Updated: April 8, 2011, 4:55 PM ET

1. Award Ballots: And The Winners Are ...

Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
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Derrick RoseJonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesRose insisted before the year he could mount an MVP campaign. Consider one ballot-holder convinced.

The bubbling anticipation generated by the tasty postseason so many of us expect can't completely flush out the feeling of dread here at Stein Line HQ.

Reason being: It's hard not to wonder -- while assembling the season's final Weekend Dime and preparing Monday's farewell batch of Power Rankings -- how long we're going to have to wait for next season to start. Since these staples can't return, obviously, until we know there's a next season.

The best we can do is sign off indefinitely from Weekend Dimedom in the traditional manner, which means sharing my year-end award ballots (in Box 1, 2, 3 and 4) in the seven categories I've been asked to vote on by the league office.

The actual ballots, for the record, are due back to the league by Thursday at 3 p.m. In the unlikely event that something happens in the season's final five days to change my mind on any of these award picks, I'll blog an update via TrueHoop.

NAME
Rose

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

Can we all agree, at the very least, that this season's incredibly polarizing (and occasionally hostile) MVP chase is the way we really like it?

Passionate debate, even if it occasionally strays into angry debate, is so much better than what we got last season, when LeBron James had the thing clinched by All-Star Weekend. The absence of a consensus MVP selection has actually made us all smarter, because it leads to so many league observers with different perspectives and backgrounds chiming in. Which can't be a bad thing. Overly heated at times, yes. But so much more interesting and intelligent than the alternative.

That said …

I have consumed every pro-Dwight Howard argument I could find, soaked in every word of my dear colleague John Hollinger's recent must-read missive on Howard's MVP-worthiness, but still can't co-sign. The MVP to me, after nearly two decades as a voter, is the player of the season. However true it is that there is only one Dwight Howard in this age nearly bereft of dominant big men, Howard did not have a better season than Derrick Rose on this scorecard, once you plug in all the subjective factors along with the statistically tangible ones.

The word valuable in MVP is what throws everyone, because value cannot be universally defined, but it's instructive to note that the MVP ballot comes in the same email dispatch from the league office that includes ballots for Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, etc. The voter's task, in my view, is not measuring how irreplaceable someone is, or how his team would theoretically fare if you fantasy-swapped him with someone else, or trying to determine who would be chosen first in the starriest of NBA pickup games. I've always believed that the voter is tasked with identifying who had the best overall season, as computed by gauging a variety of factors.

The stats are obviously paramount. You can't just dismiss the offensive improvements in Howard's game or the titanic impact he has defensively on a team full of non-defenders. But the raps against Rose's statistical efficiency strike me as easily explained, since he's the only Bull who can create his own shot and faced a ridiculous amount of defensive attention all season because his two main sidekicks, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, combined to miss 60 games.

I can pardon Rose's slightly iffy efficiency because of everything else he supplied and improved. The on-court load he shoulders, along with the galvanizing effect he's had as a leader for an injury-riddled team that's exceeded all expectations, is the clinching combination here.

Steve Nash, maybe the most controversial MVP of all time when he won the award in 2005, has a great description for the phenomenon at work with Rose. "When I won it [for the first time]," Nash says, "I believe it's because people saw me as the best teammate."

Bingo.

In other words? Nash was the most influential single teammate of the season in question -- instantly changing the culture of a 29-win team with his free-agent return to Phoenix -- just as Rose was this season. Except that Rose didn't change a culture in Chicago. He established one.

It is largely Rose's unflinching support and immediate buy-in to the preachings of ultra-demanding rookie coach Tom Thibodeau that enabled Thibodeau to coach the Bulls with the veteran authority of a Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich. And this is no small thing. There's no way to measure it statistically, but it's easy to forget all the uncertainty attached to Thibodeau when Chicago hired him. Passed over for several jobs before finally landing this one, Thibodeau was seen in some circles as a career assistant, somehow unfit for the big chair. We all should have known that's not true, after seeing what Thibs did with Boston's defense for the past few seasons, but that skepticism could have easily sprouted in the Bulls' locker room if Rose hadn't instantly committed.

