By Chris Le
Each year before the NBA heads into the playoffs, I like to sit down and think of a storyline that defined the regular season. A solitary episode that shaped the year in basketball. This season it could have been a number of stories: the Allen Iverson–Chauncey Billups trade; the Mo Williams acquisition; the parity in both conferences, aside from the Lakers and Cavs (with five days left in the regular season, there still isn’t a set playoff series); and the ever-present injuries (Manu Ginobili, Tracy McGrady, Andrew Bynum, Carlos Boozer, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, the list goes on) that affected their respective team’s fortune.
Ironically, this year’s defining moment didn’t even occur during the season but three months before a single NBA tipoff.
Above anything else, more than the trades or the injuries, the Beijing Olympics and Team USA made this season what it is. Every single member is better for having been on that squad, and their subsequent seasons saw the Olympics as the starting point. Dwyane Wade’s Mickey Rourke-like resurrection began in the Games; seeing the energy with which he played and the burst in his every step, you just knew Wade was back in full effect. Dwight Howard, who was relegated to being strictly a rebounder and defender, realized he had more to learn and transformed into a better-rounded beast. And Kobe Bryant, to his credit, became less of an asshole. But most telling of all, LeBron James learned from Kobe what it takes to be truly great.
Which is in large part why…
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James — He’s had it in the bag for a while now. It’s been evident from the onset of the season that King James is on a mission to make it clear, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he is the best player in the league. Though raising from last year his field goal, three-point, and free-throw percentages, the true elevation of his game is seen on the defensive end. Unlike years past, James is now a consistently dependable on-ball deterrent while remaining a lethal help-side defender, perfecting the come-from-behind swat that Tayshaun Prince made famous. James is the motor of the best defense in the league. To sum things up, Wade has been the most dynamic player of the year, Kobe the most skilled, but LeBron is the most valuable. The 2009 season will be looked back upon as LeBron’s.
Ballot: 1. LeBron James 2. Dwyane Wade 3. Kobe Bryant 4. Dwight Howard 5. Chauncey Billups
Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard — Here’s another benefactor of being on Team USA. Coach K, a master at teaching team defense, wanted Howard to do two things and two things only: rebound and block shots. Well, that he can do. D12 leads the league in blocks (2.9) and is second in defensive rebounds (9.6) for the third-best defense in the NBA. Dwyane Wade will rightfully receive some first place votes, seeing how he’s been a complete menace in the passing lanes, amassing 173 steals and an astounding 105 blocks — not bad for someone who’s only 6’4”. But as much as he’s done, he’s still not a defensive anchor like Howard, who’s an absolute eraser in the paint.
Ballot: 1. Dwight Howard 2. Dwyane Wade 3. LeBron James 4. Ron Artest 5. Kevin Garnett
Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose — This is the easiest pick of the bunch. Rose is well on his way to mastering the most difficult position in the game, and he’s doing it on a playoff-bound team, which won a measly 33 games in ’08. He has a look of a seasoned veteran, brushing aside any pressure of living up to being the number one pick. In any case, he’s exceeding any and all expectations. It’s a big gap between first and second, but Russell Westbrook has shocked some people with his athleticism and all-around ability. And Brook Lopez is proving to be a steal as the 10th pick and as a possible franchise center for the Nets.
Ballot: 1. Derrick Rose 2. Russell Westbrook 3. Brook Lopez 4. O.J. Mayo 5. Kevin Love
Most Improved Player: Devin Harris — I’m finding that year-in and year-out the MIP award is the most competitive category. Durant has matured into possibly the most effortless scorer in the league; a flick of his wrist from deep and the ball swishes the net. But a sophomore leap is expected. And this award in particular is very much an acknowledgment of exceeded expectations. Devin Harris is a legitimate star in this league and has a lot of people in Dallas regretting the Kidd trade. Now who saw that one coming? Exactly. Expectations exceeded.
Ballot: 1. Devin Harris 2. Kevin Durant 3. Danny Granger 4. Paul Millsap 5. Nene Hilario
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry — He’s been the Mavs’ best and most consistent player all season long, providing a potent offensive punch in the second unit. He leads all super subs with 19.6 points per game and 160 three-pointers made. Like all great sixth men, Terry may not start games, but he finishes them. Mark Cuban and his Mavs wouldn’t be where they are without him.
Ballot: 1. Jason Terry 2. J.R. Smith 3. Nate Robinson 4. Travis Outlaw 5. Leandro Barbosa
Coach of the Year: Mike Brown, Cavaliers — It’s not just the fact that the Cavs have the best record in the NBA; it’s how they did it that makes Brown’s coaching performance all the more impressive. Cleveland withstood the part-time losses of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West and Ben Wallace, all of whom are starters. The Cavs have played with a fully healthy squad for only a small chunk of the season, and that’s scary news for everyone else because they’re only getting better. And this isn’t even mentioning the seamless integration of Mo Williams. And once again, the Cavs are one of the best defensive teams in the league. Credit this all to Brown’s tutelage — and, I suppose, to some guy named LeBron.
Ballot: 1. Mike Brown, Cavs 2. George Karl, Nuggets 3. Stan Van Gundy, Magic 4. Rick Adelman, Rockets 5. Gregg Popovich, Spurs
All-NBA First Team
G Dwyane Wade
G Kobe Bryant
F Paul Pierce
F LeBron James
C Dwight Howard
All-Defense First Team
G Chris Paul
G Dwyane Wade
F Ron Artest
F LeBron James
C Dwight Howard