What do you get when the final Friday of the regular season falls on Friday the 13th?
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION And the award goes to ...
You get the award ballots I'll be turning into the league office, all the way down the left side of this page.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Whatever the reason, I found it strangely simple to reach a verdict here. For once.
Nowitzki simply has to be the MVP, as brilliant as Steve Nash has been in his bid to join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird as the only three-in-a-row MVPs in league history. It has nothing to do with the ridiculous argument that Nash hasn't won a championship yet, since he has yet to go to the playoffs with his Suns at full strength. It has everything to do with the fact that this regular-season award is annually bestowed on the player who has the best all-encompassing season ... the most impressive combination of individual and team success.
Side by side, as usual, it's a serious strain to make a statistical call between them. The two-time reigning MVP has somehow managed to elevate his game to a higher-than-ever level of efficiency, but so has Nowitzki. The difference is where Dirk's production and leadership have taken his team, with Dallas wrapping up one of the most extraordinary regular seasons ever seen.
There's a reason that voters, since 1979, have picked only one MVP from a team that failed to win 50 games (Moses Malone from the 46-36 Rockets in 1982) and only two others from teams with less than 55 wins (Michael Jordan from the 50-32 Bulls in 1988 and Nash last season from the 54-28 Suns). It's because voters recognize that nothing is more valuable in team sports than winning.
Nash has generated more in-season support for another MVP triumph than he did in either of the previous two seasons, posting career highs in scoring (18.8 ppg), shooting (53.3 percent from the field and 46.4 percent from 3-point range) and assists (11.5 apg) and winning the last head-to-head showdowns with Dirk.
But Nowitzki is right there numbers-wise -- shooting 49.9 percent from the floor, 41.2 percent from long distance, 90.2 percent from the line and delivering a slew of decisive fourth quarters in averaging 24.7 points and 9.1 boards -- as the player who a) causes more matchup problems for opposing defenses than anyone else and b) ranks as the driving force for the team of the season.
Which makes him my player of the season.
October prediction: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
COACH OF THE YEAR
Toronto's Sam Mitchell, Houston's Jeff Van Gundy, Dallas' Avery Johnson and Utah's Jerry Sloan.
I suppose you can stretch it to six if we include a couple longtime Stein Line favorites who've rallied their injury-battered teams into contention for the final playoff spot in the West -- Don Nelson and Byron Scott -- but let's focus on the first four because lighter doesn't translate to easier. I struggled mightily to settle on a winner just picking from the first four.
Do you prefer Mitchell for overcoming a 2-8 start, calls for his early dismissal and an overhauled, experience-shy roster to win the Atlantic Division?
How about Johnson's role in the Mavericks rebounding from the worst Finals collapse ever seen to assemble one of the finest regular seasons in league history?
It's not often, furthermore, that the hard-nosed Sloan and the word sentimental wind up in the same sentence, but who doesn't rate him as the sentimental favorite here after coaching the Jazz for 21 seasons and never being named COY?
History says it's not Johnson who most threatens Sloan's ability to break through, since there has never been a repeat winner since the COY award was introduced for the 1962-63 season, but Utah's 1-5 start to April -- likely costing the Jazz home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs against Van Gundy's Rockets -- could be a factor. Especially with the Raptors sporting a 32-15 mark in 2007 and still pushing for an unlikely No. 2 seed in the East.
With me? It wasn't.
In spite of Utah's recent fade, I didn't even have this Jazz squad as a playoff team coming into the season. I didn't have Toronto in the playoffs, either, but the Jazz have made the bigger leap, since they made their rise in the West. They're just two wins shy of 50 in spite of the recent slide and a sub-par season for Andrei Kirilenko, so Sloan clings to a vote that I'd turn in as a four-way tie for first if the league would let me.
