By Paul Forrester
February 03, 2010
NBA Awards Races

With Shaq or without Shaq, LeBron James has carried the Cleveland franchise on his back, and done so quite well. Having won the league's Most Valuable Player award last year without the big man on board, James is on track to repeat, this time without Cleveland's top two point guards, Mo Williams (shoulder) and Delonte West (finger), for the past couple of weeks. The Cavs have steamrolled their last nine opponents, a streak during which James has averaged 28.2 points, 10 assists and 6.7 rebounds.

But beyond James, things get interesting as we dive into the NBA Awards races. In compiling our first effort (and we'll update this every other week through the end of the season), we tried to marry individual excellence with a player's impact on his team. As the weeks go on and the contenders separate from the pretenders, the names will change. But enough chatter, let's do this ...

(All stats and records are through Feb. 2.)

League MVP
LeBron James
F, Cleveland Cavaliers   
NBA MVP: 2009
29.3 7.1 8.2 50.2
How many teams could lose their second-leading scorer and rip off seven straight wins? How many players could notch 23 in a first quarter, as he did vs. the Clippers, and have it lost among the three other times he has scored at least 20 in a quarter? We can think of one.
Kobe Bryant
G, Los Angeles Lakers   
NBA MVP: 2008
28.3 5.3 4.7 46.3
Is he one of the greatest Lakers ever? Yes. Is he better than LeBron? No. That isn't to take anything away from a man who has played through a broken finger, injured teammates and an eight-game road trip while keeping the Lakers atop the Western Conference.
Kevin Durant
F, Oklahoma City Thunder   
29.7 7.4 3.0 48.8
The 21-year-old has become one of the few players for whom opponents' main focus is shutting him down. The third-year player already has guided the Thunder to more wins than they recorded all of last season while putting them on pace to make the playoffs. Did we mention he's only 21?
Dirk Nowitzki
F, Dallas Mavericks   
NBA MVP: 2007
25.2 7.8 2.4 47.9
The former MVP has been so consistently good for so long it's easy to overlook his accomplishments. Consider: He's always a primary target for defenders in a conference that is impressively deep. And despite the critics, he has finally become the Mavs' leader.
Dwyane Wade
G, Miami Heat   
27.0 4.6 6.2 46.4
The Heat may be treading near the lottery line, but answer us this: How many wins would Miami have without Wade? Ten? Fifteen at best? Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard all made compelling cases, but Wade's He-Man effort swayed us ... for now.
Rookie of the Year
Spotlight: The road hasn't been kind to the Kings (3-21 outside Sacramento), but it has been to Evans, who is averaging 21.2 points on 48.5 percent shooting away from Arco. "Not one of the guards we looked at before the draft could guard him," Kings assistant Pete Carril told The New York Times. 1. Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
2. Brandon Jennings, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Omri Casspi, Sacramento Kings
4. DeJuan Blair, San Antonio Spurs
5. Stephen Curry, G.S. Warriors
Sixth Man Award
Spotlight: Perhaps nothing has helped Atlanta's rise more than the addition of Crawford, who is averaging 17.5 points and shooting a career-high 46 percent. "When somebody is struggling to make shots, Crawford can come in and generate offense on his own right away," a scout said. 1. Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks
2. Carl Landry, Houston Rockets
3. Anderson Varejao, Cleveland Cavs
4. Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks
5. Luke Ridnour, Milwaukee Bucks
Coach of the Year
Spotlight: Their starting center, Chuck Hayes, is only 6-foot-6, and they have only one high first-round pick on their active roster (Shane Battier), but thanks to Adelman's guidance and ability to adjust, the Rockets are just one game off the playoff pace in the superior conference. 1. Rick Adelman, Houston Rockets
2. Nate McMillan, Portland Trail Blazers
3. Lionel Hollins, Memphis Grizzlies
4. Scott Brooks, Oklahoma City Thunder
5. Larry Brown, Charlotte Bobcats
Defensive Player of the Year
Spotlight: Howard is a matchup nightmare who forces opponents to bend their offenses around him, or else find themselves adding to his league-leading blocks and rebound totals. His offense may not have progressed this season, but at least his defense hasn't slipped. 1. Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
2. Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats
3. Kendrick Perkins, Boston Celtics
4. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
5. Josh Smith, Atlanta Hawks
Most Improved Player
Spotlight: It's not because of his NBA-leading 32.1 points since Christmas, or his 53 percent shooting from three-point range last month. Well, OK, for some of that, but Durant gets our nod for deciding to ramp up his defensive effort, a move that has catalyzed the Thunder's growth into a contender. 1. Kevin Durant, OKC Thunder
2. Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
3. Aaron Brooks, Houston Rockets
4. Carl Landry, Houston Rockets
5. Joakim Noah, Chicago Bulls

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