Regular Season Awards and Playoff Picks
Let's get the easiest calls out of the way first. The Pistons will require no more than five games to dispatch the Bucks and Chris Paul is the NBA Rookie of the Year.
The second-easiest pair? Dallas over Memphis in no more than six games (and I'd wager five) and Flip Saunders as Coach of the Year, an obvious choice despite the reputation-enhancing jobs turned in by Avery Johnson in Dallas, Mike D'Antoni in Phoenix, and Scott Skiles in Chicago.
Well, everyone claims the combo of Phil Jackson and Kobe Bryant is going to give the Phoenix Suns fits, but I think the only way that happens is if Lamar Odom gets really engaged--the way he used to in Miami--playing the nonstop uptempo style that will define this series, and pairs with Kobe to simply overwhelm the Suns. And I don't think either Kobe or Odom care enough about the other to let that occur. Phoenix in 5, with Kobe averaging nearly 40 points and six assists per game.
Aside from the Lakers, the New Jersey Nets are the most overrated team in the playoffs, and if they'd had the misfortune to play the Bulls, who match up with them across the board, they'd be gone in the first round. Fortunately for Jay-Z and the boyz, their opponent is Indiana, a dysfunctional crew now featuring one of the great chokers of the postseason in Peja and a number-two guy masquerading as a number-one guy in Jermaine O'Neal. The series will go five, maybe six, but this win is as far as NJ is going to go.
For Sixth Man of the Year, I had grudgingly decided to give up to Mike Miller of Memphis, who is unselfish and underrated--a great shooter who doesn't gun, tries to defend well and comes off the bench happily--when I read the Strib's Steve Aschburner name Antonio McDyess for the honor. And he's right. Detroit has a very thin bench, but without McDyess to spell the Wallaces, they wouldn't be nearly as primed to close in a potential second crown in three years. In fact I'd wager they wouldn't have home court advantage in the Finals. Like Miller, McDyess is a humble pro who sublimates himself for his team and enables the Pistons to rest key people without a bump in either their style or their quality of play (in short spurts anyway).
The last medium-hard pick is Miami over Chicago, again in five or six, maybe seven. I love the way the Bulls have pulled together this season, and they have the players to frustrate the Heat's top two. Specifically, put Luol Dong on Dwyane Wade and Tyson Chandler as the main man in the bevy of bigs versus Shaq and Miami will be struggling to move on. And if Antoine Walker takes it upon himself to be the main man by default, the Bulls might even spring the upset. Eventually, I think Wade and Shaq can overcome, but all those off-season moves and the return of Pat Riley still don't make the Heat nearly as formidable as they appeared to be last season.
Okay, here are the tough calls, from easiest to hardest.
San Antonio over Sacramento in 6 or 7.
This will be a far cry from your usual #1-versus-#8 cakewalk. Having gone to the finals twice in a row, and having paced themselves through much of the regular season, the Spurs, despite themselves, are going to take the Kings lightly. San Antonio will win because Tony Parker is simply too fast for Mike Bibby and because Tim Duncan and Nazr Muhammad can ultimately reign in the low block. But since acquiring Ron Artest in a heist (so long as he stays sane) for Peja, the Kings have a fine, playoff-simpatico squad, as both Artest and Brad Miller love to bang and the Kings have folks like Bonzie Wells and Shareff Abdur-Raheim to keep Bruce Bowen from guarding Bibby.
Bowen is a monster on D, but I believe Marcus Camby is NBA Defender of the Year in a close call over Ben Wallace, Bowen, and Ron Artest, in that order.
I understand that Cleveland and Washington are currently playing even as I write this, and I purposefully haven't checked the score before calling it for the Cavs in a wild 6 or 7 game series. This is the true suck-it-up time for LeBron, but also for Gilbert Arenas--whichever star shines brightest among these two, that's whose team will triumph. Secondly, Washington simply doesn't play enough defense to win in the playoffs, even against a deeply flawed team like Cleveland.
That leaves us with the the Clippers versus the Nuggets and the MVP Award. These are the toughest calls for me because of the frequency with which I've changed my mind. I've literally thought up good scenarios for both the Clips and the Nugs winning, and justified no fewer than three MVP picks. Let's get the individual award out of the way first.
It won't be Kobe Bryant, who doesn't even make my top five. Think the Lakers would have made the playoffs without Phil Jackson? If not--and I don't--how can you justify picking Kobe?
