Sam Smith hands out his end of the season awards

With the NBA's 66-game regular season coming to an end this week, Sam Smith of shares his picks for MVP, Coach of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Sixth Man, Defensive Player of the Year and Most Improved Player

So here we are, the final week of the season that almost wasn’t. And it was closer than many believe to being a mulligan. Even in the NBA offices going into Thanksgiving week they were not optimistic about a season. But it came and, yes, there were many injuries, but seemingly not so many from the stress of the shortened season.

The teams that were mostly expected to be good—Chicago, Miami and Oklahoma City—were. And why not the Spurs, who won 61 games last season. So no matter the obstacles and trials and tribulations, form pretty much held. The MVP debate pretty much came down to the same guys as the last few seasons. There were some surprises, but none too major. So now it’s time for the fun with the playoffs. But before then, here’s my ballot for the regular season’s best players.

MVP: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers — Perhaps this is a bit of a career achievement in a season where, at least to me, there is no certain No. 1. So I can make the case the decade’s best and most successful overall player is deserving, as he has led the league in scoring just about all season, his team has been exceeding expectations and playing for the division despite changes in personnel and players. And, by the way, he’s played all season again with an injury that would have required surgery for most players. The conventional wisdom leader has been LeBron James, and I see him as a great talent, though perhaps no better than Kevin Durant. But what exactly is Most Valuable Player? It’s a hazy definition that usually goes to the best overall player whose team is having the best season. Perhaps then you make the case for Durant, as his team has led its conference much of the season. But there is a complete picture to MVP, and it includes the guy who will finish the game for you and make the big play when needed. Too often that is not James. Maybe you say it’s not his fault, given he plays with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But James too often defers when the time is big, and it’s rare to find that sort of MVP. I thought Thursday’s Miami win over the Bulls was typical James, carrying the team and doing brilliant stuff as his talent is undeniable, and then Wade coming on late. Scouts all know you focus on Wade after halftime with Miami. Maybe you point to Bill Russell. But he made the big defensive play and that’s why he won his MVPs. There was an interesting discussion I had with the NBA’s best media LeBron expert, Brian Windhorst of ESPN. He raised the point of whether LeBron could or should become one of eight all-time players who have at least three MVPs while still not having a title. That is sort of the opposite of my Kobe vote, a career non-achievement, and I don’t think that should disqualify him. Plus, many of those players have won more than three. But if LeBron gets toward five and six without a title, it will deserve some examination. And LeBron three and Kobe one? It doesn’t feel right. You say Shaq had one. OK, but it was embarrassing how little he ever tried in the regular season. It is a regular season award, and Kobe has had a superior regular season. I do think LeBron probably wins, as I’ve heard few media members going for anyone else. I’ll put him No. 3 behind Durant and ahead of Tony Parker and Chris Paul.

Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, San Antonio Spurs — This is the toughest one for me, given I have seen every Bulls game and can make the case that Tom Thibodeau has done as good a job as can be done in getting the most out of the talent he has. That really is what Coach of the Year should be. It is generally not as it’s a flaw in the way media view the award. The award generally goes to the coach whose team most media members underrated before the season. So when the team does well, then it had to be the coach because how could the media members be wrong? It explains why so many Coach of the Year winners are soon fired. Not all do great coaching jobs when they win. Thibodeau did again. But I’m having trouble making Thibodeau the only coach ever to repeat when even Red Auerbach, whom the award is named for, won just once, though it was only given in his last four years of coaching. It’s a bit like Michael Jordan not winning MVP every year. He probably was, but other guys did well and deserve recognition, too. Thibs the Jordan of coaches? No, that’s not exactly what I meant, though his start suggests he’ll be a great one. Actually, I think there have been perhaps a half dozen really good coaching jobs done this season deserving of recognition. Given roster disruption and talent questions, you have to be impressed with Alvin Gentry, Lionel Hollins, Kevin McHale, Ty Corbin, Doug Collins, Frank Vogel and honorable mention to Paul Silas for beating up Tyrus Thomas. And, of course, Doc Rivers, who had two players undergo heart surgery, lost his starting center probably for good, had his veterans start the season in awful shape, heard his GM trying to trade basically his entire team, was under .500 at the All-Star break and never stopped believing. But I go with Popovich with a terrific season blending in guys who barely could play elsewhere, like Danny Green and Gary Neal, sitting guys to rest them for the playoffs on double digit winning streaks, starting rookies and second round picks and working in guys picked up late and getting a lot from the West’s version of Brian Scalabrine, Matt Bonner. And being ahead of the vastly more talented Thunder much of the season. I do take some points from Popovich as I believe in playing and that the paying public deserves a complete regular season. But Popovich’s the truly elite NBA coach now and gets the tiebreaker for that. Doc’s third.

Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers — This became closer as Irving missed a large part of the end of the season and the Cavaliers collapsed. Suddenly, the departure after 41 games of Ricky Rubio didn’t look so lopsided. Irving clearly is a greater talent, but Rubio’s influence on his team was as significant as the Timberwolves were flirting with the playoffs with Rubio, who also was becoming one of the game’s most entertaining players. But Irving is the whole package and a developing star for the league the way he already was taking over games. There have been several rookies to make an impact on playoff teams, which is impressive, like Iman Shumpert, Kawhi Leonard and Kenneth Faried. Though he didn’t play with a winning team, for talent I’ll go third on my ballot with Golden State’s Klay Thompson.

Sixth Man: James Harden, Oklahoma City Thunder — He’s perhaps the most hidden talent in the NBA. His 40 points off the bench against the Suns last week suggests that. NBA stat maven Rick St. Jean sends this along as his state of the year: Harden has taken only 13 shots or more eight times this year and in those games has averaged more than 25 per game. Harden may be the game’s most efficient scorer and as the lead player on a team maybe the league’s leading scorer. Suns coach Alvin Gentry says he’s the league’s third best shooting guard behind Kobe and Dwyane Wade. It’s confusing with the 76ers guys as their best scorers come off the bench, but they fit under the definition. The Bulls have a team filled with them, though none really play quite enough. It’s even hard to pick among them, though I usually say Taj Gibson is the most valuable. But C.J. Watson has come on enough this season to deserve consideration. But Lou Williams No. 2 and then O.J. Mayo ahead of Andre Miller.

Defensive Player: Tyson Chandler, New York Knicks — He actually seems to get the most credit when he doesn’t play. Then the Knicks are rarely able to hold anyone under 115. It was their greatest defensive stand Sunday yielding 113 without Chandler. Dwight Howard generally gets these and I was inclined to forget him after the way he undermined the team all season. But their defense wasn’t great with him, as it turned out. Chandler changed the Knicks’ identity, and that’s still with two guys, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, who don’t try much on defense. It’s a tough award given I like to go with a perimeter defender as that’s where the pure defense is played, but the rules make it so difficult to do so. Some of the best on the perimeter this season are LeBron James, Luol Deng, Tony Allen, Arron Afflalo, Grant Hill and Andre Iguodala. I’ll go with Iguodala and Kevin Garnett barely over shot blocking leader Serge Ibaka.

Most Improved: Nikola Pekovic, Minnesota Timberwolves — Like coach of the year, there’s a flawed philosophy on this vote. Otherwise, how could Kevin Love win? He was a high lottery pick. He was supposed to be really good. He is really good. Some are mentioning DeMarcus Cousins. But who didn’t think he’d average a lot for a bad team while being a problem? It’s why there generally are a dozen or more guys getting a lot of votes. I prefer your undrafted or low draft pick guys who emerge when given a chance after a long while. Jeremy Lin was the unanimous winner until he got hurt and he really hasn’t played enough. I can make a case for John Lucas given there were questions if he was good enough for the D-league. Perhaps the poster child for this is Jared Dudley, a low first round pick who has improved his scoring average all four seasons he’s been in Phoenix. There’s a lot of sentiment for Andrew Bynum this season, and he is the favorite. I can accept him even if his problems mostly have been injury related. I like your Danny Green types, a second round pick making a big impact for one of the league’s best teams. Though not that far down, the Celtics Avery Bradley also has been a surprise. There’s been sentiment for Orlando’s Ryan Anderson, though it seemed he was coming on last season like Kyle Lowry. The Bucks Ersan Ilyasova also was a second rounder who has become a first string starter. I like Pekovic. Even Minnesota had no idea as they kept playing Darko. But he was a second round given little chance given his lumbering game. But he became an actual starting center. I’ll go Goran Dragic No. 2 and Danny Green No. 3.

