Mid-season NBA Awards: Fresh and familiar faces

Individual accolades always seem to have special value in the NBA. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given the associations nature, where it’s completely driven by star power and captivating players. The 2018-2019 season is no different, as there’s plenty of talented players, both young and seasoned, headlining the NBA awards as we sit at the midseason point.

Most Valuable Player (MVP)- James Harden, Guard, Houston Rockets

The last few years I’ve completely whiffed on my prediction for MVP prior to the season beginning. For this year, I wisely chose to take all of my emotion out of my pick and simply go with what’s most realistic. “The beard” is beginning to seriously run away with the award for the second consecutive year.

The dude is just different. I had a feeling that another year of familiarity with head coach Mike D’Antoni, who fits like a glove when paired with dynamic point guards (namely Steve Nash in Phoenix), would bode well for Harden and heighten his chances of putting up MVP caliber numbers again.

Somehow, the 29 year old guard is outdoing himself after a historic MVP season a year ago. His points per game are at a career high, just under 35. He’s also averaging a career high of free throw makes and attempts per game at 9.8 and 11.3 respectively, which is good for 86% on the season. In addition, he continues to run the show and be a complete point guard, averaging 8.6 assists on the year.

Harden also just accomplished a historic feat that helps feed into his MVP narrative for this year. He just passed the great Kobe Bryant for most consecutive games with at least 30 points, at 17. That’s a special accomplishment, and a reminder to everyone that he’s one of the most unguardable players in league history.

Lastly and most importantly, Harden has completely resurrected Houston, who appeared dead in the water with a sub 500. record a quarter of a way through this season. Then Harden’s co star and all time great Point Guard Chris Paul went down with another hamstring injury a few days before Christmas. Since that time Harden has carried this Houston team, who now all of the sudden appear to be in good shape, sitting in fourth place in the western conference.

If that doesn’t indicate value, I don’t know what does. Paul will be returning soon, but Harden’s next best supporting piece after Paul, young center Clint Capela, is out for 4-6 weeks with a thumb injury. This short stretch without Paul and Capela will be a big challenge for Harden. If the staggering numbers and winning at this rate continue, it’ll be an easy selection for MVP in June.

Coach of the Year- Mike Budenholzer, Milwaukee Bucks

Up until this year, NBA fans were forced to wonder what the “Greek freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo would do when paired with a viable coach. I’m a Jason Kidd fan don’t get me wrong, but he wasn’t the right fit for this head coaching job. The Bucks moved on from him and hired former Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer and it’s completely paying off. The Bucks have taken that leap fans have been waiting for, currently sitting at second in the east with a 30-12 record.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Budenholzer getting the most out of solid but marginal squad. Back in 2015 he led the Hawks to a 60 win season and they had four all stars, the most by one team in NBA history. I respect the heck out of those all stars as players; Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague. But come on, those are all marginal players compared to other all stars. Give Budenholzer a boatload of credit for elevating that roster.

The Bucks are averaging 117.6 points per game as a team this year, that’s good for best in the league. Raise your hand if you thought Milwaukee would be the most prolific offense in the league this year. (Crickets) We just got done discussing James Harden as the front runner for MVP. The one man currently in his shadow is Antetokounmpo. He continues to show why he’s one of the best players in the world, averaging 26.7 points per game on 58% shooting. He’s also averaging 12 and a half rebounds and six assists to go along with it.

The “Greek Freak” is putting these videogame numbers up as 24 year old kid who still has so much left to learn about the game of basketball. I mean imagine if the guy had a mid range jump shot that defenders at least had to respect to some degree? It’d be quiet for the rest of the league and particularly the eastern conference if he rounds out his game.

I believe Budenholzer at the helm gives him the best chance to continue to grow as a player. And with Khris Middleton as a great sidekick to Giannis and a couple other solid role players to go along with them, look out for Milwaukee in the very near future.

Rookie of the Year (ROY)- Luka Doncic, Wing, Dallas Mavericks

There’s no discussion needed for this award halfway through the year. The Luka Doncic hype train can hardly hold its own weight at this point. Everyone’s falling in love with the Slovenia native who had an incredible path to young NBA stardom. He began playing for Real Madrid in the Euroleague as a 13 year old back in 2012, effectively putting my young teenage old self to shame. This kid has been bracing himself for a professional career in the NBA for a long time now.

Given his many years of preparation for the NBA, no one is shocked by his success. But in his first year for a bad Mavericks team, he’s exceeding everyone’s expectations. Doncic is averaging 20 points, close to seven boards, and five assists per game. He’s already got Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr’s approval for all star status as a rookie.

With all time great Mavericks scorer, fellow European basketball legend, and 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki with one foot out the door at age 40, Doncic will smoothly transition into the spot Nowitzki held for years as face of the Mavericks for the next decade plus. Mavs fans have a lot to be optimistic about going forward.

Most Improved Player (MIP)- Pascal Siakam, Forward, Toronto Raptors

Third year player from Cameroon Pascal Siakam has been the best kept secret in the NBA this year. Pretty soon the rising Raptors power forward will have NBA fans full attention. In year three Siakam is taking a huge jump in every facet of his game. He’s averaging 15.2 points per game, improving from his previous career high of 7.3. He’s averaging seven rebounds per game where his previous career high was 4.5.

As a young 6’9 power forward he’s also incredibly self aware of what today’s game requires of players. In his first two seasons Siakam shot 14% and 22% from three point range. This year he’s jumped up to 33% from beyond the arc. If he continues to steadily improve his jumper, he’s going to be a tough player to guard in this league for a while. In addition, from a shooting improvement standpoint, he’s always making 78% of his free throws. Last year he made just 62%.

Siakam’s team currently sits atop the NBA in terms of record. We all know Kawhi Leonard is the new driving force of that franchise, he’s played out of mind this season on both ends. Along with the likes of Jonas Valanciunas, Serge Ibaka, and Fred VanVleet, you need to add Siakam to the list of role players that will need to follow Leonard and play extremely well in order for the Raptors to reach their ultimate goal. They have a great opportunity to break through and finally win the Eastern Conference after years of coming up short.

-Simon Brady

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