Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA Season Recap: Thanks for the Memories

A month ago San Antonio, Boston, and Seattle all laid eggs in crucial stretch run games; the Lakers nearly did the same, choosing not to arrive at the Delta Center until midway through the 3rd quarter. But it was still special because it was the first night of the season that we had experienced anything other than top-notch, high quality, uber-competetive basketball – IN MARCH!!!!!!! When you can actually notice that the one night of NBA hoops isn’t amazing, well that speaks to the high level of play during the other 81 games.

When I look back at this season in 50 years, I’ll remember it as the season for the ages, the season that everyone brought his A-game every night, the season that all the old guard stars managed to extend their peaks against all odds while the next generation arrived as legit superstars (the perfect intersection of the best of the old and the best of the new), the season in which all the top players and teams took the games more personally than ever, and the biggest games became absolute battles, the final frontier when everyone delivered the his best before entering the brave new post-lockout world. We’ve never seen a perfect storm like this and may never see it again. But all I know is that this year the players combined to make this an absolute treat for anyone and everyone who cares about professional basketball (and if the regular season is any indication then these playoffs will surpass 2006 as the greatest spring ever). With that here are the reasons why this has been the greatest NBA season ever.

38. Demarcus Cousins – Lived up to every single scouting report and then some. He was a low post monster from day one that abused inferior big men with his ridiculous combination of size, mobility, and underrated array of post moves. Unfortunately what everyone chose to focus on was his clashes with teammates and coaches, and his fiery personality and rage. The media sees a hothead; I see a potential franchise center learning on the job, a guy who wants to win more than anything and will fight and express his passion to achieve that goal. I look forward to watching him carve up NBA frontlines for the next decade.

37. Derrick Favors – Catch him on the wrong night and you might conclude that he’ll never make it. But watch him enough and you’ll see – he’s not just a raw athlete running around like a headless chicken; he’s already an above-average defender with the potential to be spectacular on that end, and he’s developing a post game to complement his ridiculous size and speed. I like him; he’s a keeper.

36. Monta Ellis – Can you win a title when your starting 2-guard can’t guard anybody, passes once in a blue moon, and takes almost as many shots as he scores points? Not sure. But can you turn the most mundane Tuesday night into a hoops thrill ride that never disappoints on entertainment value? No doubt.

35. Anthony Randolph: He’ll explode for a random 30-12 game and ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS follow it up with an 8-4 outing. In fact he’s so inconsistent from night to night that there’s a certain consistency to it – he’s consistently inconsistent. Love it.

34. Kevin Love – I could miss a shot at the Caltech gym and Kevin would manage to grab the rebound. You can’t win a title with him as your best player because he only has one elite skill. But as the third banana on a good team with a center that can protect him on defense he’s dynamite. Someone get the man out of Minnesota!

33. Javale McGee – I can’t defend his basketball IQ…but I also can’t deny how comically entertaining he is to watch. If you haven’t seen the Javelevator’s antics then you’re missing out on some of the best fun that league pass money can buy.

32. Tony Allen – We always knew he was a good defender…but seriously? This good? Raise your hand if in July you knew that the Grizzlies were getting one of the five best perimeter defenders in basketball. He filled in admirably for Rudy Gay while teaming with Mike Conley, Orange Juice Mayo, and a rejuvenated Shane Battier to make Memphis’s defense the best ball hawking unit in the league. You think San Antonio wanted any part of them in round one? Me neither.

31. Marcus Thornton – I still can’t believe the Hornets traded him. Apparently Monty Williams wanted to emphasize defense, which is fine except that meant replacing Thornton with Willie Green (someone who’s 10% better on defense and 10000000000000% worse on offense). This is what bugs me about the NBA – teams focus on Thornton’s weaknesses (lacks elite 2-guard size, poor defender) and lose sight of the fact that, well, he’s really fucking good!!!!!!! Based on my twitter feed, for most Kings fans the response to watching him was “Wow, I’ve never heard of this guy but he’s awesome!!! How did we get him for just a backup power forward who was barely part of our rotation?” Ok so maybe he’s not the ideal starter on a title contender, but you can absolutely win with him as your first guy off the bench for whom you occasionally run crunch time plays, a la Ben Gordon or Vinnie Johnson.

30. Landry Fields – A miracle second rounder who somehow made his way into the rotation and made Wilson Chandler expendable in the Carmelo Anthony trade. He’s tough as nails, makes 3’s and finishes in transition, and plays hard every second, making him the perfect running mate for STAT and Melo. The Garden old timers will love him for the next ten years.

