Work stoppages can do funny things to professional sports leagues. Mostly, they can create mass chaos.
That’s pretty much been the case with the NBA and its lockout this year — a year that packed 66 regular-season games into four grueling months.
It’s also been a year in which we’ve seen hot-starting teams suddenly go cold (Sixers, Trail Blazers), withering old clams find new life (Celtics, Spurs) and nagging injuries dim some of the league’s brightest stars (Derrick Rose, Dwight Howard).
All of it makes it even more difficult to dish out annual awards, as this season has truly been like no other. With so many games in so few nights, it’s tough for an individual to play with any type of over-the-top determination. It’s tough for an individual to do what he does best night after night after thankless night.
Here’s our nod to those who came closest during the often outrageous ride that was the 2011-12 season:
Most Valuable Player: Kevin Durant, F, Thunder
Occasionally viewed as a guy who does little more than a score a lot (27.8 ppg), Durant also acts as calming influence on a young team many favor to come out of the West. He never shies from the game’s biggest shots, and his ability to drain them remains underrated. Without him, the Thunder would be the Rockets, who were eliminated from playoff contention Sunday night. Without LeBron, the Heat would still be pretty darn good. Runners-up: LeBron James, SF, Heat; Kevin Love, PF, Timberwolves.
Defensive Player of the Year: Shawn Marion, F, Mavericks
He defended Chris Paul and Blake Griffin in the same game — and did it very well. That alone should give Marion the edge. Granted, he doesn’t put up the impressive shot-blocking numbers of Howard (or anywhere close), but should guys really be punished for getting it done on the perimeter? More accurately, Howard protects the rim. Marion, at the age of 33, protects the entire floor. Runners-up: Dwight Howard, C, Magic; Serge Ibaka, PF, Thunder.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers
As one writer asked, “Who else is there to vote for?” Some might answer Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio, but a late-season knee injury ruined his slim chances. More than that, Irving alone makes the Cavs competitive. He can dribble, drive, shoot and pass — and despite being the No. 1 overall draft pick, he’s better than most folks envisioned. The question isn’t whether Irving deserves the award, it’s if he’ll be the first guard to ever win it via unanimous vote. (Big men Griffin, David Robinson and Tim Duncan are the only other three to win it unanimously.) Runners-up: Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves; Kenneth Faried, F, Nuggets.
Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden, SG, Thunder
No less than 20 teams would receive an upgrade if Harden were their starting two guard. And yes, that list includes the Thunder. OK, so maybe Harden wouldn’t score quite as much if he had to tangle with Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and others right from the start. But with Durant and Russell Westbrook already in the lineup, all the Thunder want is for Harden to make it barely noticeable when those two need a rest. Amazingly, he has found a way. Runners-up: Jason Terry, Mavericks, Lou Williams, Sixers.
Most Improved Player: Andrew Bynum, C, Lakers
Prior to this season, Bynum put together the once-in-a-while big night that could occasionally surprise and annoy the opposition. Mostly, though, his inconsistency just annoyed Kobe Bryant. Now, Bynum is the league’s second-best center. You have to take him very seriously and it might not hurt to double-team him in the post. Bryant, and even Pau Gasol, are still fantastic. But if the Lakers make a run to the Finals, it’s because Bynum has come up big. Runners-up: Ryan Anderson, Magic; DeMarcus Cousins, Kings.
Coach of the Year: Frank Vogel, Pacers
The Pacers are likely to finish as a top three seed in the East. And guess how many All-Stars they had? OK, one — but even that was Roy Hibbert, the lanky center who sometimes just gets in the way of things. Don’t misunderstand. Hibbert is indeed solid. Danny Granger and David West are better than that, too. But do the Pacers really have top-three-seed talent? Most observers would say probably not. Yet Vogel has instituted a physical brand of team-first basketball that has turned this unsung bunch into a playoff sleeper. Runners-up: Tom Thibodeau, Bulls; Doc Rivers, Celtics.
Now for a few fictional honors …
Most Underrated Player: Kris Humphries, Nets
They say there’s a good woman behind every great man. That probably explains why Humphries is having the best season of his career following a divorce from Kim Kardashian. Either that, or it’s the result of his impending free agency, which tends to bring out the best in guys.
Best Player Older Than 37: Steve Nash, Suns
Seriously. Would you really believe the guy is 38 years old if weren’t for the constant reminders from the media (and his birth certificate)? Somehow, Nash continues to scoot around the court and keep the Suns in playoff contention while looking like a soccer player in high tops — not to mention someone who looks like he’s got five good years left.
Biggest Distraction: Lamar Odom, Mavericks
Again, you can blame a Kardashian. Plus, at least Dwight Howard was still really good when healthy.
Actually, Hickson has done a nice job and seems to have found his stride with the Blazers. But that’s a far cry from the savior at power forward the Kings expected to crown him. Instead, they couldn’t wait to get him out of town. That gives Hickson a slight edge over Omri Casspi, whom the Cavs had hoped would be their small forward of the future. Um, no.
Coach Most Likely to be Fired Next: Stan Van Gundy, Magic
Forget Dwight Howard, when it comes to Van Gundy getting fired, no one has campaigned nearly as much Van Gundy. Bottom line: It’s been a rough year for good coaches with moustaches (see: Mike D’Antoni).
Owner of the Year: Dan Gilbert, Cavaliers
Tweets more than most people’s 16-year old nieces. That’s a good thing in these days of millionaires and billionaires taking themselves too seriously. Gilbert rallies the fans and keeps hope alive, even when all seems lost. And if LeBron doesn’t win a title this year, Gilbert might be right about the post-King Cavs winning one first.
Next College Coach to Get an NBA Job: John Calipari, Kentucky
He promised to stay with the Wildcats. That’s like Kim Kardashian promising to stay married for more than seven months.