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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season

Awards season is rapidly approaching in the NBA. Listed below are the choices of several well known NBA commentators, followed by my selections--except for MVP; I have listed the commentators' MVP selections but I will reveal my MVP choice in a separate post devoted exclusively to objectively analyzing the MVP race, focusing on the three main candidates: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade (listed here alphabetically, so don't read anything into the order of the names). It is interesting that there is general agreement about who should win several of these awards, which is a bit unusual. Note that not every commentator made a choice in each category.

MVP: Mark Jackson (ESPN/ABC), Jeff Van Gundy (ESPN/ABC), Hubie Brown (ESPN/ABC), J.A. Adande (ESPN/ABC), Avery Johnson (ESPN/ABC), Jamal Mashburn (ESPN/ABC), Ernie Johnson (TNT), Charles Barkley (TNT), Doug Collins (TNT), Kenny Smith (TNT), Chris Webber (TNT) and Chris Mannix (Sports Illustrated) all chose LeBron James. Jon Barry (ESPN/ABC) chose Dwyane Wade. Mike Wilbon (ESPN/ABC) has fluctuated between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James but at last check was leaning toward James.

Ernie Johnson actually is an MVP voter this season; the MVP ballot contains five spots, so he voted for James followed by Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard and Chris Paul. Mannix listed Bryant as his second place finisher. Hubie Brown listed Howard and Wade as his second and third place finishers, explaining that they don't "get enough love." Brown ranked Bryant fourth and Chris Paul fifth.

Van Gundy strongly supported Bryant for second place behind James, saying, "Kobe Bryant is closer than the (voting) outcome will show. I also think that the players should have a vote--as should the coaches--in who wins the MVP." Van Gundy argued that no one knows the league better than the players and the coaches, adding that media members are primarily familiar with whichever team they cover and may also be biased based on their interactions with certain players; his broadcast partner Mike Breen countered by saying that he--and other media members--take the voting very seriously and do their best to be objective and that it is just as likely that players and coaches could harbor biases regarding certain players as it is that media members could be influenced by such concerns. Neither Van Gundy nor Breen mentioned that the players did in fact vote for the MVP from its inception in 1956 until 1980. Part of the reason that the players lost that privilege was the perception that petty biases affected the voting. That said, perhaps some adjustment should be made now so that players' votes count one third, coaches' votes count one third and votes from a media panel count one third.

Rookie of the Year: Mark Jackson, Jeff Van Gundy, Hubie Brown, J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, David Aldridge (TNT/NBA TV) and Chris Mannix chose Derrick Rose. Chris Webber chose Rose and O.J. Mayo as co-winners.

Ernie Johnson placed Mayo second and Russell Westbrook third on his ballot. As I have already stated, I would choose Rose as the Rookie of the Year. Mayo and Westbrook are valid runner up choices but the reality is that frontcourt players Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Marc Gasol have arguably been at least as productive as Mayo and Westbrook, even though the guards score more and have flashier styles.

Defensive Player of the Year: J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, Chris Webber, David Aldridge and Chris Mannix chose Dwight Howard. Charles Barkley chose LeBron James, while Mark Jackson split his vote between Howard and James.

Ernie Johnson's ballot reads Howard, James, Bryant. I would vote for Howard, who seems likely to be a landslide winner. Howard is the league's best rebounder and shotblocker. He is the NBA's most dominating presence in the paint. James has stepped up his defensive game and deserves to make the All-Defensive First Team but it is difficult for even the best perimeter defenders to have the same kind of impact that a great big man can have, a point that Smith emphasized. Several commentators correctly noted that although Wade is a spectacular and athletic defender he could still improve his one on one defense; Wade does not accept that challenge in the same way that Bryant and James do.

It is also worth mentioning that even though a lot of people act like James invented the so-called "chase down" blocked shot the truth is that Julius Erving patented that play decades ago and there are many examples of him doing that in regular season, playoff and even All-Star play; in fact, a 37 year old Erving in his final season chased down Ricky Pierce in a playoff game in 1987, causing CBS analyst Billy Cunningham (who played against a young Erving in the ABA and later coached Erving as a 76er), to exclaim that if he could do that he would not retire. Erving blocked at least 100 shots 12 times in his final 15 seasons and almost certainly did so as a rookie in 1971-72 but the ABA did not officially track blocked shots that year. As a 37 year old shooting guard in 1986-87, Erving blocked 94 shots in 60 games. Other than perhaps Terry Tyler--who did not have Erving's longevity--Erving was the greatest midsize (6-7 and under) shotblocker in pro basketball history; I mention this only to put the shotblocking feats of James and Wade into some historical perspective: as a 6-8 (or possibly 6-9) 24 year old with incredible hops, James blocked 93 shots in 81 games this season, while the 27 year old Wade (listed at 6-4 but closer to 6-2) blocked 106 shots in 79 games. Considering all of the attention that James and Wade have received for shotblocking totals that would have been among the worst of Erving's career, it is easy to understand why Orlando Magic Senior Vice President Pat Williams told me, "If he (Erving) were coming along today in his prime, the LeBrons and the Kobes and the Jordans would be second page stuff. Julius would be Tiger Woods-ish; he would be at a level of focus and clamor and gawking like nobody else. As good as these guys are, they just don't have his flair. They don't have his flair."

