Sam Smith hands out his NBA awards
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The NBA playoffs begin Saturday, and we hear that’s the real season, that nothing that happened before matters. Of course, there are 14 teams that might think otherwise since their seasons are finished. But the regular season must matter for something since the NBA gives out a lot of awards for it and fans spend large parts of games chanting the name of at least one regular season award, MVP, though that sentiment has lost some credibility in recent years, no more so than when the demand was in the United Center Thursday for Nate Robinson. There are five choices, and I will be checking to see if Nate got a vote. I have him in a 445-way tie for sixth. In any case, here’s a look at the rest of my ballot:
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Miami Heat. This has a Michael Jordan feel to it from the 1990’s with Jordan the favorite every season because he was the game’s best player, and then everyone looking for a reason to find someone else on occasion. I tend to agree with that sentiment and didn’t vote James last season, when I felt his metamorphosis didn’t begin until the Boston series in the playoffs. Now he’s fully out of the shadow of Dwyane Wade, the best player on the best team having the best season. While Jordan was always the best player, there were times his team wasn’t the best, like in 1993 when Charles Barkley won, and Barkley deserved it then. There’s no rules formula for the awards. It’s not the game’s best player; it’s the player most valuable to his team. So there is plenty of room for debate. It can always be said of most any top star as where would his team be without him. It generally comes down to the best player having the best season for the best team or the team doing much better than expected because of that player. Given that criterion it’s difficult to make a case this season for anyone but James. The rest of my ballot is Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant. The obvious disorder is Kevin Durant. It has nothing to do with his stupid throat cutting gesture for which the NBA fined him, but stepping back so much to allow Russell Westbrook to get so much out of control. I know Durant has cut back his shots and done more, the view being that is more team oriented. But I see him less playmaker than being unable to offset Westbrook. Durant is such an amazing talent, sometimes you have to do more like Michael Jordan did and LeBron James finally understood last playoffs. Thus he got the title over Durant. The Thunder has evolved into a talented but often selfish team with Durant and Westbrook taking turns throwing themselves at the defense. They are fabulous talents, but it’s been a disappointment to see Durant cede so much team discipline. I know Durant’s across the board numbers are better, he is on the way to a historic shooting season and his team leads the West. It’s virtually an MVP winner case. But he should be the best scorer in the game and an unstoppable figure, and he helps stop himself too often. MVPs are not complementary stars. When Larry Bird was MVP he was a team player, but he was the team star. It’s tough to tell what’s going on with the Thunder. Anthony is the Knicks, and even if he shoots too much, he has been a game changing player. Kobe, obviously, has been amazing, the best ever for his experience even if the Lakers were struggling just to make the playoffs before his devastating Achilles injury Friday. I wanted to go for James Harden the way he has transformed the Rockets and taken over so much responsibility in every game. I regret leaving out a Spur, though I was leaning toward Tim Duncan over Tony Parker for not only the fabulous renaissance season Duncan has had but the way he impacts so many games despite his age and experience. He is a marvel in the history of the game.
Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers. This one should be unanimous. So if it isn’t, the NBA needs to take away that voter’s ballot since they either don’t watch or have an agenda to gain favor or attention. Unfortunately, some voting always has elements of that, though I would say NBA voting does tend to be taken more seriously and debated more intelligently than American elections. It’s not so much that Lillard is the best ever, but the competition is relatively weak with no one else really having a great season. Two things about the Lillard selection: It was the Nets’ pick they gave up for Gerald Wallace, who is having a brutal season with his career in major decline. I understand them not wanting a point guard, but that was a classic case of if you could go back you wouldn’t have signed the cranky Deron Williams, drafted Lillard and waited for Dwight Howard. As it is, the Nets are doomed to playoff mediocrity. As for Lillard, he’s a great talent. But his big game/shootout with Bryant last week (38 for Lillard and 47 for Bryant), which was fun to see, showed still that he has a long way to go. There was one particular play when Lillard got a steal and with at least one teammate ahead on a three-on-one he stepped back to take a three pointer. He made it. But basketball still often suffers with his game. Other than MVP, the ballot requires first through third. So in second I go with Anthony Davis, who has had way too many injuries and is missing the end of the season. What it shows more with his slight build is how unprepared kids are for the NBA. It’s not just the talent level, but their bodies aren’t developed enough for that level of play. And that’s probably a contributing factor in why we see so many young players hurt in this era. He’s been hurt a lot also, but the other best rookie I’ve seen is Washington’s Bradley Beal, who could make for an intriguing backcourt for the Wizards if John Wall learns to play basketball.
