The annual Bizarro Awards

By Chad Ford
Tuesday, April 13

Every year NBA writers get together and honor the best in the league. For the most part, the process is pretty transparent. We honor pet projects. Praise those who exceeded our expectations or pat the folks on the back who made us look smart back in October.

Every year, with few exceptions, we come to near-unanimous agreement on everything, which means, by now, I'd have to poke at you with a stick every few minutes to keep you awake.

Instead of waxing poetically on each one. I'm just going to get it over with. Here's how my ballot would look for this year's postseason awards.

MVP: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
Runner-up: Peja Stojakovic, Kings
Commentary: Best record in the conference? The Wolves. Best player in the conference? Garnett. This isn't rocket science.

Rookie of the Year: Carmelo Anthony, Nuggets
Runner-up: LeBron James, Cavs
Commentary: James led on my ballot until the last week of the season. But as the Cavs petered out down the stretch, the young Anthony took the Nuggets on his back (much like he did Syracuse) and led them to the playoffs. He averaged 25 ppg on 44 percent shooting since the playoffs -- 26.5 ppg and 7.5 rpg in April. James' numbers were good (21.8 ppg on 43 percent shooting) but didn't have the same net effect as Carmelo's.

Sixth man: Manu Ginobili, Spurs
Runner-up: Antawn Jamison
Commentary: Tough call. Both guys gave up starting gigs to help their team's second unit. The Spurs started rolling when Ginobili agreed to the move. The Mavs never really got rolling all year. That gives the edge to Manu.

Most Improved: Andrei Kirilenko, Jazz
Runner-up: Michael Redd, Bucks
Commentary: The Jazz won 43 games this year -- many without Matt Harpring. If it wasn't for Kirilenko's development, the Jazz would've been the worst team in the league. With him, they almost made the playoffs. That should do it.

Defensive Player of the Year: Ron Artest, Indiana
Runner-up: Ben Wallace , Pistons
Commentary: Another tough call. The two best teams in the East had the league's two-best defenders. Artest gets the edge because of his versatility. On any given night Rick Carlisle can ask Artest to shut down the opposing teams best player, regardless of position. Big Ben has to stay in the paint.

Coach of the Year: Jerry Sloan, Jazz
Runner-up: Hubie Brown, Grizzlies
Commentary: The toughest call of all. Every year we in the media give this award to the coach whose team most exceeded our preseason expectations. It said here in October that the Jazz would only win 20 games. They more than doubled that win total -- largely without their best player. It also said here that the Grizzlies would be the seventh seed in the West. They not only made the playoffs, but are eyeing a fifth seed. My heart says Sloan. My head says Hubie. Both deserve it, but I'm going with my heart.

Executive of the Year: Jerry West, Grizzlies
Runner-up: Joe Dumars, Pistons
Commentary: West made most of his big moves last year, but that doesn't matter. His vision (which many questioned) has been remarkable. From hiring Hubie to surrounding him with players who will work hard and fit in a system, he's done a masterful job of rebuilding the worst team in the league in just two years. He barely edges out last year's winner, Dumars, who pulled off the trade of the year when he nabbed Rasheed Wallace for a bunch of expiring contracts. The Bucks' Larry Harris and the Nuggets' Kiki Vandeweghe also deserve mention.

With that out of the way . . . let's get on to more important things. It's time for Insider's third annual Bizzaro Awards, where we recognize the polar opposites of the gentleman we've listed above.

LVP
Chris Webber, Kings: The Kings were 44-15 without CWebb. 11-11 since he returned. Sure, Webber's struggled to come back from his injury. His explosiveness isn't there, nor is his lateral quickness. CWebb may still be a great player, but no one in the league has done more damage to his team in such a short time frame.

Runner-up: Shareef Abdur-Rahim, Blazers: Let's see. Abdur-Rahim averages 20.1 ppg and 36.8 mpg in Atlanta and his team is one of the worst in the league. He's traded to Portland, has his minutes dropped to 22.7 per game, scores just 9.7 ppg and the Blazers catch fire. For years we've been blaming Abdur-Rahim's team. But his disposability on the Blazers has been shocking. Even Darius Miles is doing well there.

Rookie Flop of the Year

Darko Milicic, Pistons: It's way too early to write off Darko or any other rookie for that matter. He's 18, on one of the two best teams in the East and mired behind two all-star-caliber forwards -- Ben and Rasheed Wallace. But we'd be lying if we said he wasn't the biggest disappointment. Most felt that Darko would, by mid-season, have some impact on the Pistons. Blame it on Larry Brown, the Pistons' depth or the kid's inability to pick up the NBA game fast enough, but Darko was the only pick in the top eight not to produce something this year. Still . . . and I know you're sick of hearing it . . . the kid is going to be really good. Patience.

