INDIANAPOLISIn the midst of the final week of the NBAs regular season, its time to decide which players are deserving of league honors. While this writer only has a small say in two awards officially, theres no reason not to opine further.
Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Miami Heat - Its easy to say that, due to his much-discussed failings in the clutch, let alone having All-Star teammates in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, James isnt deserving of winning his third MVP award, especially since hes never won a title. But his all-around brilliance this campaign has been too much to ignore, as he impacts every game on both ends of the floor and has dominant stretches that simply overwhelm opponents. While the likes of Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, currently locked in a duel for the scoring title, have also been outstanding, they also have terrific teammatesAndrew Bynum has mounted a challenge to Dwight Howard for the title of leagues best center and Russell Westbrook, on certain nights, is the Thunders best playerand neither makes the defensive impact James does.
Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls - Watching the Bulls on a nightly basis, its hard not to be biased toward Thibs, but his body of work this season perhaps surpasses even his debut campaign as an NBA head coach, in which he received league top-coaching honors. If the combination of his coaching and Derrick Roses MVP season was an easy explanation for why the Bulls were so good last season, coaching, with a boost from the Bulls deep bench, has to be the reason for the teams success this season, as the starting backcourt of Rose and prized acquisition Rip Hamilton have missed the majority of the campaign, which has again yielded the leagues best record to this point. Other coaches, such as Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Alvin Gentry of the Suns and Indianas Frank Vogel, also deserve consideration, but none have faced the same challenges. Like the Bulls, the Spurs have basically replicated what they did a year agominus the injuriesPhoenix has truly overachieved with limited talent, though having future Hall of Famer Steve Nash helps, and the Pacers certainly made a big leap, but it wasnt completely unexpected, as they added an influx of talent to a solid young core. Thibodeau may lose out for a variety of reasonsPopovich getting honored to reflect his excellent career, the Bulls mini-slide in April, when some observers start paying attention, and voters simply not wanting to give him unprecedented back-to-back awards so early in his head-coaching tenurebut hes clearly earned it.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers - This award is perhaps the biggest no-brainer, especially after Minnesotas Ricky Rubio was injured for the season. Irving showed he was worthy of being the top pick and while the Cavs are far from being competitive, the savvy young scoring point guard is a tremendous building block for the franchise to get over its LeBron hangover. That said, before Rubio got hurt, the Timberwolves were contending for a playoff spot, so maybe his absence illustrates how valuable he was.
Defensive Player of the Year: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks - This was a tough one, as the Thunders Serge Ibaka emerged as a dominant shot-blocker, James defensive prowess is remarkable to witness, pardon the pun, and Philadelphias Andre Iguodala has established himself as the leagues top one-on-one perimeter defender. However, Chandler, the former Bull, showed that his presence was truly impactful by transforming previously porous New York into a solid defensive squad, something which became even more evident when Knicks interim head coach Mike Woodson took over. If anything, it was further testament to his stint in Dallas, where he was, along with reigning Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, the key to the Mavericks title run.
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder - Another close call, but Harden beats out the 76ers Lou Williams. While Williams is his teams leading scorer and Harden is clearly the third option for the Thunder behind Durant and Westbrook, the shooting guard is a player who could start for most squads in the league and likely average over 20 points per game easily if he was made more of an offensive focal point. Unlike Williams, whos basically counted on to solely produce points, Harden is a key playmaker for Oklahoma City, where Westbrooks shoot-first sensibilities have been harped upon ad nauseum, and is perhaps the teams best passer.
Most Improved Player: Greg Monroe, Detroit Pistons - There are also several worthy candidates in this category, but Monroes ascension from solid, if unspectacular rookie, to the Pistons best player has opened eyes, if not changed fortunes in Detroit yet. The obvious pick to many will be Jeremy Lin of the Knicks, but Linsanity was so brief, due to his season-ending knee injury, that its hard to give it to him. Same goes for Houstons Goran Dragic, who was a backup playing behind a borderline All-Star in Kyle Lowry, and only got his chance to shine when Lowry was sidelined. Another similar situation is in Boston, as second-year guard Avery Bradley has made great strides and proved to be a tenacious on-ball defender, but only truly got his opportunity after Ray Allen went down. While the likes of Orlandos Ryan Anderson and Indianas Paul George also have gotten dramatically better, their improvement was foreshadowed at the tail end of last season. Two players, however, who were hard to snub were Minnesota center Nikola Pekovic and the Bucks Ersan Ilyasova, who would be the runner-up, in this writers eyes.
Executive of the Year: Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers - Amid rumors that this would be his final season as the Pacers top executive, the Hall of Fame player completely his home state teams turnaround from the ugly Malice in the Palace incident that led to the decimation of a title contender. Indiana went from a promising eighth seed a year ago to third in the East and a team no upper-echelon squad wants to see in the postseason. The Pacers depth, youth and experiencethe additions of blue-collar veteran David West via free agency and hometown product George Hill in a draft-day trade were underrated moveshave them poised to be a force for years to come. While he doesnt truly challenge Bird for the award, Denvers Masai Ujiri, in the aftermath of last seasons blockbuster trade with the Knicks, deserves some credit for assembling a deep and talented Nuggets team with plenty of flexibility for the future.
All-NBA first team: Kobe Bryant, Lakers; Andrew Bynum, Lakers; Kevin Durant, Thunder; LeBron James, Heat; Rajon Rondo, Celtics
All-NBA second team: Carmelo Anthony, Knicks; Dwight Howard, Magic; Kevin Love, Timberwolves; Chris Paul, Clippers; Russell Westbrook, Thunder
All-NBA third team: Marc Gasol, Grizzlies; Blake Griffin, Clippers; Tony Parker, Spurs; Josh Smith, Hawks; Dwyane Wade, Heat
All-defensive first team: Tyson Chandler, Knicks; Luol Deng, Bulls; Serge Ibaka, Thunder; Andre Iguodala, 76ers; LeBron James, Heat
All-defensive second team: Tony Allen, Grizzlies; Avery Bradley, Celtics; Dwight Howard, Magic; Josh Smith, Hawks; Omer Asik and Taj Gibson, Bulls (tie; cant separate one from the other, though both are deserving)
All-rookie first team: Kenneth Faried, Nuggets; Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers; Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves; Iman Shumpert, Knicks; Isaiah Thomas, Kings
All-rookie second team: MarShon Brooks, Nets; Brandon Knight, Pistons; Markieff Morris, Suns; Chandler Parsons, Rockets; Klay Thompson, Warriors