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Season awards: In strange season, no player more consistent than LeBron

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No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving dominated the rookie of the year race from start to finish. (Getty Images)  
No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving dominated the rookie of the year race from start to finish. (Getty Images)  

There are a couple of problems with voting for LeBron James for MVP. I have those problems, and I'm voting for him anyway.

Here are the problems. First, you're setting yourself up to help crown the King with his third such trophy and then watch him wilt in the playoffs again. It's times like these when I must remind myself what this is: a regular-season award.

Also, look at the list of multiple MVP winners. With a third honor, LeBron would join an elite group of the game's giants to win the award three or more times -- Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Moses Malone (each with three); Wilt Chamberlain (four); Bill Russell and Michael Jordan (five); and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six). Question: How many of those guys never won a championship? LeBron, as of the 3 p.m. ET Friday deadline to submit my votes, would be the only one. In fact, all but Malone won multiple championships.

Throw in the fact that the Heat, who beat the Bulls with Derrick Rose in the conference finals last season, couldn't lock up the No. 1 seed in the East when the Bulls were without Rose for long stretches, and you have a problem. Given all of that, is LeBron the most deserving this season?

If nothing else, we can all agree that the choice isn't as clear as last season, when Rose was the obvious MVP, hands down. This one's a little more complicated. And when something involves LeBron, it's always complicated.

There are several credible candidates, and each can make a strong case. Kevin Durant has guided the Thunder to the brink of title contention, and may well win his third scoring title. Kobe Bryant, at age 33, took on a more assertive role in the Lakers offense, held the team together through the departures of Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher and gave coach Mike Brown the ultimate support, both publicly and behind the scenes.

Chris Paul was so much more than a playmaker for the Clippers. He made the Clippers relevant and respectable, guiding the franchise to only its fifth playoff appearance since they moved to L.A. in 1984. Not only that, but as of this writing, the Clippers' 40 victories are tied for fourth-most in franchise history even though there are only 66 games this season.

And lest we forget, the great and often overshadowed Tony Parker took on a leading role with the Spurs, propelling San Antonio to the best record in the West at a time Gregg Popovich needed to rely on his brilliance more than ever before.

But in my opinion, none of them can overtake LeBron's wire-to-wire dominance, both statistically and in terms of his impact at both ends of the floor. In a shortened season and compacted schedule that claimed numerous victims, James showed up every night -- until now, when he needs and deserves the rest given the one-day window between the end of the regular season and start of the playoffs. LeBron has played 62 of Miami's 65 games and had the most productive year of his career. He's third in the league in scoring and has career highs in rebounding average and both field-goal and 3-point shooting percentage. Think about this: LeBron James is shooting 53 percent from the field, something Michael Jordan only did three times in his career, the last time being in 1990-91. James' postup game finally has evolved, and he embraced coach Erik Spoelstra's decision to turn him loose in the open floor and push the tempo, which clearly is his strength.

Also, I didn't view the Heat's 13-1 record with LeBron but without Dwyane Wade as a knock on Wade. I viewed it as another piece of evidence that bolstered LeBron's case for MVP.

So all things considered, I fall back on my longstanding MVP principles: The award should go to the best player on a team that's either one of the NBA's best and/or achieves something beyond its talent level that can be attributed to that player's impact. The fact that James couldn't push the Heat past the Rose-less Bulls for No. 1 in the East detracts from his resume, but not enough to knock his name out of the top spot on my ballot.

As for the historical implications of helping James land his third MVP trophy, given his playoff failures and lack of a championship, I say this: Not my problem. The award is based on regular-season performance this season. Can anyone credibly make the case that James' performance from Dec. 25 until today should be overshadowed by the fact that none of his previous eight seasons ended with a championship?

Someday, at the Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., we can stand around and debate where James ranks in the pantheon of NBA greats, taking into consideration all of his MVP awards, Finals MVPs and however many championships he wins. If he winds up with six MVP trophies and no championships, we can debate where he belongs in the historic pecking order. But that's a discussion for another day.

