Casting my NBA Awards Ballot

If it's mid-April, it's NBA award season, which is a welcome distraction from a lot of the meaningless action that usually happens at around this time. I've decided to go mainstream for a bit today and fill out an imaginary end-of-season awards ballot for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player of the Year, Coach of the Year, and Executive of the Year. I'll also select my All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams. Follow along, if you like.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

One of the several no-brainers on this year's ballot, James is far and away the best player on the planet. There shouldn't be any debate here, but there will be, as Tim Povtak--who has an MVP vote--said he won't cast a ballot for James due to his decision to sit out the last several games of the regular season. As of this writing, he's posting 29.7 points, 7.3 rebounds, 8.6 assists, 1.6 steals, and 1 block per game on 60.4% True Shooting. He's led the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating for each of the last 3 seasons, and he's once again led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the league's best record.

Honorable mentions go to, in alphabetical order, the L.A. Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant, Orlando's Dwight Howard, and Miami's Dwyane Wade.

Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

Another easy call here, though I'm beginning to fear that sentiment is turning against Evans and in favor of Brandon Jennings and Stephen Curry. Let me make it simple: as a 20-year-old rookie, Evans is pouring in 20.3 points, 5.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 1.5 steals. He leads the league in shot attempts at the rim by a fairly wide margin. Regardless of whether you consider him a point guard or a shooting guard, those numbers are simply incredible. Yes, he needs to develop an outside shot. Yes, he needs to cut down the turnovers. But he's 20 years old! In another year or two, he's going to be as difficult a cover as anyone in the league, provided he continues to put in the work. The award is his, by a pretty absurd margin. For more on Evans' season, including a fairly well-reasoned look at why his stats might be hollow, I direct you to Joe Treutlein at Hoopdata.com.

Here's the thing, though: for whatever reason, awards voters hate to cast ballots for players on losing teams. I get that, to an extent, but why penalize Evans for playing on a less talented team? Sacramento is 25-56 as I write this post and long out of playoff contention. The argument for Jennings is that he's playing point guard on the playoff-bound Milwaukee Bucks, who weren't supposed to be nearly this good. And yes, Jennings dazzled early on with his 55-point performance. But in a league where stats tend to drive award voting, how in the world can anyone consider voting for anyone shooting 37% from the field? Jennings did not single-handedly turn the Bucks franchise around. There's no doubt that he's a good player and has a bright future ahead of him, especially if he learns to finish at the rim, but he hasn't had the best year of any rookie. Like, at all.

Curry's had a fantastic past few months, averaging 21.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 7.7 assists since the All-Star Break. Those are tremendous numbers, and it doesn't take a math major to figure out they best Evans' season-long line. But that's just the issue: the award is Rookie of the Year, not Rookie of February, March, and April. Curry deserves praise for, by all accounts, conducting himself well and managing to put up with the dysfunctional mess that is the Golden State organization. But he does not deserve the Rookie of the Year award.

Sixth Man of the Year: Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavaliers

To be clear, Atlanta's Jamal Crawford will take home this hardware very soon, and it won't be a very close vote. It's easy to understand why: finally placed on a team with actual talent, Crawford's scoring 18 points in just 31.1 minutes per game and doing so with remarkable efficiency (57.3% True Shooting). Stats drive many of these awards, and Crawford's got some killer stats. And for a winning team, too.

But Varejao is simply contributing more this season, albeit in ways that are less obvious. In 28.8 minutes per game, he's posting 8.6 points, 7.7 boards, 1.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.9 blocks. More importantly, he's no longer an offensive liability. Just two years removed from shooting just 46.1% from the field despite hardly leaving the basket area, Varejao's connecting on 57.0% of his shot attempts. That's huge, because his real strength is on D, where his quickness and awareness make him one of the game's best pick-and-roll defenders on a team otherwise bereft of them; Shaquille O'Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas don't move like Varejao. Hardly anyone does.

Maybe it's because I've followed the Magic my whole life, and the Magic have built their best teams around big men, but I think a great defensive big man is more valuable than a great scoring wing. That's where Varejao has Crawford beat, although this is a tough vote.

Carl Landry was my mid-season favorite for this award before Houston traded him to Sacramento, which has put him in the starting lineup, at the deadline. Manu Ginobili is eligible to win, but he's done his best work as a starter with Tony Parker sidelined, and this award is specifically earmarked for bench players.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

Howard's been a lock for this award for several months now, and he'll become the first player to lead the league in rebounding and blocked shots twice. That he wrapped the award up so easily is pretty surprising when you think back to how shaky he was in season's early going. He fouled more, blocked fewer shots, and seemed a step or two late on a lot of possessions; he didn't bust his tail on each trip down the floor like he did last year, when he also won this award in a walk.

