Here is how I'm planning to fill out my official ballot early next week ... with a few extra awards thrown in. (Note that voters are asked to select their top three choices for each award except MVP, which requires five players, and the All-NBA team, which involves 15 players. Media do not vote for the All-Defensive team or Executive of the Year, but I've still included my picks.)
• MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers. This is the easiest winner to pick in any category. James leads the league's best team with outrageous numbers of 29.7 points (No. 2 overall) and 8.6 assists (No. 6) to go with 7.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks (all top four among small forwards). The next two choices, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard, rate ahead of Kevin Durant because each has been indispensable to his contending team; I don't believe Durant is ready to provide that kind of on-court leadership. But he has earned his first (though surely not his last) appearance on this ballot by leading the league's most surprising playoff team (more on him later).
Most difficult was the choice to leave Steve Nash and Dwyane Wade off the ballot, as both stars have maxed out their rosters. Instead, I'm giving the No. 5 spot to Carmelo Anthony for his leadership across the board in keeping the Nuggets in contention despite the absences of coach George Karl and defensive leader Kenyon Martin.
MVP Ballot1. LeBron James2. Kobe Bryant3. Dwight Howard4. Kevin Durant5. Carmelo Anthony
• COACH OF THE YEAR: Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder. This annually becomes the most difficult category to choose because there are so many worthy candidates. Among those I considered but didn't list on my ballot were Alvin Gentry for returning the depleted Suns to the playoffs; Nate McMillan for keeping the Trail Blazers focused despite their injuries and front-office fiasco; Utah's Jerry Sloan for all of the same reasons he has deserved votes for 20 of the last 21 years; and Orlando's Stan Van Gundy and Cleveland's Mike Brown for integrating new personalities and talents while maintaining the East's top two contenders.
As for my top three, Lionel Hollins amazingly overcame a 1-8 start to drive Memphis into playoff contention and at least a 15-game improvement over last season. Scott Skiles' Bucks were picked (by me) to finish last in the East, and yet they reached the playoffs during a transition year by integrating an overlooked rookie point guard in Brandon Jennings and midseason acquisition in John Salmons. But the winner is Brooks, who has quickly and efficiently turned the league's youngest roster into a dangerous playoff team around the league's most promising young star and the NBA's No. 6 field-goal defense.
Coach of the Year Ballot1. Scott Brooks2. Scott Skiles3. Lionel Hollins
• DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. The Magic are tied for first in field-goal defense because Howard dominates the paint in addition to the defensive boards. Orlando's commitment to team defense -- as well as its spread-the-floor offense -- is built entirely around Howard's overwhelming presence inside. Anderson Varejao, meanwhile, is the new Kevin Garnett -- at the defensive end, at least -- thanks to the abundance of energy plays he makes for a title contender that is also built on defense. Is it a surprise to pick James No. 3 in this category? It shouldn't be: He creates deflections and steals, he guards the best scorer when it really matters and he routinely demoralizes opponents by chasing down breakaways to block what should be the easiest two points in basketball.
Defensive Player of the Year Ballot1. Dwight Howard2. Anderson Varejao3. LeBron James
• ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks. I made a similar choice in 2004 when I picked Anthony over James in this category: LeBron looked like the better player for the long term, but Carmelo led his Nuggets to the playoffs and seven more wins than the Cavs. The same dynamic holds true this year. Tyreke Evans is likely to have the better career and he has put up the best individual numbers of his class, but no rookie has had a bigger impact than Jennings.
With no help from the Bucks' best player, Olympian Michael Redd, Jennings has driven Milwaukee into playoff certainty while integrating February acquisition Salmons and bringing out the best in Andrew Bogut (before the center's season ended last weekend). I assumed Evans had run away with this award going into March, but point guards are judged according to team success, and the Bucks' winning record makes Jennings the choice here. For a point guard nothing is more important than the ability to play with, and get the most out of, teammates, and Jennings' leadership qualities were -- for this year, at least -- without peer while leading his team to the playoffs.
Evans is on the verge of becoming the fourth rookie to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and five assists -- joining Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron. I expect Evans to win this award because he has had a sensational year. But I'm going to vote for the point guard who led his team to the playoffs, because winning matters most.
