NBA Awards Season is Almost HereThe 2009-10 regular season is over, which means that during the next few weeks the NBA will announce its annual award winners. Last season, I wrote one article explaining my choices for most of the awards and devoted a separate article solely to analyzing the race for the 2009 regular season MVP but this season the MVP race is about as clear-cut as it has ever been. LeBron James may very well become the first unanimous MVP selection in NBA history. Shaquille O'Neal would have been a unanimous choice during his first and only MVP season in 1999-00 except for the lone voter who cast a ballot for Allen Iverson and it will take a similar "protest" vote/cry for attention by some journalist to prevent James from making a clean sweep of all of the first place votes.
Here are my selections for each of the official NBA awards:
1) LeBron James
2) Kobe Bryant
3) Dwight Howard
4) Dirk Nowitzki
5) Kevin Durant
James has been an MVP caliber player since his second season in the NBA, finishing sixth, second, fifth, fourth and first respectively in the official MVP balloting from 2005-2009. Early in James' career his best attribute was his athleticism--his amazing combination of size, speed, power and agility; however, he had skill set weaknesses in terms of defense and outside shooting. James has methodically worked on each of those problem areas and the results have been impressive: he has progressed from being a subpar defensive player to an All-Defensive Team caliber performer and he has not only cleaned up his shooting stroke aesthetically but he improved his shooting percentages from the field, from three point range and from the free throw line.
In the 54 games prior to the 2010 All-Star Game, James posted career-high shooting percentages from the field (.506) and three point range (.361) while his .776 free throw percentage nearly matched his career high number from 2008-09 (.780). I have not seen it discussed anywhere but James' shooting numbers declined after the All-Star Game, perhaps a sign that James is a little bit worn down: James shot .494 from the field, .264 from three point range and .747 from the free throw line in his final 22 games, so he ultimately fell short of his career-highs in three point shooting and free throw shooting but he still shot a career-high .503 from the field in 2009-10--and the data at NBA.com/Hotspots shows that James' accuracy improved from 2008-09 to 2009-10 in six of the eight midrange shooting areas that the site tracks, so James' excellent field goal percentage is no longer solely the result of his high number of dunks and layups. That is significant because in previous years the elite defensive teams could defend James by clogging the paint and daring him to shoot jumpers; now, James is effective enough from the midrange and three point areas that this strategy is less likely to be successful over the course of a playoff series.
James finished second in the NBA in scoring (29.7 ppg) for the second year in a row; he is often described as a "pass first" player but that is, at best, an imprecise way to characterize his game: James won the 2008 scoring title (30.0 ppg), ranked third in the league in scoring in 2006 with a career-high 31.4 ppg average and has ranked no lower than fourth in the NBA in scoring in each of the past six years. James owns the highest regular season career scoring average of any active player (27.8 ppg) and the third highest scoring average of all-time behind only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. James is not a "pass first" player--he shoots a lot more than he passes--but rather a tremendous scoring machine who is also a remarkably gifted passer in terms of his court vision and his ability to deliver a variety of kinds of passes on time and on target.
I consider assists to be a "semi-bogus" statistic because they are awarded so liberally now and because there is not necessarily a direct correlation between assist averages and playmaking ability but there is some significance to the fact that James averaged a career-high 8.6 apg, ranking sixth in the league and setting a single-season record for forwards (Milwaukee "point forward" Paul Pressey averaged 7.8 apg in 1985-86 and Boston's Larry Bird averaged 7.6 apg in 1986-87). James does not get as many steals or blocked shots as you might assume if your only sources of information are highlight packages but he ranked ninth in the NBA in steals (1.6 spg) and he blocked 77 shots in 76 games, both numbers slightly down from his 2009 production (1.7 spg, eighth in the NBA; 93 blocked shots in 81 games).