So with that, here's my MVP ballot, to be submitted to the accounting firm Ernst & Young by 3 p.m. ET Friday:

MVP

1. James
2. Durant
3. Bryant
4. Paul
5. Parker

Preseason prediction: Wade.

And now, the rest:

Rookie of the Year

This was the one no-brainer this season. Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick, pretty much dominated the race from start to finish. Irving averaged nearly six points per game higher than any other rookie and shot 47 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from the 3-point line. And get this: According to 82games.com, Irving led the league by a handsome margin in points per 48 minutes of clutch time. With five minutes left in regulation or overtime with neither team ahead by more than five points, Irving averaged 56.4 points per 48 minutes. After that, it was Durant (50.8) and Carmelo Anthony (43.6) -- two of the most accomplished clutch snipers in the league.

With the season-ending injury to Ricky Rubio, the Nuggets' Kenneth Faried moved into my No. 2 spot by starting 37 games for a playoff team and displaying such freakish athleticism that he allowed GM Masai Ujiri to send Nene and his $67 million contract to the Wizards at the trade deadline. I went with Rubio third over the Kings' Isaiah Thomas simply because Rubio had the perennially bottom-feeding Wolves on a path to the playoffs, leading all rookies in assists, steals and minutes when he went down March 9. The Wolves, 21-20 at the time, have won only five more games.

My ballot:

1. Irving
2. Faried
3. Rubio

Preseason prediction: Irving

Coach of the Year

It was hard, really hard, not to cast my first-place vote for Coach Pop. Widely recognized as the best tactician in the league, Gregg Popovich once again masterfully manipulated the minutes of his aging stars, relied more on Parker and trusted and developed youngsters Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green with important roles. The Spurs also won as much with their offense as with their defense, showing Popovich can adapt his philosophy to his personnel.

But I can't overlook the job Tom Thibodeau did with the Bulls, even as I'm tempted to fall for the old "he won it last year" syndrome. In many ways, Coach Thibs did a far more impressive coaching job this season than last. Of course, he maintained the Bulls' defensive identity and meticulous preparation habits. Those will never waver. But Thibodeau guided the Bulls to the No. 1 seed in the East and second-best record in the NBA without Rose for 26 games!! In an 82-game schedule, that's not a big deal. But in a shortened season, that means the Bulls played about 40 percent of it without far and away their best player. And Chicago is 17-9 without Rose.

This can't be emphasized enough. This isn't Miami without James or Wade. This isn't the Lakers without Bryant or Pau Gasol. This isn't the Thunder without Durant or Russell Westbrook. Thibodeau has a complete, versatile roster that fits together, but there's nothing even close to an All-NBA performer on the floor for the Bulls when Rose is not. This should lock up a second straight Coach of the Year award for Thibodeau, with all due respect to some very deserving colleagues.

Third place was difficult. Doc Rivers held the Celtics together through injuries and the near-detonation of the Big Three at the trade deadline. He also had the clout and bedside manner to send a Hall of Famer, Ray Allen, to the bench when he came back from an ankle injury.

In L.A., Brown inherited enormous expectations, an emotionally challenged locker room, the unexpected departures of Odom and Fisher and got Bryant on his side even when the five-time champion's quest to chase a sixth title seemed in serious jeopardy.

Alvin Gentry guiding the Suns to the brink of a playoff berth is nothing short of incredible, and to me, it came down to Gentry or the Pacers' Frank Vogel. I gave Vogel the nod, because the Pacers climbed over several teams with more talent to grab the third seed in the East. And unlike Rivers, Brown or Gentry, Vogel doesn't have any stars -- much less Hall of Famers -- on his roster. Just a young team that's developed together and outperformed with solid coaching.

My ballot:

1. Thibodeau
2. Popovich
3. Vogel

Preseason prediction: Rick Adelman, Timberwolves.

