The regular season is coming to a close and it's time to assess the top players in a lockout shortened season.
First, my unsolicited MVP ballot.
MVP - Lebron James
Hating on James is an enjoyable national past time (The Decision ever lingers) and I'd love to defend a homer vote for the best ambassador for basketball in the world in Longhorn Kevin Durant, but Lebron's consistent dominance has been the story of the season. The objective evidence is:
- The Heat are 13-1 without Dwyane Wade in the line-up, overall second best record in the East
- James leads the league in PER, averaging a stat stuffing 27.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 6.2 apg. When you average 27-8-6 every night, you're doing what you want on the court. Those are Bird/Magic/Jordan/Robertson numbers
- Lebron is the best defender in the league. He can guard four positions, his on-ball pressure is searing, and he can throw around NBA power forwards inside
- He's shooting 53%. Of all of the stats you can cite, for a high level scorer playing the 3 position to shoot >50% from the field is remarkable.
As for the subjective, other 3 time MVP winners are Larry Bird and Magic Johnson and though that equivalence of achievement may make you retch a bit given Lebron's absence of titles, that's not really what a regular season MVP award is about.
The NBA played a season. He played the best in it. That is all.
Runner Up - Kevin Durant
Kevin is likely to win the league scoring title (28 ppg) again on nearly 50% shooting and his rebounding (8.0 rpg) and assist numbers (3.5 apg) are at career highs. Durant continues to evolve his game (he now has the strength and savvy to stake his spot at 15 feet) and is the most feared late game shooter in the league. He's also one of the game's most underrated finishers in transition and his defensive length affects passing lanes and shot selection even when he's saving his juice for offense.
Did I mention he's 23? TWENTY THREE. The 4th year pro is still growing his game and he has the young OKC Thunder as legitimate title contenders.
3rd Place - Chris Paul
Equipped with a roster of dogs and solid role players and one very athletic, one dimensional high-flying forward, Paul has made the LA Clippers relevant and playoff bound. CP3 has the highest basketball IQ in the league, scores exactly as many points are needed to win (and 12 of his 20 points are usually in the 4th quarter) and is an opportunistic defender who leads the league in steals. His PER rating is head and shoulders above any other point guard and a sneaky second to Lebron James (actually ranking above Durant). His 19.8 ppg and 9.1 apg stat line - though impressive - doesn't reflect his full impact on a franchise abundant with loser's inertia. Paul is a mean, competitive little shit who sets the tone for a team with a personnel mix that would love to underachieve without his prodding.
Not coincidentally, the above three will form the core of our Olympic team in London.
Coach of the Year - Gregg Poppovich
Do I even have to defend this? The Spurs have the best record in the league playing with somewhere around the league's 8th best starting talent, they lost their 2nd best player for most of the season, they've adopted an up tempo style of basketball to exploit Tony Parker while still respecting veteran legs, dispersed minutes freely, but always wisely, with a beautifully constructed bench, and have played chess with the compressed season schedule while the rest of the league plays checkers.
I won't even name a Runner-Up as it implies that there was some competition for the award.
Rookie MVP - Kyrie Irving
He has exceeded my expectations and is becoming a top notch NBA point guard. He can get into the lane at will and is developing into a solid shooter. He also had a weak draft class - easy pick.
1st Team All-NBA
C - Dwight Howard. Even when he's coach-killing and blundering PR, he's the league's best center. 20.6 ppg and 14.5 rpg, dominant defensive presence. Hold your nose and move on.
F - Kevin Durant.
F - Lebron James.
Kobe Bryant. Bryant has been lauded for elevating the Lakers without Odom, but the truth is that they have 3 of the best 15-20 players in the league, Andrew Bynum is an under-utilized scoring force, and Kobe's ego forces him to take 5 shots per game more than needed. He's shooting 43% from the field. 30% from 3. He has been Iversonian.
You know what?....I'm going with combo guard Russell Westbrook. Yes, I'm being that guy - the one who changes player positions to suit his own agenda. He may shoot too much, but a higher percentage of them go in and his defensive energy can be stifling. With Wade missing too many games for me to place him on a team, it's revealing how depleted the NBA shooting guard position currently is.
G - Chris Paul. Apologies to Tony Parker (who has a real argument if you understand contextual hoops).
2nd Team All-NBA
C - Andrew Bynum. 18-12 and he's an underutilized asset despite shaky maturity level. He's absolute money on the low block. So why isn't he getting it more?
F - Kevin Love. I just put a dude averaging 26-13 on my 2nd team. It's not a lack of love for Love, just an understanding that Durant and Lebron are at the top of their games and his 44% field goal percentage prevents a usurpation of the natural order.
F - Blake Griffin. 20-11 with nearly 55% shooting and still hasn't developed a reliable face-up game. Sky is the limit. He gets the nod because Nowitzki struggled so badly in the first half of the season. I understand recency bias and last year's amazing playoffs argue against this choice because it feels so wrong, but the relevant body of work is only this season and it says that the Mavericks are the #7 team in the West.
G - Kobe Bryant. Primarily because I want to antagonize Laker fans and Bynum's dominance in Kobe's absence tells you a little something.
G - Tony Parker. On a per-minute basis, one of the most efficient players in the league. When needed, fully capable of dropping 28 points and 13 assists. When not needed, he'll score 8 points in 21 minutes with 7 assists and watch the Spurs cruise. Don't get so statistically focused that you can't see the greater truth - Parker is dominating.
3rd Team NBA
C - Al Jefferson. I give Al the nod over Tyson Chandler in a close race. 19-10 is pretty impressive and he's doing it the hard way in Utah. Ranks 3rd in PER among centers. Saw a recent game against Dallas where he went for 28 points and 26 rebounds. Moses type stuff.
F - Dirk Nowitzki. He's starting to be himself again, but Dirk really sucked early.
F - Paul Pierce. See Dirk. Same story. No Carmelo? Damn right.
G - Rajon Rondo. Best pure distributor in the NBA and a defensive force despite offensively retarded game. Steve Nash has been extraordinary for Phoenix given his age, but his defense is in the bottom quintile of the league. Kyrie has an argument, but Boston has been hot since the All-Star break.
Obviously, injuries influenced my selections (Rose, Wade absent) and I have a revealed bias for efficient players who will sublimate their games for a greater good. I tried my best to limit my perspectives to this season only.
Also, filling out these teams may have made me re-examine the "2s and 3s grow on trees" wisdom. Lots of good forwards out there. 2s, maybe not so much. James Harden may be more valuable than Ibaka after all.
I'd love to hear your thoughts.