Updated: April 17, 2010, 1:09 AM ET
Jason Miller-US PRESSWIRE LeBron James has the look of a repeat MVP winner ... but there's still some suspense in the MVP race.

1. Season-Ending Award Winners

By Marc Stein

Another season of Weekend Dimes concludes in the traditional (and the only permissible) fashion.

Year-end award ballots!

After receiving our annual invitation from the league office to vote on six individual awards as well as the All-NBA teams, I share those selections here first as usual in what serves as your third, final and fully transparent trimester report of the 2009-10 campaign.

The actual ballots, for the record, are due back to the league office by Thursday at 3 p.m.

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Don't believe it when you hear that the NBA's Most Valuable Player race is generating zero suspense.

A modest double dose of uncertainty is there as long as you know where to look … and as long as you were listening when we said modest.

LeBron James' MVP coronation for a second straight season has been expected for months, once it became clear that the Cavaliers were headed for the league's best record without an All-Star on the roster besides LeBron.

Cleveland indeed became just the 12th team to post consecutive 60-win seasons, leaving us with only two more relevant questions:

1. Will LeBron be a unanimous MVP this time as opposed to merely securing 109 of a possible 121 first-place votes like last season?

2. Who will finish second?

James has to have a real shot at the unanimous part. Has to. Still scoring the ball like a young Jordan while taking his passing game to new heights, LeBron has carried the Cavs to another 60-plus victories in what could have been a far more difficult season, given the thumb injury that interrupted Cleveland's Shaquille O'Neal experiment and the raging uncertainty that surrounds LeBron's future.

As for second place, Orlando's Dwight Howard suddenly has the edge, boosted by the fact that the Los Angeles Lakers' ever-clutch Kobe Bryant has been playing hurt for much of the season … but also because Howard is improving offensively at last and playing the best two-way ball of his life.

Young Kevin Durant gets the third-place vote here as a reward for putting Oklahoma City -- without warning -- within range of a 50-win season after last season's 23-59 misery, dueling LeBron for the scoring title and playing better D than you think. Bryant and Miami's Dwyane Wade are next, just ahead of Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki, Phoenix's Steve Nash, Denver's Carmelo Anthony and Utah's unheralded Deron Williams.

Stein's ballot
1. James
2. Howard
3. Durant
4. Bryant
5. Wade

October prediction: James


Rookie of the year: Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings

The runaway preseason ROY favorite didn't play a game this season.

The rook who was presumed to have inherited Blake Griffin's shoo-in status by Christmas is no longer a lock, either.

So maybe this is the category in which it's wisest to wait until the last dribbles of the season before we decree anything else about Tyreke Evans and ROY rivals Stephen Curry and Brandon Jennings.

Or maybe we should have expected such developments. Aren't there always surprises when rooks are involved?

Griffin was the can't-miss ROY back in October until it was suddenly announced that the No. 1 overall pick in June -- just like Portland's Greg Oden in 2007 -- would miss his whole first season with the Clippers.

What Griffin ended up missing -- besides a disappointing fade back to the lottery that cost Mike Dunleavy both of his jobs with the Clips -- is a race that unexpectedly has us digging around in vain for a three-sided coin.

Evans has the advantage of season-long consistency and, as long as his scoring average doesn't slip in the season's final hours, highly persuasive statistical support for his campaign: Sacramento's first-year bulldozer is about to join Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only rookies to average at least 20 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists.

Evans' problem? Curry has been statistically superior since January, ranking as the league's best rookie scorer for the past four months of a sixth-month regular season and answering those inclined to downplay his numbers as a product of the Warriors' street ball ways by delivering at a high level of efficiency: 46 percent shooting from the floor, 43.2 percent shooting on 3-pointers and 87.8 percent from the free-throw line.

The problem that Evans and Curry share, of course, is neither has played in a game that truly matters for months, which theoretically devalues some of those gaudy numbers. Jennings, meanwhile, has been quarterbacking a playoff-bound team for a famously demanding coach since opening night. We haven't really seen that -- at least not to the degree of success that the Bucks were having until Andrew Bogut went down -- since San Antonio's Tony Parker was a rookie in 2001-02.

So …

Do you punish Evans and/or Curry because, through no fault of their own, they wound up on such bad teams?