1. Jerry Sloan, Utah Jazz
October prediction: Don Nelson, Golden State Warriors
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Andrea Bargnani was the only second-half threat to Roy's ascendancy, only for the Italian to be felled by an emergency appendectomy. (Of course, compared to what happened to fellow Raps impact rookie Jorge Garbajosa, Bargnani's fate was pleasant.)
Roy had his own injury issues to deal with, like seemingly every rookie, but he comfortably held off the two Canadian-based rooks and Minnesota's Randy Foye, who couldn't turn a flurry of big fourth quarters into a full-fledged run at the guy (brace yourself for a bad word play you've heard at least a thousand times this season) destined to be the ROY.
1. Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
October prediction: Foye
Chris Birck/NBAE via Getty Images
Enjoying the award show, Spurs? Well, there's still three more categories to go (below) ... and all three of you are contenders.
Manu Ginobili barely qualifies -- contest rules dictate that you have to be a sixth man in at least one more game than you start -- but undeniably helped alter the course of the Spurs' season when he went back to the bench in late January.
Barbosa's numbers, meanwhile, don't outstrip Ginobili's significantly, but the Brazilian speedster has operated as a sixth man for a greater majority of the season, making him a more natural selection ... and making his 43.5-percent shooting from 3-point range look especially impressive.
Using my preseason forecasting as the tiebreaker -- not exactly unbiased, perhaps, but it's my ballot -- Barbosa sneaks in, with Jerry Stackhouse trumping the Knicks' David Lee for third place because Stack played more games and supplies serious doses of leadership and toughness for the team with the league's best record.
1. Leandro Barbosa, Phoenix Suns
October prediction: Barbosa
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Even without such biases, you have to conclude that a Spur wins this thing, given that San Antonio revived its status as a fearsome title contender in the second half with great defense serving as a big-time complement to Ginobili's return to the bench.
The choice, then, comes down to the perimeter ace (Bowen) and the famed rim deterrent (Tim Duncan). As good as Duncan looks again now that he's not being slowed by plantar fasciitis, like last season, I can't punish Bowen just because of our Cal State Fullerton connection.
I know, I know. Some of you believe that nonsense about him slowing down. Uh-huh. How many guys in this league are asked to guard Nowitzki, Bryant and Nash? Bowen is still doing it at 35 and at a time, remember, when defenders continue to be severely limited by the rules regarding how much they're allowed to use their hands on the perimeter.
This remains a deep field, even with a handful of perennial DPOY candidates (Ben Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko and Ron Artest) fading from contention. Denver's Marcus Camby, Phoenix's Shawn Marion and Atlanta's Josh Smith have all been stalwarts for teams with well-chronicled frailties on D, Tyson Chandler has emerged as a serious presence in New Orleans and Oklahoma City and Charlotte is unexpectedly carrying two worthy nominees: Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor.
Yet it only feels right to single out someone from the best defense in the league and no one feels more right than Bowen, who's running out of shots to win an award he deserves at least once.
1. Bruce Bowen, San Antonio Spurs
October prediction: Bowen
October prediction: Darko Milicic, Orlando Magic
I had a premonition that a full column devoted to the Most Improved Player race, listing no less than 20 possible winners, still would not be enough to satisfy some of you.
It was more than a premonition, actually: I had a line in the story admitting that I was bracing for a flurry of follow-up nominations via e-mail.
So far? Fifteen new names have been suggested, as listed here in alphabetical order:
Golden State's Matt Barnes.
You're naturally wondering now how many of those names I wish I had as part of my original 20.
Sorry, friends. It's only a few.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
It's been a two-man MVP race for months, but it's now Dirk -- not the two-time reigning MVP -- who has a leg up on his buddy.
It remains to be seen if the Pacers and star center Jermaine O'Neal -- whose longstanding agreement with management calls for a sitdown summit at season's end -- will agree that it's time for both sides to move in separate directions should Indy miss the playoffs for the first time since 1997. (Or even if the Pacers sneak into the eighth spot.)
