ESPN award watch

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ESPN award watch

It's a late-February tradition around here.

It's how we always commemorate the week after the trading deadline.

Second trimester report!

Regular readers know we like to divide the season into thirds as opposed to halves when it comes to the individual awards races. So it's time, with every team down to its final 25 games (or so) of the regular season, for our usual award-by-award pulse check.

West MVP, Two Trimesters In
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

DurantSix of the top 10 MVP candidates listed in Maurice Brooks' most recent NBA Awards Watch are from the Western Conference, suggesting that the race for Best in the West as we close in on the 60-game mark is crowded and tight.

But it's not.

Durant is clearly having a better season than any other big name in his conference, including Carmelo Anthony; Dirk Nowitzki; and, yes, Kobe Bryant.

The confirmation can be found in the standings: The Thunder awoke Friday placed sixth in the West, just ahead of San Antonio and headed for the playoffs. Flanked by only two other players averaging double figures in scoring (Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green) and zero teammates averaging better than 6.2 rebounds, Durant has powered this vet-less group to a 48-win pace and just might wind up as the first scoring champion in OKC's shared history with the Sonics.

No Sonic ever finished as high as second in scoring; Spencer Haywood (1972-73) and Dale Ellis (1988-89) got as high as No. 3. Durant, though, is right behind LeBron at 29.8 points per game, knowing -- just like LeBron -- that he has to be great for his team to win. We know that because Durant has been held below 25 points just six times this season … with the Thunder going 0-6 in those games.

An undeniable gap still exists between James and Durant. This is also where we are obliged to remind you that there hasn't been an MVP in the NBA from a team that failed to win 50 games since Houston's Moses Malone in 1982-83. Durant, though, would have a real shot to finish second in the overall MVP race if ballots were turned in today.

At worst, he'll finish third, if Bryant -- on top of all the late-game magic (see Box 9) that tends to leave an impression -- has a big stretch-run surge in store as the Lakers try to pip Cleveland for best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.


East MVP, Two Trimesters In
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

JamesI said so when James was the only player invited to the All-Star Game from the team with the league's best record.

I can say so again, even louder, even with Dwight Howard playing some of the best all-around ball of his life.

We don't know whether these Cavs can ultimately win a championship or keep LeBron beyond June, but he's already clinched one trophy for the season.

As one Eastern Conference official said this week, referring to the load James shoulders compared to other franchise players: "I'm not even sure there's a third place in the East right now." Magic coach Stan Van Gundy reluctantly conceded the same in the midst of an attempt to highlight the offensive progress Howard has made, telling the Orlando Sentinel: "It's over. LeBron's going to get the award."

You only have to rewind as far as Thursday for a fairly typical example of the responsibility LeBron carries on an every-game basis. On a night that the Cavs lost Shaquille O'Neal to a thumb injury -- putting Cleveland down two centers, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas can't legally re-sign with them before March 22 -- James was directly responsible for 61 of the 79 points scored by the Cavs during his 35 minutes on the floor. LeBron scored 36 points and created 25 with his nine assists.

The only uncertainty here is how close James, with a résumé full of such performances, comes to unanimous selection by MVP voters when the ballots go out in April.


Rookie of the Year, Two Trimesters In
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

CurryTyreke Evans is still the favorite to snag the most ROY votes at season's end, having maintained virtually the same level of production all season, but Curry's impressive charge since the calendar flipped to 2010 has to be recognized.

It has to be spotlighted here because this was a two-rook race between Evans and Brandon Jennings until Curry forced his way in with across-the-board production.

Gaudy numbers produced in the Warriors' undisciplined system will always be viewed skeptically, but Curry averaged 19.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds in January, then upped those numbers to 21.0 points, 7.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds in February. Even if you're eager to slap an asterisk on some of those figures because of the wild way Golden State plays, be advised that Jennings' scoring has dipped steadily every month, all the way down from 21.9 points per game at the end of November to 11.3 points per game this month.

We've seen some notable flashes from other rookies -- New Orleans' Darren Collison; San Antonio's DeJuan Blair; Denver's Ty Lawson; and, of course, our man Omri Casspi in Sacramento -- but credit Curry for injecting the ROY race with some unexpected intrigue as we reach the quarter pole.

After all, Curry just became only the third player in league history to have more than one 30-point, 12-assist game as a rookie, joining Oscar Robertson (who had 13 in 1960-61) and Michael Jordan (two in 1984-85).


Defensive Player of the Year, Two Trimesters In
Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

HowardThis isn't normally a category teeming with worthy contenders, but there are lots of options here this time.

The Lakers are still ranked No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency and haven't had any lasting in-house trouble with defensive catalyst and noted handful Ron Artest.

Rajon Rondo on the perimeter might be the point man for Boston's D as much as Kevin Garnett on the inside these days, but the Celts are still No. 2 in defensive efficiency.

Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut and Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha, meanwhile, are all routinely overlooked defenders who should be there with Charlotte's Gerald Wallace and Atlanta's Josh Smith.

However …

Howard is leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots for the second straight season and has Orlando perched in the top 3 in defensive efficiency, even though he's routinely flanked by non-defenders such as Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis.

You'll recall that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76), Bill Walton (1976-77), Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90) and Ben Wallace (2001-02) are the only other players in history to lead the league in both categories in the same season … but Howard is on course to become the first player to do it twice after joining that exclusive club last season.

Let's face it: This is Dwight's domain. Again.

Dimes past: Feb. 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 6-7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25
2. Second Trimester Report (cont'd)
Coach of the Year, Two Trimesters In
Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz

SloanIs this his turn at last?

