NEXT YEAR.Honestly, how many MVP voters have uttered those exact words in the past coupleof seasons when choosing not to pencil LeBron James's name on their MVPballots? He's only [insert age here]. I'll vote for him the next year. Well,next year is here. After another season of staggering scoring (28.4 points pergame at week's end), precision passing (7.2 assists) and rebounding numbersthat make big men blush (7.7 per game)—and with the Cavaliers poised to finishatop the Eastern Conference for the first time in the franchise's 39-yearhistory—James, the NBA's modern-day Oscar Robertson, deserves to be recognizedas the league's top player.
The competitiondidn't make it easy. After two injury-plagued seasons the Heat's Dwyane Wadehas reemerged as the league's top scorer (29.8 points per game) while rankingeighth in assists (7.5) and second in steals (2.3). The Lakers' Kobe Bryant(27.0 points, 5.0 assists) is only slightly off his 2008 MVP pace, and Hornetspoint guard Chris Paul (22.5 points, 11.0 assists, 2.8 steals) is statisticallybetter than last year, when he was runner-up for the award.
The clinchingreason to choose the forward: His defense is now catching up with his offense."If he keeps this up," says one East head coach, "nobody shouldever beat him for MVP. Nobody." Runner-up: Bryant, G, Lakers
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Derrick Rose, G, Bulls Rose (right) sprinted ahead of the field in November,when he averaged 18.4 points and 6.0 assists, and he never looked back. Manningthe NBA's most complex position as if he were a 10-year vet, Rose has directeda prolific Chicago attack (102.0 points per game) while treating the basketballlike a Fabergé egg: His 2.47 assist-to-turnover ratio is tops among rookies.Runner-up: O.J. Mayo, G, Grizzlies
DEFENSIVE PLAYEROF THE YEAR
Dwight Howard, C, Magic The right knee injury that limited Kevin Garnett'splaying time opened the door for a new winner, and Howard has bulldozed his waythrough it. Frequently the smallish Magic's first and last line of defense,Howard is the primary reason Orlando has improved its scoring defense by 4.4points per game. Runner-up: Garnett, F, Celtics
Jason Terry, G, Mavericks Take note, Allen Iverson: Coming off the bench can bea good thing. Through Sunday, Terry (above) led all backups in scoring (19.6points per game) while single-handedly outproducing the opposing bench 24 timesthis season. Terry has the best scoring average by a reserve since Milwaukee'sRicky Pierce (23.0) in 1989--90. Runner-up: Nate Robinson, G, Knicks
Devin Harris, G, Nets In the off-season New Jersey redesigned its offensearound the speed and penetration of last year's trade deadline acquisition, andhe has delivered, with averages of 21.8 points and 7.0 assists; the onlyplayers with better numbers in both those categories are James, Wade, and Paul.Harris's 7.0 jump in points per game from last season is the highest in theleague. Runner-up: Paul Millsap, F, Jazz
COACH OF THEYEAR
Stan Van Gundy, Magic He overcame the loss of an All-Star point guard (JameerNelson) by instantly incorporating a new starter acquired at midseason (RaferAlston). In the process Van Gundy has shaped a team of fourth-quarter killers:At week's end Orlando was an NBA-best 48--1 when leading with five minutesremaining. Runner-up: Mike Brown, Cavaliers
EXECUTIVE OF THEYEAR
Mark Warkentien, Nuggets With his team on the brink of rebuilding and his handstied by financial constraints, Warkentien changed the course of the franchisewith one move. In November he dealt Iverson to Detroit for point guard ChaunceyBillups, who has molded Denver's individual talents into a cohesive andthriving unit. Runner-up: Otis Smith, Magic
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JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS (JAMES)
NEW FOCUS With his terrific two-way play, James has been the picture of an MVP.
DAVID E. KLUTHO (ROSE)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (TERRY)