NBA Awards Watch: Kevin Durant Injury Changes MVP Race

Feb 28, 2017; Washington, DC, USA; Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant (35) holds his knee after being injured against the Washington Wizards in the first quarter at Verizon Center. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

February ended with one of the candidates for the NBA MVP getting knocked out of the race as the NBA awards watch hits the home stretch.

The races for NBA awards sometimes aren’t even determined by the players involved in those races. To wit, what happened to Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant Tuesday night.

Durant, considered a top candidate for MVP honors this season, had his campaign for that award effectively torpedoed when he was submarined by teammate Zaza Pachulia early in the first quarter of Golden State’s loss to the Washington Wizards.

Durant isn’t the only player out of the running for hardware–at least in my estimation–due to injury.

Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul was only a fringe candidate for both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, but his broken hand has cut the fringe off the discussion.

While many are still touting Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid as the Rookie of the Year frontrunner, it is unlikely he returns to the court this season because of a knee injury. Some voters will talk themselves into selecting Embiid–who undeniably was outstanding when he played.

But 31 games? Embiid was on a strict minutes restriction when he was active and was being held out of back-to-backs because of his past injury history. Try as I might, I just can’t talk myself into a Rookie of Less Than 38 Percent of the Year.

There have been rookies win it with injury-shortened seasons before. Brandon Roy played only 57 games in winning the award in 2006-07 and Patrick Ewing logged only 50 games in 1985-86. But they at least got half a season in.

As the calendar rolls over to March, there’s about a third of the regular season remaining. Teams are jockeying for playoff positions and postseason berths and the NBA awards battles will heat up down the stretch.

And away we go.

Feb 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale reacts to a referee’s call during a game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeats Memphis 102-92. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Coach of the Year

February did not shuffle the decks in the Coach of the Year race, as the frontrunner maintained a healthy edge over the next two contenders.

What I look for here is over-achievement, coaches of teams that have gone well above what was expected when the season started.

While I realize that bucks the recent trend of “give the trophy to the guy with the most wins” voting, sometimes the best coaching jobs are done out of the glare of first place.

In the conversation: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs; Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta Hawks; Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz.

3. Scott Brooks, Washington Wizards

The Washington Wizards rolled through the All-Star break-shortened month of February with a 7-3 mark and are now 29-12 since their dreadful 6-11 opening act.

Scott Brooks has some added weaponry after the trade deadline, with the Wizards adding wing Bojan Bogdanovic from the Brooklyn Nets, and reports circulating on Wednesday that Brandon Jennings with sign with the club to back up John Wall after clearing waivers.

Those additions will bolster a bench unit that has been among the NBA’s worst and lessen a load on a starting five that has answered the call.

Brooks did a terrific job of scrapping the initial rotation plan after Washington got off to such a terrible start, shortening the bench, marginalizing several players the team invested large piles of cash to sign in the offseason and riding his starters to the tune of the most minutes of any starting unit in the NBA.

It worked. With 24 games remaining, the Wizards are third in the Eastern Conference and within striking distance (two games back) of the second-place Boston Celtics.

Brooks is a previous Coach of the Year winning, earning the award in his first full season at the helm with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-10.

2. David Fizdale, Memphis Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies didn’t make up any ground on the West’s top four in February, going 7-4, but they didn’t lose any, either.

The Grizzlies are locked in an air-tight clump in the middle of the conference, ending the month at 36-25 and in sixth place.

That has them in a middle of a group of four squads–Utah, the Clippers, Memphis and Oklahoma City–that is separated by just two games between fourth and seventh in the West, so there’s a lot on the line as the season winds down.

David Fizdale’s first year as a head coach hasn’t been without challenges. He inherited a slow, aging team that didn’t shoot much from three-point range and didn’t do it well, either.

They’re still old, they’re still slow, but they are not unwilling to launch from deep now. Their attempts are up 40.6 percent from a year ago–from 18.5 to 26.1–and the Grizzlies are making 35.4 percent compared to just 33.1 percent in 2015-16.

And they’ve done it while improving their defensive rating from 107.8 to 106.0. Granted, they’ve been healthier than last season. Then again, that was a very low bar.

Fizdale’s system has turned Marc Gasol into a 20-point-a-game scorer and has Mike Conley on the cusp of being one. Conley is now a 41 percent shooter from long range and Gasol is nearly at 40 percent on 3.7 attempts a game.

