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Friday, April 27, 2012

Selecting the 2012 Award Winners

Over the course of the next several weeks, the NBA will announce the winners of various individual honors. Media members vote for every award except for the All-Defensive Team (chosen by the NBA head coaches) and the Executive of the Year (selected by NBA executives in polling conducted by the Sporting News). In last year's awards article I explained my philosophy about selecting NBA award winners:

The NBA does not provide much formal guidance concerning the qualifications/standards for these awards, which results in annual debates among people who favor "advanced statistics," people who like good stories and (the few) people who actually at least attempt to inject some logical, objective analysis into the process.

The various "advanced statistics" describe which players performed in a manner most closely conforming to the biases of a particular "stat guru" (some "stat gurus" use formulas that favor rebounding, while others favor scoring or some kind of nebulously defined "efficiency"); people who like good stories frame seasons, teams and players in narrative terms (conveniently disregarding any statistics and/or facts that do not fit the chosen narrative). Both approaches are highly subjective, but don't tell that to an advocate of either method unless you want to be derided for being closed-minded--never mind the fact that legitimate scientific inquiry is based on constantly and relentlessly questioning one's theories, methods and conclusions--or ridiculed for failing to conform to the larger narrative being crafted by various national media members.

I prefer to select award winners based on a logical analysis of all relevant factors, including statistics, observation of games (a heretical act according to at least some "stat gurus") and historical context; using logical analysis does not mean that I am always right or that I have successfully removed any traces of unconscious bias but it does mean that I value being right over being popular and that I have done my best to render unbiased judgments.

Here is my take on the 2011-2012 NBA regular season awards:

MVP

1) LeBron James
2) Kevin Durant
3) Kobe Bryant
4) Dwight Howard
5) Kevin Love

The "stat gurus" will tell you that not only is LeBron James the landslide MVP choice this season but that his 2011-12 campaign ranks among the best ever by a perimeter player. James shot a career-high .531 from the field, mainly because he improved his shot selection by reducing his perimeter attempts and posting up more frequently. James is still not a great free throw shooter but other than that there is not much about his skill set that can legitimately be criticized at this stage--except for the unquantifiable yet obvious major issue: he repeatedly shrinks from the challenge in the biggest moments, something that we saw when he quit against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and when he quit against Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals. James' obvious reluctance to challenge Kobe Bryant one on one at the end of the 2012 All-Star Game will not define James' career but it is yet one more example of James' apparent fear of failure when the lights are brightest. There is a vast difference between being unselfish and shrinking from the moment. Magic Johnson was an unselfish player but he was also a great clutch player, someone who dominated game six of the 1980 NBA Finals as a rookie and someone who waved off the league's all-time leading scorer to take (and make) the game-winning shot in game four of the 1987 NBA Finals. James has had some great playoff moments but most of them happened several years ago when he and his Cleveland Cavaliers were underdogs; since James emerged as the league's best player and since he has either played on the best team (Cleveland owned the best regular season record in both 2009 and 2010) or the most talented team (Miami is the only team in the league that has three perennial All-Stars who are each in the prime of their careers) he has hardly distinguished himself in pressure situations. James deserves the MVP award because of his productivity and consistency but he is the shakiest MVP in the clutch since Karl Malone won a pair of MVPs more than a decade ago (the big difference is that Malone did not really deserve those MVPs, while James is a clearly a legit MVP despite his inexplicable failures in big playoff moments).

The one argument that could be made against giving the MVP to James is that if he really is so valuable then his team should have posted the best record in the NBA instead of finishing with the fourth best record, trailing the league-leading Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs by four games; the "stat gurus" keep declaring that a team with James plus four average players would still make the playoffs and that James could have led some of the recent Lakers' teams to 70-plus wins but those are just meaningless, unverified (and unverifiable) assertions: in the real world, James has failed to lead the Heat to the best record in the league for two seasons in a row despite teaming up with two All-Stars in their primes and a decent supporting cast. The problem with using this argument against James is that it does not supply us with a clear MVP; if Kevin Durant had led the Oklahoma City Thunder to the best record in the West then perhaps one could elevate him ahead of James in the MVP race but Durant's Thunder faded down the stretch and no other player in the league matches up with James statistically. LeBron James is the best regular season player in the NBA but it remains to be seen if his regular season proficiency will fully carry over into postseason play.

