Posted: Wed April 17, 2013 12:25PM; Updated: Wed April 17, 2013 12:59PM

LeBron, Lillard among writers' picks for NBA awards

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LeBron James
LeBron James is poised to win the MVP award for the fourth time in five years.
John W. McDonough/SI

With the 2012-13 season almost a wrap, SI.com's NBA writers reveal their picks for the league's top performers. All five picked LeBron James for MVP and Damian Lillard for Rookie of the Year but differed on the Sixth Man Award, Coach of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player. (All stats and records are through April 16.)

NBA Regular-Season Awards
MVP
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Kobe Bryant
Chris Paul
Ian Thomsen
Everyone was playing for second in this category. Durant has improved to keep Oklahoma City atop the West despite the preseason trade of James Harden. Anthony and Bryant have carried their teams, while Paul continues his transformation of the Clippers' franchise. But no one has come close to equaling the impact of James, the NBA's best at both ends of the court. The question now is whether James, 28, has peaked -- or is there further improvement to come?

James
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Paul
Tim Duncan
Lee Jenkins
As dominant as James was in 2012 -- MVP, Finals MVP and Olympic gold medalist -- he has been even better in 2013. There's nothing he can't do, whether it's averaging 26.8 points, eight rebounds and 7.3 assists; defending everybody from All-Star point guards to All-Star centers; shooting an unfathomable 56.5 percent from the field; and triggering a 27-game winning streak. James will soon pick up his fourth MVP trophy in the past five years, and while they've all been deserved, no choice has been as easy as this one.

James
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Carmelo Anthony
Chris Paul
Tim Duncan
Chris Mannix
There has never been a unanimous MVP in 57 years. That should end this year. With all due respect to Durant (who has upped his game in the absence of James Harden) and Anthony (who has carried the Knicks), James has been brilliant. He's having his most efficient season from the field (56.5 percent) and the three-point line (40.6 percent) for the Heat, who have steamrolled anyone in their path. This vote is a no-brainer.

James
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Chris Paul
Tim Duncan
Carmelo Anthony
Ben Golliver
Voting for James is hardly an act of independent thought; his play has simply commanded it. Observers who touted Durant early saw James bat down every angle, one by one by one. Slow start for the Heat? How does a 27-game winning streak taste? Durant is heading for a historic 50/40/90 shooting season? How does 56.5 percent shooting and 40.6 percent from deep work as a counter? Time for voter fatigue to set in after James won in 2009, '10 and '12? How about he so thoroughly dominates that he averages 27/8/7 and pushes his team 12 games clear in the East? Durant has had one of the best offensive seasons in recent memory; Paul has transformed a franchise; Duncan has been old reliable for a perennial winner yet again; and Anthony is the focal point of a potent offensive attack for the surprising Knicks. And yet none belong in the same sentence as James, not this year.

James
Top 5
LeBron James
Kevin Durant
Chris Paul
Dwyane Wade
Marc Gasol
Rob Mahoney
James' case is about as airtight as these things come. There is no standard for excellence in his performance unmet, and no burden of proof for this award unquashed. James does it all and keeps adding to his game in a way that should strike a deep, honest fear in the rest of the league. His perpetual improvement has reached such a steady momentum that we've seemingly run out of ways to critique his game -- content instead to marvel in the patience and mastery of a legend at work. (For more on the case for James as MVP, click here.)
Rookie of the Year
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Andre Drummond
Ian Thomsen
Lillard's four years of college experience enabled him to take on a larger starring role than any rookie in his class. The 22-year-old point guard responded by keeping the Trail Blazers in playoff contention for much of the season. The Hornets have been more cautious with the 19-year-old Davis, who was also limited by injuries. The big surprise is Drummond, who has been brought along slowly -- and wisely -- by the Pistons, who may have found their long-term answer at center.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Bradley Beal
Lee Jenkins
The race tightened as the season progressed because Davis was a force when he played. The problem is that he didn't play enough because of an assortment of injuries. Lillard, by contrast, logged more than 3,000 minutes while surpassing 19 points and six assists per game. He didn't need a lot of time to acclimate to the NBA, showing early that he can drive, shoot, pass and run the pick-and-roll. Next year he will have to make strides on defense.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Bradley Beal
Chris Mannix
It will be a shock if Lillard, the front-runner since November, doesn't win by a landslide. While Davis, Beal and Cleveland's Dion Waiters have battled injuries, Lillard has averaged an eye-popping 38.6 minutes per game (tied for second in the NBA) and played a league-leading 3,129 minutes for the season. He has lived up to his reputation as a scoring guard while showcasing better playmaking (6.5 assists) than he ever displayed at Weber State.

