Home stretch for NBA awards races and playoff match-ups

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In this week's Sunday Shootaround, Paul Flannery resets the award races and potential playoff pairings.

Here's the truly amazing thing about the season LeBron James is having: He's turned the Most Valuable Player race into an afterthought despite the fact that Kevin Durant is having the best season of his career. In any other year and in any other context, Durant or even Chris Paul would be solid MVP selections. Neither is on LeBron's level, however.

He has the traditional numbers: 26.6 points, 8.2 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 55 percent shooting. He has the advanced metrics: a league-best 30.3 PER, career highs in True Shooting and rebounding percentage. He has the moments, including an incredible February shooting streak and nightly highlight montages. And he has the Heat's remarkable 25-game winning streak (and counting) on his side. He's also arguably the best defender in the league, or at the very least the most versatile.

This is the year that LeBron's talent has matched the narrative, and his season has been breathtaking to behold.

Barring the bizarre, James will win his fourth Most Valuable Player award in five years and second as a member of the Heat. The list of players who have the award more than three times is as follows: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (six), Bill Russell and Michael Jordan (five) and Wilt Chamberlain (four). You can count the rings all you want, but you can no longer deny that LeBron has earned his place among the all-time greats.

That James is in rare, celebrated company is no surprise. He's an evolutionary player in his prime who has moved past the endless psychodrama that served as the one negative to the early stages of his career. This is the year that LeBron's talent has matched the narrative, and his season has been breathtaking to behold.

As we head toward the end of the regular season, here's a look at the other awards and first round playoff matchups we're keeping an eye on:

COACH OF THE YEAR

Question: Why must we always seek a deeper meaning for coach of the year? Why shouldn't the award simply go to the best coach? All right, that was two questions, but there seems to be a deep-seated resolve to reward a coach for some unexplained phenomenon, rather than simply giving the best man his due.

To put it another way, there's a reason why so many past winners get fired a few years after receiving the honor. Overachieving at this level is rarely just about coaching, and when the team in question inevitably returns to its expected level of performance disappointment settles over the franchise. That's when people lose their jobs.

Which brings us to Gregg Popovich, who is the best coach in basketball by universal acclaim. Almost everyone agrees on this and he has the results to back him up. The Spurs will finish with one of the three best records in the league. Their defense, which had become ordinary in recent seasons, is once again among the league's elite. He's successfully brought along Tiago Splitter and is getting fantastic performances out of Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.

Certainly Mark Jackson and Kevin McHale deserve kudos for their work this season. George Karl has brought the "star-less" Nuggets along splendidly. But we don't give the MVP to overachievers and there's no reason why the Coach of the Year shouldn't go to the best in the business.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Damian Lillard is going to win the award and he should. He's been tremendous all season and is the long-sought answer to the point guard questions in Portland. The real question for this class is how will things look three or four years from now?

Anthony Davis has very quietly put up respectable numbers all season, averaging almost 16 points and more than 10 rebounds in March. Andre Drummond was putting up crazy per-minute numbers before he got hurt. Bradley Beal has been a revelation in the second half of the season.

Davis just turned 20, while Drummond and Beal are still teenagers. As is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who may never have the kind of offensive numbers his peers do, but has been a consistent bright spot in an otherwise dismal season in Charlotte. Harrison Barnes, also just 20 years old, has been a solid starter for the playoff-bound Warriors and has shown flashes of brilliance.

With so many one-and-done players, this class was always about potential more than immediate gratification. Lillard has delivered all year long and deserves to win the award, but it will be fascinating to see how this class develops.

SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR

Jamal Crawford will probably win and there's no problem here if he does. Crawford has led the league's top bench all season and is the embodiment of what we've come to expect out of a Sixth Man. That is, high volume scoring, game-changing offense and a player who can blend seamlessly with the starters in end of game lineups.

There's an argument to be made for Jarrett Jack, Manu Ginobli and even J.R. Smith. We also shouldn't overlook Kevin Martin's efficient scoring for OKC. Crawford still gets the nod, but the point is that this has been a great year for scoring guards off the bench.

But here's a name that deserves more consideration: Andre Miller. All things considered Miller would rather be starting, which runs counter to the selfless ideal of the award, but Miller has been the conscience of the run-and-gun Nuggets. He's the crossing guard directing traffic in the schoolyard while the youngsters run amok, and he's the closest thing Denver has to a go-to guy in the clutch.

There's really no wrong answer here, which ultimately speaks to the way coaches have adapted their personnel for multiple lineups in the quest for match-up advantages.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR

Mike Prada laid out a convincing case for Marc Gasol and I'm not inclined to argue with him, but consideration should be paid for LeBron's guard-anybody defense this season.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Don't know, don't care and don't understand the criteria for the award.

EASTERN CONFERENCE MATCHUPS WE WANT TO SEE

Heat vs. Bucks

Milwaukee has somehow managed to split six games with Miami over the last two years so maybe they'll win one in a playoff series.

Pacers vs. Bulls

A series only a Midwesterner could love, or a masochist. First one to 70 wins, no quarter given and there's a real chance David West could end up maiming half of Chicago's front line.

Knicks vs. Celtics

The teams don't really like each other and the fans absolutely despise each other. Their 2011 series never really got off the ground, but the Celtics had to sweat out two gut-check wins at home before completing the sweep in New York. The bet is this one would be a lot closer.

Nets vs. Hawks

It's only fitting that the Hawks North would battle the originals to be this year's team that maxes out with a second round playoff performance. Plus, we'd get a week's worth of Joe Johnson stories.

WESTERN CONFERENCE MATCHUPS WE WANT TO SEE

Spurs vs. Lakers

Because the Spurs rarely beat the Lakers when it counts and Tim Duncan/Tony Parker et al would probably love another chance.

Thunder vs. Rockets

Obvious.

Grizzlies vs. Warriors

Here's where it gets tricky. No matchup with the Grizz would go down as "aesthetically pleasing." So, let's make it a contrast of styles with the slow, grinding Grizz against the sleek, offensively-inclined Warriors.

Nuggets vs. Clippers

Winner gets bragging rights for the League Pass After Dark team of the year.

More from SB Nation:

Sunday's March Madness TV schedule

How the NBA can compete with NCAA's one-and-done stupidity

An open letter to NBA nerds at the start of March Madness

Derrick Rose: "I just know I'm close"

Andrew Sharp: LeBron is our MJ

The best NBA draft prospects of March Madness

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