When he was a freshman at USC, O.J. Mayo spent his summer vacation playing one-one-one against Kobe Bryant at Bryant’s basketball camp held at Loyola Marymount in Marina del Rey. Bryant won most of the battles, but Mayo more than held his own against the player regarded as the best in the world.
Mayo’s basketball education that summer was also his introduction to the NBA. After going through the Kobe gauntlet, Mayo’s transition from college to pro has been a smooth one. It’s like going from boot camp to pilates. Through 51 games for the Memphis Grizzlies, the former high school All-American is averaging 19 points per game and is the only rookie ranked in the top 25 in scoring.
Meanwhile, Mayo’s sparring partner, Mr. Bryant, is piecing together another MVP season and could be in line for a rare double-double – winning MVP and defensive player in the same season, a feat that has only been done twice. Michael Jordan won league MVP and defensive player of the year in 1988 and Hakeem Olajuwon did the same in 1994.
At the unofficial halfway point of the 2008-09 NBA season, OneManFastbreak.net presents its midseason report card:
BEST TEAM IN THE WEST: Los Angeles Lakers – The Lakers were a perfect 6-0 in their recently concluded East Coast trip, highlighted by victories at Boston and at Cleveland. We might as well skip the rest of the regular season because my crystal ball says the L.A. Lakers will be in the NBA Finals and no team in the Western Conference, San Antonio included, will stand in the way of Kobe and Co.
BEST TEAM IN THE EAST: Boston Celtics – For a team that began the season 27-2, the Celtics are flying under the radar. Boston is still in position to repeat as Eastern Conference champs and is on a collision course with the Cavaliers. I’m predicting a Lakers-Spurs West Final and a Celtics-Cavs East Final. No need to watch the first couple of rounds in the playoffs because these four teams have distinguished themselves as the only worthy Final Four players.
MVP: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers – To be league MVP, you have to prove to the basketball jury, beyond reasonable doubt, that you are the top dog. We’ve witnessed LeBron James put together a super season for Cleveland, but there is enough evidence to make a case for Mr. Bryant. Exhibit A: His record-breaking 61-point performance at Madison Square Garden. Exhibit B: His late-game heroics helped the Lakers snap Boston’s 19-game winning streak on Dec. 25 and Boston’s 12-game winning streak on Feb. 5. Exhibit C: In two high-profile games against LeBron and the Cavs, Kobe’s Lakers won twice. Case closed!
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kobe Bryant, L.A. Lakers – In their two head-to-head meetings, Kobe assigned himself to guard LeBron, who is two inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier, and all he did was turn King James into Prince James. With Kobe glued to his chest, LeBron shot 9-for-25 in L.A. and went 5-for-20 at the Q. In both games, Bryant showed James why he’s the reigning alpha male.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: O.J. Mayo, Memphis Grizzlies – Easily the most consistent first-year player this season. His jump shot is better than advertised, shooting 44% from the field, 87% from the free-throw line and a respectable 38% from 3-point range. Mayo’s body of work for the season slightly outdoes Chicago’s Derrick Rose, who is second among rookies in scoring (16.9) and first in assists (6.3).
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR: Nate Robinson, New York Knicks – Don’t be enamored with Jason Terry or Manu Ginobili. Both are starters masking as reserves. Nate The Great averages 16 points per game in less than 30 minutes of floor time. He had back-to-back 30-point games the week before the All-Star break and had a 33-point outing last December at Staples Center against the Lakers. If there is a Knick player worth the price of admission at Madison Square Garden, it’s Nate Robinson.
COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat – The Flash was left for dead last year after an assortment of injuries shut down his season. But he’s officially back. We saw a preview of things to come from Wade during the Beijing Olympics, and he has been spectacular through 52 games.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER: Devin Harris, New Jersey Nets – A year has passed since the trade and Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson wish they could take back Harris and send Jason Kidd packing because it has been embarrassingly one-sided. Harris has increased his scoring average from 14.4 to 21.8 and is clearly enjoying the freedom Nets coach Lawrence Frank has afforded him. Kidd has not been a total bust, but has not provided the impact the Mavs had hoped for.
COACH OF THE YEAR: Phil Jackson, L.A. Lakers – It seems ridiculous that great coaches like Jackson, who owns nine championship rings, do not receive the proper credit they deserve. All he does is win despite the huge expectations placed on his teams at the start of each season. The Zen Master has won this award once (1996) and it’s time to give him another one.