With the NBA regular season in its closing stages, the playoff field is being whittled down by the day. So too is the field in contention for the league's annual player awards. Though almost any player will downplay the value of individual awards and direct the gratitude toward the team, anyone who believes the accolades are irrelevant to the recipients is mistaken. That said, let's take a look at the 2010-11 award candidates:
Most Valuable Player (MVP)
Derrick Rose - Chicago Bulls
The Chicago native has blossomed in his third year in the league, averaging career highs in points, assists, rebounds, blocks and free throw percentage en route to leading the Bulls to the East's best record. Though not a pure point guard, Rose's superior athleticism and strength allow him to blow by slower defenders and finish at the rim. He has added range to his jumper, evidenced by a seven-point increase in three-point field goal percentage this year, and is shooting better than 85 percent from the charity stripe. Rose has brought competitive basketball back to Chicago and has given the city someone to build around for a long, long time.
Dwight Howard - Orlando Magic
In what has been an up-and-down year for Orlando, one thing has been consistent - the man in the middle. Howard is enjoying his best year statistically since entering the league in 2004, averaging more than 23 points and 14 rebounds (four offensive), all while shooting an efficient 60 percent from the field. Howard spent the offseason working with former Rockets' great Hakeem Olajuwon to improve his post-up game and the results speak for themselves. His 63 double-doubles trail only Kevin Love (64) for the league lead. Defensively, Howard ranks third in the league with nearly 2.5 blocks per game and plenty of other shots altered or deterred altogether. He is aiming to be the first player since Michael Jordan in the 1987-88 season to garner both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Really, the only knock on Howard this season has been his penchant for disputing calls which has resulted in a league-leading 17 technical fouls. With the league's new policy, this could prove costly.
LeBron James - Miami Heat
Despite perhaps the most tumultuous, scrutinized offseason ever by an NBA player, LeBron James has once again turned in a spectacular statistical season, averaging 27 points, 7 assists and nearly 8 boards per game. His career high 51 percent field goal shooting is a testament to a much-improved shot selection and unmatched finishing ability. Though still not a deadly outside threat, King James is shooting a respectable 33 percent from beyond the arc and knocking down the mid-range jumper with ease. As the league's biggest star, and most-hated player outside of Miami, James has dealt with unparalleled attention all season. He has seemed to feed off of the "boos" and detrimental chants from bitter fans and channeled them to his play on the court. LeBron, more so than any player in the league, passes the "if he wasn't on the team would they still compete?" test. Remove LeBron from Miami and the Heat instantly plummet to fifth or lower in the East. Not convinced? Look what happened to Cleveland when he took his talents to South Beach. LeBron dragged a borderline awful Cavaliers team to 63 wins a year ago. This season, the Cavs are likely to finish with fifteen wins, 48 fewer than last season. 48. Take Rose or Howard from their respective squads and there is no way the Magic or Bulls finish with 48 fewer wins (and also no way their cities react as Cleveland did--another testament to James' value).
LeBron earns my MVP vote indirectly, not by how well he has played, but by how poorly the Cavaliers have performed. We all expected Cleveland to drop off in terms of wins, but no one expected it to be this bad. Had they won even ten more games I would somewhat-easily hand the award to Rose or Howard, but the Cavs' futility has proven once and for all that LeBron James is by far the league's most valuable player. After all, that is what the acronym stands for.
Most Improved Player (MIP)
Kevin Love - Minnesota Timberwolves
Love has been the definition of an improved player, progressing in literally every major statistical category except steals (down a hefty .2 per game). He has elevated his scoring numbers by over six points per game, is averaging a career high in assists, and leads the league in his true forte - rebounding. Love has a ridiculous 12 games with more than 20 rebounds, including a 31-point and 31-rebound outburst against the Knicks in November. But Love is not merely a glass cleaner. He ranks in the top twenty in scoring, while shooting 47 percent from the field and 42 percent from three-point range. Amidst another disappointing season in the post-Garnett era in Minnesota, Love has been one of the lone bright spots for a young Timberwolves squad.