Not quite the same old Grit ‘N’ Grind, but it’s getting results. So it’s worth asking yet again, why did it take Fizdale 13 years to get a head-coaching opportunity?

1. Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets

The greatest redemption story since Isaac and Abraham is probably overselling the job Mike D’Antoni has done with the Houston Rockets this season, but after being written off following high-profile flops in New York and Los Angeles, D’Antoni is getting the last laugh.

The Rockets’ win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on Saturday was the team’s 42nd of the season, exceeding last year’s total in just their 60th game. Not a bad turnaround.

Houston ended February 42-19, third in the West after a 6-3 February. The Rockets are unlikely to catch the second-place San Antonio Spurs, but are likewise unlikely to be caught by any of the teams chasing fourth place.

A season after just eking into the eighth spot under an interim coach, that is a tremendous turnaround and D’Antoni has done it with a turned-over roster that will likely net general manager Daryl Morey serious consideration as Executive of the Year.

D’Antoni is playing the pace he loves to employ, a 99.5 possessions per game clip that is third-fastest in the league, and Houston is on pace to shatter NBA records for three-pointers made and attempted, averaging 14.6 makes and 40.4 takes per game.

The surprising aspect is that the Rockets are doing all that scoring while maintaining a defensive rating in the top half of the NBA (108.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 15th in the league).

Barring a monumental collapse over the final 21 games, that should be enough to net D’Antoni a second Coach of the Year award to go with the one he captured with the Phoenix Suns in 2004-05.

2017 NBA Trade Deadline

Feb 15, 2017; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) high fives Utah Jazz forward Gordon Hayward (20) in the second quarter at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Most Improved Player

If there has been an underlying theme to the 2016-17 season beyond the complaining about and attempting to legislate against superteams, it has been players making the leap to the next level.

There has been a multitude of players–young and not-so-young–putting up numbers that are staggeringly better than they put up in 2015-16 or any other season in their careers.

That has made winnowing down the field of contenders for the Most Improved Player award a tough chore, but per-36 numbers tend to cast truth upon the pretenders.

No longer in the discussion: Jabari Parker, Milwaukee Bucks (get well soon, big guy); Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers (a long, slow fade).

In the conversation: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets; Clint Capela, Houston Rockets; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves.

3. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Good health has brought great results for Washington Wizards shooting guard Bradley Beal, who is rewarding the Wizards in the first year of his five-year, $127 million contract with a breakout season.

Beal, who had never missed fewer than nine games in a season before this season and had averaged just 61.8 games a season over his first four years in the NBA, has played in 54 of Washington’s 58 games this year and, man, has he played well.

Beal is putting up a career-highs of 22.6 points and 3.6 assists per game to go with 2.9 rebounds a night on a slash line of .478/.399/.811 in 34.6 minutes per game.

Per-36 minutes, his scoring is up from 20.2 points to 23.5 and his assists from 3.4 to 3.8.

But it may be in the advanced statistics where the improvement is the most signficant.

Beal’s Player Efficiency Rating this season is 19.9, up from a just-above-league-average 15.5 a season ago. His true shooting percentage of .602 is up from what was a career-best .547 and his win shares per 48 minutes is up by more than double, to .158 from .076.

His improvement has mirrored that of the Wizards, who are third in the Eastern Conference after missing the postseason in 2015-16.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert‘s development continues at a rapid pace as the Utah Jazz attempt to solidify a top-four spot in the Western Conference playoffs.

His February numbers were monstrous–13.9 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in 33.1 minutes per game on 57.8 percent from the floor and 72.1 percent from the line.

For the season, he’s averaging 13.0 points, 12.8 rebounds and a league-high 2.5 blocks  in 33.5 minutes a game on a slash line of .641/0-for-1/.669.

His offensive game is still rudimentary–83.8 percent of his shots are taken within three feet of the basket (37.9 percent being dunks)–but he’s also burying 71.5 percent of those shots, so when he gets the ball in close, he usually scores.

Gobert also leads the NBA with 4.6 defensive win shares and a .673 true shooting percentage and has a solid 22.1 PER. At age 24 and in his fourth season, there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue to get better as he continues to learn the NBA game.

Along with the next guy on the list, Gobert–the 27th overall pick–is helping to provide a bit of redemption for the much-maligned 2013 NBA Draft.