The real MVP race this year is for second place. It seems like ancient history now but for the first month and a half of this season Kobe Bryant was the league's best player, unveiling some low post weapons that he honed by working with Hakeem Olajuwon during the summer and carrying the Lakers to the NBA's best record even though Pau Gasol missed the season's first 11 games: the Lakers went 8-3 without Gasol, including four victories in which Bryant scored at least 40 points while shooting .500 or better from the field. That run is at least as significant as Bryant's much praised game-winning shots, because if Bryant had not kept the Lakers afloat sans Gasol then they would not have finished with the best record in the Western Conference for the third straight year (a feat that has not been accomplished since the John Stockton-Karl Malone Jazz in 1997-99--and the Jazz only tied for the best record in the West in the lockout-shortened 1999 season, while Bryant's Lakers have had the best record outright each time). Bryant's MVP chances faded only after a series of injuries--broken right index finger, back spasms, left ankle sprain, right knee issues--chipped away at his efficiency. Bryant's final 2010 numbers (27.0 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 5.0 apg, .456 field goal percentage, .329 three point percentage, .811 free throw percentage) are actually remarkably good considering all of the physical problems he has fought through and they are not much worse than the statistics he posted during his 2008 MVP season: 28.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 5.4 apg, .459 field goal shooting, .361 three point shooting, .840 free throw shooting. However, a closer examination reveals signs of wear and tear: Bryant's three point percentage is his lowest since the 2004 season and his free throw percentage is his lowest since the 1998 season, Bryant's second NBA campaign. Bryant shot just .300 from the field and .741 from the free throw line in three April games before shutting things down to rest before the playoffs. The finger injury has clearly affected his shooting touch and the other various ailments have conspired to take away Bryant's lift, making it more difficult for him to elevate over defenders and thus further affecting the release point of his shot.
Bryant deserves to finish second in the MVP voting due to his overall body of work in the 2010 season: without Bryant's efforts--particularly early in the campaign--the Lakers most likely would not have even made the playoffs. However, I suspect that Bryant will place somewhere between third and fifth in the official balloting.
Dwight Howard led the NBA in rebounding (13.2 rpg) for the third straight year, captured his second straight blocked shots title (2.8 bpg) and earned his first field goal percentage crown with a career-high .612 mark. Howard is not a dominant scorer (18.3 ppg, his lowest average since 2006-07) but there is no question that he is a dominant player: he controls the paint defensively and most opponents must double team him, thus freeing up his teammates for wide open shots. James and Bryant are superior players due to the overall completeness of their skill sets but Howard deserves to be placed ahead of everyone else in the MVP race.
It seems like Dirk Nowitzki will never be forgiven for Dallas' collapse in the 2006 NBA Finals and subsequent loss to the Golden State Warriors in the 2007 NBA playoffs but he had a tremendous under the radar season for the Mavericks in 2010 as Dallas earned the second seed in the West. Nowitzki averaged 25.0 ppg while shooting .481 from the field (the second best mark of his career) and setting career-highs in three point shooting (.421) and free throw percentage (.915, second in the NBA). Think about that: the player who many people consider the greatest shooter ever among big men posted his best shooting numbers in two categories! Nowitzki's offensive efficiency is off the charts and he clearly could have averaged even more points if the Mavs had needed him to do so. Like most 12 year veterans, Nowitzki is not quite the rebounder that he used to be but he is still very solid in that department (7.7 rpg, nearly half a rebound per game more than the younger and more athletic James) and he is an underrated passer.
Kevin Durant enjoyed a highly productive season, though it is worth noting that his field goal percentage (.476) is exactly the same as it was in 2008-09 and his three point percentage declined from .422 to .365. Still, Durant improved his free throw percentage to a career-high .900 and he showed that he is much more willing and able to accept contact: his FTA/g jumped from 7.1 to 10.2 and his rebounding increased from 6.5 rpg to 7.6 rpg while his minutes remained essentially unchanged. As I predicted at the start of his career, Durant benefited tremendously when Coach Scott Brooks shifted him from shooting guard to small forward.
I would not have a big objection if someone placed Durant ahead of Nowitzki but from my perspective Nowitzki is a bit more productive, versatile and difficult to match up against: I can picture Nowitzki putting up 50 points in a playoff game or getting 30 points and 20 rebounds against an elite team in postseason play but it is yet to be seen what Durant will do in playoff action when one team can zero in on his strengths and weaknesses; I am not saying that Durant will do poorly but until I see evidence to the contrary I give Nowitzki the benefit of the doubt in the MVP race and in terms of All-NBA status (see below).
