It's that time of the year, with the regular season winding down, that the NBA's annual awards are debated. So with no further adieu, here are the humble opinions of this writer, complete with explanations of the selections:
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Why: Miami’s LeBron James remains the NBA’s best player, but Durant, who is a close second, had the best individual season in the league. With All-Star sidekick Russell Westbrook in and out of the lineup, Durant stepped up his game, from both a scoring standpoint and in terms of improving his all-around game. A distant third in the race—due to his obvious contributions to his team’s success more than his pecking order when it comes to superstar talents—would be Bulls center Joakim Noah, edging out Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, who also made strides in his game, doing his best work this campaign took place when All-Star point guard Chris Paul was sidelined.
Coach of the Year: Steve Clifford, Charlotte Bobcats
Why: Clifford, in his first year as an NBA head coach after years as an assistant, narrowly beats out rookie counterpart Jeff Hornacek of Phoenix. Although the Suns were expected to be bad, it’s become clear that they had better talent than advertised, while Charlotte still has a middling roster and managed to qualify for the playoffs for the second time in franchise history, as well as crack the .500 mark. Al Jefferson’s impact can’t be overlooked, but the Bobcats’ emphasis on defense, Clifford’s specialty, is the biggest factor in their rise. For those proponents of Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau winning the award, it should be noted that he set a precedent for success without former league MVP Derrick Rose in the lineup last season and as remarkable as his team’s season has been, it’s been no more amazing than San Antonio’s and it’s likely that Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s dean of coaches, is again ignored.
Rookie of the Year: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia, 76ers
Why: As dismal as the Sixers’ season has been, Carter-Williams has been one of the team’s lone bright spots. The oversized floor general certainly hit a mid-season slump after a hot start, but has still managed to carry much of Philadelphia’s burden, a long with veteran Thaddeus Young, as one of the few keepers on the roster. Orlando’s Victor Oladipo and Utah’s Trey Burke have also excelled, but neither player has as little help as Carter-Williams.
Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls
Why: Noah’s offensive development as a playmaker, primary ballhandler and mid-range shooter have overshadowed what he brings to the table on the defensive end, but with his new found durability this season meaning that he’s in the lineup on a consistent basis, his defensive prowess is hard to overlook. These days, rare is the evening when even a dominant low-post scorer—the one type of player he struggled to match up with in the past—has a big night against Noah and his ability to control the defensive boards, switch onto smaller players on the perimeter and protect the rim continue to be at an elite level. The only player coming anywhere close to duplicating his versatility is Chicago native Anthony Davis, but New Orleans’ overall team defense doesn’t compare to the Bulls’.
Sixth Man of the Year: Taj Gibson, Chicago Bulls
Why: This writer has been trumpeting Gibson’s candidacy since November, which might have been a bit premature, but given his offensive improvement, seemed logical, barring injury. Gibson is only a reserve nominally, as he plays more minutes than starting power forward Carlos Boozer and typically finishes games, but his combination of upper-echelon defense—it’s hard to say that he isn’t also deserving of All-Defensive Team honors—and scoring firepower, particularly as a back-to-the basket scorer and in his more reliable mid-range jumper, hearkens back to old-school backup big men, like Portland’s Cliff Robinson. Coincidentally, the player who fits the mold of today’s more highly-touted sixth men, a high-scoring perimeter player, is Gibson’s college teammate, the Lakers’ Nick Young, though his team’s dismal season puts a damper on his qualifications.
Most Improved Player: Gerald Green, Phoenix Suns
Why: After making it back to the NBA following a stint overseas—preceded by a flame out after being a prep-to-pros first-round pick and subsequent journeyman, albeit a slam-dunk contest winner—Green looked to have a place in the league, signing with Indiana as a free agent. But he struggled with the Pacers and was sent to Phoenix in a late-summer trade before finding his niche with the fast-paced Suns as an instant-offense scorer and spectacular dunker. Ironically, two other candidates for this award were his teammates last season: Pacers shooting guard Lance Stephenson and Bulls backup point guard D.J. Augustin. Stephenson was considered an All-Star snub in a breakout campaign, but he can’t be absolved from Indiana’s current free fall. Augustin found himself on the verge of being out of the league after a rough campaign last season and being waived by Toronto, before resurrecting his career with the Bulls.
All-NBA Team: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder; LeBron James, Miami Heat; Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls; James Harden, Houston Rockets; Tony Parker, San Antonio Spurs
Why: At least this season, Noah has established himself as the NBA’s top center, especially given Houston’s Dwight Howard missing a large chunk of time with injuries. Speaking of the Rockets, Harden is now the consensus top shooting guard in the league and a top-10 player. Parker somehow goes under the radar every season, but the Spurs’ success and long winning streak wouldn’t be possible without the floor general, who is clearly San Antonio’s best player. Durant and James don’t require any explanation.
