Distracted by the depression of having a Denver Nuggets season end about a week-and-a-half earlier than I'm accustomed to, I recently realized that we're overdue for our annual Stiffs (and non-Stiffy) Awards. With so many deserving candidates this year, it was tough to pick clear cut winners. But without further adieu, here are this year's recipients ...
STIFF OF THE YEAR: CARMELO ANTHONY
For the second time in four seasons, Melo claims the prize as the Stiff of the Year. And who better, really? Despite playing in 77 games, averaging an impressive 27.4 ppg, a career-high 8.1 rpg and scoring 62 points in late January, Melo was unable to lead his New York Knicks - and their $88 million payroll - to a measly playoff spot in what was perhaps the worst Eastern Conference in NBA history. Moreover, the Melodrama that Denverites has the privilege of experiencing in 2011 reared its ugly head again as Melo intimated that he might leave New York as a free agent this summer ... despite the franchise gutting the bulk of its roster to acquire him that year.
Runner(s) Up: Andrew Bynum (you can trace the Indiana Pacers' rapid to decline to the signing of Bynum ... who didn't even play!), Rudy Gay (more below), Raymond Felton, Andrea Bargnani.
Nate's Pick: Bynum | Jeff's Pick: Bynum | Colin's Pick: Bynum
NON-STIFF OF THE YEAR: KEVIN DURANT
Led by the amazing Durant, the Oklahoma City Thunder overcame injuries to Russell Westbrook and a tougher-than-ever Western Conference to win 59 games and claim the conference's second seed entering the 2014 NBA Playoffs. To pull this off, Durant led the NBA in scoring for the fourth time in five years while averaging a career-high 5.5 assists. Compare Durant's number to Melo's and they don't appear that different, so why is Durant able to lead his team to the top of the brutal West while Melo led his team to the bottom of the pathetic East? That's the difference between your Non-Stiff of the Year and Stiff of the Year, my friends.
Runner Up: LeBron James (only 54 wins in the Leastern Conference? C'mon, LeBron!)
Nate's Pick: James | Jeff's Pick: Durant | Colin's Pick: Durant
WORST ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: ANTHONY BENNETT
Somewhere, Greg Oden, Michael Olowokandi and Kwame Brown are writing "thank you" letters to Bennett, who made a great case for "Worst Rookie Year Ever for a First Overall Pick" in 2013-14. While it's certainly not Bennett's fault that the Cleveland Cavaliers foolishly drafted Bennett first overall (see more when I get to the Worst Executive of the Year below), Bennett contributed to the problem by not being in great shape and contributing nothing when given playing time. And by nothing I mean nothing, Bennett averaged 4.2 ppg on 35.6% shooting in just 12.8 minutes per game.
Runner Up: Otto Porter
Nate's Pick: Porter | Jeff's Pick: Bennett | Colin's Pick: Bennett
BEST ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: MICHAEL CARTER-WILLIAMS
It's not Carter-Williams' fault that Philadelphia 76ers GM Sam Hinkie purposefully destroyed the 76ers at every turn throughout the season, gutting the roster whenever possible to ensure losing on a record-breaking scale. But even with the "Major League" structure around him, Carter-Williams played hard and filled the box score nightly.
Runner Up: Victor Oladipo
Nate's Pick: Carter-Williams | Jeff's Pick: Carter-Williams | Colin's Pick: Carter-Williams
WORST DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RUDY GAY
With Gay, the Toronto Raptors were 6-12. Without Gay, the Raptors finished 42-22 and ended up third in the Eastern Conference. With Gay on board, the Sacramento Kings won just 22 of their final 62 games. Because while Gay may be good for 20ish points per game on the offensive end of the floor, his inability (and unwillingness) to defend infects all around him ... hence why the Kings finished among league leaders in opposing points per game.
Runner Up: J.J. Hickson
Nate's Pick: Glen Davis | Jeff's Pick: Hickson | Colin's Pick: James Harden
BEST DEFENDER OF THE YEAR: JOAKIM NOAH
Unlike Gay's Kings, Noah's Bulls led the NBA in points allowed per game with 91.8. And like Carter-Williams, Noah had to overcome an organization purposefully trying to throw the season away when it traded Luol Deng to Cleveland and was able to lead his team to a top-four team in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Runner Up: DeAndre Jordan
Nate's Pick: Noah | Jeff's Pick: Noah | Colin's Pick: Noah
WORST SIXTH-MAN OF THE YEAR: J.R. SMITH
You don't win 17 less games from one season to the next without a truly atrocious sixth-man, and Smith filled that roll admirably by (along with Melo) chucking bad shots as frequently as possible.