But at least one O'Neal teammate believes that the four-time All-Star hopes to end up in Los Angeles next season alongside Kobe Bryant, his fellow preps-to-pros groundbreaker from the draft class of 1996. O'Neal and Bryant are said to be still fairly close after coming into the league together.
Yet NBA front-office sources maintain that the Pacers remain more likely to replace coach Rick Carlisle than trade their most coveted asset. My ESPN The Magazine colleague Ric Bucher, meanwhile, reported on Tuesday night's "NBA Coast to Coast" on ESPN2 that Carlisle -- having enjoyed his one-year break from coaching before taking the Detroit job in 2001 -- is expected to take another year off from the bench if he takes the fall for Indy's 2-17 unraveling from Feb. 23-March 30.
One of the longest streaks in NBA history is about to end ... unless Shaquille O'Neal has 165 points stored up for Miami's final three games.
O'Neal would have to average 55.0 points for the rest of the schedule to finish with a 20.0 ppg average for the season. Shaq is second all time, behind Kareem Abdur-Jabbar's 17 consecutive seasons, with a streak of 14 straight seasons as a 20-point scorer to start a career.
So a Detroit reader wonders what happens if they get through the first three of those games without incident, only for Sheed to pick up his 20th or for Rip to collect No. 16 in Wednesday's season finale at Boston?
Everyone's T slate, as you surely know by now, is wiped clean once the playoffs begin. But a one-game suspension triggered Wednesday in either case would carry over into next season, as opposed to Sheed or Rip being forced to sit out Game 1 of the Pistons' first-round series. Players are hit with one-game suspensions during the regular season once they accrue a 16th technical foul and with every other T after that, but such suspensions have to be served during the regular season as well.
Should the NBA re-seed teams NHL-style after each round of the playoffs? Does the Western Conference have a playoff team to be feared outside of Dallas, Phoenix or San Antonio? Is Dwyane Wade's shoulder sturdy enough to get Miami back to the NBA Finals?
Those NBA curiosities and more are addressed in Marc Stein's latest visit with Galloway & Company on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM).
The Rockets signed Bonzi Wells for three reasons:
1. He cost them almost nothing, by today's standards, at $2.1 million for this season.
2. They quietly viewed him as a handy insurance policy in case Tracy McGrady was plagued by another season of long, back-related absences.
3. They remember, like everyone else, what Wells did to San Antonio in the first round of last spring's playoffs and wanted him as a potential postseason X-factor.
But Wells never got over the millions he lost in his collapsed negotiations with Sacramento over the summer, never got fully healthy or in shape this season and, most crucially, never clicked with Jeff Van Gundy. This week's episodes -- Wells failing to show for a game in Seattle and being placed on the inactive list for the rest of the season -- don't seem all that surprising when you remember that the sides barely made it through training camp in October. Wells left the team during the exhibition season for "personal reasons," which turned out to be code for Van Gundy telling Wells to take a couple days to decide if Houston was where he really wanted to be.
In a January interview, Wells asserted that his relationship with Van Gundy "may have been rocky at first" but that they had reached "a common ground on how we were going to deal with each other." Yet Wells, in the same interview, sounded like he already knew that he'd have to find a new team next season, admitting that the Sacramento parting still "consumes my life" and adding: "I planned on being in Houston for a while, but if it doesn't work out this year, I'll go somewhere else next year and make it happen."
The problem? Even though Houston could certainly use a third threat to make sure it handles Utah in the first round -- and certainly to challenge Dallas in Round 2 -- Wells has way more to lose with this outcome. One reason he hasn't been able to get more minutes, besides the fact that Van Gundy refuses to buy Wells' contention that he can produce no matter where he is conditioning-wise, is that the Rockets are getting better-than-expected production from reserves like Luther Head, Chuck Hayes and Dikembe Mutombo. They haven't been as desperate for an off-the-bench savior as forecasted.
