An NBA season that introduced us to Bron Bron and 'Melo has something going for it.
And so this past campaign, with the best rookie class since '96 and one of the best of all time, had its moments. To be sure, the West is still superior to the East, but the gap is closing. To be sure, the Lakers are still fussin' and feudin', but what would life be without them? And to be sure, the playoffs will be wondrous -- and ponderously long. But what has caught my attention most about the season past is the idea of renaissance, of new possibilities.
For the longest time, pro ball was but a rumor in Denver, and Cleveland, and Memphis, and forgotten in cities like Miami. That changed this year, proving once again that it's not the size of the media market or amount of loot in the owner's wallet that makes the difference. Sure, it was easy to take LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. But those teams didn't just stand pat with their prized rookies; they improved the squads around them. And how do you explain the Logo getting it done 3,000 miles from LaLa, without a lot of cap room or high draft picks? Smart people manage to come out on top in the end.
Which brings me to this season's awards. All the winners possess a combination of native intelligence and severe work ethic. And they've made this a year worth remembering. Which reminds me to remind you as I do every season: I don't want any guff about my picks. They're my picks, for my reasons, and I only have to justify them to myself. When you get the ballot, you can pick who you want, for your reasons. That's why they call it Election Day, after all.
Most Valuable Player
My choice: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves. Injuries have removed many of the usual contenders for this award from consideration (Orlando's general suckiness eliminated Tracy McGrady), but that shouldn't take away from what was another stellar year from Da Kid. Can you believe he's been in the L eight seasons already? KG's career highs in scoring (third overall in the league) and boards (first) and his league-best double-doubles led the Wolves, and only Vlade Divac dished out more dimes among bigs. More important than the numbers is the leadership Garnett provides on the nightly, which is the base on which Minnesota has built its aspirations. Sam Cassell and Spree were brought to Minneapolis for their playoff experience. The regular season is all KG's.
Defensive Player of the Year
My choice: Ron Artest, Pacers. Who knows why people mature? Some people never do, after all, and this was a guy that many in the Indiana organization thought was certifiable last season. Artest gets the nod, in part, because he was finally on the floor long enough this season for folks to take notice. No lengthy suspensions; no on-court meltdowns. Just suffocating D on anyone unfortunate enough to have to try and take him. Rick Carlisle had his staff break down every defensive possession Indiana had this season -- more than 8,000 in all -- and the findings were staggering. Artest's guy only got off 9.4 shots per game and averaged just eight points a game. Add to that the 18 a night Artest gets at the other end, and you see why Indiana has a real chance if it gets to the Finals.
Sixth Man Award
My choice: Raja Bell, Jazz. Every time I looked at the Jazz in the fourth quarter this season, Bell was doing something really smart and important off the bench. Hitting a big shot. Taking a charge. Boxing out. Winning games during Utah's improbable playoff chase. This is a guy that the Spurs desperately wanted two years ago, and that Larry Brown had designs on in Philly (Bell is who Greg Buckner was supposed to be), but Dallas beat them to it. And you may have noticed that the Mavericks' relapse into a defensive sieve this season coincides with the loss of guys like Bell and Adrian Griffin.
Coach of the Year
My choice: Jerry Sloan, Jazz. Losing two Hall of Famers is, um, tough. So is losing one's leading scorer 31 games into the season. Of course, Sloan never allows excuses to enter the state of Utah, so he said he'd coach what he had left. And so he put his Arroyos and Lopezes and Giriceks and Pavlovics on the floor, and the Jazz just kept on winning. To say this is Sloan's best coaching job is redundant; every season since he took over in Salt Lake City has been like this. His team gets the absolute maximum out of its ability, and if it loses, there's no whining about the officiating or lamenting things not done. One of my remaining goals in this business is to get to see a Utah practice from start to finish. I just wonder how Sloan does it.
Also under consideration: Hubie Brown, Grizzlies; Jeff Bzdelik, Nuggets; Phil Jackson, Lakers; Rick Carlisle, Pacers.
Rookie of the Year
My choice: LeBron James, Cavaliers. Last season, I voted for Yao Ming over Amare Stoudamire, even though the Suns made the playoffs and the Rockets didn't. The reason was that Yao had so much more to deal with than Stoudamire -- more expectations, more hype, more attention, more pressure -- and that he had a good season after all that was amazing. So it is again this season. Believe me when I tell you, I really wanted to vote for Carmelo Anthony. I picked Anthony to win the award at the start of the season, and he did nothing to make me regret that choice. He was clutch for the Nugs all year. But James had more on his plate. No one -- not Jordan, not Magic, not Russell or Wilt -- came into the L with more light and heat on him than James, and he responded almost every night. He did better than expected at the point, and when he got back to his natural position, he exploded. Yes, the Cavs came up short in a weaker conference. But it wasn't because of LeBron. He was everything everyone said he would be. And that's amazing.
Most Improved Player
My choice: James Posey, Grizzlies. Of course, the Logo saw it before everyone else, giving Posey a four-year deal last summer for the midlevel exception. And Posey became a go-to guy in his fifth season, shooting a career-best 48 percent from the floor (including 39 percent on threes) with a career high in free throws, while continuing to be one of the league's premier on-the-ball defenders (12th in the league in steals).
Executive of the Year
My choice: Kiki Vandeweghe, Nuggets. When Vandeweghe came to Denver, he had a plan. So far, it's been executed perfectly. The key was keeping the locals interested while the Nuggets stunk -- and while Kiki stripped the roster of all its overpriced, overrated talent. Denver was indeed awful last season, but Vandeweghe made that a one-year deal, not only drafting Carmelo Anthony but surrounding him with solid young vets. The result? The Nuggets not only had a 25-game improvement this season, but will still be able to add an impact free agent this summer. That's good planning.
Also under consideration: Kevin McHale, Timberwolves; Kevin O'Connor, Jazz; Jerry West, Grizzlies; Larry Harris, Milwaukee.
G Jason Kidd, Nets
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers
F Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
F Jermaine O'Neal, Pacers
C Ben Wallace, Pistons
G Sam Cassell, Timberwolves
G Baron Davis, Hornets
F Peja Stojakovic, Kings
F Tim Duncan, Spurs
C Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers
G Paul Pierce, Celtics
G Michael Redd, Bucks
F Brad Miller, Kings
F Zach Randolph, Trail Blazers
C Yao Ming, Rockets
My annual tip of the hat to guys on losing or otherwise forgotten squads that are doing work night in and night out, and deserve a moment in the sun.
Eric Snow, Sixers
Corey Maggette, Clippers
Shawn Marion, Suns
Etan Thomas, Wizards
Erick Dampier, Warriors