By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 20, 2006 10:54 AM
The regular season comes to a close tonight and what have we learned? That the dress code was the most overblown non-story of the season. That thanks to Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Allen Iverson men don't have to be ashamed to wear tights anymore -- until next season when the league cracks down and begins fining players for embracing their inner ballerina. And, that the league was too concerned with dress codes and tights to actually make a playoff seeding system that makes sense.
Not much changed from the preseason, when many predicted a rematch of the Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals. The Pistons made a brief run at 70 wins before they got bored with being too far ahead of the pack. The Spurs tied a franchise record for wins with the Desperate Point Guard, Tony Parker, leading the way but looked less than imposing with Tim Duncan and tazmanian devil Manu Ginobili limping through much of the season.
The New York Knicks crashed and burned in one of the greatest fiascos in the history of sports. How the highest paid team in the NBA -- by more than $20 million -- coached by a Hall of Fame coach could possibly finish with the league's second-worst record is unthinkable. Can you imagine the New York Yankees stockpiling talent and finishing with a worse record than the Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates? That's exactly what happened in New York, where the team president (Isiah Thomas) was sued for sexual harassment, the Hall of Fame head coach (Larry Brown) feuded with the star (Stephon Marbury), the star feuded with his teammates, his teammates feuded with the Hall of Fame coach and each other, the owner (James Dolan) said winning wasn't an "integral" part of the plan, and losses mounted until the Hall of Fame coach got sick to his stomach.
Pat Riley stepped down from his office above the Miami Heat practice court to start running practice again as head coach after family man Stan Van Gundy resigned. The manchild LeBron James took another step toward earning the crown as King when he led the Cleveland Cavaliers into the postseason for the first time in eight years. Kobe Bryant provided the season's signature moment when he scored 81 points against the Toronto Raptors, a remarkable feat when you consider the Raptors are an actual NBA team. Ron Artest had his annual meltdown and sabotaged the Indiana Pacers once again when he demanded a trade in December and had his wish granted in January. He then single-handedly turned the stale Sacramento Kings into a dangerous playoff team and helped Shareef Abdur-Rahim end the longest futility streak in the NBA and advance to the playoffs for the first time in his career. The Pacers, on the other hand, crumbled in the second half of the season and barely made the playoffs in the worse-than-anticipated Eastern Conference.
The D finally arrived in Dallas as the Mavericks won 60 games -- good enough for the fourth seed in the wacky Western Conference, where only teams with winning records make the playoffs (are you taking notes, East?) and the sixth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers will have homecourt advantage in the first round against the Northwest Division champion Denver Nuggets because of a bizarre glitch in the NBA's playoff seeding. (The three division champions are awarded the top three seeds regardless of record and if a lower seeded team has a better record than the division champion, it will have homecourt advantage in the playoffs). Hard to pinpoint what was crazier, having to explain the seeds in the West or writing that the Clippers were in the playoffs.
But enough of the lame rehash. Here are the postseason awards.Rookie of the Year
Chris Paul, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets
In last summer's NBA draft, Paul was passed over by three teams -- four if you count Portland, which traded down -- and landed in the laps of the Hornets, who desperately wanted him all along. He was the classic pass-first point guard, who focused on making his teammates better, sharing the ball and taking over games offensively on an as-needed basis. The Hornets have had to overcome so much this season after Hurricane Katrina forced them to leave their home in New Orleans and seek refuge in Oklahoma City. Paul simply formed a solid fan base in two cities, giving both home towns a reason to cheer, as he kept a Hornets team that won 18 games last season in playoff contention until the final month of the season. He averaged 16.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 7.8 assists in rookie campaign that rivaled many of the all-time greats at his position -- Jason Kidd, Isiah Thomas, Magic Johnson and Bob Cousy.
