The NBA is built around the individual—as much as Grandpa hates that.
But it’s not the old man’s game. The league is led by the superstar. Big-name players are the ones hoisting the championship trophy.
As teams enter the postseason, it’s an opportune time to focus on the names that have carried their respective franchises this season.
The awards race is running close to final in some categories, while others may come down to this final month.
We’ll even give Grandpa a vote.
It isn’t easy.
While collecting talent comes with an intelligent plan, it also comes down to money, situation and opportunity.
But Erik Spoelstra has to be given credit for what he has done with the Miami Heat. LeBron James is responsible for the recently capped 27-game win streak, but it’s not accomplished without the work of Spoelstra.
Teams haven’t been able to create a blueprint for the Heat. The “well, c’mon they have LeBron” argument has a layer of validity, but every great coach has had an equally great player. Name a legendary coach who didn’t guide a legend.
If it’s truly all about winning, then Spoelstra deserves this honor.
Spoelstra keeps teams guessing and has offered enough versatility in Miami’s game plan to keep opponents off balance.
He’s not the architect; we reserve that for Pat Riley. But Spoelstra is the manager of the day-to-day operation and has now defended his 2011-12 championship season with the second-longest win streak in the game’s history.
It’s special, and perhaps something that won’t be truly appreciated until years from now.
Spoelstra’s shot at winning COY: 30 percent
If winning is the gauge in deciding the game’s top coach, then obviously defending Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich (25 percent chance) has to be in the running.
Popovich spins through the regular season with his special recipe, a refined system that works no matter what parts are in play. He lets his stars take nights off regardless of the opponent, yet the San Antonio Spurs are still battling Spoelstra’s Heat for home-court advantage.
Mark Jackson (10 percent chance) turned the Golden State Warriors franchise around. Golden State is about to enter the postseason for just the second time in 19 years, and the no-excuse, steadfast attitude of its coach has lit the fire.
Golden State players have bought in to the genuine preaching of Jackson. Jackson is the first coach not named Don Nelson to lead the Warriors to the playoffs since 1987, when George Karl was coach.
Speaking of Karl (20 percent chance), he obviously can’t be left out of the conversation. The Denver Nuggets have surged into a top-four spot in the Western Conference without a confirmed superstar. He has plenty of talent and, like Spoelstra and Popovich, he’s made the pieces work.
Frank Vogel (15 percent) is similar to Karl in that he’s developing superstars alongside role players with great success. The Indiana Pacers, now without star scorer Danny Granger for the remainder of the season, are still a top seed in the East.
Joakim Noah plays defense in the best way possible—like a fired-up sixth grader.
He brings a heavy-breathing, crazy-eyed element to defending in the NBA, and it’s clear that he can match the passion with skill.
Gotta love Joakim Noah playing intense defense and arguing with refs during the All-Star Game. The guy takes every game seriously.— Alex Kennedy (@AlexKennedyNBA) February 18, 2013
The way Noah plays defense, it seems like opponents look at him like they’re offended. But defense takes a level of looking ludicrous and turning off the guy you’re guarding.
The Defensive Player of the Year doesn't show up in the box score; there are way too many variables, including the defense of fellow teammates.
Noah leads in the intangibles department by creating an uncomfortable interior for the offense. No other player in the league does that to his level right now.
Noah’s shot at winning DPOY: 50 percent.
If you do look strictly at the numbers, it looks as if Mr. Overlooked is again an oversight.
One of the game's all-time under-the-radar greats is Tim Duncan (20 percent chance). By the numbers, Duncan makes a case as a top defender ahead of Noah.
|Per 36 minutes||Blocks||Steals||D-Rebounds|
Duncan has a defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) of 94, according to Basketball-Reference.com. Noah's defensive rating is 98.
But like other sports, great defense is not always shown by the numbers. There's still an eye test when you see the impact of a player defensively, and Noah still makes it tougher on opponents.
