It's that time of year, time to submit the annual awards ballot to the NBA office -- one of the few things in life I have a say in.
As you may recall, I've been leaning toward Derrick Rose for MVP for weeks, and nothing has changed to alter that opinion. One of the most difficult votes in years became abundantly easier as Rose answered every challenge down the stretch, leading the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the East, beating Miami, Boston and Orlando (twice, though the second time without Dwight Howard) in the final six weeks, and finishing strong with 25.7 points and 7.1 assists per game after the All-Star break.
I put forth the case for Rose vs. Howard, noting Rose's statistical deficiencies when comparing him to the Magic's irreplaceable center. Rose maintained a sizeable edge over Howard in the clutch department, arriving at the end of the regular season second only to Kobe Bryant with 47.1 points per 48 minutes of clutch time (last five minutes of regulation or overtime, neither team ahead by more than five points).
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|Road to the Finals|
But in the end, Rose gets the edge in several areas that cannot be neatly summed up by analytics -- not the least of which is the eyeball test. It's impossible to watch the Bulls consistently without recognizing how important he is to their success. Aside from all the scoring and assisting he does, consider all the easy baskets Chicago gets off Rose's misses. (That sounds awkward to say, but it's true.) The Bulls are tied for fourth in offensive rebounding percentage (.293) and tied for sixth in offensive rebounds per game (11.8), with the majority of that production resulting from Rose creating off the dribble and getting the defense out of position.
No, Rose is not the best defender in the league or even the best defensive point guard; there's another award for that. But it was Rose, with his leadership, who channeled coach Tom Thibodeau's tough-love, no-nonsense, defense-first message from the first day of training camp. You can't win the way the Bulls have won without your superstar buying in, and Rose made his down payment on Thibodeau early and stayed consistent.
Considering the offensive load Rose carries for his team, the lengthy absences of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, and the cold-blooded nature of his assault on this trophy and the top spot in the East down the stretch, it's difficult to justify a vote for anyone else. Quite simply, it's his time -- his year.
The more I analyzed, the more I moved on to the next question: Who's No. 2? It's time to answer that and other agonizing dilemmas, such as who gets the nod in an impossibly close Coach of the Year vote and who makes the cut for my first-, second- and third-team All-NBA squads. Here are my answers, as typed into my official NBA awards ballot and shipped to the league office Tuesday night.
1. Rose: Let's throw one more log on the fire. The Bulls are 38-15 this season when Noah, Boozer or both missed a game.
2. LeBron James, Heat: It took a while, but James adapted to playing with superstar pal Dwyane Wade and was inarguably the Heat's most consistent and important player from wire to wire -- at both ends of the floor. Most impressive was the fact that his statistical production remained consistent despite having to share the ball with Wade, and to a lesser extent, Chris Bosh. LeBron's rebounding (7.5), assists (7.0), and steals (1.6) were on par with his career pace, and his scoring (26.7) retreated only one point from his career average.
3. Dwight Howard, Magic: Howard's numbers in blocks and rebounds were right where you would expect them to be. The noticeable difference was a nearly five-point jump in his scoring average, from 18.3 last season to 23.0 -- the result of tireless offseason work on his jump shot and a growing hook-shot arsenal. With his growing low-post presence on offense and consistently feared defense of the rim, Howard affects more possessions than any other player in the league -- when he's on the floor. I don't deduct as many MVP points as some due to Howard's poor free-throw shooting, but the fact is the Magic can't and don't go to him late in games because of it. That, combined with Howard's pattern of technical fouls that cost him games down the stretch, created reasonable doubt about his candidacy over Rose and, for me, knocked him ever so slightly behind James.