All-NBA Teams

First Team: Kobe Bryant, Tony Parker, LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Tyson Chandler

Second Team: Rajon Rondo, Chris Paul, Kevin Love, Dirk Nowitzki, Andrew Bynum

Third Team: Russell Westbrook, Steve Nash, Al Jefferson, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard

Executive of the Year: Larry Bird, Indiana Pacers. I don’t vote, as this vote is their peers. But from going nowhere, Bird has quietly built the Pacers back to contenders and still has cap room. Yes, Chris Paul was huge for the Clippers, but that’s mostly David Stern. The Spurs and R.C. Buford always do a great job in picking up players. But Bird made some great additions with David West and the trade of George Hill and a nice deadline pickup of Leandro Barbosa. And should Bird win I think you’d have to say he’s the greatest figure in NBA history. Michael Jordan was the greatest player and Red Auerbach was arguably the greatest coach and executive, though Phil Jackson bypassed him as coach. But Bird was the MVP, a multiple champion while the best player in his team, coach of the year and now perhaps executive of the year. There would be no one in league history who could match that excellence in every area and I would hereby suggest Bird now become the new logo for the NBA.

NBA needs to make a statement after Artest’s assault

-- Well, at least we never have to call him Metta World Peace again. Ron Artest’s vicious assault on James Harden Sunday should be at least a 10-game suspension, and then maybe 10 games to open next season so Artest loses some money. No, not if you were anyone else. Then maybe a few games, though it was bad and I would like to see suspensions match the injury if the injuries are serious. But this is the guy, Artest, who caused the worst riot in the history of American team basketball. This playoffs already is setting up as a physical one with the activities of the Heat and Pacers in the last week and flagrant fouls all over the league this last week. Commissioner David Stern should make a statement to start as they finally did in the NHL that this sort of behavior will not be tolerated. We’ve seen enough of Artest this season. … Whether it’s their chosen identity or just circumstance, the Pacers are heading into the playoffs with that physical, fighting attitude the Bulls saw in the playoffs last season. Again it was Tyler Hansbrough getting into it with what Mike Dunleavy described as cheap shots, and David West joined in, as expected. The Pacers are going to try to be an intimidating force come playoff time, and they are carrying the “no respect” card and clichés chip on their shoulder. We’ll see if it means much. “It's tremendous the step that we've taken in one season," Danny Granger told the Indianapolis Star. "How we've had a complete turnaround. Now we're one of the best teams in the NBA.” Added coach Frank Vogel as the Bulls are in Indiana Wednesday: "We felt coming into the season that we wanted to be in the conversation with Chicago and Miami. We feel like we can compete with those guys and we feel like we can beat those guys in the playoffs should we face them. Obviously we have to face someone first in the first round. That's what our sole focus is going to be but we're happy to be (the three seed). I'm no longer trying to persuade our guys that we can be great. They believe it. Added the 76ers Doug Collins: “I think that they've got the necessary components. There are a lot of teams that are not going to want to play them in the playoffs. If they can win that first round, they're going to be a tough out." … It also should be a fun night when the Bulls are in Indianapolis as the Pacers will be honoring players from their three ABA title teams when they dominated that league, including Hall of Famer this year Mel Daniels. … Comcast broadcaster and former Bull Kendall Gill will be among those Monday when the Nets honor their history, such as it was, before moving to Brooklyn next season. In addition to Gill, among those scheduled include Otis Birdsong, Kerry Kittles, Albert King and some of the more interesting types, Chris Morris and Derrick Coleman. They did have a vivid ABA history with a title and with Jason Kidd did make the Finals twice. But they’ve more often been considered Clippers East with Larry Brown fired during a playoff chase because he was pursuing the Kansas job and Rollie Massimino apparently accepting the job and then quickly rejecting to stay at Villanova. There was Coleman’s famous “whoop-de-damn-do” comment about being paid a $70 million deal and the antics of Jayson Williams, who went to prison after a shooting death after his career was over.