Sixth Man of the Year: Hubie Brown, J.A. Adande, Avery Johnson, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley, Doug Collins, Kenny Smith, David Aldridge and Chris Mannix chose Jason Terry. Jamal Mashburn chose J.R. Smith. Chris Webber chose Nate Robinson.

Ernie Johnson's ballot includes Jason Terry, J.R. Smith and Travis Outlaw. Terry should be the landslide choice in this category; he is averaging more ppg off of the bench than any player since Ricky Pierce in 1989-90.

Most Improved Player: Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley and Chris Mannix chose Devin Harris. Doug Collins and Chris Webber chose David Lee. Kenny Smith chose Paul Millsap. Mark Jackson chose Rajon Rondo. Jeff Van Gundy chose LeBron James. J.A. Adande chose Danny Granger.

Ernie Johnson voted for Harris followed by Lee and Granger.

David Aldridge (TNT/NBA TV) said that this is the league's most ridiculous award and he apparently feels so strongly about this that he neglected to even make a selection; his reasoning is that the criteria are entirely subjective, noting that some people tout Kevin Durant as a candidate but Durant was a lottery pick and thus is simply doing what he should be expected to do. I see Aldridge's point to some extent but, on the other hand, if a top draft pick improves dramatically from one year to the next why shouldn't he be eligible for this award? Durant would actually be a very valid choice this year--he has thrived since the Thunder belatedly heeded what I wrote prior to his rookie season and shifted him back to his natural small forward position--but I would choose Devin Harris. How many people expected Harris to emerge as an All-Star in New Jersey? The voting will clearly be split up among many candidates but I suspect that either Harris or Granger will win; Granger is certainly a worthy choice. Van Gundy's selection of James should not be dismissed out of hand considering how much James improved several of his few remaining weaknesses (defense, free throw shooting, three point shooting, leaving only midrange shooting as a summer 2009 project).

Coach of the Year: Mark Jackson, Avery Johnson, Jamal Mashburn, Charles Barkley and Kenny Smith chose Mike Brown. Jeff Van Gundy chose Brown, Doc Rivers and his brother Stan Van Gundy. Hubie Brown and Ernie Johnson chose George Karl. Doug Collins and Chris Webber chose Nate McMillan. Chris Mannix chose Stan Van Gundy followed by Mike Brown. J.A. Adande chose Rick Adelman.

Ernie Johnson's ballot reads George Karl, Rick Adelman, Mike Brown; he said that as many as nine coaches deserve consideration and TNT game analyst Mike Fratello made a similar point. I agree that this year there are many deserving candidates but I would choose Mike Brown. Many people use this award to honor a coach whose team supposedly overachieved but that is a very subjective assessment; media members who underestimate a team at the start of a season often vote for a coach who simply led his team to the number of wins that the team realistically should have been expected to have in the first place. Brown's Cavaliers are the best defensive team in the NBA and own the best record in the league; it is hard to picture any coach getting anything more out of that team than he did. Ever since he arrived in Cleveland, Brown has ignored the know nothing critics who mocked his supposedly unimaginative offense, because Brown understands that championship teams are built at the defensive end of the court. Brown's focus on defense already resulted in an NBA Finals appearance in 2007 and will likely lead to another NBA Finals appearance this season.

Rick Adelman would be my runner up. He deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Rockets in the hunt despite Tracy McGrady being in and out of the lineup prior to having to sit out the balance of the season; Adelman also did a nice job of deploying newly acquired Ron Artest and developing point guard Aaron Brooks.

Executive of the Year: Mannix chose Denver's Mark Warkentien, with Orlando's Otis Smith placing second. Mark Jackson chose Denver's duo of Rex Chapman/Mark Warkentien. Jeff Van Gundy chose Cleveland's Danny Ferry.

Several NBA executives have done good jobs recently, but Danny Ferry definitely deserves to win the Executive of the Year award.

The Cleveland Cavaliers started LeBron James, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson and Zydrunas Ilgauskas in game four of the 2007 NBA Finals; Gibson was subbing for the injured Larry Hughes, who started 68 of the 70 regular season games that he played in for Cleveland that season. This season, Cleveland's most frequently used starting lineup consisted of James, Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, Mo Williams and Delonte West; that quintet went 25-5. Gibson and Pavlovic are part of a deep bench that includes Anderson Varejao (who started some games when Wallace was hurt), Wally Szczerbiak, Joe Smith and J.J. Hickson.

Ilgauskas, Wallace and Szczerbiak are former All-Stars, while Williams made the All-Star team for the first time this season. Wallace is a former four-time Defensive Player of the Year who still has a significant impact at that end of the court.

