by Lang Whitaker

Lunchtime, yesterday. I was in the middle of a meeting downtown when I felt my cell phone buzzing in my pocket. I slyly yanked out my phone and checked the caller ID: The NBA offices. Seriously? Figured I should answer it.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Lang?”

“Yes.”

“Hi, this is at the NBA. Where is your awards ballot?”

“I haven’t turned it in,” I explained. I’d read the rules carefully, over and over, and I knew I had until 3:00 today, Thursday, to submit it. And I wanted to squeeze out every last second I could before turning my ballot in.

Which is why I stumbled into bed last night around 3:00 a.m., accidentally waking Wifey.

“Are you just now coming to bed?” she asked, her eyes closed.

“Yeah,” I said. “Had to fill out my NBA awards ballot.”

“Geez,” she answered. “Must have been a long ballot.”

picture-2Actually, the awards ballot isn’t all that long. It’s an 8-page Microsoft Word document with NBA logos embedded, and those of us lucky enough to have a vote are only asked to vote in seven categories. Still, I take the responsibility of having a vote seriously. I watch games all season. I do research. I read as many opinions on the awards as I can find. And then I think on it for a few days, going over all the possibilities and permutations in my head. Last night around 2:00 a.m., I finally made my choices. I slept on them, ran though them again this morning with Ben to see if I was tripping, then mailed it in a few hours ago.

(BTW, I read a lot of columns where writers gave their pick for Executive of the Year. That award is actually voted on by other NBA executives, not writers, so I didn’t make a choice there.)

Anyway, on to my actual ballot. Here’s the way I voted in Decision ’09…

2008-09 T-MOBILE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR AWARD BALLOT

CRITERIA: None, really. The ballot just says “Please vote for three players. Five points will be awarded for a first place vote, three for second and one for third.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: The only guy I really thought was deserving but didn’t put on my ballot was Russell Westbrook. Considering all OKC went through this season, RW more than lived up to expectations. The other three guys I voted for were just better, I thought.

My choices for the 2008-09 T-Mobile Rookie of the Year were:
1. Derrick Rose — Chicago Bulls
2. OJ Mayo — Memphis Grizzlies
3. Brook Lopez — NJ Nets
This was a relatively easy call for me. Despite playing for a rookie coach and on a team without any real interior presence, Rose carried the Bulls into the Playoffs. OJ had some peaks and valleys, but he stepped right into the role of being a team leader in Memphis and excelled. Bull Lopez got better every month, and he’s going to be a solid post player in the L for a long time to come.

2008-09 NBA COACH OF THE YEAR AWARD BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: Again, none really. Voters are told, “Please vote for three coaches. Five points will be awarded for a first place vote, three for second and one for third.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: A lot of guys were pushing for Rick Adelman, but I couldn’t do it—I thought the Rockets spend way too much not time not getting the ball inside to Yao Ming, and that had nothing to do with injuries or anything else. The two other coaches I probably would’ve had fourth and fifth, respectively, were Erik Spoelstra and, gulp, Mike Woodson. Spoelstra basically took a dirt sandwich and made the damn thing look palatable. And Woody, despite his stubborn refusal to even consider changing his methods or rotation, took the Hawks from 13 wins in ’04-05 to 47 wins and home court in the first round this season.

My choices for the 2008-09 NBA Coach of the Year were:
1. Mike Brown — Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Stan Van Gundy — Orlando Magic
3. Nate McMillan — Portland Trail Blazers
OK, so Brown did have arguably the best player in the world to work with, but he actually worked with him and didn’t screw it up. The Cavs were 21 wins better than they were last season, largely because Brown made his system work with the players he had. Stan Van might not be liked by his players, or Shaq, but he took basically the same team he had a year ago (minus Jameer Nelson for half the year) and wrung another 7 wins out of them. And Nate Dogg has presided over a steady rebuilding program in Portland that reminds me of what Woody’s done in Atlanta. Nate just did it better.

2008-09 NBA DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR AWARD PRESENTED BY KIA MOTORS BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: Again, none. Just to “vote for three players. Five points will be awarded for a first place vote, three for second and one for third.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: I thought this was one of the easier categories to pick. It’s also the first year in a while that there wasn’t a defensive specialist making serious noise. Battier was injured for a chunk of the season (about one-fourth of it), Artest didn’t seem as focused defensively this season, and Bowen seemed to have lost a step. And even though KG won this award last season, his steals, blocks and rebounds were all down this season, and considering he only played in 52 games, I didn’t think his impact defensively over the 82 game season was anywhere close to the guys I ended up choosing.

