As the league takes its annual midwinter break, SI examines the major-award front-runners and who they'll have to beat
IT WAS A first half of extremes. The Mavericks and the Suns could not have played better, while the defending champs, the depleted and befuddled Heat, could hardly have been worse. Carmelo Anthony was at the top of his game, leading the league in scoring, and then—bam!—he was at the bottom, sidelined by a 15-game suspension for fighting. In a season that has been defined as much by its injured stars (Shaq and Yao) as by its healthy ones (Steve and Dirk), here are SI's award winners at the All-Star break.
Steve Nash, Suns
The winner of the last two MVP awards has actually elevated his play while leading the league's second-best team to winning streaks of 15 and 17 games.
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks
He could dethrone his friend if Dallas significantly outdistances the Suns for the league's best record.
Defensive Player of the Year
Bruce Bowen, Spurs
It's time to recognize the 6'7" Bowen for his role in helping to keep San Antonio among the league's best defensive teams.
Josh Howard, Mavericks
The 6'7" Howard is shutting down everyone from shooting guards to power forwards for Dallas.
Rookie of the Year
Jorge Garbajosa, Raptors
His signing received little notice last summer, but the 29-year-old, 6'9" Spaniard is producing numbers across the board as a starter for Atlantic Division--leading Toronto.
Brandon Roy, Trail Blazers
The 6'6" guard missed 20 games with a left-heel injury but still leads all rookies in scoring (15.3) and assists (3.5).
Ben Gordon, Bulls
A recent move into the starting lineup may cost Gordon (averaging a team-high 21.2 points) this award at season's end—a player has to come off the bench in more games than he starts—but the Microwave of his generation was crucial to Chicago in the first half.
David Lee, Knicks
He's their MVP, averaging a double double (11.1 points, 10.8 rebounds) off the bench.
Most Improved Player
Carlos Boozer, Jazz
This award should be weighted toward a good player who becomes a true star, the toughest growth to realize. Before he broke his leg on Jan. 27, Boozer was averaging career highs in points (22.1) and rebounds (11.8) and was fourth in the NBA's efficiency statistic.
Caron Butler, Wizards
The first-time All-Star is the only player in the league to average at least 20 points, seven rebounds and two steals.
Coach of the Year
Jeff Van Gundy, Rockets
He's only had 18 games with both Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady on the court, yet Van Gundy has pieced together the league's fifth-best record.
Challenger Jerry Sloan, Jazz
He's never won the award, yet at week's end he had the third-best team in the league, without a superstar.
Executive of the Year
Bryan Colangelo, Raptors
Toronto is on track for its first winning season in five years as well as the first division title in franchise history.
Carroll Dawson, Rockets
He assembled a deep roster that has enabled Houston to remain in contention despite the absences of Yao and McGrady.
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Five Teams To Watch
When play resumes next week and clubs begin their pushes for the playoffs, keep your eye on this quintet, which should make headlines for one reason or another.
Add Yao Ming's complementary style and MVP-caliber numbers to the league's No. 1 defense, and the Rockets could make a dark-horse run at the title.
Will the Nuggets ultimately be greater than the sum of their parts? That's up to Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson.
They've continued to play hard despite their lack of talent, but at week's end the league's most-storied franchise had a team-record losing streak of 18 games. Will winning the lottery rights to Greg Oden or Kevin Durant make up for this otherwise lost season?
Will the second-half reunion of Pat Riley, Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade enable the Heat to challenge the Pistons for supremacy in the East? As bad as Miami looked in the first half, a return trip to the NBA Finals is there for the taking.
New York Knicks
At week's end they were just five games behind the division-leading Raptors. It's not unimaginable that the Knicks could win the woeful Atlantic, save Isiah Thomas's job and prevent Chicago from taking Oden with New York's No. 1 pick, which it got in the Eddy Curry trade.