Heat's James prepares to dunk against the Bulls in the first half of their NBA basketball game in Miami

PBT’s NBA season awards: LeBron for MVP is the easy one

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In the NBA, reputations are made and broken in the playoffs — but that is like a different season completely. The NBA gives out its awards based on the regular season. And this season a couple awards are obvious, but a couple could go a lot of different directions.

Here are PBT’s awards for the season (for the record I do not have an official vote).

Most Valuable Player: LeBron James (Miami Heat)

Out of the 123 media votes for MVP somebody is going to pick Kevin Durant, and I can’t wait to hear their explanation. Because as much as someone might be tired of voting for LeBron James, he took his game to another level this season — 26.8 points game on a career best 56.5 percent shooting, he hit 40 percent of his threes, chipped in 8 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. He is the Heat’s best defender, best playmaker (he improved in that area), best post player (allowing them to play small), and go-to scorer — he is clearly the best all around player in the game, leading the team with the best regular season record. He has matured in Miami after leaving home in Cleveland and his game has flourished in a way that we are left trying to compare him and his legacy to stars of era’s past. Because we are in his era.

The rest of my ballot: 2) Kevin Durant; 3) Chris Paul; 4) Carmelo Anthony; 5) Tim Duncan.

Sixth Man of the Year: J.R. Smith (New York Knicks)

Even up to the start of the final weeks of the season, I was thinking I would pick the Clippers super-sub Jamal Crawford here. And if I had to pick one of these guys to create and take the last shot of the game for me, I’d go Crawford. But Smith swung me over to his side with his play down the stretch, particularly when Carmelo Anthony was out — in his last 15 games (before the Wednesday season finale) Smith averaged 23.7 points a game on 50.6 percent shooting, with 6.5 rebounds a game. He can create his own shot, takes and makes difficult shots (not always a good thing but he makes it work), he gets to the rim when he wants, and he provides that scoring spark off the bench the Knicks need. Plus, he provides a little — just a little — more defense than Crawford. It also helps that Smith did his best work down the stretch this season, Crawford was doing his back in December when the Clippers looked like a contender, but they have fallen off sense then.

The rest of my ballot: 2) Jamal Crawford; 3) Jarrett Jack.

Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)

This was the other easy call — Lillard should run away with the voting and deservedly so. If you made me pick what rookie I would want on my roster three years from now other guys would leapfrog Lillard (Anthony Davis and Andre Drummond in particular) but Lillard, after four years in college, came into the NBA better ready to make an immediate impact. Plus he landed in the perfect place to do it, a team that had LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and other talented players looking for a point guard to run the show. Lillard did that showing he could run the pick-and-roll and create shots for himself or others. Lillard averaged 19.1 points and 6.5 assists a game. Lillard also was durable — he is second in the NBA in minutes played, behind only Kevin Durant, and that durability helped separate him from his fellow rookies.

The rest of my ballot: 2) Anthony Davis; 3) Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

Coach of the Year: George Karl (Denver Nuggets)

This is the most difficult call of the postseason awards because you can make a legit case for a lot of guys. Coaches such as Mark Jackson and Mike Woodson are not on my list but if you picked them for Coach of the Year it would be a legitimate call. But I’m going with George Karl because he built a young team not driven by a ball-dominating star — Carmelo Anthony went East and the Nuggets have become a very different kind of team. They run, they share the ball, they don’t settle for jumpers (they led the NBA in points in the paint, 57.7 per game), and the Nuggets made a jump in defense this season to be a top-10 team (adding Andre Iguodala on the wing had something to do with that). Karl has done it by developing the players he had and fitting them in a system that highlights all of them. For all of that he deserves the hardware.

The rest of my ballot: 2) Gregg Popovich; 3) Erik Spoelstra.

Defensive Player of the Year: Marc Gasol (Memphis Grizzlies)

Often this award can go to the flashy, shot blocking defender — your Serge Ibaka, your Roy Hibbert — but I want to give it to the best all-around center in the game. Marc Gasol isn’t demonstrative like Kevin Garnett — he doesn’t get in the face of smaller guards — but he does choreograph the Grizzlies defense just like KG did for the Celtics. He does protect the back line (he averages 1.7 blocks a game, 12th best in the NBA) but he just seems to always be in the right place at the right time contesting shots. He reads the game and anticipates it as a big man as we have seen in a while. Memphis had the second best defense in the NBA this season and Gasol was the anchor of it, the big man who always made the right play. He deserves this award.