But then something changed, and he applied himself more, and that's about all she wrote. James will win Most Valuable Player every year if he wants to, I suspect, and the same can be said for Howard and this award. He anchors one of the league's best defenses on a team that doesn't have many other great individual defenders. He's always going to put up gaudy rebounding and block totals, but there's a hidden component there too, in that his very presence discourages dribble penetration. And he, like Varejao, moves very well defending the pick-and-roll.

Josh Smith averages 3.7 combined steals and blocks for Atlanta, as well as 6 defensive boards. Gerald Wallace, another do-everything combo forward in the Southeast, averages 2.6 combined steals and blocks and grabs 8.2 defensive rebounds per game. Solid stats, and Wallace's length makes him an exceptional perimeter defender--Smith, for all his athleticism, isn't quite there yet--plus he plays for an elite overall defensive team. But neither of them boasts the same overall defensive impact that Howard does. For a dissenting view, here's Jonathan Abrams of the New York Times, who voted for Wallace because, "[w]hile post players have the ability to disrupt shots at the rim, it is the guards and forwards who are more mobile in switching and guarding a wider variety of players and a greater area."

Most Improved Player of the Year: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder

I'm certain that Durant is the most deserving winner of this award, and I'm just as certain that he won't win it because many writers believe he was "supposed" to be this good. Which is funny, because when he scored 20.3 points per game on 43% shooting as a rookie two seasons ago, it didn't look like he'd ever become a legitimate MVP candidate; at best, he'd be the next Rashard Lewis.

But now, in his 3rd season and at age 21, he's scaring the hell out of everyone who pays attention. 30.1 points, 7.6 boards, 2.8 assists, 1.4 steals, 1 block, 60.5% True Shooting, and 10.3 foul shots per game. He's a 7-footer with two-guard skills. He can get his shot just about anytime, and he's doing it with excellent efficiency. Just imagine the havoc he'd have wrought had his three-point stroke not left him: after connecting on 42.2% of his triples last season, he's down to 36.2% now.

Here's a list of players from the last 20 years who've scored better than 25 a game on at least 60% True Shooting in their third season. They're all centers, with the exception of Durant. What he's done, at his age, at that position, is unprecedented. Last year? Not nearly as great. His PER is up to 26 from 20.8, a 20% increase. Ridiculous.

Houston's Aaron Brooks is the frontrunner for this award, but I don't understand why. Yeah, he's improved his scoring average by 8.5 points per game, but that doesn't account for his 10.8 increase in minutes per game. Good percentages and an above-average PER, but he hasn't improved to the same extent Durant has. Then again, this award tends to go to average players who became good, and not great players who became extraordinary, so Durant doesn't stand much of a chance. Eddy made this nice little chart to show how Durant and Andrew Bogut have blown Brooks away this season.>

I'd contend that Orlando's J.J. Redick has added more to his game than Brooks has. But because he's a reserve player on a better team, well, not many people have noticed. Bogut, too, has really become a two-way threat in this league and a legitimate All-Star candidate. George Hill of San Antonio has honed his skills at both guard positions and looks to have a promising career ahead of him, but I think he's still a bit overrated. Marc Gasol slimmed down, learned to defend better, and became a better passer from the high post, so he drew consideration as well. However, the award is Durant's.

Coach of the Year: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

This award's the hardest for anyone to vote on with any degree of certainty because every season there's an abundance of teams who play through adversity or fare much better than they should, two things we tend to attribute to coaching. Brooks, who's guided the Thunder to a playoff berth in his first full year on the job, falls into the latter category. Award voters may penalize him for having Durant at his disposal, but I'm not sure that's entirely fair. He had to get Durant to believe in playing defense, and he has. He's helmed one of the league's best defensive teams and, also impressively, turned his group into one of the league's best road teams. The Thunder, who've matured rapidly and are wiser than their years suggest, take after their coach in that regard.

Portland's Nate McMillan and Milwaukee's Scott Skiles are also deserving candidates. The Trail Blazers have secured a playoff spot despite devastating injuries to damn near everyone on the team; Skiles lost Michael Redd, his highest-paid player, early on, but it hardly mattered since he coaxed solid showings from Jennings and castoffs like Carlos Delfino, Ersan Ilyasova, and even Jerry Stackhouse. Prior to Bogut's injury, the Bucks were the runaway leader for "Eastern Conference team from the lower half of the bracket no one wants to see in the playoffs." But now, with all their scoring having to come from the perimeter, they'll be a fairly easy out. Probably.