Runners-up: Charlie Villanueva, Toronto Raptors; Raymond Felton, Charlotte BobcatsCoach of the Year
Avery Johnson, Dallas Mavericks
Not an easy choice with Flip Saunders taking over for Larry Brown and leading the Pistons to a franchise record in wins, Phil Jackson guiding a mediocre Lakers team into the playoffs, Mike Dunleavy changing the Clippers' culture of losing, Byron Scott leading what many considered one of the worst rosters in the league into a playoff contender for most of the season and Mike D'Antoni keeping Phoenix among the league's elite despite bringing in seven new players and losing Amare Stoudemire for practically the entire season. That being said, the choice is Avery Johnson, who brought a defensive mindset to the Mavericks in his first season in Dallas. Once a high-scoring team deficient in defense, the Mavericks have shown the ability to lock down opponents on occasion this season. Johnson was able to maximize the talents of players such as DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier and Adrian Griffin, and he kept the Mavericks in contention for the league's best record for most of the season despite being ravaged by injuries. Plus, is there a better post-game interview in the NBA?
Runners-up: Mike D'Antoni, Phoenix Suns; Byron Scott, New Orleans/Oklahoma City HornetsDefensive Player of the Year
Ron Artest, Sacramento Kings
He didn't play enough games, you say? How can he be rewarded for what he did to Indiana? None of that makes any difference when you take into consideration how dire the situation in Sacramento was before the gambling Maloof brothers rolled the dice on Artest. The Kings were foundering in last place in the Pacific Division, six games below .500 and serving up lay-up lines on a nightly basis. Artest arrived and completely changed the identity of the team, giving it a toughness and defensive intensity that had been lacking since, well, the team played in Kansas City. The Kings went 26-14 with Artest in the lineup and made dramatic improvements on defense, with opponent scoring dropping from over 100 points per game to around 94. That was solely because Artest's "infinite intensity" -- the words he used to explain his reasons for wearing No. 93 -- on defense, which has become contagious. The Kings could be dangerous in the postseason.
Runners-up: Shawn Marion, Phoenix Suns; Andrei Kirilenko, Utah Jazz.Sixth Man of the Year
Mike Miller, Memphis Grizzlies
Miller Time didn't end when Reggie Miller retired. Mike Miller has taken the title, serving as the sharpshooting momentum changer for the underrated Memphis Grizzlies. Miller averaged 13.8 points and shot 40.7 percent from beyond the three-point line this season. He scored a career-high 41 points in a win against Denver on March 17, torched the Wizards at MCI Center on Jan. 22 and recorded his first career triple-double when he had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a win against Sacramento on Jan. 10. Miller had the award locked up before the Grizzlies sent out an awesome promotion for his sixth man campaign -- a box of M&Ms in Grizzlies colors with Miller's picture and stats on the side. That sealed it.
Runners-up: Speedy Claxton, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets; Jerry Stackhouse, Dallas MavericksMost Improved Player of the Year
Boris Diaw, Phoenix Suns
The knock on Diaw in his first two seasons in Atlanta was that he was afraid to shoot. Diaw would often drive into the lane, lift the ball toward the rim, then toss a no-look pass to an unsuspecting teammate who was preparing to box out for a rebound. Diaw frustrated coaches Terry Stotts and Mike Woodson for his maddening passion for passing and reluctance to score. That was not going to work in Phoenix, where Coach Mike D'Antoni's system not only encourages shooting, it mandates it. After showing only flashes of his all-around skills in Atlanta, Diaw was dumped to Phoenix as a throw-away in a deal that put Joe Johnson in a Hawks uniform. He has risen with the Suns. Playing the role of point center, Diaw freed Steve Nash of some of the decision-making on offense, tossing lobs for Shawn Marion and averaged 13.3 points -- almost three times his scoring average in Atlanta -- 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists.
