NBA's MVP race heats up: Our experts' picks for all the first-half NBA award winners
Three months into the NBA season, three months left.
The league is at the midway point with the trade deadline (Feb. 10), All-Star Game (Feb. 20), playoff push and postseason remaining.
The 2021-22 season has been marked by standoffs (Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers), returns (Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving), an onslaught of players entering the NBA’s COVID health and safety protocols, resulting in postponements and depleted rosters, one coach fired (Sacramento’s Luke Walton), and, of course, the play on the court.
We canvassed USA TODAY Sports' Jeff Zillgitt, Matt Eppers and Larry Starks and USA TODAY Sports Media Group staffers Duane Rankin of the Arizona Republic, Jim Owczarski of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Marla Ridenour of the Akron Beacon Journal, Joe Mussatto and Berry Tramel of the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman and Bryan Kalbrosky of Hoops Hype for their midseason awards – from MVP to coach of the year to most surprising and disappointing teams.
Here are the results:
MVP – Steph Curry
Golden State’s Steph Curry has the Warriors back in contention – not just for the playoffs but a conference title. The Warriors are 30-11, right there with Phoenix for the top spot in the Western Conference, and Curry’s play is a major reason. He averages 26.4 points, 6.1 assists and 5.5 rebounds – just one of four players to average at least 25-6-5 this season – and shoots 42% from the field, 38.4% on 3s and 91.8% from the foul line. A recent shooting slump lowered some of his offensive numbers. This is not a one-man race either, with Kevin Durant, Nikola Jokic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, DeMar DeRozan and LeBron James assembling MVP-like seasons. Curry won the award in 2015 and 2016, and Wilt Chamberlain is the only player to have gone five seasons between winning MVP awards. If Curry were to win, it would be six seasons between MVPs.
Votes: Golden State’s Steph Curry (74 points), Brooklyn’s Kevin Durant (60), Denver’s Nikola Jokic (39), Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (35), Chicago’s DeMar DeRozan (10), Memphis Ja Morant (6), Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James (5), Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (4), Phoenix’s Devin Booker (1)
Sixth Man of the Year – Tyler Herro
There was plenty of consternation about Miami guard Tyler Herro’s game last season, especially coming off his bubble playoff performance in 2020. All told, Herro wasn’t bad at all last season, but there’s no doubt he elevated his game this season. Coming off the bench but playing starter’s minutes (32.9 per game), Herro averages career-bests in points (20.7), rebounds (5.1) and assists (4.1) while shooting splits of 42.9%-38.3%-87.1%. Bringing Herro off the bench gives the Heat a push while allowing him to play alongside starters and finish games when necessary. It’s unlikely he makes it in a league flush with talented guards, but Herro is having an All-Star season.
Votes: Miami’s Tyler Herro (40 points), Phoenix’s Kelly Oubre Jr. (15), Cleveland’s Kevin Love (11), Washington’s Montrezl Harrell (3), Utah’s Jordan Clarkson (2), Dallas’ Jalen Brunson (1)
Defensive Player of the Year – Draymond Green
Golden State’s re-emergence is more than just Steph Curry. Draymond Green is back to his old self defensively and has a large role in the Warriors' top-rated defense that allows just 102.1 points per 100 possessions. Green averages 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks, and when Green is on the court, Golden State’s points allowed per 100 possessions drops to 101.5. He sets the tone with his signal-calling and orchestrating and it spills over to times when he is not in the game. Green last won this award in 2017.
Votes: Golden State’s Draymond Green (37 points), Utah’s Rudy Gobert (27), Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo (9), Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (5), Phoenix’s Mikal Bridges (2), Cleveland’s Evan Mobley (1)
Most Improved Player – Miles Bridges
Most Improved Player might be the hardest award for which to vote because so many factors need be considered? Is a player’s improved stats simply a matter of increased playing time or increased scoring opportunities? Do you consider second-year players because shouldn’t they to some degree make a jump from year one to year two? Then there’s the case of Charlotte’s Miles Bridges, who is playing more minutes and taking more shots and making the most of the opportunity. He is Charlotte’s leading scorer at 19.6 points per game, tied for team’s leading rebounder at 7.3 per game, third in assists at 3.6 per game, third in steals (1.2) and second in blocks (0.9). Bridges does a lot of everything for the Hornets, and while his 3-point shooting is down from last season, he’s still shooting 47.5% from the field. There’s pressure that comes with being a featured player, and Bridges has met the moment.