Is the venerable Sloan, after 21 consecutive seasons on Utah's bench, finally poised to be named Coach of the Year for the first time?

Realistically? Probably not.

Too many things can happen over the final seven weeks of the regular season to derail Sloan, largely because there are so many other legit options in this category. Just to name five: Charlotte's Larry Brown, Milwaukee's Scott Skiles, Memphis' Lionel Hollins, Portland's Nate McMillan and, most notably, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, who must be doing some pretty good coaching -- even with the luxury of Durant as his go-to guy -- if the Thunder are a top-5 team in defensive efficiency with such limited depth, size and experience.

Sloan, though, has Utah challenging for the West's No. 2 seed after an 18-3 surge. The Jazz have also managed to maintain that push by sticking together in the face of Carlos Boozer's uncertain future and the open frustration voiced recently by Deron Williams after Ronnie Brewer and rookie guard Eric Maynor were traded away purely for luxury-tax reasons.

Denver's George Karl is another rival who could make a late COY bid if the Nuggets manage to hold Utah off for the Northwest Division lead, but Sloan's work never seems to slip. The voters are bound to notice one of these years.


Most Improved Player, Two Trimesters In
Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats

Irked as I remain by the lack of All-Star consideration received by Stephen Jackson -- whose arrival in mid-November almost instantly transformed the long-suffering Bobcats into playoff material -- I remain just as wowed by the across-the-board jump in Wallace's effectiveness.

A sustained jump, too.

His ridiculously improved rebounding has tailed off a touch, but 10.7 boards per game for a slender small forward (to go with 19 points and 2.1 steals) did get Wallace to the All-Star stage, which is something I don't remember anyone forecasting back in 2004 when Charlotte claimed him off Sacramento's roster in the expansion draft.

The likes of Andrew Bogut, Chris Kaman, Rajon Rondo and obviously Durant are all playing in a new stratosphere, but those guys were also high lottery picks who were expected to reach those levels eventually.

I promised myself to recommit to my long-held credo that MIP votes are best saved for players who didn't come into the game with such high ceilings, such as Memphis' Marc Gasol, Houston's Aaron Brooks, Sacramento's Carl Landry or Atlanta's Josh Smith. OK, OK: Perhaps even a lower lottery pick like Chicago's Joakim Noah.

And definitely Wallace, who is quietly up to 39 percent on 3-pointers after barely skimming 30 percent last season.


Sixth Man Award, Two Trimesters In
Carl Landry, Sacramento Kings

LandryLandry has landed here, just as he did after the first trimester, because he almost certainly won't be on Sixth Man Award ballots at season's end.

Last week's trade to Sacramento has made him a starter -- leaving Atlanta's Jamal Crawford as a heavy (and deserved) favorite to win this crown when ballots are tallied -- but we wanted to spotlight Landry one more time because the undersized power forward was consistently huge coming off the Houston bench, especially with his fourth-quarter scoring.

In 51 games as a Rockets reserve, Landry averaged 16.2 points and 5.5 boards. Nit-pick about those rebound numbers if you wish, but be advised that no bench player in the league has averaged at least 15 points and five rebounds -- while appearing in a minimum of 50 games as a sub -- since Portland's Clifford Robinson averaged 18.9 points and 6.4 rebounds in 70 games in 1992-93.

Crawford has been fantastic, too, rewriting his own reputation with a league-leading 10 25-point games off the bench for the Hawks, but Sixth Man honors will be much easier to win if Landry -- who will technically have a low enough number of starts to be eligible for the season-ending ballots -- is regarded as a starter from here.

The veteran sixth men in Texas -- Dallas' Jason Terry and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili -- are starting to heat up as the playoffs draw near. Also: Denver's J.R. Smith remains flammable, Minnesota's Kevin Love is quietly doing consistent double-damage since relinquishing his spot in the starting lineup, and folks seem to forget somehow that Cleveland's handy Anderson Varejao is a sixth man, too.

But Crawford, giving these Hawks an instant-offense dimension with their second unit that they didn't have before, has a clear edge if Landry is indeed out of the running.

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East MVP- LBJ no

East MVP- LBJ no contest

West MVP- Durant thus far but once Kobe regains his health, I think he will overtake Durant. Hes just way too clutch with what 5 or 6 game winners despite his lack of play.

ROY- Tyreke Evans, but Curry is closing the gap with his recent play. I think Evans ability to get off any shot he wants will keep his ppg up and he his size will attribute to his D and boards. Evans is already the face of the Kings franchise.

Def. Player of the Year- Dwight Howard. And I think anyone is gonna have a hard time getting this from him in the future. He is committed to D and has the size and athletic ability to dominate for plenty of years to come.

Coach of the Year- Sloan and I don't even think its that close anymore with the Rockets and Grizzlies falling back and how far the Jazz have risen. Maybe your thinking OKC, but I think thats more about having a dominant young scorer in Durant along with Westbrook, Harden, and Green. The Jazz are built around the pick n roll and set plays. OKC just has the dominant scorers to win games. Sloan is doing a hell of a job.

Most Improved- Josh Smith, he has stepped his game up to a whole new level. He is one of the best huslters on the court and you combine that with his unmatched athleticism. He is getting it done in all phases of the game.

6th Man- Crawford. Landry ain't a sixth man anymore which pretty much leaves us with Crawford here. He is having a hell of a season and scoring clutch buckets. Pretty impressive when you are forcing your coach to consider giving you the last shot over Joe Johnson. Terry could be another possibility but he has won the award before and i think that does go into consideration. Not to mention Crawford has been huge all year long for ATL.

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