And the winners are ...

Updated: April 14, 2004, 9:52 AM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

The final regular-season Friday has arrived. So have the year-end ballots from the league office.

You know what that means.

Awards column!

Instead of a report card to sum up the NBA's third trimester, as seen after the first two trimesters, we'll share all our votes with you before turning them in for real before the 3 p.m. deadline on Tax Day.

Here goes ...

Most Valuable Player

Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett
Having taken his game higher than ever, KG, right, deserves to be MVP over Tim Duncan.
Kevin Garnett. Regular readers know our deal here. The Stein Line's (wholly subjective) criteria for MVP work like this: Individual brilliance is a must, obviously, but team success is factored in heavily. No surprise, then, that Garnett is the choice, because he's more worthy than ever on both counts. Even though KG is surrounded by more help than ever before -- which theoretically suggests he has to do less than ever -- he has increased his statistical production while helping the deepest team in the league forge good chemistry ... and while holding it together through lots of injuries. In this Season O' Major Injuries, furthermore, Garnett is that rare stud who will play all 82 games, unless the Wolves clinch their seeding before the final day of the season and have a chance to rest him. Oh, yeah: Minnesota's seeding. The team that has yet to win a first-round series is suddenly back in the running for the top spot in the West, which ranks as another testament to Garnett in perhaps the most competitive West of all time. Charles Barkley made the observation late Thursday, after KG helped Minny score a significant victory at Sacramento, that Garnett's game looks better to the masses now because he's surrounded by more talent, just as The Chuckster became an MVP only when he left Philadelphia to join a more well-rounded Phoenix club. Barkley's claim is that Garnett has long been MVP-worthy. Maybe so, but it sure looks like Garnett found a new level, to the point that only Indiana's Jermaine O'Neal gave him a real run on our ballot. Tim Duncan's bid for an MVP three-peat was derailed by injuries and errant free throws, and Kobe Bryant didn't figure in the race until after the All-Star break. Quite simply, there was no need for those "KG 4 MVP" license plates that the Wolves sent out last spring. If only the other categories were this easy.

Coach of the Year

Jerry Sloan
Finally winning COY probably wouldn't make Jerry happy, either.
Jerry Sloan. Like we said, so much for the easy choices. This category, always packed, is downright brutal in 2004, because Hubie Brown took the Memphis Grizzlies -- the Griz -- from 28 wins to 50 and counting ... and he's our second choice. Stunning as the Grizz rise to prominence was, and in spite of other worthy contenders like Milwaukee's Terry Porter and Indiana's Rick Carlisle and Denver's Jeff Bzdelik, Sloan squeaks past them all. It doesn't even matter now if the Utah Jazz makes the playoffs. Just getting to a .500 record, without Karl Malone and John Stockton and largely without Matt Harpring, is pretty much the definition of coaching. Like many misguided souls, I picked the Jazz to have the league's worst record. Idiot. Why didn't I realize that such a prediction was betting against Sloan, who's arguably the best coach to never win this award. If there's any justice, you won't be able to say that about him soon. Again, it's a crowded field -- Stan Van Gundy and Flip Saunders also merit consideration, as do Gregg Popovich and even Phil Jackson -- but Jerry can't be snubbed any longer. Whether he's willing to have a press conference to accept the trophy or not.

    Stein's ballot
    1. Jerry Sloan, Utah
    2. Hubie Brown, Memphis
    3. Rick Carlisle, Indiana
    October prediction: Phil Jackson, L.A. Lakers
    

Rookie of the Year

LeBron James
LeBron James merely lived up to the biggest hype ever for a rookie. That's all.
LeBron James. You might not like it, but we're going to be consistent in this cyberspace. Last April, even though Phoenix nosed out Houston for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, Yao Ming got our ROY vote over Amare Stoudemire. Yao impressed us that much, coming all the way from the other side of world -- in the face of ceaseless skepticism -- to blossom in America to the point now where he's arguably the league's No. 2 true center behind Shaquille O'Neal. The same thinking applies this April. Carmelo Anthony's Denver Nuggets might very well make the playoffs, and 'Melo has been undeniably impressive himself -- just like Amare was -- but James is an irresistible choice in spite of the Cavs' late fade from playoff contention. James gave no inkling back in October, after muddling through an unsightly preseason, that he could put up rookie numbers that belong in the same sentence with Michael Jordan's. MJ averaged 28-6-6 as a rookie. LBJ is at 21-6-6, and the only other rookie in league history with membership in the 20-5-5 Club is Oscar Robertson. Don't forget that LBJ also had to wait until the 25th game of the season to have a good environment to play in, after the Ricky Davis trade ... and that all his achievements come in the face of never-before-seen hype and with countless folks out there wishing him to fail. For us, the vote has nothing to do with that one game 'Melo refused to re-enter. A 19-year-old has to be pardoned for one episode of bad judgment. LBJ wins out purely because he's a for-the-ages talent who's off to a fabulous start. 'Melo, though, shouldn't fret. Magic Johnson lost 1980's ROY race to Larry Bird and still turned out OK.

