By Chris Le
The All-Star game is around the corner. You know what that means: awards.
Biggest Surprise: The rookie class. That it isn’t horrible is as unexpected as Tiger Woods turning out to be an adulterous nympho. Talk about coming from left field. Brandon Jennings went from spoiled brat to enigmatic pariah to being the next Allen Iverson (Trust me, that last one is a compliment). Scouts were unsure of which position—point or shooting guard—to play Tyreke Evans, but he ends up being one of those indefinable players who “just knows how to play.” Stephen Curry has dispelled the stigma of being too slow to play point and too small to score. And Omri Casspi, who the hell saw him coming? Keep in mind this is without Blake Griffin, who I think could be the best of the bunch. The ’04 rookies it ain’t, but I’d stack Evans & Co. against most of the decade’s freshmen classes.
Ballot: 1.) The Rookie Class 2.) Zach Randolph not destroying but improving the Grizzlies 3.) Charlotte Bobcats
Biggest Disappointment: Injury of Greg Oden and Blake Griffin.
Two likeable big men. Two worrisome injuries.
It’s hard not to be a fan of Oden. One interview is all it takes to want to be his friend. He’s light-hearted and naturally affable and equipped with a winning personality, even if his Trail Blazers aren’t. Oden’s appeal is Shaq-like, except Oden doesn’t come off quite as oafish, not as childish. That’s what makes Oden’s injury such a downer. You want to like him, you want to see him succeed, but he hasn’t stayed healthy long enough to make a dent in the league, and this latest injury hints that he won’t—ever. Oden now has nothing to do but take naked pictures of himself (link is SFW).
Griffin’s injury is a double-edged sword. You feel for the kid—that his exploded knee (happened on a dunk in which he was untouched) threatens his athleticism, which is the basis of his entire game—but you also feel for the Clippers. For a while, the Clips looked like a borderline playoff team. Then, you imagined how good they’d be with the year’s best rookie. Exhibit X that The Other Los Angeles Team is a star-crossed franchise.
John Wall better be careful because the number one pick is shaping up to be the NBA’s version of the Madden Curse.
Ballot: 1.) Greg Oden/Blake Griffin Injury 2.) Washington Wizards 3.) The Richard Jefferson trade 4.) New Jersey Nets (No way they should be 4-41—a pathetic .089 winning percentage. Not with their talent. I realize Devin Harris is overrated, but Brook Lopez is a budding All-Star center, Christopher Douglas-Roberts is a MIP candidate, and Yi Jianlian is displaying some legitimacy.)
Dunk of the Half: Wade on Varejao. No explanation needed. Just watch.
Defensive AND Intangible Player of the Half: Anderson Varejao, Cavs. Aside from looking like Sideshow Bob, Varejao’s claim to fame is hustle. And it’s not hustle for lack of talent a la Mark Madsen. No, it’s hustle where it matters most. It’s hustle to win games and for the genuine desire to make life easier for teammates.
Varejao is the guru of the “Stat-less” play—defense in the post, sealing off an opponent, taking a charge, dishing out a message-sending foul, diving for loose balls—you know, being the most annoying guy on the opposing team. But Varejao’s inherent value to the Cavs, the effect of his intangibles once thought to be unquantifiable, can be measured in—irony of ironies—statistics. Just don’t look to rudimentary box scores; doing so will only bring confusion because of his relatively unimpressive stats: 8.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, 1.0 block, 1.0 steal. Outside of watching the games, his worth is evident only in the deceptively simple On court/Off court category. The Cavs are +15.6 when Varejao is playing, and -4.9 when he’s on the bench. That’s all you need to know. When Varejao is on the court wreaking hell, his team plays better than the opponent; when he’s sitting, they don’t. His net points of +349 lead the league—that’s 24 points more than teammate and MVP candidate LeBron James. Why? It’s in large part because of his defense.
Ballot: 1.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 2.) Dwight Howard, Magic 3.) Ron Artest, Lakers 4.) Josh Smith, Hawks
Rookie of the Half: Tyreke Evans, Kings. Before the season started, I predicted this award would go to Blake Griffin. Who was second on my ballot? Tyreke Evans. And since Griffin will sit out the season, he’s ineligible for ROY honors. So I’m counting my preseason pick as a correct guess.
