The Sixth Man: And the envelope, please: the 2011-12 NBA Awards
Philadelphia, PA – It's been a far from typical NBA season.
The lockout meant a truncated schedule filled with quirks, including the feared back-to-back-to-back games.
The league has been able to fit 66 games into a grueling four months as coaches tried to search for practice time while at the same time resting veterans as much as possible with an eye toward the postseason.
Young teams with fresh legs like Philadelphia roared out of the gates before a pair of tortoises, San Antonio and Boston, showed that experience still mattered.
No matter the circumstances, the cream generally rises to the top and in that way the 2011-12 campaign was no different than any other.
So, with the regular season nearing its conclusion, it's time to take a look back at this bizarre campaign and give you The Sports Network's take on the NBA's major hardware.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: NIKOLA PEKOVIC, MINNESOTA
Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum is the heavy favorite here and will likely win the award, but that misses the point. Everyone already knew Bynum was one of the top two or three centers in the game coming into the season. He was able to stay healthy and took on a bigger role in Hollywood thanks to the absence of Lamar Odom.
Pekovic, on the other hand, took off in Minnesota, raising his scoring average from 5.5 ppg to nearly 14 and improving his rebounding totals from just under 3.0 to well over 7.0. Perhaps the strongest player in the game, the Montenegrin big man is on the verge of joining Bynum as one of the NBA's top pivots.
"I think he's had a great year and gives us a lot of hope at that position for the future," Wolves coach Rick Adelman said.
Others under consideration: Bynum, L.A. Lakers; Ersan Ilyasova, Milwaukee; Ryan Anderson, Orlando; DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: JAMES HARDEN, OKLAHOMA CITY
Metta World Peace's elbow heard round the world may have stopped "The Beard" for the time being but Harden is the runaway choice for Sixth Man of the Year.
The Arizona State product's value to the Thunder can't be measured by statistics, although those are pretty impressive. He's third on OKC in scoring behind All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook and can fill up a stat sheet with rebounds, assists and steals. He's also an incredibly efficient offensive player, shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor, 40 percent from long range and 85 percent from the foul line.
Perhaps Harden's greatest impact, however, is the steadying influence he brings to the floor, especially with dynamic players like Durant and Westbrook on hand who need their shots. Harden never forces play and let's the game come to him.
Any Oklahoma City championship aspirations certainly hinge on Harden's ability to return quickly from the concussion at the hands of World Peace.
Others under consideration: Lou Williams, Philadelphia; Jason Terry, Dallas; Mo Williams, L.A. Clippers; Thaddeus Young, Philadelphia
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: SERGE IBAKA, OKLAHOMA CITY
Dwight Howard's three-year reign here is likely done with Ibaka looking like a worthy candidate to take over.
"Air Congo" is the best natural shot blocker in basketball with a wingspan of a Learjet. The 6-foot-10 standout is leading the NBA in swats at 3.65 bpg (the most since Theo Ratliff averaged 3.74 back in 2000-01), far ahead of No. 2 JaVale McGee (2.50). He also recorded his first career triple-double against the Denver Nuggets, scoring 14 points, grabbing 15 rebounds and getting a career-high 11 blocks, becoming the first player in franchise history to record a triple-double with double-digit blocks.
Others under consideration: Howard, Orlando; Tyson Chandler, New York; Andre Iguodala, Philadelphia; LeBron James, Miami; Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers.
ROOKIE OF YEAR: KYRIE IRVING, CLEVELAND
It was a two-horse race for most of the season with Irving running out in front of fellow point guard Ricky Rubio. The Spaniard's season-ending ACL injury in early March sealed the deal for Irving, although the Duke product was the prohibitive favorite even before that. Rubio's injury and the Timberwolves' ensuing collapse, however, did illustrate just how well he was playing.
Irving has impressive quickness and penetrating ability that had some comparing him to Chris Paul and Isiah Thomas. A sturdy 6-foot-3 player who weighs in at just under 200 pounds, Irving has answered most of the questions that hounded him before he was the No. 1 overall selection in last June's draft. A toe injury, of course, limited him to just 11 games in his one season at Duke, leaving more than a few scouts whispering that the physicality of the NBA would be far too much for the young star.
Instead, Irving has handled the wear and tear of a condensed, lockout- shortened season well enough and has been able to play in 50 of Cleveland's games and is averaging a team-high 18.8 points, along with 5.5 assists and 3.8 rebounds.
"He has a maturity level about himself that is totally different than any 19 (20)-year-old I have met," Cavs coach Byron Scott said. "He has surpassed our expectations and probably everybody in all of basketball."
Others under consideration: Rubio, Minnesota; Kenneth Faried, Denver.
COACH OF THE YEAR: GREGG POPOVICH, SAN ANTONIO
Indiana's Frank Vogel is going to win it and is certainly deserving, but Popovich is heads and shoulders above his peers.
Most thought a lockout-shortened 66-game season short on off-days and practice time didn't figure to be the friend of any veteran group with significant mileage on its legs. But, Popovich has pulled all the right strings, resting his veterans and slowly injecting new blood into his lineup, most notably Tiago Splitter, Gary Neal, Danny Green and rookie Kawhi Leonard.
We felt (building a bench was necessary) with our guys getting a little older," Popovich said. "We have shown confidence in them from the get-go, throw them out on the floor and let them see what it's like, and let them make mistakes. Get on them when necessary and love them when necessary."
Others under consideration: Vogel, Indiana; Doc Rivers, Boston; Tom Thibodeau, Chicago.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER: LEBRON JAMES, MIAMI
A solid race for most of the season with James, Durant and Bryant able to make legitimate claims to the throne.
Tony Parker was the best player on the best team but voters like numbers, so he was never a serious candidate although that kind of thinking is admittedly specious. Bryant, meanwhile, fell off late in the season due to his left shin injury, leaving KD and LBJ to sort things out.
James remains the most gifted player in basketball, a freakish combination of athleticism, size and strength that is virtually unstoppable when the jumper is falling. He's also one of the game's top defenders, willing and capable of checking four different positions. Durant, meanwhile, is the game's best pure scorer and an underrated defender who can use his length to make things very difficult in the half-court.
If the Thunder had finished with the NBA's best record, Durant probably would have gotten over the top, but a number of late-season hiccups by OKC opened the door for LeBron to get his third MVP nod. Heck, even KD himself acknowledged that James deserves it.
"He deserves all the love (for MVP)," Durant told The Oklahoman. "He's playing phenomenal basketball. I'm just trying to get better every single game and trying to help my team as much as I can. I'm just blessed to be in that conversation."
Others under consideration: Durant, Oklahoma City; Bryant, L.A. Lakers; Parker, San Antonio; Chris Paul, L.A. Clippers; Kevin Love, Minnesota.