Defensive player of the Year

By far the most difficult award to evaluate. There are so many variables, and pinpointing the best defenders cries out for a close look at metrics to see if what our eyes have seen bears out in the numbers.

This has been Dwight Howard's award for three consecutive years, and there's nothing statistically to suggest he wasn't an elite defender again this season. With so few imposing big men left in the game, the importance of a paint protector is so pronounced that Howard, the Knicks' Tyson Chandler and the Thunder's Serge Ibaka demand nearly automatic consideration.

But the offensive game is dominated by elite wing scorers, so how can you not consider the league's best wing defenders, like LeBron James, Andre Iguodala and Tony Allen? Typically, they're involved in defending more plays than centers. The Hawks'Josh Smith, for example, defended 830 scoring opportunities, according to Synergy Sports Technology -- 200 more than Howard. They both allowed the opponent to score at least one point 38.7 percent of the time, which is very good but not great. That's what defense is all about, after all: preventing the player you're guarding from scoring -- be it from the field or the free-throw line.

But once you dive into the wealth of data available, your impressions about who the best defenders are get seriously reframed. We all know the Celtics' Kevin Garnett was a great defender in his day. But I didn't know Garnett has allowed one point or more on only 34.8 percent of the possessions he has guarded this season, held opponents to .346 shooting from the field and allowed only 437 points on 630 possessions -- .692 points per possession, among the best in the league. Those are Defensive Player of the Year numbers, point blank.

My general rule is to look at the top defensive teams in the league (in terms of points per 100 possessions) and ask which player is most responsible for that. For the Celtics, it's Garnett. For the Heat, it's hard to pinpoint whether it's James or Wade. For Chicago, believe it or not, it's Taj Gibson. The Bulls allow 88.8 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and 99.9 when he's off, according to NBA.com/stats. For the Thunder, ninth in the league with a 99.6 defensive rating, it's I-Block-Ya, who trims the opponent's points per 100 possessions from 101.7 to 98.1 when he's on the floor.

The on/off the floor stats mean more for big men than for wing defenders, in my opinion. The Heat's defensive rating is 97.0 when James is on the floor and 97.4 when he's off -- probably because whomever James is guarding, be it Paul Pierce or Carmelo Anthony, tends to be on the bench at the same time he is. For Allen, the differential is more pronounced: 96.0 when he's on the floor for Memphis and 102.0 when he's off. Iguodala improves the Sixers' defensive rating by 3.9 points when he's on the floor (99.2 to 95.3). The Magic's defensive rating improves from 106.5 when Howard is off the floor to 99.3 when he's on. For Chandler, it's only a 1.3-point improvement (from 99.3 to 98.0), and for Garnett, it's 2.2 (from 97.5 to 95.3).

We're officially experiencing metrics overload, and it's time to make a decision. If we're looking at the totality of defensive possessions guarded, Garnett is the best defender I'm considering. But you can't overlook Ibaka's league-leading 3.63 blocks per game or Howard's combination of 2.15 blocks and 1.5 steals. You also can't overlook the fact that Iguodala and Allen draw the toughest defensive assignment every night and vastly raise their team's defensive efficiency when they're on the floor.

This is a roundabout way of saying it's almost impossible to vote for this award, and that an intuitive team trend trumps all the fancy metrics for me. You can stare at Chandler's Synergy spreadsheet and on- and off-court breakdown all you want, but the bottom line is that his addition to the Knicks immediately and dramatically transformed them from one of the league's worst defensive teams to one of the best. Last season, the Knicks allowed 107 points per 100 possessions, 21st in the NBA. With Chandler this season, they're fifth at 97.6. Unlike the Celtics, Heat and Bulls, who all had proven defensive systems that worked, the Knicks were disastrous on that end of the floor until Chandler arrived and changed the culture completely.