Marc Gasol (20 percent chance) is a perfect example of the eye test. He crowds the lane with his size. His impact defensively will never truly be represented by statistics, though he averages 1.7 blocks per game.
The field (10 percent): Larry Sanders, Avery Bradley
It’s somewhat strange that one of the end-of-season honors is reserved for the best player not good enough to start in the NBA.
If only it were that simple.
While the award should be dedicated to the traditional player who acts as a support to his team off the bench, it’s too often thought of as a Most Valuable Player award for a guy who just happens not to start.
Jarrett Jack is this season’s most valuable bench player. In backing up two younger guards in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Jack has been a scorer, a floor general and a leader when necessary.
He’s provided depth to the backcourt and is one of the reasons the Golden State Warriors are headed to the postseason.
Jack averages 13.3 points and 5.5 assists per game, but it's the intangibles of veteran leadership on the court and in the locker room that truly gives him value.
Mark Jackson says Jack is Sixth Man:. "I don’t think we’d be where we are today if he’s not on this basketball team" bit.ly/ZtF7wy
— Marcus Thompson (@gswscribe) March 27, 2013
Jack’s shot at winning Sixth Man: 40 percent
J.R. Smith (30 percent chance) is of obvious value to the New York Knicks at 17.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He’s had big moments and grabbed at the hearts of Knicks fans.
But he’s as erratic as a high school kid on Twitter. He’s shooting 41 percent on 6.3-of-15.4 per game from the field. Meanwhile, Jack is more efficient at 45.2 percent on 5.0-of-11.1 per game.
Jamal Crawford (20 percent chance) was an early lock for the award, and he's actually gotten better. Much of his early recognition as Sixth Man came through the surprise start of the Los Angeles Clippers. Since the All-Star break, Crawford is averaging fewer points (15.8), but he's actually hitting at 48.1 percent, up from 42.9 percent before the break.
The Field (10 percent): Manu Ginobili, Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer
A baseline must be established before having this conversation.
The Most Improved Player award doesn’t mean a guy who used to be worthless; it’s the biggest jump from one season to the next.
James Harden has clearly made the largest leap into superstardom. It doesn’t matter that he’s been given the greatest opportunity; it matters what he has done with that opportunity.
The numbers are clear:
James Harden ||Min.||Points||Assists||Rebounds|
|2011-12 with Oklahoma City||31.4||16.8||3.7||4.1|
|2012-13 with Houston||38.5||26.2||5.9||4.8|
Becoming a superstar in the NBA isn’t simply a decision.
I talked to Harden on March 9 about his new role in leading a team, and Harden told me:
The difference is that I was the sixth man coming off the bench last year on one of the top teams in the league to trying to figure out this whole leadership thing and star role—just doing whatever it takes to make the playoffs. It's totally different but I think I'm adjusting to it pretty well.
It is an adjustment, and his ability to succeed in such a high-pressure role makes him the obvious favorite for Most Improved Player.
The Rockets failed to make the postseason last year, and this year's team looks ready to grab the No. 6 or 7 seed.
Harden's chance at winning Most Improved: 50 percent
Jrue Holiday (15 percent chance) is another guy putting up career-high numbers in his leading role.
An unexpected star of a team that never got to know Andrew Bynum, Holiday has been a scarce piece of joy for the 76ers in his first All-Star season.
Stephen Curry (15 percent chance) is the best three-point shooter in basketball. His ankle has remained a consistent worry, but he's managed to stay on the court for most of the season.
His 229 three-pointers this season are the best in the NBA, and he's shooting 45 percent from behind the arc. Curry still doesn't get enough credit for the elite scorer that he has become.
While he's one of the league's best shooters, he can further improve as a scorer if he learns how to finish with more strength at the basket. He's shooting his lowest percentage, 39 percent, from inside the paint, according to NBA.com's advanced stats.
