistics -- 14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 40.9 percent shooting -- don't inspire awe at first glance. But the real story in Washington is the No. 3 pick's progress, as the 19-year-old has improved his scoring and shooting percentage every month.
"I'm a lot more comfortable and have a lot more confidence," Beal said in Houston.
Beal dug himself too deep of a hole early to be a true factor in the Rookie of the Year discussion. But a number of his fellow rookies, including Lillard and No. 2 pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, peg Beal as a contender to become the first All-Star from the 2012 class.
"He's been lighting it up lately," Charlotte's Kidd-Gilchrist said. "He's real good."
Sixth Man Award
1. Jamal Crawford, Clippers
2. Kevin Martin, Thunder
Martin, the quieter and less flashy option among the top two candidates, was my pick at the first-quarter and midseason marks. He continues to fit his role nicely, delivering 14.3 points and a career-best 42.9 percent three-point shooting as the top bench scorer for Oklahoma City, which leads the NBA in points per possession. Though he doesn't do much else and the Thunder post significantly better defensive numbers when he's not on the court, Martin has filled a key niche created by the James Harden trade.
Crawford has continued to improve his strong case, though. The 2010 winner is averaging 17.2 points while cutting back on his penchant for difficult shots to hit 44.4 percent overall and a career-high 38.6 percent from three-point range. He's separated slightly from Martin and Knicks guard J.R. Smith in PER (17.5 to 15.9 and 15.8, respectively) but, more important, he's the linchpin of the NBA's most devastating second unit. Crawford, with his free-flowing style and crazy lob-tossing, is the symbolic face of a reserve group that has made a habit of blowing open games. Sixth Man is not often viewed as a team award, but the singular impact of the Clippers' reserves is a solid tiebreaker between Crawford and Martin in a close race.
The value of Jack's consistency, experience and ability to supplement Stephen Curry as a ball-handler for Golden State shouldn't be overlooked. He's helped his stock in a contract year by playing such a crucial role for a team that will almost certainly make the playoffs despite a recent slide.
Coach of the Year
1. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
2. Frank Vogel, Pacers
3. Mike Woodson, Knicks
Early favorite Woodson's case looks less convincing now that the Knicks have gone 20-18 over the last three months. Injuries and an average defense have gotten in the way of an offense that remains among the league's best, even if the insane three-point shooting that powered New York's 18-5 start predictably leveled off. Woodson has juggled a lot of moving pieces, constructed a vastly improved offense and managed the eccentricities of J.R. Smith. Awards voting can often be about momentum, though, and he's lacking in that department, especially with the news of Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury.
Popovich, the 2011-12 and '02-03 winner, is the LeBron James of the Coach of the Year race: He's always an excellent, deserving candidate, ready to seize the award should an unimpeachable alternative fail to emerge. The West-leading Spurs are neck and neck with Miami for the best record, and they rank third in both offense and defense. Parker's absence because of an ankle injury offers a mildly interesting plot amid another year of routine excellence; if San Antonio continues to reel off victories without its MVP candidate, Popovich and his system are sure to receive a lion's share of the credit, and rightfully so.
Vogel has excellent credentials and may well prove to be Popovich's top competition. His case is straightforward and no-nonsense, much like his team: The Pacers boast the NBA's best defense and are pushing for the East's No. 2 seed, and Vogel has survived the loss of Danny Granger and overseen third-year swingman Paul George's development into a first-time All-Star. As SI.com's Ian Thomsen noted recently, this is a deep field for Coach of the Year, and Tom Thibodeau's work without Rose in Chicago raises the question of whether Vogel is even the best coach in his division.
When in doubt, go with Popovich until someone rips the award away from him. Woodson, Vogel, Thibodeau and the other contenders -- including Golden State's Mark Jackson, Miami's Erik Spoelstra, Memphis' Lionel Hollins and hard-charging George Karl of Denver -- have 20 or so games to make their closing arguments.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Joakim Noah, Bulls
3. LeBron James, Heat
The NBA's most effective team defenses are so loaded with individual talent that, without Dwight Howard playing to form, the discussion here quickly enters "there isn't a correct answer" territory.
