Lakers Clinch Top Seed in the WestIf the MVP race will truly be decided by which team wins the tough race for the top seed in the Western Conference then there will be a trophy ceremony for Kobe Bryant at the Staples Center in a few weeks. Of course, the real prize that Bryant and the rest of the L.A. Lakers are seeking is the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy and they took one step toward accomplishing that goal by beating the Sacramento Kings 124-101 to clinch the regular season Western Conference title. Bryant made only three of his 13 field goal attempts but he shot 13-14 from the free throw line, finishing with 20 points and five assists in just under 29 minutes. Pau Gasol had 22 points and seven rebounds, while Lamar Odom added 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Six Lakers scored in double figures and no Laker played more than 29 minutes. The Kings' three top scorers (Kevin Martin, Ron Artest and Brad Miller) did not play; Quincy Douby led Sacramento with a career-high 32 points.
The Lakers will face either Dallas or Denver in the first round; they posted a 3-1 record against the Mavericks this season and they went 3-0 versus the Nuggets. The Lakers completed their march to the top of the West by winning eight of their last nine games, including victories over West rivals New Orleans, San Antonio and Dallas. Bryant averaged 26.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg and 6.3 apg in those nine games while shooting .436 from the field (including an excellent .429 from three point range) and .839 from the free throw line. Chris Paul is widely considered to be Bryant's main rival for MVP honors; his Hornets went 6-3 in their last nine games, including a loss in their head to head encounter with the Lakers, a game in which Bryant clearly outperformed Paul.
Prior to the conclusion of the Lakers-Kings game, the ESPN NBA Coast to Coast crew announced their 2007-08 NBA awards winners. Kevin Durant was the consensus Rookie of the Year choice, Kevin Garnett was the unanimous Defensive Player of the Year winner, Manu Ginobili swept all of the Sixth Man of the Year votes, Doc Rivers earned a 3-2 split over Byron Scott for Coach of the Year and Hedo Turkoglu won a close race for Most Improved Player, which the Coast to Coast crew agreed is perhaps the closest race this year (Marc Stein said that he considered no less than a dozen candidates). Several of the panelists actually will be voting in the official balloting, so it is interesting that all five of them--Greg Anthony, Chris Broussard, Ric Bucher, Tim Legler and Marc Stein--selected Bryant as this year's MVP. Bucher not only has the same top four that I do (Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett) but he also ranked them in the same order. Bucher ranked Tim Duncan fifth, while I put Dwight Howard fifth. Bucher, who is an MVP voter, said that he thinks that a lot of the MVP voters have been swayed by what has transpired in the past couple weeks as Bryant's Lakers overtook Paul's Hornets. I think that kind of reasoning is silly (as I explained here) but at this point I'm on board with anything that will actually lead to the correct outcome in MVP voting for the first time in several years. Anthony placed Garnett second, Paul third, Amare Stoudemire fourth and James fifth. Broussard's ballot reads Bryant, Paul, James, Garnett and Howard, Legler opted for Bryant, Paul, Garnett, Howard and James and Stein went with Bryant, Paul, Garnett, James and Manu Ginobili. I would not have Ginobili in my top 15 (he just misses the cut on my three All-NBA Teams), but in general there seems to be a consensus about who the top four guys are this year. After listening to and reading various commentators' selections I have concluded that LeBron James is rapidly becoming an underrated player (and Howard seems to be underrated in some quarters as well). I have James, not Paul, as the MVP runner up. Does anyone seriously believe that the Hornets would not be even better if they had James instead of Paul? Paul has had a great season but if James played alongside a scorer like David West, a rebounder/shot blocker like Tyson Chandler and a deadeye shooter like Peja Stojakovic his team would easily win 60-plus games; no disrespect to James' current and former teammates, but look at the team that James took to 50 wins and and a trip to the NBA Finals last year. That group played well together defensively and worked hard but do you think that James would not trade rosters with Paul in a heartbeat? I will never understand how or why the MVP race has become a contest between various supporting casts and I also don't understand the inconsistent standards that are applied: Steve Nash won two MVPs for making good players better but earlier this season some people expressed the sentiment that Bryant should not win the MVP because he has so much help this season, as if having one one-time All-Star for a fourth of a season is the same thing as having the amazing supporting cast that Nash has enjoyed for several seasons. I will always stick to my guns with the MVP race: the MVP should go to the best all-around player in the game, period. I don't agree with downgrading James to third, fourth or fifth this year any more than I agreed with Bryant not winning the award the previous two seasons. I assume that Bryant is going to finish first now but it will be interesting to see how the final, official MVP vote goes in terms of who rounds out the top five and how close the race ends up. I also would love to visit an alternate universe in which the Hornets beat the Lakers by one game and see if I am right that in that case Paul would have won by a much greater margin than the one that Bryant will probably win by in this reality.
posted by David Friedman @ 7:57 AM