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Bulls' Rose the big story at NBA's halfway point

Perhaps the biggest individual story of this NBA season has been the Bulls’ Derrick Rose. Sure, he’s been overshadowed by anything LeBron does or says. But with Boozer out the first month and Noah hurt before Boozer got back and having surgery soon afterward, the Bulls are just two games behind mighty Miami for second in the East behind Boston.
"No one has done more with less than Rose," writes Sam Smith of Rose, who he tabs as his NBA MVP to date.
(Doug Pensinger/NBAE/Getty Images)

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

The All-Star weekend is the NBA’s midseason break, though statistically—which has become the rage in recent years—this week actually is the NBA’s halfway mark as everyone will reach 41 games, the Bulls when they are in Memphis Monday.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the Spurs, cruising along at 35-6 on a 70-win pace, five and a half games ahead of the Lakers for the best record in the Western Conference and four games ahead of Boston for the league’s best record. I don’t know anyone who had the Spurs in first, or, really even in fifth as it was generally agreed to be the Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Magic and perhaps Oklahoma City, Dallas or Utah. Of course, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credited serendipity, stating, “Our record is as much an indication about our health as anything else. It’s not because we invented a new play or we’re so much better than everybody else.” But that counts, too.

The Bulls go with those surprises at 27-13 on a 55-win pace, while never really having their full starting lineup, and this week they are without both Carlos Boozer, with a sprained ankle, and Joakim Noah, out another month after finger surgery. The Bulls rank as the league’s leading defensive team without one true top defender at his position, or, really, even close.

The Knicks have been a mild surprise, though most had them seventh or eighth in the East, while the Magic’s big trades remaking their team was the story of the first half, along with Carmelo’s trade possibilities and Miami’s early struggles, starting 9-8 with rumors coach Erik Spoelstra would be fired. Now, he could be the East’s All-Star coach.

Portland, again, was the hard luck story with both Greg Oden and Brandon Roy having season-ending surgeries, while perhaps the most exciting player has been a rookie, the Clippers’ Blake Griffin. John Wall, with injuries, has been a bit of a disappointment.

The East remains wide open for the last few playoff spots, while there may be one or perhaps two still open in the West, the latter if Anthony breaks up the Nuggets.

Though perhaps the biggest individual story has been the Bulls’ Derrick Rose. Sure, he’s been overshadowed by anything LeBron does or says. But with Boozer out the first month and Noah hurt before Boozer got back and having surgery soon afterward, the Bulls are just two games behind mighty Miami for second in the East behind Boston. This all brings me to the league’s awards at the halfway mark:

-- MVP: Derrick Rose, Bulls. I really didn’t want to do this, writing for Bulls.com and all. But I cannot make a good case for anyone but Rose as MVP. There is no actual criteria for MVP, but it generally goes to the best player whose team is having the best season. That would be LeBron James, and given the rest of the two teams are about equal, especially with Noah out, Rose plays with Keith Bogans and James plays with Dwyane Wade. Given how Wade can play in brilliant spurts and take defense and pressure away from James, it’s tough to vote James the MVP compared with what Rose faces regularly. Early in the season, I had Dirk Nowitzki toward the top. He’s been hurt and the team collapsed, though Caron Butler went out as well. He could recover, but basically missed a quarter of the season. Amar’e Stoudemire has been terrific, but his team is barely over .500. Others I’d consider would be Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams and Paul Pierce. But no one has done more with less than Rose.

-- Coach of the Year: Gregg Popovich, Spurs. Sure they have their same big three and Ginobili and Parker are healthy and having good years. But Tim Duncan is a shell of what he once was. In his place, Popovich has manipulated and massaged reserves, overseas players, kids and veterans to be hardly the team anyone expected looking at 70 wins. Rookie Tom Thibodeau is right behind winning despite losing key players and with the best defense without a defensive star. The players are motivated and the record is surprising. Also in the running, I’d have Boston’s Doc Rivers for managing a difficult roster, Utah’s Jerry Sloan for losing nothing while turning over half his team and Philadelphia’s Doug Collins for reinvigorating a moribund roster.

-- Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Clippers. The easiest pick, as it has to be unanimous. With John Wall something of a disappointment and hurt a lot, second rounder Landry Fields of the Knicks is probably the runner-up. The Kings’ DeMarcus Cousins has been as much distraction and hardly anyone else gets consideration, as Derrick Favors and Evan Turner have been slow starters. The Spurs’ latest find, 26-year-old Gary Neal, has been more impressive.

-- Sixth Man: Jason Terry, Mavericks. There are a bunch of good candidates, but Terry defines them as much as any with his instant offense, though he’s started some games of late. But you could also make a case for Ben Gordon, Jamal Crawford, Tyrus Thomas (yes, the Bulls know how to draft sixth men), Lou Williams, O.J. Mayo, Glen Davis and the much misused Carl Landry with previous candidates Ginobili and Lamar Odom starting.

-- Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Magic. Howard doesn’t get much competition for this one as there really are no great shut down perimeter defenders anymore in the style of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Alvin Robertson and Michael Cooper. Last year, Rajon Rondo and LeBron James were first team, which was a laugh. Rondo can’t guard anyone, but steals the ball while James makes highlight plays by running back to make blocks. Apparently the coaches who vote only watch highlight tapes. Thabo Sefolosha is pretty good, but the Thunder is a poor defensive team and Ron Artest is nowhere near much interested anymore. So, who else? Tyson Chandler? Kevin Love for rebounds? Heck, Darko’s among the leaders in blocks.

-- Most Improved: Wesley Matthews, Trail Blazers. The popular pick this season is Minnesota’s Kevin Love, putting up huge numbers. But I still believe your team has to be at least competitive to win an award. The Timberwolves, while better, are 14th in the West. I’d almost be tempted to vote Darko given he was a bust, basically out of the NBA and now a serviceable center who in a three game stretch earlier this season had 23 against the Lakers, 21 against the Thunder and 22 against the Spurs. Yes, Darko. I have Matthews just barely ahead of the Knicks Ray Felton as no one expected Felton to be much and he had few offers as a free agent. But Matthews is the kind of guy this award is made for, undrafted and now with a key starting spot and averaging about 16 points. You generally don’t want to go with high draft choices as they were supposed to be good. Matthews wasn’t. I’d also go high with Arron Afflalo, Dorell Wright, Eric Gordon and DeMar DeRozan. For my other list of the least improved or going the wrong way, Brook Lopez, Danny Granger, Ron Artest, Tyreke Evans, Rodney Stuckey, Rashard Lewis. And maybe because they never went anywhere, Anthony Randolph and Brandan Wright.

Saunders on what could have been with Marbury

-- Wizards coach Flip Saunders was back in Minneapolis and talked to the Star Tribune about working with John Wall, a potential star point guard, something Saunders did before with a star kid named Stephon Marbury. Marbury famously forced his way out of Minnesota to get to a big city, ending up with the Nets and the beginning of a long spiral downward for his career. Said Saunders, and Carmelo might listen: "I remember when I had the meeting with Steph when he left. He wanted the trade. I said, 'I can tell you, in 15 years, me, you, [Kevin Garnett] will all be sitting down one day and we'll say that's the biggest mistake that was ever made.' I think if he had stayed here with KG, that his career would have been—and he had a good career—but I think it would have been a great career. We also had [Tom] Gugliotta here at the time. I think Steph was just pulled by outside sources to try to get back to New York. People can say all they want, but New Jersey's not New York." Which is why despite all the talk and rumors and reports, I still do not believe Anthony will go to the Nets. He’d actually be better off staying with the Nuggets, making the playoffs, and then seeing what Denver will do in a declining Western Conference or, if the Knicks is what he wants, going then as a free agent without the Knicks having to disturb a developing core with a trade for Anthony. That’s if he cares about winning, which Marbury only talked about.

Carmelo could decide to remain in Denver… for now

-- Life should not be all about money. I know, I’m a dreamer. With Anthony just 26, he’s got plenty of time to make the supposed lost money back from whatever changes are made in the new collective bargaining agreement. Though you never know in these things and the latest is Anthony meeting with the Nets’ owner, I think Anthony after all this will decide to stay in Denver the rest of the season. Then he’ll opt out and go to the Knicks for whatever the new league maximum is, and you can be sure the Knicks will take care of him on his next deal.

Anthony supposedly doesn’t want to go to New York now if they have to give up too many players and make it difficult to compete. So then Anthony signs with New York in Eddy Curry’s space and the Knicks can then trade Danilo Gallinari and try to get a center, and then with Amar’e Stoudemire and the rest they should be in the future mix with the Bulls and Heat. And until then it will be up to the Nuggets to see what they could get from, say, Dallas in a short-term rental. Of course, that’s what I’d do if I were Anthony and I wanted to be in New York City, but they never seem to do what I’d do.

That said, I’ll make a prediction here. Call me on it if you’d like. Carmelo Anthony will not be a Net. He’ll be with Amar’e Stoudemire in New York next season. And the East continues to get better.

