Sam Smith: Handing out mid-season awards
Sam Smith: Handing out the NBA's mid-season awards
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It's been such a great season. That's why it's going by so fast, eh? Anyway, much of the NBA hits the halfway point this season. So it's time to take a look at who's the early leader in the locker room for the league's post-season awards:
-- MVP: LeBron James. This could be near unanimous this season, especially if the Cavs also keep up their winning pace and finish with the league's best record, which they shared with the Lakers before Sunday night's Lakers win. The last time the Cavs were like this—the only time, really—was the 1988-89 season when the Bulls stole that first round playoff series from them, though it was Rick Mahorn taking out Mark Price earlier that season that started their slide. It is the first time I've also heard some NBA people saying they see someone surpassing Jordan.
Runners-up: Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Tim Duncan and Chris Paul.
-- Rookie of the Year: Derrick Rose. O.J. Mayo is averaging more points, and though Rose will get all the Chicago votes as we see him more, the one major difference has been Rose's ability to make things easier for teammates. Mayo primarily looks for his own shots. Rose does reluctantly, too much so at times for my taste. He projects as a big time league star.
Runners-up: Mayo, Russell Westbrook, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol.
-- Coach of the Year: Stan Van Gundy. Not that there aren't players on the Magic as I tried to find a place for Dwight Howard in my MVP top five. Van Gundy has continued to develop defensive and offensive systems while seeing the Magic among the elite with probably just one All-Star.
Runners-up: Jerry Sloan, Gregg Popovich, Phil Jackson, Nate McMillan.
-- Most Improved Player: Paul Millsap. I was inclined to put Shaq here hitting 79 percent of his free throws the last five games. Millsap is the basketball example of the so called money ball player, a guy who doesn't measure up or isn't fast enough and jumps high enough but who is a winner. The second round pick has given the Jazz ample reason to let go Carlos Boozer. He just finished a great run of 19 straight double/doubles.
Runners-up: Devin Harris, Roger Mason, Chris Duhon, Steve Blake.
-- Sixth Man: Manu Ginobili. There are guys with better numbers, and he began the season late. But he personifies the concept of the scorer who can carry a team off the bench in the great Celtics' tradition. Too bad Ben Gordon can't see himself that way.
Runners-up: Jason Terry, Andrei Kirilenko, J.R. Smith, Charlie Villanueva.
-- Defensive Player: Dwight Howard. He's the anchor of a top five defense and leading in blocks and rebounds.
Runners-up: Ron Artest, Kevin Garnett, Marcus Camby, Chris Paul.
-- The Celtics are back! OK, beating the Raptors isn't much to celebrate this season, even in Toronto, as Boston did Sunday after losing seven of nine. Still, they are 30-9 and just need to finish 40-3 for 70 wins. That Bulls 72 wins is going to be the like Wilt's 100 and DiMaggio's 56. Call us again when you are closer. Nevertheless, losing always brings out second guessers: The Celtics are old, tired from playing too many games last season in winning the championship (though I like Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's take in the San Antonio Express best as he said, "Who else gets 30 or 45 days off before they have to go back to work? How much off time do you need?"), too many tough games in two seven game series, Rondo can't shoot (though it is KG lately at 39 percent in January) and there's no bench. You say they won the championship last season? They aren't panicking and shouldn't be. Their test is in this year's playoffs. But back when they were ripping off 19 straight, I was talking to Isiah Thomas, who was seeing a parallel between his old Pistons being passed by the Bulls.
Like some of us in Chicago this season, Thomas was seeing in LeBron James and the role playing Cavs what many saw here in the charging Bulls of the early 1990's against those Pistons. Thomas, doing some scouting for the Knicks, wasn't sure Boston could overcome the Cavs. And that's when they where on the way to the best two loss start in league history at 27-2
"We had a hard time scoring points, especially as we got older," Thomas recalled about his two-time champion Pistons who eventually were dethroned by the Bulls and Michael Jordan. "We expended so much energy playing defense that it became a problem against a team like that. It's one thing that made Michael so good. The last four, five minutes, they could go to him every time and he'd get fouled or score the ball. You miss a shot or two and you're down two, four and trying to catch up and he keeps scoring. We had more guys to go to for a bucket, but they had that scorer. It makes it tough. People always say defense wins. But you've got to score the ball."
