My NBA postseason awards go to
Toughest call? Coach of the year. MVP? The player with the toughness of a bull.
It's not the MVP vote that keeps me from finishing my NBA awards ballot; that might be the easiest selection of all. It's Derrick Rose, and we'll get back to him later. Coach of the year in the NBA is another story, the category that will cause some anxiety if you take these exercises seriously, and I do.
You can make a persuasive case for at least a half-dozen coaches and the work they've done this season, from a future Hall of Famer to a rookie. Doug Collins deserves a nod for taking a 76ers team that went 27-55 last season all the way to the playoffs, even after a 3-13 start. Collins modified his approach just a wee bit and got players who looked lost in December to give themselves to doing things his way, and it worked. In some seasons, Collins would be a landslide winner. But there's no chance of that this year.
Lionel Hollins lost his best player, Rudy Gay, for two months, yet got Memphis to the playoffs. Gregg Popovich might get overlooked because we already knew he can coach, having led the Spurs to four championships. Still, taking an aging team whose calling card all these years was defense and turning it into an offensive team potent enough to win the Western Conference regular season merits serious consideration. So does Nate McMillan in Portland, where the Trail Blazers had to play without Greg Oden and, for much of the season, a healthy Brandon Roy and still made the playoffs comfortably.
Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau had his franchise player, Rose, the entire season. But Tibbs went without his starting big men, first Carlos Boozer and then Joakim Noah, for two-thirds of the season. Still, the Bulls went from 41 wins to 60 (so far), from eighth in the Eastern Conference to first, even though Tibbs in his rookie season as a head coach had to introduce an entirely new system, predicated on defense, to a team with seven new players.
But at least Thibodeau didn't have to deal with the kind of drama that George Karl did in the first 50 games of the season. In fact, Karl did an incredible job in what amounted to two seasons, the first trying to keep his team together as the club tried to find a suitable trade for Carmelo Anthony. Once it did, Karl was told he had lost not only Anthony but Chauncey Billups and been handed an entirely new team, featuring ex-Knicks Wilson Chandler, Danilo Gallinari, Raymond Felton and Timofey Mozgov. This, of course, came after battling cancer through the summer. And all Karl did was throw himself into practice and preparation with the passion of a graduate assistant, pushing the new team to a 50-win season and the No. 5 seed in the Western Conference. The aggravation alone would break any number of terrific coaches; but Karl not only endured, he thrived.
I don't know how fair it is to factor in Karl's fight with cancer, which a year ago this week had him nearly voiceless and often unable to eat. But I know it isn't fair to go through all that he did, in and out of basketball and including the trading of the franchise player and a championship-winning playmaker, and be expected to produce the kind of team he did. Teams never ever get rid of a superstar and get better, yet Denver so far has done just that.
What Thibodeau did, in virtually any other season, would earn my vote. But Karl's ability to pull a team together in so little time is nothing short of remarkable, which is why he should win coach of the year.
Nothing else on the ballot is as close.
Rose had more impact on his team and on the league than any other player in the NBA, which is why he's the MVP. He did whatever he needed to do to win night after night on a team absolutely nobody picked to finish ahead of Boston or Miami. The Celtics had four All-Stars and the Heat had three, yet both teams finished behind Rose and the Bulls. Why? Because Rose was consistently greater when it mattered this season than Kobe Bryant, than LeBron James, than Dwight Howard, than Kevin Durant.
The statistical models that lead some of the voters to make a case that Rose isn't the MVP too often miss the very things that determine how valuable a player actually is. A player is more valuable when he practices his butt off and it positively affects his teammates, and I haven't seen a stat yet that can quantify that. It makes a player more valuable if he's willing to grab a slacking teammate by the collar in the locker room and say, "If you talk back at the coach like that again, I'll put my fist through your chest." I haven't seen a stat that can quantify that, either.
Where's the number that rewards a player for keeping his cool and not getting technical fouls and checking his ego to remain eligible to help his teammates? Where's the index on a player's courage or humility, or performances that don't just win the game but leave teammates and/or opponents in awe? Show me the statistical analysis in how discouraged an opposing team becomes when Rose goes through the entire defense and dunks over two guys. Rose's personality, specifically his toughness, is the personality of the Bulls. Rose, Tibbs, Noah -- likely in that order -- have determined the way the Bulls play and why the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That, by and large, is reason enough for Rose to be voted the MVP.
Long before it became fashionable to call Rose the MVP, back in early January, Doc Rivers pulled me aside and said, "That kid is going to be the MVP of the league." I asked Doc whether he meant next season or the one after that, once Rose had acquired some seasoning, and Doc said, "This season. Right now."
So, Rose is my MVP. Then LeBron James, then Kobe Bryant, then Dwight Howard, then Dirk Nowitzki. I drop Howard from second to fourth because he hurts his team with all those technical fouls that added up, so far, to two one-game suspensions. I'm flopping LeBron and Kobe because the Lakers, even if this last week doesn't much matter, finished up shaky at best, while LeBron has had essentially zero clunkers.
Blake Griffin is the rookie of the year in a total landslide; I wouldn't argue if somebody made him third-team all-NBA. He made the Clippers an attraction; is there anything any rookie can say to top that? DeMarcus Cousins, with his average of 14 points, nearly nine rebounds and 2.5 assists in 79 games, is next, followed by Landry Fields, who was marginalized in New York by the arrival of Anthony but still shot nearly 50 percent from the floor, shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range and averaged better than seven rebounds most of the season. I know, I know, I know I'm leaving John Wall (18 points, 8.5 assists) out of the top three. He played in 12 fewer games than Cousins and didn't have the impact of Landry. If impact is what we're trying to assess, and I am, Gary Neal and his 42 percent 3-point shooting might come in ahead of Wall.
Most improved: Kevin Love. All those double-doubles, 20 points and 15 rebounds a game for the season. OK, he couldn't have a great enough impact to keep the Timberwolves from stinking up the joint, but neither, really, did many of the runners-up for this category: Jrue Holiday of the 76ers , Kris Humphries of the Nets and Dorell Wright of the Warriors.
First team All-NBA: Rose, Bryant, LeBron, Dirk, Howard, and there really isn't any need for explanations here except maybe the choice of Dirk over Durant. And we're splitting hairs. Durant has Russell Westbrook; Dirk has no such Robin to his Batman.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.