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04-16-2003, 10:18 AM
NBA awards: Duncan for MVP
by Chad Ford
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With the regular season winding down and ballots due this week, here's a look at how I'd cast my votes for the NBA's annual awards. Thursday we'll unveil the Insider "Bizzaro" Awards for the mirror opposites of these players.

MVP

Tim Duncan, Spurs: The qualifications for MVP are never clear. I usually use some combination of best player in the NBA and the player who is most valuable to his team. I usually demand the player be having an extraordinary year and that his team be doing better than expected. This year, I'll deviate from that formula a bit. There's no doubt Shaquille O'Neal is the most dominant player in the NBA and probably the most valuable to his team. But he's having an off year, and the Lakers are underachieving. Tracy McGrady, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are the most skilled and versatile players in the NBA, and the Magic, Lakers and T-Wolves would be battling the Cavs for the worst record in the NBA without them. But my vote this year goes to Duncan. His team overachieved all year. The Spurs' second-best player is a 20-year-old point guard from France who barely slipped into the draft's first round in 2001. The rest of Duncan's supporting cast would struggle to get the starting nod on half of the teams in the NBA.

Runner-up
Tracy McGrady, Magic: I know Garnett probably will finish second in the voting this year, but McGrady's dominance at the age of 23 is remarkable. No one can take over a game the way T-Mac can. Inside, outside, on the boards, on the break, on the defensive end -- he's the most complete player in the NBA. If he had gotten any help from Grant Hill this season, I think he would win the award hands down.

Rookie of the Year
Amare Stoudemire, Suns: I love Yao Ming, and I'm willing to acknowledge that Caron Butler had the best year, statistically, of any rookie. But Stoudemire's impact on the Suns this season, combined with the fact that he was dancing at his high school prom at this time last season, gives him the edge. Without him, the Suns would be battling the Nuggets for the worst record in the West. With him, the Spurs are sweating a first-round matchup with Phoenix in the playoffs. Plus, name another rookie who actually dominated games this season. Yao was consistently solid. Butler put up nice numbers on a bad team. But Stoudemire's play often overshadowed all-stars Stephon Marbury and Shawn Marion. Yao and Butler can't claim that.

Runner-up
Yao Ming, Rockets: People will be tempted to vote for Yao because 1) they thought he'd be a bust; 2) he's unbelievably talented for someone that size; 3) he makes Shawn Bradley look like a freak and 4) he's the most charming player in the league. Period. I'm one of those people.

Most improved
Matt Harpring, Jazz: This is a tough category, and there are lots of candidates. I'm tempted to vote for someone like Gilbert Arenas or Tony Parker. But both are in just their second seasons and are supposed to be improved. I usually prefer to give this vote to someone who's been around for a while but who elevated his game to a whole new level. Ricky Davis is the clear leader of that group, statistically, but we're all dumber from watching him play. You can credit Jerry Sloan's system for part of Harpring's success, but his improved outside shooting (30 percent on 3-pointers last season, 41 percent this season) has really opened up his game. Harpring hasn't had the dramatic improvements that others have, but his steady improvement has pushed him from a bench player to budding all-star. That's a tough threshold to cross.

Runner-up
Corey Maggette, Clippers: In a season where nothing went right for the Clippers, Maggette's quiet improvement was even more impressive. I was beginning to write him off after a lackluster third season in L.A. last year. But his 16.8 ppg, five rpg and some improved 3-point shooting have taken Maggette from intriguing prospect to kid on the verge of exploding. If he moves to Denver next season, he could blow up.

Sixth man
Michael Redd, Bucks: Another tough category. Redd's uncanny shooting ability from beyond the arc makes him the most dangerous guy in the league coming off the bench. Only Ray Allen and Antoine Walker have hit more 3s this season. Without him, the Bucks aren't even close to a playoff team. How many other sixth men can you say that about?

Runner-up
Bobby Jackson, Kings: You can't stop him. As good as the Kings are, Jackson is the guy who makes them my favorite to win it all this year.

Defensive Player of the Year
Ben Wallace, Pistons: It's not even close folks. When a guy who averages 6.9 ppg is mentioned as a legit MVP candidate ...

Runner-up
Ron Artest, Pacers: Forget about the busted cameras, flagrant fouls and bizarre behavior. There's not a small forward in the league that looks forward to playing against Artest. He's strong, quick, extremely aggressive and a little bit crazy. You might not like him, but you want him on that wall ... you need him on that wall.

