By Chris Le
The regular season is finally over. Now it’s time for the greatest months in all of sports: the NBA Playoffs. Where the difference between regular and postseason play is the most drastic in all of sports. Where intensity is ratcheted up to nosebleed levels. Where rivalries are born. Where legends carve their legacy. Where (cue dramatic piano) … amazing happens.
But before that, let’s recap the season with some awards.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cavs.
There’s only one question when it comes to this year’s MVP race, and it isn’t “who?” — it’s if LeBron will be a unanimous choice. He will. Or, he should. That is, unless some Kobe apologist or a jingoish Orlando columnist bombs the ballot.
There are two approaches to MVP voting, both of which are valid but fundamentally different. The first chooses the best player on the best team. With historic numbers (29.7 ppg, 7.3 reb, 8.6 ast) on a 61-20 team, that’s LeBron. You groaning, Laker fans? Well, keep on groaning. LeBron has supplanted Kobe as the world’s premier player (no longer debatable), and the Cavs have been consistently more dominant than the Lakers. Kobe and co. may be the most talented team, but they haven’t been the best.
The second approach goes with the most indispensable player, for which I only see three candidates: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and LeBron (Kobe is disqualified in this category because, as previously noted, the Lakers are too talented, and they were 5-2 without him, and, well, screw Kobe. Just kidding.). But the Thunder and Magic have been too up and down, tempering long winning streaks with inexplicable losses. The Cavaliers, conversely, have been brilliant throughout – and their path hasn’t necessarily been painted with gold. There was the slow integration of Shaq in an offense that’s best on the run, and his subsequent thumb injury; the late arrival of Delonte West; the acquisition of Antawn Jamison; Varejao’s bum wrist; and the trade and re-signing of Z. The only constant has been LeBron. If you’re surrounded by constant uncertainty and the team is still dominant, you’re not only good but stabilizing. Now that’s value.
Any and all justification points to the King. Let us bow down.
Ballot: 1.) LeBron James, Cavs 2.) Dwight Howard, Magic 3.) Kevin Durant, Thunder 4.) Kobe Bryant, Lakers 5.) Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs
Defensive Player: Dwight Howard, Magic.
I wanted to go with my mid-season pick of Varejao. But as tenacious as he is, he’s not an anchor. The entire defensive burden is not heaped on his shoulders alone. He isn’t the last line of defense. Dwight Howard is. While there are better man-to-man defenders, no one is more adept at helping teammates and erasing points at the rim. And I’ve said for years, a big man who clogs the paint is always more valuable than a lockdown perimeter defender. Look at the Magic roster. Mickael Pietrus is nice. But Vince Carter? J.J Redick? Rashard Lewis? I just named three defensive liabilities, three ghosts who are as easy to pass as remedial math. Dwight is the difference between the NBA’s best defense (the Magic hold opponents to a league-leading 43.9 percent) and, well, the Knicks. And Howard has yet to reach his potential — even as a defender. What the fuck, right? Is there anything scarier or more awesome than raw dominance? It’s like watching a young Eddie Murphy killing it in small stand up venues, before his refinement and maturity into a full blown superstar. Except Howard is precociously dominating grown professionals. D12 has this award locked up for the foreseeable future.
Ballot: 1.) Dwight Howard, Magic 2.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 3.) Gerald Wallace, Bobcats 4.) Josh Smith, Hawks 5.) Andrew Bogut, Bucks
Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Kings.
Stephen Curry came on strong (like “Lezak on the French“-level of strong), and he just might finish as the best player in this draft. But Tyreke was better for a longer period of time, and I like to reward consistent excellence. Curry can have the future; I’m giving Evans the here and now. Don’t get me wrong though. Evans earned the ROY award. He did so by being damn-near unstoppable attacking the rim and by being the best defender in the rookie class (Do freshmen even realize they can defend in their first year?). All of which Evans can attribute to his man’s body. He’s like LeBron in that sense. They both physically matured before reaching age 19. And, they both had eerily similar rookie statistics. Almost to a tee.
Not bad. Historic, even. But I can’t help but be more excited about Curry. Sorry, Tyreke. Hope this award is of consolation.
Ballot: 1.) Tyreke Evans, Kings 2.) Stephen Curry, Warriors 3.) Brandon Jennings, Bucks 4.) Darren Collison, Hornets 5.) Marcus Thornton, Hornets
Sixth Man: Anderson Varejao, Cavs.
