SAN ANTONIO – The land of King Gregg Popovich makes for an appropriate backdrop to pass along the most important thing people need to understand about NBA awards.
The awards are voted on by the media, who is in the business of telling stories.
So if there is no new story, just consistent excellence, the best are at risk of not being rewarded. A good example is Coach of the Year, where Jeff Hornacek of the Phoenix Suns and Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Bobcats are generating a lot of votes this season for delivering winning records to recently losing franchises.
Good for them—and they’re writing good stories of success—but it’s ludicrous to believe that those guys, in their first years as head coaches, are better at this coaching thing than Popovich.
Pop has had an especially great year. He steered the Spurs away from the heartbreak of the 2013 NBA Finals, resisting thoughts of complacency, old age or lack of depth to lead his team to the best record in the NBA in his latest masterful work. Hopefully he gets rewarded for it.
But Popovich being great is to be expected by now. The same goes for Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, who is penalized for already creating a compelling Derrick Rose-less story last postseason. Thibodeau did it again this season, making his vision of a team playing with intensity and attention to detail a remarkable reality.
Also, Dirk Nowitzki is getting all the credit for the Dallas Mavericks’ surprisingly successful season, but Rick Carlisle has proved by now that he is truly an elite coach every year.
With all that in mind, I wasn’t automatically going to default away from giving my official NBA MVP ballot to someone other than the best player in the game, LeBron James, for lack of new narrative. Kevin Durant is definitely going to win because his story—with Russell Westbrook injured this season—is more novel to voters than James’ with Dwyane Wade resting so much.
But MVP was actually a very close call for me. I received considerable help from James, who—whether out of false modesty, belief he wasn’t going to win anyway or honest opinion of inferiority—endorsed Durant as “the most consistent player as far as MVP this year.”
LeBron on Durant: "I would say he's the most consistent player as far as MVP this year."— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) April 9, 2014
Even though no one remembers the runner-up results, spots three through five are fascinating to determine. Stephen Curry, Kevin Love and Nowitzki all made impressive pitches for MVP candidacy, but each was hampered by defensive flaws.
Ultimately, I went with players who had truly special seasons, with my usual consideration of whether they did most of it on their own or were largely beneficiaries of what their coaches set them up to do:
—George squeaks onto the ballot over Joakim Noah. Both of them are defensive mavens, but even with Noah’s great passing this season, George is by far the more potent weapon for a better team.
Most Improved Player: 1. Griffin, 2. DeMar DeRozan, 3. Goran Dragic
—It was just two months ago that I wrote a piece on Griffin’s improvement with the seemingly blasphemous suggestions that he might be the best player on the Los Angeles Clippers right now over Chris Paul and might someday overtake James and Durant for best player in the game. Looking at the MVP voting, it’s happening awfully fast.
Defensive Player of the Year: 1. Joakim Noah, 2. George, 3. Roy Hibbert
—Too often, the award goes to a big guy who blocks shots; Noah offers a magical combination of paint presence and territory coverage. For the Pacers’ incredible defensive season, George handled the territory and Hibbert the paint.
Rookie of the Year: 1. Michael Carter-Williams, 2. Trey Burke, 3. Victor Oladipo
—Backlash against the Philadelphia 76ers and their tanking ways will cost Carter-Williams more votes than you might think, but the facts of the matter are that he and Burke, for all their faults, did more than any other newbies.
All-NBA first team (by position, with instruction: “Please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly”): F Durant, F James, C Noah, G Curry, G James Harden
All-NBA third team: F Kevin Love, F Carmelo Anthony, C Al Jefferson, G Dragic, G Chris Paul
—It was difficult but had to give poorly coached, highly productive Anthony the nod over Nowitzki, Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis (only 67 games played, barely more than Paul’s 62 that hurt his cause).
All-Defensive first team (by position): F George, F Ibaka, C Noah, G Ricky Rubio, G Andre Iguodala
All-Defensive second team: F Tim Duncan, F Taj Gibson, C Hibbert, G Jimmy Butler, G Danny Green
—Andre Iguodala was the league’s best defensive guard in the 63 games he has played, and while you absolutely have to take availability into account when giving out awards for the entirety of a season, the dearth of top-shelf healthy guard defenders allowed Iguodala (and Butler and Green) to get my votes. Gibson deserves by far to be the Sixth Man of the Year, but I’ve never liked the league having an award for guys not good enough to start.
All-Rookie first team (regardless of position): Carter-Williams, Burke, Oladipo, Tim Hardaway Jr., Mason Plumlee
All-Rookie second team: Kelly Olynyk, Pero Antic, Matthew Dellavedova, Steven Adams, Gorgui Dieng
—Yes, I really did have to fill out this official ballot from the NBA. So you have to go through it with me, too. The candidates were quite unsightly—a reminder to Lakers fans expecting the world (or even more than Ryan Kelly) from their incoming 2014 rookie.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.