NBA awards at All-Star break: From James Harden's brilliance to overachieving Celtics
Some of the best and worst from the league as we head into the home stretch of the season
You might not realize it, but the NBA regular season is hitting the home stretch. When action resumes on Thursday after the All-Star break, teams will have between 21 and 27 games remaining. A lot is still to be decided. It figures to be quite a sprint to the finish in terms of playoff seeding and lottery odds. But it's already been a wild season to this point. Let's hand out a few awards based on what we've seen so far.
Best Game-Winning Shot
- Denver's Gary Harris stuns the Thunder
Did Jokic commit any violations on the inbounds pass?— Ballislife.com (@Ballislife) February 2, 2018
This was also, arguably, the Game of the Year so far, with the Nuggets and Thunder trading clutch shot after clutch shot down the stretch of what could turn out to be a pretty pivotal game. Seconds before Harris hit this beauty, Paul George -- who largely carried the Thunder back from a 15-point halftime deficit with 43 points on the night -- had tied the game with a step-back three with 1.4 seconds remaining.
But then Russell Westbrook fell asleep, Nikola Jokic threw a perfect pass to Harris (we'll just ignore, as the refs did, that he took well over five seconds to inbound the ball), and Harris sent the crowd into a frenzy. Not only was this a thrilling shot to cap a thrilling game, but the playoff implications could be huge. Coming out of the All-Star break, Denver trails OKC for the No. 5 seed by 1/2 game.
- Giannis jumps over Tim Hardaway Jr.
So....this is the DUNK OF THE YEAR right??— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) February 7, 2018
Asking for a friend... pic.twitter.com/SmbEpE2JiY
Tim Hardaway Jr. is listed at 6-foot-6. The Freak, with his arms fully extended, is at least seven and a half feet. Subtract about a foot and half for the length of Giannis' shin (his knee was about even with Hardaway's head), and some quick math will tell you Giannis was close to 13 feet high on this leap, which is the height of the TOP of the backboard.
Not the top of the square. The top of the whole backboard.
He did this, mind you, on an alley-oop.
Best Dribbling Display
- Kyrie the spin doctor
When people talk about who has the best handles in the league, Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry are the two names that come up most often, but for my money even Curry pales in comparison to Kyrie, who is the best ball handler to ever play. Nobody has ever had a tighter handle that Uncle Drew. This exhibition he put on against Milwaukee conjures images of Houdini escaping from a straight jacket.
- LeBron's backward bounce
LeBron James passed the 30,000-point mark for his career this year, good enough for seventh all-time, and yet you could easily argue that the best part of his game is his passing. I've been saving great passes all year to go back and look at, and I have to say that when it comes to sheer quantity of incredible dimes, nobody has more than James Harden this year. But no single pass has been better than this one LeBron dropped.
First of all, to even anticipate that play opening up with your back to the basket is an awareness only a few players in history have had. But then, to sling a backward bounce pass right on the money to a moving target at the snap of a finger? That is just brilliance, plain and simple.
- Welcome back to Miami, D-Wade
There have been plenty of better blocks this year from a sheer highlight/athleticism standpoint, but none gave us the feels like Dwyane Wade making this big-time save in his first game back in Miami after Cleveland sent him home at the trade deadline.
Father Prime coming in clutch for the Heat 🔥 pic.twitter.com/hDoTYF9JJw— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 10, 2018
As you can see, the Heat were clinging to a four-point lead with under a minute to play. If Bledsoe converts that layup, Milwaukee is down two with enough time on the clock to still get the final shot. That was a huge play by Wade to seal a big victory in his return, and the Miami crowd went nuts. One of the cooler moments of the year so far.
Best Single-Game Performance
- James Harden's 60-point triple-double
Harden's line against the Magic on January 31st was silly: 60 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, 4 steals and 1 block -- and those 60 points, which broke Calvin Murphy's previous franchise record of 57, came on just 30 shots. Two points per shot! You tally the first 60-point triple-double in history in any fashion, and you've done work. But to do it with that kind of efficiency? Bonkers.
Most Overachieving Team
- Denver Nuggets
- Boston Celtics
Another tie, but we'll start with the Nuggets. If you're a casual NBA fan, you likely don't realize just how fun the Nuggets are to watch this season. Nikola Jokic, Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, these boys can get up and down and score and make plays with anyone. That they're currently within three games of a top-three seed in the West is one of the really unexpected stories when you consider Paul Millsap, their prize offseason signing, hasn't played since mid-November because of a wrist injury. If Millsap does come back at full strength some time around March, this is a team that has a legit shot to secure home-court in the first round -- which, again, would probably be a real shock to anyone not paying close attention.
