Def Pen NBA Midseason Roundtable: Will James Harden Claim MVP?
James Harden
James Harden and LeBron James are two of the frontrunners for MVP right now (USA TODAY Sports / Troy Taormina).

As the NBA approaches its midseason point, regression is settling in for fluky stat lines or performances. Slow starts are becoming disappointing seasons; fast starts are now breakout campaigns. With that said, I’ve assembled a roundtable of Def Pen NBA writers focused on midseason award picks and intriguing storylines among other things.

Let’s dive in.

If the season were to end right now, who would be your picks for MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year and Coach of the Year?

Saahil Pawar
MVP: James Harden
Even with the addition of Chris Paul, the offensive work of James Harden has remained the lifeline for the 27-11 Houston Rockets. His 32.4 points per game is far and away tops in the league and his ability to create for himself and others at every level is simply unmatched. Add his nine-plus assists average and you have the most dangerous offensive weapon in the NBA and the head of the league’s most potent attack. His injury may muddy this up, but for now, Harden remains my pick.

DPOY: Paul George
Though the offense has been sporadic, Oklahoma City’s defense on the wings has been everything they could’ve imagined, thanks to stalwarts Paul George and Andre Roberson. Statistically, George leads the league in three major defensive hustle categories: steals, loose balls recovered and deflections. If that wasn’t enough, George is also seventh in defensive win shares and OKC as a team is top five in defensive rating at 101.6 (stats as of Dec. 31).

MIP: Victor Oladipo
In his first year with Indiana, Victor Oladipo has taken over the reins after being an afterthought in Orlando and Oklahoma City, resulting in a scoring jump from 15.9 points per game last year to 24.8 this year. Additionally, Oladipo’s field goal percentage has also increased by over four percent while shooting a scorching 42.6 percent from 3-point range.

ROY: Ben Simmons
Though we’ve seen flashes from a plethora of first-year players, Ben Simmons’ well-rounded arsenal reigns supreme. At only 21 years old, Simmons boasts a mature, multifaceted game well beyond his years. Though his jumper is still a work in progress, his ability to run the offense as a 6-foot-10 prototype makes him the clear-cut favorite to secure Rookie of the Year honors.

COY: Brad Stevens
Incorporating a new, superstar talent such as Kyrie Irving is often a daunting task. However, Boston Celtics Head Coach Brad Stevens has done this seamlessly. Even with the absence of Gordon Hayward forcing Stevens to adjust his offensive gameplan on the fly, he has done magic with Boston’s deep rotation and has them perched as the top seed in an improved Eastern Conference.

Victor Oladipo is the favorite for Most Improved Player this season (Andy Lyons/Getty Images).

Dylan Edenfield
MVP: James Harden
James Harden has had another incredible start to a season, looking to avenge his past two MVP-race defeats in which he should’ve won at least one, if not both. After finally getting some fellow star power in Houston in the form of Chris Paul, the Rockets’ new addition struggled with injuries, which forced Harden to lead a group of role players in the always-competitive Western Conference. Without Paul, Harden has turned rebounding specialist Clint Capela into one of the NBA’s most effective centers, along with constantly finding his bounty of shooters open behind the arc. He has proved doubters wrong with Paul on the floor with him, as many thought having two ball-dominant players would unravel quickly, but they have fit together seamlessly so far. Harden leads the NBA in points per game and is third in assists per game while boasting the fourth-best record in the league. Harden is the easy pick for me.

DPOY: Draymond Green
With three bonafide scorers around him, Draymond Green is able to do everything else for the Golden State Warriors, including being arguably the NBA’s best defender. Green is everywhere on the court, able to lock down anyone from point guards to centers thanks to his quickness, strength and IQ. Also, not taking anything away from Green’s defensive dominance, but with last season’s other DPOY finalists, Kawhi Leonard and Rudy Gobert, having been sidelined for most of the season thus far, Green again runs away with this award for what would be the second straight season.