People who don't understand NBA basketball will try to convince you that the Cavs consist of nothing more than LeBron James--just like no nothings from a previous era referred to Michael Jordan's "supporting cast" (which included Scottie Pippen, a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players list)--but the reality is that the Cavs own the NBA's deepest, most flexible roster; no other team has that many players who can play at least 15 solid, dependable minutes at any given time. Cleveland's bench is so good that they almost beat the 76ers by themselves in the last game of the season, a game that the 76ers definitely wanted to win because of potential playoff seeding implications.

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Just like last season, none of the commentators listed above revealed their choices for the All-NBA, All-Rookie and All-Defensive Teams; I assume that this is because these selections would not fit conveniently into a sound bite, but those three honors are very significant and deserve thoughtful consideration. Here are my choices:

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Dirk Nowitzki

All-NBA Second Team
G Chris Paul
G Brandon Roy
C Yao Ming
F Tim Duncan
F Pau Gasol

All-NBA Third Team
G Tony Parker
G Chauncey Billups
C Shaquille O'Neal
F Paul Pierce
F David West

The All-NBA Team does not distinguish between point guards and shooting guards (or small forwards and power forwards), so despite being the best point guard in the NBA Chris Paul lands on the Second Team because he is not better than Kobe Bryant or Dwyane Wade. The toughest First Team choice was the second forward slot but Nowitzki has been more consistent than Duncan this season, plus Nowitzki does not have an All-NBA level teammate like Duncan does yet his Mavericks won almost as many games as the Spurs did.

Pau Gasol started at center when Andrew Bynum was injured but Gasol played more games at forward than he did at center; voters who want to put another forward on the team and punish the Suns for missing the playoffs by leaving O'Neal out of the mix may shift Gasol to center in order to put Chris Bosh, Danny Granger or Kevin Durant on the team but from my perspective Bosh's Raptors underachieved, Granger missed too many games and I still would not classify Durant as an All-NBA level player.

Deron Williams ended up with some good statistics but he missed 14 games due to injury and he was not a consistently effective player until January, so that is just not a large enough body of work for a full season to merit inclusion on the All-NBA Team, particularly considering the performances turned in by several of the other top notch guards.

All-Defensive First Team

G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Ron Artest

All-Defensive Second Team

G Chris Paul
G Jason Kidd
C Chris Andersen
F Shane Battier
F Tim Duncan

This is the only award chosen by the coaches. Last year, I chose four of the five First Team players that the coaches ultimately selected (and my fifth First Team member--Raja Bell--made their Second Team, while their fifth First Team member--Bruce Bowen--made my Second Team) and overall I chose eight of the 10 players that the coaches honored (they had Dwight Howard and Tayshaun Prince on the Second Team, while I had Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd).

Commentators and casual fans sometimes deride Kobe Bryant's defense but the coaches annually vote Bryant on to the team and I don't expect that to change this season, though it is possible that he could end up on the Second Team by their reckoning.

Chris Andersen may seem like a reach--and I will be interested to see how many votes he gets from the coaches--but I have been very impressed with how he stepped right in and took over Marcus Camby's role; Andersen ranked second in the NBA in blocked shots while playing less than 21 mpg! Andersen's playing time may be held against him and he is technically a forward/center as opposed to a pure center but I believe that he has enough impact to merit being included on the team.

Jason Kidd does not defend small point guards as well as he did in the past, but the new defensive rules make it difficult for anyone to guard such players. Kidd finished third in the NBA in steals this season and he gives the Mavericks great flexibility because he can check shooting guards, enabling Jason Terry to be a shooting guard on offense but a point guard on defense when he and Kidd are on the court together.

The one player who I most regret leaving off is Rajon Rondo. I look at it this way: Bryant and Kidd have the size and savvy to guard multiple positions, Wade also can guard multiple positions and he has been an absolute terror even if one on one defense is not his strength and Paul disrupts ballhandlers more than any other point guard in the league. Rondo is also very disruptive but he is neither more disruptive than Paul nor does he have the ability to guard multiple positions like Bryant, Wade and Kidd do.

Bruce Bowen made the All-Defensive Team for the past eight years but he lost his starting job and saw his playing time slashed this season; the 37 year old is rapidly approaching the end of the line and it will be interesting to see how big of a role he has in the playoffs.

All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)

Derrick Rose
O.J. Mayo
Russell Westbrook
Brook Lopez
Kevin Love

All-Rookie Second Team

Marc Gasol
Eric Gordon
Michael Beasley
Mario Chalmers
Jason Thompson

Rudy Fernandez, Anthony Morrow and Greg Oden earn honorable mentions. Fernandez broke Kerry Kittles' NBA rookie record for three pointers in a season by draining 159 treys, Morrow led the league in three point field goal percentage and Oden provided a solid interior presence in 21.5 mpg for a 54 win Portland team.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:16 PM

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