Friday, April 17, 2009

Choosing this season's award winners an easy process


It's April. That means it's time to hand out some NBA superlatives. I have been writing these pick columns for 20 years now, and I offer the same disclaimer year after year, to no avail: these are my picks. They only have to make sense to me, not to you. So it is pointless for you to send me notes which "prove" through some amalgam of PER, formulas rejected as unsound by Daryl Morey and your grandma's home-spun philosophies that Anthony Morrow is a better player than Kobe. I will happily read your awards selections on your blog. But this is, at least for now, my column.

So, let's get to it.

Rookie of the Year

WINNER: Derrick Rose, Chicago

We don't really have to have a debate about this, do we? Rose has been the one outstanding constant in the Bulls' up and down season, which has ended with an unlikely playoff berth. To their mutual credit, GM John Paxson and Coach Vinny Del Negro didn't mess around; they gave Rose the ball from minute one. Rose has responded with rock-solid numbers (16.8 points, 6.3 assists) on 47 percent shooting, along with a flair for the dramatic in the last minute. Haven't heard a peep from him off the court, either -- and remember, Chicago is his home. He's a great building block.

RUNNERS-UP: O.J. Mayo, Minnesota; Michael Beasley, Miami; George Hill, San Antonio.

Sixth Man of the Year Presented by Kia Motors

WINNER: Jason Terry, Dallas

There were a lot of worthy candidates, but in the end, it came down to this for me: the Mavericks don't make the Playoffs without Terry's great season (19.5 points, 36 percent from 3-point range) in reserve. Yes, he's always on the floor at the ends of games, and he's a bench player in name only, but hey, he meets the criteria. And give Terry credit for embracing this role; think about all the former starters who've chafed at any thought of coming off the bench (AI, I'm looking at you). To my knowledge, Terry hasn't made a peep, or at least one that caused a distraction.

RUNNERS-UP: Lamar Odom, Lakers; J.R. Smith, Denver; Nate Robinson, New York.

Defensive Player of the Year Pres. by Kia Motors

WINNER: Dwight Howard, Orlando

A third easy call. Superman 2.0 is first in the league in blocked shots, which almost always end the opposition's possession, and first in defensive rebounds, which definitely ends the opposition's possession. Howard's control of the paint means fewer opponent drives to the basket that draw fouls (the Magic is 7th in the league in fewest free throw attempts allowed per game), more low-percentage perimeter shots (Orlando is tied for third in defensive field goal percentage) and gives his teammates the time to close out on shooters (the Magic is tied for second in 3-point field goal percentage allowed per game).

RUNNERS-UP: Shane Battier, Houston; Kevin Garnett, Boston; LeBron James, Cleveland.

Most Improved Player Pres. by Kia Motors

WINNER: J.R. Smith, Denver

Smith epitomizes what this award should be: a recognition of someone who came into the league with a certain amount of skill and who has not only added upon those skills, but has become a better basketball player -- not someone who we all expected to be great, like Kevin Durant. A true knucklehead when he came to Denver, Smith has matured on and off the court, reached a certain comfort with Nuggets Coach George Karl and has become an often lethal sixth man for the vastly improved Nuggets. "The first couple of years, he didn't know if he wanted to be 'Melo or Allen," a Nuggets insider divulges. "Now, he's just J.R. He's not perfect, but he's much more comfortable in his own skin than he's ever been."

RUNNERS-UP: Paul Millsap, Utah; Al Jefferson, Minnesota; Devin Harris, New Jersey.

Coach of the Year

WINNER: Mike Brown, Cleveland

Brown was honest enough when he came to Cleveland that offense wasn't his strength, so he often defers to his assistants. He is secure enough to let his players police themselves in the locker room. But he's been strong enough to demand more out of LeBron James with each passing season, and this season it's all come together. The Cavs are first in the league in points allowed and defensive field goal percentage allowed. They have the league's best record. They are disciplined and tough and together, what San Antonio has been all these years under Gregg Popovich. That's about as good a comparison as I can come up with for a coach.

