The NBA season has reached its midway point, and while recent discussions have spotlighted referees, fights and, of course, LaVar Ball, there have been plenty of award-worthy performances on the court—as well as from the sidelines and in front offices.
In an effort to sort out who deserves what thus far, Bleacher Report has assembled seven hoops scribes to offer their selections for each of the league's major awards.
To be extra clear: This exercise is not a look at who will eventually take home the hardware; it's an evaluation of who tops each list if the season were to end today.
Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich
Gregg Popovich could win this award every year, just as Michael Jordan could've won MVP. But this has been a particularly steady coaching job from Pop, who has dealt with Tony Parker's declining play and the absence and ineffectiveness of Kawhi Leonard.
Still, Pop has guided San Antonio to a 30-18 record, which is tied for the third-best record in the West. All this while still finding time to troll the president every once in a while.
Executive of the Year: Danny Ainge
Sam Presti traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Daryl Morey procured one of the greatest point guards in league history. Scott Layden picked up a top-tier talent in Jimmy Butler.
And yet, this award belongs to Danny Ainge at the season's midway point.
With apologies to fans in Philly, Ainge has trusted his process. He's been patient, savvy and strategic, and after finding the perfect moment to finally swap assets (and an admittedly proven player in Isaiah Thomas) for elite talent, he and his Celtics have firm control of the first seed out East.
The wild part? We're not even talking about Gordon Hayward. Forty-plus games into the season, Ainge's biggest free-agent splash is an afterthought despite crumpling to the hardwood just minutes into his Celtics career. For the record: That's not an indictment on the impact Hayward would've had; it's a testament to how well Ainge has built this roster to support its stars.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joel Embiid
This was a tough one with all the injuries this season. But I'm going with Joel Embiid. Yes, Embiid. He's a monster defensively. Shockingly, the 76ers are a top-three defensive team this season, and it all starts with the man in the middle. Embiid is one of five players to average at least two blocks per game, but two other advanced metrics put him over the top for me; opponents are shooting just 51.1 percent at the rim with him nearby, the second-lowest in the NBA, per NBA.com player tracking; when he's on the floor, the 76ers allow just 99.7 points per 100 possessions (which matches Boston's No. 1 defensive rating) compared to 105.4 with him on the bench.
That's huge impact. Who would have thought the 76ers, with such a young core, would have this kind of stingy defense already? Well, Embiid probably thought so. Because he knows all.
Most Improved Player: Victor Oladipo
With the Oklahoma City Thunder, Victor Oladipo was almost an afterthought to the triple-double stylings of Russell Westbrook, content to operate in the shadows while his point guard racked up counting stats and kept his squad in the playoff picture. But after an offseason move to the Indiana Pacers placed him in front of adoring crowds who formerly supported him as a Hoosier—cue the patented "this is my city" celebration—the shooting guard has become an unabashed superstar capable of turning departed franchise legend Paul George into the afterthought.
Oladipo, now averaging a stunning 24.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists while shooting 48.4 percent from the field, 40.2 percent from downtown and 79.4 percent at the free-throw line, looks comfortable in every facet of the game. He can rain on spot-up jumpers. He can run the show in the pick-and-roll. He can hold his own defensively. He can take—and make—clutch buckets. Everything has clicked.
Most Improved Player is often an inscrutable award with nebulous criteria. Some years, it goes to a plateauing player with the luxury of receiving far more run. Other times, it validates the growing success of someone who actually improved his game. Other seasons still, it rewards a beneficiary of shifting roster construction that places him in a more advantageous role.
But even with other strong candidates such as Andre Drummond, Oladipo is making this easy because he's checking all the boxes and making the quantum leap into the realm of celestial presences.
Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams
Lou Williams may have saved the Los Angeles Clippers' season when he averaged 23.8 points per game and helped salvage a 6-8 record during Blake Griffin's 14-game absence (Nov. 30-Dec. 26). He also hung 50 points on the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 10 (again with Griffin sidelined) to end L.A.'s 12-game losing streak against the Dubs.
Williams has been his team's most reliable source of scoring all year, so it's not like he needed that high-profile outburst to bolster his candidacy. But it sure helped.
Often, the bench gunners who contend for this award occupy that role because they can't sustain their scoring verve over long stretches against front-line opponents. They sneak into the game against backups and generate high-volume, moderate-efficiency offense. Think Jamal Crawford.
Williams has been something more than that this season, posting a higher scoring average and true shooting percentage in his starts than in bench appearances. He's a borderline All-Star averaging over 23 points per game, shooting better than 40 percent from deep and frequently carrying a team that needs every bucket it can get. He's the no-brainer selection.
Tyreke Evans had a chance to make this interesting, but the Memphis Grizzlies' rash of injuries pushed him into first-unit duties a few too many times. Now that he's started more than half of his team's games, he's ineligible for the award. That could change if Evans is traded to another team and resumes coming off the bench, but even then, he'd have to up his game to give Williams a run.
Rookie of the Year: Ben Simmons
Rookie of the Year is mushrooming into an actual debate. Whereas Ben Simmons looked like he would run away with the honor, Donovan Mitchell has a real case, as the primary hub of a possible playoff hopeful.
Simmons has to be the pick anyway. His numbers aren't as glitzy as they once were, and the Philadelphia 76ers' performance when he plays without Joel Embiid verges on terrible. But the latter is true of pretty much anyone else on the team, and most importantly, Simmons has needed to ferry a larger workload over a longer period of time.
That he's shooting better than 74 percent inside three feet despite the complete absence of a jumper attests to his craftiness off the dribble and in the post—not to mention how much defenses already think of his vision, which he leverages into more space. And while Simmons is a work-in-progress defender, his lineups sans Embiid are fairly effective at that end, and he has quick hands that help him recover when caught out of position.
Worrying about Philly's overall result when he runs solo comes later, when he's not new to this whole NBA thing. For now, we have to appreciate that he, unlike any other rookie, has fared like a fringe All-Star for just about the entire season.
MVP: James Harden
This is how deep the NBA's talent pool is right now: Nearly a dozen players could make a case for midseason MVP.
Kyrie Irving has Boston sitting atop the East. Jimmy Butler has lifted Minnesota into the West's top tier. DeMar DeRozan is having a career year in Toronto. Even LaMarcus Aldridge can stake a claim, by keeping San Antonio in contention despite the absence of (2016-17 MVP candidate) Kawhi Leonard. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis could win support on their gaudy stats alone.
But Harden is the choice in this space. My MVP definition is the same as it's always been: individual excellence, combined with team success. You need both. And though my fellow voters ditched three decades of precedent last season in selecting Westbrook (despite his team's sixth-place finish), I still believe the MVP should come from a top-tier team—i.e., top three in their conference.
Harden checks all the boxes. He's been blistering as a scorer, with a league-leading 31.5 points per game, and brilliant as a playmaker (9.0 assists per game). He's found a way to dominate while integrating Chris Paul, a Hall of Fame point guard, as his new backcourt mate. And significantly, the Rockets are second in the West, and on pace for 60 wins, despite losing Paul for 17 of their first 44 games.
Warriors co-stars Durant and Curry both have the stats to merit consideration—but it's hard to separate their cases right now. LeBron's candidacy is crimped by the Cavs' current tailspin. The Thunder haven't won enough to justify a vote for Westbrook.
But it's only January. This race is certain to go down to the wire in April.