Kevin Durant did not quite outperform James this season but he has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate. Durant not only won his third straight scoring title while posting excellent shooting percentages from all three ranges (.496 FG%, .387 3FG%, .860 FT%) but he led the Oklahoma City Thunder in rebounding (the slender Durant actually averaged slightly more rebounds than the more muscular James did this season), ranked third on the team in assists and was the best player on the Western Conference's second seeded team. The next step for Durant is to become a great defensive player; he has improved from subpar to decent in that category but he is not yet an All-Defensive Team caliber performer.

I have ranked Kobe Bryant as the second best regular season player in the NBA the past three seasons (Bryant reigned as the NBA's best player from 2006-08, though he only won a single MVP during that time) but this season I have dropped him to third because Durant's youth and health enable him to be more consistent than Bryant over the course of an entire season; Bryant is still a better defender and passer than Durant but age/injuries cause Bryant to have more subpar performances than Durant does. Bryant did not perform as well down the stretch as he did in the early portion of the season but Bryant kept the Lakers afloat as they dealt with roster changes and with transitioning from the Phil Jackson era to the Mike Brown regime. Bryant earned two Player of the Week honors plus the season's first Player of the Month Award and he scored 40 points in four straight January games, leading the Lakers to wins in three of those contests. If you think that I have rated Bryant too highly this season, just wait until Bryant really declines or until he retires and then check out how good--or bad--the Lakers are with Andrew Bynum facing constant double teams as the primary scoring option (it may also be educational to consult the Sixth Man Award discussion below, where we see that my previous evaluations of how Lamar Odom would perform away from Bryant and the Lakers turned out to be much closer to the truth than anyone would have dared to admit prior to this season). The Lakers tied Memphis for the third best record in the West but they only tallied five more wins than the eighth seeded Utah Jazz, so without Bryant's early season heroics the Lakers could easily have missed the playoffs; if Bryant had been able to keep up his early season pace then he would have won the scoring title and perhaps challenged James and Durant for the MVP but Bryant still had a remarkable season for a 33 year old who tore the ligament in his right (shooting) wrist during the preseason and who overcame a concussion, a broken nose and a serious shin injury that finally knocked him out of the lineup after he played through the previous injuries.

Dwight Howard is still the most dominant big man in the NBA. Whether or not his conduct this season has caused his reputation to take a hit should have nothing to do with MVP voting. Howard led the league in field goal percentage (.573) for the second time in three seasons, he claimed his fourth rebounding title with a career-high 14.5 rpg average (Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone and Dennis Rodman are the only players who have won more than four rebounding titles) and he ranked third in blocked shots (2.1 bpg) and fifth in minutes (38.3 mpg). Howard is criticized for his limited offensive repertoire but he has added some low post moves to his game and he ranked 11th in scoring (20.6 ppg, more than a full point per game better than any other center in the league). He has averaged at least 20 ppg in four of the past five seasons.

Kevin Love put up some remarkable numbers this season and he played a major role in lifting the Minnesota Timberwolves from the worst record in the league in 2010-11 (17-65, a .207 winning percentage) to 26-40 (a .394 winning percentage) in 2011-12. Love ranked fourth in the league in scoring (26.0 ppg) and second in rebounding (13.3 rpg). Fans, media members and even other players may not realize just how rare it is to post those combined scoring/rebounding numbers in the same season; Love is just the 16th player in NBA/ABA history to do this and since the 1969-70 season this feat has only been accomplished 20 times by a total of 11 NBA/ABA players--and those marks had only been reached three times since 1976 before Love did it this season: Shaquille O'Neal rang up those numbers in 1999-2000, O'Neal's first (and only) MVP campaign, while Moses Malone pulled it off in both 1980-81 and 1981-82 (Malone won the 1982 MVP and placed fourth in the 1981 MVP voting). The other 26.0 ppg/13.3 rpg players since 1969-70 are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (seven times), Elvin Hayes (twice), Bob McAdoo (twice), Wilt Chamberlain (he leads the all-time list with eight such seasons but he had just one during the time period in question), Billy Cunningham, Spencer Haywood, Julius Erving and George McGinnis. Hayes is the only player in that group who did not win at least one NBA or ABA regular season MVP (Hayes finished in the top five three times, including two third places). Love absolutely must be included in the MVP discussion.

Skeptics mocked Kevin McHale for bypassing O.J. Mayo to choose Love in the 2008 NBA draft but after Love made his Summer League debut I offered this scouting report: "In his first NBA action, Love displayed better than advertised mobility, willingness to attack the glass at both ends of the court and a good understanding of how to play offensively in terms of setting screens, making passes and operating in the paint. He made some 'rookie mistakes,' particularly defensively, but most of the things that he did wrong are correctable errors as opposed to fundamental problems with his game/skill set." By the end of the 2009 season I noted that Love had already established himself as a solid player while Mayo seemed to be a player who "gets buckets" but contributes little else. It now seems laughable that anyone seriously suggested that Mayo would be a better NBA player than Love.