Coach of the Year
Gregg Popovich, Spurs: All season I've said I'm voting for Golden State's Eric Musselman. What he's done with the Warriors is amazing. But I've had a last-minute change of heart. What Popovich has done in San Antonio is equally amazing. Yes, he has Tim Duncan. But the rest of his team -- Tony Parker, Stephen Jackson, an aging David Robinson, Malik Rose, rookie Emanuel Ginobili and Bruce Bowen -- doesn't exactly have the ring of World Champions, does it? The Spurs are doing the most with the least this season. When the "most" translates into the best record in the NBA, that has to count for something.

Runner-up
Rick Carlisle, Pistons: Carlisle proved that his rookie season was no fluke. He has everyone on the same page. Carlisle uses a large rotation of versatile players for maximum impact. The Pistons are the best defensive team in the league. You don't get that way without your coach screaming in your ear.

Executive of the Year
Joe Dumars, Pistons: Every move he makes turns to gold. Richard Hamilton for Jerry Stackhouse? Brilliant. Mehmet Okur in the second round? Steal of the draft. Chauncey Billups for the mid-level exception. Inspired. Dumars now has the Pistons on the verge of an Eastern Conference championship without paying the luxury tax. He's the man.

Runner-up
Kiki Vandeweghe, Nuggets: In the space of a year and a half, the Nuggets, in one fell swoop, cleared more than $80 million in cap room, hired a gem of a coach in Jeff Bzdelik, stocked the team with intriguing young prospects like Nene Hilario, Rodney White and Nikoloz Tskitishvili, and are looking at $16-18 million in cap room this summer. Heck, the Nuggets even found a way to get the best out of Juwan Howard. If they find a winner in the draft (LeBron, Darko or Carmelo) and grab a player like Gilbert Arenas and/or Corey Maggette via free agency, the Nuggets will be a sleeper out West next season.

All-NBA First Team
C Ben Wallace, Pistons: The most intimidating player in the NBA.
F Tim Duncan, Spurs: The most skilled big man in the NBA.
F Kevin Garnett, Wolves: Another first-round ouster will get him demoted next year.
G Tracy McGrady, Magic: The most complete player in the NBA.
G Kobe Bryant, Lakers: Was MJ any better at Kobe's age?

All-NBA Second Team
C Shaquille O'Neal, Lakers: Can't take half the season off and make the first team.
F Dirk Nowitzki, Mavs: The most versatile player in the NBA.
F Chris Webber, Kings: The most underrated player in the NBA.
G Michael Jordan, Wizards: Don't diss the old guy. Without him, the Wizards are the worst team in the league.
G Jason Kidd, Nets: Still the best point guard, but the magic just wasn't there this year.

All-NBA Third Team
F Jermaine O'Neal, Pacers: Still just 24 years old and getting better ... scary.
F Peja Stojakovic, Kings: Showed he could carry the Kings without CWebb.
G Allen Iverson, Sixers: The best little guy in the league.
G Paul Pierce, Celtics: Didn't have as many answers this year.
G Stephon Marbury, Suns: Became a team player.

All-NBA Fourth Team
F Karl Malone, Jazz: He keeps going and going and going.
F Jamal Mashburn, Hornets: Legit MVP season for the Hornets.
F Gary Payton, Bucks: An off year, but still the second-best point guard in the league.
G Steve Francis, Rockets: Big props for changing his game to fit Yao in.
G Steve Nash, Mavs: Last year's most improved player didn't lose a step.

All-NBA Fifth Team
F Shawn Marion, Suns: The matrix records a career year.
F Antawn Jamison, Warriors: Led the Warriors on their improbable run.
G Allan Houston, Knicks: Almost led team to improbable playoff berth.
G Tony Parker, Spurs: Best young point guard in the league.
G Gilbert Arenas, Warriors: Second-best young point guard in the NBA.

All-Rookie Team
C Yao Ming, Rockets: Is Yao already the third-best center in the league behind Shaq and Big Ben?
F Amare Stoudemire, Suns: Most dominant rookie season in recent memory.
F Caron Butler, Heat: Great numbers and will only get better.
F Nene Hilario, Nuggets: Juwan Howard compared him to a young Chris Webber.
G Emanuel Ginobili, Spurs: Slow start, but will play big role in Spurs' title run.

Arenas packing for Denver?

Gilbert Arenas loves the attention. As fans beg and plead with Arenas, who becomes a restricted free agent this summer, to stay with the Warriors, Arenas gets philosophical about his situation.

