Weekly Countdown (cont.)
3. Defensive Player of the Year.
Considering the high standards of these panelists, these results serve as high praise for James, who wasn't recognized as a strong defender before this season. The Cavaliers have been a dominant defensive team this season and James has become a leader at that end of the floor. "He can lock down anybody he wants to at any time,'' a personnel scout said, "and he seems to have the respect from the officials and the league.''
James and Bryant tend to roam defensively, which is both bad and good -- but mainly good. During the key moments of tight games, they often dominate defensively. At other times, they look to make big plays. "I don't know if they lock down on people every play of every night,'' a voter said. "For instance, Kobe will leave his man completely to double somebody and rip the ball off. He and LeBron give up the weak side because they're chasing the ball. But Michael [Jordan] used to do the same thing. That was how he played defense too.''
Many recognized Howard for leading the league in rebounds (13.9) and blocks (2.9), but none of the panelists believe he has achieved Garnett's standard, who ceded the award to a knee injury that has sidelined him for 18 games. "Howard is not always this great defender, but he does lead in those categories -- and that doesn't even account for the shots he changes,'' a voter said.
Added another voter: "I think it's easier for a guy like Howard to defend down there than it is for these other guys out on the perimeter. On the perimeter, you're dealing with lot of distance between you and the goal, so your footwork and quickness have to be great. You're always getting screened and you have to go over or under or through the screen. A big guy sits there and he's either defending right on the ball with nobody else involved, or maybe he has a teammate coming in to [help] down with him.''
2. Coach of the Year.
The Heat lost 67 games last season for Pat Riley, but rookie head coach Spoelstra has Miami back in the playoffs with a winning record. Two voters named him Coach of the Year, while two others don't have him on the ballot -- a sign of the wide divergence of opinion on how to choose this difficult award. "He did more with less than the other guys,'' summed up a Spoelstra supporter.
Sloan, who has never won the award, received one first-place vote from a panelist who explains: "They've had a lot of injuries and he still has his team contending. No matter who is on the floor, they execute, they play hard and they try to be in every game. This is no pity vote -- I respect him for what he's accomplished this year.''
Brown finished first or second on every ballot. The voters named all of the obvious reasons, namely notching the best record in the league and improving over last season, adhering to defense and developing a system that brings out the best in LeBron and his teammates.
1. Most Valuable Player.
That's right, LeBron is No. 1 on every ballot. "When I look at everything he's done, offensively and defensively, there's no doubt he's the MVP,'' explained one voter who for years has rated Bryant as the best player in basketball. "He is the dominant player in the league right now.''
For these experts, it choosing James over Bryant and Wade was a straightforward decision. "It's only tough because LeBron has got more help on his team,'' another voter said. "Dwyane has so few players on his team who contribute. But LeBron has catapulted himself to a whole different level. I don't think there's any question he is the best player in the league. He can do whatever the hell he wants to do out there.''
As a matter of interest, one voter listed Yao as No. 5 on his MVP ballot; he also rated Yao as the first-team All-NBA center, shifting Howard to the second team. Here's why: "Yao is the toughest matchup of all the big men in the league. He is going to demand a double team, he has all of the moves and he is the one big guy I've seen this year who can control the tempo. If they're playing a small team, the Rockets will pound it into him and force you to go big.
"From Orlando's standpoint, they play a lot of pick-and-roll. They go to Dwight, but they're not going inside like Houston goes to Yao. Houston's first option is to go inside to Yao and see what you're going to do and play off that. If you double him, he'll kick it outside for three-point shots, and if you don't, then he'll kill you from the post. And then he's such a good free-throw shooter that he'll beat you that way too. Dwight can't do that because he's such a poor free-throw shooter, which is why they can't go to him at the end of the game.''
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