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Bradley Beal
Ben Golliver
All sorts of superlatives apply to Lillard when compared to other candidates: most important, most irreplaceable, most reliable, most durable, most consistent, most NBA-ready and, yes, best scorer. The two- or three-year age advantage he had on most of his top rivals gave him a major leg up, as did a very loose leash from coach Terry Stotts. Though he doesn't lead his class in PER, he also had way more responsibility than his competition as a lead option. That responsibility brings the opportunity for tough shooting nights, turnovers and the like, but the on/off numbers suggest that Portland's above-average offense would have cratered if Lillard had been lost at any point. (For more on the case for Lillard as Rookie of the Year, click here.)

Lillard
Top 3
Damian Lillard
Anthony Davis
Bradley Beal
Rob Mahoney
I'm very fond of Davis' game, but Lillard is the choice based on his year-long success in such a hefty role. Shouldering so much creative responsibility inevitably leads to a deficit in efficiency, but overall Lillard did an impressive job as both a scorer and ball-handling collaborator in Portland's offense.
Sixth Man Award
Top 3
Jamal Crawford
J.R. Smith
Andre Miller
Ian Thomsen
Smith leads all bench players with 18.1 points, but Crawford has far greater plus/minus impact -- a more telling sign of his value to the Clippers' success. Both players have been spectacular in creating their own shot and bailing out their teams late in the clock. Miller is capable of starting but comes off the bench to help the deep Nuggets excel across every quarter.

Smith
Top 3
J.R. Smith
Jamal Crawford
Kevin Martin
Lee Jenkins
Crawford seemed to have this honor sewn up at the All-Star break, but in the second half Smith lifted the Knicks when so many regulars were ailing. Smith has averaged 21.3 points (on 45.5 percent shooting) and 5.9 rebounds since the break, morphing from an immature wild card into an invaluable scorer the Knicks could depend on late in games. Nine years after he entered the league out of high school, Smith finally seems to be realizing his vast potential, just in time for the Knicks.

Smith
Top 3
J.R. Smith
Jamal Crawford
Jarrett Jack
Chris Mannix
This is bound to be a close vote. Smith can still be maddening with his shot selection, but with Amar'e Stoudemire in and out of the Knicks' lineup, Smith capably stepped into the second-scorer role to average a career-high 18.1 points. Smith isn't a good defensive player but he is better than Crawford, who has had his best scoring (16.4 points) and shooting (43.6 percent) season since winning the Sixth Man Award in 2009-10. Jack's steady play has been a big part of Golden State's success.

Smith
Top 3
J.R. Smith
Jamal Crawford
Kevin Martin
Ben Golliver
A torrid final two months has pushed Smith past his competitors. He's also pushed the Knicks past the Clippers in bench scoring. That seems big, given that New York plays at a slower pace than the Clippers and that the best argument for Crawford includes a nod toward the importance of his style and scoring having carry-over benefits for the entire reserve unit. If the Knicks' reserves are matching the Clippers' reserves point-for-point and Smith is outscoring, outrebounding and outassisting Crawford, where does that leave us? Smith is also putting up a better PER than Crawford, Martin and Jarrett Jack, even though his shooting percentages still do leave much to be desired.

Smith
Top 3
J.R. Smith
Jarrett Jack
Ryan Anderson
Rob Mahoney
The pool of candidates is as deep as it is imperfect, with most every top contender holding some notable weakness to offset a strength. Smith, a shoot-first wing who adds much-needed dynamism to the Knicks' offense, gets the slight edge because of his role and value. Carmelo Anthony is having a terrific year, but it's the efforts of players such as Smith that help round out one of the league's best offenses and free up opportunities for Anthony to operate. (For more on the case for Smith as the Sixth Man Award winner, click here.)
Coach of the Year
Top 3
George Karl
Frank Vogel
Tom Thibodeau
Ian Thomsen
Karl has turned the league's third-youngest team into the third-best team in the West. Though the Nuggets lack a go-to star, they have excelled by playing an aggressive style all their own, spreading the court in order to attack the rim rather than settling for perimeter jumpers. Vogel has finished his reinvention of the Pacers by turning them into a defense-first team and turning Paul George into a star. The Bulls had every reason to play for the lottery after losing Derrick Rose to injury and several key role players to financial concerns, but Thibodeau's demanding attention to the details has kept them in contention. (For more on the case for Karl as Coach of the Year, click here.)

