The NBA soon will tabulate, announce and present its annual awards, which are shiny and nice enough, but pale in comparison to the Larry O'Brien and Bill Russell trophies given to the champions and Finals MVP, respectively. This season more than most -- maybe because times are tough all over, imposing a half-empty, best-of-the-worst outlook on so many of us -- seems to cry out for some alternative awards, parallel (and clearly bogus) versions to capture some less illustrious achievements from fellows who found ways to smear lipstick off the pig and somehow turn chicken salad into, well, you know.
Here goes nothing, in a fairly literal way:
LEAST VALUABLE PLAYER(S):Elton Brand, Philadelphia 76ers;Baron Davis, Los Angeles Clippers
There is a sweet symmetry to this. These two guys did so little to elevate their teams' play. Brand has the greater claim about injuries, but even that would have been disappointing in what was billed as Philadelphia's Boston-like, one-offseason turnaround. In reality, the Sixers were better when Brand wasn't playing (though they struggled down the stretch), something Tracy McGrady has witnessed during his idle time in Houston. Davis, meanwhile, couldn't make up for the Clippers' many other injuries and, by moving from Golden State to L.A., pulled off the difficult task of making two teams worse than they were a year ago. Nobody will have more to prove next season than these two aspiring movie producers, who need to refocus on their day jobs.
LOTTERY FLOP OF THE YEAR:Joe Alexander, Milwaukee Bucks
It is Alexander's misfortune to find himself among a weak field of candidates, which, of course, in these topsy-turvy awards, is actually a good thing for the NBA. This season's rookie class has been a solid one from the start. Most of the lottery picks have contributed significantly, have shown glimpses of possible future stardom or both. Several later picks -- including J.J. Hickson, Courtney Lee, Nicolas Batum, George Hill and Mario Chalmers -- have made their teams better, too. In Milwaukee, No. 37 pick Luc Richard Mbah a Moute has had a greater impact than No. 8 guy, Alexander, for whom a steep learning curve is nothing new. Seems he went through a similarly rough start at West Virginia.
"It seems like everything you do is wrong and in your own head, you think it's right but it turns out to be wrong again,'' said Alexander, who has averaged 4.8 points and 1.9 rebounds in 12.1 minutes, his stats perking up with more time lately. For what it's worth, Alexander has been no worse than the No. 8 pick who preceded him: Golden State's Brandan Wright, who posted 4.0 points and 2.6 rebounds in 9.9 minutes as a rookie.
LEAST IMPROVED PLAYER:Yi Jianlian, New Jersey Nets
Yeah, right. It was Milwaukee's fault and its lack of Chinese culture and limited opportunities afforded by former Bucks coach Larry Krystkowiak and ... and ... and ... The excuses can't hide the fact that Yi has had ample opportunities with the Nets this season and has frittered away most of them. Yi has played himself out of New Jersey's starting lineup and is averaging only 5.7 points since the All-Star break. He is shooting 38.5 percent for the season, to which we can only say, "Yao!''
MOST DECLINED PLAYER:Jermaine O'Neal, Miami Heat
Among the NBA's primary awards, none has been as embarrassing as Most Improved, which started as Comeback Player of the Year but had to be reimagined when too many guys started winning upon their return from drug rehab. Now, it often goes to a player who simply underachieved before that season, or someone who arrived to absolutely no expectations and, you know, wasn't awful. How else can we explain a list of winners that can lump in KevinJohnson, McGrady, O'Neal, Gilbert Arenas and Hedo Turkoglu with the likes of Don MacLean, Dana Barros, GheorgheMuresan, Ike Austin and Bobby Simmons?
Curiously, though, it's one of the big names who ought to give his trophy back, or clear room on the mantel for this one. O'Neal's current numbers (13.3 points, 6.4 rebounds) aren't that much worse than his career averages when the season began (14.3, 7.7), but they are a steep drop from the standards he set from 2001-02 through '06-07 (20.4, 9.5). It's the second straight season, too, and O'Neal has been healthier this year.
OFFENSIVE DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR:Al Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
That's offensive, as in "unpleasant." Repugnant even. And defensive as in "Ole!" Actually, judging the defensive acumen of most NBA players is best left to the coaches, which makes me wonder why those guys are granted the authority to select the NBA All-Defensive squads while the same old writers and broadcasters vote for top defensive player.
We can tell when a guy cheats into the passing lanes and otherwise gambles at the expense of playing fundamentally sound defense. We can total up steals and blocked shots with the best of them. We can even talk to players about the defenders who harass them the most. But judging one player's contribution to overall team defense, the weakside stuff and otherwise helping? That's heavy X's-and-O's stuff. Kevin Garnett made it easy to see the shift he precipitated in the Celtics' defensive outlook, but that's rare.
So I'm going with a guy who ought to be more effective -- Jefferson is plenty young and athletic enough -- especially when matched against fellow power forwards rather than centers. He wants to be an All-Star when he returns next season from knee surgery? Then light a fire on the defensive end. There's probably 400 other guys in the league who should hear the same thing.
