Friday, April 15, 2011

The Painted Area's 2010-11 NBA Awards

With the 2010-11 NBA regular season in the books, let's get right to it with our mythical awards ballot:

1. LeBron James, Miami
2. Dwight Howard, Orlando
3. Derrick Rose, Chicago
4. Dwyane Wade, Miami
5. Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers

All in all, it's been a goofy year for the NBA's MVP award. LeBron James sunk his chances for a third straight award all the way back on July 8, and from there, MVP reasoning has seemed to go like this: James and Dwyane Wade cancel each other out because they have each other, and to a lesser extent, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have done so, as well. Meanwhile, a couple of the top teams - San Antonio and Boston - have done it by committee, while the Lakers have really done so as well, with Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Andrew Bynum all getting deserved credit for carrying the team for stretches at various points of the season. That's disqualified Kobe Bean Bryant even though he's had another brilliant season, defying the aging process with 82 games played, among other things.

As much as anything, Derrick Rose is going to win the 2010-11 MVP award in large part for meeting this criteria: best W-L record with fewest superstars. I believe that's led to an oversimplification in the rush to anoint Rose, though I do believe there's a fair and solid case to make for a Rose vote.

I have agonized far more than I should over an imaginary vote - in my mind, it's very, very close between James, Howard, and Rose, and I could live with votes for any of the three. Rose has not had what I consider to be a truly MVP-caliber season, but the difference between this season and outrageous votes like Iverson over Shaq in 2001 or Nash over Shaq in 2005 is that there is no clear candidate who is being snubbed. The candidacies of James and Howard are far from airtight, I readily admit.

Overall, I find myself in a similar place as in 2005-06, when I thought LeBron, D-Wade, Dirk and Kobe were very close, and I ultimately decided to choose the guy I thought was the best player. That was Kobe Bryant, and I feel good about how that choice has held up over time. If anyone's career in basketball history has demonstrated how important quality of teammates is in determining W-L record, it's Kobe Bryant's.

So that's where I netted out: LeBron James is still the best player in basketball and he is my pick. The Decision has zero bearing on my pick, nor does Game 5 of last year's Celtics-Cavs series - just 2010-11 regular season. LeBron remains the dominant player in the league statistically, easily leading the league in PER once again despire sharing the load with Wade and Chris Bosh. (I thought LeBron was a better passer and a very slightly better defender, and that Wade cost Miami a couple games with terrible performances, which rarely happened with LeBron - but don't get me wrong, the two were close.) Beyond the core numbers, I would cite three other factors:

1. As much as people correctly talk about how incredible it's been that Dwight Howard's led Orlando to the third-best defense in the NBA without any supporting defensive talent, I think it's overshadowed Miami's remarkable achievement in finishing fifth in defense despite not having any quality defensive bigs other than Joel Anthony, whose playing time is limited by extreme awfulness on offense.

The other top defensive teams in the league - Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Milwaukee, the Lakers, Dallas - all have at least one stud defensive big inside, and often several. Miami's defense is keyed by LeBron and D-Wade being everywhere (Mario Chalmers has been an underrated factor on that end, as well). Mobile bigs are vitally important in today's game, and I'm exceedingly impressed that the Heat have played great D with so few of them.

2. A key argument in favor of Rose is that he carried Chicago through "all those injuries" (that's the phrase used by LeBron himself!). I don't deny that extended absences of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for 57 games combined were significant losses, but those to marquee losses overshadow the fact that Chicago lost almost no other games to any other player in its deep rotation.

LeBron, meanwhile, played without Udonis Haslem (69 games missed), Mike Miller (41), and Mario Chalmers (12) for a combined 122 games, plus another 11 games combined for Wade (6) and Bosh (5). I would still rate the Boozer-Noah losses as more significant (one could argue that Miller's production wasn't much different in the 41 games he played, after all), but I do think that the difference in the "injuries overcome" factor is much closer than conventional wisdom leads one to believe.