Spoelstra
Top 3
Erik Spoelstra
Scott Brooks
George Karl
Lee Jenkins
It's never easy to motivate a star-laden team through the second half of an NBA season when, really, it's just biding time for the playoffs. But Spoelstra pushed Miami to a 27-game winning streak while overseeing a dramatic improvement and retooling on offense. The Heat don't have a traditional point guard or center, but they do have the best player in the world, and Spoelstra takes advantage by getting him the ball and spacing the floor with three-point shooters. Since 2010, the Heat have relied on a smothering defense, but now they also score with ease and efficiency.

Karl
Top 3
George Karl
Mike Woodson
Erik Spoelstra
Chris Mannix
Plenty of good nominees here (sorry, Mark Jackson), but Karl gets the nod for guiding a superstar-less Nuggets team to a top-three seed in a brutal conference. Karl pushed the tempo, molded young talents Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried and JaVale McGee and instilled confidence in a team of 20-somethings that they could beat anyone. Woodson coached through a rash of injuries and developed an effective offense around Carmelo Anthony. Spoelstra? Well, if you think coaching superstars is easy, ask Mike Brown or Mike D'Antoni.

Woodson
Top 3
Mike Woodson
Gregg Popovich
Erik Spoelstra
Ben Golliver
New York's current 15-2 run not only pushed the franchise to its first division title since 1994 but also proved that its red-hot start was no fluke. Woodson deserves credit for reshaping a post-Linsanity offensive system around Carmelo Anthony that wound up rivaling the league's best in efficiency. He managed personalities (J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin), coached through a host of injuries (Amar'e Stoudemire and a bunch of the old guys), found ways to hide various slumps (Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton) and vastly exceeded preseason expectations. Popovich would have been a sound default selection had the Knicks not reaffirmed their promising early-season play. Spoelstra could have a heck of a time earning recognition as long as LeBron is in Miami.
Top 3
Erik Spoelstra
Gregg Popovich
Kevin McHale
Rob Mahoney
This is an impossible choice between far too many worthy options, but I'll tab Spoelstra for his calculated and clever work in managing the NBA's best team. Contrary to popular belief, even star-laden teams such as the Heat don't run themselves. They take hard-working helmsmen like Spoelstra to keep everything in order, maintain a balanced rotation and keep all parties engaged. None of that comes easy, and on top of those feats Spoelstra has sold his team on the small-ball style that serves its best interests while flying in the face of basketball convention. There's no question that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all make Spoelstra's job easier, but he's been terrific as a tactician and motivator for the reigning champs.
Defensive Player of the Year
Top 3
LeBron James
Russell Westbrook
Paul George
Ian Thomsen
James affects the game defensively all over the floor, whether guarding his own position or shifting outside to stop point guards or into the paint against big men. He leads the Heat in steals to launch their fast break and leads them in defensive rebounds. Westbrook is like a mini-LeBron -- ultra-aggressive while relentlessly attacking rival point guards defensively to jump-start OKC's offense. The Pacers have become one of the league's leading defensive teams in no small part because of George's length and versatility on the perimeter.
Top 3
Roy Hibbert
Marc Gasol
Larry Sanders
Lee Jenkins
With a surplus of candidates for this award, Hibbert stands out because the Pacers have been a historically stingy defense, holding opponents under 42 percent shooting. Their whole scheme revolves around Hibbert's ability to protect the paint, altering shots and deterring drivers. Of course, the same could be said about Gasol, and the Grizzlies aren't exactly porous either. Indiana and Memphis are the two best defensive teams in the league.
Top 3
Marc Gasol
LeBron James
Serge Ibaka
Chris Mannix
Tony Allen grabs a lot of attention -- justifiably, I might add -- for his defense, but Gasol is the Grizzlies' anchor. Gasol is the defensive quarterback, barking out assignments and maneuvering teammates in front of him into the right spots. He contests everything, and though he doesn't look particularly mobile, Gasol can step out and defend the pick-and-roll and stay with forwards off the dribble. James can defend four positions with equal effectiveness. Ibaka has added improved team defense to his already fearsome shot blocking.
Top 3
Marc Gasol
Roy Hibbert
LeBron James
Ben Golliver
A late-season foot injury hurt Joakim Noah, my pick for most of the season. That's all the opening Gasol needed, thanks to Memphis' No. 2 ranking in defensive efficiency and his ridiculous impact. When Gasol is on the court, the Grizzlies have conceded only 95.4 points per 100 possessions; when he's off, that number skyrockets to 102.8. That difference (7.4 points per 100 possessions) tops Hibbert, who improves Indiana's No. 1 defense by a little more than two points per 100 possessions, and James, who improves Miami's No. 7 defense by 4.7 points per 100 possessions. Gasol gets it done with discipline, intelligence, spacing, communication and, yes, his massive size.
Top 3
Marc Gasol
Joakim Noah
LeBron James
Rob Mahoney
This award tilts in favor of big men based largely on the multitude of their defensive responsibilities every possession, unfair though that may seem. So, as much as I'd love to honor Andre Iguodala or Tony Allen (among others), I'm opting for two transcendent big-man defenders and an athletic freak who defies traditional positional roles or designations. All in all, Gasol and Noah are fantastic and worthy candidates. Gasol earns the honor because of the slightest of on-court edges, better team defensive numbers and 14 more games played. (For more on the case for Gasol as Defensive Player of the Year, click here.)
Most Improved Player
Top 3
Paul George
Nikola Vucevic
Stephen Curry
Ian Thomsen
The hardest improvement in the NBA is for a talented player to become a star, and George has made that leap. He has improved to help replace Indiana's leading scorer, Danny Granger (knee injury), while emerging as one of the league's top defenders. Magic GM Rob Hennigan looks brilliant for acquiring Vucevic -- rather than Andrew Bynum -- in the trade for Dwight Howard. Curry has improved as a clutch leader after being set back by injuries.
Top 3
Nikola Vucevic
Jrue Holiday
Greivis Vasquez
Lee Jenkins
Little more than a footnote in the four-team Dwight Howard blockbuster, Vucevic has been the most surprising player in the deal. He proves that the Magic knew more than it seemed back in August. He is averaging 13 points and 11.9 rebounds per game, nearly eight points and more than seven rebounds better than last season, and he's producing more per minute, too. The Magic could have traded Howard for Andrew Bynum, but right now, the 7-foot Vucevic appears far more reliable in the middle.

