NBA teams last week passed the season’s midway point and made the turn headed for home. So near the halfway point, here’s a look ahead at how the competition for the league’s major awards are shaping up:
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio
Houston’s James Harden and Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook have led the conversation so far because of their nightly pursuit of triple-doubles not seen since a guy named Oscar Robertson once played. But don’t sleep on Leonard, who’s the best player on both ends of the floor for a remade Spurs team that has started the season 33-9. He’s also currently the best two-way player in the game, a devastating defender who has turned himself into a three-point shooter and 25 points a game scorer.
Coach of the Year
Mike D’Antoni, Houston
You knew the formerly dysfunctional Rockets could outscore everybody when they hired an offensive savant and the 2004-05 Coach of the Year as their next coach, but how were they going to defend, right? Answer: Well enough. James Harden always handled the ball like a point guard anyway, so D’Antoni gave him the official title and then he let Harden and the Rockets go, go, go. They have, all the way to a 33-13 season start utilizing a style of play that epitomizes analytics’ layups-and-threes edict. “That’s the league now,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said, “but they’re at a different level. He’s the right coach for the right team.”
Rookie of the Year
Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
Two years in the making, Embiid’s Rookie of the Year season is here and, barring yet another injury, it won’t be even close for a guy who might be starting next month’s All-Star Game if the NBA still had the center’s destination on the ballot. Those two seasons lost to foot injuries allowed him to develop his body and his shot, all the way to three-point range. He’s averaging 19.9 points and 7.8 rebounds while still on a playing-time restriction. If the 2014 draft were held all today and a general manager had enough faith in the future, he’d clearly be the top pick over Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
Most Improved Player
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
Selected 15th overall in 2013 one pick after Shabazz Muhammad went to the Wolves, he is delivering a breakthrough season with the ball placed in his hands, from blooming prospect to full-blown star. It’s the kind of season — nearly 24 points and nine rebounds a game — that not only has made him an NBA All-Star Game starter for the first time, Antetokounmpo is playing so well that people might even learn to correctly spell his surname.
Sixth Man of the Year
Eric Gordon, Houston
The Rockets don’t go solely as Harden goes. They also go as Gordon goes off the bench with a 17.5 point scoring average. Signed to a four-year, $53 million contract last summer that seemed rich given his injury history, Gordon has been an astute investment. Both he and newly added Ryan Anderson spread the floor and perfectly fit a team that loves the three.
Defensive Player of the Year
Leonard, San Antonio
He’s won the last two and is deserving of a third because he keeps getting better, shutting down opponents and passing lanes with his great reach and huge hands. Utah’s Rudy Gobert, Golden State’s Draymond Green and Miami’s Hassan Whiteside are in the discussion, too. But they’re runners-up, unless there’s a backlash against Leonard’s defense because he’s gotten too good offensively, too.
All NBA First Team
Forwards: LeBron James, Cleveland, and Kevin Durant, Golden State. Center: Marc Gasol, Memphis. Guards: James Harden, Houston, and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City.
• On the eve of Friday’s Inauguration, Clippers coach Doc Rivers reminisced about President Barack Obama’s eight years in office, calling his “grace and humility” a model for players in his locker room.
He noted how Chris Paul, Stephen Curry, LeBron James and others established friendships with the nation’s first black president.
“I appreciate how much he loved our game,” Rivers said. “He loved sports in general, but he really likes basketball. He has befriended Chris and Curry and LeBron and all these guys. They had a chance to spend time with him. To spend time with a guy like that, who is who he is, has really helped our league in a big way.’’
• Young Wolves star Karl-Anthony Towns used a TNT Thursday night stage to make his case for an All-Star Game invitation with his 37-point, 12-rebound, five-assist performance in Thursday’s 104-101 victory over the Clippers in L.A.
“The question of the day is, will [Towns] make the All-Star team,” TNT analyst Chris Webber said during the broadcast. “I say yes. He wasn’t on my reserves, but I still think he’s making it. He’s an excellent young talent. Great poise, great touch for a big man.”
• Rivers praised the Wolves’ three young stars before they beat his injury-depleted Clippers Thursday, particularly third-year guard Zach LaVine. “LaVine is the guy who has improved the most,” Rivers said. “I’m a big fan just because of the way he plays. You watch him before the game: His workouts, he’s really serious about basketball. When you’re that talented and you’re serious, usually good things happen.”
Wolves WEEK AHEAD
Sunday: 6 p.m. vs. Denver
Tuesday: 8 p.m. at Phoenix
Thursday: 7 p.m. vs. Indiana
Saturday: 8 p.m. vs. Brooklyn
Sun., Thu., Sat. FSN; Tue. FSN+
Player to Watch: Paul George, Pacers
Back to being the same terrific two-way player he was before he broke his leg in summer 2014, he also leads the NBA in free-throw percentage (.925) for the league’s best free-throw shooting team.
“I just want to know who the other two idiots were who voted for me.”
Wolves veteran Cole Aldrich after he voted for himself and got three votes in player balloting for All-Star Game starters.
Twitter: @JerryZgoda, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, Blog: startribune.com/wolves