Sam Smith hands out his NBA awards

With the 2009-10 NBA regular season coming to an end, Sam Smith of rolls out the red carpet and honors his MVP, Coach of the Year and Rookie of the Year, among others. He also says he likes Chicago center Joakim Noah to win the Most Improved Awa

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Joakim Noah

"Capped by that fabulous game against the Raptors Sunday, Noah has been a marvel," writes Smith. "A year ago, he was afraid to shoot a jumper or shoot any way. He was being pushed under the basket by anyone weighing more than 175 pounds. He was barely playing the first half of last season. He’s become a superstar role player."

(Randy Belice/NBAE/Getty Images)

It’s not like being in the NBA should be reward enough, but we Americans love to honor people. See, we really are nice. Heck, we even honor NBA players, or some of us do.

So just who are the best? Roll out the red carpet, and you have to admire the NBA players more than those at the Oscars. When they get their awards, they rarely make stupid political speeches and cause much less pollution from those smug clouds that hover over Los Angeles for weeks afterward. You always wonder why they say in Beverly Hills the rest rooms never have a poor aroma. Ah, but I digress. On to the winners:

1. LeBron James 2. Kobe Bryant 3. Dwight Howard. 4. Kevin Durant. 5. Dwyane Wade.

Although there are not criteria for any of the awards, the MVP generally goes to the best player having the best season for the best team. That clearly would be James with the Cavs with the best record and James having another dominant season. With Bryant beginning to have injuries and getting on in basketball years, James could win this one for most of the rest of the decade. It could even be unanimous, though I’m feeling one Florida guy goes for Howard and one L.A. guy for Kobe with his six buzzer beaters. Like him or not, James is the next great thing and his overall stats by all the formulas rank him No. 1.

Coach of the Year:
1. Scott Skiles. 2. Alvin Gentry. 3. Jerry Sloan.

The consensus is Oklahoma City’s Scott Brooks will win, and I have nothing against him as he has done a good job. But this voting usually goes to the coach whose team the media most overlooked. After that poor start last season, the Thunder played .500 ball and was coming. Plus, Kevin Durant was an All-Star as most should have seen with him by far the best at the USA Basketball tryouts last summer and Russell Westbrook close. Skiles has been simply magnificent. He doesn’t have an All-Star and still a throwaway roster with discards even starting. They’ve become one of the toughest teams to play and he’s been the first coach to wake up Andrew Bogut, who since got hurt. Coaches who have coached should be the top priority for this award, not guys just grabbing a hot team. Gentry does have Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire, but he developed defense and a bench for a team most overlooked and Sloan continues to ignore trades of players to save money, injuries and whatever Carlos Boozer says to have his team playing as hard as any for more than two decades.

Rookie of the Year:
1. Tyreke Evans. 2. Brandon Jennings. 3. Taj Gibson.

Yes, that was a bit of a homer vote for Gibson, but if the MVP goes to the player for a winning team, why shouldn’t playing for a team in playoff contention matter? Gibson has led all rookies in rebounding and blocks most of the season and made Tyrus Thomas expendable. I wanted to vote for Jennings No. 1 because he’s run the show for a solid playoff team, but Evans is just so good and dominant and about to set rookie statistical marks met by only the likes of Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. I leave off Stephen Curry less for his talent, which is terrific, but for playing in that awful, who cares system in Golden State. No one should be rewarded for putting up points there.

Most Improved:
1. Joakim Noah. 2. Carl Landry. 3. Aaron Brooks.

I was leaning toward Brooks a few weeks ago because I thought Noah missed too much time and would not be back this season. Never mind. Capped by that fabulous game against the Raptors Sunday, Noah has been a marvel. A year ago, he was afraid to shoot a jumper or shoot any way. He was being pushed under the basket by anyone weighing more than 175 pounds. He was barely playing the first half of last season. He’s become a superstar role player. I’ve heard talk of mention of guys like Durant and Bogut, but you should not be most improved if you were supposed to be a star. I can see Durant some as it’s hard to jump to that superstar level he has, sort of like going to a scratch golfer from a 10 handicap or 80s shooter in golf. It’s a huge jump. Brooks and Landry are more the prototypes, guys picked low who weren’t expected to be much who both were serious All-Star candidates this season.