"I was a nobody," Arenas told the L.A. Daily News. "I didn't have any guarantee of making the team or making any money. I was treated like a second-round pick and looked at like a second-round pick. After awhile, I even felt like a second-round pick." Less than two years later, he's the one guy the Warriors can't live without. The team drafted Jason Richardson and Troy Murphy ahead of him in 2001, but everyone understands that Arenas is the key to the Warriors continued success.

"In two years he'll be one of the top one or two point guards in the NBA," coach Eric Musselman said. That kind of talk probably doesn't help things. The Nuggets, Jazz, Spurs, Heat, Magic and possibly the Wizards will have more money than the Warriors to sign Arenas this summer. "I'm in a good position," Arenas said. "And that's a big difference from draft day, because I was so miserable I didn't want to look at anyone or talk to anyone that day. . .I went home that night and threw out everything I bought thinking I was going in the first round," Arenas said. "Jewelry, clothes, everything. I didn't think I deserved it."

Sources inside the Warriors told Insider recently that Arenas is still angry about how he was treated his rookie season. He also had a small grudge with Musselman, who initially awarded the starting point guard position to Bob Sura at the start of the season. Arenas outplayed Sura in camp, but Musselman wanted a veteran running the team. When Sura went down with a hamstring injury, Musselman had no choice but to play Arenas. He hasn't forgotten. When asked at the All-Star Game how Musselman helped him this season, this was his response. "He didn't," Arenas told Insider. "I had to help myself. Everyone says they believe in me now, but where were those guys last year or even at the start of this year."

Arenas has been closely linked to the Nuggets during the season. He's close with GM Kiki Vandeweghe, the Nuggets can give him a starring role and they can offer him upwards of $7 million a season -- almost double what the Warriors can give him. The Heat and Wizards are also expected to show major interest in Arenas this summer. However, several league sources have told Insider that Arenas to the Nuggets is a done deal.

Arenas disputes that notion. "I have no idea where I will end up, I'm going to let my agent do his job and then I will take a look at things and make a decision," Arenas said. "I don't have any favorites and I haven't made a decision. At this point, the team people least expect me to sign with might be the team I end up with. We just have to see how it all plays out."

GM Paxson sets Bulls agenda

New Bulls GM John Paxson didn't take long to weigh in on several issues swirling around the Bulls. Here's his response to several questions posed by reporters at a news conference on Monday.

On Jay Williams and Jamal Crawford playing together: "With two small guards, it's tough to play them together all the time. But there are situations where it can happen. Look at Sacramento with Bobby Jackson and Mike Bibby playing together at times. What you have to do is find the right mix of guys who play the best together. That's our job as a staff and the coaches' job on the floor."

Paxson also said that he's already contacted Crawford's agent, Aaron Goodwin. It's pretty clear that either Crawford or Williams will be shopped this summer if Paxson remains unconvinced that the two can play together. Crawford's eligible for an extension this summer, which could be a sticking point. His strong play the last month of the season has dramatically increased his value -- a la Ricky Davis last year.

What will the Bulls do? "It's all up to Chicago," Goodwin told the Chicago Sun Times. "Jamal has played himself into a situation where there's a lot of interest. He's showing he's one of the top guards out there. It's a good situation for Chicago if Chicago wants to step up and extend his contract, and it's a good situation for Jamal to test the free-agent market if they don't extend him."

Paxson will have to be careful with his money. Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler will be eligible for extension during the summer of 2004. "Not everybody can be paid maximum salary," Paxson said. "These guys haven't tasted winning yet. They don't understand how good that feels and how special it is to be a part of a team that does win. That's why you're in a hurry to win. That may sound like an idealistic thing, but I'm going to at least try to approach these guys in that manner."

On keeping all of the young players together next season: "When you think about our strengths, we have value from young people. But we also have our midlevel exception, and this team is getting people's attention. At some point you're going to have to eliminate some parts that don't fit and move on from there and, hopefully, add some veterans to the mix. But it's still way too early for that."

When Paxson says "way too early for that", does he mean that it's too early because the season isn't over yet, or is he talking about keeping the Bulls young players together for another season? One source inside Chicago told Insider that Paxson generally agrees with the notion that having so many young player fighting for minutes and attention is destructive and he'll take steps this summer to alleviate the problem.

On the possibility of exceeding the luxury-tax threshold to keep the young talent intact: "[Chairman] Jerry Reinsdorf told me it's not so much about making money, but he certainly doesn't want to lose money. The luxury tax becomes a problem. But as he proved the last time around when this team won, he's more than willing to spend money. I think he has been great with giving out resources for the organization to win ever since he has been here."

