Who's the best player on the planet?

Who’s the best player on the planet?

The misconception about the “All-Star Break” is that it signifies the midway point of the NBA season.  In reality it is only the official, unofficial (if that makes sense) half way point of the season.  By the time the All-Star game is played most NBA teams would have played between 52-55 games in a 82 game season.  It doesn’t take a mathematician to recognize that 41 is half of 82 and thus the All-Star break signifies more two-thirds of the way through the season.  The real (mathematically correct) midway point is well…..right now (about mid to late January).

Most sports writers are probably going to wait until the All-Star weekend to give their mid-term picks for Most Valuable Player (MVP), Coach of the Year (COY), Rookie of the Year (ROY), etc.  I, on the other hand, decided to dive into this yearly tradition when it should be done, when most teams have played around 41 games (yay, I know how to do math!).

Let’s just dive right into it.  Who are the mid-season Performance Award winners?  How do you even make such selections?  Is it player stats?  Is it how successful the team that particular player is on is performing?  Is it dominating any particular one stat or being well-rounded all across different statistical categories?  Is it about a player making their teammates around them better and/or being a leader?  How much do intangibles, that don’t show up on the stat sheets, matter?

I believe it’s important to answer all the above questions and take it into consideration when making these selections and not just focus on stats on paper and maybe the “hype” surrounding the players.  Personally, if a player at the very least meets the applicable statistical thresholds, they are known to at least be what analysts and commentators call “in the conversation”.  From that point on, if the players show that they can do the other things like make their teammates better, win ball games, and show intangibles, then they move from the “in the conversation” category to being contenders or favorites to win the particular performance award.

The following are my Mid-Season Performance Award picks for the 2012-13 NBA Season.

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Rookie of the Mid-Year:

Damian Lillard – Portland Trailblazers (Point Guard)

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A great Rookie Class happens in cycles.  Some years you have a ton of great exciting rookie talents and you don’t know whom to choose for Rookie of the year (or in this case mid-year) and other years you have a scarce rookie talent pool and you don’t know….well, whom to choose.  A conundrum.  This particular season falls in the latter category.

The popular name that stands out, and deservingly so, is Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets.  He was the #1 draft pick and played on the 2012 USA Men’s Basketball Olympic team this past summer.  Davis has experienced a nagging ankle injury through the first half of the season, thus limiting him to about 28 games.  For a rookie he’s playing a large amount of minutes per game at 29mpg and averaging 13ppg, 8rpg, while shooting 51% from the field.  As a 6’10 power forward and doing a bulk of his scoring in the paint, I would personally like to see him shoot better than 50%.

But there’s another rookie on the scene that in my opinion is putting up much more impressive stats.  That Rookie is Damian Lillard.  Lillard has had the advantage over Davis of playing and starting in all of Portland’s games and playing about 39mpg.  39mpg is the amount of time usually given to established and proven veterans.  However, Portland’s coaching staff trust this young player to be a real part of this team.  Lillard is averaging 18ppg, 7apg, 4rpg, while shooting a respectable 36% from 3 point range.

With Damian Lillard playing such a significant role (39mpg) and scoring 18ppg and dishing out 7apg, he is a big reason why, unlike the Hornets, the Portland Trailblazers are legitimately in the playoff hunt in the western conference.

Runner Up: Anthony Davis

 

Most Improved Player of the Mid-Year:

Jrue Holiday – Philadelphia 76ers (Point Guard)

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Choosing the Most Improved player is an unexpectedly tough category to figure out.  Many players can significantly improve and for many different reasons.  And I think one has to look closely at the reasons why the said player may have significantly improved.

A player can significantly improve simply because they are playing more minutes (perhaps going from a reserve role to a starter) and for whatever reason taken on a bigger role in the team.  This doesn’t necessarily mean they weren’t always this good of a player, it’s just now they are getting the necessary playing time to improve their stats and impact on a team (i.e. O.J. Mayo with the Dallas Mavericks).

Another reason a player may have significantly improved from one season to the next and that is because previously they were under performing.  If a player use to play at an All-Star caliber level and then for what ever reason stops doing so, whether it be nagging injuries or a new team/system where they didn’t fit well, and then a couple of years later all of sudden starts playing well again, it doesn’t mean they have “improved”.  It just means for whatever reason they stop being mediocre and is playing at a level they use to play and has always been expected to play (i.e. Carlos Boozer).

