We’re at the halfway point of the 2016-17 NBA season and we think we speak for everybody, no matter the team allegiance, when we say that this season has been one of the most dynamic ones we’ve seen in recent memory. Really, if you’ve been paying attention in the past two months, this season might as well be referred to as the 'Daily Breaking News' season. From Russell Westbrook’s triple double exploits to James Harden’s all-around brilliance, to Anthony Davis’ assault of 40-15 games, to Giannis Antetokounmpo’s game-by-game dose of highlight reels, we’ve seen pretty much everything this season. The fact that there’s still another half of NBA basketball left is enough for even the most hardened of cynics to melt in anticipation of what’s to come.
For now, though, let’s take this time to go back to the first half of the year and pick who the front-runners are for the individual player awards. These are not predictions, mind you, but more on who have made the biggest impressions on us and who deserve these awards at the equivalent of halftime in the 2016-2017 NBA season.
MVP: James Harden
Runner-Up: Russell Westbrook
We’re off to the races here with arguably the closest MVP race we’ve had since Kobe Bryant edged out Chris Paul in 2008. At the very least, we can all agree that there are two front-runners for this award. One is James Harden, who is turning in one of the most incredible comeback seasons in NBA history. He’s second in the league in scoring at 28.9 points per game. He’s leading the league in assists at 11.6 assists per game. He’s fifth in the league in PER at 28.01. Most of all, he’s the fulcrum, beating heart, or whatever else you want to call of it a Houston Rockets team that has overachieved more than a lot of people expected. Since starting the season at 11-7, Harden has led the Rockets to a 22-5 record and he’s doing it by doing just about everything for the team.
For all of that, he gets the nod as MVP in the hallway point of the season over a former teammate who himself is having one of the all-time great individual seasons in NBA history.
What else can you say about Russell Westbrook that hasn’t been said before? He leads the league in scoring (30.6 ppg), is second in assists (10.4 apg), 11th in rebounds (10.6 rpg, and is first in overall PER (29.54). Read back those stats again and those numbers don’t lie. Brodie is also averaging a triple double in the first half of the season. A triple double! Only once has that been done in NBA history!
So why did we pick Harden over Westbrook when we could’ve just as easily flipped our choice and nobody would be the wiser? We focused on team success, and the Rockets are just a better team with Harden orchestrating the strings than the Thunder are with Westbrook at the helm. It’s a razor-thin difference, but the Beard has (so far) earned this award.
Defensive Player of the Year: Draymond Green
Runner-Up: Rudy Gobert
For those who think that we're hating on the Golden State Warriors, how’s this for a dose of reality? Draymond Green is running away with the Defensive of the Player of the Year award and the only one that has a chance of taking votes away from him is Utah’s towering center, Rudy Gobert. But it’s Green’s award to lose at this point in the season and it’s all tied into the fact that the Warriors are the number one team in terms of defensive efficiency.
Granted, the Warriors and Jazz are so close to another that the rankings waffle between the two teams, but Green’s effect on the Warriors defense is indisputable. How many times has he made key stops down the stretch of games to preserve a win for the Warriors? At this point, it’s not worth bothering counting anymore.
Rookie of the Year: Joel Embiid
Of all the individual awards, this is the only one that’s a sure lock. The Process has been everything he’s been hyped up to be, and then some. So what if he’s under a 28-minute restriction and his team always rests him on the second night of a back-to-back. Embiid’s numbers are nothing short of spectacular and if you prorate them on a per 36-minute level (the same minutes that Anthony Davis plays every game), Embiid’s numbers jump up to an insane 28.2 ppg, 11 rpg, 3.4 bpg, and 1.6 3pg.
More than just the numbers, Embiid’s recent play has the Philadelphia 76ers—the same Sixers that tanked their way to three decrepit seasons—winning seven of its last 10 games and (dare I say) sniffing a late-season run for the eight seed in the playoffs. Don’t laugh. The Sixers aren’t tanking anymore and Embiid is leading the way.
Most Improved Player: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Runner-Up: Jabari Parker
Last season, Giannis Antetokounmpo established himself as a highlight-reel waiting to happen. This season, the Greek Freak has become the most exciting player to watch in the NBA. Yep. In a league featuring Russell Westbrook’s game-by-game triple double exploits, James Harden’s orchestration of a potent Houston Rockets offense, LeBron James being LeBron James, and the Golden State Warriors’ run for the most assists in league history, a 22-year old, 6’9” point guard/forward/center has become synonymous with 'Breaking News Alerts.' But beyond the highlights—and there’s a YouTube reel of them—Antetokounmpo is putting a funky Milwaukee Bucks team in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff run and the closest thing he has to a consistent help is the guy who is our runner-up for the same award we have the Greek Freak winning.
How about Jabari Parker, huh? A year ago, Parker was struggling mightily with his play. You could attribute that to rust since he did miss a significant part of his rookie season with an ACL injury. But the Parker we’re seeing now is the Parker that was worth the second overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not only is he scoring more than six points per game compared to last season, Parker’s also turned himself into a deadeye three-point shooter with a shooting percentage (40 percent) that’s higher than established marksmen like Kevin Durant, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and believe it or not, Stephen Curry. You read that right. Halfway through the 2016-2017 NBA season, Jabari Parker is shooting the three-ball at a higher percentage than the same player that connected on a record-shattering 402 threes last season. Let that sink in.
All-NBA First Team:
Four spots here are academic for obvious reasons. we don’t need to explain why Harden, Westbrook, Durant, and James are All-NBA First Teamers. The only spot we debated was the center spot, and while Anthony Davis makes a pretty convincing case, we can’t turn back on what Marc Gasol has done for the Memphis Grizzlies. The dude just knows how to win and he does everything his team asks of him and does them at superstar levels. He’s never going to get the recognition that he deserves, but Gasol has earned that center spot in the first team. If you want further proof, consider that the Grizzlies actually went 7-2 when Michael Conley went down with that spinal injury in late November. That incredible run had Gasol’s fingerprints all over it.
And, of course, let’s not forget about this game.
All-NBA Second Team:
At this point, we’re drawing straws here because you can make a case for the guys on the All-NBA Third Team for these five spots. Ultimately, we went with Steph and Lowry in the backcourt over CP3 and IT4 because of how important they are to the two best offenses in the NBA. Derozan takes one forward spot because of how his game has evolved into the closest thing we have to Kobe Bryant (it’s all about the footwork!). Leonard is another obvious choice and so is the Brow, who would’ve been in the first team if the New Orleans Pelicans had a better record.
All-NBA Third Team:
Once more, some obvious choices here with Chris Paul, Isaiah Thomas, Draymond Green, and the Greek Freak. The only one we waffled with was Cousins (we considered Rudy Gorbert in that spot), but in the end, there’s no denying that Boogie is the most dominant center in the league today and if we're going to acquiesce to the Davis making the second team, it wouldn’t be right if we didn’t give the same leeway to Cousins.
All-NBA Snub Team:
This is how deep the NBA is right now. We managed to come up with a 12-man roster of players who could make a case for themselves in any of the three All-NBA teams, except that they were all shut out from any of them. It’s literally an All-Star team of snubs. Welcome to the 2016-2017 NBA season, ladies and gentlemen.