Bulls unlikely to make major deal for shooting guard

--- The Bulls could use a higher level shooting guard, as we know, though with Carlos Boozer out again, it is growing more unlikely the Bulls could consider any sort of major trade given any deal likely would have to include Taj Gibson both to help match salary and to give up something. You are hardly getting anyone better than Kyle Korver or Ronnie Brewer, or even Keith Bogans, for just a low first round draft pick. Or perhaps even that Charlotte draft pick given it might not be available for five years. It’s questionable whether the Bulls would leave themselves without Gibson with Joakim Noah out at least another month and Carlos Boozer hurt, this time with a sprained ankle. How much will a shooting guard help if you have to start Brian Scalabrine? But it would be nice to have an upgrade. Bogans had six points in Saturday’s win over Miami. When Bogans has six points or more, the Bulls are 9-0. Imagine if he’d average 10 points. … Although his name doesn’t come up much, one interesting shooting guard possibility is Phoenix’ Mickael Pietrus, who is out of the rotation as coach Alvin Gentry said he can no longer go with 10 players and is cutting the rotation for the rest of the season. Pietrus is just a 36 percent three point shooter and just 66 percent on free throws, though an athletic guard. The Suns might be one of those teams needing to start stocking picks as Steve Nash and Grant Hill close in on the end of their careers. … It’s been more than 10 years since Nash has played for a losing team, which continues to raise speculation the Suns, though vociferously denying it, would trade Nash. … The new Eddy Curry: Brook Lopez? The Nets center—seen this, Carmelo?—is averaging a good 18.9 points, but a pathetic 5.9 rebounds, 44th in the league and tied with Luol Deng. Five of his seven games this month have been four rebounds or fewer. Asked if he wishes for Anthony, Nets coach Avery Johnson said he wishes for other things, “like a center who can get 10 rebounds.” Ouch. … Not exactly a huge endorsement of the Cavs as before they lost by 55 to the Lakers Phil Jackson offered, “I’m looking forward to seeing these new players they have on their team that I've never heard of. I wasn't familiar with their names. They were undrafted players that are free agents and some of them are from the D-League." … Jackson certainly is unorthodox, but you can’t challenge 11 NBA titles. The Clippers overcame a seven-point fourth quarter deficit Sunday to pull away from the Lakers in the last four minutes and Jackson never called one timeout. Might have had early dinner plans. … Make the Clippers the team of the week, now playing .500 ball since a 1-13 start with nine wins in the last 14. They beat the Heat and Lakers in the last week to add to wins over the Bulls, Spurs and Thunder. LeBron James said the Clippers have the league’s most athletic front court.

Speaking of karma…

-- Since LeBron’s James’ “Karma” tweet rubbing in the Cavs’ 55-point loss, the Heat haven’t won, losing three straight with both James and Chris Bosh suffering ankle injuries. … The NBA world still isn’t quite ready for mental health disclosures. Roy Hibbert said he was going to meet with a psychologist as he felt some of the issues in his decline this season were more mental. His two points against the Bulls last week was his second two point game in a month. But Hibbert told the Indianapolis Star players haven’t quite understood, though you cannot find a pro golfer who doesn’t consult a psychologist or generally travel with one. "Ever since that story came out, guys on other teams have been like, 'You going off the deep end?’” said Hibbert. "I didn't mean for it to become a big story or anything, but I know a guy really helped (Memphis guard) Mike Conley Jr. before this year. And listening to Ron (Artest) talk about how much he was helped. The bottom line is, I can't get down on myself. I've just got to have fun playing this game.” … Richard Hamilton is piling up those DNPs as he awaits a possible trade with Carmelo Anthony to New Jersey. The Pistons obviously fear Hamilton being hurt, which happens to him often. But it also seems local patience has run out with the often pouting Hamilton, whom one local Detroit columnist said along with Tayshaun Prince has been the source of the undermining of coach John Kuester. Prince pointed a finger at Kuester for the benching, calling it "Buffoonery.” Though columnist Drew Sharp said the Hamilton extension was the Pistons worst personnel move—even worse than drafting Darko Milicic ahead of Anthony, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Now that’s what I call a rip. … The Pistons apparently finally gave up trying to make Rodney Stuckey a point guard, though only because he refuses to pass the ball. He’s now starting at shooting guard. Tracy McGrady was starting at point, but broke down again against the Kings Saturday. … One reason I love watching the bad teams play one another is to see some of the most remarkable stuff. The Wizards last week blew a 117-109 lead with 1:10 left to the Kings even with the Kings missing two free throws in the last minute, Washington finally winning 136-133 in overtime. You know that Dwyane Wade commercial with him locked in a closet and screaming to “Get me out of here!” Yes, Kirk Hinrich should get that commercial.