Sixth Man:
1. Jamal Crawford. 2. Jason Terry. 3. Anderson Varejao.

Crawford has been the classic in the Ricky Pierce/Eddie Johnson mold of the reserve who comes in and supplies the offense. Manu Ginobili has been that guy as well, though his biggest contribution has been as a starter this season, though he technically qualifies. Same for Lamar Odom. J.R. Smith also qualifies, but I have a personal bias against knuckleheads. Terry plays the same role as Crawford, but Crawford has done it better as the best numbers guy off the bench since Pierce and Varejao provides more defensive energy and is the team’s best defender. Sorry LeBron.

Defensive Player:
1. Dwight Howard. 2. Josh Smith. 3. Thabo Sefolosha.

Howard could get all three spots as he may win this award for the rest of the decade as well as no one is truly close for now. It’s the way it is with dominant big men, and there are few anymore. Smith has become a defensive force, and probably was their real All-Star inside guy over Al Horford, though coaches don’t like to vote for guys like Smith who can be a bit unstable. I like to vote for perimeter guys for this award and could have gone for Gerald Wallace or Rajon Rondo as they impact games. But Sefolosha has been a huge part since being traded in changing the team’s mindset to defense and being their stopper and playing all the best perimeter guys.


First team: LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade.
Second team: Dirk Nowitzki, Amar’e Stoudemire, Pau Gasol, Deron Williams, Joe Johnson.
Third team: Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Andrew Bogut, Brandon Roy, Steve Nash.

My favorite irony in the omissions is Tim Duncan. I hated to leave him off, but a few years ago when I was on the All-Star ballot committee I presented a proposal to list Duncan as a center because—duh, he plays there—but we had to list 12 centers and good luck finding 24 centers who deserve to be on the ballot. It was enough of Rasho Besterovic and Sam Dalembert. So I suggested making guys like Duncan and Amar’e Stoudemire centers on the ballot to give more high level guys recognition. The Spurs, of all teams since they are the last to worry about individual honors, made an objection with the league and the league changed it. Duncan said he was a forward. You know what; he’s no longer one of the six best. Sorry. Other guys who could have made it included Manu Ginobili, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Zach Randolph and Gerald Wallace, though it’s difficult to see taking anyone off.

NBA news and notes

-- I guess if your alternative was the Clippers, but Elton Brand has to wonder what his agent, David Falk, got him into. Brand was all set to return to what might have been a pretty good Clippers team with Baron Davis coming over from Golden State and Chris Kaman, but Falk got the 76ers to go some $10 million more and it’s been Brand’s nightmare, benched again last week and then beat up by coach Eddie Jordan, who said of Brand and Dalembert:” "I wasn't happy with their play, that's flat out. Defensive energy, mostly, awareness, sense of urgency, that sort of thing." Anything else. Which is a warning—or advice—to this summer’s free agents: Your life is no different with $95 million or $125 million. You are rich and your family, to throw out that canard, is taken care of for generations either way. This is the best time of your life, so you better enjoy it. You enjoy it by winning, by being where you want to live and want to play and whom you want to be with. Someone making more money doesn’t make your life worse when you have bimonthly checks of about seven figures. Twice a month! Ultimately, you have to live your life and are responsible for your actions. Listen to your agent, but don’t do what he says. As much as he professes love for you, his interest is the best deal so he can sell that to his next client. The chances you will hear much from him after you retire are slim. Check with top former players. As for Elton, Jordan is rumored headed to his alma mater Rutgers, but likely somewhere. But the 76ers are a long way away and it’s looking like an ugly close to Brand’s once bright career. Too bad for one of the really good guys.

