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Weekly Countdown: NBA scouts, executives honor the season's best

This week I polled a half-dozen NBA advance scouts and pro personnel executives -- experts who spend the season traveling the league to break down players firsthand and again on tape -- for their choices for the regular-season awards. You'll find their opinions differ from the media voters, myself included, who decide most of these contests. (I'll reveal my selections next week.)

5. All-NBA. Broken into three teams:

Third Team

G Brandon Roy, Portland Trail BlazersG Tony Parker, San Antonio SpursF Joe Johnson, Atlanta HawksF Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas MavericksC Pau Gasol, Los Angeles Lakers

In order to recognize the best players, some panelists fiddled with positions by referring to Gasol or Tim Duncan as a center or nudging Johnson out of the backcourt. "I'm surprised there are not a lot of forwards to choose from this year,'' an advance scout said. "That run of great power forwards is going away, especially with [Kevin] Garnett being out a lot of the year.''

Parker has never made an All-NBA team. "I think he has carried them,'' said another scout who picked him as a first-teamer. "They've been missing [Manu] Ginobili a lot, and Parker has stepped up a lot of those nights.''

One surprising absentee was Shaquille O'Neal, who is leading the league in field-goal shooting (61.2 percent) and averaging 18.0 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while missing just seven games entering the final week. "Has he made his team better, or has he brought it down to his level?'' a personnel executive said. "Even on bad teams someone has to score points.''

Second Team

G Deron Williams, Utah JazzG Chris Paul, New Orleans HornetsF Kevin Garnett, Boston CelticsF Tim Duncan, San Antonio SpursC Yao Ming, Houston Rockets

The panel lauded Duncan. "On the offensive end, they still get it to him and they run their '4 down' when they need to get a score,'' a scout said, referring to a post-up play for Duncan. "If you watch him defensively, his feet are great and he works in the paint -- he's so smart and so active with his hands. He's slowing down, but he takes pride in defense, and he understands how to play defense better than anyone in the league.''

Williams, meanwhile, overcame a sprained ankle that limited him over the first half of the season. "I like Deron Williams as a defender,'' a scout said. "He does a great job guarding the pick-and-roll. He's one of the best in the league at it.''

First Team

G Dwyane Wade, Miami HeatG Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers (unanimous first team selection)F Paul Pierce, Boston CelticsF LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers (unanimous)C Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic

Pierce deserves to be a first-teamer, according to the panel. "He has done a great job of keeping that team in contention,'' an admirer said. "You can't stop him offensively, and he plays at both ends. At the end of the game, he's playing defense against the best perimeter player. He has been their glue all year.''

4. Rookie of the Year. Per my official NBA ballot, I asked the panel for three names in order.

3. O.J. Mayo, Memphis Grizzlies2. Brook Lopez, New Jersey Nets1. Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls (unanimous)

Rose finished first on all six ballots. "Far and away the best,'' a voter said. "He has all the talent and he's that team's leader: To have that combination in a rookie is very unusual.''

Here's a voter on Lopez: "He has played consistently the last half of the season, and it's hard to get numbers when you're a big man and you've got to go get the ball and catch it and score -- as opposed to being able to take the ball up the floor and force a possession [from the backcourt].''

Reaction was mixed on Mayo after a strong start to the season. "I thought he declined through the year. I still like him, I really like him. But his shooting has gone down, and that coincides with Mike Conley's having the ball more.''

Added another voter: "Mayo is like [Kevin] Durant a year ago: He can really score. But the more I look at him, I can't help but start to wonder: Is he going to be more than that? Is he going to be a guy who tries to do more than get his 20 points?''

Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Timberwolves forward Kevin Love also received consideration. "Westbrook is a stats filler," a panelist said. "He needs to learn to limit his turnovers and improve his decision-making. His shot is not broken; he has a good-looking shot, and as it develops he's going to be dangerous because he attacks so hard and puts people on their heels. He also needs to be better at finishing at the rim.''

