What do Sam Mitchell, Byron Scott, Mike D’Antoni, Steve Nash, and Dirk Nowitzki have in common?
All are recent recipients of one of the NBA’s prestigious awards—coach of the year or most valuable player. Each player or coach listed above won his trophy after 2005.
None of these popular figures advanced past the first round in 2009. One is no longer coaching and two did not make the playoffs.
I have wanted to slam the NBA’s awards season for months. The banter seems endless and pointless, and the selection criteria are too vague for these celebrated hunks of metal to mean much.
I first decided to write on this topic after reading fellow Bleacher Report writer Andrew Ungavri’s piece, written last year, on why the MVP award is overrated.
Then, Fox Sports basketball guru and former Coach Charley Rosen echoed the same sentiments in a March column.
I needed to see these articles to prove the sanity of my argument. It seemed blasphemous at first to question the awards handed out to the players, coaches, and executives in my favorite sport.
As a youngster, I remember the joy and satisfaction that accompanied Hakeem Olajuwon’s dual MVP and defensive player of the year win in 1994. He remains the only player to win both plus Finals MVP in the same year.
I worshiped the aura of the award when my childhood idol grasped it. I worshiped it again when my favorite athlete this decade, Tim Duncan, hoisted it twice.
Duncan, however, is the last MVP winner to win a championship in the same year he scored the Maurice Podoloff trophy. Every victor since has exited the playoffs in embarrassing fashion or been knocked off by a player he passed in the voting.
What do we want these winners to accomplish after we crown them? If the answer is "championship," then the recipients of these trophies fail at an overwhelming rate.
This brings the discussion to Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Mike Brown and his star LeBron James, who will again fight to extend their season Saturday night in Orlando.
The 66-win Cavs breezed through the opening two rounds of the playoffs with impressive sweeps, then ran into the Magic’s buzz saw of pick-and-roll, trey-bombing wizardry.
Basketball broadcasters, writers, and analysts handed Mike Brown Coach of the Year and James the MVP in landslide votes.
Now, the team most predicted would dance with the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals for league supremacy has no answer for its Orlando nemesis.
You could call it a bad matchup, even a mismatch. The Magic have won 11 of the last 15 meetings with the Cavs and boasted a superior road record.
Brown, whose expanded offensive philosophies and increased delegation won the respect of voters, has shrunk his team’s fourth-quarter offense to the primitive screen/roll and top of the key stuff that led to previous Cavaliers playoff ousters.
Stan Van Gundy has arguably out-coached Brown in four of the five Eastern Conference Finals games.
Dwight Howard has survived questionable foul trouble and produced like a superstar.
Howard, a statistically poor foul shooter, sank eight of 10 free throw attempts in the fourth quarter of game three, while James, supposedly the definition of clutch, missed five of 10 in that period.
The purpose of this article is not to demean Brown or James for their convincing award wins. Nor is it to argue that Howard or Van Gundy were robbed in the end-of-season votes.
Consider this the start of an open dialogue on the NBA’s flawed awards system.
Should James and Brown have won by such comfortable margins? Was James that much better than the reigning MVP who beat him in both of their regular season meetings?
Kobe Bryant’s Lakers grabbed both of those contests by double-digits. The Lakers were the only team in the regular season to beat the Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena when James played (The Cavs’ starters rested in a late-season loss to the Philadelphia 76ers).
Was Brown’s 66-win campaign that much more appreciable than what Rick Adelman did with a devastated, injury-ravaged Houston Rockets squad?
Was it superior to what Doc Rivers accomplished in leading the banged-up defending champions to a more than respectable 62-win mark?
I would have rewarded James and Brown a vote. I said so in several columns. However, I picked both without conviction knowing that this could happen.
This being a Cavaliers loss in the conference finals.
As I picture Mike Brown waking up at 2 a.m. in a cold sweat, begging an imaginary Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis to stop the pick-and-roll abuse, I ask this question.
Will Brown and James buck the trend?
If we assume that Cleveland’s best statistical season ends tonight, how will the team fare under next year’s tremendous pressure?
After an MVP season in which James averaged a near triple-double, fans and analysts will expect nothing less than a Finals appearance as a follow-up act. More important for Cleveland will be keeping James off the 2010 free agent market.