I really only seriously considered two other guys: One was Kobe Bryant, but I’m not even sure he was the best defender on his own team (Ariza!); Dwyane Wade was the other, and I’d have possibly had him tied for third if the ballot allowed it (it doesn’t allow you split any votes).

So I had to pick my top three, and I went this way…

My choices for the 2008-09 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award presented by Kia Motors were:
1. Dwight Howard — Orlando Magic
2. LeBron James — Cleveland Cavaliers
3. Chris Paul — New Orleans Hornets
CP3 led the L in steals, by over half a steal per game, and that’s despite having to play so many games against all the good PGs out West. Bron galvanized the Cavs defensively, led the team in defensive rebounds and steals, and I thought he really reinvented the weakside blocked shot. But Dwight Howard was this season’s immovable force, or unstoppable object, or whatever you want to call it. Maybe his offensive could stand to improve, but dude’s defense is ridiculous. Have fun with that in Round One, Sam Dalembert.

2008-09 ALL-NBA TEAM BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: Voters were told only “Please vote for the player at the position that he plays regularly. You can vote for five players on each of the three All-NBA teams. No ties may be awarded.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: I spent a good 30 minutes thinking about this particular category last night. Let’s just go straight to how I voted and I’ll explain my thinking (and who I omitted) as we go…

My choices for the 2008-09 All-NBA Teams were:
All-NBA First Team
F LeBron James
F Tim Duncan
C Dwight Howard
G Kobe Bryant
G Dwyane Wade

All no-brainers. If you beef with any of these selections, you don’t like basketball. Simple as that.

All-NBA Second Team
F Dirk Nowitzki
F Paul Pierce
C Yao Ming
G Brandon Roy
G Chris Paul

I thought Chris Paul was probably in the top five players in the League this year, ahead of Duncan, but obviously I couldn’t bump Kobe or Wade for CP3. Brandon Roy had a helluva season. I saw a few writers arguing that Roy deserved Most Improved, which I thought was odd considering both his RPG and APG were down this year from last year. But I thought his value to Portland has never been higher. Yao? Yo. He was durable (77 games) and was thisclose to averaging a double-double. Dirk was Dirk, a seven-foot freak who dribbles like a point guard and averaged 26 ppg. And then there was Paul Pierce. The other night, with about 8 minutes to go in the Sixers/Celts game, the camera panned over to Paul Pierce, parked on the Boston bench, and it caught him yawning. (I tweeted it here.) But a couple of minutes later, with the game on the line, there was Pierce in the game, taking on the Sixers’ toughest defender (Iggy), creating his own shot and getting the W for the Celts. Nothing Pierce does is all that remarkable in and of itself, but I think more than anyone else, he was the reason for Boston being a contender again this season.

All-NBA Third Team
F Kevin Durant
F Pau Gasol
C Shaquille O’Neal
G Joe Johnson
G Tony Parker

This was probably the toughest category for me to fill out. Shaq was a no-brainer to me, and to a lesser extent, I thought Gasol was an easy selection as well, and Durant, too. (Although…are Gasol and Durant even forwards? NBA.com has Gasol listed as a “F-C” and Durant a “G-F.” so I’m making them my forwards.) As far as the guards, I really wanted to include Deron Williams. He missed 14 games, but TP missed 10 himself. Deron went for 19 and 11, while Tony went for 22 and 7. And basically, when it came down to it, I thought it was more impressive that Tony helped the Spurs win 54 games than it was that Deron helped Utah win 48. As for Joe Johnson, I thought he had his best season as a pro. He got doubled every game on nearly every possession, but he led the Hawks in PPG (21.4) and APG (5.8), defended the opponents’ best guards every night, and, more importantly, led the Hawks to 47 wins and homecourt in the East while playing 79 games. And he was second in the NBA (to Dre Iguodala) in total minutes played with 3,124 (averaged 39.6 mpg). Deron missed my ballot by thismuch.

2008-09 NBA MOST IMPROVED PLAYER AWARD PRESENTED BY KIA MOTORS BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: “This award is designed to honor an up-and-coming player who has made a dramatic improvement from the previous season or seasons. It is not intended to be given to a player who has made a ‘comeback.’ Please vote for three players.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: David Lee and Paul Milsap were the two main guys I considered but left off. I thought Lee improved but mostly got proportionately skewed numbers because he was in Mike D’Antoni’s stat-stuffing system. And Milsap, to me, really just improved his opportunity more so than his ability. Which leads us to…