Chris Paul is being credited with "changing the culture" for the L.A. Clippers but the team has barely been over .500 since Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Paul has reestablished himself as one of the league's top point guards--and he may finish as high as third in the official MVP voting--but he does not belong on the All-NBA First Team or on the five player MVP ballot.

Tony Parker has obviously had an All-NBA caliber season but this is not even the best season of his career (he has had higher scoring averages, rebounding averages and field goal percentages several times), so anyone who touts him as a legitimate MVP contender ahead of the five players listed above is discounting the overall talent and depth of the San Antonio Spurs much like last year's MVP voters did with the Chicago Bulls when they selected Derrick Rose ahead of LeBron James.

Rookie of the Year

1) Kyrie Irving
2) Klay Thompson
3) Kenneth Faried

Kyrie Irving has displayed impressive maturity, consistency and efficiency. His rookie season numbers (18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg, 3.7 rpg, .469 FG%, .399 3FG%, .872 FT%) are comparable with--and, in some cases, better than--the rookie numbers posted by several of the elite point guards who have entered the league in recent years, including Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

This is the first season since 2007-08 that only one rookie averaged more than 14 ppg. Irving is an outstanding rookie but no other rookie particularly distinguished himself; several rookies played well but no rookie other than Irving looks like a star in the making (that does not mean that none of them will become stars).

Klay Thompson emerged in the second half of the season as a solid starter who not only can shoot but can also contribute as a rebounder and a passer. He is not yet a great defender but he does compete at that end of the court.

Kenneth Faried earned the nickname "Manimal" because of his ferocious rebounding and defense. He is an undersized effort player in the mold of Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace. It will be interesting to see how much he can develop his shooting, passing and ballhandling skills.

Ricky Rubio missed 25 out of 66 games and only shot .357 from the field; he is on my All-Rookie First Team (see below) but I cannot rank him among the top three rookies, though the media may elevate him as high as second in the Rookie of the Year balloting.

Defensive Player of the Year

1) Dwight Howard
2) LeBron James
3) Serge Ibaka

The prevailing sentiment appears to lean toward giving this award to Tyson Chandler but that is because media members are considering too many irrelevant factors; it does not matter how many times Dwight Howard has already won this honor, nor does it matter that Howard created a season-long drama with his trade requests/withdrawal of trade requests and his tumultuous relationship with Orlando Coach Stan Van Gundy. Howard is by far the most dominant defensive force in the NBA. He ranked third in blocked shots (instead of first) only because so many players are afraid to even challenge him in the paint. Just as significantly, he led the league in defensive rebounds per game (10.8) by a wide margin (he would have easily ranked in the top ten in rpg even without grabbing a single offensive rebound!). Howard even led the Magic in steals (1.5 spg, just short of the averages posted by noted perimeter defenders LeBron James and Tony Allen).

LeBron James is the only player in the NBA who can defend all five positions. He excels as both a one on one defender and as a help defender. He has made huge strides since his early days as a subpar defensive player.

Serge Ibaka led the league in blocked shots by a wide margin and he is a major reason that the Oklahoma City Thunder ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage.

What about Tyson Chandler? Chandler's individual defensive numbers are about the same this season as they were last season, when he finished third in Defensive Player of the Year voting and Dwight Howard--whose defensive numbers this season are comparable to his 2010-11 defensive numbers--won the title in a landslide vote. Chandler's New York Knicks are giving up fewer points this season than they did last season (when he played for Dallas) but they have also vastly slowed down their pace. The Knicks were the sixth seeded team in the East in 2011 and they are the seventh seeded team in the East this season. Chandler does not deserve all of the credit (or blame, depending on how you look at it) for the Knicks' performance this season but there is little objective evidence that he has transformed this team into some kind of powerhouse. Howard is better than Chandler both as a one on one post defender and as a help defender. Dallas certainly fared worse without Chandler--but the Mavericks actually did not decline much, if at all, on the defensive end of the court and their struggles had as much to do with complacency (and the accumulated effect of losing several rotation players) as anything else.

Chandler is probably going to win this award because the media likes to create compelling (if fictional) narratives but, in a just world, he would not even finish in the top three in the voting.