29. Peja Stojakovic – Not really all that relevant this year…until he skipped Dallas’s season finale (with the team’s permission of course) to attend the Kings final home game at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Solid. Good Man Peja. I bring this up for a few reasons: first, I really miss watching Peja running circles around opponents and swishing sweet shots from every single spot on the court. People forget how much of a baller Peja was early in the decade. Same with Tracy Mcgrady, Elton Brand (for my money the most underappreciated star of my generation), Jermaine O’Neal, Kenyon Martin, Michael Redd, Baron Davis, Shawn Marion, etc. Which leads nicely to my second point: the late 90’s/early 2000’s were my nascent years as a hoops fan; I grew up with all the stars from the 1999-2004, post-Jordan/Pre-Lebron generation, and the early Webber/Bibby/Peja Kings teams were as much a part of my hoops tutelage as anything else. Those teams played some of the most beautiful and pure basketball I’ve ever seen, combining a devastating fast break with a hyper-efficient Princeton offense executed to perfection. Bibby’s competitiveness and unselfishness, Peja’s deadeye bombs from 25 feet, Divac’s no look passes, Webber’s all-around greatness – those teams scored, scored, and scored and provided the perfect transition from the unwatchable era of Knicks/Heat boxing matches disguised as basketball. All the hardcore fans remember how loud and rocking Arco Arena used to be, how awesome and competitive those old Kings/Mavs/Lakers/Spurs battles used to be. You can only imagine my nostalgia at seeing Sacramento show up to turn out the lights at Arco (put it this way: I was rooting for the Kings even though their win would’ve made the Lakers face my Blazers in the playoffs. I couldn’t vote against that team, not with that much emotion and wistfulness involved). So for that reason I just can’t stand to see the Kings leaving. Look I understand that economically they have no other play and have to move to a bigger market; however it sucks to see such a passionate fan base lose a team because the owners screwed so much up, especially to see the team ripped away just as they were starting to forge a connection with a young and promising nucleus. They can take away the current franchise, but they can’t take away the memories from a fan base that poured its heart and soul into a quarter century of Kings Basketball.

28. Ray Allen – When Seattle traded him in 2007, it as totally defensible because they needed the young assets and cap flexibility; more importantly, nobody knew they were giving away four more years of such high quality play. I don’t think he should have made the all-star game. That being said, it’s impressive that he’s maintaining this level of play this late in his career.

27. Al Horford – It’s simply terrible how underrated he is. He’s a misplaced center putting up terrific stats and playing excellent defense despite playing out of position and ceding 2-3 inches every night. Put him at power forward and NBA fans everywhere will feel stupid for underrating.

26. Michael Beasley – Just when everyone had given up on him he actually started showing consistent flashes of the player that everyone projected him to be on draft night. This is why NBA GM’s keep taking chances on head cases – because you just never know when a guy’s talent will start to shine through at the most random times.

25. Andre Iguodala – The best perimeter defender in the NBA turned in a career year on that end. More than anything, Iggy embraced his role as an all-out perimeter destroyer who only occasionally carries the offense rather than all the time. I still can’t get over the fact that Dallas wasn’t willing to part ways with Roddy Beaubois to try to get him and put themselves over the top.

24. Rudy Gay – In July it appeared that Rudy Gay’s 80 million dollar contract was an abomination. But what I didn’t count on was how much Gay would benefit from the team USA experience and seeing how hard guys like Durant and Westbrook worked and played. He’s greatly improved his defense while taking a bigger share of the offense, not settling for as many jumpers while driving it to the rim and posting up much more often. Rudy Gay is one of many examples of guys this year who A. stepped up their game after playing for Team USA and B. lived up to the contract he signed rather than allow himself to be a cap albatross; it’s things like that that have made this season such a treat.

23. Eric Gordon – Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook have gotten the most attention as the guys from the 2008 draft that made the biggest leaps, and rightfully so. But don’t forget about this guy. Imagine if Ben Gordon was in a contract year and actually played defense – that’s Air Gordon in a nutshell. Gordon doesn’t get nearly enough attention because of the team for whom he plays, and power forward with whom he play (to say nothing a certain other LA shooting guard), but he is absolutely a top ten shooting guard and can be the 3rd wheel on a title team, possibly better if he continues leaping forward after this year.

