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Contenders, pretenders, wish-it-would-enders — taking stock of the NBA at the break

Feb 18, 2011, 3:33 AM EDT

Dwyane Wade, LeBron James

Welcome to All-Star Weekend, when the NBA takes a break from playing games to talk about trades. And hear about the great parties that the players went to. Then talk about more trades. Then watch an exhibition with less defense than a Cavs-Raptors game.

For the rest of us, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are two-thirds of the way through the season. We pretty much know who the top teams are. We know who the guys in the running for MVP are. We know who has packed it in.

So let’s break it down.

Title contenders.

Boston Celtics (40-14). No coasting into the playoffs this season. Boston has improved in a couple key areas from a team that came within a quarter of winning it all last season. The Celtics are deeper along the front line (even if everyone seems injured at one time). Secondly, Rajon Rondo is doing a better job attacking the space that teams have been giving him (hoping he would take the jumper). They are still the best defensive team in the NBA.

San Antonio Spurs (46-10). Nobody expected this. But the Spurs altered their attack — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are now the focal points, Tim Duncan works off them rather than being the hub. It works, they are the third-most efficient offense in the league. And they can still defend. They also have gotten great depth from George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner.

Miami Heat (41-15). Before the season we said we knew they could score, the question was how well would they defend? Fourth-most efficient defense in the league. Impressive. They look every bit the contender… during the regular season. We’ve got questions about how they match up with real size in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers (38-19). Yes, they lost to the Cavaliers. Yes, they have played poorly for stretches this season. Yes, they look old and not athletic enough at times. But scouts keep saying the team most likely to beat the Lakers is the Lakers. They’ve won two titles and if the sleeping giant wakes, they will be a force. Again.

Trying to crash the title party (teams that are close):

Chicago Bulls (38-16): New coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing great defense. Derrick Rose is having a season that has him in MVP contention. And we have yet to see them all healthy at once for any stretch. We don’t know how good they can be, but if the offense (18th in the league in points per possession) isn’t more consistent, they are out in the second round.

Dallas Mavericks (40-17). Their record means you have to take them seriously, and they are winning because they are deep with good talent. But when the rotations shorten in the playoffs, that depth doesn’t help as much. Will a handful of great players beat a bunch of good ones? In the NBA playoffs, usually.

Orlando Magic (36-21). I’m putting them in here because they have the best big man in the game and a quality defense. But I’m not sold. They will need to play better and more consistently than I have seen in the past few weeks.

Just end the season already.

Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46). We knew they would be bad, losing not only the best player in the game but also Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal. The 7-9 start to the season was a mirage, but we didn’t know the desert would be this vast. Then they get hit by the injury bug — Anderson Varejao is out for the season and Mo Williams misses extended time. But they’ve beaten the Lakers.

Toronto Raptors (15-41). Chris Bosh is gone and this is Andrea Bargnani’s team. That’s really worked out well.

Minnesota Timberwoves (13-43). Why are they even here? Their rebuilding is done. Actually, they have a couple pieces to build around, including double-double machine Kevin Love, but there is a long, long way to go.

Sacramento Kings (13-40). Another team with a couple quality pieces to build around in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, except they can’t get along. And Paul Westphal seems unable to guide them. Or get them to listen.

MVP candidates

LeBron James (Miami Heat). He is the two-time defending MVP playing on an elite team. Still the best player in the game. And although his per-game numbers dropped a little, we’re still talking 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. The Heat have become his team on the court.

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). He announced his presence with authority dropping a career-high 42 on the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, but he was being mentioned as an MVP candidate before that. Personally, I don’t think he’s there — he’s still not efficient enough for my tastes — but many voters are in love with the story.

Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets). To me this should be the guy. Just him being back running the show — with an efficient 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game — has turned the Hornets from a squad that looked lost last season into a solid playoff team in a deep Western Conference. He is the best point guard in the game and the player most valuable to his team.

