Here is our take on who this season’s award winners should be. Author’s name is noted at the end of each entry.
LeBron James (Miami Heat)
I still find it humorous that everyone started to lean toward Kevin Durant a couple weeks ago because there was never a doubt as to who brings more value to his club. If you put aside the facts that a) James lead the scariest team in the NBA in scoring, rebounding, and assists while being forced to play essentially 4 positions throughout the year, b) he has infinitely better advanced stats of every kind than Durant (and none of them are even close to close), c) his FG%, 3FG%, and eFG% were all career highs when the league’s shooting fell across the board, d) the Heat and Thunder finished with nearly identical records despite OKC having far better 2-through-12 talent than Miami (don’t forget that DWade missed 26% of Miami’s games this season) and e) James is without question the best elite-tier scorer in the game today at having an equally massive impact on a contest whether he scores 15 or 45 points, you’re still left staring in the face of a one-sided argument. Durant did win the scoring title, but the scoring difference between these two is just about nothing (28.0 ppg, 55% eFG%, and more to offer from the outside vs. 27.2 ppg, 53% eFG%, and more to offer on the inside), their rebounds are within 0.05 per game, and then you’re left with the sheer awesomeness that is James’ distributing from everywhere and his defensive disruption and versatility, two things Durant can’t approach in the least. So that’s similar scoring and rebounding, with everything else a landslide in James’s favor. Chris Paul is your real runner-up, by the way, but James simply offers too many different ways to make his club win that CP3 can’t. –Zachariah Blott
LeBron James (Miami Heat)
I picked him last year. And the year before that. And the year before that. And I’m probably going to keep picking him for the foreseeable future if he continues to play at this level. Playoffs aside, LeBron has been the best player in the league for some time now, and his 2011-12 season may have been his most impressive to date. His counting stats are predictably awesome: 27 ppg (third in the league), 8 rpg, 6 apg (only two other non-guards average more than 4 apg) and 1.9 steals per game (third in the league). But he’s also shooting a career-high 53% from the field and he’s gotten smarter about taking threes (shooting a career-high 36% on them while cutting back on attempts). Oh yeah, and he plays amazing defense. Also remember that all this came in a compressed 66-game season where LeBron only missed three games (including the final two games of the season in which Heat coach Erik Spoelstra benched James to rest up for the playoffs). Put simply, few players do as many different things to help their teams win as James does. And none of them do them all at such a high level. That’s a pretty good definition of a most valuable player. -Jonathan Gault
Defensive Player of the Year
Tyson Chandler (New York Knicks)
Do I think Dwight Howard is physically more capable of being a defensive force of nature than Chandler? Yes. Do I think Howard’s head and heart were in it this year like the past few years? Not at all. That’s why I can’t pick Howard again. We saw him quit on his team, and consequently the Magic’s Defensive Rating fell to 12th best in the league after finishing in the top-3 each of the past 3 seasons. Twelfth puts them just ahead of teams like the Raptors (14th) and the Hornets (15th). Last summer, Chandler signed on to be the defensive anchor for a Knicks team that ranked a lowly 23rd in Defensive Rating. Lead by Chandler’s energy and defensive aggression, a club with plenty of stars who don’t play defense was quickly one of the league’s best (finishing 5th), and the few Knicks who do play some D—namely Fields, Shumpert, and Jeffries—looked better doing so than ever, knowing there was a big man behind them who had their backs and provided intimidation in the paint (believe it or not, Knicks’ opponents had a lower FG% at the rim and inside of 10 feet than Magic opponents). –Zachariah Blott
Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic)