The rest of my ballot: 2) LeBron James; 3) Joakim Noah.

Harden focused on helping Rockets improve after tough season

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 24:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets warms up before playing the Golden State Warriors in game four of the first round playoffs at Toyota Center on April 24, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dowloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
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HOUSTON (AP) James Harden was second in the NBA with 29 points per game last season and his 7.5 rebounds were a career high.

Still, it was a disappointing year for Harden and the Houston Rockets, who were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by Golden State, and the star knew he had to adjust things to take the team farther this year.

“Last year was frustrating, numbers individually was pretty solid, but just the love and excitement wasn’t there,” he said. “So I had to look in the mirror this summer and realize that I got to change and I got to get back to how I was.”

To that end, he refocused this offseason and put an emphasis on becoming a better leader. He organized players-only training and outings in both Miami and Las Vegas in an attempt to create cohesiveness within the group before camp.

“Just getting to know somebody and hanging out … it was really good,” he said. “That’s going to carry over onto the court.”

The way his embraced his role as the undisputed leader of this team has impressed everyone in the organization, starting with owner Leslie Alexander.

“It shows that James wants to win very badly,” Alexander said. “He’s a winning player … James is one of the top three or four players we’ve ever had here and he wants to win as much as (Hakeem) Olajuwon and (Clyde) Drexler and everybody else.”

Trevor Ariza is entering his 13th NBA season, but had the excitement of a rookie on Friday as he talked about how much better things feel entering this season than they did last year. It was a season that saw coach Kevin McHale fired after just 11 games and the Rockets take a step back after reaching the Western Conference finals in 2015.

“I think just last season was frustrating for everybody because we just couldn’t figure it out together,” Ariza said. “I don’t even know how to explain. It was just a weird, weird, weird year.”

So how have things changed now?

“The vibe has just been totally different,” Ariza said. “Everybody is excited to show what they’ve worked on and excited just to be around each other.”

These positive-attitude Rockets enter the season with new coach Mike D’Antoni and without eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard, who signed with Atlanta in the offseason. A big question for this team will be who will step in to make up for Howard’s absence.

Their top options are Clint Capela, a third-year player who saw limited action the past two seasons as Howard’s backup, and Nene, who played 53 games for Washington last year before joining Houston in the offseason.

General manager Daryl Morey raved about Capela’s improvement in his first year, but knows he’ll have to do more this season if the Rockets hope to be a force in the Western Conference.

“Clint is going to have to take a big step forward and it’s not an easy step,” Morey said. “To go from playing 15-20 minutes against often not the starting center to playing 25-plus minutes against front-line guys, that’s a big step forward. It’s more physical. It takes a big toll on your body to do that night-in and night-out.”

Along with Nene, the Rockets also added outside shooters Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon this offseason. Houston expects the addition of those two to fill a void that this team has had in recent years.

“We were able to upgrade our shooting … for the style we want to play,” Morey said. “I don’t feel like we had enough shooting (before). We do have that.”

Everyone is saying the right things and Morey believes he made the upgrades necessary for the team to succeed in D’Antoni’s system. But with all the improvements other teams made in the West, it’s hard to know what to expect from this team.

Alexander was confident, yet tempered when asked about his expectations.

“I think we’ll win more games than people anticipate,” he said. “But when the season rolls on we’ll see how well we do.”

Front desk at new Sixers practice facility made out of court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 23:  Ben Simmons walks on stage after being drafted first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft at the Barclays Center on June 23, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
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The Philadelphia 76ers have just opened a new, state-of-the-art practice facility, and maybe the coolest part is a unique touch that nods to one of the iconic moments in the history of Philadelphia basketball. The reception desk in the lobby of the building is made out of hardwood, but not just any hardwood — it’s a part of the court from Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game on March 2, 1962. Here’s a photo, via CSN Philly’s Jessica Camerato:

When Chamberlain scored 100 points, it was for the Philadelphia Warriors, not the 76ers, but it’s still a piece of the city’s sports history, and this is a cool, unique way to honor it.

