Monday, May 5, 2008

Opening Round Awards (Plus Second Round Picks)

Dirk Nowitski and Tony Parker both received MVP awards last season from the NBA yet neither of them had as much to do with the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs’ run through the playoffs as Tim Duncan. Unfortunately, the NBA only gives out MVP awards for regular season (Nowitski) and Finals (Parker) performances, neglecting the other playoff games a team must play and win to earn a championship.

In an attempt to right this wrong (and give my second round predictions a more readable hook), here are the Opening Round Awards, as determined by yours truly.

The Genesis Award (for the most valuable opening round performance)Winner: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

Amid the most compelling off the court storyline of the first round – the Jay-Z and LeBron vs. Soulja Boi and DeShawn Stevenson feud – James let his performance do the talking. His triple double in the decisive Game 6 victory on the road gave Cleveland an extra couple days to prepare for its second round showdown with Boston.

James is a model of consistency. After leading the league in scoring with an average of exactly 30 points per game, he finished one point shy of averaging exactly 30 for the series as well. I think he’ll settle for the scoring average dip to 29.8 along with 9.5 rebounds, 7.7 assists and a series win.

The Randy Moss Award (for the all-world talent who plays when he wants to)
Winner: Rasheed Wallace, Detroit Pistons

Wallace is routinely touted by teammates, opponents and observers as the most talented Detroit Pistons player. Yet Chauncey Billups and Rip Hamilton have each made one more all-star team as a member of the Pistons, and defensive stalwart Tayshaun Prince has a higher scoring average. Wallace is a wild card. You never know what or when he’s going to deliver the goods.

Still, after falling behind 2-1 in their first round series with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Detroit Pistons found themselves turning to Wallace. He dropped 20 in Game 4 and 19 in Game 5. And then, with the Pistons back in control of the series, Wallace turned back into a pumpkin and scored just six points in a Game 6 that Detroit dominated from the opening tip.

The Infomercial Award (for selling the world on a sham product)
Winner: Phoenix Suns

The Suns-Spurs first round series was billed as an epic clash of the titans. Shaq-Amare-Nash vs. Duncan-Ginobli-Parker. This was the much anticipated rematch from last year’s Western Conference semi-final that ended in controversy. And Game 1 set the stage with a dramatic double overtime comeback victory for the defending champion Spurs.

But Popovich and the Spurs, clearly embracing their role as NBA villains, employed the Hack-a-Shaq more frequently than any team had ever done before, turning the series into a clunker resembling one of O’Neal’s many missed free throws. The Suns managed just one victory, which came after they had already fell behind 3-0 in the series. And now, the run-and-gun Suns era under coach Mike D’Antoni is likely dead in Phoenix. It was a fun product while it lasted.

The Robin Award (for best sidekick)
Winner: Pau Gasol

It’s not often one sees a seven-foot sidekick, but Pau Gasol is the best Robin that the Lakers’ Batman, Kobe Bryant, could ever hope for. Gasol’s game complements Kobe’s perfectly and Gasol’s personality and ego allow him to go about his business while Kobe carries the Hollywood headlines. There is arguably no better fit in the league for Kobe in terms of a big man with that combination of skills and demeanor. Maybe Tim Duncan. Maybe.

Gasol dominated Denver in Game 1 of the Lakers’ four game sweep and when the Nuggets shifted more attention to the big man, Bryant flourished with 49 points in Game 2. It’s been reported that Bryant will be announced as MVP this week. If that happens, Gasol deserves credit as the Lakers’ most valuable sidekick.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf Award (for the team no one believes in)
Winner: Orlando Magic

After the Orlando Magic won their first playoff series since the departure of Shaquille O’Neal in 1996, the general reaction was a non-reaction. The Magic handily disposed of the Toronto Raptors in five games, winning three of their games by at least 10 points. Magic star Dwight Howard dominated the series with three 20-point, 20-rebound games.

Perhaps it’s because two of the games were played north of the border or because one of Orlando’s most recognizable names, J.J. Reddick is buried deep on the Magic bench. Whatever the rationale, this is a 50-win team that no one thinks has a chance in round two. And, quite frankly, neither do I.

The Chiropractor Award (for carrying the team on his back)
Winner: Joe Johnson

The Hawks eventually lost the series, but Joe Johnson elevated his status among the NBA’s best guards with his play in the series, particularly the Hawks’ Game 4 victory when Johnson outscored the Celtics 20-17 in the fourth quarter.

Making his first playoff appearance since he was a key member of the 2005 Phoenix Suns, Johnson averaged 20 points per game in helping the Hawks shock the Celtics with three home victories in Atlanta. His composure down the stretch helped the Hawks win its games down the stretch and gave Atlanta something to look forward to next season.

The George Costanza Award (for being stuck in a supporting role)
Winner: Deron Williams

The show was called Seinfeld. Jerry was the man. George was best friend of the man. After Chris Paul took the league by storm this season, the point guard position might as well be renamed the CP3. That leaves other emerging star point guards like Deron Williams playing the role of George. Entertaining? Yes, but this isn’t his show.

It’s pronounced DARE-in not de-RON or DEE-ron. And he’s running the show for the Utah Jazz better than anyone since John Stockton. He delivered a 25-point, 9-assist, 6-rebound performance in the Game 6 series-clinching victory against Houston. And he may be the most underrated player in the NBA today. Hubie Brown called Deron Williams an all-star during Game 1 of the Jazz-Lakers series Sunday. No one thought much of it because it sounds like a fact. It should be. In reality, however, Williams has never been an all-star. Well, he’s played like one, but he’s never made an all-star team. Not yet anyway.

The Ric Flair Award (for waiting too long to retire)
Winner: Jason Kidd

It’s only fitting that Ric Flair’s “Woo!” is played every time Chris Paul scores in New Orleans because the man giving up many of those baskets, Jason Kidd, saw Paul seize the torch as the best point guard in the league. Kidd was that man for years, but Steve Nash took it and Paul has it now.

Kidd’s game was built on his ability to penetrate, dish and defend. Now unable to move fast enough to blow by or keep up with the likes of Paul, Kidd was reduced to a shell of his former shelf and dared to shoot uncontested jumpers, which he often passed up. Sure enough, the Mavericks were eliminated in five easy games and the experiment with Jason Kidd looks like a failure. Like Flair, though, Kidd’s legacy remains intact as one of the all-time greats.


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