Sixth Man of the Year

1) James Harden
2) Lou Williams
3) Jason Terry

Several talented players have embraced the sixth man role. Denver's Al Harrington and Andre Miller and Philadelphia's Thaddeus Young are excellent reserves who deserve to be mentioned even though neither of them cracked my top three. James Harden has elevated himself to borderline All-Star status, giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a legit "Big Three." Lou Williams led the Philadelphia 76ers in scoring despite not starting a single game.

Jason Terry is an annual contender for this honor, winning in 2009, placing second each of the past two seasons and finishing third in 2008. His scoring, field goal percentage and assists declined slightly in 2012 but he is still one of the NBA's best bench players, a fearless fourth quarter scorer who could start for many teams--unlike Lamar Odom, the 2011 Sixth Man Award winner who is obviously not even in the conversation for this honor in 2012. Odom received a lot of praise during his time with the Lakers but I consistently declared that he was a good but overrated player and I cannot resist quoting what I wrote about Odom in last year's awards article:

"Odom may be the most overrated--or at least 'over talked about' (to coin a phrase)--player in the NBA: he has never made the All-NBA or All-Star team (for good reason) yet he is often referred to as one of the league's top 25 players and/or someone who supposedly could start for most teams in the NBA (even Jeff Van Gundy, who is usually right on target with his player evaluations, uttered the latter phrase during a recent telecast). Instead of tossing off a throwaway line without thinking about it, let's look at the starting power forwards for this season's playoff teams:

Western Conference

San Antonio: Two-time NBA MVP, three-time Finals MVP, 13-time All-NBA selection, 13-time All-Star Tim Duncan
L.A. Lakers: Two-time All-NBA selection, four-time All-Star Pau Gasol
Dallas: One-time NBA MVP, 10-time All-NBA selection, 10-time All-Star Dirk Nowitzki
Oklahoma City: Serge Ibaka
Denver: One-time All-Star Kenyon Martin
Portland: LaMarcus Aldridge
Memphis: One-time All-Star Zach Randolph
New Orleans: Two-time All-Star David West

Eastern Conference

Chicago: One-time All-NBA selection, two-time All-Star Carlos Boozer
Miami: One-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Star Chris Bosh
Boston: One-time NBA MVP, one-time Defensive Player of the Year, nine-time All-NBA selection, 14-time All-Star Kevin Garnett
Orlando: Brandon Bass
Atlanta: One-time All-Defensive selection Josh Smith
New York: Four-time All-NBA selection, six-time All-Star Amare Stoudemire
Philadelphia: One-time All-NBA selection, two-time All-Star Elton Brand
Indiana: Tyler Hansbrough

The only Western Conference playoff team that Odom would clearly start for is Denver. One could make a case that he'd start for Oklahoma City but I'd take Ibaka's size and shotblocking over Odom's abilities as a lanky rebounder. Odom would start for the Hornets now, but only because West is injured. The only Eastern Conference playoff teams that Odom would clearly start for are Orlando and Indiana. Odom could start for the Knicks if Stoudemire played center but that would make the Knicks undersized.

It's not like Odom would automatically start for any non-playoff team, either: Blake Griffin (L.A. Clippers), Kevin Love (Minnesota) and Luis Scola (Houston) would clearly start ahead of Odom.

Odom is a very solid third option for the Lakers and his primary skill set strength is rebounding; he has carved out a nice niche for himself as a valuable contributor on two championship teams but I will never understand why some people try to elevate Odom's status to All-Star or All-NBA level when it should be blatantly obvious that he is not that good."

One season away from Kobe Bryant and the Lakers has done a lot to reveal what kind of player Odom really is. No, Odom is not quite as bad as his 2012 statistics suggest--but he certainly is not nearly as good as so many people insisted he was during his tenure with the Lakers. Odom may bounce back to some extent next season but it is doubtful that he will ever approach the efficiency and productivity he displayed as a third option in L.A. benefiting from all of the defensive attention Bryant attracted.

Most Improved Player

1) Jeremy Lin
2) Ryan Anderson
3) Kevin Love

Lin is the obvious choice; prior to this season he had scored just 76 points in 284 minutes while shooting .389 from the field but his emergence as a legit NBA point guard helped the New York Knicks to salvage what could have been a disastrous season. Some media members have suggested that Lin did not really improve as much as he took advantage of an opportunity to play but what qualifies them to make such a distinction? No player improved his production as dramatically and in such a short period of time as Lin did.

Ryan Anderson only started 50 games in his first three seasons but this season he became Orlando's starting power forward and established himself as a poor man's Kevin Love, a solid scorer/rebounder who can consistently nail three point shots.