Second Team: Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers; LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers; Al Jefferson, Charlotte Bobcats; Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors; Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
Why: Aldridge, perhaps the best power forward in the game, was considered an early-season MVP candidate before his own injuries and the Blazers’ second-half slide derailed things. Jefferson doesn’t get a lot of fanfare, but he might be the best low-post scorer in the league and has a big hand in the Bobcats making the postseason. Curry, arguably the NBA’s premier shooter, has not only remained healthy, but taken his game up a notch. As previously mentioned, Griffin made huge strides offensively this season and deserves the credit, along with his teammate Paul and Clippers head coach Doc Rivers, for making the team a legitimate championship contender.
Third Team: Carmelo Anthony; New York Knicks; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets; John Wall, Washington Wizards; Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
Why: Anthony, even in the midst the Knicks’ tumultuous season, has had one of the best individual years of his career. Davis has had a breakout season that puts him among the league’s best big men. Howard, though he’s had some injury issues, has mostly returned to his previous form after a disastrous season in Los Angeles a year ago. Wall has started to deliver on his potential, leading the Wizards to end their playoff drought, making his first All-Star team and improving his once-woeful outside jumper. Lowry, an All-Star snub, has completely changed his image and is set to cash in as a free agent in the summer after improbably taking Toronto to the postseason.
All-Defensive Team: Paul George, Indiana Pacers; Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans; Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls; Patrick Beverley, Houston Rockets; Andre Iguodala, Golden State Warriors
Why: George, even as his shooting has faltered in the second-half of the season, has emerged as one of the league’s best two-way threats on one of the league’s best defensive teams. Davis might already be the NBA’s most intimidating shot-blocking presences and also makes a major impact as a rebounder, while maintaining the agility to defend on the perimeter and play passing lanes. Beverley, another Chicagoan, is renowned for his on-ball defense and when he’s out of the lineup, his contributions to a mostly porous Rockets defense are evident. Iguodala isn’t flashy, but he’s been a big part of the Warriors’ defensive improvement this season. Nothing else needs to be said about Noah.
Second Team: LeBron James, Miami Heat; Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder; DeAndre Jordan, Los Angeles Clippers; Mike Conley Jr., Memphis Grizzlies; Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
Why: If James were so inclined, he could probably take home the Defensive Player of the Year award every season, but he tends to coast on that end of the floor, accept assignments that don’t overly exert him and turn on the switch defensively only down the stretch of games. Ibaka’s athleticism and timing make him a premier weak-side shot-blocker. Jordan, the league’s leading rebounder, has fully committed to defense and is now starting to scratch the surface of his potential on that side of the ball. Conley is underrated in general, but combines both ball pressure and awareness in passing lanes to be a defensive menace. Butler has started to become one of the NBA’s elite wing defenders and a legitimate stopper, while still ranking among the steals leaders.
All-Rookie Team: Michael Carter-Williams, Philadelphia 76ers; Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic; Trey Burke, Utah Jazz; Tim Hardaway Jr., New York Knicks; Gorgui Dieng, Minnesota Timberwolves
Why: Carter-Williams has been the best rookie in the 2013 draft class, but Oladipo has been right behind him, showcasing dynamic athleticism and two-way play, while honing his point-guard skills. Burke has also been a solid, if unspectacular floor general from the outset of the campaign. Hardaway is a different player than his father, but has made an impact for the Knicks with his high-energy play and scoring punch. Dieng, albeit in a small sample size—he only started getting regular minutes in the second half of the season, replacing injured starting center Nikola Pekovic—but has been impressive on both ends of the floor. Dieng and Hardaway were two players the Bulls passed on in last June, though different factions of the organizations pushed to select them.
Second Team: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks; Kelly Olynyk, Boston Celtics; Mason Plumlee, Brooklyn Nets; Nick Calathes, Memphis Grizzlies; Nate Wolters, Milwaukee Bucks
Why: Plumlee has made an impact for a veteran-laden Brooklyn squad, providing some athleticism and filling in nicely for future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett in the middle. Olynyk has shown flashes of potential as a skilled inside-outside threat in a down year for Boston. Calathes was actually a 2009 second-round draft pick out of Florida who played professionally overseas; he’s proven to be a decent backup point guard with solid playmaking ability and good size for the position. The “Greek Freak” has had an uneven debut season, but his potential is regarded highly around the league, while his less-heralded teammate Wolters has surprisingly proven capable of running the show for the bottom-dweller Bucks.