4. Kobe Bryant, Lakers: Of all the top MVP candidates, Bryant logged the fewest minutes (33.8 per game), a nod to aging bones that needed their rightful rest before the push for a third straight title begins in earnest this weekend. Bryant also shot his lowest percentage from the field since 2005-06 (.451), and his assists dipped a bit -- proof of the eye test that revealed Bryant's instincts to carry the offensive load were kicking in a bit too often. But somehow, it feels like an insult to Bryant's impact on the Lakers to peg him fourth. Despite the consistent storyline in Miami about how difficult a job it was to get all the stars to mesh, no superstar had it harder than Bryant -- who had to deal with Ron Artest's mood swings and forgetfulness, Pau Gasol's tired legs and lack of assertiveness and Lamar Odom's budding reality TV career. As the New York Times' Howard Beck, a longtime Bryant observer, tweeted: "It seems we've finally reached the stage of Kobe Bryant's career where his play is simply taken for granted, no matter the Lakers' record." So true. But this isn't the award or recognition Bryant wants, anyway. He has already publicly proclaimed his willingness to step aside to make room for the next generation when it comes to individual accolades. The season that matters to Bryant and the Lakers hasn't even started yet.
5. Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks: This vote was as tough as it gets, as I went back and forth between Nowitzki and Kevin Durant until the very end. Each had his internal struggles to deal with -- Nowitzki with the injury to Caron Butler and Durant with a midseason trade that reshaped the team and gave the Thunder the youngest starting lineup in the NBA. Each is the most important player on a team hoping for a deep playoff run, and they're comparable statistically. Durant scores and assists more, while Dirk shoots a higher percentage (overall and on 3-point attempts) and is a better rebounder (a 20.9 defensive rebounding rate compared to 17.7 for Durant). I went with Dirk, though an MVP race that doesn't have room for Durant in the top five (or even Wade or Chris Paul) is a deep race, indeed.
Coach of the Year
1. George Karl, Nuggets: The darlings of this vote are Doug Collins and Tom Thibodeau, and either one would be entirely justified. But what coach has had more issues to deal with than Karl, who not only kept his team afloat but steered it to the fifth seed? Karl spent the first five months of the season with his best player, Carmelo Anthony, angling for a trade. Once that distraction was removed, Karl quickly molded a vastly new roster -- featuring Knicks castoffs Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler -- into a potentially dangerous playoff opponent. Case closed, as far as I'm concerned.
2. Collins, 76ers: I'm giving Collins the nod over Thibodeau because he did more with less. The Sixers entered the season fearing Elton Brand would never be the same and Andre Iguodala would be gone at the trade deadline. With one game left in the regular season, Collins has guided the Sixers to a 14-win improvement over their dismal 27-55 record in 2009-10 -- and he has done it with eight players 24 or younger, including three starters. Philly is 38-27 (.585) since starting the season 3-13, and Collins has transformed the Sixers from the worst 3-point defensive team in the league to the fifth best.
|Here's one award that's easy to give out: Blake Griffin for Rookie of the Year in a landslide. (AP)|
Rookie of the Year
1. Blake Griffin, Clippers: No brainer, obviously, for Griffin. The most impactful and electrifying rookie to come along since LeBron.
2. John Wall, Wizards: Started slow and quickly got obscured by Griffin's nightly highlight exploits, but Wall showed glimpses of where he eventually will lead the Wizards. He kept improving and refused to go through the motions down the stretch, leading the Wizards to five wins in seven games heading into the season finale.
3. Landry Fields, Knicks: The Kings' DeMarcus Cousins is the popular pick here, but he caused too many internal problems to get my vote. Fields was a real find in the second round, started from Day 1 and helped instill winning habits before the Carmelo trade with intelligent, steady play at both ends. His production dropped off after the All-Star break, due to the rookie wall and Anthony's arrival.
Defensive Player of the Year
1. Howard, Magic: I'm with John Hollinger on this one. The fact that Orlando is third in the league in defensive efficiency with Howard and a collection of mediocre-to-terrible defenders is a testament to his greatness and dominance.
2. Kevin Garnett, Celtics: Garnett won't get any likeability points from voters, but you can't ignore his impact on the Celtics' still-elite defensive work -- particularly now that he's the lone enforcer patrolling the paint after the Kendrick Perkins trade.