As I noted in last year's awards article, Love made a big leap in 2010-11 when he "went from being a guy who barely played for Team USA in the FIBA World Championship to leading the NBA in rebounding while averaging more than 20 ppg and amassing the most consecutive double doubles since Moses Malone patrolled the paint for the Houston Rockets." This season Love made an even more improbable leap, from All-Star to legit MVP caliber player.

Goran Dragic and Ersan Ilyasova are two other players who deserve mention in this category.

Coach of the Year

1) Tom Thibodeau
2) Gregg Popovich
3) Mike Brown

The Chicago Bulls were supposedly a one man team that triumphed because of Derrick Rose's greatness and Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes. This season, Rose removed himself from the equation due to injuries and the Bulls still captured the top seed in the East and earned the overall number one seed in the playoffs; the Bulls are a more talented team than most people are willing to admit (their rotation of bigs is underrated much like Cleveland's rotation of bigs was underrated circa 2006-2010) but Thibodeau has emerged as the league's best coach because of his ability to create a defensive powerhouse and his ability to adjust/adapt as various key players (not just Rose) missed games due to injury.

The San Antonio Spurs are perceived as the league's Rasputin--the team that just won't die--but this is partially because many people are just not that good at evaluating talent; I knew that the Spurs would be a legit contender this season but even though I don't think that the Spurs have necessarily "overachieved" (a word that I don't like) I do think that Gregg Popovich has done a great job changing his team's style of play, incorporating new talent into the mix and making sure that his star players stayed rested and healthy (even though I don't particularly like it when healthy players sit out games, it is more understandable to rest players in this kind of compacted season). 

Mike Brown may not receive a single vote from the media members but he has done an outstanding job in difficult circumstances; he replaced arguably the greatest coach in NBA history and walked into a situation with championship expectations but reduced talent: the Lakers lost two key rotation players (Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown), their best player is a 33 year old with roughly 50,000 combined regular season/playoff minutes on his odometer and their second best player is a petulant young big man who is still figuring out how to deal with double teams and how to play hard on a consistent basis. The Lakers got swept out of last year's playoffs but bounced back to earn the third seed in the West (aided by Dallas' indifference and injuries that felled key players for Memphis and the Clippers). Brown transformed the Lakers into a defensive-minded team, always the mark of coaching excellence (it is easy to convince players to run and gun but it is difficult to convince players to play defense on a nightly basis).

Rick Adelman deserves mention for the fine job he did with a Minnesota team that posted the worst record in the league in 2010-11.

Executive of the Year

1) David Kahn
2) R.C. Buford/Gregg Popovich
3) Larry Bird

Former media member David Kahn has been a favorite media punching bag for years but his Minnesota Timberwolves improved from 17-65 in 2010-11 to 26-40 in 2011-12. Kevin McHale drafted Kevin Love, Minnesota's best player, but Kahn hired Coach Rick Adelman and acquired most of the other players on the roster--including the much-maligned Ricky Rubio, who may have made a run at Rookie of the Year honors if he had not suffered a season-ending knee injury.

Every year, most of the "experts" write off the San Antonio Spurs and every year the Spurs continue to be a serious championship contender. Gregg Popovich not only is an outstanding coach but he is the franchise's President, responsible (along with R.C. Buford) for building the team--much like the New England Patriots' Bill Belichick not only coaches the team on the field but also shapes the team's roster as well.

The Indiana Pacers went through some very tough times after the infamous "Malice at the Palace" but Larry Bird has done an excellent job of rebuilding the franchise. Jerry West set the standard for great players who became great executives but several great players have had less than stellar front office careers, including Michael Jordan (who currently helms the league's worst team, featuring a roster built entirely by him), Elgin Baylor and Wes Unseld.

All-NBA First Team
G Kobe Bryant
G Russell Westbrook
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant

All-NBA Second Team
G Tony Parker
G Chris Paul
C Andrew Bynum
F Kevin Love
F Blake Griffin

All-NBA Third Team
G Dwyane Wade
G Rajon Rondo
C Marc Gasol
F Dirk Nowitzki
F LaMarcus Aldridge

LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant are First Team locks. Russell Westbrook's excellent performance should enable him to become the fourth different guard since 2008 to accompany Kobe Bryant on the All-NBA First Team; that is another way of saying that Bryant--who has made the All-NBA First Team nine times overall, including each year since 2006--has been remarkably consistent and productive. I hope that the voters understand and acknowledge that Westbrook has been more productive and more durable than Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul, Bryant's recent First Team partners; Westbrook has become something of a media punching bag, inheriting a role that Scottie Pippen filled during the 1990s and Kobe Bryant filled during the 2000s: great player whose game is nitpicked to death by media members who do not understand the sport (I am not saying that Westbrook is or will be as great as Pippen or Bryant, merely that he is subjected to an unwarranted level of criticism considering how well he plays and how much he has already improved in a short period of time).