That's key for Paxson as he goes into free agency this summer. The Bulls are over the cap, but will be around seven million below the luxury-tax threshold going into this season. Extensions for Crawford and Marcus Fizer would put them in roughly the same position for 2004. However, if Curry and Chandler continue to improve and demand big contracts, the Bulls will definitely be in luxury tax land starting in 2005.

On pick-up games at Hoops The Gym, a place former GM Jerry Krause despised because his young players preferred playing there instead of the Berto Center: "I don't have any problem with that. Players like to play. You have to keep sharp. The younger you are, the more you want to play in those pick-up games. The older you get, you know how important it is to stay sharp with your skills. I'd actually like to see [visiting] players come [to Berto Center]. We have so many NBA players who come to Chicago or live here in the summer. It's something we'll try to figure out as the summer goes along."

Playoff-tology

It's the last day of the season and we still don't have a clue who is going to be stuck playing the Lakers in round one.

The Blazers and Lakers both won Tuesday night, meaning that the Lakers can still finish with either the fourth, fifth or sixth seed in the playoffs.

The Lakers play the Warriors, the Blazers play the Clippers and the T-Wolves play the Grizzlies.

Here are the scenarios:

The Mavs will play the Lakers if either: the Lakers lose or both the T-Wolves and Blazers win tonight.

The Mavs will will play the Blazers if: the Blazers lose and the T-Wolves and Lakers win.

The Mavs will play the T-Wolves if: the T-Wolves lose and the Blazers and Lakers win.

The Wolves get home-court advantage in the first round if: they win tonight or the Blazers lose.

The Blazers get home-court advantage in the first round if: they win tonight and the T-Wolves lose.

The other seeds in the Western Conference are set.

The East is a little more complicated.

The Pacers will get the third seed if they win tonight against the Nets. If the Pacers lose they will be the fourth seed.

The Sixers will get the third seed if they win tonight against the Wizards and the Pacers lose.

The Sixers will get the fourth seed if the Pacers win and the Hornets lose.

The Hornets will get the fourth seed if they win, the Pacers win and the Sixers lose. In that scenario the Sixers would fall to the fifth seed in the East.

The Bucks and Magic are tied for the seventh seed in the East. The winner of their game, in Orlando tonight will get the seventh seed.

The Pistons and Nets are a lock for the first and second seed respectively. The Celtics have the sixth seed locked up.

Peep Show

Cleveland Cavaliers: Will the team blow the whole season by losing to the Raptors tonight? That's what's at stake here. If the Cavs beat the injury-riddled Raptors and the Nuggets lose to the Lakers (very likely), the two teams would finish tied for the worst record in the league. A tie would cost the Cavs 25 lottery balls (both Denver and Cleveland would have a 22.5 percent at the top pick) in the race for LeBron James. Still, the Cavs claim they'll play to win. "People who say that we should lose games on purpose can kiss my butt," Zydrunas Ilgauskas told the News Herald. "But I'd like to have LeBron here as much as anybody else."

Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors: Speaking of blowing the lottery, the Heat's win over the Raptors Tuesday night ruined their chances at having the third-worst record in the league. If the Raptors lose to the Cavs, they'll finish third and have a 15 percent chance of landing LeBron. If the Raptors win (the Cavs aren't exactly eager to win this game either), they'll finish in a tie with Miami for third place. The two would split 277 ping-pong ball combinations and flip a coin for the odd one and a 13.9 percent shot at the top pick.

Sacramento Kings, Dallas Mavericks: Both teams still have something to play for tonight. A Dallas loss against San Antonio combined with a Kings victory would allow Sacramento to tie the Mavericks with a regular-season record of 59-23. If the two meet in the second round, the Kings would gain the home-court advantage by virtue of winning the season series 3-1. If the Mavs win, or the Kings lose, Dallas would own the home-court advantage.

Detroit Pistons: Pistons fans must be saying their prayers. It looks like Ben Wallace will be healthy enough to play in Game 1 of the playoffs. Wallace will wear a special brace to protect a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee. He has worked out privately for two straight days. "It looks like he's going to give it a go," John Hammond, the team's vice president of basketball operations, told the Detroit Free Press.

Toronto Raptors: According to the Toronto Star, Lenny Wilkens could be fired as soon as the NBA season ends tonight in Cleveland. GM Glen Grunwald told fans Tuesday night that changes were in the works. "Tonight is not the night to rehash the season," he said. "All of us ... share in your disappointment. We will not stand for this anymore. We will do all it takes to get this franchise back on track." Asked if he'd seen his last home game as head coach of the Raptors, Wilkens said: "I don't know. We'll find out. We've been talking and we'll talk more when I get back. And we'll see."