With few games remaining, it's time for postseason awards
Posted: Wednesday April 7, 2004 2:06PM; Updated: Wednesday April 7, 2004 3:48PM
Well, the end is in sight. Wait a minute: That's not the end. What I see in the immediate future is the spectacle of that glittering first-round playoff matchup between Indiana and New York, unless it's Indiana-Miami or Indiana-Boston.
Or perhaps it's the Western first-rounder between Sacramento, the Lakers, Minnesota or San Antonio versus either Portland, Denver or Utah.
Yes, there's a whole lot of shaking out to do before we get to the end of this clambake. But this is my favorite time of year, the time when I give my annual awards after which you write to tell me I'm deranged. I'm an advocate of waiting until at least a couple rounds of the playoffs are finished before voting, but the NBA doesn't see it that way, preferring to get the votes in and sprinkle the various winner announcements throughout the postseason for the sake of publicity.
There is also concern that players and coaches on teams whose seasons are finished in April will be forgotten by postseason voters, which doesn't say much for our memories. At any rate, here are my award winners, with the exception of outstanding coach, which will appear when I toast fellow SI-dotcommer Marty Burns in Friday's Head-to-Head:
Perennial candidate Ben Wallace of Detroit is again a ferocious presence on what might be the league's best defensive team. Utah's Andrei Kirilenko was that rare non-American who came into the league as a defensive specialist and he's gotten better. Among the marquee players, Minnesota's Kevin Garnett grabs almost 14 rebounds a game and that's part of defense; San Antonio's Tim Duncan is almost always in the right place; and Kobe Bryant, when he needs to or wants to, will get up in his man's face as effectively as any player in the league.
But my choice is RON ARTEST OF INDIANA.
Pacers coach Rick Carlisle had his video crew isolate 8,000 possessions to determine what happens when Artest guards a man one-on-one. The most compelling finding was that Artest's offensive target, usually a small forward/shooting offensive type, got off only 9.4 shots per game. Shooting percentage against Artest was 42 percent and the average point-per-game total was 8.1. In winning games, his opponents' shooting percentage dipped to 35 percent. Were Carlisle still coaching the Pistons he would've no doubt enlisted his bleary-eyed minions to deconstruct Wallace's defensive game. But helpful as the breakdown was, I was going with Artest anyway. He wears out his man inside, he wears out his man outside and -- almost as importantly -- he wears out his man at the offensive end. A night spent playing against Artest is non-stop hell. All that and he's liable to clip you up side the head just on general principle.
This is an interesting award for a change. Marcus Camby has stayed injury-free and has been a big part of the renaissance in Denver. Everyone started talking about Cleveland's surprising Carlos Boozer last season, but he's improved, having established himself as the second solid piece in that franchise behind LeBron James. Richard Jefferson has refused to let the Nets slide into oblivion during injury battles by Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin. Almost lost in another season of underachievement in Los Angeles Clipper Land is the 20-point scoring of Corey Maggette, who increased his average by almost four points from the previous season.
But my choice is JAMES POSEY OF MEMPHIS.
How many casual fans even knew who this guy was at the beginning of the year? Two seasons ago he was the seventh option on a Denver Nuggets team that won 27 games. But on the Grizz -- the most surprising team in the league and don't let me hear any arguments about that -- he is both a go-to guy on offense and a stopper on defense. And he's played tough even when he's been hurt.
Antawn Jamison of Dallas has come off the bench and been a reliable scorer for a team loaded with reliable scorers. Al Harrington, too, has been his dependable all-around self for the Indiana Pacers.
But my choice is MANU GINOBLI OF SAN ANTONIO.
