Here is our take on who this season's award winners should be. Author's name is noted at the end of each entry.
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic): This selection goes beyond individual stats. Look at the Magic’s roster without Howard and tell me with a straight-face they’re even in the top-half of the league defensively. You can’t, yet there they sit in the top-3. Not only that, he’s the unquestioned centerpiece on an offense that is built around Howard controlling the inside by himself and camping 3-point shooters all along the perimeter; this offense can never work without a completely dominant player in the paint, and Howard is the best in the business. With no one else on the team resembling a consistent star, Howard has carried Orlando to home court advantage in the first round in a top heavy Eastern Conference with wins along the way over LA, San Antonio, Miami (twice), Chicago, and Boston. He’s done it through an improved offensive game (23 ppg on 14 shots per and 59% shooting) and a crushing combination of power stats in 14 rpg and 2.4 blocks. No one on the other top teams in the NBA is doing more with less surrounding talent, and Howard is the only MVP candidate who is the person most solely responsible for the success of his club’s offense and defense. -Zachariah Blott
LeBron James (Miami Heat): MVP means different things to different people; it can be difficult to argue that one candidate is superior to another if you don’t know what, exactly, you’re arguing for. But here is my case: LeBron averaged 27 PPG, 7 RPG, 7 APG, despite a career-low in shots per game and recording his lowest usage rate since 2006-07. There have only been five players in NBA history to put up a 27-7-7 stat line; LeBron has done it five times. He also leads the league with a 27 PER. So if you’re basing your vote on counting stats, LeBron’s your guy. Then there’s his advanced statistics: LeBron has a fantastic True Shooting percentage of 59% (everyone above him shoots significantly more field goals per game), and leads the league in win shares (by that metric, he is worth three more wins to Miami than Dwyane Wade). Finally, each candidate has to be evaluated based on what he brings to his own team. I’m not a fan of those who would have every player switch positions with the other candidates; every team’s management caters their roster to their top players in specific ways. Would it make sense to switch LeBron with Derrick Rose on the Bulls? No, because each fills a specific role for their individual team. If they start filling different roles, we’re no longer evaluating what happened in 2010-11. I would argue that LeBron’s impact on the Heat is pretty similar to Rose’s on the Bulls or Dwight Howard’s on the Magic: without that player, the team is a shell of itself. I see the Heat as a similar version of the 2010-11 Knicks without LeBron, Wade is better than Carmelo, Amar’e is better than Bosh, while NY has a better supporting cast with Chauncey Billups and Landry Fields. And then there’s this:
2009-10 Cavaliers: 61-21, Best in NBA
2010-11 Cavaliers: 18-63, 2nd-worst in NBA
I’m not going to try and pretend that James’ 2010-11 season was the same as his MVP campaigns of 2008-09 and 2009-10. His skills are the same, his numbers are pretty similar, but The Decision changed everything: new city, new teammates, new enemies. In 2010-11, LeBron’s season wasn’t as dominant, his team didn’t finish with the league’s best record (as the Cavs have the past two years), his competition for the award is stronger. Yet one thing has remained constant. LeBron James is still the best basketball player on the planet. And in a season in which several players have a legitimate case to be named MVP, that, to me should take precedence. -Jonathan Gault
Defensive Player of the Year
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic): I’m not sure what really needs to be said about this choice, but he’s on a team of ho-hum defenders whose job it is to funnel them into Howard, and that strategy has the Magic sitting with the 3rd best Defensive Rating in the league. They only trail Boston and Chicago, two teams with a slew of above-average to great defenders. Oh yeah: 10 defensive rpg, 2.4 blocks. -Zachariah Blott
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic): This award is Howard’s to lose for the foreseeable future. He’s Orlando’s only relevant defender, yet the Magic are still third in the league in Defensive Rating. He’s second in the league in rebounding (14 per game) and fourth in blocks (2.4 per game). Howard is only one of three players since 1980 to average 13+ rebounds per game in four consecutive seasons. He again leads the league in Defensive Rating (fourth year in a row) and Defensive Win Shares (third year in a row), and has been the lone constant on a Magic team that managed to win 51 games despite colossal roster turnover midway through the season. Beyond that, he’s simply a specimen to watch on the floor, and he has the potential to become even more dominant down the road (remember, he’s only 25). You could make a good case for him as the MVP, because he means more to his team on the defensive end than anyone else in the league (by a healthy margin). -Jonathan Gault
Rookie of the Year, 2nd Place
We all know this is Blake Griffin's award, and everyone already knows why. I'll add that we both picked Greg Monroe for 3rd place as well.