Years ago Shaquille O'Neal called himself "LCL"--Last Center Left--and those words have largely become prophetic. Dwight Howard is an all-time great but the drop off after him is significant. Other than Howard, the recent All-NBA centers are either retired (O'Neal, Yao Ming) or limited by injuries (Amare Stoudemire, Al Horford, Andrew Bogut). Andrew Bynum has essentially become the second best center in the NBA by default--there just are not that many legit candidates for the title. Marc Gasol gets my Third Team nod at the NBA's least deep position.

This is a golden age for NBA point guards, quick players who are aided by the recent rules prohibiting defensive contact on the perimeter. I don't agree with classifying Tony Parker and Chris Paul as MVP candidates but they are solid All-NBA Second Team picks. In 2010-11, Derrick Rose proved that he is the best 6-5 and under player in the NBA--taking that title from Dwyane Wade--but injuries limited Rose's effectiveness and availability in 2011-12 and by going 18-9 without Rose the Bulls demonstrated that they are hardly the one man team that many media members depicted them to be. Rose missed too many games to be considered for MVP or All-NBA honors this season (and his reduced productivity would not warrant including him in the MVP discussion even if he had not missed so many games).

Kevin Love had one of the great scoring/rebounding seasons ever (see the above MVP discussion for more details) but he cannot quite knock LeBron James and Kevin Durant off of the First Team. Blake Griffin must improve his free throw shooting and his defense but he is a 20/10 force who will likely earn First Team honors at some point in his career.

Dwyane Wade had one of the worst seasons of his career (second lowest scoring average, second lowest assists average, third worst three point shooting percentage)--a fact that has been blithely ignored by "stat gurus" who keep insisting (hoping?) that Bryant has vastly declined--and hopefully this season permanently refuted the bizarre notion that Wade is Miami's best player but even a subpar Wade still ranks as one of the NBA's 15 best players.

Even in a down season by his exalted standards, Dirk Nowitzki still ranked among the league's leading scorers and guided Dallas to a playoff spot despite the team's well documented internal problems and significant roster overhaul. Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony stepped up their games after the All-Star break but they sleepwalked through the first half of the season and thus do not deserve All-NBA recognition; Nowitzki did not distinguish himself in the early going, either, but his overall body of work during the season is better and he led Dallas to a 36-30 record with no All-Star sidekicks while Pierce and Anthony both play alongside current (or recent) All-Stars.

All-Defensive First Team

G Tony Allen
G Grant Hill
C Dwight Howard
F LeBron James
F Serge Ibaka

All-Defensive Second Team

G Kobe Bryant
G Chris Paul
C Tyson Chandler
F Luol Deng
F Andre Iguodala

This is the only award that is selected by the league's head coaches. Last season I chose six of the 10 All-Defensive players who were ultimately honored by the coaches and in each of the three seasons prior to that eight of my 10 choices matched the coaches' voting. The players are supposed to be selected by position but this does not always happen because in recent years positional designations have become blurred and teams often cross match on defense.

I analyzed Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Serge Ibaka and Tyson Chandler in my commentary about the Defensive Player of the Year award, so I will only add that even though I would not select Tyson Chandler as Defensive Player of the Year he is the second best defensive center in the league.

I did not support Tony Allen's All-Defensive Team candidacy last season because of his limited playing time but this season he has played in almost every game and his playing time has increased to over 26 mpg. Grant Hill is nominally a small forward but he guards point guards so that Steve Nash can "guard" whoever is the least dangerous perimeter player on the opposing team.

The "stat gurus" are right that defense cannot just be measured by steals and blocks but they are wrong to insist that their so-called "advanced statistics" accurately measure individual defensive efficiency; the "stat gurus" rank Carlos Boozer among the top 10 individual defenders in the NBA (in both Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares) even though knowledgeable observers realize that Boozer is often a defensive liability (the "advanced statistics" are not separating Chicago's collective defensive prowess while Boozer is on the court from Boozer's individual contributions--or lack thereof--to that defensive prowess).