On Love: "I was really disappointed in him at the beginning of the year, but he's gotten better all year long. Now he isn't trying to do things he's not capable of."

3. Defensive Player of the Year.

3. Kobe Bryant2. LeBron James1. Dwight Howard

Considering the high standards of these panelists, these results serve as high praise for James, who wasn't recognized as a strong defender before this season. The Cavaliers have been a dominant defensive team this season and James has become a leader at that end of the floor. "He can lock down anybody he wants to at any time,'' a personnel scout said, "and he seems to have the respect from the officials and the league.''

James and Bryant tend to roam defensively, which is both bad and good -- but mainly good. During the key moments of tight games, they often dominate defensively. At other times, they look to make big plays. "I don't know if they lock down on people every play of every night,'' a voter said. "For instance, Kobe will leave his man completely to double somebody and rip the ball off. He and LeBron give up the weak side because they're chasing the ball. But Michael [Jordan] used to do the same thing. That was how he played defense too.''

Many recognized Howard for leading the league in rebounds (13.9) and blocks (2.9), but none of the panelists believe he has achieved Garnett's standard, who ceded the award to a knee injury that has sidelined him for 18 games. "Howard is not always this great defender, but he does lead in those categories -- and that doesn't even account for the shots he changes,'' a voter said.

Added another voter: "I think it's easier for a guy like Howard to defend down there than it is for these other guys out on the perimeter. On the perimeter, you're dealing with lot of distance between you and the goal, so your footwork and quickness have to be great. You're always getting screened and you have to go over or under or through the screen. A big guy sits there and he's either defending right on the ball with nobody else involved, or maybe he has a teammate coming in to [help] down with him.''

2. Coach of the Year.

3. Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz2. Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat1. Mike Brown, Cleveland Cavaliers

The Heat lost 67 games last season for Pat Riley, but rookie head coach Spoelstra has Miami back in the playoffs with a winning record. Two voters named him Coach of the Year, while two others don't have him on the ballot -- a sign of the wide divergence of opinion on how to choose this difficult award. "He did more with less than the other guys,'' summed up a Spoelstra supporter.

Sloan, who has never won the award, received one first-place vote from a panelist who explains: "They've had a lot of injuries and he still has his team contending. No matter who is on the floor, they execute, they play hard and they try to be in every game. This is no pity vote -- I respect him for what he's accomplished this year.''

Brown finished first or second on every ballot. The voters named all of the obvious reasons, namely notching the best record in the league and improving over last season, adhering to defense and developing a system that brings out the best in LeBron and his teammates.

1. Most Valuable Player.

5. Chris Paul4. Dwight Howard3. Dwyane Wade2. Kobe Bryant1. LeBron James (unanimous)

That's right, LeBron is No. 1 on every ballot. "When I look at everything he's done, offensively and defensively, there's no doubt he's the MVP,'' explained one voter who for years has rated Bryant as the best player in basketball. "He is the dominant player in the league right now.''

For these experts, it choosing James over Bryant and Wade was a straightforward decision. "It's only tough because LeBron has got more help on his team,'' another voter said. "Dwyane has so few players on his team who contribute. But LeBron has catapulted himself to a whole different level. I don't think there's any question he is the best player in the league. He can do whatever the hell he wants to do out there.''

As a matter of interest, one voter listed Yao as No. 5 on his MVP ballot; he also rated Yao as the first-team All-NBA center, shifting Howard to the second team. Here's why: "Yao is the toughest matchup of all the big men in the league. He is going to demand a double team, he has all of the moves and he is the one big guy I've seen this year who can control the tempo. If they're playing a small team, the Rockets will pound it into him and force you to go big.

"From Orlando's standpoint, they play a lot of pick-and-roll. They go to Dwight, but they're not going inside like Houston goes to Yao. Houston's first option is to go inside to Yao and see what you're going to do and play off that. If you double him, he'll kick it outside for three-point shots, and if you don't, then he'll kill you from the post. And then he's such a good free-throw shooter that he'll beat you that way too. Dwight can't do that because he's such a poor free-throw shooter, which is why they can't go to him at the end of the game.''

