The end of another long NBA regular season is in sight, which means it's time to hand out postseason awards.
It's hard to go vastly wrong this year, since each award category seems to have several worthwhile candidates. There are also several highly suspect candidates getting mention from the folks with national audiences, but that shouldn't come as a complete surprise, considering it was one of those national-audience types — ESPN.com’s Frank Hughes — who predicted the Jazz would be the worst NBA team ever.
That has to rank up there with predictions like that made in 1927 by the head of Warner Brothers studio, who said nobody would want to hear talking movies.
Or the Decca Recording Co. executive who rejected the Beatles in 1962, on the grounds that guitar music was on the way out.
Lack of foresight aside, what we have here is choices for the top awards, along with the likely actual award winners and some honorable mentions.
Most valuable player
Who should win: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
Who will win: Garnett
Strong arguments could be made for Tim Duncan, without whom the Spurs wouldn't be a legitimate contender, or Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal, but Garnett has better numbers than those guys and the Timberwolves have the best record in far and away the league's toughest division. He has played every game, too. Kings' Peja Stojakovic would get more votes if he played defense, and Pistons' Ben Wallace might be a serious candidate if he was more of an offensive threat.
Rookie of the year
Who should win: LeBron James, Cavaliers
Who will win: James
James was going to win this on hype alone, but his late-season performance legitimately pushed him ahead of the Nuggets' Carmelo Anthony. Denver's recent struggles and Anthony's much-publicized refusal to re-enter a game have damaged his candidacy. Their stats are almost dead-even, so don't look to that to settle the debate. There were some other decent rookies out there, but nobody who seriously deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as these guys.
Coach of the year
Who should win: Jerry Sloan, Jazz
Who will win: Hubie Brown, Grizzlies
Brown's going to win because his team, not generally expected to make the playoff field, went from 28 wins to 50 and is going to end up with the No. 5 or 6 seed in the tough Western Conference. But Sloan deserves this for a lot of reasons that are going to be overlooked by all but the most knowledgeable voters. Consider: The Jazz's current starting lineup doesn't have a single guy who was a regular starter last season; the Jazz have lost numerous players to injuries, including two — Matt Harpring and Keon Clark (since traded) — who were expected to be among their top five players; and nobody — absolutely nobody — expected them to be vying for a playoff berth with three games left in the season. Add to this the fact there were serious questions about whether the sometimes brusque Sloan could deal with younger players heading into this season, and it's clear the Jazz coach has done a masterful job. Forget that lifetime-achievement stuff — he deserves it for what he's done this season.
Most improved player
Who should win: Andei Kirilenko, Jazz
Who will win: Zach Randolph, Blazers
This one causes voters all sorts of problems, because the criteria are so vague. Do you give it to a guy like Utah's Carlos Arroyo, who went from not playing at all to starting for a borderline playoff team? Or to Utah's Andrei Kirilenko, who went from sub to the key guy on his team? Or to some guy who worked his tail off to get better, which is hard to measure, since we aren't privy to most players' work ethics? Zach Randolph more than doubled his scoring average in Portland, Milwaukee's Michael Redd blossomed into one of the NBA's top gunners, Memphis' James Posey added offense to an already solid defensive game, and Cleveland's Carlos Boozer, after a surprising rookie season, got even better. It's a tough call, but the choice here is Kirilenko, because he went from sixth man to No. 1 man and All-Star.
Who should win: Antawn Jamison, Mavericks
Who will win: Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Just a gut feeling here that the hyperactive Ginobili will pull it out over Jamison. Ginobili shouldn't even be considered because he started 38 games this season — too many to be a true sixth man. Jamison has started just two games, and more impressively, he's accepted his role in Dallas without whining after having been the man in Golden State the last few years. Indiana's Al Harrington is another good choice and will get some votes. Utah's Raja Bell deserves — but probably won't get — some recognition for his high-energy play off the bench.
Who should win: Ben Wallace, Pistons
Who will win: Ron Artest, Pacers
Artest will win because Wallace has won it the past two seasons and voters get tired of casting ballots for the same guy. Artest is a worthy candidate, but Wallace is the pick here because he's less implosive than Artest and because a great interior defender has more seasonlong impact than a great perimeter defender. Kirilenko deserves mention for the way he causes opponents to worry about where he's lurking, Garnett and Duncan are solid team defenders, and San Antonio's clutch-and-grab specialist, Bruce Bowen, should get some votes.