Another NBA season has come and gone, this one more unique than others – obviously – due to the 66 games played in 120 days. The playoffs loom Saturday, though there is no clear-cut favorite. I had Oklahoma City – the West’s No. 2 seed – winning it all in the preseason and I’ll stick with that pick. But we’ll get to the postseason later.
For now, here are my end-of-season awards:
MVP: LeBRON JAMES, MIAMI HEAT
To me, this race is not even close. James has far and away been the best the league has to offer this season. Even aside from the 27.1 points, 7.9 rebounds, 6.2 assists per game. Even aside from the 53% field-goal percentage and 36% 3-point marksmanship. He owns a league-best player efficiency rating of 29.9, 1.6 more than the next closes in Kevin Durant. Oh, and he’s also doing this in the second-fewest minutes per game (37.8) over his career.
Say what you want about LeBron, and much has been said. But there is never a time when he is not the best player on the floor, and what makes this season impressive is his work done in the offseason to improve his game. One aspect in particular has shown vast growth: his abandonment of 3-point attempts (3.5 per game last year; 2.4 per game this year), which has resulted in more attacks near the rim (6.6 attempts at the rim this season; 5.9 last year). James has found a way to make his game even more dangerous.
James gets the easy nod over the Clippers’ Chris Paul (fifth in PER; who has single-handily transformed the culture of the Clippers; is, in my opinion, the most clutch player in the league, amidst the top 10 in points and assists in the clutch; 19.8 ppg, 9.1 apg, 2.5 spg in 36 mpg) and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant (third-straight scoring title; 28 ppg, 8 rpg, 3.5 apg in 38 mpg).
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: TYSON CHANDLER, NEW YORK KNICKS
Much like Chris Paul has turned around the Clippers’ fortunes, Chandler – the best free agent acquisition in the offseason, without question – completely altered the Knicks’ defensive fortunes. In Chandler’s first year with the team, the Knicks are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) instead of the 23rd they were last year. Consider that their two top stars are Carmelo Anthony – just now learning the concept of defense – and Amar’e Stoudemire, who likely will never quite grasp the concept of defense.
Chandler not only defends, he leads. He guards without fouling. He yells out rotations. He holds teammates accountable. He averaged 9.9 rebounds and 1.4 blocks, but again, that’s only the surface. The stats don’t account for how many times he accounted for whoever blew by Anthony or Stoudemire on any given possession. It doesn’t account for shots altered.
Chandler gets the nod over the Celtics’ Kevin Garnett (holding opponents to 37% shooting on post-up plays) and the Bulls’ Joakim Noah (9.8 rpg, 1.4 bpg, but came on too late after a slow start).
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: KYRIE IRVING, CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
It was not the best year for rookies, but Irving was the top pick – literally. He blew away his freshmen peers and displayed a mature offensive game for a first-year player, someone who can score on the bounce or off the pass, and someone who excels late in games. In 30.5 minutes this season, Irving averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 assists and 3.7 rebounds. His shooting numbers were healthy – 47% from the field, 40% from 3 – and here’s the real deal: according to SI.com’s Zach Lowe, Irving shot 51 percent (18-of-35) in the last three minutes of games when the scoring margin was three or fewer points, even winning such a game in Boston against the Celtics.
Irving gets the nod over the Kings’ Isaiah Thomas (11.5 ppg, 4.1 apg, only 1.6 turnovers per game, 25.8 mpg), who was the LAST PICK of the 2011 NBA Draft, and the Knicks’ Iman Shumpert (9.5 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.8 apg, 1.7 spg28.9 mpg), who, like Chandler, helped revive the Knicks’ defense and has become one of the top perimeter defensive players in the entire league.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: JAMES HARDEN, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Another easy pick. You can even argue that Harden is the second-best player on the Thunder. One of the most gifted offensive performers in the league, Harden averaged 16.8 points and 3.7 assists in 31 minutes per game this season. He shot 49% from the field 39% from 3 and 85% from the free-throw line. Most impressive is the fact that he averaged his points on only 10.1 field goal attempts per game. He has a true shooting percentage (which takes into account 3s and free throws) of 65 percent. To put into perspective, the only player of the last three seasons, according to Lowe, to achieve that is Chandler, a 7-foot-1 center who did it twice. Incredible. Simply an outstanding year for the wingman.
Harden gets the easy nod over Memphis’ O.J. Mayo (12.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 2.6 apg in 26.8 mpg) and Philadelphia’s Lou Williams (14.9 ppg, 3.5 apg, 26.3 mpg).
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: JAMES HARDEN, OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Harden’s credentials have been cited. Already an electric player, he had his coming-out party in last year’s playoffs, and improved his PER this season a full five points from last year. That’s not easy to do when you’re already a primary component to a team. Harden averaged 4.6 more points per game than last season and one more rebound per game. His shooting took the biggest jump. He shot just 43% from the field and 34% from 3 in 2010-11.
Harden gets the nod over Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic (13.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg this year to 5.5 and 3.0, respectively, last year; 10-point jump in PER) and Houston’s Goran Dragic (11.7 ppg, 5.3 apg this year to 7.7 and 2.5 last year).
COACH OF THE YEAR: TOM THIBODEAU, CHICAGO BULLS
2010-11 MVP Derrick Rose played in just 39 of 66 games this season. With how heavily Chicago is dependent upon him (he had a 32.16 usage rate last season, third in the league), it could be assumed that the Bulls would be fortunate just to hang on to a playoff spot in the East.
Instead, the Bulls waltzed to a 50-16 overall record, good for the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA. They beat Miami by FOUR games for the top spot in the East, and relied upon the likes of John Lucas III and Taj Gibson and C.J. Watson. Um, who? But Thibodeau’s no-nonsense attitude, as well as his admirable defensive mind, paced Chicago, which is why he should win the award in consecutive years for the first time in the league’s history. Thibodeau accepted no excuses and held each and every player accountable. Not only was Rose absent most of the season, so was Rip Hamilton – the team’s prized offseason acquisition – so the Bulls were without their starting backcourt for a great majority of the condensed campaign. Thibodeau’s acute play-calling and use of his players, however, only boosted team morale, and he puts his team in a position to succeed time and time and time again.
Thibs gets the nod over San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich, who again led his team to the top spot in the cutthroat West, and Memphis’ Lionel Hollins, who guided the Grizzlies to the West’s fourth seed even with star forward Zach Randolph (28 games played) and key reserve Darrell Arthur (out the entire year) missing significant time.