For Boston, it's really remarkable what they've done so far this season after everyone pretty much wrote them off the moment Gordon Hayward went down with that gruesome ankle injury in the season opener. Don't get me wrong, the Celtics are a good team, but they're flawed -- too reliant on Kyrie Irving to create the majority of their offense and they depend heavily on a lot of young players. When Hayward went down, I think people honestly questioned whether this team could even secure a top-four seed in the East. Instead, they've been the best team in the conference for the majority of the season and are on pace to win 56 games, their recent slide notwithstanding.
Most Underachieving Team
- Oklahoma City Thunder
Last year, the Thunder won 47 games with Russell Westbrook basically playing 1 on 5. This year they added Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and they're currently on pace for ... 46 wins. We get excited about the way they look against the elite teams (they've dominated the Warriors twice), but the bottom line is a team with three future Hall of Famers is one losing streak from being out of the playoffs.
Biggest Championship Sleeper
- Toronto Raptors
Two teams in the league right now are top-five in both offensive and defensive efficiency. One is the Warriors, who get plenty of love. The other is the Raptors, who rank fourth in both offense and defense and are currently the top seed in the East -- and yet, nobody takes them seriously as a title contender, mainly because of their past playoff struggles. But this is a different team.
DeMar DeRozan should be a top-four MVP candidate. They have a terrific bench. They play hard and smart. They shoot a lot of threes (though they could stand to make a few more), so if they're on they won't lose the math game they have in years past with all their mid-range jumpers. And they have two stars in DeRozan and Lowry who can get their own buckets when things tighten up with more advanced scouting in the playoffs. For my money, this is the Finals favorite in the East -- at least until we see a little more from this revamped Cleveland team.
- Victor Oladipo
When Oladipo was dealt along with Domantas Sabonis to the Pacer in exchange for Paul George, just about every expert on the planet said Indiana got fleeced. Turns out, not so much. Oladipo has been amazing this season, becoming a first-time All-Star while averaging a career high in points (24.4), rebounds (5.3) and assists (4.1), and he's third in the league with 2.1 steals per game. The 24 points a game is a huge just from the 15.9 he averaged last year in OKC, and barring something unforeseen, I can't envision any scenario in which Oladipo doesn't win Most Improved Player and Indiana doesn't make the playoffs, which is not something many people expected going into the season.
Most tough-luck season
- Isaiah Thomas
At this time last year, Isaiah Thomas was the toast of Boston and heading for a potential max-salary payday. Now, are we even sure he's going to get $10 million a year? Lou Williams just got $8 million a year, and right now, it's pretty obvious that Sweet Lou is better than Isaiah as a very similar player and he's only two years older. Not that we should cry for anyone making millions of dollars, but you have to admit, this has been a rough season for Isaiah, who was starting to take the fall for Cleveland's pathetic defense even though it was pathetic long before he even suited up. At least when he was dealt from the Celtics he thought he was still going to be paying for the championship, but now he's on the Lakers and not even starting. This is a guy who was second-team All-NBA last year. To go from that to a guy who suddenly feels like he has basketball cooties is a pretty tough deal.
Best Player in a Leading Role
- James Harden
At this point, Harden is the runaway MVP after finishing second in two of the last three seasons. He leads the league with 31.3 points per game, he's second in assists at nine a night, and his 206 made 3-pointers are also tops in the NBA. For some perspective on how dominant Harden has been this year, think about this: Kevin Durant has five 50-point games in his entire career. Harden has four this season. This is an easy category with an easy answer.
Best Player in a Supporting Role
- Paul George
There's a bit of a qualifier to this one in that it's hard to call Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant a supporting player, even though night to night one of them typically occupies that role. Also, Chris Paul is more a 1B player in Houston than a true supporting player. Having said that, OKC is clearly Russell Westbrook's team, but you could easily argue George has been their best player this season.
To start the season, George was obviously struggling to play in support of Westbrook without compromising his own aggression, but he's long figured that out and is playing like one of the seven or eight best players in the league. He's top-20 in scoring at 22.5 a night. He leads the league with 2.2 steals a game. He's shooting better than 43 percent from three, by far a career high. And he's got that "it" factor we talk so much about, having made a ton of really big shots in iso situations when the Thunder need them most down the stretch of close games, which they play a lot of.