4. All-Defensive First Team.

G Rajon Rondo, Boston CelticsG Kobe BryantF LeBron JamesF Kevin GarnettC Dwight Howard

Rondo was the surprise here. "Off the ball, he takes chances and he's not solid,'' a panelist said. "But I love his ability to get everybody on the team to defend. Garnett has the fanfare, and he deserves it, but when Garnett has been out, you notice that this guy [Rondo] is the guy who goes out to meet the ball. I love the way he gets over the screens, plays the 1 and 2 and at times he has even played Kobe Bryant on defense. When they have to have a major stop, it's Rondo. He sets the tone out front and gets them to be good defensive team.''

3. Sixth Man Award.

T-3. Flip Murray, Atlanta HawksT-3. Nate Robinson, New York Knicks2. Travis Outlaw, Portland Trail Blazers1. Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks

Terry embraced his new role off the bench for the good of the team.

2. Most Improved Player.

3. Rajon Rondo2. Danny Granger, Indiana Pacers1. Devin Harris, New Jersey Nets

Harris and Granger have been the favorites all year, for obvious reasons. The surprise selection, again, is Rondo. "They've leaned on him more this year for his decision-making with the ball and he's taken another step up,'' a voter said.

Other votes went to New York's David Lee ("He was the first name I thought of for this award") and Denver's Chris Andersen ("He is the best value in the league''). The Nuggets' shot-blocker is making $800,000 this season.

1. Executive of the Year.

3. Kevin Pritchard, Portland Trail Blazers2. Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder1. Danny Ferry, Cleveland Cavaliers

Amazingly, all three of these guys are part of the San Antonio mafia. All have worked under the new Don, Gregg Popovich, the Vito Corleone of basketball (i.e., I am but a humble man, but I have many important friends ...). On the day when R.C. Buford leaves San Antonio to run his own team, Popovich will earn his full due as lord of the NBA's Five Families.

Ferry has long been the front-runner for this award, based on the offseason trade for Mo Williams that filled Cleveland's need for scoring and leadership at point guard. Like his fellow former Spurs, he has developed flexibility within his payroll (which he could wield by trading expiring contracts or by going under the cap in 2010, whether or not LeBron re-signs with Cleveland).

"The Mo Williams deal was huge,'' a voter said. "He traded away Joe Smith [in the Williams deal] and then gets him back [in a midseason buyout]. Under a lot of pressure, he's done what he can to make LeBron question whether he's going to leave or not. It's no longer a foregone conclusion like everybody thought at the beginning of the year.''

Pritchard received votes from three panelists who noted how well he has drafted to build the Blazers. "I'm voting for him more for what he didn't do than what he did," a voter said. "He held onto guys this year and let them develop together instead of trading away some young talent.''

The surprise here is Presti, who presides over the fourth-worst team in the league. But he received two first-place votes for amassing draft picks and cap space that can be applied over the next two summers in pursuit of talent to join with Durant, Westbrook and Jeff Green. In these recessionary times, the Thunder are the envy of many small-market teams.

"Getting [midseason free-agent Nenad] Krstic was big. They've got some talent there, and he has it set up for them to go in the same direction as Portland.''

Orlando GM Otis Smith finished fourth with the panel. "If he had not done that deal to go get Rafer Alston [at the trading deadline in February], they would be dead in the water right now. That deal kept them as a contender.''

3. Now that Blake Griffin has declared for the draft, it looks like the race to get him on draft night is on. Is he the kind of franchise-changing player No. 1 picks usually are? Any chance Ricky Rubio would go first?-- Andrew, Chicago

He isn't viewed as an elite talent like former No. 1 picks LeBron or Duncan. Many see this as a poor draft at the top, with Griffin as the one player who could become a star as he develops his raw offensive game. If Rubio comes out, he is unlikely to overtake Griffin as the top pick. There is a wide range of opinion on both Rubio, the Spanish point guard, and UConn shot-blocker Hasheem Thabeet, with some execs believing they're overrated and others seeing star potential in one or both.

