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Rod Beard’s NBA midseason report: New powers turn page

Rod Beard
The Detroit News
Even with the Cavaliers’ troubles this year, LeBron James remains a perennial MVP candidate. He’s averaging 27.3 points, 8 rebounds and 8.8 assists.

Auburn Hills — Like any season, there were some clear expectations of what would happen in the first 41 games of the season: several teams jockeying for position — only to be thwarted by the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers on the road to a fourth straight meeting in the NBA Finals.

Not so fast.

The Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets, among others, have thrown some doubt into the projected storylines. Some other players have had breakout seasons and have put their teams into position to at least contend for playoff spots and upset the apple cart of the status quo.

There are still plenty of games to go before anything is decided, but the first half has provided some memorable moments and some that were completely off the script.

Most teams are past the midway point of the season, but it’s never too late to take a look at some of the storylines that defined the first half — and a look at the midseason awards.

Most Valuable Player

LeBron James, Cavaliers: Put his name on the list every year, even when the team’s having its struggles. This might be one of his most impressive years, though: 27.3 points, 8 rebounds and 8.8 assists. He’s probably earned the MVP this year more than any of his others — even with the Cavs’ problems this year.

Kevin Durant, Warriors: The debate rages about whether Durant or Curry is more important to the defending champions’ success, but both are valuable in their own ways. Durant just carries the team with his versatility — and has the added dimension of elite-level defense. The numbers always will be there, but now he finally has a championship.

Anthony Davis, Pelicans: He’s late to the party of the MVP race, but he’s putting up some eye-popping numbers: 26.7 points and 10.5 rebounds and hitting 56 percent from the field. More than that, he’s helped make the Pelicans relevant (23-21) and in the playoff race, realizing the talent they have with him and DeMarcus Cousins.

Guard Victor Oladipo, right, has been spectacular for the post-Paul George Pacers, while rookie Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz, left, whom the Pistons passed on selecting, looks to be the steal of the draft.

Most Improved Player

Victor Oladipo, Pacers: Remember when the Pacers allegedly destroyed their franchise for “giving” Paul George to the Thunder for some spare parts. That’s not the narrative anymore. Oladipo has been spectacular, posting 24.3 points, 5.2 rebounds and 4 rebounds, while hitting a sizzling 42 percent on 3-pointers. After playing for the Hoosiers in college, he’s becoming the face of the franchise — and has them firmly in the playoff chase.

Andre Drummond, Pistons: He’s going to be a dark horse for this award, but he’s picked up his game as much as anyone in the league. He’s improved all his weakest areas from previous seasons — including 63 percent on free throws — and had helped the Pistons to a surprising 14-6 start, until injuries decimated the roster. He’s become the focal point of the offense, improving to 3.8 assists to go with 14.5 points and a league-leading15 rebounds.

Aaron Gordon, Magic: He’s averaging 18.6 points — almost seven points more than his career average — along with career highs of 8 rebounds and 2.1 rebounds. He’s cooled from his early-season 3-point shooting, which was near 50 percent, down to a respectable 37 percent.

Coach of the Year

Brad Stevens, Celtics: He entered the season with a stacked roster — and somewhat unrealistic expectations of vanquishing the Cavaliers and challenging the Warriors in the elite tier. Even with the loss of Gordon Hayward in the opener, Stevens has managed to keep everything together nicely. The real test isn’t the regular season, though — it’ll be whether he can have the same success against LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the postseason.

Dwayne Casey, Raptors: While everyone’s paying attention to the Cavs and Celtics in the East, Casey and the Raptors have put together a nice 30-13 record in the first half of the season. They’re staying with the Celtics — only three games behind entering Thursday — and are doing it behind their All-Star backcourt. They own the best home record in the NBA and the best conference record in the East.

Gregg Popovich, Spurs: It’s never a surprise: no matter the obstacles, the Spurs manage to be among the top teams in the West, year in and year out. This year is different. Kawhi Leonard has played in only nine games — and the Spurs still are in third position, at 30-16. Sure, the Spurs have plenty of talent, but at some point, they have to slip a little, don’t they?

Rookie of the Year

Ben Simmons, Sixers: Yes, he’s still a rookie. The Sixers have a string of players who are past their first year and qualifying as rookies. Simmons, though, is the real deal. He’s inching toward averaging a triple-double with 16.8 points, 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists — and still hasn’t developed a reliable jump shot to augment his athletic skills set. Much like Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s just scratching the surface to what his potential could be.

Jayson Tatum, Celtics: The No. 3 pick, who could have been the top pick, who was involved in a trade to get the top pick. It’s somewhat confusing, but Tatum’s talent is not. He’s posting 13.8 points and 5.4 rebounds on the top team in the Eastern Conference and is undaunted by the stage he’s on. He’s jumped into the starting role and hasn’t looked out of place one bit.

Donovan Mitchell, Jazz: Pistons fans know this name all too well: the combo guard they passed on in the first round in order to draft Luke Kennard. Clearly, Mitchell benefited from the injury situation in Utah to garner playing time — but he’s made the most of the opportunity. He won’t get a huge groundswell of support unless the Jazz make a run toward the playoffs, but Mitchell looks to be the steal of the draft with his athletic ability and scoring.

Surprise Teams

Heat: Miami is not supposed to be a half-game behind the Cavs for third place in the East. But they are. And Erik Spoelstra has done a good job of galvanizing the squad and getting them to buy in — possibly without an All-Star player.

Thunder: Many gave up on Oklahoma City when they hit some early bumps at the start of the year. They’ve corrected those and are trending toward being a contender, as they were projected before the season.

Pacers: The Bucks and Pistons were expected to be in the playoff push, but after they dealt Paul George, Indiana was supposed to be something of an afterthought. Those experts thought wrong.

Disappointing Teams

Clippers: Injuries have bitten again and they realized that they miss Chris Paul more than they knew. They weren’t supposed to be one of the elite teams, but they were projected to be better than 23-21 and scraping for a playoff spot.

Grizzlies: Injuries have hastened their demise and they’ve fallen on hard times. Some are questioning whether the Marc Gasol era could be nearing an end.

Sixers: The jelling process is taking some time, but the flashes have been there between Simmons and Joel Embiid. The injuries to Markelle Fultz and now to J.J. Redick will be another test.