Landry Fields (New York Knicks): No one expected much out of this relatively unknown second round draft pick, yet Fields is already something of a prototype or blueprint of the type of player scouts and pundits are trying to identify in future drafts: an unselfish, hard-working, efficient player who provides a ton of versatility on both ends of the floor. At 6-feet-7 and 210 pounds, he’s been called upon to defend damn near every position on the floor, and usually quite well. As a relatively low man on the Knick’s scoring totem pole, he’s hit 50% of his shots this year and 39% of his 3’s, giving him a tremendous 57% eFG%, tops on the team. His 11.7 Rebounding% is barely behind Stoudemire’s for best on the team, and his 1.5 assist-turnover rate is good for a forward. It should not come as a surprise that many of the advanced impact stats identify Fields as the best player on this much improved club. -Zachariah Blott
Landry Fields (New York Knicks): Anyone with a pulse would pick Blake Griffin as the top rookie, but most people with a pulse would not choose Landry Fields as the runner-up. But the second-rounder out of Stanford was essential to the Knicks’ early success and was a vital reason that the Knicks were able to improve by 13 wins and clinch their first playoff berth since 2004. Fields ranks second among rookies in 3FG % (39%) and third in rebounds (6 per game, despite standing just 6-foot-7). When the Knicks gutted their roster last summer, it became clear that someone from either the draft or the Knicks’ poor reserve corps would have to step up in support of Amar’e Stoudemire. Fields has filled that role capably, starting all but one of the Knicks’ games this season while providing quality rebounding and outside shooting. If I were to give this award out for the second half of the season, I might have gone with Greg Monroe of the Pistons, but Fields’ first half was better than Monroe’s second, and Fields is doing it for a playoff team. And for those arguing for John Wall, explain this: how can the league’s top rookie average the second-most turnovers in the league (3.8 per game), the fifth-worst shooting percentage (41%) and make his team worse (the Wiz lost 56 games last year and have lost 58 so far this year—with one game still to play)? -Jonathan Gault
Most Improved Player
Kris Humphries (New Jersey Nets): I know people want to go with Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Derrick Rose, but here’s my problem with each of them; they’ve chiefly benefitted statistically from nothing more than increased playing time and taking more shots. If you look at their efficiency in putting numbers up, not a whole lot has changed – so really their big improvement was that they got more touches. Then there’s Kris Humphries. Not only did his minutes go from 21 per last year to 28 this year, but he actually got better at everything he did. He was shooting 43%, now it’s 53% and he’s averaging double-digit points on a bad team with plenty of other guys around whose job is scoring. His rebounding jumped tremendously to 10.4 rpg, good for 5th-best in the league, even though he plays less minutes than the top 25 rebounders. His 22.1 Rebound% is second-best in the NBA, just in between Love’s 23.6 and Howard’s 21.8, and that’s a drastic jump from his previous seasons (was always between 14 and 17.8%). His assists are up, his blocks are up, and he now has the most famous girlfriend in the league. Good thing it’s his contract year. -Zachariah Blott
Kevin Love (Minnesota Timberwolves): For me, this award came down to Russell Westbrook vs. Love, but I’m going with Love because of his improvement on both the offensive and defensive ends. He became the league’s most dominant rebounder, grabbing league-leading 15 per game, four more than he averaged last season. Love was so good on the boards that it was no longer exciting to see him grab 20 in a game; only when he snared 30 in a November 12 win over the Knicks did people start going crazy. And rightfully so—it was the NBA’s first 30-point, 30-rebound game since 1982. Aside from Love’s reobunding prowess, though, he significantly upped his offensive production in 2010-11. Love went from averages of 14 PPG and 45% FG% in 2009-10 to 20 PPG and 47% FG%, while getting to the line more (7 trips per game vs. 5 per in ’10) and shooting it better once he got there (85% vs. 82%). What’s more, Love has developed into one of the league’s better big men at shooting threes, connecting at a 42% clip (15th in the league). And of couse there’s his double-double streak (53 in a row, a post-ABA merger record). While the T-Wolves have only improved by two wins from last season (with a game to play), I can’t fault Love for playing on a David Kahn-assembled team that starts Darko Milicic and whose next-best players are Michael Beasley and Luke Ridnour. -Jonathan Gault
Sixth Man of the Year
Lamar Odom (Los Angeles Lakers): Here’s another fairly obvious one, so obvious there was talk of Odom being selected to the All-Star Team. He’s averaging 14 ppg, 9 rpg, shooting 53% overall, 39% from deep, has a 3.0-1.7 assist-turnover rate, and is one of the most versatile interior defenders in the league. His 57% eFG% is only a hair behind team leader Andrew Bynum, and his 15.4 Rebound% is nearly in the top-20 in the entire NBA, even though he’s playing beside Bynum and Pau Gasol. With everything Odom does, his advanced impact stats are all phenomenal and point to him as the team’s second-most impactful player behind Gasol. -Zachariah Blott