Most of the desperation has shifted to Wells now. He always was going to opt out of his two-year, $4.4 million deal at season's end but will re-enter the free-agent market coming off a season of virtual inactivity, having essentially walked off a team that was giving him one last audition for the playoffs and with his 31st birthday looming in September.
It's worth noting, of course, that the Wells saga hasn't exactly worked out for the Kings, either.
To some degree, Wells' comportment this season has to make Sacramento feel relieved that he didn't sign the long-term contract it originally offered him. That said, it's also natural to wonder if the Kings' season would have turned out differently had Wells stayed.
I've believed from the start that Kevin Martin could have blossomed even if Wells was still there, because Wells is not an 82-games guy, meaning there would have been no shortage of regular-season opportunity for the Kings' Most Improved Player candidate. What we know for sure is that Ron Artest was far happier in Sacto with Wells around and that embattled first-year coach Eric Musselman, who could use an ally these days, had a pre-existing relationship with Bonzi because of Wells' close ties to the late Bill Musselman, Eric's father.
Asked about his own future with the Kings, Artest indicated that he's not sure if the Kings will try again to trade him during the offseason. "That's not something I think about," he said.
As for the Kings' first failure to reach the playoffs in nine seasons, Artest added via e-mail: "Somebody has to lose and someone has to win. I will let this be the first and last time I [accept] losing. I deserve that pass because, all the other years, I let losing affect my livelihood by acting out of frustration.
"The good thing about this season is we found Justin Williams -- one of the best up-and-coming power forwards -- and Kevin is a rising star."
But Artest, not surprisingly, believes that Wells could have altered the course of Sacramento's 32-46 campaign, saying: "We would have been very good. We lost two important pieces last year in Rick [Adelman] and Bonzi. Now we just have to get that experience back and it will come as the Kings grow together."
As if the Grizzlies didn't have enough motivation to come away from the lottery with a top-two pick, there's this nugget circulating in GM circles: Jerry West, whose contract expires June 30, might decide to keep running Memphis' front office if the bouncing Ping Pong balls put Greg Oden or Kevin Durant next to Pau Gasol.
You're advised, incidentally, to listen to Chad Ford's Podcast with West this week in which The Logo addresses his future and Gasol's torturous season.
"Never too early to learn the lost art of the mid-range jumper."
Clippers guard Sam Cassell, quite pleased to hear that I asked my 3½-year-old son to pay rapt attention to Cassell's pre-game shooting routine when Alexander The Greatest attended the second NBA game of his life Monday night.
Five questions with Clippers forward Elton Brand:
A: Cuttino Mobley stepped up his game. Corey Maggette took on more of a distributor role. Jason Hart came in we lost the first five with him but, once he got the plays down, we started playing pretty well. [Editor's note: L.A. went 8-2 in its next 10 games.]
Q: But is this season a step back even if the Clippers do make the playoffs?
A: Nah, nah, nah. If we make it, I don't think it's a step back because of the injuries. We expected Shaun to blossom into a star point guard, but we didn't have him. We expected Sam to be that floor general that he was last year, but we didn't have him. Guys got hurt throughout the year. So it's definitely not a step back.
Q: So it still feels more like your breakthrough season last year than all the down years before that?
A: Definitely. It feels closer to the good times -- the winning and feeling confident -- than the tougher times. We've still turned the corner.
Q: Do you think this season's struggles will make Donald Sterling more reluctant to keep spending money like he has over the last two summers?
A: It's probably going to depend on if we make the playoffs, how well we do in the playoffs and what we do next year. That will probably be the tell-tale sign to see if he says, 'OK, this is fun, I have a chance to win, I need to spend to win,' or if he goes back into conservative mode.
Q: Point blank: Will we see the Clips in the playoffs for the second straight year?
A: I think so. We've got our destiny in our own hands. We feel good about ourselves considering the cards we've been dealt. We're playing pretty well. We just have to get into the playoffs and hopefully Sam will get healthy, Tim Thomas will get healthy.