1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the runaway frontrunner for the Most Improved Player honor all season and being voted into his first All-Star Game just solidified that status.

It didn’t hurt that in 23 minutes in the midseason exhibition in New Orleans, the Milwaukee Bucks’ star put up 30 points on 14-of-17 shooting to go with six rebounds and three steals.

Milwaukee is still on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs go, trailing the eighth-place Detroit Pistons by two games at 26-32 at the end of February, but Antetokounmpo has certainly pulled his share of the weight.

He’s averaged 23.4 points, 8.6 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.9 blocks in 35.5 minutes per game on .528/.278/.786 shooting. Per-36 minutes, his scoring is up 6.5 points over a season ago, his rebounds are up 0.9, assists 1.1 and steals and blocks each up 0.6.

That’s what I would define as “improved.”

The advanced metrics are off-the-charts better. Antetokounmpo’s PER of 26.6 is up from 18.8 last season, his win shares per 48 minutes rate of .214 dwarfs last season’s .121 mark and his 8.1 box score plus/minus is not even in the same galaxy as the 2.4 mark from 2015-16.

Engrave the trophy. It’s his.

Feb 26, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks center Greg Monroe (15) and Phoenix Suns guard Leandro Barbosa (19) reach for a rebound in the second quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Sixth Man of the Year

The Sixth Man of the Year race got a couple of major shake ups in February, one in the form of a contender being sent to a … well … contender and the other when a guy written off because of injury made an early return.

The first seizmic event occurred two days before the trade deadline when the Los Angeles Lakers shipped guard Lou Williams to the Houston Rockets in exchange for the expiring career — wait, I meant to say contract, really — of Corey Brewer and a first-round pick destined to be in the nether regions of the round in June.

The second came on Friday when Oklahoma City Thunder big man Enes Kanter returned from a fractured forearm about a month ahead of forecasts.

Not even in whispers: Lucas Nogueira, Toronto Raptors; Jon Leuer, Detroit Pistons.

In the conversation: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies; Patty Mills; San Antonio Spurs; Tyler Johnson, Miami Heat.

3. Greg Monroe, Milwaukee Bucks

The enigma that is Greg Monroe rolls on in Milwaukee, assured of finishing the season there after surviving the trade deadline still on the roster.

In his 22 minutes per game, Monroe has been extremely productive, averaging 11.5 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.3 steals on 53.2 percent shooting from the floor.

It’s the sort of production one would hope for from a low-post presence.

The problem with Monroe is that offensively he’s an anachronism. He doesn’t stretch the floor a lick, which makes him a drain plug of sorts taking up space in the middle that keeps a defender close to the rim, thus making any sort of drive-and-kick derivatives more difficult.

Defensively, meanwhile, Monroe has never been anything more than barely adequate. He’s not a shot blocker and has slow feet and slow help instincts.

If Milwaukee misses the postseason this season, it will make seven playoff-free seasons in a row for Monroe in his seven-year career. I mean, at a certain point, doesn’t one have to think maybe it’s not me, it’s you?

But he’s still been a very productive reserve for the Bucks, no question.

2. Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder

Had voters realized that Jamal Crawford was not an automatic selection last season, Enes Kanter could be in contention for a second consecutive Sixth Man of the Year honor.

As it is, his early return from injury has him back in the running this season.

He wound up missing 10 games after losing by TKO to a folding chair on the sidelines during a win against the Dallas Mavericks on Jan. 26. We know the story by now: Man punches folding chair, chair folds into arm, arm breaks, man sidelined.

His return Friday against the Lakers wasn’t anything special–four points on 2-of-12 shooting in 19 minutes.

But Kanter turned it up a notch Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans, going for 20 points and nine rebounds in 24 minutes on 6-of-9 shooting and went for 15 points and nine boards Tuesday in a win over the Utah Jazz.

In 21.7 minutes a game, Kanter is averaging 14.3 points and 6.8 rebounds on 55.6 percent shooting this season and his second-unit production is part of the reason why the Thunder are still playoff-relevant without Kevin Durant.

1. Lou Williams, Houston Rockets

Lou Williams didn’t take long to make an impact on his new team. After being acquired by the Houston Rockets in a trade on Tuesday, he made his debut Thursday night against the New Orleans Pelicans.

