Sam Smith hands out his NBA awards
Sam Smith shares his picks for MVP, Coach of the Year, Sixth Man and the league’s other major postseason awards. He also makes his selections for his All-NBA and All-Defensive teams as the regular season winds down.
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Well, at least I was pretty sure LeBron wasn’t going to win another Most Valuable Player award.
Of course, I picked Derrick Rose last fall in my preseason award predictions. Well, maybe if he hadn’t gotten injured again.
Those preseason awards selections are difficult, though it made some sense it would be tough for LeBron James to win a fifth MVP award this season. Heck, Michael Jordan has five, though it was more competition then as he lost to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. Magic won three, Larry won three and Moses Malone won three. Wilt won four, Bill Russell also won five and Kareem won six. LeBron winning more than everyone? Perhaps eventually, though it was reasonable to guess going for that fourth consecutive Finals appearance with Dwyane Wade limited would take something out of him.
My other preseason awards choices were a bit closer, but I don’t see anyone taking me to Las Vegas.
I had Doc Rivers as Coach of the Year, and he should get some votes. I had Victor Oladipo as Rookie of the Year, and he should finish second or third. I had Dwight Howard as Defensive Player of the Year, and you can make a case for him, though he probably won’t win taking off a lot of games late. And I had Eric Bledsoe Most Improved, and he could have gotten it if he weren’t hurt. Though I think I had the correct team.
So here are my choices for postseason awards, and I don’t pick the winners here all that much, either.
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
I’ve got this one. This is going to be a runaway vote and Durant has it locked up. Even LeBron appeared to concede last week when he said Durant was playing like an MVP. LeBron said something similar late in 2011, which cleared the way for Rose. Once there is a groundswell with media support, as there has been for Durant, it’s basically over. He’s by far again leading the league in scoring to win the scoring title for the fourth time in the last five seasons and still was chasing first place until Sunday’s loss in Indiana despite Russell Westbrook injured often. The big story, really, is after the top two as Joakim Noah probably will get into the top five and perhaps as high as third. It’s truly the most amazing rise in the league from a player who even earlier this season was being doubted as an All-Star. When the panel of TNT broadcasters posted their All-Star reserve selections, Noah didn’t make it on most ballots. There are many better players than Noah and players you’d take ahead of him. But MVP is not Most Outstanding Player. It’s a combination of the player having a terrific season, valuable to his team and leading them. Plus, Noah is putting up historic statistics for centers in all-around play.
1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Joakim Noah
4. Blake Griffin
5. Al Jefferson
Coach of the Year: Steve Clifford, Charlotte Bobcats
Back to those preseason predictions—hey, don’t ask me as if I knew I’d live in Vegas—I had the Bobcats 14th in the East. I did have the 76ers last, and they’ve sure tried. Though I did have the Suns last in the West. Missed that one big time. Not sure why I figured that as I had Bledsoe Most Improved and liked Goran Dragic. Anyway, that puts Jeff Hornacek with the Suns and Clifford with the Bobcats in the classic position of we in the media underestimating their teams. So it must be coaching. We certainly underestimated the Suns’ talent. I don’t think we did with Charlotte. How many of those guys other than Jefferson start for a playoff team? Right, probably none. But more than that, Clifford not only did the famous culture change but implemented defensive discipline where there never had been any other than under Larry Brown. And Charlotte turned around one of the worst losing situations ever. Two years ago they had the worst season in NBA history and basically doubled their win total from last season. It was tough to overlook both Tom Thibodeau and Gregg Popovich because they are two of the best coaches in the league. Both have done amazing jobs once again without superstar talents. But they’ve won before and their teams have posted similar records from the previous season. The tiebreaker should be the non-winner. And that’s not even mentioning Hornacek, whose team has amazed all season.
Rookie of the Year: Victor Oladipo, Orlando Magic
This is my morality statement because of what the 76ers have done this season. There are bad teams, the Bucks, certainly, the Jazz, Lakers, Celtics. But no one has tried to lose like the 76ers. By the way, I’m not voting any award winners from those teams. But the behavior of 76ers’ management has been a stain on the game, particularly their mid-season trades of half their productive roster for nothing to make sure they lose more games. I don’t fault the players or the coach. But you cannot reward someone from a team that behaves as the 76ers have. Michael Carter-Williams likely will win the award. He leads all rookies in points, assists and rebounds. Though the numbers are way inflated because the 76ers play fast and refuse to defend, producing way more opportunities for all statistics as opposed to some sort of offensive discipline, like that shown in Orlando and Utah. Plus, Carter-Williams has become shot crazy the last few months and is firing them at 17 percent from three-point range since the All-Star break. But no rookies have been great. There should be a lesson to future players that if you become associated with an organization that cheats the nature of the game you won’t be rewarded. Going for the lottery is nothing new. The Celtics, Magic and Jazz are as well. But not this way. Plus, Oladipo has had a comparable season, in my view, and when they played head to head often outplayed Carter-Williams. I’m leaving Carter-Williams off my ballot and going also with Tim Hardaway Jr., who at least contributed to winning, which Carter-Williams certainly did not as well.
