The Commish Picks.
This is probably an amnesiac thing to say, but, I don’t remember more “discussion” taking place around such an ironclad awards season in the NBA. Yeah, there are candidates, but the winners are pretty clear, right? Are we really “discussing” and “debating” who should be the League’s MVP or Coach of the Year? I mean, those joints are in the bag. Still, even though I know my picks are exactly the same as your picks, I thought that I’d offer — as The Commish, after all — my explanation as to why I’m in agreement with what will surely be this season’s unanimous winners…
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR
Mark Warkentien, Denver Nuggets
I love what Otis Smith did in Orlando. Snagging Rafer Alston to replace Jameer Nelson was as deft as you can get when it comes to navigating what was a developing crisis. But, on a fundamental level, that was a desperation move. Danny Ferry brought Mo Williams to Cleveland, which has worked out better than any of us expected. But, let’s be real, that was a “let’s get Bron some more pieces” move. Warkentien’s decision to ship to A.I. to Detroit for Chauncey Billups was calculated and prescient. Chauncey is consistently overlooked for what he actually brings to a squad. He not only hits big shots, but he controls tempo and mood. He is this league’s truest exhibit of the “coach on the floor” archetype, because he leads and guides his squads with play, words and temperament. That was exactly what Denver — littered with mercurial cats like J.R., Melo and Kenyon — needed to move from a dangerous circus outfit, to a legit contender.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
Rajon Rondo, Boston Celtics
Last season, I argued that LeBron, Kobe and Chris Paul were the most improved players in the League, since each of them improved one or more aspects of their games so thoroughly that they went from having great seasons to historically great seasons that impacted and pervaded throughout the League. My point is that I look at this award as a way to recognize impactful improvement, not simply statistical leaps. Last season, Danny Granger and Kevin Durant were really good young players. Now they’re Top 15, maybe Top 10-type players. But their teams don’t matter. Paul Millsap is gonna kop a nice payday, due to his marked improvement. But Booz came back and he went right back to the bench. Devin Harris is an All-Star now … for the New Jersey Nets. But Rondo’s improvement is the most compelling. Rondo went from last season’s “question mark” status, the possible chink in Boston’s armor, to taking his rightful place in what is really the Cs’ Big Four. He’s one of the seven best point guards in the League, a true point guard. And he has earned — in just his third year — respect and even periodic deference from three Hall-of-Famers. He’s not a question mark any longer and that’s the reason that Boston, even as the Big Three age, is still arguably the best squad in the league. Rondo, quiet as kept, was Boston’s MVP. Now that’s a Leap.
BENCH PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Trevor Ariza, Los Angeles Lakers
The Sixth Man of the Year award is kind of bogus. This should be an award we use to recognize a “true” bench player, an unsung man in the rotation that comes off the bench and, in limited minutes, impacts the game in a way that routinely helps his squad win. Lamar Odom, Jason Terry and Manu Ginobili are starters (even pseudo All-Stars) masquerading as sixth men. My candidates are actual bench players, dudes like J.R. Smith, Travis Outlaw, Nate Robinson, Brandon Bass, James Posey and Ariza. Nate and J.R. are explosive and volatile. They can take over games and win them, but they’re the culprits in losing a lot, too. I love Outlaw coming off Portland’s bench, but no bench player has routinely impacted games on the level of Ariza, this season. Yeah, he starts now, but in the 60-plus games he played as a reserve, Ariza was usually L.A.’s fourth- or fifth-best player; many times, he was second only to Kobe in terms of impact. What he does on the defensive end is sometimes startling. He wreaks absolute havoc. I mean, the dude is all over the court, taking the ball from cats, getting in passing lanes, crashing the boards, drawing fouls, filling the lane on breaks. He’s like a hurricane out there. And unlike J.R. and Nate, he adheres to his role and tries not to do dumb stuff. When he’s not starting, he’s the best bench player in the game.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Remember when I said that all of the award winners should be cinches, this season? I lied. This one is tough. You have a dude like Chris Paul that totally disrupts the opposition’s offense with his ball-pressure, steals and “added-bonus” defensive rebounding from the point guard position; and then there’s a dude like Howard that controls the boards and the paint. I’m giving it to Dwight for this reason: You don’t come in the lane with the big-boy down there, which means Orlando’s comp shoots a lot of Js and they miss them those more often than they make them and, of course, Dwight is usually grabbing the board and giving his squad another possession. In the end, his defensive impact is just a tad more dynamic and broad than Paul’s.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls
O.J. Mayo? Are you kidding me? Russell Westbrook? Word? Look. This rookie class has been exceptional. I see about eight future All-Stars. But there shouldn’t be a discussion, here. Rose came into the season facing the pressure and shouldering the burden of being the No. 1 pick, playing for his hometown Bulls. He was thrust into a starting role in the game’s most demanding position. To make matters more challenging, he was playing on a young squad without a leader and for a coach whom many of his teammates disliked. Through a season that included a coaching change and roster overhaul, he’s put up 16, 6 and 4 and helped the Bulls get into the postseason. Meanwhile, O.J. and Russ play for two of the worst teams in the League and O.J. has often played like the typical “numbers guy on a bad squad.” Rose better be a unanimous pick.