Rookie of the Year Ballot1. Brandon Jennings2. Tyreke Evans3. Stephen Curry
• ALL-NBA TEAMS. Here's how I configured the three teams, with an explanation below.
FIRST TEAMC Dwight HowardF LeBron JamesF Kevin DurantG Kobe BryantG Dwyane Wade
SECOND TEAMC Andrew BogutF Amar'e StoudemireF Carmelo AnthonyG Deron WilliamsG Steve Nash
THIRD TEAMC Al HorfordF Tim DuncanF Dirk NowitzkiG Joe JohnsonG Brandon Roy
GALLERY: Ian Thomsen's All-NBA Teams
Two decisions were most difficult, beginning with the absence of Carlos Boozer. The easy fix to make room for Boozer would be to list Duncan at center -- a position he routinely plays -- but Duncan is listed officially as a forward and the NBA asks that we vote for the player at the position he plays regularly. I can't rate Boozer ahead of Nowitzki or Duncan, so there it is.
The other difficult call was to not recognize Jason Kidd, but I went with Roy in part because of his enormous value to the Blazers, who are 41-22 when he is in the lineup. Now shouldn't Kidd receive credit for reliability while playing in all but two games this season? Of course he should. But ultimately, I feel Roy deserves recognition for guiding his team through a harsh season of injuries and turmoil.
Also missing here is Chris Bosh, who put up sensational numbers. The tiebreaker that works against him is the Raptors' record. He has not been able to have a winning impact, especially during the crucial run after the All-Star break when Toronto went 9-15 (before Bosh's season ended prematurely this week). It's not so much that I'm holding the record of his team against Bosh as I am recognizing those players who have had a positive impact on their teams, including Stoudemire, whose frontcourt scoring has been vital to Phoenix's surprising season.
Centers David Lee, Brook Lopez and Chris Kaman all put up strong numbers for horrible teams; I've chosen to recognize Horford for posting solid numbers and showing frontcourt leadership for the contending Hawks. Bogut will end up missing 13 games, but his influence was obvious between his double-double averages and 2.5 blocks.
More honors for this season's best ...
• MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. The hardest leap in the NBA is to rise from very good to great, and this year -- his third in the league -- Durant turned himself into an MVP candidate by driving his young teammates to win more games than anyone could have imagined. Aaron Brooks emerged as part of the Rockets' foundation, while George Hill's unexpected leadership with the Spurs (in Tony Parker's absence) helps him beat out a number of worthy candidates, including Josh Smith, Carl Landry, Marc Gasol, Bogut, Joakim Noah, Arron Afflalo, Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova.
Most Improved Player Ballot1. Kevin Durant2. Aaron Brooks3. George Hill
• SIXTH MAN AWARD. No one makes a bigger impact off the bench than Varejao, whose hustle plays provide an indispensable edge to the Cavs at both ends of the court. Manu Ginobili and Landry were candidates until both emerged as successful starters over the final weeks of the season.
Sixth Man Award Ballot1. Anderson Varejao2. Jamal Crawford3. Jason Terry
• ALL-DEFENSIVE TEAM. The surprise here is that Miami enters the final week tied with Orlando for No. 1 in field-goal defense, and the Heat wouldn't be making that drive without Wade. Utah's Williams is the best defensive point guard -- he doesn't usually gamble for steals, and his size, strength and quickness enable him to guard a variety of opponents.
C Dwight HowardPF Anderson VarejaoSF LeBron JamesSG Dwyane WadePG Deron Williams
• EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: Sam Presti, Oklahoma City Thunder. Not only has Presti drafted well while building a team around Durant, but he also has put aside the money to re-sign all of those picks if necessary while partnering with Brooks to create an environment grounded in defense and teamwork -- almost like the winning NCAA programs we used to see when players spent four years at college. In a year when many teams want to cut back and yet sell tickets, Presti has established the model while putting together a playoff contender. How many would have stuck with the plan?
Milwaukee's John Hammond was willing to commit a first-round pick to Jennings, and then while other teams were cutting back he took on Salmons at the deadline to push the overachieving Bucks into the playoffs. Atlanta's Rick Sund presides over the winningest payroll south of the luxury-tax threshold, and his offseason trade for Crawford was a bonanza.
I may second-guess myself in a couple of months for not recognizing Cleveland's Danny Ferry or Orlando's Otis Smith, but the success of their moves cannot be rated until the playoffs.