Or did Jennings sabotage his ROY campaign by setting the bar so ridiculously high with that 55-point game against Curry's Warriors in November, only to struggle with his shot so noticeably (37 percent from the field this season) during the next five months, that it offsets any extra credit he gets for otherwise succeeding in the face of playoff-related pressure?

It's Evans, by a fraction, on this scorecard, on the strength of his start-to-finish success … and despite Curry's hard push and my usual lefty love for Jennings.

But this vote really wasn't supposed to be that tough. And it left almost no time to get into all the other interesting rookies such as the New Orleans duo of Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, Oklahoma City's James Harden, San Antonio's DeJuan Blair, Denver's Ty Lawson, Chicago's Taj Gibson, Dallas' Rodrigue Beaubois and that Casspi kid on Evans' squad.

Stein's ballot
1. Evans
2. Curry
3. Jennings

October prediction: Blake Griffin


Coach of the year: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder

Tidy as it would be to narrow this one down to the two Scotts, that just can't be done.

Not without slighting several very deserving coaches.

I'm proud to say I had Phoenix in the top 10 of the season's first edition of the Power Rankings -- barely -- but I certainly didn't have Alvin Gentry keeping them in the hunt for the No. 2 seed in the West heading into the final few days of the regular season. Did anyone else expect Gentry's benching of Amare Stoudemire in the fourth quarter of a late-January win over Dallas to serve as the spark to change the whole tenor of the Suns' season?

I also didn't have Larry Brown, Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson clicking like they have in Charlotte … or Nate McMillan holding Portland together through a ridiculously cruel run of injuries (including McMillan's own Achilles tear) … or Rick Adelman conveniently ignoring that we all expected the Yao-less Rockets to plummet straight into the lottery … or Jerry Sloan (still waiting for his first COY nod after more than two decades of coaching) driving this Jazz from the land of .500 (19-17) to their own bid for No. 2 in a season marked by the luxury-tax-motivated dumpings of Ronnie Brewer and rookie Eric Maynor and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding Carlos Boozer's future.

But those two Scotts stand out nonetheless.

Scott Skiles finally ushered Andrew Bogut to the franchise-player status earmarked for the Aussie center when he got to the pros in 2005, managed Jennings' first season better than anyone said he would, resurrected multiple forgotten names (Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino and vet Jerry Stackhouse) and plugged John Salmons in midstream for the injured Michael Redd with zero bother. In short? Skiles quickly transformed the Bucks into the East's surprise team by likewise transforming them into a respectable defensive team.

Skiles' problem? Scotty Brooks narrowly topped that COY case with his considerable influence on the young Thunder, who didn't add much beyond rookie James Harden to a group that won 23 games last season and still evolved into a team no one wants to see in the first round. Meshing the undeniable talents of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook with a true team approach to defense and rebounding, Brooks has OKC sitting just two wins away from 50 in what might be the toughest 1-to-8 jumble in the West that we've ever seen.

Which is why Brooks -- that rare Anteater impervious to my lifelong disdain for UC Irvine -- has my COY vote.

Stein's ballot
1. Brooks
2. Skiles
3. Gentry

October prediction: Phil Jackson

Dimes past: March 24 | 25 | 26-27 | 28 | 29 | 30 | 31 | April 1 | 2-3 | 4 | 6 | 7 | 8

2. Awards, Part Deux


Sixth Man Award: Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks

The trade that transformed Carl Landry into a starter in Sacramento and Manu Ginobili's return to savior status once he took the injured Tony Parker's place as a starter in San Antonio admittedly did take all the suspense out of this category.

Yet I suspect Crawford would have won Sixth Man Award honors even if those guys didn't exit the field. And rightly so.

Heretofore branded as a gunner whose nine seasons without tasting a playoff game were not necessarily a coincidence, Crawford gave himself a total makeover in Atlanta, ranking as perhaps the NBA's most influential offseason acquisition by leading the league in 20- and 25-point games as a reserve -- 30 and 14, respectively -- to give the Hawks an off-the-bench offensive dimension they seriously lacked.

All 76 of Crawford's appearances, furthermore, have come off the bench. If he doesn't start in any of the Hawks' final six games, Crawford will rank as the second-most productive scorer used exclusively in a reserve role during the past 40 years, bested only by Milwaukee's Ricky Pierce in 1989-90 (23.0 points per game).

Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, meanwhile, finishes second in a surprisingly deep field because this was the season -- at least on this scorecard -- when he became the Cavs' second-most influential player on top of his growing reputation as an elite defender.

And last season's Sixth Man Award winner, Jason Terry, snags third despite struggling more than usual with his shot. He benefits from Landry's new starter status but is rewarded for his ongoing fourth-quarter impact while playing hurt with that mask in Dallas, even though the Mavs have drastically upgraded their talent since last season.

Others highly considered: Landry, Ginobili, Lamar Odom of the Los Angeles Lakers and two guys with gaudy numbers on bad teams (New York's Al Harrington and Minnesota's Kevin Love)

Stein's ballot
1. Crawford
2. Varejao
3. Terry

October prediction: Rasheed Wallace


Most improved player: Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats

I understand the sentiment. There will be a strong push for Kevin Durant to win the MIP, because it's not often that we see someone zoom from rising star to legit MVP candidate in the space of one season.

But I won't be part of that push.

Durant and Bogut -- just to name two of the most improved players on Earth -- were drafted No. 2 and No. 1 overall, respectively. This is where I repeat my long-held belief, weary as you might be to hear it again, that players drafted that high are supposed to be this good. They'd be underachieving otherwise and thus not my kind of MIPs.

After a brief detour to Devin Harris last season, I insist on saving my MIP vote for players who didn't come into the game with such high ceilings. Lower lottery picks are OK, but not your Durants and Boguts … or Durant sidekick Russell Westbrook.

The list, frankly, is long enough doing it my way. Among those considered here: San Antonio's George Hill (such a strong fill-in for the injured Tony Parker), Milwaukee's Ersan Ilyasova (love how Nuggets exec Bret Bearup dubbed him "Turk" Nowitzki), Chicago's Joakim Noah (look what happened to the Bulls when he was hurt), Minnesota's Corey Brewer (who complemented his Wallace-esque defensive potential with 78 3-pointers after making just 12 in his first two seasons), Memphis' Marc Gasol (scouts like to joke that they thought he was adopted until this season, when he was a lot more Pau-like), Atlanta's (ever-maturing) Josh Smith and the Clippers' Chris Kaman (injured-plagued center turned All-Star center).

Yet it came down to these two at crunch time: Houston's Aaron Brooks and the irresistible Wallace, who prevents me from supporting Brooks' bid to become the first Rocket to win some individual hardware since Steve Francis' rookie of the year campaign in 1999-2000.

Lil' Brooks made an undeniable leap into the scoring void created by Yao Ming's season-long absence and the inglorious end to Tracy McGrady's career in Houston. He's the face of a gritty bunch that was never expected to play .500 ball and had to deal with the curveball of losing fellow MIP candidate Carl Landry in the three-way trade headlined by T-Mac and Kevin Martin at the February deadline.

Wallace, however, outimproved Brooks and everyone else. The slender small forward became an elite rebounder (10.2 rpg) with no discernible gain in height or weight. He became a more disciplined defender as the anchor of the league's best team D while shooting a career-best 37.7 percent on 3-pointers. And he became an All-Star because of all that improvement, co-leading the Bobcats to their first playoff berth in franchise history along with hugely impactful November arrival Stephen Jackson and the proddings of coach Larry Brown.

See why we say irresistible?

Stein's ballot
1. Wallace
2. Brooks
3. Smith

October prediction: Anthony Morrow


Defensive player of the year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

There is a movement afoot to downgrade the defensive impact that Howard has because he doesn't always keep his blocked shots inbounds postrejection. The movement seems to be gaining more traction than the push that Howard's own team is making to get us know-it-alls with the ballots to consider Howard more strongly for the MVP trophy.

Let's get real.

The annual line of MVP candidates is out the door, but Howard jumps out when making DPOY assessments. He jumps out even at a time when fans and paid observers of the sport are paying more attention to D and individual defenders than ever before, as evidenced by the growing numbers of DPOY candidates every season.

The reason? It's not just Howard's status as the first player since the league started tracking things like steals and blocked shots in 1973-74 to lead the NBA in boards and swats in back-to-back seasons. It's the fact that almost everyone smarter whom I ask -- coaches, scouts, other players -- reminds me that the Magic would be just an average defensive team without him (as opposed to No. 1 in defensive efficiency) and that no singular force alters the game at the defensive end like Howard.

