Halfway-point hardware
By Steve Kerr, Yahoo! Sports
January 24, 2007

Steve Kerr
Yahoo! Sports

The NBA season is officially at the halfway mark, and several themes have emerged.

The Dallas Mavericks and Phoenix Suns are by far the two best teams, the Atlantic Division will be won by a mediocre club, and this year's rookie class is the weakest in recent memory.

Phil Jackson has his team back in contention, Pat Riley hopes to have his there by April and Dwane Casey got a raw deal.

Point guards are dominating the league like never before, dominant big men are close to extinction, and running and gunning is back in style.

Of course, things change quickly in the NBA, and next month the league landscape could be totally different than it is now. But with January quickly disappearing, it's time for our midseason awards.

Most Valuable Player: Steve Nash.
Nash beats out Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, both of whom are having spectacular seasons. But Nash is playing at a level that few, if any point guards in the history of the game, have ever played. He makes the game so easy for the Suns that they seem to get a good shot every time down the floor. His combination of shooting range, ball-handling ability, use of his left hand and an incredible understanding of the game's nuances – passing angles, defensive alignments, teammates' strengths, etc. – make him virtually impossible to guard.

Nowitzki is an unbelievable player who has led the Mavericks to the NBA's best record. He is an impossible matchup at 7-foot tall with shooting range and ball-handling skills. (Has there ever been a player like him in NBA history?) Nowitzki has elevated his game the last two years with his willingness to take the ball hard to the basket and draw fouls. He's no longer dependent on his outside shot, so regardless of whether his shot is going in, Nowitzki can dominate a game.

Bryant has overcome the one weakness that has plagued his game: an understanding of when to take over and when to involve his teammates. Kobe no longer is single-minded in his will to score. Instead, he operates on a level that allows the Los Angeles Lakers to succeed, depending on what is needed. He is taking seven fewer shots per game, but he's also shooting a career-high 47 percent to become more efficient than ever. Bryant's leadership has grown by leaps and bounds – to the point where his teammates are comfortable, confident and making plays.

Honorable mentions: Dwyane Wade (Heat), Kevin Garnett (Timberwolves) and Gilbert Arenas (Wizards).

Rookie of the Year: Andrea Bargnani.
The Toronto Raptors used the NBA's No. 1 overall pick on Bargnani, and it looks like they made the right selection in a weak draft. After a slow start, Bargnani has begun to find his confidence with increased playing time. He has three-point range, can put the ball on the floor and, at 7 feet, can shoot over the top of people. Bargnani's numbers aren't great (10 points and four rebounds in 23 minutes of action), but he is showing great potential.

Bargnani beats out Brandon Roy, who has more impressive numbers (15 points a game), but Roy missed 20 games due to a left heel injury. Still, Roy looks very impressive and should be the Portland Trail Blazers' starting two guard for a long time to come. Adam Morrison also deserves consideration for averaging 13.5 points for the Charlotte Bobcats, but he has been plagued by inconsistent shooting (37.7 percent).

Honorable mentions: Paul Millsap (Jazz), Randy Foye (Timberwolves) and Jordan Farmar (Lakers).

Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson.
Most observers felt the Lakers were several years away from being contenders when Jackson returned to the sidelines last season. However, they're contenders right now. And once Lamar Odom comes back from his knee injury, L.A. will be a team no one will wants to deal with in the playoffs.

Jackson has given his team direction and, as he has done his entire career, given confidence to his bench players. It is no coincidence that Luke Walton, Smush Parker, Sasha Vujacic, Ronny Turiaf, Jordan Farmar and Maurice Evans are all enjoying solid seasons. Jackson's triangle offense gets the role players involved and provides them opportunities to score.

Jackson wins out over Avery Johnson and Jerry Sloan, each of whom has led his team to division leads.

Johnson – the Coach of the Year winner last season – has continued his renovation of the Mavericks, who two years ago were a shoot-first scoring machine but are now terrific defensively and the NBA's most balanced team. Sloan has brought the Jazz back from a couple of sub-par seasons, and he has done it the same way he's always coached: by getting his players to play hard, execute offensively with sharp cuts and ball movement and compete every night.