Cavs Owner Dan Gilbert and GM Danny Ferry have the upper hand in the LeBron sweepstakes, given that they can pay him more than anyone else, but you never know.
Two of the recent award winners, Scott and Nowitzki, offer the worst examples of rapid descent.
After a smashing 56-win season straight from Chris Paul’s playground and a division title as grand as Mardi Gras, I expected the New Orleans Hornets to take “the next step.” Forgive me for going all American Pie with that one.
I predicted they would at least make the conference finals. San Antonio Express-News basketball writer Mike Monroe picked them to win the West, as did former Spurs beat writer and Yahoo! columnist Johnny Ludden.
With the acquisition of clutch swingman and defensive ace James Posey, the team that floored the Spurs to an exhausting seven-game finish in 2008 appeared ready to bring Louisiana a professional sports title in 2009.
In the words of Nixon, “Well, I screwed up real good, didn’t I?”
Instead of growing leaps and bounds, Scott’s Hornets stumbled backwards and gagged on baby food. A season predicted to contain victories over conference powerhouses was instead littered with lethargic, uninspired losses to the lowly New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings.
The Hornets fell to the seventh seed and then to the lethal Nuggets in five games. The Hornets lost one of those playoff games by 58 points, tied for the largest margin of defeat in sports playoff history.
The mercurial Paul did his part, averaging more than 36 minutes a game with nearly 20 points and 11 assists. He also passed Alvin Robertson on the all-time consecutive games with a steal list.
Who gets the blame for the Hornets buzzkill? Is the loss squarely on Tyson Chandler’s injured ankle and back? Can you place a team’s fortunes on a guy whose best per game average is 11 points and eight rebounds?
Or does the scorn fall on Scott for failing to motivate his squad?
While the appropriate answer would likely include a combination of things, ignoring Scott’s role in the disappointment is difficult.
He coached two New Jersey squads to the NBA Finals and scored a major breakthrough with youngsters in New Orleans. So, what’s the problem?
Is the coaching award cursed? Hubie Brown and Mitchell might say, “yes” if you asked them. Both were canned from their jobs a year after voters showered them with the ultimate praise.
Nowitzki’s story is worse.
Who can forget that shameful image of the seven-foot German accepting the MVP award after the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors had ousted his 67-win Dallas Mavericks from the playoffs in the first round?
Though he did average 20 points in the six-game series, many of the voters who handed him the regular season trophy pounded the Dirkster for the historic failure.
Giving him the award seemed like a no-brainer in March of that year. Less than 12 months after a choke job in the Finals, the Mavs were hammering teams by impressive margins and mounting multiple double-digit win streaks as regularly as Dunkin Donuts sells donuts. He was that team’s leading scorer.
How did so many observers miss Dallas and Nowitzki’s glaring flaws?
Nowitzki is as offensively gifted as a guy his size can be. His shooting range is limitless and his free throw shooting is reliable. But, he plays atrocious defense and has a career history of disappearing in big moments.
I told a friend in 2007 that the MVP conversation should include Tim Duncan. My friend, an avid Mavericks fan, laughed and called me a homer. “He’s not even a whisper in the discussion," he said.
Duncan led the Spurs to a fourth title that year. In several playoff games on TNT, then analyst Steve Kerr called himself a “moron” for not talking up Duncan as an MVP candidate.
We sex these awards up as if some great intellectual debate will follow, and then we crap on that promise by limiting the conversation to two or three players.
More players than Nash and Nowitzki deserved consideration in 2007, especially since neither athlete plays a modicum of defense.
You can be damn sure that this year’s vote should not have been just Bryant vs. James, with Dwyane Wade as an afterthought.
Dwight Howard, Chauncey Billups, and even Carmelo Anthony have shown in the conference finals that their value extends beyond mere numbers. Can you quantify the impact of Billups’ Springfield-quality leadership?
If you removed Paul from the Hornets or Deron Williams from the Utah Jazz for all 82 games, how many times would those squads win? Twenty, maybe.
Should media members and broadcasters be the only people who select the MVP and league’s best coach?
There are no easy answers to any of these questions, and Saturday night will likely provide another opportunity to re-evaluate the purpose and importance of these awards.
Then, two of popular figures we crowned as two of the best are bound to disappoint us with a conference finals exit.
Is the problem Brown and James or is it us?
Stay tuned next season to see if they buck the trend.