Collins deserves credit for making 76ers relevant again

-- Doug Collins revived basketball in Philadelphia, which should be worth something. The 76ers’ home attendance was up 19 percent, the highest jump in the NBA. Now they probably have to blow up the team that is lining up as the Bulls likely first round playoff opponent. With essentially the same roster that won 25 games two years ago, they’ve made the playoffs twice. But they are a maximum .500 team on talent, if that. They have a declining Elton Brand, virtually no inside strength with constantly injured Spencer Hawes, a perimeter big man, their leading scorer, Lou Williams, coming off the bench and shooting 40 percent, and three players who essentially are point forwards, Andre Iguodala, Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young. They’ll have salary cap room, and thus some pieces to make a deal and take on salary. And next season is Brand’s last and they’ll lose his $18 million. Perhaps they amnesty it after this season, though he still can contribute. And Dwight Howard isn’t going there to be booed. And he surely would be. The 76ers could be the next breakthrough team in the East, but it’s going to involve some major changes first. … Although it’s been a brutal season for the Raptors, the fans and what is usually a sardonic media is giving kudos to coach Dwane Casey for being honest about what little talent they have but incrementally improving it as they’ve gone from last in defense to 16th. Though one columnist credited usually peripatetic GM Bryan Colangelo for the hire and then disappearing. … With a recent Yahoo Sports report confirming the trade deadline rumors of the Celtics strongly shopping Ray Allen, it does seem like Allen will be one of the more intriguing players moving this summer. There’d been some talk in Boston the Celtics could bring back he and Kevin Garnett on one year deals if they cannot attract a major free agent, but Allen told the Boston Herald he won’t go through another season is similar trade instability (supposedly the closest deal was for O.J. Mayo and a draft pick). “Just from what I see around the NBA, there’s a lot of teams that look forward to having me,” said Allen, still among the top five three point shooters all season. “I just want to be somewhere where I’m valued, cherished and I can go out and play.” Allen figures to go for at worst a team’s $5 million exception for two or three years to finish out his career. I’d look for Memphis again and perhaps the Jazz, Clippers or Magic if Dwight Howard were to return. Perhaps that gets Howard to do so. Or maybe back to the Bucks where he started.

NBA news and notes

-- He doesn’t get mentioned much for Most Improved because he's become good, but Arron Afflalo has been crucial for the Nuggets in April in moving into playoff position. This season he’s doubled his career scoring average to 15.2 and is averaging 19.5 this month. The Bulls were among several teams that pursued Afflalo as a restricted free agent last offseason, but the Nuggets resigned him. … They’re pushing Vinny Del Negro in L.A. for coach of the year with 14 of 17 after Sunday's win. … Starting four first year players and Richard Jefferson with Mikki Moore first off the bench no one’s been dumping games better than Mark Jackson, who slipped up Sunday with a road win in Minnesota. The Warriors need to be among the bottom seven after the lottery to keep their draft pick. They’d lost 20 of 24 before Sunday as they went from close to the playoffs to Nets territory. It was a potentially devastating win for the Warriors, who moved up to eighth poorest record. … It’s pretty much the play in game Tuesday in Salt Lake City for the Jazz and Suns. If the Jazz beat the Suns, Utah is in. If the Suns win they also have to beat the Spurs Wednesday or have the Jazz lose to Portland. If the Jazz makes the playoffs, Minnesota gets Utah’s first round draft pick from the Al Jefferson deal. Minnesota’s pick went to the Hornets in a convoluted deal one time involving Marko Jaric and later from the Clippers in the Chris Paul deal. Minnesota is targeting a shooting guard if they get the first rounder…Minnesota had a tough close with injuries, but finally did win a game in April for the first time since 2009.