4th Place--Chauncey Billups. Yeah, the Pistons are the "ultimate team" and all that stuff, but where would they be with Carlos Arroyo running with the other starting four? I know that Carmelo Anthony (my 5th place pick) has been a god with the game on the line, but absolutely nobody is more important to their team in the last four minutes of a game than Billups is to the Pistons. He controls the dribble, he isn't afraid to take the shot, he's deadly enough at the line that opponents commit suicide if they foul him, and he can defend out on the perimeter (that last attitribute is Larry Brown's greatest contribution to the Piston franchise).
3rd Place--Dirk Nowitzki. No more jokes about how he can't defend anybody. I don't buy the argument that Dirk doesn't play with quality teammates--Josh Howard is among the top 20 players in the game right now, and is getting better--but he is unquestionably the leader of this team, and his commitment to improvement on D made Johnson's job much easier and elevated the Mavs to a bona fide championship contender. Oh, and in case you forgot, Nowitzki ranks right up there with Ray Allen as the deadliest outside shooter in the game today.
2nd Place--Steve Nash. Last year I argued vociferously against Nash winning the MVP over Shaq, and I still think it was a stupid call. Sure, Nash was marvelous, but he didn't defend well and he had Amare and Marion and Q Rich and Joe Johnson. I am very comfortable with saying Shaq got robbed last season. But this year, Nash was better, much better, shouldering the burden of playing 3/4 of last year's starting teammates and transforming the likes of Raja Bell and Boris Diaw into very solid NBA players, when Diaw was regarded as a would-be journeyman and Bell was an already-there journeyman. So why isn't Nash the MVP? Because, even if Phoenix didn't disguise it some with its up-and-down style, Steve Nash can't defend.
MVP--LeBron James. What he did when the calendar flipped to spring and the Cavs needed a playoff push was take it to an extra gear, and the league hasn't seen the likes of it since Jordan was in his prime. I suspect that this will be the first of about 7 or 8 MVPs for James before he's through. Will he rank with Jordan as the greatest ever? It depends on how many rings he bags. Without them, if he has the kind of career I imagine for him, he'll have to be content to sit alongside Oscar Robertson a whisker behind Jordan among the premier swingmen in the history of the game. Shit, I should be watching him try and destroy the Wizards right now, so let's finish up.
Nuggets over Clippers in 6 or 7.
On paper, and in my fervid imagination, this is the best first-round playoff matchup since the league expanded the post-season format to 16 teams. Both the Nugs and Clips are deep, resourceful, well-balanced teams led by veteran coaches who have had their ups and downs in the postseason but who know how and when to motivate their personnel. The trade bringing the Nuggets Ruben Patterson and Reggie Evans was a masterstroke that enables Denver to bang and scoot, but I still think Kenyon Martin needs to step up and Eduardo Najera needs to be getting good minutes in the rotation if Denver is going to neutralize Elton Brand, which is a key to their prospects. If Brand gets his 24 and 12 in the normal flow of things, Denver is in trouble, because that means Camby is going to have to help out and that means Chris Kamen will have a chance to get off and get his confidence up. If Camby is allowed to devote a lot of his energy to Kamen, it is going to be a long series for the "Cave Man," whose glorious footwork and admirable work ethic simple can't compensate for Camby's superb defensive prowess (Eddie Griffin can only dream of becoming Camby on D).
Another fascinating matchup could be Sam Cassell and Earl Boykins. Cassell is one of the best in the league at posting up, and Boykins has made a career out of using his extraordinary strength and darting quickness on poke-check steals to discourage opponents backing him down. Cassell is incredibly crafty and loves to take the big shot, but at the other end of the court he has no hope of staying with Boykins. And Andre Miller and Shaun Livington aren't too shabby as the two points I haven't even mentioned, eh?
The return of Corey Maggette--who posted 18 and 11 in the season finale--comes just in time for the Clips, who need someone at the three to make Melo work. No swingman in the game is more adept at getting to the line than Maggette--when healthy, anyway--and a Maggette-Cuttino Mobley tag team on 'Melo is another delicious prospect in a series loaded with enticing matchups. The Clips could easily win this thing for a number of reasons--Brand has been a beast in the low block all season, Cassell craves crunchtime, the Clips have a bunch of threats behind the arc--Mobley, Cassell, Maggette and especially Vlad Radmanovic--and Kamen is sneaky good and indomitible if not checked. I just think the Nugs' superior depth and 'Melo's desire to be considered in the LeBron-Wade conversation will be just enough, despite the lack of home court advantage, for Denver to pull it out.