Runner-up: Marcus Banks, Celtics: A last-minute surge in draft hysteria lifted Banks (widely regarded as a second-round pick until the last month of the draft) all the way to the lottery. Danny Ainge loved him. So far he's been a big disappointment. Unlike Darko, Banks played four years of college ball and was supposed to have the NBA body and athleticism to make a difference right now. Instead, he's averaged almost as many turnovers (1.6) as assists (2.1) and hasn't shown the smarts to be able to run a team. Will he eventually turn into a sixth man spark plug?

Least improved
Tyson Chandler, Bulls: A bad back has been a major part of the problem, but who wants to talk about a bad back on a 21-year-old? His scoring, shooting percentage and blocked shots are all down from last year. His 3.7 ppg on 36 percent shooting in March was pretty pitiful for a 7-footer. The fact that he can rebound is the only thing keeping him around right now.

Runner-up: Eddy Curry, Bulls: Surprise, surprise, two Bulls on the same list. Curry was our preseason pick for most improved. However, he showed up to camp out of shape and has never given the consistent defensive effort to stay in the game. He's still a talented low-post scorer, but if he gives up more points than he scores . . . what's the point?

12th man
Nick Van Exel, Warriors: Talk about your buyer's remorse. Remember when Chris Mullin and company were claiming that Van Exel was going to be the guy who led them to the playoffs. After being the spark plug that almost led the Mavs to the Finals, Van Exel rolled over this year. Between knee injuries (injuries the Warriors knew about before they traded for him) and a bad attitude on a bad team, Van Exel turned in the worst effort of his career and ended up starting only 29 games for Golden State.

Runner-up: Wally Szczerbiak, Timberwolves: Two years ago he was an all-star. This year injuries and a loaded Wolves roster pushed him out of the starting lineup and toward the end of the bench. His 9.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg and 44 percent shooting from the field are all career lows.

The Tim Floyd Award (Worst Coach of the Year)

Lenny Wilkens, Knicks: It's tough to call the league's winningest coach the worst coach of the year, but remember this -- Wilkens also has more losses than anyone in history. He was behind the Raptors' demise in Toronto, and has done little to get the Knicks going in New York. You think Isiah Thomas installed Wilkens so that, when he took the job from Lenny, everyone would agree that Zeke was an upgrade?

Runner-up: Tim Floyd, Hornets: Floyd is a nice man and a decent coach. His team has been saddled with injuries all season. Still, with so much talent, the team's shocking lack of unity and lackluster play down the stretch have to be blamed on someone. The players are pointing in Floyd's direction. Given the track record, is that so outrageous?

Enron Executive of the Year
Robert Rowell, Warriors: I could've put Garry St. Jean's name here, but we've established that he's no longer making all the decisions in Golden State. I could've put Chris Mullin's, but let's not pick on him until he actually takes the job. Instead, let's head to the source, Rowell, Chris Cohan's right hand man.

After the most promising Warriors season in a decade, Rowell let Gilbert Arenas slip away, traded Antawn Jamison and Jiri Welsch for Nick Van Exel and is on the verge of firing one of the better coaches in the NBA, Eric Musselman. While a few of their off-season acquisitions (Cliff Robinson, Calbert Chaney, Brian Cardinal) worked out very well, it appears that Rowell will fire Musselman for actually playing them over their young guys.

This team lacks front-office focus, and dumping Musselman and possibly losing Erick Dampier and Adonal Foyle this summer won't help things. After a one year mirage, the Warriors appear to be heading in the wrong direction again. While they have the young assets to turn the franchise around, given the track record, forgive us if we're not optimistic.

Runner-up: John Gabriel, Magic: I hate to pick on a guy who's already lost his job, but the Magic went from a playoff team to the worst team in the league despite adding one of the more coveted free agents (Juwan Howard) last summer. They dumped one of the better coaches in the business, Doc Rivers, and seemed to have alienated Tracy McGrady to the point that he's sure to bolt next summer. How bad did things get in Orlando? They had to replace Gabriel with a hockey guy. I'm not blaming Gabriel totally for the problem. We all know that Grant Hill's injury is the biggest problem they face. But still, Gabe's inability to cope with Hill's absence the past few years has finally caught up with the team.

Playoff-tology

The Nuggets' surprising win over the Kings on Monday locked them into the eight seed in the Western Conference. Combine that with the Rockets' win on Monday and we have now have a total of seven seeds locked in.

The Pacers will be the first seed in the East.

The Nets will be the second seed in the East.

The Pistons will be the third seed in the East.

The Celtics will be the eight seed in the East.

The Rockets will be the seven seed in the West.

The Nuggets will be the eight seed in the West.