Dwyane Wade is no doubt considered an MVP candidate in some quarters but his numbers this year are down across the board (scoring, rebounding, assists, steals, blocked shots, field goal percentage, three point percentage and free throw percentage). Even if his productivity were comparable to that of the five players listed above, he is listed at 6-4 (and is closer to 6-2) and, as I noted last year, Size--Specifically, Height--Matters in the NBA.
Rookie of the Year
1) Tyreke Evans
2) Stephen Curry
3) Brandon Jennings
Evans has been the most consistent rookie and the most productive (20.1 ppg, 5.8 apg, 5.3 rpg). He has a classic, prototype modern NBA body (6-6, 220 pounds) that will ultimately enable him to potentially play three positions.
While some people inexplicably expected Curry to struggle, when Curry was in college I wrote:
Curry can pass off of the dribble, he can drive to the hoop and finish with a dunk, he has quick hands and he can slide his feet well enough to at least be adequate defensively at the NBA level. Curry can also dribble down court at full speed, stop and shoot a step back three pointer, which--combined with his ability to handle the ball and drive to the hoop--means that he will be able to get his shot off in the NBA; in other words, his game is very similar to his father's, though I would say that Dell Curry was a bit bigger and stronger while Stephen is quicker and a bit more clever as a ballhandler.
I am not surprised by how well Curry has played and if not for a slow start he could very well have beaten out Evans for this award; Curry averaged 26.4 ppg, 8.1 apg and 6.4 rpg in his final eight games of the season--numbers that are not just RoY-worthy but also MVP caliber (he will have to do that for an entire season, of course, to truly be considered an elite player but that kind of production is still eye-popping, particularly since some people doubted if Curry would even be a starting quality player). Curry averaged 17.5 ppg, 5.9 apg and 4.5 rpg overall.
Jennings made a big splash early in the season with his 55 point outburst--which ranked as the best single game scoring output by any NBA player in 2009-10--and he started all 82 games for a Milwaukee team that surprised many people by qualifying for the playoffs but Jennings was not as productive or efficient as Evans and Curry, shooting just .371 from the field--and it should have been easier for Jennings to shoot a high percentage because he has a better supporting cast around him. Jennings averaged 15.5 ppg, 5.7 apg and 3.4 rpg.
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Dwight Howard
2) LeBron James
3) Rajon Rondo
Howard was the landslide winner in this category last season and he should be the landslide winner again this year.
Some people may make a case for Josh Smith to crack the top three but I still do not get the sense that he orchestrates his team's overall defense the way that guys like Howard, James and Rondo do (Kobe Bryant also falls into that category, though this season he was not quite as dominant defensively as he has been in years past)--those players not only make good individual plays but they spearhead their team's overall defensive scheme.
Sixth Man of the Year
1) Jamal Crawford
2) Anderson Varejao
3) J.R. Smith
Crawford did not start a single game but he ranked second on the Atlanta Hawks in scoring (18.0 ppg in just 31.1 mpg), providing a major offensive boost as the Hawks had their best season since 1996-97.
Varejao started just seven of 76 games but he led the Cleveland Cavaliers in total rebounds (578) and rebounding average (7.6; Antawn Jamison averaged 7.7 rpg as a Cav but only appeared in 25 games with the team) while playing outstanding defense and posting career high shooting percentages from both the field (.572) and the free throw line (.663). He may be the most underrated player in the NBA.
Smith came off of the bench in each of his 75 games but he led the Denver Nuggets in three pointers made (158) and ranked third on the team in scoring (15.4 ppg). He is not a very efficient player, his shot selection is atrocious and he can shoot his team out of a game but there is no doubt that he is an important weapon in Denver's offensive attack.
Manu Ginobili started 22 of his 75 games and did most of his best work as a starter, so I did not consider him in this category; Lamar Odom started 38 of 82 games, so he too does not qualify.
Most Improved Player
1) Aaron Brooks
2) George Hill
3) Corey Brewer
Brooks played well in the playoffs last year but I did not think that he could be a 20 ppg scorer (19.6 ppg to be precise) over the course of an entire season. Brooks also increased his shooting percentages as his scoring average rose, which is impressive (in contrast, his Houston teammate Trevor Ariza averaged a career-high 14.9 ppg but shot a career-low .394 from the field).