MIP: Victor Oladipo
Out of all the awards, this was easily the hardest one to decide on. But in the end, Oladipo has run away with it as of late. Many of us were too quick to give up on the high-flying combo guard after being drafted to a franchise where all young talents go to die in Orlando and then being shipped to play with a team he didn’t gel with in Oklahoma City. Now, he has his own team in Indiana and Dipo has made the huge contract he was handed look like a value deal. Oladipo has gone from an overhyped rookie battling with Michael Carter-Williams, to an above-average role player, to a player that should be a shoo-in for the All-Star game. Becoming a top-10 scorer in the NBA, after being handed a contract in which the majority argued was way too high of a price tag, Victor Oladipo has come a long way, improving more than any other player this season.

ROY: Ben Simmons
Ben Simmons is a talent the NBA has never seen before, as he is already a polished playmaker and ball-handler. A couple weeks ago Simmons would’ve been the easy unanimous choice, but with the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Kyle Kuzma all producing at a much higher level than expected, it made the decision a bit tougher  — but not really. Simmons is putting up numbers only Magic Johnson and LeBron were putting up in their rookie seasons. While the 76ers are struggling to fight back into a playoff spot, Simmons continues to put up once-in-a-generation type stats and as long as he continues to do so, he should run away with ROY.

COY: Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens has plenty of talent on his roster, whether it be the internal development of Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart, the poised play of rookie Jayson Tatum or the heroics of Kyrie Irving, he certainly has no shortage of options. However, with Gordon Hayward down in the first game of the season, Stevens was forced to make on-the-fly adjustments and find a way for the Celtics to succeed without one of their stars and he has done an admirable job. The Celtics hold a semi-comfortable advantage for the first seed in the East with a collection of young players, average role players and the duo of Irving and Al Horford. After losing out to Mike D’Antoni last season, Stevens has responded with yet another fantastic start (with a completely revamped roster, no less) and definitely deserves COY if the Celtics continue this current pace.

Brad Stevens
Brad Stevens has guided the Celtics to a 32-10 record (David Butler II, USA TODAY Sports).

Mike Anguilano
MVP: James Harden
One could make the case that LeBron James or Kevin Durant should be named MVP, but I will take Harden. He has missed out on the award two times now and has carried the Rockets through Chris Paul’s injury-riddled start to the season. He’s ISO-heavy and plenty of people do not like his foul-inducing antics, but James Harden is my MVP right now.

DPOY: Draymond Green
This one could also easily go to Green’s teammate in Durant, who is on a blocking spree this season, but I’ll give it to the more versatile defender in Green. Rudy Gobert being sidelined with injury makes this one a little easier.

MIP: Victor Oladipo
Oladipo has been borderline incredible for the Pacers this season, averaging nearly 25 points per game on 49.1 percent shooting. Last season he averaged just under 16 points per game on 44 percent shooting. His three-point shooting percentage is up big too, from 36 percent to 42.6 percent. And just how important is he? The Pacers are 0-5 in games he misses this season.

ROY: Ben Simmons
I am most unsure about this category. Donovan Mitchell, Kyle Kuzma and Jayson Tatum all could win the award with how they are playing and impacting their respective teams. Ben Simmons is the most impressive rookie from a skill set perspective but Mitchell is vital to the Jazz offense. I think it will come down to those two, but Kuzma and Tatum are definitely not far behind.

COY: Brad Stevens
This is another difficult category, considering the number of impressive teams. I’ll go with Brad Stevens as of now, especially with how he has weathered the Gordon Hayward injury. Dwane Casey of the Raptors is actually not too far behind either. Toronto is quietly one of the hottest teams in the league.

Tony East (All stats as of Jan. 1).
MVP: LeBron James
27.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 9.2 assists on 64.5 percent true shooting. He is the reason for the Cavs success. Leads the league in box plus-minus and VORP. He has been the most talented and most impactful player. He is my MVP choice.

DPOY: Joel Embiid
99.5 defensive rating on a Philly team that has a 107.4 defensive rating when he sits. He makes finishing around the basket impossible and impacts everyone on that end of the floor with his lateral agility and size combination.