Honorable mentions: Eddie Jordan (Wizards), Mike D'Antoni (Suns) and Jeff Van Gundy (Rockets).

Sixth Man Award: Leandro Barbosa.
Ben Gordon was in the midst of running away with this award until Scott Skiles put him back into the Chicago Bulls' starting lineup. That leaves Barbosa, who is the Suns' energizer off the bench. With backup point guard duties added to his role this season, he has been a stabilizing force behind Steve Nash. But his main job is to come into the game with Nash and increase Phoenix's already blistering tempo.

Barbosa runs the wing as fast as anyone in the NBA, and his unusual looking shot is surprisingly effective. He is scoring 16 points per game, shooting 46 percent from the field and 39 percent from the three-point stripe. He wins the award over Corey Maggette, Earl Boykins and Kyle Korver, all of whom are scoring points and producing offense for their teams. But as a general rule, you don't win awards unless your teams are winning, so that eliminates all three.

Honorable mentions: Brent Barry (Spurs) and Maurice Evans (Lakers).

Most Improved Player: Luke Walton.
After losing 15 pounds in the offseason, Walton added a level of quickness that has allowed him to get around defenders. As a result, he is much more feared as an offensive threat. Walton has also gained confidence in his outside shot and is shooting much better from the three-point line (39 percent). With Lamar Odom's injury, Walton became the Lakers' second-best player after Bryant, and his play has helped L.A. maintain a place among the league's top five or six teams.

Walton gets the nod over Deron Williams of the Utah Jazz and the Sacramento Kings' Kevin Martin.

Williams' terrific point guard play has helped the Jazz become a premier team in the NBA again. He's a threat to score or pass, and he usually makes the right decision on which one to do. And the biggest thing? He's gained the confidence of Jerry Sloan. If Williams hadn't played so well in the final third of last season, he probably would be more qualified than Walton to win the award.

The same goes for Martin, who showed flashes of brilliance at the end of last season, then took over the starting guard spot in Sacramento after the departure of Bonzi Wells. Martin is having an all-star type season, averaging 20.6 points and shooting the ball extremely well (49.6 percent). His quickness is too much for most defenders to handle.

Honorable mentions: Smush Parker (Lakers), Josh Howard (Mavericks), Matt Carroll (Bobcats).

Comeback Player of the Year: Amare Stoudemire.
After a painstaking first couple of weeks in which Stoudemire was timid and ineffective coming off the bench, the Suns' talented young big man stepped into a starting role and regained his old form. Stoudemire is back to his old ways, running the floor, hammering home rim-rattling dunks and blocking shots from the weak side. His comeback has helped Phoenix win an incredible 32 of its last 35 games since a 1-5 start.

Stoudemire edges out Carlos Boozer, who played only 33 games last season for Utah due to an injured hamstring but is healthy and playing at an All-Star level. Boozer is averaging 22 points and 12 boards for the Northwest-leading Jazz.

Honorable mention: Quentin Richardson (Knicks).

Executive of the Year: Kevin O'Connor.
The Jazz made some subtle moves that have given them toughness and depth. On draft day, O'Connor selected Ronnie Brewer, who has provided versatile athleticism on the wing, and Paul Millsap, who has been the steal of the draft. A second-round pick, Millsap is a relentless rebounder. The trade for Derek Fisher completed O'Connor's project, as the veteran guard has been a tough defender, clutch shooter and mentor for Deron Williams.

O'Connor beats out Mark Warkentein, who not only pulled off the Allen Iverson trade for the Denver Nuggets but also landed Steve Blake in a nice, under-the-radar move that gave the Nuggets the pass-first point guard they needed. Bryan Colangelo, who took over the Raptors last summer, also deserves consideration for acquiring T.J. Ford and importing a couple of nice role players: Anthony Parker and Jorge Garbajosa. Both were signed as free agents after playing overseas.

Honorable mention: Carroll Dawson (Rockets).

Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

Updated on Wednesday, Jan 24, 2007 5:06 pm EST

Posted by Third Eye