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Posted: Friday April 9, 2010 12:42PM; Updated: Friday April 9, 2010 4:18PM
Ian Thomsen
Ian Thomsen>INSIDE THE NBA

Countdown: The best of 2009-10 (cont.)

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Thunder star Kevin Durant has developed into an elite player in his third season.
Larry W. Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

More honors for this season's best ...

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The hardest leap in the NBA is to rise from very good to great, and this year -- his third in the league -- Durant turned himself into an MVP candidate by driving his young teammates to win more games than anyone could have imagined. Aaron Brooks emerged as part of the Rockets' foundation, while George Hill's unexpected leadership with the Spurs (in Tony Parker's absence) helps him beat out a number of worthy candidates, including Josh Smith, Carl Landry, Marc Gasol, Bogut, Joakim Noah, Arron Afflalo, Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova.

Most Improved Player Ballot
1. Kevin Durant
2. Aaron Brooks
3. George Hill

SIXTH MAN AWARD. No one makes a bigger impact off the bench than Varejao, whose hustle plays provide an indispensable edge to the Cavs at both ends of the court. Manu Ginobili and Landry were candidates until both emerged as successful starters over the final weeks of the season.

Sixth Man Award Ballot
1. Anderson Varejao
2. Jamal Crawford
3. Jason Terry

ALL-DEFENSIVE TEAM. The surprise here is that Miami enters the final week tied with Orlando for No. 1 in field-goal defense, and the Heat wouldn't be making that drive without Wade. Utah's Williams is the best defensive point guard -- he doesn't usually gamble for steals, and his size, strength and quickness enable him to guard a variety of opponents.

C Dwight Howard
PF Anderson Varejao
SF LeBron James
SG Dwyane Wade
PG Deron Williams

EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder. Not only has Presti drafted well while building a team around Durant, but he also has put aside the money to re-sign all of those picks if necessary while partnering with Brooks to create an environment grounded in defense and teamwork -- almost like the winning NCAA programs we used to see when players spent four years at college. In a year when many teams want to cut back and yet sell tickets, Presti has established the model while putting together a playoff contender. How many would have stuck with the plan?

Milwaukee's John Hammond was willing to commit a first-round pick to Jennings, and then while other teams were cutting back he took on Salmons at the deadline to push the overachieving Bucks into the playoffs. Atlanta's Rick Sund presides over the winningest payroll south of the luxury-tax threshold, and his offseason trade for Crawford was a bonanza.

I may second-guess myself in a couple of months for not recognizing Cleveland's Danny Ferry or Orlando's Otis Smith, but the success of their moves cannot be rated until the playoffs.

1. Sam Presti
2. John Hammond
3. Rick Sund

3 Questions rescued from the spam

Consider this halftime of the year-ending ceremony. We'll get back to more awards after this message from our readers ...

In your Thunder/Celtics article, it sounds like you're saying you'd rather give up the sure prize and go for what's behind the curtain. The Celtics won a title even though they mortgaged the future, but they won a title. You can ask any fan base whether they would rather win that one title or make it to the playoffs every year but not win the title, and I bet every fan base would say they want to win! Isn't that what they play for?!
-- Reginald, Memphis

I believe you misunderstood me, Reginald. Here is what I had to say in that story about Boston's moves to win now:

"May the ghost of Red Auerbach haunt the soul of anyone who would dare undo a deal that resulted in Boston's 17th championship. It was a bold plan executed gloriously."

I am in total agreement with your point of view about winning a championship. There is no wrong way to do it. Should the Celtics drop out of contention for years, their decision to go all out in 2007-08 will remain worthwhile because it paid off in a championship.

The Wizards save millions while Gilbert Arenas is suspended. This seems perverse to me (even against the perverse world of NBA finances). Doesn't this give teams incentive to sign the guys who have explosive talent but also minimal judgment? If they can sign some hotshot to a big contract, knowing that if he falls to pieces or just acts so stupidly that he gets suspended then they will save money, it seems to lessen the penalty to the team, encourage signing idiots like this and encourage idiots to keep being ... well, idiots. Wouldn't the better route be to force the salary to be paid to charity?
-- Tony, Seattle

Those kinds of suspensions are very rare, Tony. Most of the teams that sign unreliable stars receive no relief. In this case, the Wizards still owe Arenas $80 million over the next four years. There is no upside for a team that loses a major player to suspension, because of the harm to the reputations of the player and team as well as the absence of his talent on the court. The Wizards would much rather have avoided the firearms episode entirely and kept Arenas in uniform all season.

Watching the Raptors over the last few weeks has been painful. Everyone is saying Bosh is a max player, but if he can't lead this group of players to the playoffs, or even if they barely scrape in to get swept by the Cavs, is he really worthy of a max contract? [Editor's note: This e-mail was sent before Bosh sustained a season-ending injury.] He clearly is not playing with the same intensity he played with at the start of the season. Is it worth it for any team to give a max contract to a player who has quit on a team when it needs him the most? Who is actually worth a max contract in a perfect world?
-- Jason, Toronto

LeBron and Wade are max players without any doubt. Teams with cap space must decide whether Bosh and Atlanta's Johnson are worthy of max contracts, especially when they consider the size of those contracts against the more austere environment of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2011. I would say either player surely deserves a max deal if he is the finishing piece on a team that can win the championship.

The best advice for Bosh is to sign with the most talented team that gives him the best chance to win big. The stakes are going to rise after he signs his next contract, and he is going to be expected to deliver a championship.

2 Teams divided by age

Inspect these two teams and then decide which would win -- assuming all players were at full health -- if they ever were to meet on the court.

All-Retiree Team. At 33 or older, each of these stars should be on the way out. Instead, they continue to play major roles for winning teams.

STARTERS
C Shaquille O'Neal
PF Tim Duncan
SF Grant Hill
SG Ray Allen
PG Steve Nash

RESERVES
C Marcus Camby
F Kevin Garnett
F Antonio McDyess
G Vince Carter
G Jason Kidd
G Chauncey Billups
G Andre Miller

All-College Team. At 22 or younger, each of these players could have been eligible to play in the NCAA tournament this season.

STARTERS
C Brook Lopez
PF Blake Griffin
SF Kevin Durant
SG O.J. Mayo
PG Derrick Rose

RESERVES
C Greg Oden
F Kevin Love
F Danilo Gallinari
F Nicolas Batum
G Brandon Jennings
G Tyreke Evans
G Russell Westbrook

I'll give you my answer: The old team would win big.

1 Fun team to watch

All-Glue Team. Here are the rules as arbitrarily defined by me. Each player must be proficient in many areas without making scoring the priority (no one who averages 18 points or more is allowed), and he must play with energy while appearing in at least 90 percent of the games. Based on what they've shown for the season, this would be a fluid, unselfish and entirely entertaining starting five.

C Al Horford
PF Luis Scola
SF Grant Hill
SG Manu Ginobili
PG Steve Nash

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