MIP: Victor Oladipo
Nearly 25 points per game on insane efficiency and leading a Pacers team far past expectations. He’s been insanely efficient and has propelled Indiana to a top 10 offense.

ROY: Donovan Mitchell
I wish he hadn’t gotten off to a slow start because then this wouldn’t even be a debate. His month of December, 23.1 points per game on 50 percent shooting, is insane for anyone, nonetheless a rookie.

COY: Brad Stevens
An injury to his star wing player meant Stevens was integrating an entirely new roster together on the fly AND starting two rookies. Somehow, with that scenario, he has the Celtics at 32-10. Easy candidate.

Kevin Durant is a serious contender for the Defensive Player of the Year award (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group Archives).

Zack Geoghegan
MVP: James Harden
Whether or not he’ll be robbed of this award once again remains to be seen, but he absolutely deserves it so far. He’s putting up scoring numbers that only Hall of Famers can match, while also passing the ball like an actual wizard. Without Chris Paul, he’s made the Rockets one of the best offensive teams in the league. With Chris Paul, some people think they might actually be able to contend with the Warriors out West.

DPOY: Kevin Durant
There are several different options for this award that I believe all have arguments, but I’m going with Kevin Durant. Durant leads the NBA in blocks and sticks like glue to whoever has the ball. He’s become an elite rim protector and he now has a similar presence to Rudy Gobert and Anthony Davis when opposing players are running toward the rim.

MIP: Victor Oladpio
I mean, c’mon, this is almost locked up at this point. Oladpio was once the butt of the Paul George trade and now he’s putting up better numbers than the four-time All-Star.

ROY: Ben Simmons
Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma are still in his rearview mirror (although objects in mirror are closer than they appear) and it’s because he may be the closest prospect to LeBron James we’ve seen since the King himself. Simmons is averaging nearly 17 points along with eight-plus assists per game without even sniffing the three-point line and the Sixers have playoff aspirations thanks to him and Joel Embiid.

COY: Brad Stevens
Even without Gordon Hayward, Stevens has kept the Celtics at the top of the Eastern Conference. He’s getting incredible value out of young guys such as Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown and even less valuable youngsters such as Terry Rozier and Semi Ojeleye are doing better than I imagine they would on literally any other team. Stevens knows how to get the best out of each individual player and he’s quickly become one of the best coaches in the NBA because of it.

David Morrow (All stats as of Dec. 29).
MVP: James Harden
It’s James Harden. Come on. He leads the NBA in made 3-pointers; he’s hit 141, and the player with the next-most is Klay Thompson with 118. Plus, Harden’s shooting those treys at a career-best 39.2 percent clip. He’s scoring 32.5 points per game. Nobody else is scoring 30-plus. He’s also third in assists per game (9.2). Houston has the best offense in the league. LeBron has been great. Giannis has been great. But Harden’s been snubbed for this award twice, and it looks like this time around, he’s going to make sure that doesn’t happen by running away with it.

DPOY: Kevin Durant
I… I think it’s Kevin Durant. He’s become a bonafide rim protector! He’s averaging 2.3 blocks per game. Only Myles Turner (2.4) is rejecting shots at a higher rate. Opponents are shooting 50 percent inside six feet with Durant guarding them. That’s 10.6 percent lower than their season average. The Warriors have the NBA’s best defensive rating (though Boston is so close they’re basically tied. In fact, I think Al Horford is the runner-up for this award).

MIP: Victor Oladipo
He’s free! He’s escaped the clutches of the Thunder’s offense, which was significantly more concerned with getting Russell Westbrook that MVP award than with winning games. In Indiana, Oladipo is given the ball and allowed to go to work. His scoring average has jumped from 15.9 to 24.9 points per game. His rebounding, assist, steal and block numbers have all jumped as well. Same for his field goal percentage (career-high 48.5 percent), 3-point percentage (career-high 42.3 percent) and free-throw percentage (79 percent). Literally, all of his numbers are up. He’s a legitimate All-Star.