Nearly 60 wins later, Rose is still the Bulls' most powerful messenger. He called out his team this week, loudly warning them -- in the midst of a 20-4 run since the All-Star break -- that they've achieved virtually nothing and had even begun to backslide. Thibodeau could hardly contain his glee when he saw the result Thursday night: Chicago's 97-81 trouncing of the Boston Celtics to all but clinch the East's No. 1 seed.

Imagine what Erik Spoelstra would give for that kind of buy-in from just one of his superstars. Mike D'Antoni certainly doesn't have it with the Knicks, since Carmelo Anthony's arrival, anywhere close to the way he had it was Nash in Phoenix. The legendary Jerry Sloan lost it this season in Utah for maybe the first time in two decades, which conspired with Sloan's waning energy at the age of 69 to send him into sudden midseason retirement. Even the Celtics' famed unity has been rocked, although the vets' quarrel is obviously more with Danny Ainge's decision to trade away Kendrick Perkins than anything that's changed with Doc Rivers.

The point? The sort of relentless leadership and drive to win that stems from Rose really stands out this season. When you add up that subjective stuff with the Bulls' team success relative to preseason expectations, Rose's success in crunch time, how good he's had to be scoring the ball just to get a largely punchless team up to 12th in the league in offensive efficiency and the way he's blossomed as an outside shooter and free throw magnet … you get the 2010-11 MVP.

Especially since Howard, his chief threat in this race, so often leaves you wondering about his abilities as a tone-setter, whether we're talking about how serious he is … or his trouble with technical fouls … or the fact that his free throw frailties still leave the Magic unsure which way to go at the ends of games. Whereas the uber-aggressive Rose, by contrast, is breeding teamwide confidence with a demeanor that screams "Follow my lead."

Would Chicago's role players defend with the ferocity we've seen if Rose hadn't embraced the first-year coach so openly and ramped up his own commitment to D? Would Thibodeau be able to play so many defensive specialists if Rose couldn't shoulder such a heavy offensive load? How meaningful -- how "valuable" -- is Orlando's status as a top-three team defensively if the Magic can't even be considered clear-cut favorites in their forthcoming first-round matchup with an underachieving Atlanta team? All valid questions.

Howard should not be unfairly punished for the deficiencies of the retooled supporting cast around him -- which clearly isn't as good as Rose's when the Bulls are at full strength -- since he's not the one who makes the trades. But the legit concern in Orlando about how effective Dwight will be in the first round against the single coverage of the Hawks' Jason Collins suggests that the stats in Howard's favor, most notably his robust PER of 26.19, aren't nearly as conclusive as they look.

In a season so rife with MVP candidates that overwhelming preseason favorite Kevin Durant can't even make my five-spot ballot, Rose simply checks the most boxes for me, just as Nash did with his transformative make-everybody-better presence in 2004-05. The best individual season of Howard's career, on this ballot, is only No. 2 to Rose's.

I fully expect more passionate pushback from those who prefer the cleaner résumés, numbers-wise, belonging to Dwight and LeBron, but that's no prob. I'd argue that there's at least one more MVP layer that will generate unanimous agreement amid all the screaming: We're all going to greatly miss these raging arguments in November, December and January if all the increasingly pessimistic lockout projections in circulation prove to be accurate.

Stein's ballot
1. Rose
2. Howard
3. James
4. Kobe Bryant
5. Dirk Nowitzki

October prediction: Kevin Durant

Editor's note: My biggest MVP regret is not having one more slot for the tireless Chris Paul, who's right there with Bryant and Nowitzki with me after dragging the skeletal Hornets into the playoffs despite the limitations of his surgically repaired left knee. Which means that, yes, I have Durant in seventh. (Which honestly doesn't feel so great, either.)


Dimes past: March 21 | 22 | 23 | 24 | 25-27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31| April 1 | 2 | 4 |6 | 7

2. Awards, Part Deux

Coach of the Year: George Karl, Denver Nuggets

NAME
Karl

Yes. Again.

Yet again, for the umpteenth season in a row, I'm going to moan about how difficult this one is.

How difficult? So difficult that I can't squeeze Gregg Popovich into my top three, even after Pop marked his 15th season in charge in San Antonio by surprising us all with up-tempo tweaks to his offensive approach, adapting to his personnel as well as anyone in the business and racking up 60 more wins as of Friday morning to put the Spurs in pole position for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs heading into the final week of the regular season.