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic). He’s not going to win. I don’t know why, but voters are not into him, maybe because he’s a center who can make it look so easy. He’s the best defender of the paint in the league, he has become an efficient offensive player with a variety of moves, and he’s a beast on the boards. Guy is a complete player and the best big in the game. He deserves serious consideration.

Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Still leads the league in scoring  (28.9 points per game) on a team that is still entertaining to watch. The slow start shouldn’t hold his candidacy back. Problem is, we expected this team to take a leap forward this season and it hasn’t, and although that is not Durant’s fault, he will lose votes because of it.

Other awards:

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks
Most annoying, never-ending story line: Carmelo Anthony trade talk
Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
Player Most Wasted By Coach: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Lopez Twin: Still Brook (New Jersey Nets) by a country mile

  1. loungefly74 - Feb 18, 2011 at 8:20 AM

    pretty much spot on. barring any upsets, 2 titans will be battling in the finals…huh, being captain “obvious” here!

  2. gemini1512 - Feb 18, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    I can’t agree with you on the Mavericks being a “team that is close”. They are second in the powerhouse filled Western Conference, and they are doing it now without one of the big offensive pieces that they were counting on (Butler). Take away the time when Dirk was out with injury, and they might be competing with the Spurs for the best record in the league.

    So often a team is defined by how they match up to the other top flight teams. So let’s explore that.

    They swept the season series against Boston, winning at home 89-87, and then beating them on the road as well, 101-97.

    They swept the season series against Miami, winning at home 106-95, and then beat them on the road 98-96 (and followed that up by winning at Orlando 105-99 the next night to complete the back-to-back).

    They’re only 1-2 against San Antonio so far, with one of the wins coming in San Antonio.

    They’ve only played the Lakers once so far, but they beat them too, 109-100.

    So in 8 games against your top flight teams, the Mavs are 6-2.

    And I think it’s time to add Dirk to the MVP conversation too. In fact, he really should have been in the conversation a while ago.

    • progress2011 - Feb 19, 2011 at 12:37 PM

      Good comments backed up by ” FACTS ” loungefly ! I respect a person that doesn’t speak purely on emotion and provide facts.
      Regarding Dirk and his MVP qualifications, I agree with you again. However I believe voters for the MVP don’t take him seriously because he did not elevate his game in several playoff appearances and was eliminated.
      I am not a Mavs fan but I respect Dirks game and what he brings to his team. If he should elevate his game this year in the playoffs ” IN CRUNCH TIME ” and make it to the finals, I think all the accolades will be bestowed on him.
      He’s a good dude….” role model ” type character. I’d like to see him carry his team to the finals.

  3. passerby23 - Feb 18, 2011 at 1:12 PM

    I can’t speak for everyone else, but the reason why I don’t have Dwight Howard winning the MVP is for the following reasons:

    1. No killer instinct. He seems almost nonchalant about winning and losing. Whether that’s true or not, that’s what it seems like. He’s often seeing smiling and joking around in important moments of games.

    2. Poor FT shooting. The fact that you can’t rely on him as the go-to guy late in games because you’re worried he can’t make free throws.

    3. His habitual whining to refs instead of just adapting to how they call the game. If guys are flopping, adjust your game to it. Picking up 2 or 3 cheap fouls in a row hurts your team by putting you on the bench.

    4. He hasn’t really propelled his team to elite contender status. Lebron has made the Heat A LOT better, so has Derrick Rose without Noah for a large part of the season.

    I also agree that Dirk should be in the MVP discussion too. Perhaps he’s not because he missed a few games?

  4. khandor - Feb 19, 2011 at 1:23 PM

    IMO …

    An objective appraisal of, “What the NBA looks like at the All-Star Break,” would resemble this:

    Keep up the good work Kurt. :-)

    PS. Hopefully PJ [and Mitch, to some extent, as well] will be able to make the correct adjustments going forward to keep the Lakers on-course for their 4th consecutive trip back to the NBA Finals. If not, there are plenty of other teams this season who would be worthwhile champions. It’s a fabulous year, so far, for true NBA aficionados.

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