Runners-up: David West, New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets; Chris Kaman, Los Angeles ClippersMost Valuable Player
Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers
Reigning MVP Steve Nash was the front-runner, but the Suns finished the regular season rather quietly. While Nash was instrumental to the Amare Stoudemire-less Suns winning the Pacific Division, he often gets too much credit for his team's success. Is he solely responsible for making every player in Phoenix better, like some puppeteer with strings? Or does Coach Mike D'Antoni's system deserve some credit? And, has anyone ever heard of Shawn Marion? He averaged almost 22 points, 12 rebounds and two steals this season. He also happens to be a three-time all-star -- including once before Nash joined the Suns -- and he plays defense. Nash leads the league in assists at 10.5 and his averaging a career-high 18.9 points, but what makes his season truly special? Nothing, really.
And consider this list of multiple MVP award winners: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6), Michael Jordan (5), Bill Russell (5), Wilt Chamberlain (4), Moses Malone (3), Larry Bird (3), Magic Johnson (3), Bob Pettit (2), Karl Malone (2) and Tim Duncan (2). Nash has been good, but is he really in that class as a player?
It's really hard to just hand Nash the award again when LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have had two of the best statistical seasons in the history of the NBA. At just 21, James is about to become the fourth player to ever average 31 points, 7 rebounds and 6 assists. He has been masterful the past month in leading the Cleveland Cavaliers into the playoffs for the first time in eight years. The Cavs are within range of 50 wins despite missing Larry Hughes for 45 games. They'd surely have more wins if Hughes were healthy. James leads the league in minutes and ranks second in efficiency rating. Any other year, James would be the obvious selection for league MVP.
But after much deliberation and debate, the choice for MVP is very obvious: Kobe Bryant. This season, Bryant has emerged at the game's most complete and dominant player. In leading the Los Angeles Lakers into the playoffs, Bryant did what most considered impossible at the beginning of the season. He has, by far, the weakest supporting cast of any MVP candidate. And perhaps no one in consideration could've led this team into the postseason. When Smush Parker and Kwame Brown are your third-and-fourth best options on offense, you really shouldn't be that good.
But Bryant assumed the role as the Lakers designated scorer, sprinkled in a little defense -- something neither James nor Nash did -- and made it work. He emerged as the greatest one-man show in the league, averaging 35.4 points -- the most since Michael Jordan averaged 37.1 points in 1988 (when Jordan won his first MVP trophy) and the ninth-highest single-season scoring average in NBA history.
Here's another list to consider: Chamberlain, Jordan, Rick Barry, Elgin Baylor and Bryant. After this season, they will go down as the only five players in NBA history to average at least 35 points in a single season. Chamberlain did it five times. Jordan did it twice. Barry and Baylor did it once. Now Bryant. That's it. That's dominance.
And no player has had a greater imprint on the regular season than Bryant. He scored 62 points in three quarters against Dallas, and recorded the second-highest scoring outburst in NBA history when he scored 81 points against Toronto. Anyone who raises the possibility of scoring 100 points in a game, should have the MVP trophy shipped immediately.
The Lakers can win only 45 games at best, which would be the fewest victories for an MVP since Abdul-Jabbar's Lakers won 40 games in 1975-76. Some would argue that Bryant shouldn't win because he doesn't make his teammates better, but how much better could this Lakers team be? The Lakers weren't exactly considered a playoff team when the season began. And, while no one was paying attention, Parker is having a career year and Lamar Odom and Brown got better as the season progressed, with Brown playing the best basketball of his career in the past six weeks, benefitting from the Bryant double- and triple-teams.
In addition to his exploits on the court, Bryant made up with Shaquille O'Neal and mended fences with Phil Jackson. This truly was his year. With the league watered down and talent spread out over 30 teams, few teams can truly be great anymore. But Individual greatness cannot be overlooked. Bryant has been the best of the best this season.
Runners-up: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers; Steve Nash, Phoenix Suns; Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas Mavericks; Chauncey Billups, Detroit PistonsAll NBA First Team
F Dirk Nowitzki
F LeBron James
C Shaquille O'Neal
G Steve Nash
G Kobe BryantSecond Team
F Shawn Marion
F Elton Brand
C Yao Ming
G Dwyane Wade
G Chauncey BillupsThird Team
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony
C Ben Wallace
G Tony Parker
G Gilbert Arenas