And if Pop can't even make my ballot? You can guess what that means for coaches in the West who kept winning no matter what adversities confronted them: Portland's Nate McMillan, New Orleans' Monty Williams and Houston's Rick Adelman. Ditto for Phil Jackson, who is an every-year contender like Pop and has submitted maybe his best coaching job in his two tours with the Lakers, maintaining behind-the-scenes order in Lakerland when panic oozed all over the place from Christmas through All-Star Weekend.

The reality is that the 2010-11 field is so stacked that you could honestly give the COY to any one of four coaches.

If not Popovich, then Chicago's Tom Thibodeau, who could still tie Paul Westphal's 62-20 mark with Phoenix in 1992-93 for the best record ever posted by a rookie coach if the Bulls sweep their last four games.

If not Thibodeau -- whose relentless, every-possession-matters sideline screaming on D is the co-catalyst for Chicago's breakout success alongside Derrick Rose -- then Philadelphia's Doug Collins. On a team that started 3-13, changed almost nothing roster-wise since last season and doesn't have a single top-40 scorer, Collins has Philly defending intensely and sharing the ball like none of that matters. You actually can't quite call them starless anymore because, with Collins, they are elite on the bench if nowhere else.

And if not Collins?

Then you are inevitably drawn to George Karl, whose stunning second-half rush clinches my vote. He'd get my vote even if you didn't factor in the battle with throat cancer that took him away from the Nuggets with 18 games to go last season.

First, Karl somehow churned out a 32-25 record to start the season, amid the suffocating Melo Drama that lasted more than six months and realistically should have splintered the Nuggets. Since the All-Star break, with all those new pieces from the Carmelo Anthony trade, Denver is 16-5 … and No. 2 in the league in offensive efficiency. The Nuggets, as a result, only need to split their final four games to reach 50 wins.

Which means that Karl is the only coach in this race who had to coach two completely different teams this season … and managed to overachieve with both.

Stein's ballot
1. Karl
2. Thibodeau
3. Collins

October prediction: Jerry Sloan


Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers

NAME
Griffin

The numbers did decline slightly after he jumped over a car to win the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend, but let's be clear here: They still sparkle. Since the All-Star break, Griffin is averaging 21.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.2 assists.

The rookie wall, in other words, is feeling the impact much more than Blake Superior felt it.

So …

The only ROY suspense we can muster surrounds (A) whether Griffin will rightfully join Ralph Sampson (1983) and David Robinson (1989) as the only unanimous ROY selections since the NBA/ABA merger in 1976-77, and (B) who gets third place behind John Wall.

Even with New York's Landry Fields tailing off, Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins doesn't have the third slot sewn up because of Detroit's Greg Monroe, who might just lead the league in improvement between Oct. 1 and April 1. As one of the few tangible sources of optimism in Detroit, Monroe is averaging 14.3 points and an even 10 boards per game since the break.

Cousins' emergence as the Kings' best player -- as hard to coach as he can be some days -- makes him my No. 3 behind Wall, who overcame his various early-season maladies (knee and foot) to put up some all-around solid numbers (16.3 ppg, 8.5 apg and 4.6 rpg) for the Wiz.

But don't be surprised if Monroe swipes some of those third-place votes, knowing that Cousins is going to turn off a peer or three.

Stein's ballot
1. Griffin
2. Wall
3. Cousins

October prediction: John Wall

3. Three More Awards

Sixth Man award: Lamar Odom, Los Angeles Lakers

NAME
Odom

The hometown hoopla factor of an All-Star Game in Hollywood didn't get Lamar Odom any closer to his long-awaited first All-Star selection. That's the bad news.

The good news: Odom has emerged as a strong favorite to snag a Sixth Man Award as a satisfying consolation prize.

He's admittedly struggled at times with accepting his status as a nonstarter on the Kobe-and-Pau Lakers -- and doesn't hide the fact that he relished those 34 starts he did get to make when Andrew Bynum was sidelined -- but this is the season Odom married peak efficiency to his longstanding versatility.

Some would say he's been the season's second-steadiest Laker despite the occasional missed box out, shooting better than 53 percent from the field and nearly 40 percent from the 3-point line, while also ranking among the league's elite in post D.

The competition unexpectedly wound up being fairly fierce even with perennial favorite Manu Ginobili dropping out of contention by starting a career-high 77 games. In addition to Glen Davis, 2010 winner Jamal Crawford, James Harden, Philly teammates Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams and second-half party crashers Marcin Gortat and Tony Allen, Odom has to beat out 2009 winner Jason Terry, who is the first player since Dell Curry in the early 1990s to post three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 points off the bench.

But even Terry's regular crunch-time production in tandem with Dirk Nowitzki -- they've combined for more points (918) in fourth quarters than any duo -- is unlikely to trump everything Odom has given the reigning champs as a role player supreme in his best-ever season. The Mavs needed even more out of Terry than usual after the Jan. 1 loss of Caron Butler to a knee injury, but Odom has been giving his team(s) extra since last summer, when he won raves for his work as a center for Team USA at the FIBA World Championship.

Stein's ballot
1. Odom
2. Terry
3. Gortat

October prediction: Lamar Odom


Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

NAME
Howard

Said so at the second-trimester pole and can only reiterate those thoughts: Howard is the runaway DPOY no matter where you have him in your MVP thinking.

His ability to keep the Magic in the top three in defensive efficiency despite the fact that he's surrounded by suspect defenders makes this no less a rout than Blake Griffin's ROY coronation.

Doesn't matter how long ago it was you leapt off Orlando's bandwagon. The reasonable question now is how many times in a row Howard -- who's about to claim his third successive DPOY -- plans to win this award?

I nonetheless urge you, despite the complete lack of suspense here, to refer to Professor Hollinger's insanely comprehensive All-Defensive Team submission from earlier this week, which covers a Dwight-sized amount of territory by zooming through defensive résumés of about 50 players.

(For the record: Kevin Garnett gets the second spot on my ballot for his efforts keeping the Celts in the top three in DE even after the Kendrick Perkins trade and Rajon Rondo's subsequent in-and-out focus … with Andrew Bogut next in line for making sure something lived up to billing in Milwaukee this season.)

Stein's ballot
1. Howard
2. Garnett
3. Bogut

October prediction: Dwight Howard


Most Improved Player: Kevin Love, Minnesota Timberwolves

NAME
Love

I detest myself today.

I detest myself on a lot of days, actually, but especially so when I violate one of my own long-held credos.

I know, I know. I'm the guy who's always prattling on about how MIP consideration shouldn't be given to former top lottery picks, who are supposed to be great when they're drafted so high and are merely developing at the expected rate when they make a major leap.

This season, though, so many good young players made such significant improvements that I kept finding myself gravitating to that group. LaMarcus Aldridge. Russell Westbrook. Eric Gordon. That Derrick Rose character. And Love, obviously. All have a case.

I swore to myself that I was going to going to stick to the Dorell Wright set … with Wright, for starters, on the verge of finishing his first season in Golden State with more points than he scored in his previous six seasons. Someone like Kyle Lowry or Wes Matthews, who both bailed out their injury-hit teams by pulling off the rare feat of producing far more than expected after signing a lucrative new contract. Arron Afflalo, Tony Allen and, of course, Kris Humphries -- who transformed himself into a legit double-double guy as well as a go-to guy for Power Rankings fodder after winning the Kim Kardashian lottery -- all have a case as well.

Yet only Love can say he beat out Dwight Howard for the rebounding title, emerged as an elite 3-point shooter (41.7 percent) and strung together those 53 consecutive double-doubles after starting the season with the slightly more modest goal of convincing his coach to let him play 40 minutes once in a while. He was the poster child from a Team USA squad that launched several of its players to new stratospheres.

I detest myself for not finding a way to somehow do more for Aldridge, who seems to be this season's Mr. Near-Miss no matter what we're debating, even after he impressively broadened his game with some long-awaited inside scoring and gave the (physically and emotionally) battered Blazers someone new to build around. Love, though, just proved too tough to resist in the most complicated category of them all.

Stein's ballot
1. Love
2. Aldridge
3. Humphries

October prediction: James Harden

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