NBA 2013-14 midseason hoedown: All-Star break midseason awards

With the All-Star break imminent, it’s time for midseason awards, or as they’re known, the least useful columns written all year. It doesn’t matter who’s MVP of the game at halftime. It matters when you can let the full meaning of the completed contest wash over you.

But oh, how we like having inane sports conversations around these parts.

Every year, one’s inclination is to look at the league halfway through the season and surmise, “I don’t think things will change all that much.”

This year in the NBA, I believe we have a case of just the opposite, where a lot seems poised to change. Maybe that’s just because things haven’t been according to plan (the Blazers, the Suns, the entire Eastern Conference), but there are other reasons involved, I assure you.

So before we get to the (phony) hardware, here are five things about the season thus far that I believe will change by the season’s end:

1. The Blazers will sag in the West

Damian Lillard is poised to become a darling superstar in the way Stephen Curry has been for the past year. He’ll make quite an imprint at All-Star weekend, and while it seems silly for a key cog of a playoff team to run himself ragged on his weekend off, he’s got a brand to build.

That said, Portland’s torrid start will not keep up through April. I see them encountering some problems in trying to sustain a top level for the entire season, given their youth. Their schedule picks up in the second half, and they’ve suffered a couple exposing losses. But Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge and, yes, Wesley Matthews are the makings of the core Portland has longed for since trying to group Aldridge with Greg Oden and Brandon Roy.

2. We will stop allowing Golden State to be this mediocre

For a team that stole our hearts in last year’s postseason before adding the best player of the team they upset in the first round, the Warriors sure have been secretly disappointing. Stephen Curry is still phenomenal to watch (unless you’re watching on defense), but the Dubs have actually been more successful when someone else has been their best player. The Warriors enter the All-Star break hanging on to the No. 8 seed, looking at a first round pairing with Oklahoma City, a team presumably headed for greener pastures.

Something has to give, either the Warriors will start churning out wins at the level we’ve expected them to or some of that Splash Brothers love will fade away. The Warriors have size, athleticism, shooting and defense. Maybe they miss the leadership of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry more than they thought they would.

3. The East will be better

 

There are very few teams in the East that cannot be classified as “getting better,” either in a long-term or a short-term sense. The teams that are getting better long term will continue to serve up victories to whomever they face, and the teams that are getting better short term — the Pistons, the Bobcats, the Nets, the Knicks, the Wizards, the Raptors, the Hawks, maybe the Cavaliers — will consume them more avidly. The Bulls could fall out of the race, but if so they’ll go down fighting. The Cavaliers are at a crossroads with firing their general manager, and they could get better or tailspin further. But the Raptors, Hawks and Wizards will continue to compete for the No. 3 seed, and the Knicks and Nets will fight to get in and over the last two slots. The East’s record in the NBA’s final 30 games should far exceed its record in the NBA’s first 30.

4. New Orleans and Utah will be strong opponents by year’s end

With both of these teams pretty comfortably out of the playoffs, there’s nothing to lose besides ping-pong balls and confidence to gain for next season. New Orleans will not win enough to contend for a playoff spot, but Anthony Davis is back and this team is fearsome, especially if they get a big man who can free up Davis offensively (Hello! Omer Asik! Hello!). Utah, meanwhile, continues to thrive with Trey Burke in the lineup, as it recently beat Miami. Look out for both of these teams next season.

5. The Lakers will sink to the bottom

The Kupchak family has to view these next couple of years as the perfect opportunity to pair Kobe Bryant with a young star and groom him, teach him what it takes to be a champion, an NBA star and a Los Angeles Laker. The Kings and the Jazz are both teams that are getting better with no risk of tarnishing their relatively high lottery odds. Utah recently beat Miami, and is secretly a wing away from having an incredibly imposing starting five. The Kings, meanwhile, are coming together with Rudy Gay, Isaiah Thomas and DeMarcus Cousins as a triple-threat that can win any given game with their scoring.