Voting: Charlotte’s Miles Bridges (23 points), Memphis’ Ja Morant (20), San Antonio’s Dejounte Murray (12), Cleveland’s Jarrett Allen (8), Cleveland’s Darius Garland (5), Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey (5), Golden State’s Jordan Poole (5), Memphis’ Desmond Bane (2), Miami’s Tyler Herro (1)
Rookie of the Year – Evan Mobley
Scottie Barnes started hot (and he’s still playing well), but Cleveland big man Evan Mobley’s emergence coinciding with Cleveland’s strong play has put the 20-year-old from Southern California in the top spot. Mobley, the No. 3 pick in the draft, has made his mark offensively and defensively – 14.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.7 blocks and almost a steal per game. He shoots 50% from the field. The Cavaliers have the third-best defense in the NBA, and the 6-11 Mobley is versatile to protect the rim, guard pick-and-rolls and defend on the perimeter. According to NBA.com/stats, Mobley allows players to shoot 48% inside six feet – while the league average is 63.1% from the distance.
Voting: Cleveland’s Evan Mobley (43 points), Toronto’s Scottie Barnes (25), Orlando’s Franz Wagner (9), Detroit’s Cade Cunningham (3), Oklahoma City’s Josh Giddey (1)
Coach of the Year – Billy Donovan
Another tough one, and an argument for a handful of coaches holds up. At the midway point, Chicago’s Billy Donovan gets the nod. The Bulls were expected to be better with the addition of DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso alongside Zach LaVine and Nik Vucevic? But 27-12, first place in the East good? Chicago is third offensively, 12th defensively and No. 7 in net rating. Donovan proved himself a good coach in Oklahoma City with various rosters and turnover. Donovan is the rare big-time college coach who has found success in the NBA, and he has found a great spot with these Bulls.
Voting: Chicago’s Billy Donovan (31 points), Memphis’ Taylor Jenkins (20), Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff (14), Phoenix’s Monty Williams (9), Golden State’s Steve Kerr (7)
Most disappointing team – Atlanta
After an impressive run to the Eastern Conference finals last season as the No. 5 seed, the Hawks were considered a rising team with young stars Trae Young and John Collins. However, the Hawks have taken a step back – 17-23 and in 12th place in the East. They are in serious danger of missing the playoffs. The Hawks put up points (No. 5 in offensive rating), but they are 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions. General manager Travis Schlenk is frustrated, too, telling Atlanta sports talk radio station 92.9 The Game, “There's no sense of accountability that 'I'm going to stop my guy.' It's just not there. … It doesn't bother them. I hope it's a switch we can flip, but I don't know at this point.” That’s not good, at all.
Voting: Atlanta (38 points), Boston (10), Los Angeles Lakers (9), New York (7), New Orleans (3), Indiana (2), Brooklyn (1), Los Angeles Clippers (1)
Most surprising team – Memphis
This was primarily a three-team race: Memphis, Cleveland and Chicago. The Grizzlies 30-14 record is the good for third place in the West and fifth-best record in the league. They are on an 11-game winning streak, including six straight on the road. This jump was not expected this season. But Grizzlies coach Taylor Jenkins has helped Memphis take a gigantic leap with a team built around Ja Morant, who is putting together an MVP-like season. This is far from a one-man show. The Grizzlies are deep, young, versatile, play both sides of the ball and have veterans who can guide the youngsters through turbulent stretches of a long season. Memphis is No. 4 in offensive rating and No. 9 in defensive rating and has altered the complexion of the Western Conference for the present and future.
Voting: Memphis (27 points), Cleveland (23), Chicago (22), Golden State (1)
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NBA's MVP race heats up: Our experts' picks for all the first-half NBA award winners