George's game has become elite in so many different areas: Shooting, defense, getting to the rim, handling for his size, it's all top-of-the-league quality. And he's shooting over 80 percent from the free-throw line to cap it all off. Just a terrific season so far for George, who seems to have really found a comfort zone in OKC next to Westbrook, which bodes well for them keeping him in free agency this summer.
Best Player on a New Team
- Chris Paul
Jimmy Butler are George are strong considerations here, but Paul has just been too brilliant alongside Harden to give this award to anyone else. Harden and Paul are a throwback to the days when teams kept offense really simple, giving the ball to their best players and letting them go get buckets. All things considered, they are the two most productive iso players in the league, and like George in OKC, Paul has quickly mastered the art of when to let Harden be the man and when to put his own foot on the pedal. That Paul wasn't an All-Star (yeah, yeah, I know he'd missed a lot of games to that point) is an indictment on the whole All-Star idea. This dude is still one of the 10 best players in the league, and even that feels conservative.
Most Quietly Elite Season
- Klay Thompson
This award could easily go to DeMar DeRozan or Jimmy Butler, both of whom aren't talked about nearly enough, or at least not with nearly enough conviction, in the superstar conversation. But my man Klay is all but completely forgotten about with the attention Curry and Durant get, and here he is leading the league with a 45.4-percent mark from 3-point land. Considering Thompson's 3-point volume, that is a bonkers percentage.
And he's not just doing it from three. Coming out of the All-Star break, Thompson is in range of the exclusive 50-40-90 shooting club (50 percent from the field, 40 percent from three, 90 percent from the free-throw line). Only nine players in history who've played in at least 60 games have ever achieved those shooting numbers in a single season, and they are some of the best shooters in NBA history: Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Reggie Miller, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Larry Bird, Mark Price, Steve Kerr and Jose Calderon.
Entering Thursday, Thompson clearly has the 3-point percentage, and he's right there for the other two, shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 86.3 percent from the line. If that free-throw mark seems a little low to you, keep in mind that he's only shot 73 free throws this year (he's made 63), which is by far the lowest mark of his career. That means two things: First, with so few attempts, every make is going to raise the percentage more precipitously, and also, with the 73 attempts being a career low, that would suggest a spike in attempts could be coming at some point. Right now, if Klay were to make 27 straight free throws, he would be exactly 90 for 100, which might sound like a lot in a row, but it's well within Klay's range. He's got a real shot to become the 10th member of the most exclusive shooting club known to NBA man.
Biggest Draft Steal (So Far)
- Donovan Mitchell
This is the most obvious answer on this list. That Mitchell slipped to No. 13 in last summer draft could well end up being one of the great draft goofs in history. This guy is a star. Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he's already one of the best players in the league, rookies or otherwise, and it's hard to argue with him. It's a tight race for Rookie of the Year between Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Ben Simmons, but to me, Mitchell should be the favorite for one simple reason: He's the No. 1 option on his team. That means defenses are gearing up specifically to stop him. That's a whole other level of production to be performing against that kind of constant, game-planned pressure.
Tatum, on the other hand, gets to play inside that Boston system while the defense focuses on Kyrie Irving, and Simmons gets to fall back on Embiid. Mitchell has no such help, and he currently has Utah on an 11-game win streak and pushing for the playoffs coming out of the All-Star break. Look, Boston is clearly happy with its selection in getting Tatum at No. 3, but the 11 other teams that passed on Mitchell are kicking themselves right now, whether they'll admit it or not.
Biggest Draft Bust (So Far)
- Markelle Fultz
Another obvious choice, as Fultz went No. 1 overall and promptly forgot how to shoot. First they tried to say he was injured. Then they sort of admitted that it was a mental thing. Whatever the case, this is the most bizarre story anyone around the NBA has come across in some time. Explanations aside, the eyes don't lie with this one. Does this look like a guy who went No. 1 overall in the NBA Draft?
Markelle Fultz Air Balls Shot in Paint at Practice - NOT Good for Sixers #1 pick who is battling season long shoulder injury - could be DONE for ENTIRE Season#MarkelleFultz#Sixerspic.twitter.com/riNs5oS5H1— Jeff Skversky 6abc (@JeffSkversky) February 10, 2018
Yeah, that's an airball from about 12 feet, and the form somehow looks even worse than the result. This is not good, to say the least. Fultz is still super young and has plenty of time to figure this out, and hopefully will. When and if that happens, we can revisit this idea of him being a bust. But right now, with the evidence we have to go on, there's really no other way to look at it. The guy who went No. 1 overall in the draft, largely because of his ability to shoot, is currently incapable of shooting a basketball at anywhere near an NBA level. Crazy.
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