Without the benefit of a practice and while practically still wearing a “Hello, My Name Is … ” sticker on his jersey, Williams buried seven three-pointers and scored 27 points in 25 minutes of a 30-point rout of the Pelicans that sort of (OK, obliterated) the NOLA debut of DeMarcus Cousins.

Shooters shoot and that’s been Williams’ M.O. for his entire career, but he’s never done it better than this season.

In 61 games with the Lakers and Rockets, Williams is hitting 39.5 percent from the great beyond–a career high–and averaging a career-best 18.9 points in just 24.3 minutes per game.

He’s a past Sixth Man of the Year winner, earning the award in 2014-15 with the Toronto Raptors before signing with the Lakers as a free agent that summer.

Life may not start at 30 in the NBA, but Williams has shown this season that it certainly doesn’t end there, either. And given an unexpected opportunity for the final six weeks of the regular season to mean something won’t hurt his focus down the stretch.

Feb 27, 2017; Dallas, TX, USA; Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) blocks a shot by Dallas Mavericks guard Wesley Matthews (23) during the first quarter at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Rookie Of The Year

The voters seem to be talking themselves into–or trying to, at least–voting for Joel Embiid as the Rookie of the First Part of the Year.

In the absence of any other outstanding first-year players, it’s hard to blame them, but as I stated in the opening to this piece, I can’t endorse handing a piece of major regular-season NBA hardware to a guy who played in 31 of a possible 82 games.

So we’ll either have the most fragile Rookie of the Year winner in NBA history or Monk Meineke, the very first recipient of the honor way back in 1952-53 with his averages of 10.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game, will finally be knocked from the seat at the bottom of the totem pole as worst winner ever.

Out of the conversation, into the rehab ward: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers.

In the conversation (what can be heard over the riotous laughter, anyway): Andrew Harrison, Memphis Grizzlies; Buddy Hield, Sacramento Kings; Dorian Finney-Smith, Dallas Mavericks.

3. Rodney McGruder, Miami Heat

Rodney McGruder is still getting the bulk of the starts at the 2 spot for the Miami Heat and he had his best month of his rookie season in February, averaging 8.0 points and 3.4 rebounds in 11 games and 26.8 minutes per game.

He shot .450/.405/.333 in the month (the free-throw shooting was 1-for-3, so not so much for taking the ball to the rack), but Miami was 8-3 in the month and climbed back into the playoff race.

McGruder is a 25-year-old rookie, undrafted in 2013 (and given how bad that draft was, that’s quite an indictment) and finally made an NBA roster after four Summer League attempts and three preseason tries.

His path to the NBA was … creative. A Summer League stint with the Orlando Magic in 2013. Two preseason games with the Oklahoma City Thunder in the fall of 2013. A season in Hungary’s NBIA with Atomeromu SE in 2013-14.

In the summer of 2014, McGruder played in Las  Vegas with the Golden State Warriors’ entry and played in three preseason games for the Boston Celtics before splitting the 2014-15 season in the D-League with Maine and Sioux Falls.

He spent all of 2015-16 with Sioux Falls after a Summer League sessions in both Orlando and Las Vegas with the Heat before finally making the Miami roster last October.

McGruder is averaging 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds in 26.0 minutes per game on .4067/.350/.660 shooting.

2. Dario Saric, Philadelphia 76ers

Joel Embiid’s pain has been Dario Saric‘s gain for the Philadelphia 76ers.

Saric was fantastic for the 76ers in February after Embiid went down with knee problems, averaging 17.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.0 steals in 30.1 minutes per game on .443/.250/.780 shooting.

That boosted his seasonal totals to 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 25.0 minutes a game on a slash line of .402/.311/.788.

Saric was the 12th overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Orlando Magic and was picked up along with Philadelphia’s own 2017 first-round pick (surrendered in the ill-fated Andrew Bynum trade in 2012) in exchange for the rights to Elfrid Payton on draft night.

The Croatian big man spent two more seasons overseas, playing in Turkey for Anadolu Efes, before joining Philadelphia this year.

Regardless of Embiid’s status, Saric was going to be the recipient of more minutes the rest of the way after the 76ers traded veteran stretch-4 Ersan Ilyasova to the Atlanta Hawks last week, but given how he’s responded to increased run already, Saric looks to be primed for a big finish.

1. Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks

The new leader in the clubhouse, Malcolm Brogdon has been the shining light for a 2016 draft class that has had trouble gaining much traction thus far.