-- I’m not sure if this is politically incorrect. But what can we say about someone who has mental problems if they also play in the NBA? Oh yeah, Ron Artest. Where is there a more understanding environment than the NBA? I’m not sure what to make of Delonte West’s self-proclaimed “wet Willie” he gave to Utah’s Gordon Hayward by sticking his wet finger in Hayward’s ear during a dead ball. West was fined for taunting. Of course, I’m also not sure what to make of myself for thinking about this. We’re not supposed to talk about West in the media. He was treated for depression a few years back when he played for Cleveland and also was under indictment for carrying a virtual arsenal of weapons around. It seemed West would fall into a sort of trance at times and Cavs’ management asked that reporters not speak to him. Everyone agreed. See, they aren’t all vipers. I’d recall West in the visitor’s locker room at times staring blankly with everyone making sure to stay well away from him. He’s seemed better in recent years, and has had a relatively productive season with the Mavs. But I still don’t know what to say about him…If the Pacers are the team no one wants to play in the East, it’s Memphis in the West, where Rudy Gay is averaging almost 25 points the last 10 games. Coach Lionel Hollins, always low key, has deftly not only handled potentially explosive personalities well, including adding Gilbert Arenas, but has smartly separated Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph so they both can control the ball, which Mike Woodson hasn’t quite figured out yet with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. Said Hollins to the Memphis Commercial Appeal: “As I told the team, it’s a wide open season. It’s wide open for anybody to win the championship. As I told you guys when I got hired, I was asked why I should be the head coach. ‘Why not?’ It’s the same thing I said to the team. ‘Why not us win the championship?’” … Not that they were rooting for it, but Ricky Rubio’s injury and the Timberwolves collapse gives the Hornets two lottery picks to pair with Eric Gordon. Chris Kaman leaves as a free agent, presumably, and if they happen to get Anthony Davis lucky they could recover pretty quickly with David Stern then a chance for Executive of the Year. … In Charlotte, the media is virtually promising Davis given the best lottery odds, which could prove a big disappointment….The Magic needs one win to avoid Miami to open the playoffs, not that they’re beating anyone, anyway. Orlando has Charlotte Wednesday in what appears their winnable game to hold off the Knicks and keep sixth, which means an opening round series with Indiana. But Charlotte needs one win to avoid that worst percentage ever and a 23-game closing losing streak. … No one much notices when you are losing so much, but Gerald Henderson is much improved with a good shot now and looking like he could break through if he had some help.

-- These were desperate times for the Miami Heat. They’d lost to the Bulls twice, the Thunder, Pacers, Celtics, Grizzlies, Magic and Lakers, five of those by double digits. They weren’t looking so fearsome anymore and had lost six of their last seven to winning teams on the road before facing the Bulls last week. The unthinkable was becoming a reality. If they don’t win this season, the Heat might have to think about major changes. And the obvious one was the one they could never do, trade Dwyane Wade. LeBron James was emerging as the team’s best and he and Wade still hadn’t truly figured how to play off one another. But after Wade endured those two years of roster destruction and getting James to commit, no one could think of trading Wade. Chris Bosh? Sure, that’s always speculated. So my guess is Pat Riley gave a pep talk. I don’t know this for sure, but the Heat’s Thursday win over the Bulls bore all the marks of a Riley motivational speech. Because the play resembled Riley’s old Knicks and early Heat: Foul every time and they’ll get tired of making the calls. The Bulls did shoot 28 free throws in Miami to 21 for the Heat, but the tactics seemed clear. How else to explain James Jones flying in from nowhere to cheap shot Joakim Noah? It had to be one of those Riley classics demanding you hit first or be hit filled with all sorts of warfare imagery and desperation. The Bulls didn’t react well, obviously. And perhaps the Heat made its point and statement. Did Riley stick his head in a bucket of freezing water for several minutes like he once did to show how much he could take? Was he screaming? Stomping? Pleading? It had to be a classic since we’ve really never seen anything like that from the Heat before. Funny, I never recall Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson flattening 5-8 guards with blind picks like LeBron did. It seemed like they all got into it for the moment. We’ll see where it takes Miami in the playoffs.

