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SI's MVP: Kobe
Bryant edges three worthy candidates; several other awards are also tough calls

BRYANT. GARNETT. James. Paul. Ask four NBA types whom their choice for MVP is and you are likely to get four different answers. (Trust us, we did.) The race for the league's top award should be the closest since 1975--76, when winner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, runner-up Bob McAdoo and third-place finisher Dave Cowens were separated by 31 points. But while many voters might like to see the honor split four ways, somebody has to take home the hardware. That somebody should be Kobe Bryant of the Lakers.

Throw out the statistics because each candidate has put up gaudy numbers. The Cavaliers' LeBron James (30.2 points per game) and Bryant (28.6) were one-two in scoring through Sunday, the Hornets' Chris Paul (11.5 assists, 2.69 steals) was the top playmaker and ball hawk in the league, and the Celtics' Kevin Garnett (18.9 points, 9.4 rebounds) had filled up stat sheets and transformed one of the NBA's worst teams into its best.

Bryant gets the nod for being the league's top two-way player, blending the most varied offensive skills in the NBA with the best on-the-ball defense. Moreover, while Paul and Garnett have All-Star teammates, Bryant has kept the Lakers in contention for the top seed in the Western Conference while two of his biggest weapons have missed significant time with injuries: Andrew Bynum (42 games at week's end) and Pau Gasol (10 of his 32 games with L.A.). Runner-up: Paul.

Rookie of the Year
KEVIN DURANT, Sonics Coach P.J. Carlesimo gave Durant free reign, and the 19-year-old responded brilliantly. With the weight of the franchise on his slender shoulders, Durant (right, 20.0 points per game through Sunday) averaged at least 18.0 points in every month and got better as the season wore on. (He was averaging 22.1 since March 1.) No other first-year player can touch him. Runner-up: Al Horford, Hawks.

Defensive Player of the Year
KEVIN GARNETT, Celtics Last year Boston was 18th in scoring defense (allowing 99.2 points per game) and 24th in field goal defense (46.8%). Having acquired Garnett in the off-season, the Celtics led the league in both categories through Sunday (89.9 and 41.8%) as well as in three-point defense (31.3%). First-year assistant Tom Thibodeau has done a masterly job designing Boston's schemes, but it is Garnett (right), one of the best pick-and-roll defenders of all time, who makes sure they're executed. Runner-up: Marcus Camby, Nuggets.

Sixth Man
MANU GINÓBILI, Spurs San Antonio's human Ping-Pong ball led the team in scoring (19.8 points through Sunday), was second in assists (4.5) and was third in rebounds (4.8)—while playing just 31.3 minutes per game. Despite bouncing in and out of the starting lineup, Ginóbili is the primary reason the injury-ravaged Spurs have remained among the conference leaders. Runner-up: Leandro Barbosa, Suns.

Most Improved
HEDO TURKOGLU, Magic Turkoglu's scoring average (19.7 points through Sunday) had jumped 6.4 points from last season, and he was averaging career highs in rebounds (5.9), assists (4.9) and minutes (37.4). Once pigeonholed as a jump shooter, the 6'10" Turkoglu has become Orlando's go-to guy, averaging a team-high 6.1 points in the fourth quarter. Runner-up: José Calderón, Raptors.

Coach of the Year
BYRON SCOTT, Hornets (below) New Orleans, which won just 39 games and missed the playoffs a season ago, tied the franchise record for victories in a season (54) on Sunday and will make its first postseason appearance since 2004. Most impressive, the Hornets have played their best against the best: New Orleans is 17--10 against the other top eight teams in the West, the best mark of any contender. Runner-up: Rick Adelman, Rockets.

Executive of the Year
DANNY AINGE, Celtics He was the heavy favorite before the season, having dealt young players, draft choices and expiring contracts for Garnett and Ray Allen. But Mitch Kupchak's fleecing of the Grizzlies in February for Gasol catapulted the Lakers' G.M. into the discussion. Still, Ainge prevails because he was able to bolster the Celtics' bench for a potential championship run by adding veterans P.J. Brown and Sam Cassell after the All-Star break. Runner-up: Kupchak.

NOW ON SI.COM The latest news and analysis from Chris Mannix.



BEST MAN Bryant is the pick for almost single-handedly keeping L.A. near the top.