In any sport, on any level, nothing boosts confidence more than recognition, and this could be accepted in many different ways: in written articles through the media, championship banners, and landing a spot on ESPN SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays, to name a few. For individuals, aside from championship rings, nothing spawns more respect than season-ending awards.
It’s no secret that most of these will be easy to predict, so instead of sharing who I feel will win, I’ve decided to point out who should take home each award.
There’s no better individual trophy than the one that reads, “Most Valuable Player,” so it’s only fitting that I begin with it.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LEBRON JAMES, MIAMI HEAT
I feel I need to take time to define this award. The way I view it, votes should go to the best player in the league that leads a team winning 50 or more games. Is that how the league feels? Absolutely not, because as we know, players like Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and Derrick Rose were not the overall best in the league when their names were etched into history.
If it is handed to the most valuable player to his team, you have to consider Kobe Bryant. Add a restriction of just 50-win teams, and Carmelo Anthony is your top candidate. All of this can be compared to the “Kobe and Shaq” effect, who possess a combined two MVP awards because, simply put, their dominance as a duo eliminated their votes as individual MVP candidates.
However, the MVP trophy should, and will, go to LeBron James, for many reasons. The Miami Heat did come away with the best record in the NBA, by six games, and also won the East over the New York Knicks by 12 games. The 27-game win streak, the efficiency, and the overall game can’t be ignored here, and while players like Kevin Durant and Chris Paul made things interesting, most will claim it’s not even a race.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: PAUL GEORGE, INDIANA PACERS
Generally, big man defensive anchors will get the nod here, so if I’m asked who I expected to win, I would have said Roy Hibbert.
Let’s pretend we’re done picking from the list of big men, though. The league’s elite perimeter defenders include Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, Luol Deng, Andre Iguodala, and a standout named Paul George. The easiest way I can explain this pick is by stating that the current Indiana Pacers squad is ranked in the top 10, of all time (eliminating lockout teams, because offensive and defensive numbers were haywire), among all defensive teams according to opponent field goal percentage. Not only did they hold opponents to an average of just 42 percent shooting, but they also limited them to a league-best 32.7 percent from beyond the arc. Those statistics compare to the 2008 Boston Celtics, who ended up winning the NBA championship that season.
The combination of George’s elite defense on perimeter players, and Hibbert’s presence in the paint, has propelled Indiana from 9th on the defensive end (last season) to 1st in many major defensive categories. Hibbert protects the paint, but George takes the toughest assignments night in and night out, and finds success against most.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: DAMIAN LILLARD, PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS
There are only three other rookies in NBA history that have averaged 19+ points per game, 6.5+ assists per game, and 3+ rebounds per game: Oscar Robertson, Allen Iverson and Damon Stoudamire. Of course, those three all had better numbers than Lillard, in regards to points, rebounds and/or assists, but without a doubt, that’s good company for the Trail Blazers point guard to be in.
Portland’s final regular season record didn’t help his case at all, but the truth is, no other rookie came close to matching Lillard’s production, and aside from Harrison Barnes, all of the impressive rookies were on non-playoff teams. Lillard may have had this in the bag since that big 37-point performance against the Warriors in January.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: J.R. SMITH, NEW YORK KNICKS
Smith’s contributions off the bench kept the Knicks contending in the Eastern Conference, and while he does show signs of reverting to his old, selfish ways from his time in Denver, Smith has played smarter basketball this season. He has had seven 30-plus point games this year (compared to Jamal Crawford’s one), including a 36-point performance against the Thunder, and a 35-point outing against Tony Allen and the Grizzlies.
Some will argue for Crawford and his jumpshot, but Smith does more on the floor, and he provides the level of play that could significantly help carry the Knicks through a playoff series when Carmelo Anthony is struggling. He may not be an all-star just yet, but Smith still has room for improvement, and this season is the best of his career.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER OF THE YEAR: NIKOLA VUCEVIC, ORLANDO MAGIC
Officially, Paul George has claimed this award, but Nikola Vucevic may have improved far more than anyone else in the NBA this season. Sure, increased minutes and roles will show improved statistics, but this goes for every player, including George. However, Vucevic found his way into the starting five, permanently, with a seven percent increase in shooting percentage and nearly doubling all of his stats across the board.
The difference between their teams, the Pacers and the Magic, are night and day in the standings, but based strictly on player improvement, it’s quite the task to find another player in this league that has improved more than Vucevic, in raw statistics or using the eye test.
COACH OF THE YEAR: GEORGE KARL, DENVER NUGGETS
This award was as easy to hand out as the MVP and ROY. George Karl’s superstar-less Denver Nuggets ran off a 24-4 record after All-Star Weekend, and were 38-3 overall at home. The Nuggets won their season series against the Thunder, Clippers, Lakers, Grizzlies, Bulls, Warriors, Rockets, and Pacers, while tying 2-2 with the Spurs. They also played their way into a 15-game winning streak starting late February.
Denver ended the regular season as the 5th best offensive team and the 11th best defensive team, with 57 total wins. Can you name another great team who flew under the radar as much as Karl’s Nuggets? Of course, the media should shed light on the players as well, but Karl’s ability to define established roles for Andre Iguodala, JaVale McGee, and still use Andre Miller effectively cannot go unnoticed.
EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: DARYL MOREY, HOUSTON ROCKETS
There are many executives who should be considered here, but regarding this season’s transactions, Daryl Morey may have paved the clearer road for his franchise as they threaten to topple the top-seed Oklahoma City Thunder this week. Houston has five team options this offseason, one being a very cheap option for Chandler Parsons (which they will pick up, without a doubt), and both Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik (who were prizes for outbidding other teams) are going to make just a little more than $5 million each. Why is this significant? After ripping James Harden away from the Thunder, and locking him into a five-year deal, Morey has a $38 million payroll this summer to work with, which could result in the signing of, say, Dwight Howard or Chris Paul.
Mitch Kupchak would have been a great pick here, but only if the Lakers had won their division and were one of the top seeds in the conference. Injuries to the team were contributed to both old age and offensive systems that likely overworked players on the court, and the lack of depth and young, legitimate NBA players on the roster did not help Kupchak’s case.
If Houston upsets the Thunder, it changes everything for the franchise. Free agents will feel they are the missing piece for the Rockets to contend, and Morey comes out smelling like roses for turning what seemed to be an abysmal, rookie-driven season into a 2-3 year plan that, suddenly, makes perfect sense.