Lamar Odom (Los Angeles Lakers): Odom and Jason Terry, two sixth-men who play starters’ minutes, are the cream of the crop this year, but Odom is a cut above the Mavericks’ guard when it comes to the league’s best bench player. Odom, the third-best player on the two-time defending champs, is enjoying one of the best seasons of his career at age 31. He averages 14 points and 9 rebounds per game in 32 minutes, and is shooting career-highs from the field (53%) and from beyond the arc (39%). Odom is indispensable for the Lakers, and does almost everything well. With him, LA is a great team and one of the favorites to win the title. Without him, they’re merely another contender in a wide-open Western Conference. I would have loved to have voted for Glen Davis here, but he’ll have to settle for third between two players who play starters’ minutes (both Odom and Terry rank third on their teams in minutes per game). -Jonathan Gault
Coach of the Year
Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls): When Thibodeau was hired away from Boston over the summer, all we were told was that he was the architect of the Celtics’ great defense. Some people were skeptical because the Bulls didn’t have Kevin Garnett, but one year later Chicago has the top Defensive Rating in the league, plus the offense has jumped from 27th to 11th. Through sharp attention to detail and masterful use of his bench amid a season filled with frontcourt injuries, Thibodeau has the Bulls just one game behind the best record in the entire league, only one season removed form a 41-41 finish. -Zachariah Blott
Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls): Behind Howard as Defensive Player, the easiest decision among the NBA’s season-ending awards. Thibodeau took a Bulls team that finished at 41-41 each of the past two seasons and transformed them into the East’s best team, cracking 60 wins for the first time since the Jordan era. Before the season, the talk was which of the East’s juggernauts, the Heat and Celtics, would take the number one seed. But despite losing Carlos Boozer for 23 games and Joakim Noah for 34, the Bulls kept on going before pulling away over the past few weeks. Derrick Rose certainly deserves credit on the offensive end, but the Bulls’ fantastic defense is all Thibodeau. Chicago ranks second in the league in opponent PPG (91 per game) and first in Defensive Rating. Doug Collins got the Sixers to play hard, George Karl is a nice story, but Thibodeau is far and away the Coach of the Year. -Jonathan Gault
All-NBA, 1st Team
Dwight Howard: The key cog of the offense and defense on a very good team; impossible to gameplan for.
LeBron James: Even with two All-Star teammates and all the hate, he’s still the engine that runs a great team while continuing to put up crazy stats.
Dirk Nowitzki: My gut and many of the numbers say Gasol, but seeing how quickly Dallas fell apart without Dirk was quite telling.
Chris Paul: Continues to carry N.O. on his back, putting up absolutely dominant impact stats due to his heady, efficient ways at both ends of the floor.
Derrick Rose: He’s made himself into a legitimate threat from outside, has shown he’s one of the best at taking over a game, plus his defense has improved under Thibodeau’s tutelage.
Dwight Howard: The league’s top center had the best season of his seven-year career. That off-season post work with Hakeem Olajuwon has paid dividends on the offensive end.
LeBron James: Love him or hate him, you have to respect his game.
Dirk Nowitzki: Without him, the Mavs are a middle-of-the pack team (they were just 2-7 this season, and they continued to look weak as he eased his way back into the lineup). With him, they’re the number two seed in the West.
Derrick Rose: He’s been a bit overhyped, but it’s hard to argue against someone averaging 25 PPG and 8 APG on a 60-win team. The Bulls rely so much on the 22-year-old at the end of games, and, for the most part, he’s delivered.
Dwyane Wade: Still performing at the same level as the last two years, when he was also named First Team All-NBA. James may be the better player, but Wade is still the guy the Heat rely on in the 4th quarter.
Three best stories of the year
1. LeBron James heads south: The Heat got massively good. The Cavaliers got massively bad. The talent deciding the landscape of the league is back in. Owners are now discussing compensation for teams losing big-time free agents. And James ripped the title of League Villain right out of Kobe Bryant's hands for the foreseeable future.
2. Impending lockout: This is a topic the league hasn't done a lot to address head on, but it's clear the billionaire owners and millionaire players don't agree on much and have done a lot of jockeying during the season to get the fans on their sides. David Stern's cryptic "I know where the bodies are burried" comment certainly didn't endear the owners' side to anyone.
3. Blake Griffin: The last rookie to play in the All-Star Game because of ability and not 1.2 Chinese voters was Tim Duncan in 1998. Griffin tore it up this year and already has more high-end dunk highlights than all but maybe 5 players ever.
1. The Heat: When was the last time any team got its own section on ESPN.com and USA Today? For better or worse, The Decision has made the NBA far more interesting, and the Heat only figure to gain more attention as the playoffs begin.
2. Blake Griffin: Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. Griffin treated us to the most electrifying rookie season in recent memory, and there’s now legitimate interest in LA’s other team for the first time since…forever?
3. The development of Team USA’s world championship-winning players: Across the NBA, the players who went to Turkey and came back with the US’s first WC gold since 1994 have been either breaking out or returning to prominence. Kevin Love, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala, Tyson Chandler, and Lamar Odom are the most notable names from a bunch of players that have collectively raised their games in 2010-11.