With the NBA set to announce its All-Star starters tomorrow, this is the time of year where blaming the game’s fans for ultimately meaningless travesties is at its peak. You’ll see what I mean once Yao Ming‘s name is revealed as the Western Conference starting center.
NBA fans are safe from blame, though, when it comes to the League’s regular-season awards. If we end up with the wrong MVP or Coach of the Year, that falls on the media members who vote. The idea is that those of us who cover the League for a living are more objective and know what we’re talking about, that we’re not going to reduce things to a popularity contest. But going back to picking our 5th-grade class president, when has any kind of balloting not just been a popularity contest?
The only difference between classroom elections and NBA award voting is that all of us media members can be our own form of campaign publicists. If we produce the right amount of hype for the right guy, in the end that guy (given that he produces) is rewarded for our creation. And then you look back, and things don’t make sense — like the fact that Shaquille O’Neal was the most dominant player in the League for about a decade but only the most valuable once, or that Jerry Sloan somehow made the Hall of Fame without ever being the best coach in the League. Every year there are deserving candidates who get overlooked and ignored. Who is in that class this year?
*** *** ***
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Who’s winning: Derrick Rose
Who’s close: LeBron James
Who’s being forgotten: Kobe Bryant
He’s the best player on the best team, which still counts for something. No, the Lakers don’t have the best record in the League, and some other teams are playing better right now — but L.A. is still the last team anybody wants to see in a seven-game series. Kobe is sixth in the NBA in scoring at 24.9 points per game, to go with 5.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. A few less Ron Artest bricks this season, and Kobe would be joining LeBron and Russell Westbrook as the only players in the League right now averaging at least 20 points, five boards and five assists.
But Kobe is the boring pick, which sucks for him because Michael Jordan racked up five MVP’s before becoming the boring pick. Kobe only has one. But in the YouTube, monster stat line, trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy era, D-Rose, Amar’e Stoudemire, LeBron … even a dark horse from the Spurs would be more interesting. And did you ever think, in a conversation involving Spurs, Kobe would be the one labeled boring?
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Who’s winning: Blake Griffin
Who’s close: John Wall
Who’s being forgotten: Greg Monroe
Barring some unforeseen injuries, there’s no way Monroe will catch up in time to win the trophy, but he’s at least making a solid case for the All-Rookie Team. It took him a while to find his stride in Detroit coach John Kuester’s ever-changing rotation, but in the month of January, Monroe is averaging 10.5 points (58% FG), 8.5 boards and 1.8 steals.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Who’s winning: Dwight Howard
Who’s close: Chris Paul
Who’s being forgotten: Emeka Okafor
The Hornets have the No. 1 defense in the League, and Chris Paul leads the League in steals. Why? Because Okafor is holding it down in the middle. His presence and production (10.4 rpg, 1.8 bpg) allows CP3 to gamble as much as he does for steals and create havoc on the perimeter, which disrupts the opposing offense. And when they do make it near the rim, Okafor gets in the way.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Who’s winning: Kevin Love
Who’s close: Ray Felton
Who’s being forgotten: Tracy McGrady
Bear with me now. I’m not saying T-Mac should win the award, but he does deserve some votes. Here you have a player who was nothing last year — written off as done, and practically left for dead — who has come back to earn a starting job at an unnatural position on a deep and talented (albeit underachieving) Pistons team. The last time we saw something similar was Grant Hill in 2005, and he was being handed Comeback Player of the Year awards left and right before everybody realized the NBA doesn’t give out that award anymore; Hill had to settle for two first-place votes in the Most Improved balloting.
In 14 starts for the Pistons, T-Mac is averaging 10.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists, and has been the best player on the floor in wins over Orlando, Boston and Toronto (twice). In the case of some other popular MIP candidates — D.J. Augustin, Dorell Wright, Nick Young, J.J. Hickson, etc. — is it more a case of them actually improving, or just getting more playing time? T-Mac is better than he was last year, and he’s doing something no one thought he could do. That sounds like an improvement.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Who’s winning: Jason Terry
Who’s close: Jamal Crawford
Who’s being forgotten: Glen Davis
Big Baby is doubling his career-best scoring average (12.5 ppg), as well as logging career-highs in rebounding (5.4 rpg) and free-throw percentage (76.4% FT). When the Celtics are in crunch time, Baby is on the floor (not Shaq) because they can’t afford to play without his mid-range jumper, offensive rebounding, screen-setting and positional defense. Through key injuries to KG, Rondo, Shaq, Kendrick Perkins and Jermaine O’Neal, Davis has been one of Boston’s most consistent contributors as they’ve kept the East’s best record. In the month of January, Davis has scored in double figures in 12 of Boston’s 13 games.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Who’s winning: Tom Thibodeau
Who’s close: Erik Spoelstra
Who’s being forgotten: Jerry Sloan
So what else is new?