Midseason Awards: First Trimester
It's the best one word description I can give for this 09-10 season that's almost 1/3rd in the books.
Tell me, in an an economic atmosphere that has led teams to either spend crazily or cut costs with not much gray area in between, did you forsee a league that would be this competitive top to bottom?
Did you predict that the West would go 13 teams deep? Did you see young teams like the Kings, Thunder and Grizzlies, three young, small market clubs making promising Playoff pushes?
Or the Hawks, whose resolved maturity issues have morphed them into legitimate contender status?
What about the Spurs struggling out of the gate? The Blazers regressing? The Bulls sucking? The Wizards totally sucking? Did you have the return of the Titanic Division?
And that brings us to our first trimester awards. To clarify, these are not who will win the award at the end of the season. These awards, handed out by me, are based stricly on the performances of the first third of the season.
So which players are walking away with early season hardware? Without further ado...
Comeback Player of the Year: Jonathan Bender, New York Knicks
Actual NBA award or not, we’re still handing out this much missed accolade that was nixed after the 03-04 season. And whether Bender to the Knicks was an act of charity from Donnie Walsh or not, we’re still going to recognize that this is one heck of a comeback.
Once a tantalizingly promising talent, Bender was forced to retire in February 2006 due to persistent pain in both of his knees. But, through individual workouts with a trainer who overcame a major knee injury to grab the gold medal in the high jump in Atlanta 1996, Bender says the intense bone-on-bone pain has dulled and that he’s ready to resume his career.
Robbed of his former athleticism, Bender has played exclusively on the perimeter in his first two games for the D’Antoni Knicks, netting 20 points and hitting 4-4 from three.
It’s no secret that Walsh, once the biggest Bender admirer of them all, feels some sort of obligation to help out his former player. But, regardless of past history, Bender’s comeback from a three year layoff is one of the League’s early feel good stories of the year and deserves to be noted as such.
Sixth Man of the Year: Jamal Crawford, Atlanta Hawks
With Al Harrington back in the starting lineup for the suddenly not so terrible Knicks, the streaky Crawford has become the favorite to nab the L's top honor for its top reserve.
No longer responsible for facilitating offense like when he was in Chicago and New York, Crawford is able to concentrate solely on what he does best: score the rock. The simplified role has led to career highs in shooting percentage and points per minute, despite playing fewer minutes. Crawford has gone for 20+ points nine times, whereas his main competition, Jason Terry, has accomplished that feat only six times.
But, perhaps most impressive, is that Crawford is finally contributing on a winning team. The Hawks’ legitimacy among the Eastern Conference has been validated, and Crawford has put his stamp. The Bibby-Crawford-Johnson-Smith-Horford lineup is among the League’s best, according to 82games.com.
Like the Hawks as a team pre-season, the addition of Crawford was largely met with a sheepish shrug by the pundits. A third of the way into the season, however, the Hawks are the team nobody wants to face in the Playoffs, and Crawford is the surprise favorite for Sixth Man.
GM of the Year: Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets
No Yao, no T-Mac, no real center, no national TV appearances, no problem for Daryl Morey, the League’s most savvy and resourceful general manager.
The evidence of Morey’s genius could not be more clear than it is this season. Despite having
their two combined $38 million superstars in sport coats for most of the season, the Rockets have rode a collection of role players to a 16-11 record, which includes an impressive 9-7 record on the road.
Every move that Morey has made, both minor and major, has worked out for Houston. This season’s big move, the de-facto swap of Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest, has given the Rockets a second lock down wing defender to flank Shane Battier. The move also doubles as providing the squad with an improving, versatile perimeter scorer. Smaller acquisitions, such as the second round flyer on Chase Budinger, and the signing of David Anderson, a virtually unknown Aussie big man, have also paid big dividends, adding depth to a team that relies heavily on choosing its matchups wisely.
And armed with McGrady’s massive expiring contract – an asset infinitely more valuable in today’s economic climate – the Rockets could be poised for even bigger things. Considering that the 6-6 Chuck Hayes is starting at center, bigger will probably be better.
Defensive Player of the Year: Gerald Wallace, Charlotte Bobcats
Ordinarily, second in rebounds and 11th in steals probably isn’t enough for a small-market player to take home any DPOY hardware, but Wallace is no ordinary player.
In today’s game where you either have to be obscenely long and/or obscenely wide under the glass, Crash, at the slight build of 6-7 220, is trying to do what no small forward has ever done: win the league’s rebounding title. With more athletic and taller, bigger players on the court now than in any other period in NBA history, Wallace’s rebounding, when placed in context, is arguably the most improbable sustained individual feat thus far.
We just wish that Wallace’s newfound knack for rebounding wouldn’t lead to the highly unnecessary comments about the heart of “certain” Bobcat big men, especially during a time when Charlotte is struggling to mesh together.
For his sake and ours, we can only hope that GW’s recent headaches aren’t permanent after effects of several concussions and that he’ll be healthy enough to continue his run at history.
Coach of the Year: Paul Westphal, Sacramento Kings
There are choices aplenty for this season’s most crowded award field – eight by my count – and, as I sat down to watch last night’s five game slate, I was expecting to further wrestle with the decision until deadline.