-- That’s some food fight going on within the players’ association with dueling statements last week with the executive committee asking for president Derek Fisher’s resignation and Fisher declining and asking for an audit. I don’t pay much attention to the players’ association, but my personal experience is Fisher has basically always been straight with reporters and I could never say the same about Billy Hunter. I also have talked to a lot of former players and Hall of Famers who have major issues with their treatment from Hunter and the players’ association. I’m betting on Fisher’s side in this one. … Interesting statement perhaps by the Celtics who sat most of their top players in Atlanta last week despite having a chance to overtake Atlanta for home court advantage in their likely first round matchup. The Celtics will win the Atlantic, but the Hawks have the better record so far and thus home court advantage. The Celts reserves pushed the Hawks well into the fourth with a sort of message from Boston that they believe they can beat the Hawks without the home court edge so it didn’t matter to try for it. … Who’s fallen farther than Rashard Lewis, the league’s second highest paid player to Kobe Bryant. He lost his starting job to Chris Singleton in Washington, averages 7.8 points and basically has been home recovering from injuries when the Wizards travel. Lewis told the Washington Post he takes his daughter to and from school and watches his one-year-old son. They Wizards likely will buyout Lewis for $13 million and still have amnesty to use on Andray Blatche and rebuild. “I know I’m a lot better player than this,” said Lewis, an All Star as late as 2009. “I still feel like I got a lot of basketball in me. I know I can still play at a high level. I know I can still run and jump. It’s just getting healthy. I know I’m not nowhere near the end of my career. I feel like I’m most definitely in my prime. You’re going to look up one day and say, ‘Sweet Lew’ is back.”… Andrew Bynum limited his moping as he sat out the fourth quarter and overtime of Sunday’s overtime win over the Thunder after Artest disabled Harden. Bynum had that big 30-rebound game a few weeks ago against the Spurs, and in the rematch last week he had two rebounds. “We figured out we should probably block him out,” said Tim Duncan.

-- Really, David Stern has to be a candidate for Executive of the Year. The Hornets now have two lottery picks as they get Minnesota’s from the Clippers, and by rejecting that first trade for Chris Paul, Stern saved the Hornets from financial purgatory. The Hornets would have received Lamar Odom, who went home even from a good team, Kevin Martin, who missed most of the season hurt, and Luis Scola, who had one of his poorest seasons. Both have bog contracts beyond this season. They also would have gotten Goran Dragic, which wouldn’t have been bad. But now the Hornets have Eric Gordon instead, who is much better than Dragic, two lottery picks and major financial flexibility. They would have been weighed down otherwise with aging, overpaid, declining players with little flexibility. … Jerry Sloan quietly was at the Jazz game Saturday night, the first time he’s been back since his resignation over a year ago. … The grunts are becoming the next wave of top NBA coaches, so perhaps you should watch for the Bulls Mike Wilhelm, a top young guy who’s come up that way. The latest is the Pacers Frank Vogel, a top Coach of the Year candidate, who was a video coordinator for Rick Pitino at Kentucky and with the Celtics before going with Jim O’Brien to Indiana and then replacing him. He was doing the grunt film work for years, and he’s not the only one to come that way. Noticed 76ers coach Doug Collins: "I think what you're seeing is guys who aren't afraid to do the lowest of duties to get their chance to get their foot in the door. Look at (Lakers coach) Mike Brown. I think he started as a video guy and now he's one of the top coaches in the league."