FIRST MAN AWARD:Allen Iverson, Detroit Pistons
The NBA created its Sixth Man Award to shine a spotlight on teamwork and to prove to its players that coming off the bench can bring rewards -- both to the group (victories) and to the individual (status, hardware). It was a brilliant move, nearly three decades after the Celtics established the role with FrankRamsey and elevated it again through John Havlicek. No one had to create this ego-driven, me-first version, though. It's been around since one of JamesNaismith's original players bristled when someone else aimed and fired at the peach basket.
Iverson's shock and amazement over the idea of becoming Detroit's supersub was classic. That he'd be good for the role, particularly in his sunset years, didn't register at all. (Richard Hamilton didn't much care for the role, either, and it was disappointing to see some reputed NBA experts who ought to know better rush to his defense on that.) Sorry, but I'm with the coaches on this stuff: It's not important who starts, it's important who finishes -- and who gets shots and minutes off the bench as instant offense against the other team's second unit.
ELEVENTH MAN AWARD:Mario West, Atlanta Hawks
There is a certain status that goes along with being a team's 12th man. After all, M.L. Carr won rings and got famous doing that in Boston, and JackHaley dominated the balloting for years during his run as Dennis Rodman's chaperone. Besides, those guys rarely break a sweat. The 11th man, however, actually plays -- just not very much. No one in the league this season has appeared in as many games (51) for as few minutes (199) as West, an undrafted free agent from George Tech in 2007 who saw more action last season.
THIRTEENTH MAN AWARD: Eddy Curry, New York Knicks
Some guys show up, night after night, only to sit behind the bench in a suit because they and the team have an understanding: They're around for their contract. But Curry has done it through a variety of ailments that could have been cut down considerably if only he had conditioned himself the way a $9.7 million professional athlete might be expected to.
BAD SPORT OF THE YEAR: Shaquille O'Neal, Phoenix Suns
Like the traditional MVP honor, this one -- a counter to the league's Sportsmanship Award, which actually goes to one guy from each division (pretty feeble to not pick one, don't you think?) -- is all a matter of definition. If you go by bad behavior on the court, then Philadephia's MarreeseSpeights should win for leading the NBA in flagrant-foul points this season with four (two flagrant 1's, one flagrant 2). If you go by lipping off to and berating officials, it's Detroit's Rasheed Wallace, whose 19 technical fouls are one more than Golden State's Stephen Jackson. But we've chosen the bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you interpretation, and O'Neal's lack of accountability for Phoenix's fall from the playoffs while batting his eyes at Dallas owner Mark Cuban was plain ol' bad form.
MACHIAVELLIA AWARD:Don Nelson, Golden State Warriors
This is our best option for the coaches. An Outcoached of the Year award seemed like a good idea, until you realize that the NBA terminates at a dizzying rate coaches who disappoint. So we'll go with this trophy, meant to recognize someone who put more energy and intrigue into behind-the-scenes maneuvering than he did into actually winning. Charlotte's Larry Brown ran 23 different players through the Bobcats' roster, but he at least steered the franchise to its best record yet. Nellie can't make that claim in Oakland. The stuff he pulled with Jamal Crawford, the doghouse he furnished for Anthony Randolph and the CD-PNG (Coach's Decision-Persona Non Grata) he hung on vice president Chris Mullin didn't cover up the dreary results of a Warriors team that took a big step back from last season.
EXECUTIVE ASSISTS LEADER: Joe Dumars, Detroit Pistons
Last season, this was hotly contested. Both Memphis' Chris Wallace and Minnesota's Kevin McHale were deserving, the former for gifting Pau Gasol to the Lakers and the latter for delivering Garnett to his pal Danny Ainge in Boston. This year, Dumars is a runaway winner after sending Chauncey Billups home to Denver for Iverson. Billups will get a lot of fifth-place votes for league MVP after the order he imposed on the Nuggets' attack, while Iverson, well, we've already dealt with that. Maneuvering for cap space is one thing, but when a plan for the future so undermines the present -- at a place where they're accustomed to better -- the price paid can be too high.
BORED OF GOVERNORS AWARD:Robert Sarver, Phoenix Suns
We're assuming, we'll admit it, that Sarver and his cost-conscious ways are behind whatever marching orders Steve Kerr has been given. From the reckless dispatching of draft picks that preceded Kerr's hiring to the Kurt Thomas deal, the acquisition of Shaq, the Mike D'Antoni disharmony and the firing of Terry Porter, we're attributing this to the boss man who has rendered irrelevant a team that, even when it theoretically couldn't win an NBA championship, was the league's most entertaining and fun to watch.
OFFENSIVE ALUMNUS OF THE YEAR: Charles Barkley, TNT
There is no counterpart among the actual awards, but it's notable -- and maybe a good thing for the NBA in a perverse way -- that the guy making the worst headlines this season wasn't actually on any of the 30 teams' rosters. Unfortunately for Barkley, his DUI and late-night dating habits didn't take place in Las Vegas, because they surely didn't stay there.