Most Improved Player

Andrei Kirilenko
Andrei Kirilenko, right, was Jerry Sloan's lone All-Star.
Andrei Kirilenko. This one gets tougher every year. Yet again, you could go one of three or four ways. Do you prefer the guy who comes from nowhere to a role of prominence, like our man Brian Cardinal, or maybe Samuel Dalembert? Or do you prefer the guy who goes from good to great, like Carlos Boozer or Richard Jefferson? Or the guy who goes from really good to full-fledged stud, like our man Michael Redd, or Zach Randolph? You could have voted for any of those guys and you wouldn't be wrong. You could have voted for James Posey, too, even though he doesn't quite fit any of those descriptions ... but because Posey has been such a force during the Grizzlies' drive for a top-five spot in the mighty West. Alas, we've gone for Utah over Memphis (and the rest) a second time. Sloan wouldn't have beaten out Hubie for COY if Kirilenko hadn't become one of the skinniest dudes to carry a team in history.

Sixth Man Award

Antawn Jamison
For the good of the Mavericks, Antawn Jamison volunteered for sixth-man duty.
Antawn Jamison. If not for a late rush by Manu Ginobili, the debate here would boil down to Jamison vs. Al Harrington. Ginobili will qualify for the award by just one game if he comes off the bench in San Antonio's final four games, which would take Manu's season tally to 38 starts and 39 reserve appearances. Either way, Jamison is our guy, beating out his two worthy rivals because he's totally new to this bench stuff and couldn't have adapted to it much better. Coming into games cold for the first time in his life, he's averaging better than 14 points per game and shooting 53 percent from the floor, while providing more-than-passable rebounding at small forward (6.3 a game). He's not a game-changer in the Ginobili class -- not many are -- but Jamison has been the league's most productive reserve all season. Don't forget he also had to keep his head through a constant stream of trade rumors that began roughly the minute he landed in Dallas. Chances are, he'll either be a Mavericks starter or playing in another city next season, but Jamison's one-year cameo as a sixth man was no masquerade. He was the real deal.

Defensive Player of the Year

Ron Artest
Ron Artest, left, cramps everyone's style, including T-Mac's, with his intense defense.
Ron Artest. It might be sacrilege to omit Ben Wallace from the top three, but his best defense came after the arrival of Rasheed Wallace, which didn't happen until midseason. 'Sheed is getting the attention as a setup man for Big Ben's weak-side work that Clifford Robinson never got. Several others names were considered here, like Duncan for making sure the Spurs stayed at an elite defensive level without David Robinson, along with Garnett and Theo Ratliff. Yet the three names that did make onto our list are not power players, because the littler guys -- as we wrote back in January -- have been ignored long enough. Kirilenko is in the top five in steals and blocks and he rebounds, too. Bruce Bowen's suffocating coverage has generated more complaints from opposing players than anyone in the league this season. Artest, meanwhile, is simply the most feared one-on-one defender around, capable of hounding players at four positions. Even if Carlisle didn't start circulating those stats about how Artest apparently holds his foes to nine points and eight shots per game, he'd be the pick.

All-Interview Team

The league asks us to vote for any five players and a coach. I like to vote by position, or as close as possible, to keep it in the same family with the All-NBA Team. Thusly again:

Executive of the Year

Joe Dumars
So what if he passed on 'Melo? Joe D made bold moves.
Joe Dumars. It's down here because the media doesn't vote in this category. General managers handle the EOY voting themselves, and that's a good thing, because this will be the one debate/controversy you can't blame us for. Deserving candidates are in abundance here as well, which translates to myriad voting philosophies. Jerry West's big moves were actually last season, but we're seeing the payoff this season with Memphis' rise to prominence. Kevin McHale made the bold offseason moves to reshape Minnesota's future, while Denver's Kiki Vandeweghe, the Lakers' Mitch Kupchak and Milwaukee's Larry Harris were also busy and crafty in the summer working from three totally dissimilar budgets. Detroit's Dumars, meanwhile, made the big in-season splash (acquiring Rasheed Wallace) to follow up his offseason splash (firing Carlisle and replacing him with Larry Brown). Since it's the 'Sheed trade giving so many people hope that the East can send a competitive representative to the NBA Finals, we'll go with Joe ... and wait to see what his peers come up with.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics

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