Runner Up: Gerald Wallace
Nate's Pick: Smith | Jeff's Pick: Smith | Colin's Pick: Smith
BEST SIXTH-MAN OF THE YEAR: MANU GINOBILI
Now 36 years old, the crafty Ginobili played in 68 games and was instrumental in the San Antonio Spurs claiming an NBA-best 62 wins by contributing in virtually every facet of the game: scoring, assists, defense, three-point shooting and so forth.
Runner(s) Up: Jamal Crawford, Taj Gibson
Nate's Pick: Crawford | Jeff's Pick: Ginobili | Colin's Pick: Crawford
LEAST IMPROVED PLAYER: LARRY SANDERS
After a solid third season that saw Sanders post a near double-double per game, the Milwaukee Bucks rewarded Sanders with a four-year, $44 million contract (sound familiar, Nuggets fans?). Sanders in turn rewarded the Bucks by playing in just 23 games and contributing very little in those 23 games. It's no wonder the Bucks won an NBA-worst 15 games.
Runner Up: JaVale McGee
Nate's Pick: Rudy Gay | Jeff's Pick: Iman Shumpert | Colin's Pick: Jan Vesely
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: GORAN DRAGIC
Just when Nuggets fans thought that Ty Lawson might be the up-and-coming point guard in the Western Conference, Dragic showed NBA fans everywhere how it's really done. Because while the Nuggets played sub-.500 on Lawson's watch, Dragic was able to lead the stripped-down Phoenix Suns to an impressive 48 victories as the starting point guard.
Runner(s) Up: Anthony Davis, Markieff Morris
Nate's Pick: Gerald Green | Jeff's Pick: Dragic | Colin's Pick: Davis
WORST COACH OF THE YEAR: MIKE BROWN
Even though Brown had two All-Stars in Kyrie Irving and Luol Deng, good roll players like Jarrett Jack, Anderson Varejao and Spencer Hawes, and a few could-be-good young players like Dion Waiters, Anthony Bennett and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs stunk. And stunk bad. With just 33 wins in the Leastern Conference, Brown's Cavs rivaled only the Knicks for the conference's "biggest disappointment" of the 2013-14 season.
Runner(s) Up: Mike Woodson, Larry Drew
Nate's Pick: Maurice Cheeks | Jeff's Pick: Brown | Colin's Pick: Woodson
BEST COACH OF THE YEAR: JEFF HORNACEK
How many times can you say that a team won 28 more games than it should have? 28?!! Predicted by most "experts" (including me) to be the worst team in the Western Conference at the beginning of the 2013-14 NBA season, Hornacek - a rookie head coach but long on NBA experience as a great player / assistant coach - led the Suns to 48 wins. A win total that should have been good enough to make a playoff experience except for the fact that the Suns play in the wrong conference.
Runner(s) Up: Tom Thibodeau, Gregg Popovich
Nate's Pick: Hornacek | Jeff's Pick: Hornacek | Colin's Pick: Popovich
WORST EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: CHRIS GRANT
I hate to kick a guy while he's down (Grant was fired in February), but Grant was clearly the worst executive in the NBA last season. Grant's banner season began by drafting Bennett first overall last summer, followed by signing Bynum to a two-year, $24 million contract, signing Jack to a four-year, $25 million contract, followed by trading a first round pick and two second round picks for Deng right before the trade deadline, even though the Cavaliers season was dead in the water by then. Oh, and Grant signed Bernie Bickerstaff to be assistant coach. An unforgivable move under any condition.
Runner Up: Joe Dumars
Nate's Pick: Dumars | Jeff's Pick: Grant | Colin's Pick: Grant
BEST EXECUTIVE OF THE YEAR: DARYL MOREY
Morey is a gambler, but you have to give him credit for the gamble paying off. Accumulating young assets, draft picks and cap space, Morey was able to add Dwight Howard this year just as he was able to add James Harden a season ago. Which means that Morey's Houston Rockets now have a top-two shooting guard and top-two center for the next five or so seasons. And they could contend for the NBA Finals this season.
Runner(s) Up: R.C. Buford, Masai Ujiri, Neil Olshey
Nate's Pick: Masai Ujiri | Jeff's Pick: Ujiri | Colin's Pick: Buford