The uncertainty surrounding Evans’ game was baffling (I had him as the second best player in the draft). I didn’t care if he played the point or the two—I just knew he could play. Forget his height and physical ability—which are considerable—his court presence just screams Natural Feel for the Game. He’s just savvy. Evans doesn’t need a drawn-up play; he can create for himself and others on the fly. He’s the athlete with an internal clock (like Peyton Maning) that tells him when to take over a game. And did I mention he’s the best defensive rookie in the class?
Ballot: 1.) Tyreke Evans, Kings 2.) Brandon Jennings, Bucks 3.) DeJuan Blair, Spurs 4.) Stephen Curry, Warriors 5.) Omri Casspi, Kings
Coach of the Half: Lionel Hollins, Grizzlies. Memphis sputtered out of the gates with a 1-8 start. But once they dropped some dead weight (Allen Iverson, never a good fit), they’ve been steadily climbing the power rankings. After the dismal start, the Grizz are 24-11 and now eyeing a playoff spot. Let me say it again: this is the Memphis Grizzlies. Not only that, it’s a Grizz team headlined by the Yoko Ono of the NBA: Zach Randolph. Hollins pulled some voodoo and turned the once-cancerous Randolph into a team player, a defensive presence and a lead-by-example hustler. That alone almost qualifies Hollins for sainthood.
Ballot: 1.) Lionel Hollins, Grizzlies 2.) Rick Adelman, Rockets 3.) Scott Brooks, Thunder 4.) Larry Brown, Bobcats
Sixth Man of the Half: Carl Landry, Rockets. Landry is a tough son of a bitch. He’s been shot in the leg and missed only 8 games. He lost three teeth to Dirk Nowitzki’s elbow, but you wouldn’t have noticed it by watching the video. He nonchalantly walked to the bench, looking bothered more by having to leave the game than by his toothless smile. Kinda makes you feel like a wimp, huh? It’s this toughness, along with Rick Adelman’s superb coaching, that motivates the hardest working team in the NBA. No group hustles like Houston, and no team does more with less.
Landry’s physical toughness extends to the mental side, as evidenced by his 4th quarter scoring. His 301 points in the final quarter is second only to LeBron’s 322. Wait, what? Yup, as Houston’s go-to guy in the 4th, Landry has been more prolific than Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, et al. Not bad for a third-year player who comes off the bench.
Ballot: 1.) Carl Landy, Rockets 2.) Jamal Crawford, Hawks 3.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 4.) Jason Terry, Mavs 5.) Al Harrington, Knicks
Most Improved Player: Joakim Noah, Bulls. The MIP is an interesting award. Year in and year out, it’s the hardest to determine. There’s never a shortage of viable candidates, which is great for the league, but I find it doesn’t always go to the most improved player—in the truest sense of the term. Instead, it goes to the player whose numbers get a big hike from increased minutes. Player X, once a bench player behind an All-Star, is traded and now finds himself in the starting five. Naturally, his numbers will climb but not as the result of any particular refinement to his game. Like Channing Frye, who played 11.8 minutes in Portland behind Oden and LaMarcus Aldridge. He comes to Phoenix and takes Shaq’s empty spot at center, starts and plays 29.8 minutes a game and sees a 7.9 jump in points. Did he really improve? Or is the point increase the natural result of minute inflation? Probably both, but I’m giving more credence to the boosted playing time.
Joakim Noah is legitimately better than he was last year. A Tasmanian Devil on defense (1.8 blocks and 0.7 steals), second in rebounding (12.2), improved scoring (11.4 points from 6.7) and a surprising 2.2 assists per game. He’s pretty much the second coming of Varejao—tough as all hell, disruptive to the opponents and a pure energy source for his team. Noah may have reached his ceiling, but he reached it with one huge and sudden jump.
