Friday, February 24, 2012
Best of the best in NBA's first half
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
After two basketball-filled months, the NBA has already reached the halfway point in this lockout-shortened season. Which players and teams made the biggest impacts? Our team dishes out some first-half honors.
1. Who is the MVP of the NBA's first half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: You can make a reasonable argument for Kevin Durant, but we've never seen a player achieve the level of production in a single season LeBron James has so far. He's finding shots wherever and whenever he wants them. In case you need it, he's also one of the best individual and help defenders in the league.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: LeBron James. He's the best player in the league. He's the best player on arguably the best team. He's the most genuinely irreplaceable player in the league. Traditional stats. Advanced stats. No matter what rubric you use, he should be MVP.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Poor LeBron. He had tweets last year that inspired more coverage than this season's historic first half. This isn't necessarily unreasonable -- especially in a season with so many dynamic stories. James' Catch-22 is that if he does win -- and his raw numbers will be overwhelming -- the award will be one more thing held against him when he misses a big playoff shot.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: LeBron James. Leading the league in player efficiency rating (PER) by a wide margin, shooting 55 percent from the floor and 41 percent from 3-point range, anchoring the league's best offense, and terrorizing opponents with his defense. Go ahead, argue for anyone else at this point. You'll lose.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: "LeBron James," I type as I yawn. Why did he have to make it so easy and boring? Isn't it his job to stir the media firestorm? Can we get mad at him for just being quietly brilliant?
2. Which is the best team of the NBA's first half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Is it conceivable the Heat just needed some time, just as they maintained? There will inevitably be some competitive setbacks -- there always are -- but the Heat's breakthrough seems like it might have lasting sustenance. Offensively, they're getting whatever they want. The defense is still figuring a couple of things out, but once those riddles are solved, Miami should be the definitive favorite.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: Miami Heat. No team is as physically dynamic, as casually dominant, as overwhelmingly talented as the Heat. People spend a lot of time and energy convincing themselves otherwise, but Miami is clearly the best team in the NBA.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: The Heat's 14-point win over the Knicks Thursday was a microcosm of their play this season: efficient, professional and merciless. Their consistency has allowed them to fly largely under the radar, but come June, a lot of people are going to be surprised at just how good this team really is.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Miami Heat. League's best record, league's first-half MVP and de facto best player, and no sign of that LeBron/Wade clash everyone worried about (and rightfully so, somewhat) a season ago.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Miami Heat. James and Wade are the top two players in PER, and their defense can swarm and swallow guards like Vesuvius lava. If there is a better team, I have not seen it.
3. Who is the most improved player of the NBA's first half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: A tough call between LaMarcus Aldridge and Danilo Gallinari (who is hurt). They've improved much the same way, even though they're very different players. Both guys have long had the ability to make shots, but this season, they've each developed an aggressive shot-creator's insatiability. Aldridge and Gallinari are reading the court and once they quickly size things up, they resolve to score.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: Tiago Splitter. Jeremy Lin is the obvious pick, but Splitter has been steadily establishing himself as the best backup center in the league. His long-awaited arrival in San Antonio last season was anticlimactic, but he's now living up to his potential.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Jeremy Lin. I may be violating bylaws here. Technically, "most improved" candidates need previous, mediocre baseline seasons against which to contrast breakout years. But in a year Lin has gone from riding the bus in the D-League to back-to-back SI covers. Much improved.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Jeremy Lin. The darkhorse is Ryan Anderson, but Anderson's secretly been this good for a while. For coming from complete obscurity into wild success in the biggest market in sports, Lin gets the nod.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Jeremy Lin. I just don't trust Peksanity. What happens when teams scout Nikola Pekovic? What about the pressures of being a celebrity in Minnesota's frozen fishbowl? And will he really mesh with Ricky Rubio, considering how that massive ego needs the ball all the time? I'm kidding, in case that's less obvious than Lin for MIP.
4. Who is the best rookie of the NBA's first half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: If someone told you coming into the season Kyrie Irving would be finishing more than three shots a game at the rim (at a rate of 61.4 percent), would you have been surprised? I would've. Irving probably won't be an elite defender, but he seems like he can learn to become a pretty good one.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: Ricky Rubio. No other rookie, including Kyrie Irving, is as destined to be an All-Star as Rubio. Irving has had a very good season, but Rubio looks to have the potential to go down as one of the game's great point guards.
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Kyrie Irving. Many doubted Irving had the potential to be an elite point guard; after half a season, he already is. There are plenty of veteran guards who don't read and react to help defenders as well as the 19-year-old. His emergence as a formed player puts the Cavs' mission back to meaningful games ahead of schedule.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Kyrie Irving. He doesn't have the star power of the last No. 1 overall pick from Cleveland, but a team that won 19 games last season (in 82 games) is 13-18 at the break, largely because of Irving's contributions. Irving is a devastating force with the ball in his hands yet controlled enough to create for others.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Kyrie Irving. The tag on this kid was, "Good, but not a potential superstar." Right now, superstar should be the expectation. He slashes with a more dexterous handle than Edward Scissorhands.
5. What is the best moment of the NBA's first half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The final few minutes of the Knicks-Raptors game on Feb. 14 in Toronto. The Lin story has a million angles, but its most compelling feature has always been surprise. Lin's two decisive shots sent an electric pulse through the basketball world which then immediately jumped into the broader cultural realm.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes of Hell: Blake Griffin's dunk on Kendrick Perkins. There have been great passes, great defensive plays and great shots. But only one play ranks among the top five all-time in its respective category. And that's Griffin's dunk on Perkins. How many in-game dunks are better?
Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: For this Clipper fan, a sports bar in the heart of Laker country was the perfect place to have been when Jeremy Lin spun past Derek Fisher. Not only was it an exclamation point on the season's greatest story, but, in that silent Hollywood dive, it doubled as an ominous ellipsis for the aging Lakers.
Devin Kharpertian, Nets Are Scorching: Let's go with tipoff on Dec. 25, if only as a reminder: It wasn't long ago that we didn't even know if we'd have an All-Star break.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: My favorite moment was Irving's game winner against the Celtics. He spun into an invisible wormhole, appeared on the other side, softly crested the layup. Such a graceful showcase of the rookie's talent.