Hill jumped from eighth in total minutes on the San Antonio Spurs in 2008-09 to third this season behind only Richard Jefferson and Tim Duncan. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich constantly raves about Hill, a second year player whose game has grown by leaps and bounds.
Brewer, who some people considered to be a bust after his first two seasons, started all 82 games for Minnesota, averaging career-highs in scoring (13.4 ppg), field goal percentage (.431), assists (2.4 apg) and steals (1.4 spg).
Coach of the Year
1) Scott Brooks
2) Scott Skiles
3) Nate McMillan
The Oklahoma City Thunder did far better this season than anyone could have reasonably expected and Brooks' coaching is a major reason for that success. Brooks literally changed the Thunder from his first day on the job last season when he shifted Kevin Durant from shooting guard to small forward, thus unleashing "Durantula" on the rest of the league.
I knew that the Thunder were a team on the rise but I did not expect them to be a playoff team until next season because it usually takes a while to get young players to completely buy into playing good defense on a nightly basis. Brooks' Thunder ranked seventh in the league in defensive field goal percentage without having a dominant shot blocker or any individual defender who would be considered a "stopper." That means that Brooks has a sound defensive scheme plus the ability to teach that scheme and motivate young players to follow it. There are several worthy Coach of the Year candidates this season but Brooks is the most worthy.
Skiles is also a defensive-minded coach and he did a tremendous job leading the Milwaukee Bucks to their best record since 2000-01 and their first playoff appearance since 2005-06.
The Portland Trail Blazers suffered a devastating barrage of injuries but McMillan still guided them to their second consecutive 50 win season and a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference.
Larry Brown did an excellent job in Charlotte as the Bobcats earned the first playoff berth in franchise history. Brown has an unparalleled ability to build a program from scratch; previously he engineered turnarounds that enabled the Nets and the Clippers to make the playoffs.
Phil Jackson and Mike Brown likely have no chance to win the award this year--the honor generally goes to coaches whose teams have unexpected success--but it is no accident that Jackson's Lakers have posted the best record in the West for three straight years and that Brown's Cavs have posted the best record in the league two years in a row. Jackson is an excellent leader/motivator who uses the Triangle Offense as a template to encourage his players to share the ball and he is an underrated defensive coach/game planner. Brown is an outstanding defensive coach who gets a bad rap for his supposed deficiencies offensively: his Cavs ranked ninth in scoring, second in point differential and third in field goal percentage, so they are actually quite productive and efficient at that end of the court.
Executive of the Year
1) Danny Ferry
2) Donnie Nelson
3) Otis Smith
I chose Ferry last year after he upgraded a Cleveland roster that previously made it to the 2007 NBA Finals and I am picking him again this year; it is not easy to improve a team that posted the best record in the league but Ferry did just that by acquiring Shaquille O'Neal, Antawn Jamison, Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon.
Nelson's midseason acquisitions of Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood helped the Dallas Mavericks claim the second seed in the West and put them in position to legitimately contend for a championship.
Much like Ferry upgraded an already strong Cleveland roster, Smith improved the Eastern Conference Champion Orlando Magic by replacing Courtney Lee and Hedo Turkoglu with Vince Carter and Matt Barnes.
All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Dirk Nowitzki
All-NBA Second Team
G Steve Nash
G Deron Williams
C Andrew Bogut
F Kevin Durant
F Amare Stoudemire
All-NBA Third Team
G Chauncey Billups
G Brandon Roy
C David Lee
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony
Four of the First Teamers are very obvious; the toughest decision is Nowitzki versus Durant for the second forward spot on the First Team. I suspect that the media voters will award that honor to Durant and, as I explained above in my analysis of the MVP award, I do not have a big problem with that.
Steve Nash's image has enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence after what was perceived as a down year last season but most of his numbers from both years are very similar with the exception of a 1.3 apg increase this season--and that is at least partially a result of the Suns playing at a faster pace in 2009-10. Nash's All-NBA candidacy is helped by the fact that injuries knocked 2009 All-NBA guards Tony Parker and Chris Paul out of consideration--Paul played at an elite level but only participated in 45 games, while Parker's statistics dropped precipitously and he only played in 56 games.
Stoudemire played reasonably well prior to the All-Star Game but he was sensational down the stretch.