I believe a player that deserves to win the Most Improved Player award is someone who, for the first time in their career, is playing at a certain high level (a level significantly higher than they use to play) and is doing so genuinely because they have worked on their game.

With that said I’m giving the Most Improved Player of the Mid-Year award to Jrue Holiday.

You have to throw out a player’s rookie season when evaluating this award.  Of course a player is going to improve and many times significantly from their rookie year to the years that follow.  It’s what is expected.  Even when you do that for Jrue Holiday there’s still significant improvements to his game.  Jrue’s career averages (minus his rookie year) are 13ppg and 6apg.  This year Jrue is averaging 19ppg and 9apg.

People expected Jrue to be a “solid” point guard and not ever put up numbers close to the Chris Paul’s and Deron Williams’ of the world at the point guard position.  And for a couple of years it looked like those “people” were right.  However, so far this season his numbers have jumped from solid respectable numbers to All-Star caliber numbers.

Runner up: Anderson Verajao

 

Sixth Man of the Mid-Year:

Jamal Crawford – Los Angeles Clippers (Shooting Guard)

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The Sixth Man of the Year award in my opinion is pretty simple.  It’s a player that doesn’t start but comes off the bench.  Regardless of coming off the bench and playing reserve minutes still contributes significantly statistically and is impactful (meaning intangibles not necessarily statistically measurable).  Normally this player is skillful enough to be a starter for the majority of the other teams in the league.  This is why often the sixth man of the year plays on an above average team.

It was pretty clear that the player that best fits this description is the L.A. Clippers’ Jamal Crawford.

Crawford is averaging 17ppg while shooting a very solid 38% from three point land.  Crawford shoots 89% from the charity stripe, meaning even though he may not start the game he is often times trusted to finish the game.  And let me point out he is averaging 17ppg in only 29mpg.  He gives the Clippers starter’s production while playing limited reserve minutes.  The definition of the perfect “spark plug” off the bench.

Runner Up: J.R. Smith

 

Defensive Player of the Mid-Year:

Roy Hibbert - Indiana Pacers (Center)

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Defense.  It’s a mindset and attitude.  It’s a commitment.  To be a great defensive player you have to make it a commitment.  Everyone in the NBA, in their own way, can score.  Just being in the NBA, period, means you have talent.  But everyone doesn’t play great defense.  It’s not because those players don’t have the physical talent or athleticism to play really good defense in their respective positions, because they do.  It’s why they are called professional “athletes”.  The physical ability is there.  So what separates good defenders from bad?

“Hustle” is a talent and an actual skill.  It’s actually more mental than physical, but it is a skill at the end of the day or everyone would be able to do it and do it really well (and we know that is not always the case).  Defense is not sexy and doesn’t get the same attention as the offensive end.  So a great defender makes sacrifices.  They make the sacrifice that they will expend energy on the defensive end knowing very well it may take away from their offensive game.  A great defender is normally a vocal leader, good communicator, and motivator as well, because you have to be the defensive anchor and run the defense the same way a point guard runs the offense.  A great defensive player leads the rest of the team to buy into the defensive system, being an extension of the coach on the court.

My pick of Defensive Player of the Mid-Year is Roy Hibbert.

Dwight Howard is not in the running the first half of the season due to the fact he plays on a team (Lakers) that gives up an average of 101ppg.  We are so used to just handing over the DPOY award to Howard every year, so when we don’t, we scratch our head and say “So yea, who else is out there?”.  The answer is Serge Ibaka, Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, and Lebron James to name a few.  Ibaka, Hibbert, Noah, and Chandler all have similar stats, 2-3 blocks per game, 8-10 rebounds per game, but it was their team’s defensive success is where I made the call.  Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers have the number one defense in the NBA.

Runner Ups: Lebron James, Joakim Noah

Coach of the Mid-Year:

Tom Thibodeau – Chicago Bulls

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One thing I don’t believe in when choosing a Coach of the Year is simply and solely looking at the win and loss columns for a certain team.  A team finishes with the best record, or maybe with a top 3 record in the NBA shouldn’t automatically make that coach a lock for COY.