22. Gerald Wallace – Dear Crash,

Thank you. Thank you so much for being the Blazers x-factor; After Lamarcus Aldridge singlehandedly kept the team afloat for the first half of the season, you arrived to shore up our team’s issues with perimeter defense and rebounding, allowing everyone else to fall into their more natural roles and propelling the Blazers from ‘Little Team that Could’ status to a legit playoff sleeper that nobody wants to face. You do absolutely everything on the court, with your crazy athleticism, your non-stop hustle and energy, and versatility to affect the game in so many ways and replace Brandon Roy as our main perimeter creator at the end of games. Twitter remains a testament to how much us Blazers fans have worshipped you from day one as you finally get the time in the spotlight that you have deserved for so long; every blazers win results in a timeline full of tweets of blazers fans competing to see who loves Crash the most. Get used to it Gerald – you play for the most rabid fans in basketball; welcome to Portland, and I look forward to seeing you wreak more havoc in this year’s playoffs.


Arjun Chandrasekhar

21. Zach Randolph – I feel that Zach still gets an unfairly bad rap; look I’m not denying that he’s had more than his share of legal troubles and mailed in quite a few games (to say nothing of the entire 2004-05 season). But give him credit for tapping into his potential in Memphis and staying out of trouble; he’s a top-3 low post scorer and has made himself into an elite rebounder, helping to propel Memphis to its first playoffs without (Pau) Gasol. Don’t tell me he’s nothing more than a knucklehead that can’t contribute to a winning team, because it simply isn’t true.

20. Manu Ginobili – I thought he would come down a little after having such a terrific season last year, but he’s managed to defy the odds; have we ever seen someone at this age and with this injury history be the best player on a 60-win team? I can’t wait to see what he pulls in the playoffs, because even when the spurs lose, more Manu makes winners out of all of us.

19. John Wall – In terms of basketball IQ Wall plays with the absolute worst set of teammates in the league. Javale McGee and Andray Blatche are talented and fun to watch but have no clue how to play. Nick Young and Al Thornton must have made a bet at the start of the year to see who could jack up the highest number of completely indefensible shots during the year. They brought in savvy veterans Kirk Hinrich and Mike Bibby only to get rid of them almost as quickly. Despite all that Wall had a delightful rookie season. He is just so quick and fast, so instinctive, so smart, so poised, so unselfish on the court – he reminds me of a cross between Rajon Rondo and Dwayne Wade. I could see him going so many ways – Walt Frazier, Jason Kidd, Gary Payton, the possibilities are endless. He will be the best point guard in the NBA in five years – there I said it.

18. Chris Bosh – If you want to criticize his play early in the season then fair enough, I can’t defend that. But if you’re going to call out his early season play then you can’t simply ignore his improved play down the stretch. To me it’s nonsense that people still insist that you can’t win a title with Bosh as your starting power forward – the bottom line is that if he’s Miami’s 3rd wheel and x-factor then they’re in great shape.

17. Pau Gasol – He’s the best low post scorer in the league and he edges out Lamarcus Aldridge as the second best power forward. Sometimes he can still get pushed around in big games (if he replicates his performance from the two Miami games the Lakers aren’t winning a title), and this year he showed that even if Kobe is declining Pau doesn’t have the killer instinct to be the alpha dog, but when he plays at his best the Lakers are damn near unbeatable.

16. Steve Nash – Even at 36 he’s still the best offensive point guard in the league. How crazy is it that he’s averaging 11.4 assists while STILL shooting damn near 50-40-90? How the hell was this team in playoff contention when they play in the western conference and its owner and GM were doing pretty much whatever it took to sabotage the team with their trades and free agent signings? My late grandmother’s favorite player is so good that he almost revived Vince Carter and made the contracts given to Channing Frye and Hakim Warrick look semi-defensible. When Steve first arrived in Phoenix I never appreciated how good he was as much as all the other Arizonans; but once he kept pulling this routine well into his late 30’s he grew on me, to the point that now I might go overboard on him (the lesson: my grandmother forgot way more hoops knowledge than I will ever hope to know). My biggest wish for this offseason is that he can get traded to a contender; Robert Sarver doesn’t deserve Nash (to say nothing of Jan Brewer), and nobody in the NBA deserves a title more than Steve.