3. Andrew Bogut, Bucks: Opposing coaches and scouts will tell you Luc Richard Mbah a Moute is one of the league's most underrated defenders. But Bogut is still Milwaukee's best -- and looks like he has enjoyed a few of those along the way. He controlled the paint for the Bucks with a league-leading 2.6 blocks per game and was fourth in blocks-per-48 minutes (3.5).
Sixth Man of the Year
1. Lamar Odom, Lakers: Odom managed to achieve reality-TV fame and have his best NBA season at the same time. The former didn't factor into my vote, but the latter was ample evidence that the Lakers' most important player other than Kobe deserved the highest honor among league reserves.
2. Jason Terry, Mavericks: The Jet has lost a half-step, and lost his mind a little bit on the bench a few nights ago, but he still provides as reliable a scoring punch off the bench as there is in the league. His contributions became even more important with injuries to Butler and Roddy Beaubois.
3. Glen Davis, Celtics: Nobody on the Celtics' bench has played well since the Perkins trade, but Big Baby did enough before that to be in the mix for sixth-man honors. Advanced statistical gurus and physicists still can't figure out how he converts so frequently around the rim.
1. Kevin Love, Timberwolves: As astounding as his rebounding feats were, Love's improvement went far beyond the boards. His scoring average increased more than six points (from 14.0 to 20.2), he shot a higher percentage from the field on more than three additional attempts per game, and became a dependable 3-point shooter (.417 on 211 attempts). The historic rebounding numbers merely clinched it.
2. LaMarcus Aldridge, Trail Blazers: There wasn't as much room for improvement with Aldridge as with most typical candidates for this award, but his assertiveness and effectiveness around the basket -- in the absence of Greg Oden and with a diminished Brandon Roy -- made him a must for inclusion on this list. Previously reluctant to demand the ball, Aldridge proved beyond any doubt that he is a top-notch power forward capable of carrying his team.
3. Kyle Lowry, Rockets: Here's the kind of name typically found on the ballots for this hard-to-define award: An obscure worker bee who had started 21 games in the previous three seasons and became a reliable, efficient starter once given the opportunity. Lowry is one of the game's most overlooked perimeter defenders, his shooting percentages from the field (.426) and from 3-point range (.376) went up dramatically with far more attempts, and so did his scoring average (from 9.1 to 13.5). Lowry did a little bit of everything -- 4.1 rebounds per game, 6.7 assists (compared to 2.1 turnovers), and 1.4 steals -- and did it all better than he has ever done it before.
G: Derrick Rose, Bulls.
G: Kobe Bryant, Lakers.
F: LeBron James, Heat.
F: Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks.
C: Dwight Howard, Magic.
Snubs: The first team was pretty much a lock in my mind, with the exception of Nowitzki. A strong case could've been made for Pau Gasol, Amar'e Stoudemire, Zach Randolph, Kevin Durant or Paul Pierce, but I went with Dirk due to the workload he had to manage and the Mavs' unforgettably abysmal performance when he was injured.
G: Chris Paul, Hornets.
G: Dwyane Wade, Heat.
F: Kevin Durant, Thunder.
F: Amar'e Stoudemire, Knicks.
C: Pau Gasol, Lakers.
Snubs: There was a temptation to slide Stoudemire to center and bump Gasol to the third team for Randolph. But the ballot instructions urge voters to list players at the position they play "regularly." Amar'e didn't play enough at the five to justify the switch.
Snubs: It's a long list. At forward alone, there was no room for Aldridge, Love, Anthony, Garnett or Griffin. The field was too deep, as well, for any career achievement votes for the likes of Steve Nash, Deron Williams, Tony Parker, Ray Allen or Joe Johnson. Westbrook over Parker was a tough call, and ultimately I decided that Ginobili -- who at one point during the season had cracked the top five in my MVP list -- was more deserving of joining Duncan in representing the 60-plus-win Spurs. Rajon Rondo's second-half fade knocked him out of third-team consideration, and I wish I had been able to find a spot for Al Horford.