My choices for the 2008-09 NBA Most Improved Player Presented by Kia Motors were:
1. Danny Granger — Indiana Pacers
2. Kevin Durant — Oklahoma City Thunder
3. Devin Harris — New Jersey Nets
This was one of the categories that had me kinda vexed. Devin Harris obviously had a much better season this year than last — he had the highest jump in PPG in the NBA at 6.5 — but at the same time I felt that was largely due to a change in his role with the Nets. So often in Dallas he seemed like he was raring to go but he played the team game, which is why so many people pegged him for stardom and why the Nets traded for him. He did improve once he came to Jersey, sure, but I thought it was mostly a function of the Nets just turning him loose. Durant not only went through a coaching change and a ton of double-teams, but he upped his PPG by 5.0 (and his RPG and APG) and, most importantly, from what I saw and heard from talking with people down there, KD really started trying to take on the leadership role asked of him. At the end of the day, however, I thought Danny Granger’s transformation into a bona-fide scorer was the most impressive improvement I saw all season.

2008-09 NBA SIXTH MAN AWARD PRESENTED BY KIA MOTORS BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: “This award is designed to honor a player for his contributions in a reserve role. In order to be eligible for this award, a player must come off the bench for more games than he starts. Please vote for three players.”

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: Flip Murray, for one. Flip did his instant offense thing off the bench all year for the Hawks, but he really produced about the same as he has anywhere given the opportunity. I also know Travis Outlaw got a lot of love from many people, but I just thought the three guys I voted for had better seasons for their teams.

My choices for the 2008-09 NBA Sixth Man Presented by Kia Motors were:
1. Jason Terry — Dallas Mavericks
2. Lamar Odom — Los Angeles Lakers
3. Nate Robinson — New York Knicks

I don’t think anyone can argue with JeTerry. I was surprised more people didn’t pimp the candidacy of LO. He did start for a bit while Bynum was out, but he came off the bench more than he started, and he also embraced the role of being the Sixth Man for the Lakers. Nate Dogg? Dude can score, and in a way he really epitomizes what a Sixth Man is supposed to be, with his in-Nate ability to fire up crowds both at home and on the road.

2008-09 NBA MOST VALUABLE PLAYER AWARD PRESENTED BY KIA MOTORS BALLOT

CRITERIA GIVEN: None. Which makes this such a nebulous award.

WHO I DIDN’T VOTE FOR: Actually, since they ask you to choose five people, I thought the five guys I selected were all completely worthy and I don’t really feel bad about not including anyone in particular.

My choices for the 2008-09 NBA Most Valuable Player Presented by Kia Motors were:
1. LeBron James — Cleveland Cavaliers
2. Kobe Bryant — Los Angeles Lakers
3. Dwyane Wade — Miami Heat
4. Chris Paul — New Orleans Hornets
5. Dwight Howard — Orlando Magic

So there it is, the Big Kahuna of the awards. I wrote way back on Sept. 19, the day I turned in my NBA Preview for SLAM issue 123, that I thought this season it would be “more evident than ever that LeBron was the MVP.” I was pretty sure of this all season long, watching LeBron smash and burn his way through the NBA and lead the Cavs to unprecedented heights.

Oddly enough, the only real second thoughts I had on this award came last week when I was talking to, of all people, Stephon Marbury. I was up in Boston working on a story for the next issue of SLAM, and before I drove back to NYC, I managed to meet up with Steph for dinner in Waltham, where the Celts’ practice facility is located. We were talking about all kind of stuff, off the record kinds of stuff, but at one point I asked him who he thought was the best player in the NBA, LeBron or Kobe.

“Come on man, are you serious?” Steph said.

I told him not only that I was indeed serious, but that I also suspected the best player in the NBA this year was LeBron James.

“I think Kobe’s the best player on this planet, forget the NBA.” Steph said. “Think about this: Which player do you want to take the last shot?”

I told Steph that for me it depended on a lot of variables. How much time was left? Was there a foul to give? What team was I playing against? Every time I came up with a variable, Steph sighed and rolled his eyes. “Come on, man, which player do you want to take the last shot?” Steph was relentless, as he kept badgering me for an answer (so much so that I told him I felt like a guest on “Stars on Stars”).

Eventually, while driving home that night, I came to this understanding: If there was a play at the end of the game — say there were 5 seconds left on the clock — and I needed someone to take that final shot, I’d probably want Kobe to take that shot. He’s the best offensive player in the game today. I have no problem acknowledging that and accepting that.

The thing is, for the other 47 minutes and 55 seconds of the game, I’d want LeBron James to be my guy. I’d want him to grab rebounds, dunk on people in traffic, block shots, lead fastbreaks, cut up with guys on the sideline, throw powder into the air, drive to the basket, go to the line…basically, I’d want LeBron out there doing what he’s done all season long.

You know, all those things that have made LeBron James, at least in my mind, the most valuable player in the NBA.