I always wait until the final day of the season to make up my mind on my official NBA ballot choices.
Because during the lockout-shortened NBA season in 1999, I was in San Antonio covering a forgettable game at the Alamodome when I spoke with a veteran writer for a national publication who had already submitted his ballot after only 44 of the 50 games had been played.
I asked him, and I asked myself … “What’s the rush?”
I was working at the Associated Press in those days, and the AP does not allow its writers to vote for national awards (same rule applies at The New York Times). But after I left AP and went to ESPN, I became a national voter both for regular season and postseason awards.
In 2010, I was one of three voters to cast a vote for Pau Gasol as NBA Finals MVP – not for what he had done over the course of the series, but for what he had done over the course of the final five minutes of Game 7, outplaying Kevin Garnett and making every big play on both the offensive and defensive ends. Kobe Bryant (who won the award) had been a better player over the course of the seven-game series, but he was abysmal in Game 7 to the point that Michael Jordan’s son called him out on Twitter and said any and all comparisons with MJ should hereby cease.
Nobody was more valuable than Gasol at the end of that Game 7. So I waited to measure “value.”
It is a relative team, sometimes impacted in Game 72.
And “valuable” is the operative word.
Metta World Peace had a better all-around Game 7 in 2010, but when there was a championship to be won or lost, Gasol was unquestionably the most valuable player.
Going into that game, I was 99 percent certain I would vote for Bryant if the Lakers won. But that’s why you wait until the end to make up your mind. Sometimes something happens at the end that allows you to see the bigger picture, hereby placing greater value on the word “value.” And place greater value on the term “one percent.”
Such is the case this season as I file this column after having just hit the “SEND” button on my official ballot. (Thanks to the NBA for holding this site in such high esteem. I guess 20 years in the biz is worth something, eh?)
And to save you the suspense, I’ll tell you that my last-day change of heart came on my MVP ballot when I made my choise for second place.
Here is the ballot:
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
- LeBron James, Miami Heat. That was the greatest statistical season of his career, one of the most efficient we’ll ever see. Check this out: He went a whole month without shooting below 50 percent in a game. He shot under 40 percent just four times – and above 80 percent four times. He bailed his team out countless times when they lollygagged through the first 45 minutes – even during their 27-game winning streak. Lastly, remember what we were all saying about him exactly one year ago? “Show me!” Well, he’s shown us since then, hasn’t he. Should be the unanimous pick.
- Carmelo Anthony, New York Knicks. I had him third in the MVP rankings I posted this past Sunday. If I had cast my ballot that day, he would have gone in as No. 3. And then I began thinking about it. And about the word “value.” He has taken the Knicks to the No. 2 seed in the East, he is going to win the scoring title, his team is the only legitimate threat to the Heat in the Eastern Conference, and the Knicks would be the Bucks without him. Bottom line: The Knicks showed more improvement this season than the Thunder, and ‘Melo was the reason.
- Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder. Yes, he is a much more efficient offensive player than Carmelo, and it isn’t even close. Yes, he is the most unguardable player in the NBA. Yes, he is becoming the fifth member of the 50-40-90 club. And yes, his team improved on its .712 winning percentage from a year ago and took the No. 1 seed in the West. I’ll be the first to tell you he is a better player than Carmelo Anthony. But was he more valuable this season? No. If he was as valuable to the Thunder as Anthony is to the Knicks, he wouldn’t have taken 97 fewer shots than Russell Westbrook.
- Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs. Back during the 2007 NBA Finals, an ESPN.com writer (not myself) voted for Duncan as Finals MVP. The other nine votes went to Tony Parker, who had singlehandedly killed the Cavs. I got the ESPN.com vote soon thereafter. Back then, Duncan seemed to be on the downside of what had been a great career. That was six years ago. This season, the guy with the classic cars in his garage somehow found the Fountain of Youth … and serenity. Dude shot 81 percent from the line – an astounding achievement given his career struggles at the stripe. His scoring went up 2.4 points. He blocked nearly twice as many shots as a year ago.
- James Harden, Houston Rockets. I had him at No. 10 in the MVP ranks on Sunday, so this represents another of those last-minute revelations. When you talk about “value” to a team – especially a team that exceeded expectations more than any other – you have to put this guy in the conversation. He is the embodiment of a “max” player in an era when the list of players making max money does not include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh. The Thunder will rue the day they traded him, forever and ever and ever …
COACH OF THE YEAR
- George Karl, Denver Nuggets. It came down to a choice between him and Frank Vogel, and it was not an easy choice. The list of viable candidates this season is at least 10 names long, including two guys (P.J. Carlesimo and Lionel Hollins) who could be on the unemployment line by the end of May. Karl has guided a team with no superstars to the best home record in the NBA (39-3) and a No. 3 seed that is no small accomplishment given the talent of the teams that finished fourth, fifth and sixth. They are second in scoring, second in rebounding and third in assists. And unlike the Pacers, they are a pleasure to watch.
- Frank Vogel, Indiana Pacers. I like watching his team play. It helps me get to sleep. There should be a special rule this season that they have to play all of their playoff games at 10:30 p.m. EDT so that folks on my side of the country do not have to spend the next two months arriving at work groggy and sleep-deprived each morning. But in all seriousness, getting his team the No. 3 seed with their signature “smashmouth” style and without Danny Granger was an extraordinary accomplishment. I think he is going to end up winning the award because he will be on nearly every ballot.
- Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat. We take 27-game winning streaks pretty seriously around here, and it is not lost on us when a defending champion performs with the swagger and dominance befitting a defending champion. At some point in January or February, somebody got to these guys and told them to get their heads out of their asses. Maybe it was Pat Riley. Maybe it was Spoelstra. I do know this: Spoelstra is the one who has convinced Dwyane Wade to refine his game to its optimal efficiency levels. That’s why Wade doesn’t shoot threes anymore.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
- Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers. If/when Billy King loses his job as general manager of the Brooklyn Nets, the reason will be because he failed to get Dwight Howard, which was the job he was given to do. But the Yormarks of the world will also bring up the fact that he acquired Gerald Wallace from Portland with the pick that was used to take Lillard, who will come within a whisker of leading the entire NBA in minutes played. The ROY vote should be unanimous, too, but did you hear the one about Ron Boone, Deron Williams and Chris Paul? It is a good tale from back in the day when Channing Frye finished well ahead of D-Will in ROY voting.
- Anthony Davis, New Orleans Hornets. Sticking with the unanimity theme, there have been just three unanimous Rookies of the Year – Ralph Sampson (1984), David Robinson (1990) and Blake Griffin (2011). Who ‘dat holding a ballot in NOLA? The kid has looked better and better as the year has gone on, and he’ll be the best center in the NBA by his fourth season. But he can’t hold a candle to the steady production Lillard brought to the table. Score one for the folks who think the best rookies spend four years as collegians.
- Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards. Overcame a shaky start to justify his No. 3 draft selection and solidify his reputation as a premier shooting guard, averaging almost 14 points while shooting .484 from the arc after Jan. 1. There was some vacillating here over whether to give a No. 3 vote to Pablo Prigioni, whose elevation to the starting lineup coincided with the Knicks’ late surge. But Beal, Prigioni and Andre Drummond (another Should I? candidate) all had limited roles at different times.