If you didn’t watch any games this season and followed the NBA purely through headlines and SportsCenter stories, you might be surprised to see Howard win this award. For sure, no one dominated the headlines more than Howard (save for a brief period of Linsanity), but when he was on the court he was still the most impactful defensive player in the league. I’ll give credit to Tyson Chandler in transforming the Knicks from a laughingstock to the league’s 5th-rated defensive club (going by Defensive Rating). But Howard shapes everything Orlando does on defense—with him gone, they’re a completely different team. The Magic finished 4-5 without Dwight at the end of the season, though one of those losses was to the woeful Wizards (and three of those wins came over the Pistons, Cavaliers and Bobcats). Apart from Kevin Love, no one ranks close to Howard in rebounding (he averaged a career-high 15 per game), he led the league in defensive rebound percentage and his 2.1 blocks per game ranked third in the league. This wasn’t the strongest of Howard’s DPOY campaigns, but (in theory) NBA awards shouldn’t just go to someone else if the incumbent’s play slips a little—as long as the incumbent is still the best player. -Jonathan Gault
Rookie of the Year
Kenneth Faried (Denver Nuggets)
It’s gotta be Kyrie Irving, right? Wrong. Irving had a very nice rookie season, but it shouldn’t exactly blow you away. He was a good scorer with good shooting percentages on a team that gave him carte blanche with the ball (19 ppg, 47% FG, 40% 3FG), but he also had some stupidly high turnover totals on his way to a really-bad-for-a-point-guard 1.7 assist/turnover ratio (5.4 apg, 3.1 tov). Other than that, we discovered Irving’s injury issues at Duke are a recurring thing and that Coach Byron Scott is not exactly a fan of his defense. Faried barely played the first six weeks of the season because George Karl hates rookies, but by mid-February it was so clear that Faried is an unbelievably efficient rebounder who doesn’t miss shots and doesn’t take any defensive plays off, Karl wisely decided to start him the rest of the season. His rapid development allowed the Nuggets to trade Nene, their prized free agent signing just one year ago, and improved their team rebounding despite numerous frontcourt injuries and inconsistencies. Faried ended up averaging 11 ppg, 8 rpg, 1 block, and 1 steal as a starter. He shot 59%, one of the very top averages in the league. Sure he didn’t shoot a lot, but when you consider that Irving was taking 7.7 more shots to earn his 7.6 more points per game as a starter, you see that Irving’s extra output was actually detrimental to his club. Not only that, Faried’s rebounding was extraordinary to a degree that very few rookies ever experience in any statistic. His 20.0 Rebound% was just behind the rates posted by Marcus Camby and Dwight Howard, and ahead of everyone else in the NBA—yes, including Kevin Love, Andrew Bynum, and DeMarcus Cousins. Rookies are never that good at something, but Manimal was. Throw in his defensive tenacity, and there’s a reason every single advanced stat fell in Faried’s favor, even the cumulative ones that should have favored Irving’s 50% more minutes played for the season. –Zachariah Blott
Kyrie Irving (Cleveland Cavaliers)
Irving accomplished what many thought was an impossible feat at the beginning of the season: making the Cavs look like a real NBA team (at least while he was healthy). The Cavs’ 17-34 (.333) mark with Irving in the lineup was better than their 4-11 mark with him missing (.267), and though Cleveland will still finish with the league’s third-worst record, their 21 wins this season are still more than the 19 wins Cleveland recorded last year—in 16 extra games. Irving’s not a complete point guard yet, but he can create shots for himself and others and is a threat driving to the rim. The other thing working in Irving’s favor is that this wasn’t exactly a banner year for rookies. Irving’s main challengers for the award, Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried, played even fewer games than Irving (41 and 45, respectively, compared to Irving’s 51), and apart from them, no one else is really in the discussion. Irving’s 19 ppg was by far the best among rookies and he ranked second in assists (5 per game) 3FG% (40%), and FT% (87%). I think that if Rubio or Faried played some more games, one of them might have a compelling case, but as it is I just can’t give them the nod over Irving. -Jonathan Gault
Most Improved Player
Nikola Pekovic (Minnesota Timberwolves)
Pekovic's playing time doubled from his rookie season as he was thrust into the starting lineup over Darko Milicic, and he improved at everything. And I don't mean his stats went up simply because of his larger role (Ryan Anderson) or they went up but were unstable and full of inefficiencies (Jeremy Lin), he actually improved his scoring and rebounding effectiveness in a profound way. An already decent 52% FG rate in his rookie season jumped to a league second-best 56% as his points per game improved from 5.5 in 2010-11 to 13.9 this year. His Rebounding% improved from a ho-hum-for-a-big-man 12% as a rookie to 15% this season, a top-25 rate, including a league-second-best 15.9% Offensive Rebound% (behind only Kenneth Faried). This massive upswing in rebounding ability, all the more impressive considering he plays next to Kevin Love, is why his rebounds per game jumped from 3.0 to 7.4 in one season. Pekovic's toughness, low-post skills, and banging-heads intensity make him the reason Minnesota's frontcourt can now be considered one of the best in the league, unlike before when it was Love carrying Darko and other busts. -Zachariah Blott