Coach of the Year: George Karl, Denver Nuggets. This is sort of my Jerry Sloan vote of a guy who probably deserved it several times but with the flaw in the voting (or no one but me really understanding how this should work). It’s not the coach of the team that wins more games than everyone projected. That’s why so many coach of the year winners get fired so quickly. Because there are fluke seasons where media members misjudge a team, labeling it worse than it should have been. So they credit the coach because it couldn’t be them. Then the coach is held to a higher standard and loses his job even though he hasn’t done a bad job. Just not a great job. Karl’s Nuggets have been very good without the so called star player and now also have become something of a model for rebuilding as league executives say the way general manager Masai Ujiri worked the Anthony trade is the way to build teams. Masai, by the way, could win executive of the year over Daryl Morey because the I-know-analytics-and-you-don’t Morey is generally unpopular among his colleagues like Pat Riley, who didn’t win the summer he got James and Chris Bosh. Karl never has won the award with well over 1,000 wins already and terrific work in Seattle and Milwaukee, if also bitter departures. He is most deserving in a season with a lot of good work. I like to see this award spread around as well, though we could give it to Gregg Popovich just about every season. Same with the Bulls Tom Thibodeau, who has kept the Bulls playing at a high level despite a crippling level of injuries. I could also make a case for Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, whose team continued to function at a high level even when James was out and has developed an impressive small ball game without much defensive dropoff. But I’ll go second with Memphis’ Lionel Hollins, who got half his team traded out from under him over his objections and they’ve never let up, and the Warriors Mark Jackson third for not only the team’s playoff run after they changed the philosophy and then lost Andrew Bogut but for being the first Warriors team to defend since the 1975 champions. There are very few wrong votes this season.
Most Improved Player, Omer Asik, Houston Rockets. Again, another misunderstood award since everyone doesn’t see it the way I do. At one time it was comeback player, but then all the guys from drug rehab kept getting it. The NBA doesn’t much have that problem anymore. But to me you improve from when you are not a high level player. Not because you suddenly got more shots or minutes. There’s been a lot of support for Jrue Holiday, who I could see in some sense as he wasn’t a lottery pick. But he as pretty good last season averaging almost 14 and 14 the year before. Many will vote for Harden, who I wanted as an MVP candidate. Which is a long way from Sixth Man, which he won last season. But he was a high lottery pick and supposed to be good. Also with Paul George, though in the lottery at No. 10. If he’d played a bit more earlier, you probably could make a persuasive case for Jimmy Butler, who has impressed around the NBA the last six weeks averaging 15.1 as a starter and about 13 since the end of February. Asik was a second round pick from Europe, not even playing much for his national team, much dismissed by fans as having poor hands and no offense. But he’s become one of the league’s top centers for a playoff team. How much more than that is the definition of the award? I know some players have to put up numbers on bad teams. But not that many do. I have Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic second as how many saw all those 20/20 games? Certainly not the 76ers, who benched him and then let him go easily for Andrew Bynum. Think they’d like a do over on that one? Then I also go with a lottery team guy, but I never saw it in the Hornets Greivis Vasquez, who’s become one of the league’s top point guards and with Rajon Rondo out runner up to Paul for assists leader.
Sixth Man: Jamal Crawford, Los Angeles Clippers. The former Bull and all around good guy has become the model for this era’s sixth man much like John Havlicek in the 1960’s and Kevin McHale later on, both with Boston. He’s a vital part of their offense and one of the more uncanny one-on-one players in the game. And for that reason best as a reserve because the role is often about an offensive burst off the bench and that’s his game. Though not always just offense. Which is why I go with Andre Miller second and then, reluctantly, J.R. Smith third. I’ve always hated Smith’s is-anyone-else-on-the-court-with-me game. But it has fit well the definition of a sixth man with the Knicks this season, in part because coach Mike Woodson only has plays for Anthony and Smith. Or they don’t listen to any plays and just shoot every time. But it’s worked so far and Smith has been a factor and even figured out you are allowed to shoot from inside 30 feet. I like the way Miller, though he’s always hated the reserve role, comes in not only to run the team but with Denver’s lack of “the guy” has even been the one taking potential game winners. Kevin Martin hasn’t had the impact with Westbrook shooting so much, and I leave off with reluctance Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry because I could make a case for both. They’ve been crucial in the Warriors’ playoff season and most often finish games, especially Jack.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Bulls. Noah probably was the consensus choice midseason. He may have lost it now with all the games missed of late, as NBA voters tend to have memories as short as national election voters. That’s why there’s no August surprise. It’s also why guys hold ballots until the last days. How can something that happens this week change your vote? November is an equal part of the season, probably more so as hardly anyone plays anymore the last month of the season. Last season, one of the biggest cases for Tyson Chandler winning was look how bad the Knicks are without him. Tyson also won because everyone was tired of Dwight Howard’s act. Ditto, 2012-13. But the Bulls’ defensive statistics also have fallen badly without Noah, who has been among the league leaders in blocks and rebounds all season. But it’s more than that the way Noah is so unique in being able to switch on the perimeter and defend guards and small forwards. It’s one of the main elements that makes the Bulls’ defense so special the way it’s big men can switch off on pick and rolls and not end up in bad mismatches like most other teams'. Miami has accomplished it with smaller players, but rarely can you do it with legitimate centers. Even with the games missed, Noah’s a legitimate choice. Unfortunately, many voters begin watching games in March or at least after the Super Bowl. I have Memphis’ Tony Allen second as he’s the most relentless perimeter defender. LeBron is very good at times, but spends only late moments in games on the best offensive player. Allen does it all game all the time. Avery Bradley is in that category as an on ball defender, but he played just more than half the season. I go with Tim Duncan third in a resurgent season for blocks and his continually solid positioning play and rebounding.