15. Kendrick Perkins – I really wasn’t sold on the Sonics for quite a while because I just didn’t think they had the requisite size and rebounding. Perkins completely changes their complexion. He fills up all their holes inside the paint, gives them an added toughness and edge, and allows everyone to fall into his natural position. No longer do you have Durant and Serge Ibaka guarding frontlines and fighting for boards against much bigger, taller guys. I was critical of the Sonics for not using their cap space to grab some assets, but this trade made it clear why Sam Presti runs the Sonics while I (unsuccessfully) run a blog and a twitter account (not that this wasn’t completely obvious before but still). Now it’s impossible not to take Seattle seriously as a finals contender because they have all the pieces – size, speed, depth, coaching, two guys who can get you 30/carry your offense/pick up easy points/go toe-to-toe with anybody in crunch time. Last year they weren’t ready to compete with Lakers. This year they are if they get the chance.

14. Kevin Garnett – Looks like last year was a health issue more than anything. KG is back and playing as well as he’s ever played since Boston’s last title season. I already have KG ahead of Barkley and Malone, and with a title he could pass Bob Pettit as the greatest power forward ever (unless you count Duncan as a 4). Now can they win the title? If Shaq and Jermaine O’Neal are completely healthy and effective then they would probably be the favorites. But the chances of that happening are about as high as the chance that Rebecca Black performs at the next Super Bowl (oh no, did I just give the NFL another terrible halftime show idea? Please don’t be reading this Roger Goodell). In my mind they blew their title shot with the Perkins trade because for all the flexibility that Jeff Green gives them, he’s just too much of a downgrade in talent, and he disrupts the killer chemistry they had built up for so long. Sorry KG, you had a great season but you’re probably not getting another ring.

13. Rajon Rondo – Before the Perkins trade Rondo was making the leap and challenging for the best point guard alive torch. He was on pace to average around a million assists per game and was finally asserting himself as Boston’s clear cut leader and best player. I just love that he always steps up in big games and does things like demanding to guard Lebron in the fourth quarter – it shows how much he wants to win. Rondo hasn’t been the same uniquely effective and dominant player since the Perkins Trade. It clearly affected him more than anyone else over the past few weeks. Still last year’s playoffs showed how much he can dominate a series, and I look forward to seeing try to pull of the same against Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, etc.

12. Deron Williams – It really pisses me off that people think Deron Williams somehow staged a coup de tat do oust Jerry Sloan. It’s a load of nonsense. Yes there was some friction between them but it occurred because Deron wanted to give input on ways they could adjust their schemes to their personnel and increase the number of team film viewing sessions. Deron wants to win more than anything and wanted to make some changes that he thought would help with that, and Sloan was too stubborn to accept his input. It’s a bunch of nonsense that Deron is just a spoiled diva that couldn’t handle Sloan’s coaching. If you think Sloan would just retire because he clashed with a player then he would have been gone years ago. As for his actual play, well I would say he clearly demonstrated his value this year when his trade killed Utah’s season, rejuvenated Brook Lopez’s career and (by all accounts) made New Jersey the most attractive free agent destination for Dwight Howard.

11. Chris Paul – After all his summer drama he delivered a typical great CP3 season. I was worried that his knee would prevent him from ever being the same but after watching him the past couple of months I’m convinced he’s fine and as good as ever. He’s still the best all-around point guard in the game.

10. STAT and Melo – Amare signed a franchise player contract, and then lived up to it and then some. Melo had an adjustment period where he learned through the school of hard knocks just how high the expectations are in New York, but eventually he learned to flourish as the heir apparent to Bernard King. As a small market team I can understand how much Denver fans hated the Melodrama but at least unlike Lebron he told them he was leaving and allowed them to get the best deal they could (which turned out pretty well for them, eh?). Obviously you can’t say enough about the job these guys did in leading the Knicks to their first playoffs since 2004, but it goes beyond that. See, when the Knicks don’t win, we’re all losers because there is nothing like seeing Madison Square Garden when it’s rocking at its loudest. There really is nothing like seeing the Mecca of Hoops getting into it and pushing their guys to another level of energy and intensity (only 2007 Warriors playoffs games come close – maybe). The NBA is better when the Knicks matter.

