Countdown: The best of 2009-10
LeBron James is an easy choice to win his second MVP award in a row
Kevin Durant (Most Improved), Scott Brooks (Coach) fueled OKC's turnaround
Carlos Boozer, Jason Kidd among the tough omissions on the All-NBA teams
Here is how I'm planning to fill out my official ballot early next week ... with a few extra awards thrown in. (Note that voters are asked to select their top three choices for each award except MVP, which requires five players, and the All-NBA team, which involves 15 players. Media do not vote for the All-Defensive team or Executive of the Year, but I've still included my picks.)
5 Major awards
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the easiest winner to pick in any category. James leads the league's best team with outrageous numbers of 29.7 points (No. 2 overall) and 8.6 assists (No. 6) to go with 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks (all top four among small forwards). The next two choices, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, rate ahead of Kevin Durant because each has been indispensable to his contending team; I don't believe Durant is ready to provide that kind of on-court leadership. But he has earned his first (though surely not his last) appearance on this ballot by leading the league's most surprising playoff team (more on him later).
Most difficult was the choice to leave Steve Nash and Dwyane Wade off the ballot, as both stars have maxed out their rosters. Instead, I'm giving the No. 5 spot to Carmelo Anthony for his leadership across the board in keeping the Nuggets in contention despite the absences of coach George Karl and defensive leader Kenyon Martin.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder. This annually becomes the most difficult category to choose because there are so many worthy candidates. Among those I considered but didn't list on my ballot were Alvin Gentry for returning the depleted Suns to the playoffs; Nate McMillan for keeping the Trail Blazers focused despite their injuries and front-office fiasco; Utah's Jerry Sloan for all of the same reasons he has deserved votes for 20 of the last 21 years; and Orlando's Stan Van Gundy and Cleveland's Mike Brown for integrating new personalities and talents while maintaining the East's top two contenders.
As for my top three, Lionel Hollins amazingly overcame a 1-8 start to drive Memphis into playoff contention and at least a 15-game improvement over last season. Scott Skiles' Bucks were picked (by me) to finish last in the East, and yet they reached the playoffs during a transition year by integrating an overlooked rookie point guard in Brandon Jennings and midseason acquisition in John Salmons. But the winner is Brooks, who has quickly and efficiently turned the league's youngest roster into a dangerous playoff team around the league's most promising young star and the NBA's No. 6 field-goal defense.
Coach of the Year Ballot
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. The Magic are tied for first in field-goal defense because Howard dominates the paint in addition to the defensive boards. Orlando's commitment to team defense -- as well as its spread-the-floor offense -- is built entirely around Howard's overwhelming presence inside. Anderson Varejao, meanwhile, is the new Kevin Garnett -- at the defensive end, at least -- thanks to the abundance of energy plays he makes for a title contender that is also built on defense. Is it a surprise to pick James No. 3 in this category? It shouldn't be: He creates deflections and steals, he guards the best scorer when it really matters and he routinely demoralizes opponents by chasing down breakaways to block what should be the easiest two points in basketball.
Defensive Player of the Year Ballot
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks. I made a similar choice in 2004 when I picked Anthony over James in this category: LeBron looked like the better player for the long term, but Carmelo led his Nuggets to the playoffs and seven more wins than the Cavs. The same dynamic holds true this year. Tyreke Evans is likely to have the better career and he has put up the best individual numbers of his class, but no rookie has had a bigger impact than Jennings.
With no help from the Bucks' best player, Olympian Michael Redd, Jennings has driven Milwaukee into playoff certainty while integrating February acquisition Salmons and bringing out the best in Andrew Bogut (before the center's season ended last weekend). I assumed Evans had run away with this award going into March, but point guards are judged according to team success, and the Bucks' winning record makes Jennings the choice here. For a point guard nothing is more important than the ability to play with, and get the most out of, teammates, and Jennings' leadership qualities were -- for this year, at least -- without peer while leading his team to the playoffs.
Evans is on the verge of becoming the fourth rookie to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists -- joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron. I expect Evans to win this award because he has had a sensational year. But I'm going to vote for the point guard who led his team to the playoffs, because winning matters most.
Rookie of the Year Ballot
ALL-NBA TEAMS. Here's how I configured the three teams, with an explanation below.
Two decisions were most difficult, beginning with the absence of Carlos Boozer. The easy fix to make room for Boozer would be to list Duncan at center -- a position he routinely plays -- but Duncan is listed officially as a forward and the NBA asks that we vote for the player at the position he plays regularly. I can't rate Boozer ahead of Nowitzki or Duncan, so there it is.
The other difficult call was to not recognize Jason Kidd, but I went with Roy in part because of his enormous value to the Blazers, who are 41-22 when he is in the lineup. Now shouldn't Kidd receive credit for reliability while playing in all but two games this season? Of course he should. But ultimately, I feel Roy deserves recognition for guiding his team through a harsh season of injuries and turmoil.
Also missing here is Chris Bosh, who put up sensational numbers. The tiebreaker that works against him is the Raptors' record. He has not been able to have a winning impact, especially during the crucial run after the All-Star break when Toronto went 9-15 (before Bosh's season ended prematurely this week). It's not so much that I'm holding the record of his team against Bosh as I am recognizing those players who have had a positive impact on their teams, including Stoudemire, whose frontcourt scoring has been vital to Phoenix's surprising season.
Centers David Lee, Brook Lopez and Chris Kaman all put up strong numbers for horrible teams; I've chosen to recognize Horford for posting solid numbers and showing frontcourt leadership for the contending Hawks. Bogut will end up missing 13 games, but his influence was obvious between his double-double averages and 2.5 blocks.
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