2. How can you say the Wizards will be big winners when they still don't play defense? Don't they need a lot more retooling than just a healthy Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood?-- Kelly Pao, Memphis

The Celtics led the league in defense last year with Pierce and Ray Allen, who were never known as strong defensive players. The Nuggets were unimpressive defensively last year, but this season they rank No. 4 in field-goal defense because they've emphasized it. You don't need to bring in an entire roster of defensive studs in order to play respectable defense. Of course, it would help to bring in a shot-blocker as well as a perimeter defender off the bench. But first the Wizards' new coach must emphasize defense at training camp and every day at practice, and he must persuade Gilbert Arenas and others to commit to defending. That's not going to be as easy as I've made it seem.

2. You wrote recently about the Hall of Fame expanding internationally like the league itself. Do you foresee a day when the NBA operates a separate league overseas, or would it add a European division to the current league?-- Leon T., Bronxville, N.Y.

My prediction is that we won't see a European division of teams within the NBA, that we won't see teams in London and Paris competing in the NBA regular season with the Celtics and the Lakers. To plant NBA franchises in Europe would require fans to pay extravagantly high ticket prices (by current basketball standards in Europe) for 41 games per year. American fans tend to view sports as entertainment built around the star personalities, while European fanatics care mainly whether the team loses.

Maybe in time the kids in Europe who love the NBA will grow up with a better feeling for the NBA culture and eventually as adults they'll be willing to support NBA teams in Europe. Until that kind of conversion takes place, the next goal for Europe is to build one or more basketball leagues that operate at a profit while continuing to feed players to the NBA. That in itself is going to be an enormous undertaking, and maybe it will happen someday in partnership with the NBA so that the European leagues will serve as a kind of farm system to the NBA. If European basketball is ever able to sustain itself as a business that makes money, then we'll be much closer to discussing NBA expansion overseas than we are today.

2. Jim Boylen. The University of Utah coach spent 11 years as an assistant to Rudy Tomjanovich in Houston (helping the Rockets win two championships) in addition to a season each with Golden State and Milwaukee. He also twice served as a Michigan State assistant -- to Jud Heathcote and more recently to Tom Izzo -- before establishing his leadership skills in two years as Utah coach, leading the Utes to the NCAA tournament this season while going 24-10.

Based on his NBA pedigree and success in charge at Utah, the 43-year-old Boylen is the most likely college coach to jump to the NBA.

"He has championship experience, he's worked with superstars, he's worked with difficult players like [Cuttino] Mobley and [Steve] Francis, and he's great at developing young guys,'' a league executive said. "He's definitely somebody NBA teams are going to look at in the future.''

1. Kurt Rambis. He went 24-13 as the Lakers' interim coach during the 1999 lockout season before Phil Jackson replaced him. Now in his seventh year as Jackson's assistant, Rambis oversees L.A.'s defense. He won four rings as a self-made player for Riley in the 1980s, and another three in the front office and on the bench with Jackson.

Many assistants are worthy of becoming head coaches, but a 50-year-old with such a diversity of winning experience can't continue to be ignored.

"He isn't a networking guy,'' an executive from another team said. "He doesn't have an agent, and he's not out there promoting himself or calling guys from other teams. Maybe people take him for granted because it's all about Phil out there, or they think of him as someone who would never leave the Lakers, but he's a guy who is a very good teacher and works with players one-on-one. I think he's a guy who needs to be on the radar.''

1. On the NCAA tournament. As predicted here a few weeks ago, my 14-year-old daughter won the family NCAA pool for the fourth consecutive year. I'm convinced North Carolina became champion mainly because she picked it to win. The winner in our family contest gets to choose where we go out for dinner. I'm still waiting to find out how much this is going to cost me.

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