Kevin Durant leads list of MVP candidates midway through NBA season
USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt shares his opinion on who leads the NBA pack when it comes to MVP candidates.
It’s been another thrilling yet chaotic start to the NBA season. Every night features a huge performance that lights up social media. But fans have also been left wondering on a nightly basis who will even be in the lineup as COVID-19 outbreaks leave rosters in flux and a record number of players see the court.
As the calendar turns to 2022, the NBA season is reaching the midway point of the schedule, with most teams playing roughly half their games.
Before we look to trade season and the All-Star break, we like to take stock of what we’ve seen and learned thus far and dole out some superlatives. Here’s a look at the best and worst from the first half of the NBA season:
Team of the first half: Warriors
Golden State has had one of the league’s two best records the entire first half while re-establishing itself as a championship favorite and box office draw. Stephen Curry is back in the MVP conversation, despite a recent shooting slump. Draymond Green is in peak form again leading the top-ranked defense in the NBA. And they also just welcomed back another star in Klay Thompson.
Biggest surprise: Grizzlies
Memphis was a team on the rise entering the season after winning last year’s eighth seed through the play-in tournament. The play-in appeared to be the Grizzlies’ best route back to the playoffs, but Ja Morant and company have soared past those modest expectations. With a deep roster of young talent, the Grizzlies are in position to compete for a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Are the Grizzlies legit contenders in the West?
USA TODAY Sportss Jeff Zillgitt and Matt Eppers breaks down the Memphis Grizzlies and how Ja Morant is the driving force behind their success.
Biggest disappointment: Hawks
On the heels of last year’s surprise Eastern Conference finals appearance, Atlanta has fallen off perhaps more than any team in the league this season. Trae Young has the offense among the best in the NBA, but the defense has been one of the worst, dropping the Hawks to 12th in the East and outside play-in position. With several young pieces on the roster to put together in a trade package, the Hawks could be one of the more intriguing teams to watch at the deadline.
Most exciting player: Ja Morant
Morant was already on a star trajectory, but a massive leap this season has him in line for his first All-Star appearance and potential All-NBA consideration. The added polish to his game hasn’t diminished how exciting Morant is to watch. Few things in the NBA are more thrilling than Morant rising up for an alley-oop in transition. He throws down a highlight-reel dunk seemingly once a game, and his two-handed chasedown block Sunday on the Lakers’ Avery Bradley was one of the best plays of the season.
Breakout performer: Anthony Edwards
In his second season, Edwards is rounding into more than just an explosive athlete who dunks over defenders. He has raised his scoring average to 22.4 points and his shooting percentage to 44.2% overall, including 37.1% from 3-point range on 8.8 attempts per game. The poster dunks are still there as Edwards proves he can be the second rising young star for the Timberwolves to build around beside Karl-Anthony Towns.
Best offseason move: DeMar DeRozan to Bulls
The contract raised many an eyebrow when DeRozan signed it over the summer: three years, $82 million. Perception be damned, though, the 32-year-old DeRozan has been a perfect fit for the Bulls next to Zach LaVine in the backcourt. DeRozan wasn’t Chicago’s only big acquisition during a busy offseason, but the veteran is one of the driving forces behind the Bulls’ rise to the top of the Eastern Conference.
Best single-game performance: Trae Young (Jan. 3)
Young set a career-high and NBA season-high with a 56-point masterpiece earlier this month against the Blazers. Young shot 17-of-26 from the field, 7-of-12 from 3-point range and 15-of-15 from the free-throw line and also added 14 assists. He scored or assisted on 86 points and notched the NBA’s first game in five years with at least 50 points and 14 assists. All of that still wasn’t enough for the struggling Hawks in a 136-131 loss. Young’s game was the fourth 50-point outing of the season after Kevin Durant (51), Steph Curry (50) and Jaylen Brown (50).
Best moment: Klay Thompson’s return (Jan. 9)
#KlayDay became a league holiday as Thompson made his long-awaited return to the Warriors after more than 2½ years away due to injuries. From the deafening cheers during introductions to his bucket on Golden State’s first possession to his poster dunk and snarl later in the game, the entire night was a celebration of one of the league’s most beloved players. For one game, everything felt right again in the NBA world.
Best ending: Devonte’ Graham’s buzzer-beater (Dec. 15)
One wild 3-pointer begat another, even wilder 3-pointer in the most unlikely finish of the first half. Oklahoma City’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander hit an off balance 30-footer to tie the score at 110-110 with 1.4 seconds left. With no timeouts, New Orleans inbounded the ball to Devonte’ Graham, who threw up a prayer from about 61 feet and banked it in for a 113-110 Pelicans win that left everyone in disbelief.
Follow Matt Eppers on Twitter @meppers_.