With this in mind, the Lakers are officially a Pau Gasol trade away from throwing in the towel completely on this year, letting the backcourt of Nick Young and Steve Nash ride off into the sunset. Kobe Bryant would rest his legs, if he was into that kind of thing. But he knows he’s got fewer than 200 games left in his NBA career, and he’s going to get that number as high as possible.

Here are three questions I’m simply incapable of predicting or answering.

1. Who is the third best team in the East?

Forget whether it’s relevant, who is actually top dog of the vermin below the royal couple of Indiana and Miami in the Eastern Conference? Washington has the best team on paper, but Toronto has played exceptional since trading Rudy Gay away and Atlanta has held on despite missing Al Horford, who will eventually return. Then there’s Chicago, a team that’s perpetually present in these conversations. Brooklyn is making a run to get into the thick of the standings and, if they put together a solid March and April, could find themselves in the third seed. I could honestly see any of those five teams getting it.

2. Who should be favored in the West?

The playoffs require a different kind of basketball than does the regular season, and it’s hard to say based on half a regular season who will succeed in the postseason. But we’ve got pretty interesting history to deal with. San Antonio had a great postseason but is an aging team that’s suffered heartbreaking postseason defeat after heartbreaking postseason defeat in recent years. Oklahoma City looks dominant in the regular season, but there are questions surrounding its defense and the ability of Kevin Durant to do it all himself when it matters most. And how will Russell Westbrook fit in? Portland doesn’t seem ready, but we thought that of Golden State last year, too. Golden State overachieved in last year’s playoffs, so presumably they’ll be a tough out this year. The Clippers have underperformed in recent postseason, but Blake Griffin has evolved and Doc Rivers has the team playing much better, with a new level of maturity. Houston is an unknown.

Ultimately, I think it comes down between San Antonio and Oklahoma City as to who should be favored. I simply won’t pick between them.

3. Which player is the apple of tankapalooza’s eye?

This isn’t so much a pro basketball question, but seriously. “Sorry for Jabari,” “Riggin’ for Wiggins,” and “Fart for Smart” have all been used as tank campaign monikers this season. But Joel Embiid is the current projected No. 1? Is this draft class as good as we thought it was? I believe who goes first depends on who gets the pick, but it’s strange at this point in the season to have no clue on a class that’s supposed to decorate the future of the NBA. Personally, I’d like to see Jabari Parker in Utah (because Parker’s Mormon faith is too perfect a fit for him to go anywhere else), Marcus Smart in Sacramento (pairing him with DeMarcus Cousins would make the Kings sort of a Bad Boys club), Andrew Wiggins in Lakers yellow, and Embiid in Milwaukee with Larry Sanders and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Come to think of it, maybe this draft is more of a “who fits” situation than a “who’s best” one.

On to the midseason awards.

MVP: Kevin Durant

There’s just no case for anyone else, period. Durant has been the only 80/80 guy, or so I shall call him. He has been his team’s best player in at least 80 percent of its games, and has won at least 80 percent of the time he has been his team’s best player. This points to consistency and drive. And superstardom. It’s a long time coming for Durant, who has been No. 2 for his entire NBA career.

This could change if: Russell Westbrook comes back, Durant takes his foot off the gas pedal, and either the Knicks get really hot or the Heat make it a race with the Pacers for the top spot.

Rookie of the Year: Trey Burke

What was thought to be a race between Victor Oladipo and Michael Carter-Williams really isn’t one. Burke has come in and turned the mentality of the Utah Jazz completely around. Unlike his rookie counterparts, Burke’s play has made his team better and led to wins. He’s had a few dazzling statistical nights, but his main contribution is bringing an energy to Jazz games that provides hope for the near future.

This could change if: Michael Carter-Williams instills a similar feeling when Nerlens Noel returns, and the 76ers start winning more.