Try this out for some perspective: Each of the top-nine defenses have multiple players worthy of some level of recognition -- Roy Hibbert and George (Indiana); Gasol and Tony Allen (Memphis); Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard (San Antonio); Noah and Luol Deng (Chicago); Kevin Garnett and Avery Bradley (Boston); Nene and Emeka Okafor (Washington); Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha (Oklahoma City); Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe (Los Angeles Clippers); and James and Dwyane Wade (Miami).
Now, some of those names don't play huge minutes, some lack ideal play-to-play consistency, some get by more on highlight plays than technique, some play for teams with bad records and some might be past their prime. There might even be additional names from those nine teams who deserve mention, too. Then, you have to note that New York's Tyson Chandler (last season's Defensive Player of the Year), Milwaukee's Larry Sanders (the league's leading shot-blocker) and Denver's Andre Iguodala (perhaps the league's most cerebral defender) weren't included.
The point here is that we're in Baskin-Robbins territory, where there are practically 31 flavors to choose from for an award that lacks the precise statistics to narrow the discussion. My favorite flavor of defense happens to be controlled chaos, and there Noah stands above the pack. His activity level has remained high even while he's played by far the most minutes of his career, and he embodies so many great defensive virtues: motor, instincts, spacing, timing, intelligence and length. He's filling up the box score for the NBA's No. 4 defense, averaging 7.4 defensive rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.3 steals. Chicago gives up 97.7 points per 100 possessions when he's in the game and 102.5 points per 100 possessions when he's on the bench.
Gasol makes a similar impact on the Grizzlies, who are second in points allowed per possession. When he's on the court, they concede just 95.5 points per 100 possessions; when he's not, they fall to 101.2 points per 100 possessions. His presence on the back line allows Allen and point guard Mike Conley to apply intense on-ball pressure, one of the Grizzlies' defining qualities.
As noted above, the Heat's defense is significantly better with James -- shocking, I know -- and his ability to defend elite wings without fouling or wearing himself out is unmatched. He's a true lockdown guy who can defend all five positions and hold his own on the boards against big men. Though it's difficult to regard James as being underrated considering his level of popularity, his defensive abilities remain at least somewhat underappreciated.
Most Improved Player
1. Paul George, Pacers
2. Larry Sanders, Bucks
3. Jrue Holiday, Sixers
Andray Blatche's productive play for Brooklyn after Washington amnestied him made him my early-season favorite, but this blossoming trio of youngsters has succeeded in pushing that storyline to the back burner. George and Holiday were both rewarded with their first All-Star appearances, while Sanders has transformed his reputation from "guy who is too volatile for no good reason" to "guy who is really, really, really effective at defending the basket while being too volatile only occasionally."
I ranked Holiday ninth in my recent list of the NBA's top 10 point guards. As noted there, he's been essentially the sole redeeming quality of a lost Sixers season. The 22-year-old has scaled his numbers considerably in an expanded offensive role and he continues to play committed defense. He's a textbook Most Improved candidate in that he's averaging career highs in scoring (18.5 points) and assists (8.7) while putting up a 17.7 PER, tops in his four-year career.
Sanders, 24, has had an even steeper increase, in large part because he was buried on coach Scott Skiles' bench in 2011-12. He's shifted into a starting role and is averaging 8.9 points, 9.1 rebounds and a league-best 3.2 blocks in 26.5 minutes. He is among a rare class of players who make complicated blocks look effortless, and he's right at the top of the list of reasons Milwaukee has improved from No. 17 in defensive efficiency last season to No. 10 this year. It's not often a big man goes from lightly used rotation piece to potential franchise building block in less than 12 months, but that's not an overstatement of Sanders' rise.his emergence in December