All-NBA First Team:
Guards: Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul. Forwards: LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. Center: Tim Duncan (I know, he says he’s a forward. But he plays the post and is their best rim protection).
Guards: James Harden and Stephen Curry. Forwards: Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge. Center: Joakim Noah.
Guards: Tony Parker and Dwyane Wade. Forwards: Luol Deng and Paul George. Center: Marc Gasol.
There also were several who easily could have or should have been added. Russell Westbrook, though it’s tough the leave Curry or Parker off. And I can’t excuse Westbrook for playing like Kevin Durant is Thabo Sefolosha. Al Horford. It’s tough to pick two Bulls without a Hawks player and Horford has been very strong, especially in the second half. I think Deng may be more versatile and George has stepped in also to take a scoring role with Danny Granger out. I struggled with the third team as much as any and probably broke the tie, perhaps unfairly, on who I saw so much. Chris Bosh could have made it as well as Blake Griffin (too many dunks and not enough basketball plays) and David Lee.
Expect Lakers to hold on to Kobe
-- Obviously, the biggest story last week became Kobe Bryant’s Achilles’ injury that could keep him out anywhere from until November to all of next season, the final one on his contract. There was all sort of immediate speculation regarding Bryant and the Lakers, including an amnesty of Bryant to rebuild quickly, which the Lakers seem to have rejected since Bryant — and no one will ever dispute his ability to defy medical predictions — could start next season as unlikely as it seems. I know the luxury tax penalties are high, but you still do have to pay him $30 million. And then he may be knocking you out of the playoffs. Like the Yankees when the kids took over, those free spending deficit years are over. So we can’t yet get a sense of what the Lakers will do. But while you save luxury tax penalties, you also have to pay and then pay someone to replace Bryant. So I expect they’ll keep him. Obviously, resigning Howard is their stated priority. Dallas and Atlanta will make him offers and Houston will try to trade for him. He’s so mercurial and insincere you can never guess what he might do. But the Lakers figure to be active. I can see Toronto maybe renewing its interest in Steve Nash and the Lakers accepting the experiment didn’t work and taking a shot with Andrea Bargnani, who could play off Howard well. Maybe the Lakers get Kyle Lowry. Though I doubt it’s been discussed, I can see a scenario in which the Raptors try to lure Mike D’Antoni, who was close with Bryan Colangelo, to then coach Nash. That also gives the Lakers a better shot with Howard, who doesn’t particularly like D’Antoni’s system. Then the Lakers have Pau Gasol to move. They can save that luxury tax money from the amnesty idea with Bryant by trading Gasol with only a year left to a team with cap room looking for a boost, like the Cavs or Pistons or Bobcats or Mavericks so they can hold their money to the better 2014 draft and free agent class. Perhaps they all go to Toronto, who has some young athletes of interest and maybe a move of Rudy Gay. No, we’re nowhere near done talking about the Lakers. They’ve become the NFL.
-- Meanwhile, it’s the Lakers this time being beaten up and second guessed about Bryant playing so much in the classic injury second guess. "I spoke to Kobe about 10 days ago, about the 48-minute (playing) thing. I said, I have concerns," Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak told Los Angeles media. "His message to me was, 'Mitch, I hear what you're saying, but we've got to get into the playoffs and I'm playing and there's nothing you can do about it.'" Of course, if Bryant were playing 32 minutes a game and the Lakers were losing and out of the playoff race what would they be saying about Kupchak then? Many great players late in their careers playing less, like Dominique Wilkins, Isiah Thomas and Chauncey Billips, suffered the injury. So did my brother-in-law playing a lot less. It’s fortunate media critics and fans never are wrong. As for Bryant and retiring, given he’s been sending messages and calling the Lakers with plays and schemes from surgery and since, it seems unlikely the desire for the game has left and retiring at the end of his contract or anytime soon can be dismissed.