-- I often make a point of watching players leave hotels and the arena to see how they deal with fans. Many will sign autographs, and I’m not saying golfers should be models, but you rarely see any like Phil Mickelson. I was watching some of the Masters Sunday and loved the way walking to the first tee he was bumping fists and high fiving with fans. The NBA guys spend way too much time being cool, walking head down, acting like too much is beneath them. And I generally like them and know they are not always like that. But show some enthusiasm, like you care more, like you are excited about this great life you have. And then there’s these guys putting out Twitters, like Charlie Villanueva and Austin Daye, when they missed the team flight last week and basically vented to the internet: "This has been a very frustrating year. It just only got worse today,” wrote Villanueva. “I have never experienced, in my five years, what I have experienced this year." Wrote Daye: "Something happened to me today that won't ever happen again and I'm just venting right now, but I'm twisted mad and going to be ready for our game." Fine, whatever the purpose of that is. But how about actually mixing with real people for a change?

-- It was amusing to see USA Basketball’s Jerry Colangelo take a hard line on players competing in this summer’s World Championships and then backing off some when LeBron James objected and told Cleveland reporters: “There’s a lot that goes on with being a professional athlete other than just basketball. I’m not trying to bash Jerry or anything like that because he’s a good guy and I respect him. I don’t respect (his statement of saying there’s no free pass to the 2012 Olympic team) because of the commitment we’ve all given to the U.S.A.” Colangelo backed off and said they needed to be flexible. Like him or not, James is one of the world’s most popular players and may be the most by then. It was like when Michael Jordan initially balked at playing for the Dream Team. How can you send the best without Jordan? Or James. So they do get treated differently. Jordan got his accommodations, which included knocking off Isiah Thomas, and James will get his. Better be nice. … Speaking of James, this taking off the last week of the season, or most of it off, is an abomination and something the NBA has to look at. Or James. He is a great, great player and sure MVP, perhaps unanimously. But he’s not quite Kobe or Jordan because of things like this. Kobe missed a few games last week, but he’s been playing through big injuries all season that would keep Carlos Boozer out for two years. Jordan never took games off, in part because he understood his responsibility to the league and the game. No matter how he felt, when the team went west where he was once a season, he played. He understood what people paid for tickets and his place in the game. He might complain at times, but, in the end, he always was there. How about those people paying hundreds and hundreds last week at the United Center? Couldn’t James have given them a quarter? Jordan played 82 games in each of his last three championship seasons. He didn’t have to. Phil begged him to rest. He played 82 and 80 his first two, that second season losing a game on suspension. Check the records. The truly great ones, Russell, Wilt, Oscar, Bird until he was hurt, they couldn’t sit there and watch if they could play. It is the one thing still missing in James. He seems headed to his first championship, but you get the sense he’ll never quite be like Jordan or Kobe. Maybe his life is healthier because he may not be so driven. But he also needs to understand what the league has done for him, what he means and what is his responsibility.

-- Kevin Garnett continues his decline in a sad way, which is too bad given the way he reclaimed his reputation and honor after for years being regarded as a talented loser. With the Celtics staggering, especially defensively, and fans booing a home loss last week Garnett was overheard muttering, “Then don’t come to the (expletive) games,” as he left the court. The Celtics overall defensive stats remain good, though it’s somewhat deceiving as with giving up a lot of points they are playing slower than ever walking the ball up and giving Rajon Rondo few fast break chances. Before beating the Bucks Saturday 105-90 (without Garnett), they’d given up at least 100 in six straight, including in consecutive home games 109 to Oklahoma City, 119 to Houston and 113 to Cleveland. And then the booing in the next home game with 106 to the Wizards after trailing by 30. Trying to get to third and avoid the Cavs if they can reach the second round, the Celtics have lost to the Wizards, Rockets and Knicks. Garnett spent a lot of time taunting and throwing cheap elbows at Danili Gallinari in the loss to the Knicks and Gallinari had 31. … When Ben Gordon scored 39 points against the Heat last week, it was his first 30-point game since Nov. 4. … Nice to see Shaun Livingston match his career-high with 21 points for the Wizards, which he set four years ago just before his horrible knee injury that looked like it would end his career. "Some of the plays that I've been making, I made those plays just working out,” he told the Washington Post. “It's stuff that I felt I could've done a long time ago. It's all about the opportunity and the moment. I've just been preparing until now." Said coach Flip Saunders: "The only reason he's not an all-star at this point is because of the injury.” … That’s defense. Josh Smith is the tallest player in the top 10 in steals and shortest in the top 10 in blocks. … The Hawks continue to blow fourth quarter leads, five in the last two minutes on the road since All-Star break, making them a possible first round upset victim among many. If that’s the case, coach Mike Woodson isn’t expected to be retained as he’s been playing his starters heavily, which is said to be contributing to the late collapses. … Scouts are looking at Miami with the No. 2 field goal defense behind Orlando, a star in Dwyane Wade and hot winning 10 of 11 and seven straight on the road as having the best chance of a first round upset in the East. .. Here’s one team’s private estimates of the approximate cap space for the teams vying for the free agents: Knicks $31.6 million; Nets $23.4; Miami $21.3; Wash $19.5; Bulls $18; Sac $16.9; Clippers $15.5; Min $12.5; Thunder $11.5.