Thank you, Chicago, for making this article a little easier.
The Bulls’ 35 point debacle last night amplified the already numerous questions surrounding Vinny Del Negro and his team, but it answered my big question.
Under Westphal’s guidance, the Kings are off to a royally shocking 13-14 start, mostly without their best player, Kevin Martin. The veteran play from rookies Tyreke Evans and Omri Casspi, the development of Jason Thompson as a go-to scorer, the improvements of Beno Udrih, Donte Green, Sergio Rodriguez and Kenny Thomas all are great, but it's been Westphal whose tied everything all together. Despite a handicap in talent, the Kings are playing are protecting home court and playing hard every night. Last night's epic comeback, a game that 99.99999% of teams would have conceded, should prove that fact beyond any reasonable doubt.
Scotty Brooks receives credit for pushing the young Thunder to play defense – good defense – but, their record is consistent with the decent sized pre-season bandwagon that was predicting an eight seed. And Alvin Gentry, who’s remix of the Seven Seconds or Less Suns has everyone nodding their head to the dope beat of a 10-1 home record, deserves praise too.
But, seriously, who had the Kings pegged as a .500 team this deep into the season? And who thought Westphal, who had been out as an NBA head coach for eight years, would be the one to lead it?
Unexpected, to say the least.
Most Improved: Beno Udrih, Sacramento Kings
If you’re still boggled by Sacramento’s early season success (I know I am), then you must be utterly stupefied by the stellar play of Udrih, whose development into a pick and roll maestro has been one biggest non-stories of the season.
Think, last year Udrih was argued by some as the worst starter on the worst team in the League, a case that was furthered when his freshly inked five-year, $33 million contract was also mentioned. To his critics, Udrih didn’t only suck; he was vastly overpaid, too. Knicks fans are staring blankly at the wall right now.
As the old sports chiche goes, "there's always next year." This season, back in a familiar role off the bench, Beno is miraculously playing the best ball of his life, posting Nash-esque percentages of 50-40-85 to compliment 14 points and 4 dimes a game. The improvement has big so large, in fact, that Beno could argue he's the best Slovenian on the planet. With Sasha Vujacic wasting away in Lakerland, Goran Dragic struggling to hang on to the rock in Phoenix, and Primoz Brezec removed from Eddie Jordan's Philly rotation, is there really an argument?
There are players whose improvement is making more of an impact on their team – Josh Smith and Aaron Brooks come to mind – but, nobody has come as far as quickly as Udrih.
Rookie of the Year: Tyreke Evans, Sacramento Kings
Last June, all we heard from Draft pundits is what Tyreke Evans was not. As in, not a distributor, not a jump shooter, and not effective off the ball. In sum, just not a point-guard.
27 games in the season, we’re still talking about what Evans is not, albeit that list is much shorter: Tyreke Evans is not just a Rookie of the Year candidate. He’s a top ten MVP guy, too.
Rounding off the Kings’ impressive Awards Watch treble, Evans has silenced his Draft day detractors and has electrified a franchise that had lacked identity.
As his nickname suggests, ‘Reke Havoc is devastating everything in his path. At 6-6 220 with 6-11 reach, Evans uses his superior physical skills to either overpower smaller guards or out-quick bigger forwards. He's getting the rack, getting to the line, and sometimes keeping defenses honest with a funky looking, yet effective jumper.
Evans joins LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Joe Johnson as the only players to currently average 20-5-5. And, he’s been remarkably consistent to boot, being held to single digits only twice so far.
Brandon Jennings obviously got some serious consideration, but Evans' team is remaining competitive out West and Evans got the advantage in their head to head matchup.
The Kings’ Awards Watch treble should give you an indication at how amazing I think their 13-14 record is considering the pre-season forecast.
MVP: Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Go ahead, point his evolution as the low-post incarnate of Hakeem Olajuwon, or that he’s maintaining the same level of excellence with a broken finger. Or, remind us he’s playing the best ball on a 22-4 Lakers that has looked utterly dominant through large stretches. We won’t argue with you, because they’re all good reasons.
But, other than the post game – which, contrary to what Kobe’s Army was saying, he didn’t have comfortable command of before this year – this is stuff we’re all used to by now from either the 1a or 1b player of the decade.
What makes it all significant, however, is how natural Kobe looks in all of it. For the first time in his career, Mamba looks genuinely comfortable with himself, his coach and with his teammates.
I don’t know if its whether Bryant suddenly “gets it,” as some have suggested, but rather that an MVP, an Olympic gold medal, an NBA Championship and the respect that comes will all of that has taken the edge off.
You could somewhat diminish Kobe’s outstanding first third of the season by pointing to the Lakers’ feather soft early schedule that kept them in the Staples Center for their first 17 of 21 and only nine roadies in through 26, five against sub-.500 clubs. Or to the fact the team has only lost one game since the return of Pau Gasol.
I’ll have to pass on that, though. Kobe has been the league’s best player and has a chance to lead a Lakers squad that could go down for the ages as one of the best ever.
With LeBron James getting increasingly used to his new supporting cast in Cleveland, Kobe has his second MVP far from wrapped up, but for now, he’s the favorite. And as long as the Lakers keep kicking butt, he’ll remain the favorite.