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Champs, chumps (Cont.)

Posted: Tuesday April 18, 2006 8:19PM; Updated: Thursday April 20, 2006 11:47AM
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After two unproductive seasons in Atlanta, Boris Diaw has developed into one of the NBA's most well-rounded forces with the Suns.
After two unproductive seasons in Atlanta, Boris Diaw has developed into one of the NBA's most well-rounded forces with the Suns.
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
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Most Improved Player: Boris Diaw, Suns
During his first two seasons in Atlanta, Diaw was laughably afraid to put up shots, rendering him a cap-space throw-in to a sign-and-trade last summer with Phoenix.

He never averaged more than five points with the Hawks but is averaging more than 13 with the Suns. Working some odd center-forward-guard triptych, Diaw embodies the "poor-man's Magic Johnson" ideal like no other player in NBA history. His per-minute numbers in Atlanta suggested nothing along these lines, which means Diaw had to change his entire outlook entering this season -- always admirable.

The rest: Nenad Krstic, Andres Nocioni, David West, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony.

Coach of the Year: Phil Jackson, Lakers
This award usually boasts the largest number of worthy candidates each year, but was outdone by the MVP race this season. I chose Jackson mainly because the Lakers improved considerably to become a mediocre defensive club, even with a group of substandard defensive players. This team was nothing like the 2001 76ers, who balanced Allen Iverson's chuck-worthy offensive attack with a legion of defensive stoppers. This year's Lakers team was significantly worse in the talent department than the L.A. team that won 34 games last season, and yet Jackson made it work.

His triangle allowed for better spacing, which made it near impossible for teams to successfully double team Kobe Bryant. Jackson convinced Kobe's teammates that the only way they had a chance at the postseason was for Bryant to shoot for 50 every time out. More important, Phil convinced himself to try an offensive approach that was probably an affront to his senses. In a fraternity full of "my way or the highway" guys, Phil stands out. Imagine what he'd do with a real general manager.

The rest: Mike D'Antoni, Avery Johnson, Flip Saunders, Mike Fratello.

Sixth Man of the Year: Mike Miller, Grizzlies
At the outset of the season it seemed as if the usual cast of diminutive hybrid guards would be fighting for this award. Miller, who has the audacity to clock in at 6-foot-8 and 218 pounds, was having none of it. Starting just eight games, he rounded into Memphis' most devastating all-around player. Averaging about 14 points, five boards and three assists in 31 minutes, Miller helped keep that team afloat even through a 7-8 February. The Grizzlies have the West's fourth-best record, and Miller (who just turned 26) is about to enter his prime.

The rest: Maurice Williams, Speedy Claxton, Tyson Chandler, Eddie House, Jerry Stackhouse.

Rookie of the Year: Chris Paul, Hornets
You've heard plenty about this brilliant rookie: How he kept his goofy little Hornets squad in contention for the playoffs, how he's had just about the best regular season a rookie has had in decades. I won't bore you by repeating all the details, but I would like to point out one fact about the league's newest superstar.

The biggest obstacle most youngsters face in their first few years is learning how to contribute when nothing appears to be going right -- when the shots aren't falling, when teammates don't seem interested in making you look better than they are. Paul doesn't appear to have that problem. He found a way to contribute, over and over again. And for the next 15 years he'll do it over and over again, whether it means swooping in from the weak side to steal the ball, grabbing a rebound in traffic to start the break or heading to the corners and waiting for a pass. The kid gets it.

Executive of the Year: Isiah Thomas, Knicks
Lame joke? You bet. Still, I.T. has made life so lovely for so many of this league's general managers that I had to give the man his change.

These awards are so strange, mainly because team execs are on the clock for 12 months a year, whereas coaches and players only have to do their public work from October until late spring. For instance, Chicago's John Paxson deserves all sorts of thanks from Bulls fans for creating two consecutive playoff teams while securing boatloads of cap space for next summer and a potential No. 1 pick in this June's draft. But what if he blows the draft pick and whiffs in free agency? Does May's Executive of the Year hit the hot seat sometime next August?

This is why I'd be remiss in not thanking Isiah for changing the fortunes of so many NBA teams. Essentially, Paxson's Bulls have the rights to the Knicks' next two first-round draft picks, and Chicago is awash in fiscal flexibility thanks to cap-clearing deals with the Knicks in both 2004 and '05. Orlando turned its season around once it dumped a moping Steve Francis on New York for Penny Hardaway's giant expiring contract and their newest Stacey Augmon-type, Trevor Ariza.

And Bryan Colangelo? Well, the newly hired Raptors GM will probably take home his second Executive of the Year award in a few weeks, but Thomas should never have to buy dinner in Toronto again. Isiah took Stephon Marbury off Colangelo's hands in December 2003, affording him the cap space necessary to sign Steve Nash the following summer. With Nash on board, coach Mike D'Antoni felt secure enough to let his players run and gun, which allowed Colangelo to make brilliant mini-deals for the likes of Eddie House, James Jones and Diaw. Now the Suns have taken home two Pacific Division titles.

After Colangelo jumped to Ontario in February, he dumped the team's biggest cap albatross on (you guessed it) Isiah's Knicks. With Jalen Rose in New York, Toronto is looking at cap space this summer for the first time since 2001, and Colangelo has Zeke to thank.

For all the laughs this year, we all have Zeke to thank. Cheers, mate.


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