9. Russell Westbrook – There were more than a few people who expected that Derrick Rose would make the leap that he did this year…but who the heck predicted Westbrook to be right there with him? And who ever thought anyone would ever be splitting crunch time shots and with Durant, let alone alpha-dog duties? Westbrook is quite a unique commodity to say the least; obviously nobody can keep him out of the lane under today’s rules, but Westbrook is one of the few guys who can shut down his opponent every night and somehow manage to stay in front of the Derrick Roses, Chris Pauls, Deron Williams, etc. of the world. I would say he made the single biggest leap this year. Well, except for a certain big man up north…

8. Lamarcus Aldridge – When Aldridge arrived at Portland in 2006 he was a skinny 6-11 kid with a sweet jumper and an untouchable turnaround jumper that gave us visions of a certain former blazer Rasheed Wallace. For four seasons we waited for him to bulk up, develop an inside presence as a low post player and rebounder, and destroy opposing 4’s with a devastating inside-out game. It didn’t happen. After he got obliterated by Luis Scola and Amare Stoudemire in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs I was convinced that Aldridge was never going to make good on that vast potential.

Then the 2010-11 season came. Portland’s season seemed like a lost cause with the knees (and careers) of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden lying in ruins. Our team looked poised for a disappointing season with more regression than progression – but LMA heroically refused to let Portland die. He put the team on his back and jumped a level or three as a player; he started rebounding and protecting the rim better; he stopped shooting as many jumpers and punished guys in the post with authority; he embraced his new role as the alpha dog and emotional leader. He did everything that we always knew he was capable of, right when the team needed him most. It was downright gallant and valiant; he is the most deserving recipient of the Most Improved Player award and it’s a travesty that NBA coaches though that Kevin Love was the superior all-star replacement. Now, he’s never had to carry a team in the playoffs, and he’ll soon learn that it’s a far different animal; still Portland finally found the guy to replace B-Roy as the face of the franchise, and it happened sooner than expected.

7. Tim Duncan – He’s managed to remain an elite defender, rebounder, and shot blocker (mostly due to his off-the-charts hoops IQ combined with his perennial fundamental soundness) while doubling as their emotional leader and support beam, and though he may not demand a constant double team like he used to the Spurs can still go to him in the post for buckets. I feel the need to talk about him not just because he’s probably my favorite baller of this generation but because I still worry that as crazy as this sounds, Duncan will become wildly underappreciated as years pass. Throughout his career few ever gave Duncan credit for being the top ten player of all time that he is; He never drew attention to himself like Shaq; he wasn’t as flashy as guys like Nash, Iverson, T-Mac, etc. Unlike Kobe, TD didn’t play in a big media market and get constant gushing and adulation from talking heads and over-the-top, irrationally devotional fans. Duncan’s stats were always amazing but didn’t quite pop off the paper like KG’s. I’m 100% confident that Duncan won’t be remembered as the best baller of his era by casual fans. And they’ll all be completely wrong. He is the best post-Jordan player for so many reasons. It’s the fact that he’s been pumping out 21-12’s and all-defense 1st teams pretty much from day one with the consistency of a metronome. It’s the fact that he never played with a top 20 player but still led his team to four titles and never allowed his teams to ever slip out of contention under any circumstances (honestly, compared to the help that Shaq and Kobe got in their title runs it isn’t even close really, Duncan has done far more with far less); it’s the way his leadership, intelligence, and unselfishness as a player made all of his teammates better; it’s the galvanizing effect he had as a leader, the way he set the tone for every guy 1-15 on the roster and played as large a part as anybody for establishing the Spurs as the NBA’s model franchise; it’s the way he always came through for his team without fail (a testament to his incredible competitive drive and determination; the media always talks about Kobe’s competitiveness, but Duncan was just as competitive and driven, only he knew how to express that intensity in a way most healthy and conducive to overall team success); it’s the way he could win playing any style and always put the team’s success and camaraderie over any individual goals; Tim Duncan is the Bill Russell of his generation, representing every single quality that we want in our superstars (and don’t ever try to tell me he’s not exciting. If you prefer style over substance then whatever, i guess TD isn’t unnecessarily flashy; but if you appreciate precision, intelligence, and perfect fundamentals then I don’t understand how you could possibly not enjoy watching Tim Duncan dominate games with the dexterity of a brain surgeon). My gut feeling is that even though he hasn’t looked like vintage Duncan in the regular season, Duncan’s been keeping something in store for the playoffs. I could absolutely see him unleashing patented Tim Duncan-esque “28-14 while shutting down the opposing center” game right when the Spurs need it.

6. Blake Griffin – Wow. Wow Wow Wow. Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow Wow. Oh. My. God. Just…Woah.

I thought Lebron was the most exciting rookie I had ever seen. Wrong. I thought nobody could make the Clippers relevant. Wrong. I thought I had seen it all in terms of guys testing the limits of gravity and human imagination. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong. All totally and completely wrong.