1. Sam Presti2. John Hammond3. Rick Sund
Consider this halftime of the year-ending ceremony. We'll get back to more awards after this message from our readers ...
• In your Thunder/Celtics article, it sounds like you're saying you'd rather give up the sure prize and go for what's behind the curtain. The Celtics won a title even though they mortgaged the future, but they won a title. You can ask any fan base whether they would rather win that one title or make it to the playoffs every year but not win the title, and I bet every fan base would say they want to win! Isn't that what they play for?!-- Reginald, Memphis
I believe you misunderstood me, Reginald. Here is what I had to say in that story about Boston's moves to win now:
"May the ghost of Red Auerbach haunt the soul of anyone who would dare undo a deal that resulted in Boston's 17th championship. It was a bold plan executed gloriously."
I am in total agreement with your point of view about winning a championship. There is no wrong way to do it. Should the Celtics drop out of contention for years, their decision to go all out in 2007-08 will remain worthwhile because it paid off in a championship.
• The Wizards save millions while Gilbert Arenas is suspended. This seems perverse to me (even against the perverse world of NBA finances). Doesn't this give teams incentive to sign the guys who have explosive talent but also minimal judgment? If they can sign some hotshot to a big contract, knowing that if he falls to pieces or just acts so stupidly that he gets suspended then they will save money, it seems to lessen the penalty to the team, encourage signing idiots like this and encourage idiots to keep being ... well, idiots. Wouldn't the better route be to force the salary to be paid to charity?-- Tony, Seattle
Those kinds of suspensions are very rare, Tony. Most of the teams that sign unreliable stars receive no relief. In this case, the Wizards still owe Arenas $80 million over the next four years. There is no upside for a team that loses a major player to suspension, because of the harm to the reputations of the player and team as well as the absence of his talent on the court. The Wizards would much rather have avoided the firearms episode entirely and kept Arenas in uniform all season.
• Watching the Raptors over the last few weeks has been painful. Everyone is saying Bosh is a max player, but if he can't lead this group of players to the playoffs, or even if they barely scrape in to get swept by the Cavs, is he really worthy of a max contract? [Editor's note: This e-mail was sent before Bosh sustained a season-ending injury.] He clearly is not playing with the same intensity he played with at the start of the season. Is it worth it for any team to give a max contract to a player who has quit on a team when it needs him the most? Who is actually worth a max contract in a perfect world?-- Jason, Toronto
LeBron and Wade are max players without any doubt. Teams with cap space must decide whether Bosh and Atlanta's Johnson are worthy of max contracts, especially when they consider the size of those contracts against the more austere environment of the next collective bargaining agreement in 2011. I would say either player surely deserves a max deal if he is the finishing piece on a team that can win the championship.
The best advice for Bosh is to sign with the most talented team that gives him the best chance to win big. The stakes are going to rise after he signs his next contract, and he is going to be expected to deliver a championship.
Inspect these two teams and then decide which would win -- assuming all players were at full health -- if they ever were to meet on the court.
• All-Retiree Team. At 33 or older, each of these stars should be on the way out. Instead, they continue to play major roles for winning teams.
STARTERSC Shaquille O'NealPF Tim DuncanSF Grant HillSG Ray AllenPG Steve Nash
RESERVESC Marcus CambyF Kevin GarnettF Antonio McDyessG Vince CarterG Jason KiddG Chauncey BillupsG Andre Miller
• All-College Team. At 22 or younger, each of these players could have been eligible to play in the NCAA tournament this season.
STARTERSC Brook LopezPF Blake GriffinSF Kevin DurantSG O.J. MayoPG Derrick Rose
RESERVESC Greg OdenF Kevin LoveF Danilo GallinariF Nicolas BatumG Brandon JenningsG Tyreke EvansG Russell Westbrook
I'll give you my answer: The old team would win big.
• All-Glue Team. Here are the rules as arbitrarily defined by me. Each player must be proficient in many areas without making scoring the priority (no one who averages 18 points or more is allowed), and he must play with energy while appearing in at least 90 percent of the games. Based on what they've shown for the season, this would be a fluid, unselfish and entirely entertaining starting five.
C Al HorfordPF Luis ScolaSF Grant HillSG Manu GinobiliPG Steve Nash