Ballot: 1.) Joakim Noah, Bulls 2.) Carl Landry, Rockets 3.) Zach Randolph, Memphis 4.) Aaron Brooks, Rockets 5.) Kevin Durant, Thunder*
*Durant has been up for this award three years running. How scary is that? It’s kinda like Jamie Foxx’s run toward the top. He went from successful comedian to Oscar-winning dramatic actor to Grammy nominee, before people started to realize he might be the most talented man in Hollywood. Durant keeps on improving, showing you something you didn’t think he could do, and he just might end up the league’s preeminent force on the perimeter. Has anyone ever been the MIP and MVP in the same season? It’s possible with Durant. Hopefully, he doesn’t turn into an insufferable malcontent like Foxx after winning the Oscar.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cavs. It’s not often that the best player on the best team is also one of the most indispensable players in the league. A top team prerequisite is at least three viable scoring options. One dynamic player is insufficient in reaching the top record. It’s all about talent and depth in the NBA. So the best player on the best team isn’t completely necessary to be successful—he’s not the be-all and end-all. Championship contention is impossible without a franchise player (’04 Pistons aside), obviously, but they wouldn’t be bottom feeders either. Does that make sense? I’ll explain. Here are two examples from opposite sides of the spectrum:
On one side is Chris Paul. He redeems a wretched New Orleans Hornets. Like a gorgeous face on a chunky body. Their entire offense is pick-and-roll and lane penetration to open corner shots. In other words, their entire offense is Chris Paul. And he makes role players of journeymen and All-Stars of latent talent. Without CP3, the Hornets would dissolve. He is the epitome of value. But his team won’t make any noise in the postseason. He only checks off one category.
In the other corner is Kobe Bryant. He’s got the most feared game in the league, but is he the most valuable? Does Los Angeles sink without him? I’m looking at the Lakers’ roster, and it’s talented enough—with help from the Zen Master, of course—to win 46-48 games and make the playoffs without Kobe. Again, only one category. Okay, one and a half categories—Kobe is pretty damn valuable and good for about 10-12 wins on his own. He’s just not indispensable like LeBron.
LeBron is Cleveland’s everything. He’s the game-managing quarterback and the deep-threat gunslinger when needed. He’s the free safety who protects the perimeter and in transition. And he’s the cheerleader. All wrapped in one frighteningly evolved body.
No one bears a larger burden, and no one is better at making lemonade out of lemons. His best sidekicks are (in this order) the currently injured Mo Williams; Anderson Varejao; Shaq, a defensive liability in the pick-and-roll and, let’s be honest, he just sucks on some nights; and either Z or Delonte West, who’s been trying to exorcise some personal demons. Not an All-Star in the bunch. And that’s the best team in the league? That LeBron lifted the Cavs to 38-11—and is undefeated against Kobe, Kevin Durant, and Dwyane Wade—is a minor miracle.
It’s a mark of LeBron’s physical brilliance, but it can also be attributed to his demeanor. LeBron might be the best teammate ever. Would you doubt such a claim, especially seeing the way his team rallies behind him? The way they fawn, like the lucky dork in high school who’s best friends with the prom king/quarterback because they grew up living next door. They know they lucked out with the golden ticket, and they’re willing to kill in order to protect it. (See: the LeBron and Wade duel on January 25. On the critical play, Wade dishes a hard foul on LeBron, who lied motionless on the floor for minutes. The entire squad came onto the court to support their fallen leader. It was genuine. Would Kobe clear the bench like that? Nope. By the way, in that game, LeBron also had the game-winning steal and free throws, which is a perfect microcosm of LeBron and his effect on the Cavaliers. The way his teammates would go to war for him, and LeBron’s all-around game, not needing to score to alter his team’s fortune.) He even has Shaq and his superego content being relegated to a tertiary role.
Take away LeBron and witness the implosion of the Cavaliers. But imagine if the Cavs had as much talent as the Lakers? Scary. Still, even as is, LeBron is carrying his team to heights no one else can achieve.
Check and check.
Ballot: 1.) LeBron James, Cavs 2.) Kobe Bryant, Lakers 3.) Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets 4.) Kevin Durant, Thunder 5.) Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs