Originally Published: April 20, 2012

1. And The Award Winners Are ...

Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
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LeBron JamesSteve Mitchell/US PresswireLeBron James, you are looking like a three-time MVP winner.

It's one of the casualties of the lockout that we all feel. Nine Weekend Dimes were lost when the start of the NBA season got shoved into December.

The 66-game schedule we wound up with certainly wasn't traditional, but at least we can sign off from our regular-season rotation of WDs in proper fashion, which can only mean the usual rundown of my year-end award choices in six categories I've been invited to vote on by the league.

I will officially send the actual ballots back to the league office closer to Friday's deadline, so as not to exclude what happens during the season's final six days from consideration. In the unlikely event that something forces a recount on any of these selections, I'll blog an update via TrueHoop. (Also coming next week: ESPN.com's All-NBA selections).

To the ballots ...

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER:

LeBron James, Miami Heat

NAME
LeBron

If you're a regular reader of the Power Rankings, or if you follow along on Twitter, you're already aware of the one hesitation I have about crowning LeBron James' statistically brilliant season with my MVP vote.

Simply put for those who haven't heard that rationale yet: Miami's failure to snag the top seed in the Eastern Conference, when MVP incumbent Derrick Rose has missed 26 games of a 66-game season in Chicago, could have been a fatal strike against LBJ's MVP case.

Reason being: All those gaudy stats, in that scenario, wouldn't have prevented LeBron's team from underachieving. His team. The thing that matters most in any season.

Harsh? Possibly. Fair? Definitely. It's simply going to be a struggle for me to bill you as the NBA player who had the best overall campaign, no matter what the stats say, if the team you're leading underperforms.

It certainly won't be all LeBron's fault if the flaw-filled Heat fall short of the East's best record, of course, but giving the standings that much weight when evaluating his MVP-worthiness is more than just. Two-time MVP Steve Nash illuminated that point for me last Friday, in a conversation in the visitors' locker room in Houston that had absolutely nothing to with LeBron, when Nash said of his scrappy Suns: "We're greater than the sum of our parts. And, as a team, that's all you can ask."

Without realizing it until he said it, Nash neatly summarized a good chunk of the rationale I've applied over nearly 20 years as an NBA awards voter: Steering your team to its presumed potential, or ideally just beyond that station, is a big part of any star's MVP claim.

It's why Nash has two Maurice Podoloff trophies and why he sneaks in at No. 5 on my 2012 ballot. He's the undisputed driving, galvanizing force on a team that boasts no 20-point scorers -- and no one who had even regularly started in the NBA outside of Nash himself and Grant Hill before they got to the Suns -- but has somehow recovered from a 14-20 record at the All-Star break to make a legit playoff run. If the Nash-led Suns crack the West's top eight, they'll be the NBA's first team since 1996-97 to make it to the postseason from a hole of six or more games under .500 at the break.

However ...

As strongly as I feel about all of the above, two major developments in the last two weeks have restored LeBron to MVP pole position and will ultimately earn him this vote barring another crazy, unforeseen landscape change between now and the time ballots are due via e-mail Friday at 3 p.m.

Development No. 1: Miami has quietly won five straight games since a loss at Chicago on April 12 dropped the Heat's post-All-Star Weekend record to 13-10 and led me to make the initial claim that Miami's failure to capitalize on all the time Derrick Rose has missed should impact LeBron's MVP candidacy. Those five straight wins, furthermore, cut Chicago's lead at the top of the conference to 1 games entering Friday's play, giving LeBron's Heat renewed hope of digging out the regular-season conference title after all.

Development No. 2: There has to be a worthy challenger to capitalize on any potentially fatal strikes for James. But there really isn't one. With the Oklahoma City Thunder at risk for blowing the No. 1 seed in the West themselves thanks to a 6-5 malaise in April, Kevin Durant's MVP case has wobbled. The team-success card Durant needed to neutralize LeBron's numbers and hurdle into the lead might have slipped away. And if Durant can't do it, who else can?

Chris Paul is next in line thanks to a debut season in Clipperland filled with fourth-quarter brilliance and more on-court credibility than we've ever seen from the Lakers' co-tenants, but just breaking into the top three is about as far CP3 can realistically take his campaign, even after giving Angelenos their first legit NBA rivalry. San Antonio's Tony Parker is likewise a lock to appear on most ballots after taking on a bigger-than-ever role with the Spurs, but the moment appears to have passed for all the would-be challengers.

Although this will be remembered as the season that he truly began to look like a two-way player, Durant would need a monster finish now -- and some sort of heinous collapse from James with Miami suddenly reborn mathematically in its race with the Bulls -- to throw things into flux again. Even if OKC wins the West's regular-season crown, Miami has presumably made up enough ground so that the standings can no longer hurt James. Not when Bron happens to be averaging 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists while shooting 52.9 percent from the floor.

That doesn't change the fact that his season will ultimately be judged on whether Miami wins it all ... but it does set LeBron up to join Michael Jordan (32.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg and 8.0 apg in 1988-89) on the short list of players to average 27-8-8 in a single season if he can pick up the board work slightly.

Stein's MVP Ballot
1. James
2. Durant
3. Paul
4. Parker
5. Nash

December prediction: Durant

COACH OF THE YEAR:

Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs

NAME
Popovich

If Tom Thibodeau doesn't win this thing, after losing the reigning MVP to injury for a third of the season and keeping the Bulls ahead of Miami in the Eastern Conference standings going into the season's final week, I know what people will say. They're going to make the claim that the media know-nothings who vote on these awards didn't want to vote for the same guy two years in a row.

And I'll concede that there probably is a measure of truth to that for some voters.

Not here, though. Popovich edges Thibodeau for my vote purely for the way he has continued to speed up the Spurs' playing style and keep them among the elite when so many of us had finally written them off for good. Pop gets the nod here for the way his system continually gets the most out of whoever gets plugged into it, whether it's the seemingly limited Matt Bonner or the untested Kawhi Leonard or the unheralded Danny Green. Pop is the pick because, in addition to all that, he has also managed to massage the playing time so beautifully that only two Spurs average more than 24 minutes per game: Tony Parker at 32.5 mpg and Tim Duncan at a career-low 28.3.

Spurs president R.C. Buford has done an Executive of the Year-worthy job with this group by drafting a perfect-fit athlete (Leonard) and finding a way to add Stephen Jackson, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills to the mix in March -- as well as shed Richard Jefferson's contract -- with limited trade assets. Yet as one longtime Popovich rival told me: "Danny Green is the perfect example. He was almost out of the league. It's Pop who gets the best of these guys."

Which is why, whether or not San Antonio finishes with the West's top seed, Pop is about to double his far-too-humble collection of COY trophies to, uh, two. There have been the usual array of strong coaching jobs this season in addition to Thibs -- Boston's Doc Rivers, Indiana's Frank Vogel, Memphis' Lionel Hollins and Phoenix's Alvin Gentry are the other standouts -- but Pop trumps them all. Even when you add up all of Chicago's injuries.

Stein's COY Ballot
1. Popovich
2. Thibodeau
3. Rivers

December prediction: Rivers

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR:

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

NAME
Irving

Anyone else get the feeling that this race, widely regarded as an absolute runaway, would have been very, very interesting if Ricky Rubio could have stayed healthy for the stretch run?

Turns out that Irving had only played in six more games than the Spaniard entering Friday's schedule, so I'd argue that the huge gap we're going to see when the vote totals are ultimately released reflects poorly on the sort of impact that Rubio actually had. MVP aspirant Kevin Love had to weather other injuries, too, but the fact remains that the Wolves were 18-13 when Rubio was a starter ... and they were pretty much lost in fourth quarters without him. You learn to live with Rubio's eyesore shooting percentage (.357) when he helps you win everywhere else on the floor.

None of that, though, is meant to denigrate what Kyrie did. He didn't turn 20 until March 23 and sports a PER of 21.1, which is efficiency territory rookie point guards rarely visit. Shooting the ball from distance better than anyone projected after just 11 games at Duke and getting to all the dangerous spots on the floor with savvy and polish beyond his years, Irving seized the early ROY lead from Rubio and never gave the rest of the rooks chasing them a chance, even with Denver's Kenneth Faried, New York's Iman Shumpert and San Antonio's Leonard all emerging as trusted contributors on teams bound for the playoffs.

Irving's own health issues (first a concussion, then a bad shoulder) couldn't stop him from quickly pumping some legit basketball hope back into the Cleveland air sooner than beaten-down Cavs fans dared to believe post-LeBron. Way sooner.

Stein's ROY Ballot
1. Irving
2. Rubio
3. Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets)

December prediction: Rubio

Dimes past: April 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6-7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11 | 12 | 13-14 | 15 | 16 | 17 | 18 | 19


2. More Awards

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER:

Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks

NAME
Lin

Don't care that he only played in just over half the games. Nor do I care that this selection will subject me to those ceaseless, tiresome taunts I hate from Hollinger, Arnovitz and Haberstroh about how I got "sucked into narrative."

With zero apologies, Lin is my near-automatic MIP choice.

Because no one deserves this award more.

Ryan Anderson stepped up his rebounding (especially offensively) to complement his 3-point bombing and become an even better sidekick to Dwight Howard in Orlando than we thought. Goran Dragic made himself some significant free-agent dollars this summer (and entrenched himself on future All-Lefty Team squads here at Stein Line HQ) as soon as he got the chance to start in Houston. And few players make more of their court time than Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova. Or Minnesota's Nikola Pekovic, who became a dependable NBA center without warning this season.

(Bearing in mind that I don't typically consider second-year studs like DeMarcus Cousins, Greg Monroe and Paul George who are supposed to develop this way, other names on my MIP list include: Atlanta's Jeff Teague, New Jersey's resurrected Gerald Green and the aforementioned Danny Green in San Antonio.)

All that said ...

Only Lin went from near oblivion, on the verge of being released by the Knicks, to overnight world sensation. He's not on Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People by accident, folks. Lin couldn't have gotten there without averaging 18.2 points, 7.6 assists and 2.0 steals in his 25 starts.

The same Lin, covered extensively here, who never earned much more than garbage time as a rookie in Golden State.

Stein's MIP Ballot:

1. Lin
2. Anderson
3. Dragic

December Prediction: DeAndre Jordan

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:

Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks

NAME
Chandler

No NBA player has ever won DPOY honors in four straight seasons. Dwight Howard won't be the first, either.

The back operation Friday that brought a sudden end to Howard's tumultuous season figures to crack the door open even wider than it was for a new defensive specialist to take the trophy Howard has won for the past three seasons. The options are plentiful, too, with Boston's Kevin Garnett, Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka and Chicago's Joakim Noah standing out among big men and a slew of top wing defenders headlined by Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Memphis' Tony Allen, Dallas' Shawn Marion, Chicago's Luol Deng and a guy in Miami named James. LeBron James.

But Chandler's reputation as a culture-changer on D has gone to a new level this season, which is saying something after the role he played in the Mavericks' title run last spring. The Knicks, mired at No. 21 in defensive efficiency last season, ranked fifth in that category as of Friday morning, with Chandler's length, mobility, athleticism, smarts, vocal leadership and unbridled enthusiasm adding up to give New York its ideal anchor. Especially if you're lining him up next to Carmelo Anthony.

Stein's DPOY Ballot:
1. Chandler
2. Garnett
3. Iguodala

December prediction: Chandler

SIXTH MAN AWARD:

James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder

NAME
Harden

Can we call it a deep field when there's an overwhelming favorite?

Dallas' Jason Terry, Denver's Al Harrington, Memphis' O.J. Mayo and the Clippers' Mo Williams are all top-flight sixth men. The Sixers, meanwhile, have two worthy candidates (if that's even possible) in Lou Williams and Thaddeus Young.

Yet as one Eastern Conference team official told me this week: "Harden's going to win anyway so what's the point of debating it?"

The fact that Harden logs nearly 32 minutes per game -- more than any Spur, remember, apart from Parker -- definitely rankles those around the league who cling to the belief that this award shouldn't go to someone who plays starter's minutes.

The problem for Harden's rivals is that the bearded lefty's playmaking, high efficiency and ability to erupt for 40 points like an All-Star (as we just saw Wednesday night in Phoenix) attracts far more attention from the media folks casting votes than how much playing time Harden gets.

This is actually the first season since 1979-80 in which two players have averaged more than 31.0 minutes per game while starting two or fewer of games: Harden and Terry. Which may (or may not) make you feel better about the PT issue.

Stein's Sixth Man Ballot:
1. Harden
2. Terry
3. Williams

December prediction: Odom

3. TrueHoop TV: Weekend Dime Edition

Marc Stein joins Henry Abbott for a special Weekend Dime edition of TrueHoop TV to discuss LeBron James' lead in the MVP race and all the ins and outs of voting, which closes for ballot holders (Stein among them) at 3 p.m. on April 27.

4. Western Conference


As mentioned in this space recently, Houston's Marcus Camby was kind enough to visit with us for about 10 minutes in late March for a nice Q&A chat, only for the official Stein Line HQ smartphone to die before the interview could be transcribed.

The good news? We got another crack at Camby this week, as you can see in Box 5, which gave us a second chance to ask him about his former UMass coach John Calipari, who continues to be mentioned as a potential candidate for the Knicks' job -- largely because of his ties to the same agency (CAA) that represents Carmelo Anthony -- despite Calipari's repeated insistence that he's staying at Kentucky.

Camby concedes that he does "see Coach Cal taking another shot" at the NBA someday after his 1990s flameout in New Jersey, but not necessarily in time for next season or any time soon.

"Each year I think he may make that jump," Camby said, "and each year he comes back with the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation. He just always keeps reloading."


Some numbers of note in the West this week:

4: The Lakers, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, are just the fourth team in NBA history to sweep a season series after being swept by the same team in the previous postseason. L.A. is 4-0 against the defending champs from Dallas in 2011-12, joining New Jersey (2-0 against the Lakers in 2002-03 after being swept by L.A. in the 2002 NBA Finals), Orlando (2-0 in 1995-96 against Houston after being swept by the Rockets in the 1995 Finals) and San Antonio (3-0 against Boston after the Celtics swept the Spurs -- an Eastern Conference team back then -- in a best-of-three series in 1977's first round).

2: Portland interim coach Kaleb Canales is one of two active coaches in the league who did not play basketball at the college or pro level, along with Detroit's Lawrence Frank.

6: There are six active players who played on teams with first-year Warriors coach Mark Jackson. They are Marcus Camby, Vince Carter, Erick Dampier, Al Harrington, DeShawn Stevenson and Kurt Thomas.

9.3: Warriors rookie Klay Thompson is averaging 16.5 points per game since the All-Star break after averaging only 7.2 points per game in games before the break. That 9.3 ppg increase from before to after the break is the largest jump for any player in the league (minimum: 20 games in each half) just ahead of Houston's Goran Dragic (plus-8.2).

1,572: Despite a shin injury that has caused him to miss L.A.'s past seven games, Lakers star Kobe Bryant has scored 1,572 points this season. It's Kobe's 12th straight season with at least 1,500 points, tying Bryant with Elvin Hayes (1968-69 to 1979-80), Moses Malone (1978-79 to 1989-90) and Karl Malone (1986-87 to 1997-98) for the second-longest streak in league history. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the record with 17 consecutive seasons with at least 1,500 points.

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