If Brogdon were to win Rookie of the Year, he would be the first player drafted outside the first round to win since Willis Reed of the New York Knicks in 1964-65, who was a second-round pick but also the eighth overall selection.

Brogdon was taken 36th overall in the second round by the Milwaukee Bucks and had his best scoring month yet in February despite coming off the bench. He put ujp 11.7 points and 4.6 assists in 26.4 minutes per game while shooting .489/.429/.781 last month.

Brogdon’s scoring average has increased each month this season, from 5.3 in October to 7.8 in November to 9.1 in December to 11.1 in January and now 11.7 in February.

The 24-year-old is averaging 9.7 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.2 steals in 25.6 minutes per game on the season, with a shooting slash line of .444/.417/.843.

Hardly the stuff that screams future superstar, but in a rookie class that has been historically God awful, Brogdon has been a ray of bright light.

Feb 26, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Taj Gibson (22) and New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) fight for a rebound during the fourth quarter at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Player Of The Year

I will freely admit to being all over the map on this selection, but as I’ve stated before, defense is difficult to quantify.

Instead, you just have to trust what you see and what I’ve seen of late is some all-around excellence on the defensive end by one player that is setting him slightly — ever so slightly — apart from the other two players in a group of three that is light years ahead of the rest.

Not so much about the talking about now: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks.

In the conversation (if only to have a conversation): Thabo Sefolosha, Atlanta Hawks; Robert Covington, Philadelphia 76ers; Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks.

3. Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans

The regression of the New Orleans Pelicans as a team has hurt the candidate of Anthony Davis as an individual in this race.

The Pelicans are still a top-10 defensive unit, barely, ranking 10th with a defensive rating of 107.7 points per 100 possessions, per basketball-reference.com.

But New Orleans is coming off a 4-7 February during which it surrendered a whopping 109.9 points per game–not exactly the stuff making a playoff run is made of.

For his part, Davis is second in the NBA with 2.4 blocks per game and averages 1.3 steals per game as well, all while also being asked to shoulder most of the offensive load for the Pelicans–at least until the arrival of DeMarcus Cousins last week.

But his place in the race for DPOY is being overshadowed by players who are doing as much or more for teams that play significantly better on the defensive end, fair or unfair as that may be.

2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Rudy Gobert is leading the NBA in blocks per game at 2.5 and in defensive real plus/minus per ESPN.com at 5.29.

He is the centerpiece of a defense that ranks third in the NBA in efficiency at 104.3 points allowed per 100 possessions and leads the league in raw points allowed at 95.8 points per game.

Where Gobert suffers in comparison with the other top contenders is twofold. One, he averaged just 0.7 steals per game, far fewer than the others, and his 4.7 fouls per 100 possessions is far more than the other two leaders in the field.

That second category should become better with time. Gobert is just 24 and is still learning the NBA and American styles of play.

Opponents are shooting 56.2 percent against Gobert in the restricted area, which ranks 11th among players who face at least 15 attempts from that range.

1. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors

There is just no player who brings as much to the table defensively as does Draymond Green.

The Golden State Warriors rank second in the NBA with a defensive rating of 104.1. Green leads the league with 2.1 steals per game and throws in 1.4 blocks along with that. He can defend wings on the perimeter. He can defend centers down low. He can defend everything in between.

Despite his size, or lack thereof, inside, opponents are shooting 58.2 percent against Green in the restricted area–a respectable mark for a player asked to guard 5s at times despite being listed at just 6-foot-7.

Put Green in an isolation situation on the perimeter, though, and he can do a stand-up job, surrendering 0.83 points per possession, per stats.nba.com. That’s in the 60th percentile–not Kevin Durant 87th percentile territory, but respectable.

Get Green into a post-up situation and he’s in the 85th percentile, allowing 0.68 points per possession.

Ask him to cover the roll man on a pick and roll? No problem, as in Green ranks in the 85th percentile there, as well, allowing 0.67 points per possession.

It is that all-around effort and excellence that makes the difference.

Feb 28, 2017; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) drives to the basket behind Utah Jazz forward Joe Johnson (6) during the second quarter at Chesape Energy Arena. Mandatory Credit: Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Most Valuable Player

It takes a lot of ability to be named NBA MVP. But it also takes availability.