DeMar DeRozan - Toronto Raptors
While DeRozan is very much still a work in progress, he has more than doubled his scoring this season (17 per game) and has emerged as a legitimate star-in-the-making for the rebuilding Raptors. DeRozan is perhaps the league's best pure athlete, but is still learning to translate it to the court. He has nearly no perimeter shot (4-41 on the season), but still shoots a very respectable 47 percent from the field and is usually good for an electrifying dunk or two each night. If DeRozan can develop an outside jump shot and work on his distributing, the Raptors may have the next Vince Carter on their hands.
Kris Humphries - New Jersey Nets
Humphries has received little attention this season, but is quietly having a career year. He has raised his scoring average and ranks fifth in the NBA in rebounds in only 27 minutes per night. New Jersey is confident enough in Humphries' abilities that they were willing to part with highly-regarded rookie Derrick Favors at the trade deadline. He is connecting on 53 percent of his shots and doing pretty well for himself off the court, as well (you may have heard of his girlfriend, Kim Kardashian).
The award has to go to Kevin Love. No player has improved his all-around game more than the T-Wolves forward. He may not be the most fun to watch, and other candidates may have more appealing girlfriends, but you can't argue with over 15 boards per game.
Defensive Player of the Year (DPOY)
Dwight Howard - Orlando Magic
Andrew Bogut - Milwaukee Bucks
Despite a myriad of injuries, Bogut leads the league in blocks (2.6 per game) and is hauling in a career high 11 rebounds per game. Due to last season's gruesome elbow injury, the Aussie's offensive game has suffered. His free throw percentage has plummeted to under 45 percent, but he can still score on the low block consistently. Bogut's defensive effectiveness is due in part to his ability to avoid foul trouble. At just above three fouls per contest, he is able to play big minutes for the league's third-best defensive team.
Kevin Garnett - Boston Celtics
The league's best defensive team has to have a candidate for this award. Garnett is the Celtic's unquestioned defensive leader, both by example and vocally. For a team that really does not score well (22nd in the league), defense is key to winning games, something Boston has done all season. Garnett averages nine rebounds per game, eight of which are defensive, and a shade under one block per game. His on-ball defense is unparalleled as he routinely gives opposing forwards fits. Statistics aside, Garnett plays perhaps the smartest defense of anyone in the league. He often deflects shots rather than swatting them into the stands, helping teammates who are beaten off the dribble while also leading the Celtics emotionally during tough contests.
Dwight Howard's combination of shot blocking and rebounding should easily win him the 2010-11 Defensive Player of the Year. Garnett is not a dominant shot blocker and Bogut has missed too much time and has been too inconsistent on the glass to warrant the honor. While both have undoubtedly played well, Howard offers a much more comprehensive defensive game.
Rookie of the Year (ROY)
Blake Griffin - Los Angeles Clippers
Technically part of last year's rookie class, Griffin sat out all of last season with a fractured knee cap but has come back stronger than ever. "Blake Superior" has all but wrapped up the ROY award with dunk, after dunk, after dunk, after dunk. The 2011 Slam Dunk champion is averaging over 22 points and 12 rebounds per game, both first among rookies. In 38 minutes per game, Griffin is connecting on 65 percent of his field goals, a remarkable number for a rookie. Though not a serious outside threat, Griffin shoots a respectable 30 percent from three-point range. If he can develop this portion of his game, he will be as close to unstoppable as any player in the league.
John Wall - Washington Wizards
This year's top pick, Wall has been overshadowed by his West Coast counterpart for much of the season. He has somewhat-quietly enjoyed a promising rookie year, averaging 16 points and 9 assists to go along with nearly five boards and two steals. Wall has dealt with several minor injuries, but when healthy has shown flashes of his blazing speed and astonishing athleticism. Turnovers and a low field goal percentage (39 percent) are among his faults, but both are common among rookies, especially point guards. With an improved jump shot, the Wizards should have one of the league's elite point guards on their hands for years to come.
Wall and Griffin are really the only candidates (though the Knicks' Landry Fields has had a productive year), as the 2010 draft class has been less than impressive. Shockingly, I have to go with Griffin here. Twelfth in the league in scoring, and fourth in rebounding as a rookie, nonetheless. The choice is obvious. Blake Superior has electrified fans all season and has, by all accounts, exceeded the lofty expectations of a No. 1 pick. As the first rookie to be selected to the All Star Game since 2003, Griffin has made watching Clippers basketball tolerable, and dare I say... enjoyable.