Sixth Man of the Year: Taj Gibson

Is it OK to talk about this? Usually a Sixth Man award goes to the first bench player found in the PPG statistical leaders, which is fine, since bench points are great and scoring is how you determine a winner in basketball. But Taj Gibson is practically a starter for these Bulls, and he’s having his best season yet. He’s developed a midrange jumpshot reminiscent of Udonis Haslem in his heyday and competes with an intensity in the paint that makes him Tom Thibodeau’s preferred option down the stretch of games. It’s somewhat like cheating, given that he’s in the end of games, but no sixth man has made the difference for their team that Gibson has. Given that he’s a power forward who hangs his hat on intangibles, he’s unlikely to actually win this award. But he’s the most impactful bench player in the league.

This could change if: Someone makes a run. Gibson is a hard-hat worker underneath, but if Harrison Barnes, Manu Ginobili or even Ray Allen were to have a role in a late-season charge, Gibson will be forgotten easily.

Defensive Player of the Year: Roy Hibbert

Hibbert anchors the league’s most devastating defensive attack for Frank Vogel, who’s managed to field a better defensive team than Tom Thibodeau. Hibbert’s block numbers trail leapers Anthony Davis and Serge Ibaka, but both of those players lack the presence Hibbert has — he probably alters more shots per game than either of those two. He changes the game for the Pacers in ways both noticeable and undetectable.

This could change if: The Pacers have the East in hand and Hibbert lets up while the Clippers charge and DeAndre Jordan slips in. Jordan is neck-and-neck with Hibbert in the blocks race, and if he weren’t such a shooting liability, he’d be an All-Star caliber player.

Most Improved Player: Anthony Davis

It’ll be interesting to see how The Brow develops in his career. He’s a quick, athletic forward who’s probably overexerting himself as the Pelicans’ only reputable defensive threat. New Orleans has a lot of pressure to make a postseason run next year with the stardom that he’s achieved. If the Pellies can’t achieve, Davis may turn from league darling to underachiever, which is frankly unfair.

This could change if: We decide he was too good last year to be considered “improved.” If that’s the case, it’s hard to turn down Lance Stephenson’s efforts.

Coach of the Year: Jeff Hornacek

Coaching the Phoenix Suns to a playoff spot is an achievement to which I don’t think enough credit can be given. Not only was Phoenix not expected to win at the beginning of the year, they’re still not that good on paper. It’s really just a bunch of mediocre players playing well. Hornacek and company still have to fend off Memphis, Golden State and Dallas (one of them, at least) to hang on in the West, but this team should get even stronger once it gets Eric Bledsoe back.

This could change if: The Bulls earn the No. 3 spot in the East, or if the Suns fall out of the playoffs, in which case David Joerger of the Grizzlies (likely the coach of the team that would take Phoenix’s spot) or Terry Stotts of the Trailblazers should get the nod.

All-NBA First Team:

G Chris Paul

G Stephen Curry

F Kevin Durant

F LeBron James

C Dwight Howard

Second Team

G Tony Parker

G Dwyane Wade

F Carmelo Anthony

F Blake Griffin

C Roy Hibbert

Third Team

G Goran Dragic

G John Wall

F Paul George

F Kevin Love

C Tim Duncan

All-Rookie Team

G Trey Burke

G Michael Carter-Williams

F Giannis Antetokounmpo

F Mason Plumlee

C Steven Adams

All-Defensive Team

G Chris Paul

G Thabo Sefolosha

F LeBron James

F Anthony Davis

C Roy Hibbert

Briefly looking at these, I’m betting on Chris Paul coming back strong off his injury. And while I don’t think Dwyane Wade is one of the best five shooting guards in the league, his reputation and the lack of elite shooting guards has him in line for an undeserved spot high up in the pecking order here. Same with Tim Duncan, as I feel he gets a majority of the credit for the Spurs’ success while Joakim Noah plays far better basketball. If I were to pick five players in the classic “the aliens are coming” game, I would move James to the point guard spot, put Paul George and Kevin Durant on the wings, and pair Kevin Love and Roy Hibbert down low. Though you could make an argument for Griffin or Duncan (whose fundamentals and ability to be effective without scoring would add to his value) would fit better than Love.

Eliot is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @EliotTweet.