What will happen the rest of the way? Here's our latest breakdown . . .

Memphis plays at Dallas tonight. If the Grizzlies win, they'll lock in the fifth seed and the Mavs slip to sixth in the West. If the Mavs win, they lock down the fifth seed and the Grizz move to the sixth seed. Either way, those two seeds will be decided tonight.

Everything else is going to come down to Wednesday night's games.

If Minnesota beats the Grizzlies in Memphis (remember, the Grizz will have nothing to play for) they lock down the No. 1 seed in the West. The Wolves will also grab the No. 1 seed in the West if the Spurs lose at home versus the Nuggets (who also have little to play for at this point).

If the Spurs beat the Nuggets and the Wolves lose to the Grizzlies, the Spurs get the No. 1 seed and the Wolves will fall to the third seed. If the Kings and Lakers win all of their remaining games and the Spurs lose to the Nuggets, the Kings would have the second seed, the Lakers would have the third seed and the Spurs would fall to the fourth seed.

The Kings can win the Pacific division and lock up the second seed with a win at Golden State on Wednesday. If the Kings lose and the Lakers defeat both the Warriors and the Blazers on Tuesday and Wednesday, the Lakers will grab the second seed and the Kings would fall to fourth. If the Lakers lose either game, they will be the fourth seed.

In the East, the Bucks and Heat are tied for fourth place. If the Bucks defeat the Raptors at home on Wednesday, they'll secure the fourth seed in the West. If that happens, the Heat will have the fifth seed, win or lose, and the Hornets will end up with the sixth seed if they win or the seventh seed if they lose and the Knicks win on Wednesday.

If the Bucks lose, things get much more interesting. If the Bucks lose and the Heat lose at home to the Nets and the Hornets lose in Washington, nothing changes.

If the Bucks lose, and the Heat and Hornets both win . . . the Heat will be the fourth seed, the Hornets will be the fifth seed and the Bucks will fall all the way to sixth.

If only the Heat win on Wednesday, the Heat will be the fourth seed, the Bucks will be the fifth seed and the Hornets are still stuck as the sixth seed.

If only the Hornets win on Wednesday, the three teams will be locked into a virtual tie. Using the NBA's three-team tie-breaker (best head-to-head winning percentage among all teams tied) the Heat would be the fourth seed, the Hornets would be the fifth seed and the Bucks would fall to sixth.

The Knicks can move up to the sixth seed if they defeat the Cavs at home on Wednesday and the Hornets lose to the Wizards.

Around the League

Bzdelik's hide saved in Denver? All of the talk about head coach Jeff Bzdelik being fired at the end of the season came to a halt on Monday night when the Nuggets clinched a berth in the playoffs and star forward Carmelo Anthony came out publicly in support of Bzdelik.

"He got us 43 wins," Anthony said of Bzdelik. "They had 17 wins last year. I don't know how the front office thinks, I can only say what I think. He got us 43 wins. We did it also, but he was important. He was controlling us from the sidelines. We shall see what happens.

"I felt the same way at the beginning of the season as I feel right now. Nothing has changed. We'd be a more experienced team next season with one year of experience in the playoffs. He'll have the experience from this year."

Bzdelik has a $1.5 million option for next season and a $500,000 buyout. Speculation had been running rampant that Bzdelik would be fired at season's end. Though Bzdelik had done a great job coaching the team, the front office was concerned that Bzdelik was abandoning the development stage of the team in lieu of a playoff berth. Two top young building blocks -- Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Rodney White -- were given limited playing time this season despite a feeling in the front office that the development of young players was a higher priority than the playoffs this season.

That, however, may all be moot after the Nuggets' surprising victory on Monday.

"It was very satisfying to all of us," Bzdelik told the Denver Post. "It is easy to doubt. It is easy to criticize. But it takes courage and perseverance to not let people challenge your confidence."

O'Neill out in Toronto? The Toronto Star is reporting that head coach Kevin O'Neill will be bought out of the last year of his contract as soon as the season ends.

According to the report, many of the GM candidates that the Raptors have talked to have indicated that they feel the job is more attractive if O'Neill is gone.

With lottery coaches like Eric Musselman, Terry Stotts, John Carroll, Chris Ford and Nate McMillan also on the hot seat, look for the coaching massacre of 2003-04 to continue well into the summer.

Ariza in the draft: UCLA freshman forward Trevor Ariza will declare for the NBA draft, according to several published accounts. Ariza had originally said that he would return to UCLA for his sophomore season.

Ariza is considered a very good prospect by NBA scouts, but all of them had felt that he should return to school at least one more season. Ariza averaged 11.6 ppg and 6.5 rpg on 42 percent shooting. Right now he'd be considered a late-first-round or bubble second-round pick.