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Indiana Pacers: Admit it. When the Pacers replaced Brad Miller and Ron Mercer with Scot Pollard, and made Anthony Johnson their big free-agent signing, you thought the Pacers were going to take at least one step back.
What a difference a coach makes. Under the leadership of Rick Carlisle (who, by the way, should be second to only Jerry Sloan in the coach of the year race) the Pacers are tougher, much better defensively and, most importantly, under control offensively.
Carlisle has found a way to turn Jermaine O'Neal into a defensive nightmare, keep Ron Artest out of trouble, sell Al Harrington on his sixthman role and remake Jamaal Tinsley into a asset in the backcourt.
The Pacers' 31-11 record is second best in the league, and there are no signs of them falling off the cliff like they did last season. They've gone from underdogs to the favorites to represent the East in the Finals. The Pacers are for real.
Defensive Player: Ron Artest, G, Pacers. Ben Wallace has had his due. Artest deserved the award last year and deserves it again this year. Unlike Wallace, Artest can guard four positions on the floor. Artest's ability to shut down anyone his coach wants him to gives him the edge .
Sixthman Award: Earl Boykins, G, Nuggets. Antawn Jamison and Al Harrington may have better numbers, but in crunch times, no one has been more of a spark plug off the bench than Boykins. Of the top four five-man units that the Nuggets play, Boykins is the only Nugget in all four. He's on the floor 75 percent of the time in the fourth quarter and the Nuggets outscore their opponents by an average of 7.5 ppg when Boykins is on the floor in the fourth. Ask anyone on the Nuggets and they'll tell you that Boykins is the big reason that this team is 24-18 instead of 18-24 at this point in the season. In big games, he's money.
Coach of the Year: Jerry Sloan, Jazz. Rick Carlisle has done amazing things with the Pacers and Terry Porter has completely changed the style and tenor of the Bucks, but no one has done more with less than Sloan. Sloan can go into any game, regardless of who is dressing that night, with two convictions. One, no one will out execute his team. Two, no one will out hustle them. When those two factors are givens, you're going to win more than you lose. Could you imagine what Sloan could do with the young talent on a team like the Suns or Clippers?
Brad Miller, C/PF, Kings: We wrote in August that the Kings dramatically overpaid for the big guy. In October, we wondered whether the Kings could survive Miller's replacing Chris Webber at the four. In January, the Kings own the best record in the NBA and Miller's been a huge part of the reason why. Yes, he was an all-star in the East last season, but it was by default. There weren't any decent big men in the conference to give it to. Miller's 14.9 ppg average isn't even a career high. But the 10.7 rpg and unbelievable 4.8 apg for a guy some people thought couldn't really pass or rebound are astonishing. We'll see what happens when C-Webb returns in the next few weeks, but without Miller and Peja Stojakovic (see awards below) the Kings would've tanked the first half of the season.