The "stat gurus" have been bleating for years that Kobe Bryant is an overrated defender but what they fail to understand is that Bryant has long been the vocal leader of the Lakers' defense, an unusual role for a guard (centers usually call out the defensive signals because they play with their backs to the basket and thus can see the whole court). Bryant is not the lockdown defender that he was during his prime but he can check three different positions (shooting guard, point guard, small forward) and he is an excellent help defender/roamer (Boston Coach Doc Rivers has said that Bryant is the best help defender since Scottie Pippen, high praise indeed). During the Lakers' late season win over Oklahoma City, Bryant shut down Russell Westbrook, showing that Bryant still has the footspeed and tenacity to guard opposing point guards (something that he often has to do since the Lakers have not had a good defensive point guard since Derek Fisher exited his prime several years ago).

Chris Paul is limited by his size (he can only guard one position and I tend to favor players who can guard multiple positions) but he is a tenacious, scrappy defender whose quick hands enable him to perennially lead the league in steals.

Luol Deng is the best perimeter defender on arguably the best defensive team in the NBA.

Andre Iguodala is a long-limbed, explosive athlete who can guard multiple positions.

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

Kyrie Irving
Klay Thompson
Kenneth Faried
Ricky Rubio
Isaiah Thomas

All-Rookie Second Team

Kawhi Leonard
Iman Shumpert
Brandon Knight
MarShon Brooks
Chandler Parsons

As I mentioned in the above Rookie of the Year discussion, Kyrie Irving is the only rookie who has consistently been outstanding. There are several rookies who have played well at times. Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard deserve credit for being productive players on playoff teams, while the other rookies listed above established themselves as solid rotation players on their respective squads.

Kemba Walker put up decent per game numbers but being the third leading scorer on the worst team in NBA history is hardly much of a qualification to make the All-Rookie Team; he looks a bit like one of Kenny Smith's proverbial "looters in a riot," a guy collecting stats on a bad--in this case, historically bad--team.

**********

Previous NBA Award Articles

Selecting NBA Award Winners: The Battle of Stats Versus Storylines Versus Logical Analysis (2011)

NBA Awards Season is Almost Here (2010)

An Objective Analysis of this Season's MVP Race (2009)

Handing Out the Hardware for the 2008-09 Season (2009)

Choosing This Season's NBA Awards Winners (2008)

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posted by David Friedman @ 6:17 AM

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8 Comments:

At Friday, April 27, 2012 8:08:00 AM, Anonymous MV said...

Nowitzki has a MVP and a Finals-MVP Award.

It`s amazing, the Chicago Bulls have nobody in the 3 All NBA teams and only one in the second All-Defensive Team. Nevertheless they have lead nearly the entire season.

Your analysis looks a little inconsistent. You don`t like the assumptions of the so called stat-gurus. But nearly your entire analysis uses stats, although not really advanced ones, like PER, ... There are various elements you can not count and intangibles you cant even see. Therefor i have no problem with Lebron getting MVP or Howard DPOJ. Often these special stories (Rose, etc.) symbolize a part of those non-messurables. Especially for the MVP voting it`s important, that he is most valuable and not only the best player. You often challenge, that putting Lebron, Wade and Bosh in one team would guarantee multiple championships. But right now, there are big doubts, because obviously there are teams how were or are better. Therefore someone could argue Bryant or Durant were more valuable, which i prefer to think. I can not trust Lebron in the moments, the game is on the line. And does he make his teammates better? Lebron´s individual numbers are very impressive but other player add to lesser numbers (than him) quiet a lot of leadership and enhance the output of there teammates in other ways. Add this up and we have our MVP and in my opinion it should go to Kobe.
Kevin Love is a special case. Until he plays in a team which has at least a winning record i don`t trust his numbers. In his team are to few player who can fight him for rebounds, etc. The Bulls have at least three outstanding big man but nobody gets amazing numbers. They share the load. Kevin Love and for instance Howard don´t have these kind of competition in there teams.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2012 3:20:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

MV:

The quoted passage relating to Lamar Odom and other power forwards dates back to before last year's playoffs; that is why Nowitzki's Finals MVP is not listed (he had not won it yet!).

It is not "amazing" that I did not choose any Bulls for the All-NBA teams; no Bull individually deserves that honor, even though the Bulls collectively are very, very good. Rose played at an All-NBA level but missed too many games to be selected.

My analysis is not "inconsistent"; you just failed to understand my methodology. PER is not a statistic; it is a made-up number reflecting the biases of its creator: he simply added up what he considers to be positive statistics, subtracted what he considers to be negative statistics and weighted those numbers how he sees fit. The same holds true for other player rating formulas.

In contrast, I cited actual statistics and--most importantly--I placed those statistics in proper context. I love statistics and statistics have always played an integral role in my basketball analysis. What I dislike is the misuse of statistics and the pretense that "advanced basketball statistics" are the first and last word in basketball analysis.