Only twice in the history of the award has a player been named MVP while missing more than 10 games–Bill Walton in 1977-78 (24 games missed) and Allen Iverson in 2000-01 (11 games missed).

With Kevin Durant expected to miss at least four weeks for the Golden State Warriors with a sprained MCL and bone bruise sustained in Tuesday’s loss to the Washington Wizards, even the most optimistic estimate would have Durant missing 14 games if he were to return March 29 in San Antonio.

Throw in some games with a minutes restriction to get himself reacclimated, factor in Golden State’s playoff positioning with relation to everything and it’s possible Durant may not appear in many more than the 59 games in which he’s already played.

So he’s out of the MVP discussion at this point.

By my estimation, there is a clear-cut favorite and two guys neck-and-neck for runner-up without Durant in the mix.

Out of the conversation and get well soon: Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors.

In the larger conversation (because it’s MVP and the more the merrier): Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics; LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls; Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz.

3. Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs

In his usual fashion, Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs has climbed into the top three of this debate.

That is to say, very Kawhi-etly.

With the retirement of Tim Duncan and the transition of franchise icons Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to elder statesmen status, Leonard has become the primary offensive option and has responded to the increased volume well.

He is putting up 25.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 33.3 minutes per game on .487/.387/.893 shooting.

The shooting efficiency is down from last season’s 50.6 percent from the floor and 44.3 percent from downtown, but that’s coming on 2.5 more attempts and 1.1 more deep balls per game. On 2.8 more foul shots, however, he’s improved from 87.4 to 89.3 percent.

His PER is up to a career-best 27.9 and his true shooting percentage of .617 is a tick better than last year’s career-high .616.

So while the early-season narrative may have been all about, “Oh, my God, the Spurs play better D without Kawhi,” he’s had an outstanding season while keeping San Antonio in the title mix for the 458th straight season (approximately).

2. James Harden, Houston Rockets

James Harden continues to lead the NBA in assists, averaging 11.3 per game, while scoring at a ridiculous 28.8 points per game clip and grabbing 8.1 rebounds a night just for good measure.

Harden has been the engine leading Houston’s resurgence this season, averaging 36.5 minutes a game and shooting .437/.349/.851 while taking the Rockets into the third spot in the Western Conference.

His PER of 27.3 is on pace to be a career-high and, while he’s had higher scoring seasons per game, his 28.4 points per-36 minutes is the highest clip of his career.

Mike D’Antoni’s decision to officially name Harden the point guard of the Rockets has paid off as much in mindset for The Beard as anything; he was always the guy with the rock more often than not in Houston, but now he’s actively looking more to facilitate for others.

That’s evidenced by a 50.7 percent assist rate that is more than 15 percentage points higher than his previous career high.

And all kidding aside, his defense has been passable this season–his defensive box plus/minus is in positive numbers again at plus-1.5 (it was minus-0.4 last season) and he’s been the best player on one of the top three teams in the West.

Seems pretty valuable.

1. Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

Russell Westbrook‘s triple-double Tuesday night in a win over the Utah Jazz was his 30th of the season.

Thirty triple-doubles in a season.

That’s the third-most in a single-season all-time, going back to the time before real stats are even available in databases.

Oscar Robertson has credit for 41 messarounds in his legendary 1961-62, when he posted the only triple-double season average in NBA history (until Westbrook is done this year) and Wilt Chamberlain posted 31 triple-doubles in 1966-67.

With 30 in 60 games, Westbrook is on pace to tie Robertson’s mark of 41.

He’s also on pace to win his second scoring title, leading the NBA with an average of 31.2 points per game to go with 10.6 rebounds and 10.3 assists in 34.8 minutes a night.

Considering Robertson averaged 44.3 minutes a game to average 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game 55 seasons ago, it’s fair to say what Westbrook is doing goes into the pantheon of modern-era single-season achievements, with Michael Jordan‘s 3,000-point season in 1986-87 and John Stockton topping the 1,000-assist mark seven times.

Given Westbrook has a usage rate of somewhere around 98.8 percent (OK, 41.9 percent), it’s almost understandable that James Harden’s record of 374 turnovers in a single season, set just last year, is in play. With 22 games remaining, Westbrook is at 335 … and counting.

Guys with the ball in their hands all the time will turn it over a lot. It’s true.

And it’s still nowhere near the 422 turnovers George McGinnis put up in the ABA in 1974-75 … when he was named co-MVP.

This article originally appeared on