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


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.

Report: David Lee, Tyler Zeller in line to start for Celtics; Jared Sullinger, Jonas Jerebko out of rotation

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 08: David Lee of Boston Celtics attacks during the friendlies of the NBA Global Games 2015 basketball match between Real Madrid and Boston Celtics at Barclaycard Center on October 8, 2015 in Madrid, Spain.  (Photo by Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images)
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Brad Stevens has a big challenge this year – sorting the Celtics’ deep roster of similarly able players.

It seems that process is shaking out at power forward and center.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Northeast:

it appears Boston’s first four bigs will be starters David Lee and Tyler Zeller, with Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk off the bench.

That leaves Jonas Jerebko and Jared Sullinger, potentially on the outside looking in as far as the regular rotation is concerned.

Lee is the best passer of the bunch, which could partially explain why he’s starting. Boston’s most likely starting point guard, Marcus Smart, is still growing into the role of the lead ball-handler at the NBA level. Lee and presumptive starting shooting guard Avery Bradley can take some pressure off him.

Olynyk can space the floor for Isaiah Thomas-Johnson pick-and-rolls with the reserves and run pick-and-pops with Thomas himself.

I’m a little surprised Zeller is starting over Johnson, though. The Celtics just signed Johnson to a $12 million salary, and I thought they’d rely on his defense to set a tone early. Like Johnson, Zeller is a quality pick-and-roll finisher who can thrive with Thomas.

This is particularly bad news for Sullinger, who – barring a surprising contract extension – is entering a contract year. It seems those reports of offseason conditioning haven’t yet paid off. Jerebko’s deal also isn’t guaranteed beyond this season, but at least he has already gotten his mid-sized payday. Sullinger is still on his rookie-scale contract.

51Q: Does Ty Lawson vault the Rockets into the top tier of championship contenders?

DENVER, CO - MARCH 07:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets controls the ball against Ty Lawson #3 of the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on March 7, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Rockets defeated the Nuggets 114-100. 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 Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

I see five clear upper-echelon championship contenders –  Warriors, Spurs, Clippers, Thunder and Cavaliers.

Do the Rockets belong in that group, or do they fill the next tier by themselves?

Ty Lawson – acquired for pennies on the dollar – could put Houston over the top.

But, really, this premise might not be fair to the Rockets. They earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference last season and reached the conference finals last season. James Harden finished second in MVP voting. Dwight Howard looked like a star during the playoffs. The supporting cast – Trevor Ariza, Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Beverley, Corey Brewer and even Jason Terry – played better than anyone expected. Young players like Clint Capela, K.J. McDaniels, Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell could make a leap at any moment.

There’s a case to be made we should have taken Houston more seriously even before trading for Lawson.

I didn’t, though, and I don’t think many others did either.

I suspect one of the biggest reasons is the Rockets’ balance. Houston – 12th in points scored per possession, sixth in points allowed per possession – was one of only two teams to win more than 51 games last season without ranking top five in either category. Of the seven teams with so many victories, the Hawks – sixth, seventh – were the only other. Atlanta was a darling team, winning 60 games after going 38-44 the season prior. The Rockets’ modest win increase, from 54 to 56, drew less attention.

But balance shouldn’t be punished. Houston’s surprisingly strong defense should be celebrated. Lawson might push its middling offense over the top.

There are reasons to question that, though.

The biggest is Lawson’s sobriety. If he’s not focused and engaged, this all goes out the window. His comments about going to rehab only because it was court-ordered raise doubts, though they hardly foretell anything.

Let’s say Lawson’s off-court problems are behind him. How big of an upgrade is he? The Rockets already had a pretty good point guard who fit well with Harden in Beverley. Lawson is a clear offensive upgrade, but in the biggest moments, the ball will still run through Harden. At that point, would you rather have Beverley or Lawson on the floor? Beverley is a far superior defender, and his off-ball offensive game isn’t far from Lawson’s. Beverley is is a fine spot-up shooter, and Lawson’s strengths involve having the ball and creating. Lawson’s biggest boost could come when Harden sits, but that was fewer than 12 minutes per game last season.

Sure, a secondary ball-handler could ease pressure on Harden throughout a long regular season. Lawson and Harden can take turns running the attack.

But we’re talking about title contention, and in those high-leverage situations, it’s Harden’s show. How much does Lawson matter then?

The Rockets have a chance to win a championship. As good a chance as the NBA’s five best teams? I’m not so sure.