Writers' Roundtable (cont.)
Most Improved Player
Jack McCallum: I struggle with this award. You don't necessarily want to reward a player who had a bad season and comes up with a pretty good one the following year. And you almost never have a young player because he needs a track record to establish a baseline. Nevertheless, I'm going with second-year player Kevin Durant, who has expanded his game and showed a lot of leadership in getting the Thunder back on track.
Chris Mannix: No matter how many times he denies it, Mavericks owner Mark Cuban must cringe every time Harris makes SportsCenter. The Nets went out of their way to build the offense around Harris and Vince Carter this season, but even so Harris has exceeded all expectations. Numbers aside, Harris has earned the trust of coach Lawrence Frank and become a team leader. With a reasonable contract ($42 million for five years), Harris is positioned to be the face of the Nets for several seasons.
Steve Aschburner: I'll go with Roger Mason. Paul Millsap is a popular choice here. Harris will dominate the vote among You-Tubers thanks to his shot worthy of the Highlights Hall of Fame. Chris Duhon was an early-season candidate, at least. But Mason has filled one of the most important and pressurized positions in the league -- key bench guy for the always formidable Spurs -- when San Antonio needed it most, given Robert Horry's and Brent Barry's departures. He has logged more minutes, boosted his scoring and three-point shooting to career highs and come through with late-game dramatics.
Sixth Man Award
Ian Thomsen: Manu Ginobili has been out since the All-Star break with a stress reaction in his right ankle, and Jason Terry recently returned with a padded glove for his broken left hand. The front-runners' issues could enable the Knicks' Nate Robinson to leapfrog them. But right now, I'd give it to Ginobili for his overall impact on a top-four team.
Jack McCallum: Terry was the early leader and Robinson has been fantastic at times, but Ginobili, last season's top reserve, is my favorite.
Chris Mannix: Terry's move to the bench has produced spectacular results. He's a prolific scorer and an underrated distributor. If he remains in a reserve role, he will contend for this award the rest of his career.
Steve Aschburner: It's tempting to type in Allen Iverson's name here, in the hope that showing AI the possible prize might persuade him not to fight this role with the Pistons. But really, Ginobili's embracing of his sixth-man value is a throwback to the mentality of two-time winners such as Kevin McHale, Ricky Pierce and Detlef Schrempf, who were content to carve out livings off the bench. It's a shout-out, too, to guys such as Vinnie Johnson, Fred Brown and the Celtics' legends (John Havlicek, Frank Ramsey) who never won this award but provided the reasons it exists.
Defensive Player of the Year
Ian Thomsen: Kevin Garnett is the obvious pick.
Jack McCallum: The issue here is whether to pick a stopper, a player who guards his man out on the floor, or a basket protector, a big man who patrols the interior and not only swats away shots but also changes them. There is no stopper nearly the equal of Orlando's Howard, a clear choice in this category.
Chris Mannix: Yes, Howard has substantially improved his defense and emerged as the NBA's preeminent shot-blocker. But he's no Garnett. KG's numbers will never be staggering, but there are only a handful of players in NBA history who have been able to transform a defense like Garnett has in Boston. The Celtics' success is inextricably linked to their defense, and Garnett is the heart and soul of it.
Steve Aschburner: Howard's spot atop the rebounds and blocks lists is the obvious argument, but just as persuasive is the way he covers up for the penetration past his point guards, be it Nelson or Alston. Van Gundy's defensive schemes would unravel without Howard in the middle as swiftly as Boston's would have last season without Garnett.