3. There's so much talk about how the "numbers" people favor Howard and James, while the "eyes" people are in Rose's corner. As my man Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus pointed out to me, though, one of the better "eyes" criteria out there is one that Bill Simmons has floated over the years: line up all the NBA players against the wall and choose up sides. Who gets chosen in what order? I'd find it hard to believe anyone other James would be 1, and I think there'd be a good chance Rose would finish outside the top 5.


I made the case for Howard a few weeks ago, and it hasn't really changed. The dude is a beast who is primarily and directly responsible for why the Orlando Magic wins games - a dominant defender and rebounder with improved offense.

Since I wrote that piece almost three weeks ago, Rose has closed with a flourish, and made me decision harder once again. All of the intangibles are in his favor. He has carried Chicago's offense on his back, an offense which has gotten better as the season has gone on (as Rose has, markedly improving his free-throw rate after the New Year) and which has been very good in late and close situations (as Rose has).

The clutch numbers are a mixed bag for all three players - here's a comparison from for stats from the 4th quarter or OT, less than 5 minutes left, score within 5 points:
             FGA FG% FTA FT% PTS REB AST  TO BLK
Rose 36.3 40% 19.6 89% 47.8 10.4 9.8 6.9 0.6
James 27.3 44% 23.1 84% 45.1 11.2 4.9 3.8 0.7
Howard 9.9 72% 17.7 59% 24.8 22.0 2.2 2.5 3.4

Rose has been fantastic, for sure, second in the league in clutch scoring (behind Kobe), with strong assist numbers, though those turnovers are the highest for all qualified players.

LeBron has been very good overall, as well, fourth in clutch scoring with a higher field-goal percentage.

Howard, meanwhile, has been extremely efficient, with an excellent FG%, but on low attempts, presumably because of the fear that he will get sent to the free-throw line. Also note that Dwight is second in clutch rebounding and has strong numbers in blocks.

So, who's clutch? I still give Rose the edge, both because he's had the shoulder so much of the offensive burden, and because he and Chicago have rather famously outperformed LeBron and Miami in end-of-game situations. But I think it's closer than conventional wisdom would suggest, and also underrates Dwight's clutch performance on defense (not to mention the clutch performance of Rose's teammates on D).

Still, I'm willing to say that Rose has been the most valuable player in the last three minutes of games this season. Is that enough to overcome the fact that I think James and Howard have been much more valuable over the first 45 minutes? For me, it's not. For you, it might be. I can respect the argument.

It's really, really close and I think it's going to be a year in which the playoffs help illuminate exactly who the most valuable players are, and I don't necessarily think that correlates with who wins the East. OK, enough MVP talk.

First Team
G Derrick Rose, Chicago
G Dwyane Wade, Miami
C Dwight Howard, Orlando
F LeBron James, Miami
F Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas

Second Team
G Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City
G Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers
C Pau Gasol, L.A. Lakers
F Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
F Amare Stoudemire, New York

Third Team
G Chris Paul, New Orleans
G Manu Ginobili, San Antonio
C LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland
F Kevin Garnett, Boston
F Kevin Love, Minnesota

A few notes:
Dirk barely edges Durant for the First Team forward nod.... Something of an upset, considering where we stood at the end of the FIBA World Championships in September. If I'd told you an under-23 player was about to become NBA MVP acclamation, Durant would have been the overwhelming favorite.... There's recently been some criticism of Russell Westbrook's ability to run a team, which is fair, though I think it underestimates his impact in other areas of the game - he is an *awesome* offensive rebounder for a point guard, and I feel like I saw him win several games singlehandedly this season.... Chris Paul would rate higher if not for his poor February. I wish his usage rate had been higher, but I think we're underrating CP3 at this point. Please consider that he had seven teammates who played 1000+ minutes, and five of them were Trevor Ariza, Marco Bellinelli, Jarrett Jack, Willie Green and Jason Smith.... KG makes the team for defense in a tough call.... If there's one guy I wish I had room for, it's Tony Parker - I thought he was an incredible catalyst for the Spurs second-rated offense all season.