Jeremy Lin (New York Knicks)
Lin isn’t a typical candidate for this award. Usually it goes to a player who’s already an established NBA player, albeit one who might not be a key contributor on his team. Lin played barely any meaningful minutes before February 4, 2012, splitting time between Golden State (less than 10 minutes per game in 29 games last season) and the D-League (20 games for the Reno Bighorns). You know what happened from there: Lin scored 25 points off the bench that night against New Jersey and assumed a starting role from that point on. The Knicks’ subsequent seven-game win streak resurrected New York’s season. Lin’s stats aren’t mind-blowing: 15 ppg, 6 ppg, 80% FT and his 3.6 turnovers per game were an issue, but to go from where he was a year ago (D-Leaguer, marginal NBA prospect) to now (starting point guard on a playoff team who could get into the paint and was a threat to drop 20 points every night) is nothing short of Lincredible (sorry). Lin only played 35 games this year, but unlike Rookie of the Year, where I discounted Ricky Rubio and Kenneth Faried for their lack of games, the sheer disparity between where Lin was at before and where he was at when his season ended on March 24 is simply too large for me to ignore. -Jonathan Gault
Sixth Man of the Year
James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder)
Harden scores a lot off the bench (17 ppg), does so at a great rate (49% FG, 39% 3FG, 58% eFG), and he’s quite a good passer who did a much better job taking care of the ball than his All-Star PG teammate. A cute case can be made for almost everyone on the benches of Philly, Chicago, and San Antonio, plus Nicolas Batum, but this category is a runaway. –Zachariah Blott
James Harden (Oklahoma City Thunder)
The easiest pick on the ballot, in my opinion. Harden showed glimpses of his ability in last year’s playoffs, but this regular season is when the 6-foot-5 guard truly emerged. Harden was the Thunder’s third-best player (and there aren’t a lot of players out there better than Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook) and provided OKC with a much-needed third scoring option. Durant had a fantastic season, but there’s no way that the Thunder win 47 games without Harden’s 17 ppg off the bench. His shooting stats are great for a guard (49% FG, 39% 3FG, 85% FT) and his ability to create his own shot is a huge boon when he’s playing with the second unit. He’s everything you want in a sixth man. -Jonathan Gault
Coach of the Year
Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)
I know his resting patterns drove people crazy with the Big Three sitting down in contests that ended 10+ game win streaks, for entire second halves of blowouts, through the fourth quarter of close losses, but you just had a feeling that Pops was getting the best of everyone every time he did it. In the end, his patterns built an incredibly strong and flexible bench, allowed him to figure out every single players’ exact strengths and when to best exploit them, and kept Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker fresh for the playoffs…and oh yeah, the top seed in the West. He had his eye on the big picture in a way so extreme and with methods so outside the box that Popovich made other coaches look desperate to overwork their clubs in order to win the short-term payoffs. –Zachariah Blott
Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs)
That Popovich, a four-time NBA champion head coach, has won this award only once is a crime. Even with an aging squad in a shortened season, Popovich guided the Spurs to the league’s best record. Pop masterfully managed the minutes of 35-year-old Tim Duncan (28 mpg) and 34-year-old Manu Ginobili (23 mpg, though he missed half the season due to injury) while simultaneously incorporating younger players like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Though he took some flak for resting his starters at the end of tough stretches (he did this on February 21 at Portland and April 9 at Utah, both of which ended 11-game win streaks), Popovich always coached with the larger goal—an NBA championship—in mind. Now the Spurs enter the postseason well-rested and confident (and on a 10-game win streak). They’ll like their chances to win the title, as they did the last time the league lost games to a lockout in 1999.