ROY: Ben Simmons
Duh. He’s the best rookie in recent memory. He’s the clear favorite for this award, with all due respect to Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Kuzma, all of whom have had terrific rookie campaigns. Simmons is averaging 16.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.6 assists and 1.9 steals per game. He has truly special passing vision and instincts, and he runs the floor like a damn gazelle. He’s shooting 50.8 percent from the floor despite every opposing defender knowing that he’s going to drive 90 percent of the time. Ben Simmons is a very, very special player.

COY: Brad Stevens
The Celts have the best record in the East despite having lost (arguably)their best player on opening night. They’re starting a rookie and a second-year player, plus Kyrie Irving, whose defensive reputation hasn’t exactly been sterling throughout his career. D’Antoni and Kerr are in contention for this award also, but those are the past two winners, and #VoterFatigue is a real thing. Brad deserves it anyway.

Donovan Mitchell
Donovan Mitchell is averaging 18.5 points per game (Jeff Swinger/USA TODAY Sports).

Daniel Richardson (All stats as of Jan. 2).
MVP: LeBron James
LeBron James is in his 15th NBA season and he continues to find ways to improve his impact. The fact that he is third in the league in scoring at such an efficient clip is incredibly impressive. Not to mention he is averaging close to 10 assists per game, good for second in the NBA. His Cavaliers team is on pace to make a third straight NBA Finals, which would make it James’ eighth consecutive trip. James, to me, has a complete mastery of the game of basketball and should once again be rewarded for that.

DPOY: Kevin Durant
If not for Kevin Durant putting on his best vintage Serge Ibaka impression in Golden State – blocking two shots a game – I would give Paul George my nomination. Kevin Durant has become the spearhead of the No. 2 defense in the NBA and has improved overall as a defensive player from even his first season with the Warriors.

MIP: Aaron Gordon
Gordon’s had an impressive season under Frank Vogel. The Magic started off strong under Gordon’s hot shooting at the power forward spot. Orlando is close to last in the Eastern Conference rankings, but Gordon’s increase in minutes, points per game, rebounds and three-point percentage hasn’t tailed off at all. Gordon, at only 22 years old, has only yet to even touch his true potential as a player in this league.

ROY: Donovan Mitchell
Two words: Donovan. Mitchell. Averaging 18 points per game and playing the fifth
most minutes per game among rookies, Mitchell has impressed NBA fans from the outset. His career 41-point game – which happened to be a Jazz rookie record – was only the beginning of an impressive rookie campaign. The Louisville product is quickly gaining respect around the league, and much of it is well deserved.

COY: Dwane Casey
I have to give my nomination to Toronto’s Dwane Casey. The Raptors, who are 25-10, have one of the most efficient offenses in the league and their defense is close to top five when discussing their efficiency. Casey’s team has completely shifted its offense and in turn, All-Star DeMar DeRozan has completely improved his game in multiple facets. With a career high in assists, three-point attempts and three-point percentage, Casey’s new offense has helped one of his best players reach new heights.

Orazio Cauchi (All stats as of Jan. 2).
MVP: Kevin Durant
Kevin Durant, right now. He’s probably the most dominant player in the league. Almost 26 points per game, seven rebounds and five assists, but aside from the numbers, the real key of Durant’s season so far is represented by his defense. Durant is basically playing as the de facto center of the team, protecting the rim and grabbing rebounds better than a traditional big man. Durant is currently one of the best rim protectors in the league and his defensive versatility is just too important for Golden State and their success.

DPOY: Draymond Green
Yep, again the Golden State Warriors and yep, we’re still talking about defense. Golden State is one of the most beautiful offensive teams in the history of the game, but at the end of the day it’s their defense that makes them so special. A defensive juggernaut that can switch on everyone and that motivates his teammates with his incredible energy and personality. He’s currently in the top five for defensive real plus-minus and if Durant is the best well-kept secret of the Warriors’ defense, Green is no longer a secret, but the statement that Golden State’s defense is the best in the league.

