With the NBA heading into the All-Star break, it's time to pick midseason awards and look back on the first half of this unusual 2011-12 campaign. To do so, we gathered our NBA analysts (Bradford Doolittle, Dan Feldman, Neil Paine and Kevin Pelton) around the proverbial round table for a conversation moderated by Kevin. Here's what they had to say.
Kevin: There have already been plenty of storylines in this shortened season. Which story from the first half of the season will have the most long-lasting impact?
Neil: I'm tempted to say the Dwight Howard trade situation, since he can shift the balance of power in the league by himself. However, it's not even clear the Magic is willing to move Howard, or what kind of pieces it would take the Lakers to convince them otherwise. With so many unknowns involved there, I'm going to go with a sure thing and pick the historically-outstanding play we've seen from LeBron James. He's performing at as high a level as any player, maybe ever, and because of that the Heat have to be the league's most feared potential playoff opponent. Last year, James' numbers were down as he adjusted to fitting in with Dwyane Wade & Chris Bosh, but this season he's back to where he was in Cleveland (only with a greatly-improved supporting cast). In my opinion, that makes Miami the title favorites--not only in 2012, but for the foreseeable future.
Dan: Linsanity. I don't think Jeremy Lin will keep up his torrid pace, but not only has he sparked the Knicks, not only has he drawn interest from fans across the nation, he's sparked a cultural discussion about the role of race in sports and, really, race in America.
Lin will change how NBA talent evaluators do their jobs. He'll change how Ivy League coaches recruit. But more importantly, he's already changed how the country views Asian-Americans. Where he Lin goes from here won't matter in that regard. His impact has already stretched beyond sports, which is more than any other NBA first-half story can say.
Bradford: If we're talking lasting impact, I'll have to go with the crystallization of the Thunder into a championship-level team. Sure, Oklahoma City seemed to be on that track anyway, but you never really know how these things are going to go. Russell Westbrook created a lot of doubters, myself included, with his latter-round playoff performance last season, but he and Kevin Durant have emerged as the kind of wicked one-two punch that can hang with any in the league, including Miami. Perhaps even more importantly, James Harden has become a Manu Ginobili-level third piece of that core. As young as OKC is, it seems apparent that the Thunder is going to be in the title conversation for the next few years.
Kevin: I tend to agree with Neil. Thanks to the adjustments Erik Spoelstra made over the offseason to get both James and Wade playing at the same high level together as they did apart, the Heat looks like the favorites to win the next four or five titles. If history has taught us anything, it's that we can't predict the future as well as we think we can, but history also has no equivalent of the James-Wade pairing.
So that leads to my next question: Is there an argument that anyone besides James should be MVP? Bradford, you already tweeted your answer to this one.
Dan: I think people could argue for Kevin Durant, but they'd be wrong. At this point, LeBron clearly deserves the award. Whether he'll get it is a totally different question. He deserved it last season, but he finished closer to fourth than second when MVP voters docked him for how he left Cleveland. I could see LeBron losing to Durant, who's playing well enough to stay in the race during the second half, for the same reason.
Bradford: Yeah, I was responding to an article that I saw that declared someone other than LeBron as the first-half MVP. Uh, no. James has been far and away the best player in the league this season. I mean, it's really not close, right? We are careful with how we use our metrics but sometimes the evidence is so overwhelming that you can't deny it. He's simply been on a different level, on both ends of the court. Plus he passes the 'what he's contributed to' test in leading Miami to the best record in the East even though Wade missed several games.
Neil: I think some will try to argue for Chris Paul on the basis of the Clippers' improved record. L.A. currently is on pace to have the biggest increase in winning percentage among playoff teams, and we know how much MVP voters like to give credit to "the new guy" (although the perception that Blake Griffin is somehow neck-and-neck with CP3 as the best player on that team--he isn't, btw--will cost Paul votes). Don't count out Derrick Rose, either--he won it last year with worse numbers than he's currently posting, and Chicago is once again battling with Miami for the East's top record. But I think Dan's right, the player most likely to beat James for MVP is Durant. Lots of media people have been looking for excuses to give him the MVP for a year and a half, and the Thunder finally ascending to the West's top seed is a pretty good excuse. I still don't see how you can ignore James' individual brilliance, though. When he posts semi-mortal numbers, like last year, you can try to justify a different MVP choice. But when he plays like he did in 2009, 2010, and now 2012, he makes it almost impossible to vote for anyone else.
Kevin: Alright, let's talk about Rookie of the Year. It's basically down to two point guards. To me, Kyrie Irving has a slight edge right now, but I could argue for either player. Anyone feel strongly about him or Ricky Rubio?
Dan: Not really. The race is too tight to call, or even to name a favorite. Although Irving and Rubio play the same position, that their styles are so different makes comparing them difficult. I doubt that challenge will get any easier, but that will make watching the competition play out even more enjoyable.
Neil: A lot of it depends on how you value Rubio's defense vs. Irving's, and how confident you are in that assessment. Most statistical systems agree that Rubio is a significantly better defender than Irving--Rubio's net defensive plus-minus is 4.0 (Minny D gets 4 pts/100 better when Rubio plays) and Irving's is -8.6; Rubio's defensive RAPM is +0.6 while Irving's is -2.0; various box-score estimates value Rubio as being between 1.5 and 5.0 pts/100 better than Irving defensively so far this season. We know that Irving has almost certainly been better than Rubio offensively (109.2 ORtg on 27.5% of possessions vs. Rubio's 100.4/20.8%), and that difference is worth about 3.5 pts/100 of efficiency differential ... So the question is, does Rubio make up the difference with defense? Or, given how much more uncertainty there is in our defensive metrics vs. our offensive ones, do we hedge toward a smaller number to describe Rubio's defensive advantage?