And then there’s the All-Unpleasant Team
-- There isn’t an official recognition for this, but I’d also like to add my All-Unpleasant Team. This isn’t players who have been in trouble or are criminals or any such thing. But the large, large majority of NBA players, more than in any other sports league in my experience, are cooperative, decent and helpful guys. But there are a group who are the stars of difficult, whose days are not complete without snarling at someone for no reason, trying to embarrass someone in front of others or make your life more difficult in any way possible. Rasheed Wallace, of course, is the MVP, the Bill Laimbeer of this era (Laimbeer has the statue in the Hall of Shame). I recall once after his Portland reign or horror when I was president of the basketball writers trying to explain how relations with media could be better. He explained to me how he didn’t give a crap about anyone. Anyway, here’s my all-Stay Away From Them team.
Guards: Deron Williams and Russell Westbrook. Williams is the leader, of course, if hardly for just driving out coaches. He’s a walking bad day who really fits for New York with his What Are You Looking At! Attitude.
Forwards: Tyrus Thomas and Kevin Garnett. Tyrus is the obvious, the only rookie I ever recall coming into the NBA who no one liked. Garnett is tougher because of his mercurial nature. When he deigns to chat he’s charming and disarming, one of the more thoughtful guys. But his rages are more regular.
Center: Aaron Gray. Generally the reserve centers in the NBA are the nicest of guys, sort of like the offensive linemen in football. They don’t get much attention, so they are cordial and have a lot of time to study and discuss the game. Gray acts like a diva, which I guess can be considered special given his immense lack of talent. I guess that’s confidence. Perhaps that’s how he’s even gotten to stay in the NBA.
NBA news and notes
-- The Nets must have loved hearing Gerald Wallace, whom they still owe $30 million over three years in his career worst season and shooting 33 percent and 14 percent on threes since the All-Star break saying to New York media: “My confidence is totally gone. I think I lost the confidence of the coaching staff and my teammates.” ... It’s Knicks and Boston, which would sound more exciting if Shavlik Randolph and Jordan Crawford weren’t in the Celtics’ rotation. ... The Cavs this season, which doesn’t sound great for Byron Scott, have lost after leading by 27, 26, 22 and 20. According to ESPN stats, the Cavs are 3-4 when leading by 20 and the rest of the league is 379-12. ... That veteran cool and experience is important. Like last week when 17-year NBA veteran Jermaine O’Neal goaltended a three-point shot as it was bouncing off the rim with no time left, enabling Houston to beat Phoenix by three. ... The NBA fined Kevin Durant for that throat slashing gesture as he explained after the game it meant, “Just kill ‘em and pray for ‘em after the game.” Oh, that explains it. It’s becoming an unusual slide for Durant. I’m no fan of all this trash talking that goes on, explained away as just part of competition. OK. But the stuff Durant modeled gets kids killed in parks. That’s the point the NBA was making.
-- With Doug Collins, as expected, not likely to return to coaching the 76ers, it could be one of a whole bunch of jobs open for a variety of reasons, including personal health decisions. My guess is at least one Van Gundy will have one of those jobs next season, but the issue is who are all those replacements? Which may save some coaches. The general feeling is with interims in some places, change could come in Detroit, Brooklyn, Toronto, Minnesota, Cleveland, Los Angeles (both), Sacramento, Memphis, Atlanta, and Milwaukee. ... Credit Houston coach Kevin McHale for declining to be among those who feel you don’t have to play all 82. “We’re going to try to win our last four games,” said McHale. “That’s what we want to do. We’ll rest our guys a little bit, but we’re not a classic team that has a bunch of older guys that put in long minutes. We have a bunch of younger guys. They’ll be OK.” Said Chandler Parsons to the Houston Chronicle: “I want to win out. I want to win the most possible games that we can. I don’t think it really matters who we play. If we come out and play our style and impose our will and do the things coach McHale has been preaching all year, we can beat anybody. We’ve proved that.” It’s a reason that makes the Rockets and their open style a tough first round opponent. Though winning as much as they have looks like it will push them into a series with the Nuggets, who at No. 3 thus far are looking stronger than No. 2 San Antonio. The Nuggets are 37-9 since Jan. 3. ... Though a first round series if the Lakers get there against the Thunder seems one sided, like Boston going 14-4 when Rajon Rondo went out, the changing dynamic after a major injury doesn’t necessarily decimate a team. Like when Pau Gasol felt Bryant’s 47 points last week to beat the Trail Blazers was “bittersweet” because “I'm a player that likes to see a little more ball movement and better balance.” It’s also why Pau despite what he says likely wouldn’t mind being elsewhere next season.