51 Q: Will Tom Thibodeau fast-track the Timberwolves’ ascension?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 05:  Karl-Anthony Towns #32 of the Minnesota Timberwolves is congratulated by Ricky Rubio #9 after he made a basket against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 5, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves won just 29 games last season, but few teams have more crowded bandwagons right now, or brighter futures. In many ways, their position isn’t too dissimilar to the Oklahoma City Thunder circa 2009 — still a lottery team, but the talent of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook was obvious. The Wolves have a similarly promising young core with the last two Rookie of the Year winners, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, the latter of whom has all the makings of a once-in-a-generation, MVP-caliber big man and an unbelievable amount of poise and polish for his age.

Young teams take time to come together, but the Timberwolves set themselves up to make a leap with their biggest offseason move, parting ways with interim head coach Sam Mitchell (who filled in admirably following the passing of Flip Saunders before last season) and hiring Tom Thibodeau. Because of this alone, the Timberwolves will win more games than they did last year. That’s what Thibodeau does — he wins games, no matter what his roster looks like. He does this by treating every game like it’s Game 7 of the Finals, and unlike the injury-riddled Bulls teams he got to overachieve, this Wolves group is young, healthy and unproven.

But even though any group with Wiggins, Towns and Thibodeau projects long-term to be in the title race, it would be unfair and unreasonable to expect contention overnight. Even Thibodeau, who expects the absolute most out of any group he coaches, is fully aware of that. Here’s what he told the St. Paul Pioneer Press in July:

“We like our young core a lot,” Thibodeau said, “and I would say this: We’re also not fooling ourselves. We know we’re in a very competitive conference. We won 29 games last year.”

Short of the kind of offseason haul of superstars that transforms a roster (think the Celtics getting Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen in 2007, or the Cavaliers getting LeBron James and Kevin Love in 2014), going from a bottom-tier lottery team to a contender overnight just doesn’t happen. A more realistic expectation of a best-case scenario for the Timberwolves under the first year of Thibodeau would be the 2009-10 Thunder. After winning just 23 games in 2009, Oklahoma City went 50-32 in 2009-10, grabbed the eighth seed in the Western Conference and lost to the eventual champion Lakers in the first round of the playoffs. A playoff berth and a competitive first-round loss to the Warriors or Spurs is only incremental progress, but considering what the starting point is, and the fact that the Timberwolves haven’t made the playoffs since 2004, a similar season would be a resounding success for the first year under Thibodeau.

The bottom of the Western Conference playoff race is going to be an uphill battle for the Wolves to break into. Beyond the top tier (Golden State, San Antonio and the Clippers), it seems to be a safe bet that the Jazz, Blazers, Thunder and Grizzlies will be in the playoffs. The Timberwolves will be one of the teams fighting for the final spot, but they’ll have stiff competition with the Rockets, Pelicans and Mavericks in the hunt. It’s not hard to picture the Wolves edging those teams out, but it’s far from a sure thing.

Long-term, it’s hard to think of a team with a higher ceiling than this Timberwolves group. In the here and now, though, it’s best to keep expectations in check.

Anthony Davis on New Orleans: “I never plan on leaving here”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - FEBRUARY 04:  Anthony Davis #23 of the New Orleans Pelicans takes a shot during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Lakers at the Smoothie King Center on February 4, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. On media day, Anthony Davis — who signed a five-year max extension with the Pelicans last summer and cannot hit the open market until 2020 at the earliest — told reporters that he wants to play in New Orleans his entire career.

Right now, I have no doubt that Davis means what he said and wants to stay in New Orleans forever. But it’s worth keeping in mind that virtually every superstar who signed a long-term extension with the team that drafted them said something similar. Matt Moore of CBSSports.com has a few examples from Kevin Durant, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, all of whom eventually left their teams.

For the Pelicans, it will depend on how the next four seasons go. If they can put a title contender around Davis and not waste the bulk of his prime (a la Kevin Garnett‘s first stint in Minnesota), they have a chance to convince him to stay. But it would be unwise to hold him at his word right now in four years, especially if the next several seasons don’t go the way they want.