2. Trey Burke
Sixth Man: Taj Gibson, Bulls
I’m sensitive at times about selecting Bulls players since my work appears on the Bulls web site. But I’ve rarely seen a player improve his game so much and mean so much to his team. Gibson is as much reason as any for the Bulls’ excellent season. I can make the case as well for Gibson for Most Improved. But he has a much better chance to win Sixth Man, and he deserves to win an award. Here’s a guy who had virtually no post game a year ago and now has one of the best in the league, a player who could barely make a jump shot his entire career and is now a knock down shooter and one of the most productive players in the NBA in the fourth quarter. Gibson averages about 20 and 10 as a starter in eight starts this season. But he never complains and embraces his role. Plus, probably his two greatest rivals for the award, Manu Ginobili and Jamal Crawford, are previous winners. Being overlooked for this award would be one of the great oversights of the season.
Most Improved Player: Goran Dragic, Phoenix Suns
This is the most difficult award because of the varied definitions that would make cases for everyone from stars like Kevin Love to developing stars like Anthony Davis to even picked off the heap players who once were like the Bulls’ D.J. Augustin. You could name a dozen deserving players and maybe a half dozen on the Suns, like Gerald Green and Markieff Morris. Which is why I go with Dragic, who has been the long sought next Steve Nash. Suddenly, here’s a guy again who all of a sudden is surrounded by guys having career years. Can that be a coincidence? Bulls fans remember Dragic as the cowering guy on that famous Rose dunk a few years back. But Dragic has developed into an elite point guard who does make teammates better. Lance Stephenson was an early favorite and a good choice, though I have to put in a sentimental one with Shaun Livingston for traveling through half the league on one leg and never giving up and becoming a key player for a good Nets team.
2. Kyle Lowry
Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Bulls
OK, I’m breaking my too many Bulls rule. I thought Noah was deserving last season until he missed so much of the last few months injured. We know Noah has had a truly amazing season taking over the offense in the high post and leading the team in assists. Noah may not be the greatest rim protector—I always felt Roy Hibbert was way overrated because of the Miami playoff series and third best defender on his team and now we’ve seen that—or the best shot blocker. Those big guys usually get the recognition. But the overall package Noah has in rebounding, defending the basket, playing the perimeter and hustle and effort inspiring his team makes him an usual and realistic choice for the award. Voters usually monitor team defense and vote someone from there, and that’s understandable. Sort of if you are the best defender ever and get your team from 10 to 20 wins who cares. But there are good defenders on bad teams, like the Pelican’s Anthony Davis. I happen to like perimeter defenders, the Bruce Bowen, Tony Allen type. Those types used to win all the time, like Alvin Robertson, Sidney Moncrief and Michael Cooper. Guy named Jordan as well. Then it became all centers with the occasional Ron Artest. There are some good perimeter guys now, like Andre Iguodala, Patrick Beverley, P.J. Tucker, Paul George, Luol Deng and Kawhi Leonard. And LeBron when he wants to be.
2. Serge Ibaka
3. Paul George
The biggest problem with the all-NBA in this NBA that really doesn’t have many big stars—two with Derrick Rose hurt—is who to leave off. It may be unfair as one player cannot overcome poor coaching or limited personnel with injuries. But the tiebreaker often has to be whether you’re with a winning team. It’s tough to leave off Anthony Davis, but you’ll see there’s really no one at forward to take off. Similarly with Carmelo Anthony, who really had a terrific season with the league’s most dysfunctional franchise (pre-Phil) and handled himself with high regard. And you basically forget Chris Bosh, Dirk Nowitzki, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. And Paul Millsap was an All-Star. DeMarcus Cousins gets a lot of mention because of his numbers, but he’s so far from this category with his selfish play and erratic attitude that detracts from winning. The most difficult position to make the choice is at guard in this perimeter oriented league. You can make six teams of all-NBA guards and not make a mistake. This time I have to leave off several playoff guards, like John Wall, Damian Lillard, Jeff Teague, Ty Lawson and Joe Johnson. All could or should make it, and that leaves out someone like All-Star MVP Kyrie Irving.
This is a somewhat arbitrary choice at times because the voting often ends up rewarding star players. Chris Paul is included often because he gets a lot of steals. But that’s often not good defense because he’ll play off his man. It helps a team, but it’s not really defense. And good defense is a team function. I prefer to reward tough players who take on the best individuals. I like guys who haven’t gotten credit in recent years, like Kawhi Leonard, Patrick Beverley, P.J. Tucker and the Bulls’ Jimmy Butler. Tony Allen has been in that category, but comes off the bench now as they use Courtney Lee, who is more of a scorer. LeBron James is an excellent defender and at the close of games will take on the best player. But he doesn’t do it that often and with Dwyane Wade’s limited playing program James has had to take on an extraordinary amount of responsibility this season. This category gives me a chance to give Anthony Davis something as he’s becoming an extraordinary player.