Bradford: I'd go with Rubio for now as the more complete player. I think he's done more on both ends to lift his team's fortunes, but both teams are much improved. Irving probably has a higher ceiling, but I think Rubio has had a greater impact this season. It's really close.
Kevin: Coach of the Year is always a difficult award, and picking it after 30-35 games of this condensed season is probably folly. Still, we're obligated to make a choice. Mine is Doug Collins, as even with the Sixers' recent slide I'm impressed with how this team has overachieved with mostly the same roster Collins inherited. Who do you like?
Dan: Frank Vogel is right there, but I'd take Collins, too. It seems like, to a man, he's getting the best out of the 76ers. I'll also take this moment to brag about my preseason coaching predictions (scroll past the part where I project the Celtics to win their division).
Bradford: One of us picked Philly to win the Atlantic. Who was that? Doesn't matter. I'll go with Collins as well.
Neil: Gotta go with Collins ... he's taken a roster with the talent to post something like a +1.5 efficiency differential (i.e., last year's Sixers), and instead has them playing +7.2 ball. That's really a remarkable accomplishment, albeit in a 34-game sample. Honorable mention would go to Rick Adelman (coaxed a .500 performance out of a team that went 17-65 a year ago), Larry Drew (keeping Hawks well above .500 when preseason signs pointed to a big decline), Nate McMillan (Portland is somehow fifth in SRS), and you have to give some love to Tom Thibodeau & Erik Spoelstra as well, even though we knew their teams were stacked with talent.
Kevin: I like the idea of rewarding Spoelstra. Often coaches of elite teams tend to get overlooked in these awards. Coach of the Year is really more like Most Improved Team. Speaking of which, I'm finally willing to discuss Most Improved Player because it looks like this year it might go to a player who actually, you know, improved. If Jeremy Lin keeps it up he's Most Improved ever, but I wouldn't write off Nikola Pekovic the way he's played lately. Anyone I'm overlooking, or who do you like among those two?
Neil: To run the risk of continuing my ongoing obsession with Ryan Anderson and his crazy stats, I think he deserves serious MIP consideration along with Lin. As much as Lin has improved, Anderson has arguably played at an even higher level this season, in twice as many minutes, and was pretty unheralded going into the season too (justifiably or not). If not Anderson, my vote would go to Nikola Pekovic, Mario Chalmers, DeMarcus Cousins, or Nicolas Batum (in that order).
Bradford: I don't know, I think Anderson has improved but as much as anything, he's just getting the amount of playing time he's always deserved. I've trumpeted him pretty loudly the last couple of years so for me at least, his production isn't a surprise at all.
Dan: If Lin holds, or even just stays within shouting distance of, his current production, he's the runaway winner. If not, I don't disagree with anyone previously noted, but I think there a few other contenders who haven't been mentioned. Byron Mullens has developed a nice offensive game after being useless his first two seasons. Spencer Hawes has turned into a beast on both ends of the floor. Greg Monroe has gone from putback specialist to serving as the focal point of the Pistons' offense at times.
Kevin: Ooh, I like Cousins too. Lots of actual, real improved this year. Moving on, it feels like this is the year Dwight Howard finally gives up his stranglehold on Defensive Player of the Year. Agree? And if so, who wins instead?
Neil: I don't think this is the year Howard loses the DPOY, even with Orlando slipping out of the top 10 in Defensive Rating. His current situation is really strange, like Hakeem in the '90s if he didn't have Robinson, Mutombo, and Mourning around to periodically challenge him for the award. Having said that, I think Andre Iguodala and Josh Smith should get long looks here as well. Contrary to what the GM survey says, Iguodala is the best perimeter defender in the game today.
Bradford: I think Iguodala is a good choice, but my pick would be LeBron James. He's absolutely erased opposing threes this season.
Dan: If Dwight was competing against himself for the award--and in voters' eyes, unfortunately, he might be--he could lose it. His defense certainly hasn't lived up to the lofty standards he set. But been so far ahead of the field the last few years, a down year still might make him the league's top defender. The other players mentioned--Andre Iguodala, LeBron James and Josh Smith--would be my other contenders, too. But if we're comparing Dwight to them and not his previous seasons--as we should--I'd still give a slight edge to the Magic center.
Kevin: Maybe this one's too early to call. It looks like most of the best other candidates are wings, and I'm typically skeptical that the best perimeter defender is better than the best post defender. Should we consider Kevin Garnett? I know he suffers more than Howard in a comparison to his prime, but the Celtics are still elite defensively and other than Jermaine O'Neal's 23 minutes a night he's not getting much help from the other bigs.
Speaking of award winners declining, we can be pretty certain Lamar Odom won't repeat as the Sixth Man Award recipient. Who's been this year's best player off the bench?
Neil: I still say James Harden should win Sixth Man, but it's hard to ignore what Lou Williams is doing--he leads the 76ers in scoring and PER, and hasn't started a single game all season. Others of note in my mind are Nicolas Batum and another Sixer, Thaddeus Young. Maybe they should just give Williams & Young co-Sixth Man of the Year? That alone speaks to Philly's ridiculous depth, that they can bring players of that caliber off the bench.
Bradford: I'm already on record as saying that Harden is the clear Sixth Man winner this year, but it's a good field of choices.
Dan: James Harden in a landslide.
Kevin: Good stuff, everybody. In part two next week, we'll talk about predictions for the second half and more.
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