He’s the quintessential “guy you hate to play against but would love to have on your team” player. He’s the basketball version of an annoying splinter you can’t quite pluck out. I love players like that — Dave DeBusschere, Dennis Rodman, Bruce Bowen and now, Joakim Noah and Sideshow Bob — pesky defenders who are willing to sacrifice their first-born for a loose ball, who break their back boxing out and setting bone-jarring screens. Varejao, like his hustling predecessors, is the everyman. He does the dirty work, the plays stars don’t want to make. He grinds how you and I would if given the blessed chance at being in the league, seemingly knowing what a real job is like without the millions, fame and gorgeous women. He plays like Rudy. As if every possession is his last. His hustle and general havoc on offense and especially on defense makes him the Cavs’ second most valuable player. What does that say about the Cavs? It says that LeBron is really, really fucking good.
Ballot: 1.) Anderson Varejao, Cavs 2.) Jamal Crawford, Hawks 3.) Manu Ginobili, Spurs 4.) Jason Terry, Mavs 5.) Lamar Odom, Lakers
Most Improved: George Hill, Spurs.
I watch the Spurs — a lot. I’ve closely followed how the team has transformed over the years since their 1997 drafting of Tim Duncan, from good to great and now at old, slow-to-gel but ever-scary threat. Players have come in and flourished in the team’s unselfish offense and left to fade into obscurity. But, I always know who’s truly valuable and who’s expendable and who’s only good because of Popovich’s system. Second-year point guard George Hill is truly valuable. He wasn’t last year. He was pretty much invisible, especially when the playoffs rolled around. But he improved his offense (now confident in running the team and a legit threat from deep) and most notably, his defense. Hill is often assigned to guard the opposition’s best scorer, and he hasn’t looked foolish, even against premier players like Kobe Bryant. Hill has improved so much that many in Spurs Nation are questioning if he should permanently start over Tony Parker. That’s saying something.
Ballot: 1.) George Hill, Spurs 2.) Andrew Bogut, Bucks 3.) Joakim Noah, Bulls 4.) Aaron Brooks, Rockets 5.) Josh Smith, Hawks
Coach of the Year: Scott Brooks, Thunder.
With building blocks of Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City’s future was bright. Everyone knew the Thunder would be good. But this early? Their transition from precocious youngsters to full-blown threat came one or two years ahead of schedule. Thank Scott Brooks for that. He got his players to care about defense and extracted the best from left-field players like Serge Ibaka and Eric Maynor. Along with Durant detonating on the league, Brooks is why the Thunder are in the playoffs.
Ballot: 1.) Scott Brooks, Thunder 2.) Scott Skiles, Bucks 3.) Larry Brown, Bobcats 4.) Nate McMillan, Blazers
Block of the Year: Manu Ginobili on Kevin Garnett.
Everyone is enamored with LeBron and his chase-downs. But most of the time it’s on pipsqueaks too absentminded to dunk the ball — come on, you know LeBron is creeping behind! That’s what makes Ginobili’s blocks so astounding. It’s a slightly balding, 6’6” Argentinean on his last legs going head-on against a 6’11” juggernaut going hard to the rim — though, Garnett nowadays has about as much hops as a watered-down Coors Light. Still, the sequence really was a sight. Ginobili caught all ball and Garnett dropped to his back as if he had been dropkicked by John Cena. And Garnett didn’t even argue for a foul! He knew it was clean. And really, Ginobili had the three best blocks all year. Number one is his murdering of KG, second is his recovery-and-swat against Kevin Durant, and last but not least, BatManu.
Dunk of the Year: Dwyane Wade on Varejao.
Even after five months, it’s still nasty.
Ballot: 1.) Wade on Varejao, 2.) Amar’e Stoudemire on Tolliver 3.) Corey Brewer on Fisher, 4.) J.R. Smith’s 360 alley-oop, 5.) Derrick Rose on Dragic, and one that doesn’t count but is still sick LeBron’s alley-oop
Shot of the Year: Kobe’s game-winning three-pointer runner.
It’s a near impossible shot. Time running out, jumping off his left leg, facing decent defense, heavily fading to the left, off the glass. I won’t argue if you call it lucky. But Kobe did his part, squaring up his body while maintaining perfect form with shooting arm perpendicular to the floor. The amazing part is, as tough as the shot was, I expected it go in.