None of the above, though, stopped me from considering a slew of others here, starting with Charlotte's Gerald Wallace as the anchor/face of the league's second-ranked team in terms of defensive efficiency.

Other defensive stalwarts of note: Atlanta's Josh Smith (smarter and more versatile than ever), Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha (no coincidence that this is the season I finally learned how to spell his last name), Boston's Rajon Rondo (this is the season he supplanted Kevin Garnett as the Celts' foremost defender), Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (point man for the Bucks' Skiles-inspired improvement on D), Dallas' Shawn Marion (splitting the Mavs' vote with the ageless Jason Kidd), Utah's Andrei Kirilenko (simply reborn), Portland's Marcus Camby (who had to replace Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla in Portland), L.A.'s Ron Artest (quietly more effective on D than he's getting credit for in his Lakers debut), Cleveland's Varejao and that D-Wade fella who does the work of three (or more) players in Miami.

Stein's ballot
1. Howard
2. Wallace
3. Wade

October prediction: Howard

3. All-NBA

The instructions: Voters are asked to fill out three teams and urged to select players at the position they play "regularly."

First team
F: LeBron James
F: Kevin Durant
C: Dwight Howard
G: Dwyane Wade
G: Kobe Bryant

Second team
F: Dirk Nowitzki
F: Amare Stoudemire
C: Andrew Bogut
G: Steve Nash
G: Deron Williams

Third team
F: Carmelo Anthony
F: Pau Gasol
C: Tim Duncan
G: Brandon Roy
G: Joe Johnson

The thinking: The only real issue on the first team was choosing between Wade and Nash for the second guard spot, which would have been even closer if Nash hadn't been plagued by second-half back woes.

The bigger issue this season is making room for all the forwards, which proved so difficult that Chris Bosh -- in spite of his unquestionably elite individual production -- lost his spot as a consequence of Toronto's serious second-half struggles to beat out injury-plagued Chicago for the East's No. 8 seed.

Making room for Bosh would have meant the exclusion of one of the following five players: Stoudemire, Bogut, Duncan, Gasol or Anthony. I couldn't authorize the omission of any of them, despite Bosh's impressive numbers, because of the contributions they all made to winning programs.

The only consolation for Bosh is that he has a lot of company on the list of topflight snubs, which includes Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo in a season with potentially no Boston representatives, Charlotte's hard-to-separate Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson, Utah's Carlos Boozer, Memphis' reborn Zach Randolph, San Antonio late-season savior Manu Ginobili, New York stat stuffer David Lee, Dallas' Jason Kidd (who quietly played on Nowitzki's level for much of the season) and New Orleans' Chris Paul, who had too many injuries to claim his usual All-NBA slot.

The other challenge was settling on a second-team center (Bogut won out for his all-around impact in a breakthrough season) and whom to deploy as a third-team center (Duncan got the nod over Gasol because he's forced to play there with the Spurs more than Pau is with the Lakers … and more than Duncan wants to admit).

4. Eastern Conference

Some numbers of note in the East this week:

3: LeBron James, at a career-best 8.6 assists per game, is one of just three players in history at 6-foot-8 or taller to average eight dimes for an entire season. The others? Wilt Chamberlain did it once in 1967-68 at 8.6 assists per game … and Magic Johnson did it 11 times.

1: Cleveland's loss in Chicago with James resting Thursday night left the Michael Jordan-era Bulls (in 1995-96 and 1996-97) as the only team to post consecutive 65-win seasons. The Cavs needed to win their final four games to match that feat.

8: The Bobcats are the eighth NBA team Larry Brown has coached to a playoff berth, well ahead of his closest pursuers. Bill Fitch, George Karl, Kevin Loughery and Lenny Wilkens have all reached the playoffs with five different teams.

14: John Salmons has led the Bucks in scoring 14 times in his 26 games since arriving in a deadline-day trade. Salmons led Chicago in scoring only once in his final 33 games as a Bull.

14: As a certain Sports Guy made clear, this is pretty much the only nice thing you can say about Rasheed Wallace's debut season in Boston: Sheed will soon make his 14th consecutive trip to the playoffs, tied with Dallas' Jason Kidd for the league's longest such active streak. Next on the list with 10 consecutive playoff appearances: Boston's Michael Finley, Denver's Chauncey Billups, Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki and San Antonio's Tim Duncan.


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