After careful consideration, including informal consultation with several league executives, coaches and scouts, here is the awards ballot that I returned to the league office.
Most Valuable Player: Dirk Nowitzki. He has been the dominant player on the dominant team in the league. In every way, Nowitzki has been the force of nature elevating the Dallas Mavericks to one of the extraordinary regular seasons in NBA history.
If you want to take Dirk and Steve Nash side by side, the two-time defending MVP makes a compelling case that this was his best season ever – career highs in shooting percentage from the field (53.2) and three-point line (45.5) and assists (11.6). Still, Nash had Amare Stoudemire back with him this season and that went a long way to improving his production. Nash did nothing to lose out on that third straight MVP, as much as Nowitzki did everything to take it for himself.
Nowitzki was brilliant across the board – 24.6 points, 50 percent from the floor, and 41.9 percent on three-pointers. He shot 90 percent from the line, too. Night after night, Dirk found ways to deliver games late for the Mavericks. He is still the most impossible matchup in the league, a 7-footer who revolutionized the power forward position, and he has cleared a path for a generation of European big men to be utilized as true inside-outside threats in the NBA.
Most Valuable Player ballot: 1. Dirk Nowitzki (Mavericks), 2. Steve Nash (Suns), 3. Kobe Bryant (Lakers), 4. Chris Bosh (Raptors), 5. Tim Duncan (Spurs)
Rookie of the Year: Brandon Roy. This promises to be one of the most lopsided races in league history, with Roy holding a solid chance of winning the award without a dissenting vote. In a year of wildly up and down rookies, Roy (16.8 points, 45.6-percent shooting) was a relentlessly consistent performer for the Portland Trail Blazers, filling up the box score every game. Out of the entire 2006 draft, he was the only rookie to truly develop into the go-to player for his team.
Minnesota's Craig Smith is perhaps a surprise choice for third, but an undersized second-round pick who cracked the rotation at power forward and played as hard and tough as he did deserves a nod.
Rookie of the Year ballot: 1. Brandon Roy (Trail Blazers), 2. Andrea Bargnani (Raptors), 3. Craig Smith (Timberwolves).
Defensive Player of the Year: Tim Duncan. After struggling for most of the first half of the season with stops, the San Antonio Spurs recaptured their standing as one of the elite defensive teams in the league after the All-Star break. And that's the reason they were the NBA's best team the past few months. All along, though, Duncan had been his old, dominant self on the defensive end. His foot was healthy this season, and it showed in the way he dominated on the boards, blocked shots and played his usual brilliant defense in the post.
Shane Battier played every possession of every game, Jeff Van Gundy said, unlike any player he had ever coached. After learning his defense under one of the masters, Hubie Brown, Battier was the perfect addition in Houston for Van Gundy, one of the game's great contemporary defensive coaches. Even when Yao Ming sat out 33 games, Battier helped to keep the Rockets among the league leaders in the important defensive categories.
Defensive Player of the Year ballot: 1. Tim Duncan (Spurs), 2. Shane Battier (Rockets), 3. Marcus Camby (Nuggets).
Sixth Man Award: Leandro Barbosa. It wasn't until nearly three months into the season that the Spurs started bringing Manu Ginobili off the bench, but Barbosa – who did start 18 games himself – has been a staggering presence for the Phoenix Suns. Somehow, he seems to come into the game and do what seems like the impossible for these go-go Suns: Make them faster. At 43 percent, few players shoot the three in transition better than the 24-year-old Brazilian.
Sixth Man Award ballot: 1. Leandro Barbosa (Suns), 2. Manu Ginobili (Spurs), 3. Jerry Stackhouse (Mavericks).
Most Improved Player: Kevin Martin. Out of a small school with a strange hitch in his jump shot, no one was ever sure what to make of the Sacramento Kings drafting Kevin Martin at the end of the first round in 2004. And now, in his third season, Martin had elevated his rookie scoring average from 2.9 points a game, to 10.8 in 2005-2006, to 20.3 this season. Make no mistake, Martin willed his way into a front-line NBA player.