George
Top 3
Paul George
Larry Sanders
Omer Asik
Chris Mannix
George has led the way for a Pacers team that finished third in the East. In the absence of Danny Granger, George has become Indiana's top perimeter option. His shooting and ball handling have improved significantly, and he quietly has become one of the league's top defenders. Sanders is a shot-blocking monster who has played much more under control this season. Asik, always a strong defender and rebounder, has given Houston more offense than expected in the paint.
Top 3
Paul George
Larry Sanders
Jrue Holiday
Ben Golliver
Yes, George's shooting numbers have tailed off a bit since the All-Star break, but nobody made the leap from "very good" to "knocking on the door of stardom" better than he did. George is a true two-way talent, a rare commodity among volume-scoring wings. He essentially made everyone forget that an injured Danny Granger even exists. That he was able to grow into an offensive role that gave him an additional five shots per game compared with 2011-12 while also improving as a lockdown perimeter defender pushes him over the top in a crowded field. Sanders' out-of-nowhere emergence and Holiday's game attempt to single-handedly salvage some element of positivity from the Sixers' season are both worthy of recognition.
Top 3
Jrue Holiday
Greivis Vasquez
Kevin Durant
Rob Mahoney
Holiday has faded a bit while burdened with being a first-option scorer, but he's proved to be a more useful driver and perceptive playmaker than before. The key has been his incisive work down the middle of the lane. Working against an individual defender is one thing, but Holiday has noticeably improved in slithering through a crowd of defenders, in part because he's using his size better to wall off trailing opponents. He's done a nice job of using his length to finish around the rim more effectively once he gets an initial advantage, and he's leveraged those gains to create more for his teammates. Nice progress all around for a player who has subtly improved beyond those boosts in his scoring and assist numbers. (For more on the case for Holiday as Most Improved Player, click here.)
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