At 33 years of age, Billups posted the best scoring average (19.5 ppg) of his 13 year career.
Roy did not perform quite as well as he did last season and injuries kept him out of 17 games--which is about my limit to still put someone on the All-NBA Team--but overall he played an important role in helping Portland to win 50 games.
While the New York Knicks dumped an entire season in the vain hope of persuading LeBron James to sign with them, David Lee quietly put together some very impressive numbers: 20.2 ppg, 11.7 rpg, 3.6 apg, .545 field goal percentage, .812 free throw percentage. Here is a novel idea: maybe the Knicks should abandon their LeBron pipe dream and instead come up with a realistic plan to put a credible supporting cast around Lee.
There is a perception that Tim Duncan's game has dropped off but his per minute numbers this year are virtually identical to his numbers last season when he made the All-NBA Second Team (his per game averages are down slightly because he averaged 31.3 mpg instead of 33.6 mpg).
Every year, some people try to interject Anthony's name among James, Bryant and Wade but Anthony is in reality a fringe member of the NBA elite--he has never made the All-NBA First Team but has earned Third Team honors three times.
I suspect that Manu Ginobili will receive serious consideration for the Third Team at the very least--but should playing well for a fourth of the season really earn a player recognition as one of the top 15 players in the entire league? Ginobili averaged 16.5 ppg, 4.9 apg and 3.8 apg while shooting .441 from the field this season. Those simply are not elite level numbers.
I will be very interested to see how many media members fall for the chic hype about Pau Gasol and vote him on to the All-NBA Team. Gasol missed 17 games while Duncan only missed four games and even though Gasol averaged nearly six more mpg than Duncan their numbers were very similar: Gasol averaged 18.3 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 3.4 apg and 1.7 bpg while shooting .536 from the field; Duncan averaged 17.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 apg and 1.5 bpg while shooting .518 from the field. While Duncan can legitimately be listed as either a forward or a center (see below), Gasol spent virtually the entire season at forward until very recently when Andrew Bynum got hurt, so it would not be proper to put Gasol at center over players who played that position all year.
All-Defensive First Team
G Rajon Rondo
G Kobe Bryant
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Ron Artest
All-Defensive Second Team
G Dwyane Wade
G Jason Kidd
C Tim Duncan
F Anderson Varejao
F Josh Smith
This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. It is amusing to hear "stat gurus" and fan bloggers gripe about the results, as if they have a better understanding of the nuances of NBA defense than the guys for whom game planning/exploiting mismatches is a full-time job. In each of the past two years, I chose eight of the 10 All-Defensive players who were ultimately honored by the coaches, which you can correctly interpret to mean that I view the game like a coach/scout as opposed to being a biased fan or a slave to "advanced statistics," which are not effective at capturing individual defensive excellence (such numbers can provide some insight about defense at the team level but not in a way that convincingly explains how much credit/blame individual players should receive for a team's defensive strengths and weaknesses).
Artest struggled to learn the Triangle Offense but he performed at a high level defensively; in general, the Lakers' problems this year have been on offense, not defense: they dropped from sixth in field goal percentage in 2008-09 to 18th this season but their ranking in defensive field goal percentage remained high (third in 2009, fifth this season). Artest is the team's designated stopper, while Bryant is the roamer/disruptor and the player who makes the defensive calls to ensure that other players are properly positioned.
Kidd may have difficulty at times trying to defend quick point guards but with the current defensive rules few players really excel at checking the speedsters; Kidd is still a crafty ball thief (1.8 spg, fifth in the NBA) and he can effectively defend bigger guards.
I am "cheating" a bit by designating Duncan as a forward on the All-NBA Team and as a center on the All-Defensive Team. The reality is that this season the Spurs listed him as a starter at both positions at various times, so I am taking advantage of that flexibility to try to reward the most worthy players in both categories. Duncan was officially listed as a center on the 2009 All-Defensive Team and as a forward on the 2009 All-NBA Team.
Varejao may not receive consideration because he is a bench player but I think that even in his relatively limited minutes he has a significant impact. I left off Shane Battier because he only played in 67 games.
All-Rookie First Team (selected without regard to position)
All-Rookie Second Team
posted by David Friedman @ 5:03 AM