1. Dwight Howard, Orlando
2. Kevin Garnett, Boston
3. Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee

The backbones behind the third-, second-, and fourth-ranked defenses in the league this season. You know Howard is a beast nonpareil. KG ranks with Olajuwon, Payton and Mourning as my favorite players to watch play defense ever. Bogut anchors the tough Bucks D with both blocks and charges. If Andrew Bynum had played the whole season the way he played after the All-Star break, he might be no. 2 in this category.

1. Blake Griffin, LA Clippers
2. Greg Monroe, Detroit
3. John Wall, Washington

No doubt here, as Griffin projects as a Hall-of-Fame player already, based on his rookie production. We all know about the highlights, but I marvel at Blake's understanding of how to pass, and his footwork/varied moves on the low block at such a young age. What a joy to watch. I second Bill Simmons' idea for a Julius Erving Award for the player who was most exciting to watch, and there's no question it was Griffin.

Monroe outproduced Wall on the year (partially because a foot injury hampered Wall's production early in the season), but I still feel very confident that Wall is the one who projects as the second superstar in this year's rookie class. The low win total doesn't concern me - Kevin Durant and many other greats didn't win many as rooks, either.

Add Landry Fields and Ed Davis and you've got our All-Rookie First Team.

1. Tom Thibodeau, Chicago
2. Gregg Popovich, San Antonio
3. George Karl, Denver

it was really nothing short of one of the best regular-season coaching jobs in years turned in by Thibodeau - he transformed the team's D, improved their O by getting them to turn long 2s into 3s, and seemed to maximize the talents of his entire roster. Teams which filled coaching vacancies between the Celtics' 2008 championship and the Bulls' hiring of Thibs without making Thibodeau an offer probably need to re-examine their interviewing and hiring processes.

Pop did a great job in revitalizing a Spurs unit which was thought to be spent (though we thought he should have done more to develop Tiago Splitter). Karl was incredible in managing Denver amidst the Melo turmoil, with a top offensive team before the trade and a top defensive team after it.

As always, lots of guys deserve nods here. We'd like to throw some recognition at Rick Carlisle, who always had his seemingly over-the-hill gang fully prepared. To that end, if there were a Tex Winter Award for best assistant coach, we'd give it to Dwane Casey of Dallas for developing the team's zone defenses - someone hire this man as a head coach! Last year's Winter winner, Ron Adams, would be right there again this year for his work with Chicago's defense.

1. Lamar Odom, L.A. Lakers
2. Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia
3. James Harden, Oklahoma City

No-brainer here, with Lamar's outside season as the Lakers versatile glue guy everywhere - inside/outside, offense/defensive, shooting/passing/rebounding, halfcourt/fullcourt. Young is one of seemingly about seven Sixers who merit consideration as the league's most underrated player. Harden came on like gangbusters after a slow start.

1. Masai Ujiri, Denver
2. Gar Forman/John Paxson, Chicago
3. Pat Riley, Miami

As always, a tough call here, balancing different long-term and short-term objectives for different franchises. Ujiri gets the nod after he and young new owner Josh Kroenke turned the Melodrama into a brilliant trade, setting up the Nuggets beautifully both long-term and short-term after trading a presumed superstar.

Forman and Paxson did fine work overall in building out their roster, but I still think the Bulls were a triumph of great coaching more than great front-office management. Riley is in because he made James-Wade-Bosh happen, though his dreadful work with the rest of the roster explains why he's only third despite that historic haul.

All things considered, we may be naming this award after Sam Presti someday - another masterful move with the Perkins trade, and the Thunder are set for a long run of preeminence in the West.


At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow. You are such a lebron nuthugger. The Heat played horrible basketball and underachieved. Lebron choked so many games away, he really should not get rewarded for this season

At 7:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I may not agree on LeBron being the MVP, but for all the talks about the Heat playing "horrible", they still won a boatload of games and have the 2nd best record in the Eastern Conference. Can we all agree we've seen worse?

At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice analysis as always. but i'm curious, did u forget to mention Cousins in rookie conversation or are u suggesting that Ed Davis had more stellar season?

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