RUNNERS-UP: Rick Adelman, Houston; Nate McMillan, Portland; Erik Spoelstra, Miami.

Executive of the Year

WINNER: Danny Ferry, Cleveland

Ferry looked at a team that was in the Finals two years ago and said 'nah, not good enough.' He's spent the last two years re-making that team built around LeBron James into an even better one. The Cavs had one legit shooter in '07 in Daniel Gibson; now they have four (Mo Williams, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak and Gibson). He got rid of Larry Hughes three years after giving him $70 million once it became clear Hughes thought he should handle the ball instead of James. Last summer's trade for Williams was a gamble, and it paid off (and then some: Joe Smith, who was sent to Oklahoma City as part of the deal, came back to Cleveland for the stretch drive, meaning Ferry got Williams and Smith, in essence, for Damon Jones). And Ferry's tough negotiations with Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic in '08 have left the Cavs in very solid shape this summer to add another big piece.

RUNNERS-UP: Mark Warkentien, Denver; John Paxson, Chicago; Otis Smith, Orlando.

Most Valuable Player Presented by Kia Motors

WINNER: LeBron James, Cleveland

Is James a better player than Kobe Bryant? No. Has he been more amazing this season than Dwyane Wade? No. But his value is immeasurable: to the Cavaliers, to the state of Ohio, to the league. Look at the Cavs on the bench. They're clapping for one another, on their feet, enthusiastic, into the game. Which is hard enough to do at the pro level, but doggone near impossible when one player gets all the attention, all the adulation, all the money.

Two years ago, the Cavaliers put James on the opposition's weakest offensive player; now, he often takes the best one. Two years ago, James would break off plays before they started so he could sweep to the basket; now, he patiently runs through the options. He's always believed in the team, but now he believes in his teammates. Big difference.

You take Kobe off the Lakers and they're not a title contender, but they still are a playoff team, with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom up front, and Derek Fisher at the point. You take LeBron off the Cavs, and, no offense, it's Secaucus Time. (You take D-Wade off the Heat, and, oh, my goodness. It's his best argument for MVP.)

The stats speak for themselves: Cleveland's defense, Cleveland's record (including its near-impregnable home mark), James's own individual numbers. But the most impressive number James has this season is this: he's tied for 10th in the league in assists per game.

Let me write that again.

LeBron James, who is asked to score 30 a game every night, and rebound, and defend at a much higher level than in the past, and sell out arenas across the country, and do every interview, and every commercial, and host every show, and help his country win the gold medal halfway around the world (so, too, were Bryant and Wade, to be fair) is tied for 10th in the league in assists per game.

Yes, he has the ball in his hands all the time. So do Tony Parker. And Devin Harris. And Andre Miller. And Chauncey Billups. And Derrick Rose. Any of whom you'd happily have run your team from the point any day of the week. And James has more dimes per game this season than all of them. (Kobe, by comparison, is 35th in assists per game. Which is not bad at all, considering how much defensive pressure he faces every night. But the other guy is 10th.)

Best of all, James allows Mike Brown to coach him. I'm not in Cleveland every day, and I'm not in the Cavs' locker room, or their huddles, or their practices. But it certainly seems like James has the same kind of relationship with Brown that Tim Duncan has with Gregg Popovich, and that Kobe now has with Phil Jackson. Mutual respect, mutual trust.

"For me, that's bigger than anything else," Brown told me Wednesday. "I'm not Phil Jackson. I haven't won titles. I don't have the credibility that [Jackson] has. For me to have a young superstar, who everybody's anointed as the best player in the game, for him to allow me to coach him, makes it that much easier for me to coach everybody else."

Two days after the Cavs lost to the Celtics in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, James was back in the gym. Shooting. Lifting. Four or five hours a day. He was furious that the Cavaliers lost with the season on the line, and he was determined -- manically so -- that it never happen again. He has done everything possible this season to make that so.

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