Coaches could shuffle next summer

-- It doesn’t get mentioned much, but whereas last summer was the great player free agency summer, this summer could be the great coach free agency summer. Two of the top young coaches in the game, Boston’s Doc Rivers and Portland’s Nate McMillan, are completing contracts and will be free agents and both are expected to leave. The rumors continue that Rivers, who lives in Orlando, will take over in Miami, unless they go to the NBA Finals. McMillan is considered a candidate in Charlotte, though it’s unlikely they will go for a highly paid coach with limited talent. Other jobs that could be open include Detroit, Indiana, Toronto, Minnesota, Golden State and Sacramento. McMillan said last week he thought it would be “tough” for the Trail Blazers to make the playoffs, which would assure his leaving. … Rudy Fernandez was quoted saying he now wanted to stay in the NBA and Portland. He’s likely not going anywhere, as Portland’s biggest need remains shooting, anyway. With Patty Mills coming on, Andre Miller is expected to be traded. … Apparently to keep their sellout streak, the Trail Blazers last week substantially lowered ticket prices for this week’s games. … Steve Nash briefly inched past Mark Price last week for the best free throw shooting percentage in league history while working on a streak of 48 straight. Nash fell back as he missed two against Portland. The NBA’s best streak is 97 by Michael Williams with Minnesota, but the pro record is held by Purdue’s John Wooden (yes, that one) at 134 for the Indianapolis Kautskys, later the Jets. … Monta Ellis, despite being third in the league in scoring, isn’t among the top 10 Western Conference guards in All-Star voting. He'll likely end this season as the first player in league history to finish in the top six in scoring two years in a row without being named to the All-Star team. Part, of course, is playing for a losing team as Ellis carries the reputation of a player who only makes himself better. But Ellis, who is regarded positively by teammates, rarely speaks with the media, which generally is his right, but it does hurt when no one knows you and no one campaigns for you. Plus, you’d think players felt some obligation to help the league that has done so much for them by communicating with fans. Like Bird, Magic and Michael did, but they weren’t so important as today’s players. The San Francisco Chronicle published an interview with Ellis last week after noting it was the interview request they made of him in September. The newspaper said Ellis has never spoken after a team practice this season, a common time when players meet with reporters.

NBA news and notes

-- Letting Dwight Howard score still seems the best strategy when playing Orlando, as the Magic have won 10 of 12. In the two losses, Howard got 29 and 20 and 39 and 18. In the 29 and 20 loss to the Hornets, Howard missed two free throws with 11 seconds that would have given Orlando the lead, though Howard told the Orlando Sentinel, “You can't just look at it as the free throws lost the game.” Of course, but the star is supposed to take the fall at that time. Are they afraid to tell him? Oh, that’s right. He’ll be a free agent after next season. … Uh oh, maybe he is done. In 14 games with Orlando, Gilbert Arenas is averaging 9.4 points on 37 percent shooting and in double figures just six times while averaging about 25 minutes. Yikes, that’s three more years after this and about $60 million. … Tyrus Thomas is here (maybe) with Charlotte Tuesday and up to his stuff again. He was ejected for a flagrant elbow Saturday in a loss to New Orleans and coach Paul Silas didn’t have much sympathy for his player. Said Silas to the Charlotte Observer: "You just don’t do those kinds of things. It's about being a man. Playing this game is about being a man." The newspaper summed up, “Thomas is a great athlete. He is not a basketball player.” … You can’t feel the excitement yet in New Orleans as they have until the end of the month to average 14,915 to meet the attendance benchmark requirement in the Hornets’ lease with the state to the lease to be active. So Wednesday they drew 13,688 against Orlando. And no football excuses this time with the Saints out of the playoffs. They don’t really care about the NBA there. It’s OK. … How about the Thunder’s Jeff Green, outrebounded in a loss to Memphis earlier this month 16-0 by Zach Randolph in 42 minutes and then getting zero rebounds against last week in 28 minutes against Houston. That came after Green closed 2010 with a one rebound game in 20 minutes against Atlanta. That should be virtually impossible for a power forward, and especially with Oklahoma City and all the bad jumpers they take. Green is averaging 5.6 rebounds in almost 38 minutes per game. Green actually should play small forward, though he’s a 28 percent three point shooter. Tough to get that $50 million or so extension he’s seeking as a sixth man. … Zach Randolph received last month’s NBA Community Assist award for his charitable work, which is significant given he was once regarded as one of the league’s prize miscreants. He’ll be a much in demand free agent this summer on a tear now averaging 25 and 15 this month. The Grizzlies, curiously, have a better record against teams with winning records than teams below .500. Good luck Monday, Taj. … Once one of the more remote and brusque star players around the NBA, Tim Duncan has quietly (how else) mellowed out and these days shows a lot of the playful humor teammates talked about but no one ever saw. After dunking twice in a win over the stumbling Mavs last week, Duncan told the San Antonio Express he should have been in the dunk contest. “I have to take out Blake (Griffin) and (Serge) Ibaka and the other guys,” Duncan said. “After that, I think I could win it.” This was Duncan: I once went to Spurs media day, the official opening of camps, and was told Duncan doesn’t like to speak to media on media day.

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