Ginobli will allow, reluctantly, that he has grown into his role as sixth man, though he would rather start, which he did through much of the early season. But coach Gregg Popovich has concluded, correctly, that Ginobli's ability to change a game in so many different ways makes him most valuable as an all-purpose sixth piece. Lots of guys throw no-look passes, but Ginobli is the only guy to both consistently make no-look shots (a la Dallas's Steve Nash) and come up with no-look steals. Look for Mighty Manu's minutes to soar in the postseason, but he's a legit sixth man for the regular season.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Well, here are the other three guys on the all-rookie team: Dwyane Wade of Miami (though he's missed 20 games with injuries), Josh Howard of Dallas and Chris Bosh of Toronto. Honorable mention would go to Kirk Hinrich of Chicago. So, is it James of Cleveland or Carmelo Anthony of Denver? This is the one category I might prefer to wait until the last game of the season to vote on, so as to take into account any individual heroics in the coming week that might lift either of their borderline teams into the playoffs. But I feel comfortable choosing right now.
I'm going with LEBRON JAMES OF CLEVELAND.
I don't want to reduce this to numbers because both of these over-observed yearlings have had outstanding seasons. But consider these two stats: Though he is a perimeter player with extensive ball-handling responsibilities, James (through Monday games) has 18 more blocked shots than Anthony, and, on a per-game basis, only one-half fewer rebounds. James is also outscoring, out-assisting and out-stealing his good bud. One has to look back at the 1979-80, when Larry Bird beat out Magic Johnson, for such a compelling rookie race. But James's athleticism and versatility wins the day, and, from where I sit, will continue to give him an edge on 'Melo through the years.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
My choice is KEVIN GARNETT OF MINNESOTA.
Don't even bother to argue because I don't want to hear it. The award has been his to lose since the first month of the season and The Kid never lost it. Ironman 'tude, improved team, relentless effort at both ends, numbers, numbers, numbers (24.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.2 blocks, 5 assists), cool guy, cooperative after games despite the fact that it takes him nine hours to emerge from the shower.
EVENTUAL NBA CHAMPION
Ha! You think I have that figured out yet?
First: Forward -- Garnett, Minnesota, and Duncan; Center -- Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers; Guards -- Bryant, and Peja Stojakovic, Sacramento.
Second: Forward -- Jermaine O'Neal, Indiana, and James; Center -- Yao Ming, Houston; Guards -- Sam Cassell, Minnesota, and Tracy McGrady, Orlando.
Third: Forward -- Artest and Kirilenko, Utah; Center -- Wallace; Guards -- Kidd New Jersey, and Baron Davis, New Orleans.
First Team of Honorable Mention (Boy, is that meaningless, huh?): Forward -- Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas; and Zach Randolph, Portland; Center -- Jamaal Magliore, New Orleans; Guard -- Mike Bibby, Sacramento; and Stephon Marbury, New York.
This is the year of the injured star, so figuring out how much to punish a player for missed games was difficult. Shaq, of course, rarely plays a full season because he's always banged up. Court commitments cut into Bryant's game and an injury also felled ironman Duncan. You have to slap none of them down to second team or all of them, and I went with none.
At some point you have to say: What kind of all-league team would you have without Shaq, Kobe and Tim? Note that I put Sacramento forward Stojakovic at guard because ... because I wanted to, dammit. He has to make the first team and this is the only spot for him, which isn't a push since his perimeter shooting range is about 94 feet.
The relegation of scoring champ McGrady to second team is not unprecedented: Over the last 20 years four scoring leaders (Allen Iverson in 2001-02, Shaq in 94-95; David Robinson in 93-94 and Adrian Dantley in 83-84) have been second-teamers. (Note, of course, that McGrady may still make it on the official ballot; this is my ballot.)
Is second team too high for James? No. Think of the responsibility that 19-year-old carried (still carries) on his shoulder and think of how remarkably he has played. I would've loved to put ol' Sudden Sam Cassell on the first team but there just wasn't room. As it is, the third-team guards, Kidd and Davis, are among the two best third-teamers in history, the former at that spot because of injuries, the latter because of an underachieving team. Why Artest and Kirilenko for third over the host of other good forwardes? Versatility, versatility, versatility.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jack McCallum covers the NBA for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.