By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, April 17, 2008
You don't need any kind of statistical formula to determine the NBA's most valuable player this season. You don't need plus-minus rating or an MVP index. You don't need to deal with scoring and rebounding leaders or triple-doubles or even victory differential.
The regular season that concluded last night will be remembered primarily for having the deepest and most competitive conference field in league history. Only three games separate the top six teams in the Western Conference, and at the top of the heap, by however narrow the margin, sit the Los Angeles Lakers. Winning that race, in my book, makes Kobe Bryant, for the first time in his career, the league MVP.
Until now, Bryant might have been the most outstanding player; certainly he has been the most fabulous and most artistic player . . . but not the most valuable. He wasn't a good enough teammate . . . until now. It's been the only weakness in his game, though a glaring one, until this season. But after years of post-Shaq postseason failure and a summer of contentious trade demands, Bryant had a revelation. He and nobody else had to lead the Lakers if they were going to be championship contenders again. And he did. For the first time in his career he was, night in and night out, a great teammate, more encouraging, more patient, more tolerant, more selfless than he had ever been or probably thought he could be. As helpful as the acquisition of Pau Gasol was, it couldn't have gone so smoothly without Bryant embracing Gasol and taking the lead to incorporate him into the team.
Late Tuesday night, after the Lakers had beaten Sacramento to wrap up the No. 1 spot in the Western Conference, Kings Coach Reggie Theus said quite simply, "This has been Kobe's best year as a teammate."
The players, the coaches, pretty much everybody in the Lakers' organization started the year thinking this could be a miserable season and Kobe turned it into something of a dream season. Okay, the No. 1 seed guarantees you nothing in the Western Conference this year. While the Lakers will be favored, they will have to go through an eighth-seeded Denver team with Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. But this is a regular season award exclusively, and Bryant led his team to the most impressive achievement of the regular season: winning the West.
For weeks, while the New Orleans Hornets sat atop that conference, I said the MVP, at the time, was Chris Paul. He's the best point guard in the league, period. If somebody had said the Hornets would finish with the second-best record in the toughest conference ever, that statement would have been met with laughter. Paul has a nice running mate in David West but no proven beast of a veteran teammate. Tyson Chandler dunks and rebounds like Wilt some nights, and it's only because of the sublime way Paul sets him up. The Hornets, at times, went schoolyard bully on the Spurs and Suns.
So why Bryant over Paul?
The final eight days of the season. The Hornets suffered a bad loss to Utah in New Orleans, lost to the Lakers and lost at lottery-bound Sacramento.
Yes, we're splitting hairs. But in a race this close, that's what it comes down to. Bryant's team overtook Paul's team at the wire, and won the West . . . and the MVP.
What about Kevin Garnett, who returned the Boston Celtics to prominence with the greatest single-season turnaround in NBA history?
I'm putting him third, behind Bryant and Paul. The Western Conference is superior. It's not KG's fault the East is so weak. But it's a factor in deciding who had a more difficult challenge on a nightly basis.
It would be insane to argue against Paul or Garnett; their seasons were too impressive, almost without flaw. Still, it's Kobe, Paul, KG, Tracy McGrady, LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire, in that order, for MVP.
The coach-of-the-year consideration is just as difficult, but the Celtics' Doc Rivers is my choice, narrowly, over the Hornets' Byron Scott.
Scott is undoubtedly the most underrated coach in the NBA. He led the Nets to consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, yet more credit went to Jason Kidd and a certain assistant coach with a mind for wonderful offense, Eddie Jordan. The Nets have dropped off the face of the earth since Scott left. What, it's a coincidence that he shows up in New Orleans and the Hornets start winning big?
Still, probably the toughest thing a coach has to do in professional basketball is manage egos, and anytime you have three stars as big as Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce you've got the potential for difficulty. Yet, the Celtics had none. It was Rivers who coaxed a very nice season out of neophyte point guard Rajon Rondo, who easily could have been overwhelmed in such a situation. And Rivers put ego aside -- don't you wish the Warriors' Don Nelson would try that just once? -- and turned over his defense to assistant Tom Thibodeau, and all the Celtics did was play the best defense in the league this year.
So, it's Rivers, Scott, Houston's Rick Adelman (whose team won an astounding 22 straight, 10 of them without his best player, Yao Ming), and the Wizards' Jordan (whose team could have collapsed without Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler for much of the season).
My most improved player is Orlando's Hedo Turkoglu (up from 11.8 points a game to 19.6 and the best all-court player on No. 3 seed Orlando) and my rookie of the year is Atlanta's Al Horford, who averaged nearly 10 rebounds and 10 points a game while shooting 50 percent for a team that finally came in from the wilderness to make the playoffs.
Another more difficult call is the executive of the year. Let's hope Kobe has knocked on the door of GM Mitch Kupchak and thanked him for pulling off the greatest talent heist since Red Auerbach got Kevin McHale and Robert Parish for Joe Barry Carroll when Kupchak sent nuisance Kwame Brown to Memphis for all-star Gasol. After being berated for what he hadn't done the past two years, Kupchak kept Bryant, kept young center Andrew Bynum, reacquired Derek Fisher and swapped Brown for Gasol. It's very impressive.
Yet, my vote goes to GM Danny Ainge, who reshaped the Celtics by trading for Garnett, Allen and James Posey last summer and then getting Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown after the trade deadline. The Celtics are the team that finished with the best record in the league. The Celtics are the best team going into the playoffs. When asked why he didn't stump for his own player, Garnett, for league MVP, Rivers said the other day he didn't need to, that the Celtics were playing for a more significant award, one that is shared by the team and not owned by a single player -- the Lawrence O'Brien Trophy awarded to the NBA champion, the trophy Rivers and Garnett hope to hold come June.