Executive of the Year: John Hammond, Milwaukee Bucks

This award is usually the least fair because most teams take more than one year to build. But based solely on transactions made this season, Hammond's work really stands out.

Having the stones to draft Jennings, who posted pedestrian numbers in an Italian league last year, is the obvious starting point. But acquiring Delfino, and signing Ilyasova--who had a disappointing rookie season in Milwaukee two years ago before leaving for Europe--Stackhouse, and Hakim Warrick on the cheap added depth at a low cost. The best move, though, was dealing Warrick and 2008 draft bust Joe Alexander to Chicago for John Salmons, who'd struggled in his first full year in the Windy City. But Salmons woke up after the trade and, along with Bogut, keyed a 17-7 spurt before Bogut's gruesome injury ended his season. The Salmons trade also netted the right to swap draft picks with the Bulls, who will finish with a worse record than the Bucks this year. Finally, Hammond was willing to take on the extra year of Salmons' salary, which proves his commitment to winning in a trade season during which most teams looked to cut costs.

To me, this award is pretty clear-cut. Hammond improved his roster with some risky moves that ultimately paid off, and he did so during the course of this season only. Cleveland's Danny Ferry and Orlando's Otis Smith also improved their teams, but let's be serious: with management's permission to pay the luxury tax, they had more advantages than Hammond did.

All-NBA First Team

  • Guard: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
  • Guard: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
  • Forward: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
  • Forward: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Center: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

All-NBA Second Team

  • Guard: Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns
  • Guard: Deron Williams, Utah Jazz
  • Forward: Chris Bosh, Toronto Raptors
  • Forward: Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks
  • Center: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs

All-NBA Third Team

  • Guard: Manu Ginobili, San Antonio Spurs
  • Guard: Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
  • Forward: Carmelo Anthony, Denver Nuggets
  • Forward: Amar'e Stoudemire, Phoenix Suns
  • Center: Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers

Listing the first team wasn't too difficult since it's just the 5 players on my MVP ballot. Sussing out the second and third teams proved to be much more challenging. I wanted to make room for David Lee, Carlos Boozer, Zach Randolph, and Josh Smith, but couldn't justify including any of them at the above players' expenses.

I did have to go against my principles a bit by putting Williams on the second team. I have nothing against him, and he's had a fine season, but it does seem wrong to vote for him ahead of Chris Paul in anything. However Paul's missed far too many games this year due to injury, so Williams gets the nod over Paul despite Paul's superiority.

Putting Bosh on the second team was tough choice because he hasn't played on a very good team this season, but to me, rewarding a lesser player like Randolph or Boozer for playing on a better team just didn't seem right.

All-Defensive First Team

  • Guard: Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
  • Guard: Thabo Sefolosha, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Forward: Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
  • Forward: Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats
  • Center: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

All-Defensive Second Team

  • Guard: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
  • Guard: Andre Miller, Portland Trail Blazers
  • Forward: Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
  • Forward: Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz
  • Center: Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee Bucks

The problem I faced here was making room for Bogut and Duncan, who are both centers, on the second team, especially after listing Duncan as a center on my All-NBA ballot. I may have fudged with the rules here by listing Duncan at different positions for different awards, but that doesn't bother me, as the alternative is not listing him at all. Excluding Orlando's Mickael Pietrus and Portland's Nicolas Batum was also a tough call, but neither has exceeded the job Sefolosha, Bryant, Wallace, and Kirilenko have done defending the wing.

All-Rookie First Team (chosen regardless of position, listed in descending order of preference)

  • Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
  • Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
  • Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks
  • Marcus Thornton, New Orleans Hornets
  • Darren Collison, New Orleans Hornets

All-Rookie Second Team

  • DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs
  • Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Rodrigue Beaubois, Dallas Mavericks
  • James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder
  • Chase Budinger, Houston Rockets

All I can say here is I'm glad we're not required to vote on a positional basis; otherwise, we'd have to find justification for listing Evans at center, or including Tyler Hansbrough at Thornton's expense. The toughest calls were omitting Jonas Jerebko and Reggie Williams.

Had Nuggets coach George Karl not buried Ty Lawson in order to give more minutes to Anthony Carter, his security blanket, Law could have supplanted any of the 5 players I chose for the second team.

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