I could write ten pages just describing what a surreal experience it has been to follow Blake Griffin’s rookie season. It’s more than just playing with more ferocity and manic intensity on a night to night basis than anyone in the league. Its more than just inspiring at least 20 million YouTube videos. He gave Clipper nation hope, made everyone on the Clippers (even Baron Davis) care about winning and competing, and made every single one of his game must-see TV regardless of the opponent. Put it this way: at every point of time in the game there’s a significant chance that he’ll make the highlight of the year. Now integrate the probability distribution over the course of a game, and then over the course of a full season and…well you get the picture.

What I hate is when people say he’s just a dunker. He’s the best dunker in the league, but he is so much more. If you haven’t watched the Clippers all year you won’t know what an amazing passer he is. Or how much more polished than advertised his post game is. Or how great he is at rebounding and defense. His absolute worst case scenario is Shawn Kemp with his head screwed on straight; at his best case he could be the next Karl Malone once he improves his jumper from good to great (you’re damn right I just went into mailman territory). He’s already a top-20 player and will be a top 10 guy within the next two years. Blake is that good. But as great as he’ll be over the next 12 years, there will still be nothing like his first season; just like everything in life, there is nothing like the first time experiencing something. Blake could accomplish the most spectacular feats in his career but I’ll always remember the shock and awe from seeing him take the league by storm before we knew what to expect.

5. Kevin Durant – Not too much to say other than that he continued being awesome at basketball, awesome in terms of competitiveness and demeanor, and awesome off the court. Now for the first time in the playoffs he’s going in with a team that can legitimately win it all. To what new level will he ascend once May and June arrive? We’ll see, but I can’t wait to find out.

4. Dwight Howard – I get exponentially more exasperated every time I hear another person decry Dwight for not living up to his potential. What more do you want? He’s a transcendent rebounder/defender that commands a double team in the post (if we’re going to talk about Rose’s improved perimeter game why does Dwight never get credit for expanding his post game this year and becoming a guy through whom Orlando can run its offense) and singlehandedly elevates a severely flawed team to sleeper contender status. How many guys in history could ever turn a team with Gilbert Arenas, Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson, and Hedo Turkoglu into a top ten rebounding and defensive team? The notion that he’s holding anything back and isn’t a transcendent player is utter nonsense to me. Orlando has major holes but they can still sneak into the finals if they duplicate their 2009 performance, with all their shooters getting hot and Dwight slicing through every opposing big man thrown at him. It’s not likely, but don’t rule it out; D12 is that good.

3. Derrick Rose – I’ve been on the opposing his MVP candidacy all season – but that doesn’t have to prevent me from appreciating how great his year has been. He’s basically turned into a 6-3 Lebron (even if he’s not quite at that level defensively yet we have no reason to believe he won’t eventually get there). Nothing beats seeing a guy who put in the work over the summer because he wanted to be the best more than anything and carried his team through thick and thin, pushing his team higher than anyone expected faster than anyone expected. The Bulls win primarily with defense but Rose’s leadership and ability to turn a team full of mostly defensive specialists into a borderline top-ten offensive outfit can’t be ignored. I don’t have him as the MVP but I have enjoyed watching his growth this year as much as I’ve ever enjoyed any players season.

(Quick tangent: another thing I’m going to love about these playoffs is seeing the MVP winner defend his title. I love seeing MVP’s prove it in the playoffs, as well as seeing guys use the playoffs to try to exact revenge on the guy who got thee award, a la Hakeem in ’95, Jordan in ’93 and ’97, Shaq in 2001, etc. There’s a good chance Chicago will meet Miami and Orlando in the playoffs. Consider the gauntlet thrown down – will Rose validate the voters? Or will Lebron and/or Dwight use May and June to show who really deserved it? Stay tuned).