For example the Clippers have the 3rd best record in the entire NBA but no one is handing Vinny Del Negro the COY award.  I would give the bulk of the credit for the Clippers success on the fact they have a MVP candidate running the show in Chris Paul, an explosive and athletic double-double player in Blake Griffin and a terrific bench consisting of savvy and productive veterans such as Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Eric Bledsoe, Grant Hill, and sixth man of the year favorite Jamal Crawford.

My top 3 choices are Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls), Greg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs), and Scott Brooks (Oklahoma City Thunder).

Scott Brooks, while having a great roster to work with and arguably the best player on the planet on his team, continues to have the Thunder improving year after year.  Even after losing their 3rd best player, James Harden, over the offseason, the Thunder still have the best record in the entire NBA.

Even more impressive is Greg Popovich.  He has his Spurs team with the second best record in the NBA even though year after year his aging star players keep getting a year older.  No one can defeat Father Time, except maybe Greg Popovich.

My pick for the Mid-Season Coach of the Year is Tom Thibodeau.

If Popovich is best at “working with what he’s got” then Tom Thibodeau is even more impressive “working with what he doesn’t have”.  Coach Pop keeps winning with aging players, Thibodeau keeps winning without players.  Despite the Bulls missing their best player (and arguably a top 5 player in the NBA when healthy) for what looks like to be more than half the season, and with nagging injuries to their second best player and glue guy Loul Deng and starting point guard Kirk Hinrich (thus forcing Thibs to play an unpredictable Nate Robinson or the rookie Marquis Teague at point), the Bulls are in the middle of the playoff race and only a few games out of first place in the entire Eastern Conference.  He always preaches to his players that they always have enough to compete and win ball games, and his players are buying in.  He’s the best defensive mind in the NBA and a great motivator as his forever hoarse voice is a testament to.

Runner Up: Greg Popovich

Most Valuable Player of the Mid-Year:

Kevin Durant – Oklahoma City Thunder (Small Foward)

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The top front-runners for this award mid-season (or the entire season for that matter) are Kevin Durant, Lebron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.  For the mid-season award I’m giving it to Kevin Durant.

Remember that MVP doesn’t mean “the best player” in the league.  It’s not called the best player award.  That award goes to Lebron James.  I give the edge to Lebron as being the “best player” because of assist numbers, passing, and ability to facilitate the offense as a Point Forward.  Lebron is definitely a more versatile player in that sense.

Both Durant’s and James’ stats are very similar.  But Durant is actually performing a little better this year.  Durant is averaging a crazy 30ppg compared to Lebron’s 26ppg.  James has a better field goal percentage than Durant 55% vs. 51% but that’s simply because they play two different styles.  Durant shoots significantly more jumpers and from 15-20 feet is a better shooter and scorer than Lebron.  And this is key for the playoffs when defenses are packing the paint and not letting any drives to the basket.  This leads to my next stat and that’s free throw shooting.

A defense’s entire game plan while playing against these two guys is going to be focused on them.  And in crunch time or the playoffs, defenders are going to send them to line rather than letting them having easy buckets or a slam dunk to excite the crowd.  And MVPs step up in these big moments and knock down free throws.  Durant is automatic from the line shooting 91% in contrast to Lebron’s pedestrian 73% (a tremendously great player like Lebron needs to bump that up to at least 80%+).

So far I just mentioned offense.  What about defense?  One may be thinking I’m forgetting about this category when evaluating Lebron because Lebron has such a great reputation as a superior defender (for his position).  And yes, I agree.  Every year Lebron is in the running for defensive player of the year.  However, so far this year has Lebron been that superior on the defensive end when compared to Durant?  Not this year.  Durant has stepped his game up on the defensive end.  This year Durant has the same defensive rating as James at 6.9, and averages the same amount of blocks (1) and steals (2) per game as James.

With the combination of some key superior stats and the fact Durant is leading his team with the best record in the entire NBA, I’m giving Durant the edge so far.  The keywords being “so far”.  The MVP race can completely change the second half the season.

Runner Up: Lebron James

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