Under The Bleachers: NBA Awards At The All-Star Break

Above: James Harden, Houston Rockets

This weekend, the best and brightest* in the NBA are in The Big Apple for All-Star Weekend.

About that asterisk: it’s not quite the absolute best and brightest, as there are a ton of dudes that have gotten hurt and won’t be playing, which is yet another reason why All-Star Games remain a ridiculous exercise, but still, it’s a host of the top players in the NBA basically playing pick-up on Sunday, with the Rising  Stars Challenge: USA vs. The World on Friday and the 3-Point Shootout, Slam Dunk Contest and Skills Competition going down on Saturday night.

The All-Star Break marks the symbolic midway point of the season and present an opportiunity top hand out some hardware for MVP, Rookie of the Year, Coach of the Year and a few other awards. Things may change by the end of the season, but as of right now, here who is taking home the awards.

Most Valuable Player: James Harden, Houston Rockets

Stephen Curry has been terrific, Anthony Davis is an absolute animal and LeBron James has been “Peak LeBron” since his little two-week hiatus when he stopped playing to make all those trades, but Harden has showed improvements on the defensive side of the ball this year and carried a Houston squad that has dealt with Dwight Howard being banged up for stretches this season. “The Beard” leads the league in scoring (27.4) and chips in 6.8 assists and 5.7 rebounds and an even 2 steals per game.

As much as Curry is Top 10 in scoring and Top 5 in assists for the best team in the league, he’s also got another Top 10 scorer as a running mate and a better overall supporting cast. If you pulled Harden from the Rockets, they’d plummet in the standings and miss the playoffs. Golden State wouldn’t be as good, but they’d get by without Steph and New Orleans isn’t in the playoffs now with Anthony Davis doing otherworldly things on the court, pre-injury.

There is a lot of anti-Harden hostility out there, but the guy has been the best player in the league this year, no question.

Rookie of the Year: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves

This isn’t even a race, in part because some many of this year’s top rookies have gone down with injuries. With Jabari Parker and Julius Randle going down early in the season and Wiggins’ Kansas teammate Joel Embiid not even suiting up this year, the Canadian should cruise to the trophy as the top freshman in the NBA. Having said that, even if those guys were healthy and playing well, this would be Wiggins’ award.

The No. 1 overall pick has been a more aggressive, more dominant player through the first half of his first season in The Association than he was last year in college. People started questioning whether he was going to be a superstar last year because he didn’t take over games and dominate the way you would expect a superstar-in-waiting to do so on the college level, but he’s showing those skills this season in Minnesota and still has plenty of room to grow.

It’s going to be real interesting to revisit The Kevin Love Trade in two or three years.

Coach of the Year: Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks

For anyone wanting to make the case for Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors, the team’s former coach, Mark Jackson, summed up his candidacy best during one of their games earlier this season when he said something to the effect of “Don’t forget about the caterpillar when you’re praising the beautiful butterfly.” As well as Kerr has done, he did inherit a team that won 50 games two years in a row and came with a deep and talented roster.

Coach Buds, on the other hand, has taken basically the same team that finished below .500 last season without the services of Al Horford and turned them into the top seed in the Eastern Conference and second place in the whole damn league. They’ve bought into his system, found a rotation and flow that works for them and are firing on all cylinders.

Sixth Man of the Year: Lou Williams, Toronto Raptors

As good as Atlanta has been this season, imagine if they had kept Williams around? Now playing here in The Great White North, “Sweet Lou” has been a godsend to the Raptors – an instant offensive spark off the bench who has lead the team in scoring several times this season. Though he’s had a couple spells where his touch was off, more often than naught, the 28-year-old veteran has given Toronto solid production off the pine.

He’s being asked to focus almost exclusively on scoring this year after being a combo guard for his first seven seasons, so while his secondary stats and percentages are down across the board, he’s improved his scoring average by almost four points per game. Come playoff time, it’s nice to be able to turn to a weapon like Williams off the bench if the first unit runs cold or needs a rest.

Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

DeAndre Jordan will probably take home the actual award at the end of the year since he’s leading the league in rebounding and is second in blocks, but Green is the engine that powers the best defensive unit in the league.

The former second-round pick out of Michigan State is a throwback of sorts – he’s the kind of fundamentally sound, make the right decisions, high IQ guy that got overshadowed for a few years when everyone was focused on finding the best athletes. Green isn’t the quickest or the strongest or a plus athlete, but he has tremendous instincts, helps well, and is a floor general on the defensive end. He makes everyone else on the Warriors better defenders and those kinds of guys deserve recognition ahead of players putting up gaudy numbers.

Most Improved Player: Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls

Green deserves consideration here as well, but he’s always been a strong glue guy and his stats are up simply because he’s playing more. But did anyone expect Butler to be averaging 20 points per game at the break at the start of the season? If you’re nodding yes, you’re lying.

The third-year man out of Marquette is averaging career highs across the board while nearly doubling his career scoring average. Words don’t do his improvements justice:

2013-14: 13.1ppg / 4.9rpg / 2.6apg on .397 FG%, .283 3P%
2014-15: 20.4ppg / 5.8rpg/ 3.2apg on .461 FG%, .342 3P%

A seven-point jump in scoring average with better percentages and increases in rebounds and assists on a team that has Derrick Rose back and Pau Gasol wanting looks? He cooled off a little in January, but he’s picking it back up again so far in February and should get an added confidence boost from playing in the All-Star Game on Sunday.

Tags: NBA, Under the Bleachers

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