All-NBA, 1st Team
Tyson Chandler: Chandler is a defensive game-changer, made 69% of his shots, and didn’t crash his team’s spirits late in the season like Howard did. Toughest selection.
Kevin Love: He’s now a big-time (and versatile) scorer, plus he remains an elite rebounder capable of pulling down 20 boards on any given night.
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.
Kevin Durant: Somehow his shooting vastly improved to career-best levels, his rebounding jumped, and even his assists and blocks rose.
Chris Paul: Still the premier PG, incredibly effective in every part of his game – put up some insane clutch stats this year and was personally responsible for halting the Clippers’ late-season collapse.
Dwight Howard: Even when he’s debating about where he wants to play or bitching about his coach, he’s still the league’s top center. A complete monster in the paint who rebounds and blocks shots at an elite level. As Howard goes, so do the Magic.
LeBron James: The playoffs are a different story, but no one owns the regular season like LeBron.
Kevin Durant: This was his best season as a pro. Career-highs in FG% (50%), rebounds (8 per game) and assists (3.5 per game) while leading the Thunder to the league’s third-best record = 1st team All-NBA.
Chris Paul: Took the Clippers to within one game of a division title. Read that sentence again. The league’s top point guard by any measure, especially considering how well the Bulls did without Derrick Rose this year.
Dwyane Wade: This was the toughest spot for me to pick. I was impressed by what Kobe Bryant did battling multiple injuries, but until he learns to be more unselfish (especially in crunch-time), I can’t give him the nod. Wade did miss significant time this season (17 games), but I can’t see anyone else overtaking him for the shooting-guard spot. When he’s healthy, he’s still a force of nature, overwhelming opponents with his speed and athleticism.
Three biggest stories of the year
1. Linsanity: Jeremy Lin came out of nowhere (make that Harvard, Golden State, and the D-League) and turned New York basketball on its head, which is nearly impossible to do. Although things eventually settled down and the Knicks stopped riding improbable numbers like his 38 points and 6 assists to improbable victories over teams like the Lakers, Lin’s meteoric rise to the Tebow-sphere is what more fans will remember in 10 years than the lockout.
2. The Lockout: The billionaire owners blatantly lied about how much money they were making, the millionaire players were upset they would lose part of their cheddar, and fans ended up with the worst year of basketball since this dance last played itself out in 1999. With a season of injured crap crammed down our throats at a million miles an hour, and that’s recently turned into a Player’s Association nightmare, let’s hope the playoffs are in any way redeeming.
3. Dwight Howard: In a will-he-be-traded-or-not franchise hijack scene much more awkward than the combination of Carmelo’s and Deron Williams’s from last year, Howard played games with the media, badmouthed and undermined his coach in a variety of ways, constantly tinkered with the list of teams he demanded to be traded to, denied everything after getting called out on many occasions for clearly being manipulative, eventually agreed to stay in Orlando one more year to avoid being shipped to the Lakers, then lost all heart and tanked the Magic’s season, and all-in-all came off as a humongous asshole who somehow pretended nothing was his fault when the entire thing was clearly his fault. Enjoy this turd of a trade deadline drama again next year.
1. The Lockout: Losing 16 games and forcing teams to play back-to-back-to-backs and four games in five nights to make up the money? Yeah, I’d say that’s pretty important.
2. Linsanity: When was the last time (outside of Tim Tebow) an athlete captivated America like Jeremy Lin? By itself, any of the angles of the Lin story is compelling—little-known player suddenly starts scoring 20 points a night, Asian-American succeeds in the NBA, Harvard grad starts in the NBA, all in the media capital of the world—but throw them all together and you get a story for the ages.
3. Dwight Howard: The majority of the drama surrounding the league’s best and most consistent center centered around where he was going to play next season. But as the trade deadline came and went, the story went became more about Howard’s relationship with his coach and the Magic organization and what it means to be a superstar in today’s NBA.