2. Dirk Nowitzki – I’ve had him as my MVP all year and I’m sticking to my guns. His shooting percentages are completely off the charts in every way (51% on field goals, 39% from 3’s, 89% from the free throw line; 61% true shooting, 55% effective field goal percentage, both well above his career averages); his clutch stats (50% field goal percentage in the last five minutes of close games, takes the most clutch free throws and makes them at the highest rate) are the best in the league. But the stats don’t tell it all with Dirk. Watch them and you’ll immediately see that they play 2 on 5 offensively (his only other non-offensively challenged starter is Jason Terry, a defensive sieve that would barely start for most other title contenders), causing Dirk to receive more defensive attention than ever before. On paper this should be a 38 win team that struggles to get to 80 points, but Dirk’s just been so fantastic in carrying them farther than their talent dictates. His unique ability to create offense despite so little help on that end has kept them afloat as a title contender and allows them to get away with playing guys like Shawn Marion and Tyson Chandler (and yes, I understand that Rose’s offense also allows Chicago to do the same. My counter: Rose’s teammates are SIGNIFICANTLY better on defense than any of Dallas’s defensive specialists, and his teammates provide way more offense). Even Dirk’s oft-criticized defense and rebounding have been more than passable this year. To me the bottom line is that nobody shouldered a bigger load this year than Dirk; if you took away the best player from every title contender the Mavericks would suffer the most. Sounds like the MVP to me.

1a. Lebron James and Dwayne Wade – Criticize the decision show all you want, but don’t tell me that Lebron and Wade are uncompetitive and won’t win in the playoffs. I would honestly have no problem with either of these guys being named MVP because they both have had spectacular individual seasons and are still the two best players in the league. I just think it’s bullshit that Lebron could average a quintuple double and Wade could get 60 points and 20 assists/game and neither of them would get a single first place vote because “they have each other”. That’s the voters for you.

As for their playoff prospects, I have the Heat coming out of the East, and here’s why: in the regular season you need consistency and depth, and you can win by outhustling everybody. The playoffs are a different animal – everybody is going all out, and it comes down to who can reach the highest level and has the biggest extra gear when it counts. Miami has the two best players on the floor every night – that’s monumentally more important in June than in February. If Lebron and Wade are just shooting jumpers then you get diminishing returns, but if Lebron and Wade are ready to pull the Jordan/Pippen routine from ’98, when those guys were able to beat bigger, taller teams by driving to the cup every time, willing themselves to the rim, drawing fouls, creating easier shots and points for everyone else, and owning the paint, then Miami will win and win big. I mean, if Lebron and Wade do take it upon themselves to drive it every single time down (and in the playoffs both of these guys have regularly done that in the past) then who’s stopping them? Even the best big men can’t dominate if Lebron and Wade are drawing fouls every trip down. Everyone claims you can’t run in the playoffs but A. it’s never been tried with this kind of talent and B. Even in the half court Miami can be damn near unstoppable when Lebron and Wade are being aggressive. Some of their pick and roll sets with any 2 of the big 3 are downright devastating in the half court. In the playoffs you need to be able to take over games and score easy points when it matters; Miami has the two guys that do that as well as anyone. In terms of other areas, Miami is elite defensively; their aggressive rotations are pristine, and their length and athleticism allows them to force plenty of turnovers. Their biggest weakness is on the glass, and they could potentially lose because they can’t get rebounds when they need it, but I think they’re so good elsewhere that they’ll win.

1. Kobe Bryant – This season it became obvious that he’s dipped. He’s still a top five player but he has to work so much harder for his points and can’t be the same lockdown defender. But the fact that he can still carry a title contender at this point is remarkable. I don’t care how the Lakers have looked in the past week and a half – they’re still the two-time defending champs, they’re still the biggest and most talented team, they’re still unbeatable when Bynum is healthy and/or Odom plays well, and they still know how to win and turn it on when they really need to. I’m not betting against Kobe and the Lakers.

Regular Season Awards:

MVP: Dirk Nowitzki

Coach of the Year: Gregg Poppovich

Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard

Most Improved Player: Lamarcus Aldridge

Executive of the Year: Sam Presti

Playoff Picks:

Round 1: Bulls over Pacers in 5, Heat over 76ers in 5, Knicks over Celtics in 6, Magic over Hawks in 5, Spurs over Grizzlies in 6, Lakers over Hornets in 4, Mavericks over Blazers in 7, Sonics over Nuggets in 7

Round 2: Bulls over Magic in 6, Heat over Knicks in 5, Spurs over Sonics in 7, Lakers over Mavericks in 6

Round 3: Heat over Bulls in 6, Lakers over Spurs in 6

Finals: Lakers over Heat in 7

Finals MVP: Pau Gasol

So on the eve of the playoffs I’m submitting this recap and waxing poetic on the greatest season ever. At this point there’s nothing more to say except thanks for the memories NBA!!!!