So all things considered, I'm going with Chandler -- and I'm staying with big men for my second and third selections. Let's not ignore the importance of defensive rebounding, and Howard was far and away the league leader in defensive rebounding rate at 32.6 according to Hoopdata.com, meaning he tracked down nearly a third of all available defensive rebounds when he was on the floor. With this and his blocks, steals and on-court defensive rating differential, Howard has an overwhelming case for No. 2. Which leaves Ibaka, who led the league in blocks by more than one per game, and Garnett, who anchored the No. 1 defense in the league – one that was stifling over the past month or so. I'm giving the nod to Garnett, with apologies to all those who were equally deserving.

My ballot:

1. Chandler
2. Howard
3. Garnett

Preseason pick: Howard

Sixth Man of the Year

After that lengthy explanation and arduous analysis, the last two awards were pretty straightforward. The Thunder's James Harden is by far the most important non-starter in the league, both in terms of statistical production and the completeness of his game. Similar to Lamar Odom with the Lakers the past few years, you take Harden away from the Thunder, and they go from being a championship-caliber team to being beatable. Similarly, the 76ers' Lou Williams arguably is their most important offensive player, averaging a team-high 14.9 points off the bench and serving as a terror off the dribble. The Nuggets' Al Harrington and the Clippers' Mo Williams warrant consideration, and the Spurs' Manu Ginobili would've been in my top three had he not missed so much time with injuries. In the end, the Mavericks' Jason Terry did nothing to knock himself out of the discussion of the most effective and important bench players in the NBA. The fact that he and Harden both played starter's minutes -- 30-plus per game -- doesn't detract from their candidacy. It only adds to it.

My ballot:

1. Harden
2. Lou Williams
3. Terry

Preseason pick: Mo Williams

Most Improved

Another easy call. There were a lot of worthy candidates, but only one of them was an undrafted nobody out of Harvard who'd been cast off by three NBA teams and was on the verge of getting waived by the Knicks before he orchestrated arguably the biggest story of the lockout-shortened season. (The biggest positive story, anyway, with all apologies to Howard, Fisher, Billy Hunter and Metta World Peace.)

Despite going down last month with a knee injury, Jeremy Lin is the prototype for why the most-improved player award exists. He didn't simply improve on middling or average performance; he went from virtually no performance to the most important player on a team that took off as soon as he stepped on the floor. The Knicks went 15-10 in Lin's 25 starts, and he registered a double-double in seven of them. But the real story was Lin's first 10 starts, in which the Knicks were 8-2 and Lin averaged 23.8 points and 9.4 assists. A 10-game stretch typically isn't enough to win anything, but Lin's emergence was so sudden and spectacular that he won the award right there. The NBA had never seen anything like it, and may never again.

I'm cognizant of the improvement exhibited by the Magic's Ryan Anderson and the Bucks' Ersan Ilyasova, but they were already productive rotation players who took an expected step in their development. It's no knock on them; we just already knew they were good. Second-year players like the Pacers' Paul George and the Pistons' Greg Monroe took important steps, but that's what you expect from first-round picks. The Spurs' Danny Green, however, went from scoring 81 points in 28 games with no starts over two seasons with Cleveland and San Antonio -- not to mention a stint in the D-League -- to starting 36 games and producing for the team with the best record in the West (and possibly, by Thursday, the league). Similarly, the Timberwolves' Nicola Pekovic dramatically increased his playing time (from 13.5 minutes per game to 26.9), scoring average (from 5.5 to 13.8) and rebounding (from 3.0 to 7.3) while starting 34 games. Good enough for me.

My ballot:

1. Lin
2. Danny Green
3. Pekovic

Preseason pick: None. But I had Lin all along. :)


Before joining CBSSports.com, Ken Berger covered the NBA for Newsday. The Long Island, N.Y., native has also worked for the Associated Press and can be seen on SportsNet New York. Catch Ken every Saturday, when he hosts Eye on Basketball from 6-8 p.m. ET on cbssportsradio.com
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