- Roy S. Johnson, Contributing writer, ESPN.com
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After Game 1 of the Bulls-Hawks series this week, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau might not have been feeling very Coach-of-the-Year-ish. Nor should he.
His team was the dynamic, pleasant surprise of the 2010-11 regular season, surging to the best record in the league. But the young Bulls haven't been quite as inspiring in the playoffs. They got by the stubborn Indiana Pacers in five games in the opening round, but not without some tense moments. And they came out flat, seemingly disinterested and maybe even unprepared at home against Atlanta on Monday night to start the Eastern Conference semis, and were bullied by the chip-on-their-shoulder Hawks 103-95.
Derrick Rose, meanwhile, might be feeling slightly sheepish about clutching that MVP award at center court Wednesday night at Game 2, even though he was by far the season's most consistently dominant player. But most valuable? More like most vulnerable right now. The league's youngest-ever MVP is nursing a tender left ankle that is causing more consternation in Chicago than Mrs. O'Leary's cow.
Thibodeau and Rose, as great as they both were this season, are Exhibits A and B for my contention that the NBA's most significant awards (come to think of it, all of the major sports' top awards) shouldn't be decided until a new champion is crowned -- not at the end of the regular season, which is when ballots are currently collected.
Traditionally, all of the NBA's individual awards (except for the Bill Russell Finals MVP) are based on regular-season performances. And by that measure, Thibodeau and Rose are certainly deserving of their hardware. A first-year coach, Thibodeau pushed the Bulls to heights they haven't seen since the Jordan era, and Rose was the catalyst. The third-year point guard was a humble leader who played as if he wants a statue, too, outside the United Center.
And yet, it's the postseason that matters most in this game. Win or watch. To massage the phrase made famous by former NFL coach (and current ESPN analyst) Herm Edwards: "You play to win the ring!"
This was the most intriguing regular season I've witnessed in more than three decades of watching pro hoops. It was replete with good guy/bad guy sagas, superstar trades, dramatic revivals and the emergence of a plethora of young stars.
But what does all that mean right now? Squat.
Those memories and achievements have been replaced by what is already shaping up to be a postseason for the ages.
Home-court advantages earned during the regular season are being swatted out of bounds in the playoffs, and underdogs are running around unleashed. For a minute last week, it seemed as if the final four in the West might look like the NIT: Oklahoma City, Portland, New Orleans and Memphis.
The Thunder (a favorite) survived against the relentless Denver Nuggets, but the Grizzlies (the ultimate underdogs) refused to play the role of the No. 8-seed doormats and just flat-out beat top-seeded San Antonio.
In my mind, we won't know the true MVP and coach of the year until June. Think about it. If you were voting right now, would you pencil Rose atop your MVP ballot? On mine, he'd be trailing Miami's Dwyane Wade, Atlanta's Joe Johnson and even Grizzly Zach Randolph.
Coach of the Year? Lionel Hollins of Memphis and Larry Drew of the Hawks are looking pretty darn good right now, as is Doug Collins. And if the Heat's much-maligned Erik Spoelstra gets Miami past Boston, he'd be deserving of more than sympathy votes.
Of course, the Finals are still at least a month away, so my ballot could change yet again. But don't think I'd simply pick the championship coach or Finals MVP for my awards. I'd go for the player and coach who built upon solid regular seasons with a courageous postseason, the guys who did it when it counted.
There's no bona fide reason not to wait. In an age when the POTUS and his national security team can watch the killing of the World's Most Wanted Terrorist in real time, it would be nothing for voters to weigh in electronically and the tabulations to be finalized within 24 hours of the end of the Finals, allowing the league to squeeze out a couple of more days of positive publicity.
How would that system have changed recent history? Well, with my method, for example, LeBron wouldn't have come close to being MVP last season after his woeful pre-"Decision" performance in the playoffs. My "Shoulda-Been" MVP pick? Kobe Bryant.
James wouldn't have won in '09, either. That trophy "Shoulda Been" Dwight Howard's. His broad shoulders carried Orlando into the Finals. (Yes, just two seasons ago.)
James actually "Shoulda Been" MVP in 2007, when he led the now-we-know-how-bad-they-really-are-without-him Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.
Here's a look at my "Shoulda-Been" MVPs for the last five seasons:
2006: Shoulda-Been MVP -- Dwyane Wade. (NBA MVP -- Steve Nash.)
2008: Shoulda-Been MVP -- Kevin Garnett. (NBA MVP -- Kobe Bryant.)
2009: Shoulda-Been MVP -- Dwight Howard. (NBA MVP -- LeBron James.)
2010: Shoulda-Been MVP -- Kobe Bryant. (NBA MVP -- LeBron James.)
As for Coach of the Year, only once in the last five seasons would the winner have also been tabbed on my ballot. That was in 2006 when then-Dallas coach Avery Johnson (like Thibodeau now, Johnson was a rookie head coach that year) led the Mavs to 66 regular-season wins and into the NBA Finals, where they lost to Wade and the Heat.
Otherwise, two years ago, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy earned my "Shoulda-Been" COY award by reaching the Finals, beating out Mike Brown, who should have won it in 2007 for also reaching the Finals (rather than Toronto coach Sam Mitchell).
Here's my list of "Shoulda-Been" COYs for the last five seasons:
2006: Shoulda-Been COY -- Avery Johnson. (NBA COY -- Avery Johnson.)
2007: Shoulda-Been COY -- Mike Brown. (NBA COY -- Sam Mitchell.)
2008: Shoulda-Been COY -- Doc Rivers. (NBA COY -- Byron Scott.)
2009: Shoulda-Been COY -- Stan Van Gundy. (NBA COY -- Mike Brown.)
2010: Shoulda Been COY -- Alvin Gentry. (NBA COY -- Scott Brooks.)
Thibodeau and Rose, of course, should be basking in the glow of their rewards. But if they're smart, they'll tuck their trophies into the back of a closet at home, forget about them for a while and start showing us that they truly deserve them. No "Shoulda" about it.
Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.
The most important part of the NBA season is happening right now: the playoffs. So why has the league already handed out its hardware?