Curry has missed four games this season after two sprains on his bum right ankle. But after a recent sprain against the Washington Wizards on March 24, Curry managed to play on the ankle, something he hadn't done following the other two sprains.
|2010-11||74 of 82||33.6||18.6||5.8|
|2011-12||26 of 66||28.2||14.7||5.3|
|2012-13||69 of 73||38.2||22.4||6.8|
The field (remaining 20 percent): Larry Sanders, O.J. Mayo, Omer Asik, Greivis Vasquez, Paul George
Damian Lillard is cool personified.
The Portland Trail Blazers rookie rarely flashes a smile, opting to mean mug the NBA world. He uses his Twitter to flow rhymes, and he also has a legit campaign to go after bullying.
We from the school of hard knocks but ya crew skipped class
— Damian Lillard (@Dame_Lillard) March 12, 2013
But there is a hole in his chill game: He’s afraid of statues. Literally.
Yup, he might not be nervous about meeting Michael Jordan, but he better not set foot near the Air Jordan statue outside the Chicago Bulls arena.
Lillard, who has been the favorite to win Rookie of the Year since day one of the season, told NBC Sports’ The Crossover that he has a phobia:
Two years ago when I was in Vegas and went to the wax museum...I got to the room of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Oprah, and a lot of dead presidents. They were playing this music and I felt a lot of tension in the room and ever since then I haven't liked statues.
And that’s one anecdote as we get to know one of the league’s future great guards.
Lillard has stepped in and led from the start for Portland, and he’s growing even more polished as the season moves on. In March, Lillard is scoring 21.5 points on 48.4 percent and adding 6.7 assists per game.
Not bad for the kid out of the Big Sky’s Weber State.
Lillard’s shot at winning ROY: 95 percent
Runner-up: Anthony Davis (4 percent chance)
As collected as Lillard has been in his rookie season, the first year in the NBA is not always so welcoming.
No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis has had his inconsistencies, but his rookie year should be viewed as a tremendous success.
He’s been powerful without developed power. He is still too lean, but just turning 20 years old, he is progressing into one of the league’s best young bigs.
March has been the best month of his rookie season, as he's averaged 16.3 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. Blessed with length and quickness, Davis is already a gift to the New Orleans Hornets' interior defense.
The field (1 percent chance): Bradley Beal, Dion Waiters, Maurice Harkless
It’s time to press pause.
Something is happening here that is being overlooked, even despite the flooding of LeBron James coverage.
The best player in the game might be one of the best of all time. The streak that just concluded at 27 games is something that will be shown 30 years from now on some fancy, futuristic, virtual-reality-type TV screen.
We are all one day going to testify to the greatness of James and this period of his domination.
And yes, he is the league’s Most Valuable Player, and it’s not even close.
The streak that lasted 52 days was built on legendary performances that included comebacks and last-moment finishes.
Not only is he the best player on the best team, but he’s the greatest player of the decade on the greatest team we’ve seen since Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal begrudgingly won three titles together.
James is averaging 26.8 points per game on 55.8 percent shooting. For those not keen in mathematics, that means he is the best version of a perimeter Wilt Chamberlain.
Keep the elbow in, LeBron. The perimeter shooting is working for you.
James’ shot at winning MVP: 99 percent.
Runner-up: Kevin Durant (0.9 percent chance)
Kevin Durant makes a beautiful bridesmaid.
But he’s living underneath the heated aura of James. The right column of every Oklahoma City box score is proof of Durant’s versatile scoring, and it’s what makes him the biggest offensive threat in the league.
But he’s not the complete player that James is. There was a moment when it looked like the two may battle for this MVP award from season to season, but it’s becoming clear that James is simply more valuable to his team’s success.
Durant is a scorer, no doubt, but James makes his team better. James averages more assists than Durant (7.3 to 4.5), and he also provides a great defensive challenge against all types of opponents.
The golden rule is simple: Which player would an opposing coach least like to face? The answer is clearly James.
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