-- Slowly that big free agent class is shrinking with Manu Ginobili re-upping with the Spurs, Dirk Nowitzki saying he sees no reason why he’d leave Dallas and won’t opt out and Kobe Bryant also re-signing with the Lakers. … The Mavs are yielding more than 100 per game the last dozen as the West continues to defy predictions with the Lakers, losing down the stretch at home to Portland Sunday, looking more and more vulnerable. "There's no team afraid of any other in the West," said Mavs owner Mark Cuban. Darn, I hate to agree with him. … Nowitzki is working on 68 consecutive free throws made, 29 short of the all-time record held by Michael Williams. … Big chance lost by the Thunder, losing in Golden State Sunday night to fall to eighth as the Trail Blazers, whom they face Monday, and Spurs hold the tiebreakers. Kevin Durant had 40 and seems now certain to become the youngest ever to win a scoring title. … It’s not exactly MVP stuff, but struggling Richard Jefferson quietly shot 55 percent in March and at least 50 percent in four of seven April games for the Spurs. … Though Don Nelson got the wins record, Rick Adelman snuck in with his 900th win and seems certain to join that 1,000 club as certainly the most underrated. … With George Shinn bowing out as Hornets owner, the word is new ownership is intent on keeping Chris Paul, though some who know Paul said while loyal he is growing restless about the state of the team. But finances always are an issue and they might move David West. Would the Bulls try to put together a package including Taj Gibson? Same in Minnesota, where GM David Kahn told the Minneapolis Star he expects major changes before next season with the belief they’ll try to move Al Jefferson or Kevin Love.

-- How about Kenyon Martin’s reaction to the April Fool’s alleged joke when J.R. Smith’s driver—right, he did it on his own—put popcorn all over Martin’s car. So what was Martin’s threat: “How 'bout if I don't play in the playoffs until somebody tells me who did it?" Yes, that’s the sign of a competitor. They need George Karl badly, and everyone is hopeful that Karl’s cancer treatments go well. … The Cavs are last in the league in free throw shooting, and now Shaq is close to returning. … Watch out for one dark horse in the race to get Chris Bosh. There’s been talk the Thunder could put together a sign-and-trade package featuring Jeff Green, which might be attractive to the Raptors and perhaps to Bosh since it’s close to his Texas home. … Pat Riley called Don Nelson “the greatest innovator in the history of the game,” and Nelson surely will get elected to the Hall of Fame over the next few years now that he has the all-time coaching wins record. But rarely has such a great record been met with such muted overall response around the NBA. It’s because Nelson has burned so many bridges—and then blown them up and torched every house in the area—on the way out, suing bosses, threatening players and executives that there are few more reviled figures in the game. Still, he has made great contributions and accomplished much. The cover for overlooking him for the Hall of Fame always has been, “What’s he won (as a coach)?” But it was a handy excuse of so many Hall of Famers who’ve been at odds with Nelson. There’s a fair chance even with a season left on his deal he may be out of coaching if the Warriors are sold, as expected. What I do know is when he gets in it will be a heck of a party and will go on for quite some time. Nellie does enjoy the good toast. ... It was ironic last week to hear the Raptors Sonny Weems, traded by the Bulls for the rights to Omer Asik, saying the Cavs really want to play the Bulls over the Raptors in the first round: "I think in the back of their minds they would a little bit," Weems said. "We're going to come to play."

Follow Sam Smith on Twitter at SamSmithHoops.

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