With the first half of another NBA season in the books, it's time to look back and recognize basketball's best performers.
Rookie of the Year-Damian Lillard
Given Anthony Davis's struggles to stay on the court, this one's a no-brainer. Portland's 22 year-old point guard popped off 23 points and 11 assists in his first NBA game and hasn't looked back. This year's Kyrie Irving is averaging a cool 18.3 points and 6.5 assists per game, blending his scoring prowess with an ability to facilitate on offense. He's yet to miss a game and leads the Trail Blazers in minutes. His 42.4 field goal percentage isn't great, but he's an above average shooter from downtown (drilling 2.3 triples per game--only Stephen Curry and Randy Foye are averaging more among point guards) and sinks over 83 percent of his free throws.
Honorable Mention: Anthony Davis
After losing James Harden the Oklahoma City Thunder still have the best record in basketball, and Durant's continued growth is a big reason why. Last year he improved his rebounding, defense and field goal percentage, but this season he's become even more efficient (29.3 PER while shooting 52-42-91 percent from the floor, three-point land and charity stripe) and is leading the league in Win Shares for the first time in his career. The NBA's top scorer is also passing more, too, getting his teammates more involved and setting them up for success.
Honorable Mention: LeBron James
Sixth Man-J.R. Smith
With Amare Stoudemire sidelined until New Year's Day, the New York Knicks leaned on Smith to provide firepower off the bench in the early going. Mike Woodson has used him so much that Smith leads the team in minutes, logging more than Carmelo Anthony, Tyson Chandler, and Jason Kidd. New York's second-best scorer is averaging 16.1 points per game, even if he doesn't always get them efficiently or consistently. He also rebounds surprisingly well (5.1 boards per game) for a two-guard.
Honorable Mention: Jamal Crawford and Kevin Martin
Most Improved-J.J. Hickson
A profound disappointment in Cleveland and Sacramento, Hickson played well last spring after signing on with the Blazers. That late-season success turned out to be a harbinger of things to come, for he's evolved into a double-double machine alongside LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland's frontcourt. The former first round draft pick has cemented himself as one of the Association's ten best rebounders and is finally playing up to his potential.
Honorable Mention: Paul George
Defensive Player-Tim Duncan
The Big Fundamental has turned back the clock this year and looks rejuvenated on both ends of the court. After regressing into an average defender during the past four years, Duncan is once again a force to be reckoned with in the paint, anchoring San Antonio's stingy defense with his elite interior D. He owns the NBA's top Defensive Rating and ranks third in both blocks per game (behind Larry Sanders and Serge Ibaka) and Defensive Win Shares (behind Joakim Noah and Paul George). His 3.3 swats per 36 minutes are half a block higher than his previous career high of 2.8
Honorable Mention: Joakim Noah
The Golden State Warriors finished the strike-shortened season (and Jackson's first year at the helm) 20 games below .500. This year, they're 26-17 and look like legit playoff contenders. The addition of Jarrett Jack and a healthy Steph Curry have helped, but Jackson deserves credit for his team's turnaround as well. His commitment to defense helped turn one of the league's worst defenses last year into an above average defensive unit this year without sacrificing any offense.
Honorable Mention: Tom Thibodeau