We've reached the NBA's mid-season mark and it's time to start taking stock of what we've seen thus far.
The Top Four
The best teams thus far, in order, have been the Warriors, Spurs, Cavs and the Rockets. No real rocket science required here. After demolishing Cleveland on MLK Day, Golden State wears the crown of the baddest squad out right now. They'll be looking to send a message over the next two games, at home against OKC and on the road in Houston, that they're balling on an entirely different level than anyone else right now.
The top three were expected to be there, but Mike D'Antoni's Rockets, behind James Harden's incredible play at the point, have been the biggest surprise at this early juncture of the season. After last night's loss to Miami, they have a difficult stretch of five games in a row against teams with winning records, the biggest of which comes on Friday against the Warriors.
The last time they played on December 1st, Houston won a 132-127 overtime thriller, propelled by Harden's 29 points, 15 rebounds and 13 assists. Expect Golden State to walk in like Bobby Taylor at his thespian apex, telling everyone within earshot, "I wants revenge, baby!"
The Don't Sleep or They'll Put Your Heads to Bed Crew
Underneath the upper echelon, we a have a healthy collection of some pretty good teams. If you think OKC is nothing but the Russell Westbrook Triple-Double show, you haven't been paying attention. The Thunder, Jazz, Grizzlies, Clippers, Hawks, Raptors and Celtics are not taking any shorts and are all on pace to have a 50-plus win season.
The Bartleby The Scrivener Crew
In Herman Melville's short fiction masterpiece of the 1850's, which explores the theme of isolation in American life and the workplace, Bartleby, a once productive law clerk on Wall Street, starts doing less and less. Ultimately, although he continues to show up at work, and eventually moves into the office, he simply stops working and answers every work request with the classic literary line, "I would prefer not to."
If someone asks you to watch a game between the Nets and the Heat, I suggest you channel my man Bartleby, as well as Whitney Houson, and simply reply, "Aw hell to the naw!!!"
Rookie of the Year
Malcolm Brogdon, Dario Saric and Buddy Hield get a nice nod right here, but the runaway winner is Philadelphia's Joel Embiid. People clowned him because of the injuries that delayed his arrival, with some going so far as to call him a bust before he even played his first NBA game.
But right about now, the only thing he's busting is his opponents ass! Over his last ten games, despite only averaging 27 minutes per night, he's rocking out to the tune of 23 points, eight rebounds and two blocks per game.
Crazy agile and mobile for a seven-footer, he has sweet feet, good speed, quickness, and explosiveness. If he catches the ball anywhere near the rim, you might as well count the bucket. His offensive game is still developing, but his drop-steps, jump hooks, and turn-around jumpers have some whispering comparisons and projecting out to all-time low-post wonders Tim Duncan and Kevin McHale. A beast on the defensive end, he's heading toward greatness if he can stay healthy.
Sophomore of the Year
As much as I love the Knicks' Kristaps Porzingis, this award goes to Minnesota's Karl-Anthony Towns. But don't sleep on Nikola Jokic, Myles Turner and D'Angelo Russell. The Nuggets stink, but peep Jokic's game when you get a chance. He's putting in some serious work.
Defensive Player of the Year
People kill me with that nonsense about the NBA not playing any good defense. There's no shortage of exceptional defenders in the league today. Draymond Green and Kawhi Leonard are bananas, and Hassan Whiteside, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, Avery Bradley, Serge Ibaka, DeAndre Jordan, Klay Thompson, Justise Winslow, Aaron Gordon, LeBron, Paul George, Jimmy Butler, Chris Paul, Andrew Bogut, Andre Iguodala, John Wall, Tyson Chandler, Dwight Howard and Tony Allen, among others, are all exceptional.
But right about now, the award goes to Utah's Rudy Gobert, the anchor of the league's best overall defensive unit who is a shot-blocking phenom. If you're guilty of falling into that lazy narrative about a lack of D being played in the NBA, do yourself a favor and peep what Gobert and the Jazz are doing.
Most Improved Player
Harrison Barnes, Kristaps Porzingis, Myles Turner and Avery Bradley get honorable mentions, but no one is touching the Greek Freak, Giannis Antetokounmpo, right here. He has gone from an intriguing prospect to a certifiable NBA MVP candidate who, barring injury, will be a perennial All-Star for the next ten to twelve years.
At the age of 22 and the league's tallest point guard at 6-foot-10, he has the potential to redefine the position like Magic Johnson once did, but with a length, athleticism, hops and defensive acumen that shuts down fast breaks and alters shots in ways that the league has literally not seen in one package.
Coach of the Year
The usual suspects are in the running again. Steve Kerr and Gregg Popovich's teams are well-oiled machines.
Tyronn Lue, Billy Donovan, David Fizdale and Quinn Snyder are in the mix as well, but the hands-down winner at this juncture is Houston's Mike D'Antoni. His fast-paced offense is once again the talk of the league after forgettable stints in New York and Los Angeles that followed his excellent run with Phoenix after implementing his "Seven Seconds or Less" fastbreak philosophy.
James Harden has been unleashed and is currently being discussed as the league's best point guard. Houston has surprisingly ascended to become one of the league's best teams, which makes D'Antoni's selection a no-brainer at this point.
Sixth Man of the Year
Eric Gordon is killing it off the bench for the Rockets, 157-year-old Jamal Crawford continues to have an impact in limited minutes for the Clippers, Lou Williams and Marco Bellinelli are getting it in for the Lakers and the Hornets, but the nod right here goes to Zach Randolph, aka Z-Bo!
The 15-year vet out of Michigan State is putting up 14 points and eight boards per game while playing less than 25 minutes a night for a Grizzles team that is 25-18.
This one is entirely too close to call right now. But this year, I promise we'll have an MVP not named Steph Curry, Kevin Durant or LeBron James. James Harden and Russell Westbrook are both having an individual season for the ages.
Russ is averaging a triple-double! Do you have any idea how ridiculous that is?
And Harden, a converted shooting guard who has now moved over to the point, leads the league in assists for a Rockets crew that is surprisingly among the four best teams in the league.
It's a dead tie right now between them and the MVP race will come down to this season's very end.