-- It's been a nice, feel good run for the Suns who are eight games over .500 with a revival from Shaquille O'Neal, playing like he's 34 again. But can they win a championship as currently comprised. Most doubt it, though after the Lakers the Western Conference seems wide, wide open. Shaq competing at this level saves the franchise the potential disaster of the trade gone bad and Mike D'Antoni and his fast break style leaving. But they are an aging team which should have one priority: Retaining Amaré Stoudemire. Though Cleveland, Toronto and Miami are most mentioned for losing their stars in 2010, the Suns could as well and it would be devastating. Jason Richardson was a nice pickup. But Steve Nash already has been talking about finishing his career (his contract expires in 2010) in New York or back home in Canada. Why not sooner? I've heard speculation about such a possibility around the NBA and recently heard from e-mailer Stephen in Phoenix raising it as well. It's an intriguing proposition. The Suns start to look beyond Shaq now with the idea of building around Stoudemire. While the Raptors push to get back in serious playoff contention to try to persuade Bosh to resign. Toronto reportedly has been anxious to trade, but really has little of great value. Here's the deal and while bold, it could respond to both teams' desires. Nash, Leandro Barbosa and Robin Lopez for Jose Calderon, Andrea Bargnani, Anthony Parker and Jason Kopono and perhaps Jamario Moon to equalize salaries. Nash still has quite a bit left and would be hugely popular returning to Toronto. Barbosa can be a two guard scoring option while Lopez is a defensive big man to complement Bosh. The Suns get a point guard for the future and perimeter big man to complement Stoudemire, though they take on some contracts.
-- The Portland Trail Blazers are at the United Center Monday, and the Bulls know it's a talented group after losing by 42 in Portland in November in a game not as close as the final score. It also seems like a good group of players led by Brandon Roy and LaMarcus Aldridge, who both can makes All-Star cases, and a tough coach in Nate McMillan. But their ownership went off again. The off the court story last week in the NBA was a shocking e-mail message sent to all teams by the Blazers front office threatening anyone signing Darius Miles. The reason is if Miles plays two more games—and he likely will having been brought back in Memphis—his salary goes back on the Portland cap, putting them in the luxury tax and limiting their free agent spending after this season. The Blazers' contention was teams were doing this to gain a competitive advantage over the Trail Blazers. Duh? And they should be doing what? Actually, numerous teams have talked about signing up Miles for this purpose all season, since it would mean about $250,000 extra for all the teams under the luxury tax limit and a chance to limit a competitor yet stay within the rules. And what exactly is wrong with that? The Blazers threatened to sue any of their partners who signed Miles for such reasons, which sent shivers through the league office, which immediately sent a memo to all teams, in effect, saying Miles' signing would be approved. In other words: Someone do this! Why? Because the Trail Blazers misstep put the entire league in danger of a collusion finding and a major suit from Miles. League officials were furious and it's likely some penalty will be coming Portland's way. Which should not detract, by the way, from a very nice team. The Blazers even turned Miles into a sympathetic figure. He'd been run out of Portland with the bad behavior Jail Blazers, but has been a gracious innocent through this mess. Several owners emailed the Blazers angry responses, and when the Grizzlies ended up bringing back Miles, the notion was tough minded Grizzlies' owner Mike Heisley wasn't about to be bullied. Though the back channel rumor making the rounds—and it was only a rumor and I really can't imagine even Paul Allen trying that--was the Trailblazers would look favorably on someone having Miles and not playing him and arrange some sort of favorable trade. The Grizzlies and the Trailblazers had some talks this season about Mike Conley going to Portland for Travis Outlaw for Conley to join good buddy Greg Oden, and also help bring Oden out of his shell some. Plus, the Trail Blazers needed a point guard, though Steve Blake has played better than expected. Relations between the Grizzlies and Blazers now are assumed to be poor, and the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported talks with the Bucks about Conley.
Which is where the Bulls could step in and whom I see as the strongest trading partner with the Bulls if the teams do make a deal next month. The Bulls have dealt with the Trailblazers, and surely the Trailblazers feel good about that 2006 draft swap. Plus, Portland long has had interest in Kirk Hinrich, a better defender than Blake and who would fit better with McMillan's schemes. Portland is loaded with young talent, Martell Webster due back soon and the future clearly is Greg Oden in the middle. I'd try to put together something to get tough guy Joel Przybilla and little used Jerryd Bayless as insurance for Ben Gordon leaving, maybe give them Joakim Noah and swap some draft picks. The other possibility I've heard speculated regarding the Trailblazers, though I don't see it myself, is a multi-team deal with Tracy McGrady going there and Hinrich ending up in Houston. If McGrady could improve from his knee issues it could be a heck of a veteran addition for a young team on the brink. And it's seemed more and more lately that McGrady's lineup uncertainty is baffling the Rockets. You've got to say, in any case, Portland is an interesting franchise.