Kobe Bryant's great all-around skill set makes him a perennial MVP contender but because of age and injuries he is no longer quite as consistent or dominant over the course of an entire regular season as LeBron James and Kevin Durant. That is why I placed Bryant third. I understand why you placed Bryant first but he did not outperform either of those guys overall this season.

The preceding players who put up the scoring/rebounding numbers that Love did this year were all HoFers and/or regular season MVPs. You must believe that Love is a very "special" case indeed if you think that he does not even merit being placed fifth on the MVP ballot.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2012 4:37:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

Overall, good analysis. Can't argue with anyone on the all-nba teams.

But, I'm confused with a few selections on the all-defensive teams. Other than Allen playing more minutes this year, what else changed, if everything, to elevate him and drop Kobe? Allen still only ranked #34 for SGs in MP, and #65 in MP for all guards. That still seems very low to me.

Is Paul really that good defensively? I guess I don't see it. Sure, he gets lots of steals, but so do a lot of other small guards. What about Shumpert and Rondo?

Position classificiation aside, which Grant Hill is a SF, not a SG, so he can't make it as a guard, how do you put this old man on this list. I often hear about him guarding the opposing team's best player, but that doesn't mean he's necessarily that good of a defender, but just better than anyone else the suns have. Kobe almost always lights Hill up, too. He looks awful against Kobe, moreso than most defenders do against him. I just don't see it. Also, he would only rank #69 in MP among forwards, and only #77 in MP among guards, and missing 17 games.

 
At Friday, April 27, 2012 6:06:00 PM, Blogger jackson888 said...

david,

great article as usual. it is a shame that basketball digest folded or you would have been a perfect columnist there among their other respectable and distinguished writers.
mvp choice lebron james is correct. the way james played both sides of the court and his durability throughout the season merits him this award. and he has the stats to prove it. dpoy dwight howard would have also been my choice. howard is fast, quick and explosive and he changes the way players attack the game and the way coaches game plan. roy choice is a no brainer. sixth man of the year choice is also excellent. i like the way james harden affects the game much like top quality starters do. he attacks the rim, takes good shots, creates for his teammates, and defends well. good field percentage attests to that and respectable assist numbers also attest to that. and he just fits in on a team with 2 franchise level players. knows when to attack and when to defer. just a good overall player and game changer off the bench. i would like to see harden's real worth when defenses start keying in on him. that will let me know if he deserves all-nba status in the future.

jax

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2012 1:44:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Allen had tremendous impact both this season and last season but last season he was essentially a part-time player (based on his total minutes played) while this season he was a full member of the rotation.

Paul is very disruptive defensively and his tenacity makes up for his small size.

Rondo and Shumpert also deserve consideration but there are only four guard slots so someone is going to be left off. It will be interesting to see how the coaches vote.

Hill guarded opposing point guards a significant amount of the time and he did a very good job against them. He guards Bryant as well as anyone (other than maybe Sefolosha) but Bryant can score even against good defenders.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2012 1:46:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Jax:

I agree that a good test of Harden's All-Star/All-NBA potential will arise when defenses are forced to key on him--but that may never happen if he continues to play alongside Durant and Westbrook.

 
At Saturday, April 28, 2012 12:11:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I don't think Hill did very well against Kobe this year, in fact he was one of the worst defenders on Kobe that I saw all year. Granted, only 3 games, but still. Kobe averaged 39ppg and shot 54% against the suns this year. He absolutely torched him. Part of this is that Hill didn't guard him the entire time, but still for a lot of the time, but part of this is that Kobe got Hill in foul trouble, so he had to sit a lot, which also has to be factored. Hill had 4 fouls 4x(3 against the lakers), and 5 fouls 2x.

Hill is old and his lateral quickness looked average at best this season. And he missed 17 games. And while steals/blocks aren't necessarily good indicators for defensive prowess, Hill doesn't stand out in either of these categories.

Afflalo and Allen looked the best when guarding Kobe this year, and then maybe Sefolosha. These 3 guys were much better on him than Hill was.

 
At Sunday, April 29, 2012 5:33:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

I don't believe that Hill was "responsible" for all or even most of Bryant's points. In most of the Phx games that I saw this season, Hill guarded the opposing pg and did a very good job. Keep in mind that someone can play good defense against Bryant even if Bryant puts up a lot of points, much like Jordan scored a lot of points against some top notch defenders back in his day. The top defenders guard the top offensive threats and sometimes the top offensive threats carry the day; that is why they get paid the big bucks.

 

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