COACH OF THE YEAR
Stan Van Gundy (aka, Master of Panic), Orlando Magic
I salute Nate McMillan, Mike Brown, Phil Jackson, Doc Rivers, Rick Adelman, Greg Popovich and Jerry Sloan for exceptional coaching jobs this season. But one dude stands out, the dude with the shoulder pads in his suit jackets. Think about this: Orlando, a team with no real defensive stoppers is one the best defensive teams in the league. That’s coaching. There’s man-to-man defense and then there’s team defense. Team defense is all about help and rotation. Watch the Magic get after it on defense. Those dudes rotate and help with purpose, intensity and a collective idea of when and where to be. That’s a commitment to not letting the other squad score, that’s coaching. Think about this: a team with no real go-to-guy, a squad that basically relies and a bunch of drives and kicks, a team without any true “creators” is one of the best offensive squads in the League. That’s coaching. Van Gundy has taken a team and led them to a product that is greater than the sum of its parts. They shouldn’t have won 52 games last season and they surely shouldn’t be on pace to win 60 this season, but they did and they are. 19-7 since Jameer went down. There’s no comp, here.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
The MVP debate was the hot topic at one of my last visit to the barbershop, but I told the fellas that I wouldn’t participate until the debate evolved from “Who’s the MVP?” to “Who, besides LeBron, is the MVP?” Once we agreed to focus on the only thing worth arguing — who’s No. 2? — I broke it down like this: the MVP award is about the team and the player. In my eyes, I assign a value to a team and then look at a player’s contribution/value to that squad.
So, brass tacks — the Miami Heat are a middling, barely .500 squad that, at most, will provide some nice conference semi Bron-DWade action. They are not contenders, they do not matter on any broad scale for this year’s NBA. So the fact that DWade has meant so much to them doesn’t really make him all that valuable. Look at these teams like they’re companies. The Heat are not a Microsoft or even an Apple. They are a middle-rung software company with no real influence in the industry and staff of employees that probably couldn’t get an interview at any of the Silicon Valley heavyweights. Wade, its CEO, is brilliant and beyond essential for the company’s relative success, maybe even more essential than Steve Jobs is to Apple, but who, given the value and cachet of their companies, is the more valuable employee? Right. So please shut up with the Wade For MVP chants.
Howard’s defensive presence is probably the chief reason that his squad is close to 60 victories and one of five or six teams with a legit shot at the title. But he’s also a late-game liability on offense because his squad can’t dump it down to him, get out the way and say “go to work.” There are four dudes that truly deserve to be in the No. 2 discussion — Kobe, Billups, Duncan and CP3. The Spurs played large chunks of the season without Parker and Ginobili. Duncan was the constant and, as usual, San Antonio clocked in at 50-plus. Billups totally rewired the Nuggets and would be my pick for Coach of the Year, if he were eligible. But although both were stabilizers and leaders and performers, neither was transcendent.
Kobe was, though. 27, 5 and 5 on 47 percent shooting for a 65-win squad. Chris Webber said it best when he asserted that we take Kobe for granted. Because he hasn’t hit us with a rash of 50-point games, because there haven’t been as many theatrics as years past, we look at this season as somewhat of a down year for Kobe. That’s absurd. Kobe’s paced, subtle, spot-picking brilliance for, arguably, the League’s best and most relevant squad is getting shamefully devalued.
He’d be my No. 2, if it weren’t for Chris Paul turning in a season that’s featured production like we’ve never seen before. 23, 11, 6 and 3. Like I wrote last week for NBA.com, “that statline makes me wince.” Yeah, last season the Hornets won 56 games and this year they might stay at 49 or win 51, at best. But, given that the Hornets may be the League’s most oft-injured squad, this season, the fact that they’re even made the Playoffs in the West is an accomplishment that I attribute almost solely to CP3. Again, from last week’s CP3 column: “Think about the downright thorough and all-encompassing impact he has on the full 94 feet of hardwood. First he runs the offense, then he’ll create some type of bucket for him or a teammate, then go and disrupt the other team’s offense with ball pressure, either take the ball from some nervous schlep or barrel his way to a rebound and start the process all over again. Not only should he be in one the MVP discussion, he should be the leader in the Defensive Player of the Year debate, as well.” Chris is as important to his team as Wade — maybe even more. The difference is that his team wins more, in a tougher conference. New Orleans, as a squad, is worth more than the Miami. CP3 is my No. 2.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at email@example.com or “follow” him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.