MIP: Victor Oladipo
So far the discussion for MIP is going in only one direction. Oladipo is the reason why the Pacers are in the mix for a playoff spot this season. After a difficult season with the Thunder, Oladipo, now free of a difficult relationship with Russell Westbrook, is having a career year. The former Magic guard is averaging 25 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. But the real difference maker has been his three-point shooting. Vic, in fact, is shooting 42.3 percent from the three-point line — the previous best of his career was 36 percent from last season with OKC. It’s an impressive improvement that is helping Oladipo to expand his game and making him one of the best surprises of the season.

ROY: Ben Simmons
In 35 games in the season, Simmons has already proven that he’s one of the best two-way players in the league. With averages of 16.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.5 assists per game, Simmons currently ranks first in rebounds and assists while ranking third in scoring among rookies. But Simmons is also third in triple-doubles this season, behind Russell Westbrook and Lebron James. The former LSU star has also shown an impressive defensive potential, currently ranking seventh in the league with 1.9 steals per game. The question marks remain on his ability to develop a credible outside shooting range but so far, Simmons has been the rookie of the year and it’s not even close.

COY: Mike D’Antoni
The Houston Rockets are probably, along with the Cavs, the only team that has a chance against the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. Mike D’Antoni created an impressive offensive machine, able to mix the talent of James Harden and Chris Paul. But the team has also made improvements on the defensive side with the additions of very reliable wings like P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah A Moute and the definitive rise of Clint Capela as one of the best rim protectors in the league.

Julius Randle has made noticeable strides defensively this season (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images).

Honi Ahmadian (All stats as of Dec. 30).
MVP: James Harden
There are a few players deserving of the honor but no one has the case that James Harden does. After falling just short a few times, Harden looks poised to hold that trophy. He has all the narratives and numbers on his side. Harden’s team is the two-seed in the loaded West, reaching it without Chris Paul for large parts of the season thus far. He’s leading the league in scoring and is third in assists. I don’t think Harden’s lead is safe, however. LeBron and Giannis (along with a few others) are on his tail.

DPOY: Kevin Durant
The DPOY race is wide open with Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard having missed so much time. I’m going to go a little outside the box and pick Kevin Durant as the winner. You could make the argument that KD isn’t even the best defender on his own team but he’s been phenomenal on that end so far, blocking more shots than anyone else in the league despite primarily playing on the perimeter.

MIP: Julius Randle
I’m going to be a bit of a homer here and pick Julius Randle as the most improved player in the league. Randle’s minutes have been unjustifiably down this year but he’s still providing immense production for the Lakers, The two main points of emphasis have been a much more efficient offense with a career-high true shooting percentage of 59.4 percent (he’s shooting a ridiculous 76 percent at the rim) and marked improvements defensively. Randle’s ability to switch out on the perimeter and protect the paint as a small-ball center is the secret behind the Lakers’ huge strides defensively.

ROY: Ben Simmons
This is a one-man race. Tatum, Mitchell and Kuzma are all great rookies. But Ben Simmons is a great NBA player, full stop, period. Just looking at Simmons’ raw stats and how close he is to averaging a fairly efficient triple-double on the year while playing point guard in his first bit of NBA action is enough to put him head and shoulders above the rest — and that’s before mentioning his defense. The year in the NBA, despite not playing last season, is definitely a huge advantage for him.

COY: Dwane Casey
The Toronto Raptors have gone under the radar as they put pressure on the Cavaliers and Celtics for the top spot in the East. Dwane Casey deserves a lot of credit for their improvements this season. Casey has been rightfully criticized for how he’s managed the team before, especially in the playoffs, but the Raps stood by him and so far it’s paying dividends. The team is moving the ball, assisting at a much higher level and both DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have bought into playing a more inclusive and less ISO-heavy style that should help come playoffs time. The Raptors are the third best team in the league by net rating.

This behemoth of a piece is part one of a two- or three-part series regarding NBA talking points at the season’s midpoint. Special thanks to the nine writers who contributed.

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