-- Al Harrington had been one of the names coming up most often early in the season in trade talk, and perhaps one reason the Bulls passed has shown itself of late with Knicks' coach Mike D'Antoni first benching Harrington for poor defense and then limiting his time for stalling the offense with too much one-on-one play. And as for those weekly e-mails I get about bringing Eddy Curry back, the Knicks finally played him briefly Thursday, but then told D'Antoni he couldn't dress Saturday because his other knee bothered him from overcompensating. … The NBA has warned the Celtics this season about their excessive taunting, of which we see a lot less of after losing seven of nine. Bully stuff. Even Bobcats rookie D. J. Augustin said: "(The Celtics) come in and intimidate you and try to punk you. But if you don't back down from them, they kind of fold." You don't hear that much about defending champions. Also, defending champs usually don't lose a key piece over a mere $5 million (and a luxury tax hit), which was about the salary cap exception deal the Celts wouldn't give to key sixth man James Posey. And that seems to be catching up with them with their repeat hopes perhaps resting on whether the Knicks will let Stephon Marbury to go to them for free. I can understand, like Denver, getting below the luxury tax level when you are not a championship contender. But to perhaps lose a chance to repeat over that seems particularly shortsighted with a team having a limited window because of age.
-- The 76ers are getting back in it at 17-20 with their fourth straight win and perhaps with Elton Brand due back soon, they could make a late season move again. Though several teams were watching them carefully with Andre Miller in the final season of his deal and not certain to return. He'd be a valuable piece to move to a contender and perhaps build up a major deal with Samuel Dalembert, though the 76ers now are in that in between land close enough to a playoff spot. Though getting something for Miller now could be a smart move for the future, which is what they should be about. He'll be an interesting name come trade deadline. … LeBron James is leading the Cavs like Michael Jordan led the 1990's Bulls and sounding the same, less programmed than Kobe Bryant, who seemed to mimic Jordan's voice patterns. When asked about his explanation for a traveling call against him that he said was his patented "crab dribble," James responded to the attention in saying, "Everything I do is a big deal." Now that does sound like Jordan. Even the other day when Jordan was on another Nike sneaker tour and asked about $195 sneakers, he said, and I'm paraphrasing, you don't go looking for a Mercedes and want a Volkswagen. Actually, I thought that crab dribble came from the South Park episode on the crab people.
-- Look for USA Basketball chief Jerry Colangelo to begin recruiting Derrick Rose during All-Star weekend for the 2010 World Championships and 2012 Olympics. USA Basketball has moved to the Phoenix area and Colangelo said he'll begin talking to players at All-Star weekend. Rose played for the select team that trained with the USA team that won in China and he should join Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the changing of the guards toward 2012…the slumping Hawks could soon be right back among the Eastern pack competing for those last few playoff spots with Al Horford out at least several weeks with a bone bruise. He's been their interior defensive glue guy and probably the second most vital player to Joe Johnson. … There was some wild speculation last week about Josh Howard to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani and others, seemingly promoted by Dallas given the growing uncertainty with the brooding, sensitive and now hurt again Howard. The Mavs would love to move him, but no one in the NBA is considering him the All-Star the Mavs are trying to depict him still to be. … Kings minority owner John Kehriotis, traveling with the team last week to search out new arena ideas, told the Sacramento Bee his dream would be "a combination of Chicago and Indiana."
-- Perhaps no one has been ridiculed more in the NBA than Kevin McHale. Though the many who covered him as a player hated to see it since McHale was one of the funniest, interesting and provocative people in the NBA. Firing Randy Wittman and moving to the Timberwolves bench seemed his final act. But maybe not. The Timberwolves have won five straight and six of seven, and much due to McHale's coaching. And he was 19-12 after firing Flip Saunders, his former college roommate. McHale's gotten Rashad McCants way down the bench, has Randy Foye at a more comfortable two guard, is using the athletic Rodney Carney well and starting to bring along Kevin Love a bit more, though not too fast. Explained McHale: "I'm just a believer in that if you earn something, it always means more. It doesn't do any good to anybody to give them anything. That's not our society now. I gave my kids bikes, and they never knew where their bikes were. My bike was the only thing I had when I was a kid. I knew where it was at every moment of the day because I had to work for that bike. Some of the best lessons in life are earned." Actually, he sounds like Scott Skiles. Maybe McHale's found a home right in front of him.