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Thunder, Bulls and Heat among the NBA elite

Sam Smith of Bulls.com ranks the league’s 30 teams at the young season’s quarter pole mark
"Their combination of defense, depth and size is unparalleled," writes Sam Smith of Derrick Rose and the Bulls, No. 2 in his season rankings to date. "But they still might not have enough scoring to win."
(Brian Babineau/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

It seems like the NBA season just started. And it did. Heck, we’re still returning Christmas gifts. But most of the league this weekend hit the 20 percent mark of the shortened 66-game season. That’s usually when teams get a feel for who they are and what they have, when teams begin to decide whether they can make a run for the playoffs, or maybe need to start building toward next season. Perhaps it takes a bit longer this season because it’s just 16 games equaling almost a quarter of the season. And there’s so much inequality in the early scheduling with most of the Western teams not playing as many road games yet and certainly not in the East.

There have been some great individual performances, most noteworthy Kobe Bryant’s streak of 40-point games that has him in MVP conversation again. Derrick Rose has to be there as well with the Bulls fast start along with Kevin Durant. The surprise teams have been the 76ers, leading the Atlantic, the 9-3 Pacers, the 9-4 Spurs without Manu Ginobili, the 7-4 Jazz and the Magic leading the Southwest ahead of Miami despite all the Dwight Howard trade talk. Charlotte and Washington have been the least competitive and the rookie stars have been Kyrie Irving and Ricky Rubio. So here’s a look at the best to worst at the quarter pole:

  1. Thunder: Their issue now is the playoffs and whether Durant and Westbrook can work when the heat is on and the ball has to go to Durant. Though they are not great defensively, they have size now with Perkins and Ibaka and three big scorers.
  2. Bulls: Their combination of defense, depth and size is unparalleled. But they still might not have enough scoring to win. They still don’t know what they have in Hamilton, but missing virtually the first quarter of the season has to be a concern. You assume if Hamilton has additional issues the Bulls will have to be active at the trading deadline.
  3. Heat: It’s less their three losses out West last week than they won’t push as hard this season because there’s no shutting everyone up unless they win the title. I can see them nursing Wade more as he turns 30 this month and has had a foot problem this season. He’s played a hard 20,000-plus minutes in his career. And still no center or point guard.
  4. 76ers: Don’t sleep on them. They don’t have an All-Star, but this is the type team Doug Collins, easily the leader for Coach of the Year, does well with. They’re the league’s best combination offensive/defensive team and have depth. If their front line gives them anything or they can make a deal they’ll be for real.
  5. Pacers: Now if they can only trade Danny Granger. They’ve come out of the pack thanks to good drafting by Larry Bird and some good signings. I can see a Granger deal for a bigtime scorer like Eric Gordon or Monta Ellis with Paul George going to small forward where he belongs. And they already rank among the league’s best on defense.
  6. Lakers: With an asterisk, as Phil might say. Kobe obviously is coaching himself with Mike “Hey, what’s offense?” Brown, and perhaps he’ll pass to Pau or Andrew some time. They could be a bit of a mirage with 10 of their 14 games in Staples as they head out soon. And the Dwight Howard trade still beckons.
  7. Clippers: They may have the league’s best starting lineup, though that Chris Paul hammy Saturday wasn’t encouraging. If Mo Williams bought in as a sixth man, which he is, they’d have something going. They may still and with the vets they have they could be troublesome in the Western Conference playoffs, which are as wide open and without a dominant team than any time since Seattle’s back to back Finals in the late 1970’s. I have eight West teams that could get to the Finals.
  8. Nuggets: Interesting that the teams that traded Carmelo Anthony and Deron Williams are doing better without them and the team that traded them probably would be better off if they hadn’t. They’ve got big depth, including the trade to pick up a pair of Mavs, which goes a long way in the mile high air. And they’ll likely get Wilson Chandler back from China in March, which could put them right into the conference finals.
  9. Trail Blazers: Imagine if they had a healthy Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. Of course, they said such things before about Bill Walton in the late 1970’s. They’ve been more cursed than the Clippers. But they’ve put together a deep group to play a nice up-tempo game, though again a lot of uncertainty at center with the fragile Marcus Camby. Kurt Thomas better get a lot of sleep.
  10. Spurs: They’ll get Manu back and finally have some developing pieces to add to their roster. I don’t see them as a team that can win the West, but other than perhaps Oklahoma City no one else looks like they can either. Haven’t lost at home or won on the road.
  11. Magic: Of course, this all depends on whether Howard remains. There is one theory aliens have control of his brain because he’s supposedly interested in the Nets. As needy as he appears for acceptance, you can see him holding a press conference to declare for Orlando, like the high school kids do when they choose colleges.
  12. Jazz: Wow, are there a lot of bad teams this season. I keep trying to put them farther down and can’t find anyone to move ahead. I thought they were rebuilding, but the West is a combination of so bad and so beat up that with a front line with Jefferson, assuming they don’t trade him, and Millsap and some youth to push them and depth in a season where that is most important they may actually be in there. Amazingly.
  13. Mavericks: I do think they are throwing the season for free agency next summer. And in one of the rare times I’m with them on that. I never, ever thought that group could win a championship. Still can’t believe they did. They’re really old and really small and really won the 2011 championship. Did I mention that?
  14. Knicks: I don’t think much of them, and I don’t see Baron Davis as the answer to any question other than who’s been the point guard who really deserved Lafayette Lever’s nickname? It’s coach firing watch after every loss and I still cannot understand why anyone wants to play there. Other than, of course, Anthony, who is the classic numbers stuffer chasing a spotlight.
  15. Celtics: They ain’t dead yet? Awfully close. There’s not much there with Garnett and Pierce anymore as they go through a repeat of the early 90’s decline. But it’s like a death of a loved one. You just can’t bear to let go. That window when they got Garnett they agreed was three to four seasons max. This is year five. Rajon Rondo is their best player. Doesn’t anyone see the problem?
  16. Hawks: They’d have been higher, but the loss of Al Horford is deadly even though they won a few since. They were small with him. Injuries are becoming the story of this season even if many of the major ones, like for Manu and Zach, were flukes and little to do with the lockout. Maybe when Hinrich comes back next month he’ll play center.
  17. Timberwolves: We all love Rubio. They’re starting him now and he’s quieted the critics much more than Tebow’s critics. Everyone sees he can play. And he can even shoot enough. With Love and if they can keep Beasley injured, or maybe traded, they’ve got a nice little group that just needs to learn to finish games.
  18. Grizzlies: Like the Hawks, they’d have been higher if not for the devastating loss of Zach Randolph, really the fulcrum for their offense. His backup, Darrell Arthur, went down as well. So that unique interior strength they had last season is gone. But if they make the playoffs and Zach returns anything is possible in the weak West.
  19. Rockets: They seem to judge themselves by how many trades they “win.” They make a lot of minor deals that all seem to look good but basically go nowhere with a mess of a roster. They supposedly pattern after the baseball Moneyball statistical model, which has made the A’s an abject failure if also played by mostly beautiful people to balance off the myth. Fugure them for a big trading deadline winner and going nowhere.
  20. Cavaliers: Point guard Kyrie Irving is the real deal and as the Bulls found out a really good point guard could change things quickly. They were worse than they should have been last season with Anderson Varejao out and made the most overlooked deal ever to get the No. 1 pick and Irving for taking on Baron Davis. Dan Gilbert gets a lot of criticism, but he’ll spend and wants to win and those eventually work.
  21. Hornets: They’ll forever be known for their GM, David Stern. You know the league would love to sell them now. But once they get Eric Gordon back they do have enough of a team with a good young defensive minded coach that they could move up, though we’ll all be watching come trade deadline if there is no new owner to see whether the league wants to help someone into the playoffs.
  22. Bucks: Andrew Bogut has to be the Roseanne Roseannadanna of hoop. “It’s always something,” as the late great Gilda Radna would say on Saturday Night Live. He can never stay healthy for whatever reason, and he’s too big to be so undependable. Mike Dunleavy’s historically brittle as is Drew Gooden. If only it wasn’t always something. And then comes Jack.
  23. Warriors: They seem excited about Mark Jackson, but he’s already spent two games fouling guys. I know they wanted to slow down Don Nelson’s game, but this has gone way too far. Stephen Curry’s ankles could be their Achilles. But new ownership is intent on making itself noticed and if they cannot get it together before long you can see some more major deals. Losing Kwame Brown hurt. I really always wanted to write that.
  24. Suns: I think they’re just marking time to free agency as well, which is OK. Except perhaps for the ticket sales people. I’d move Steve Nash if I could get anything, but you still do have to play the schedule and he seems content enough to stay. Look, they had their run. Those all come to an end and it’s never pretty to watch.
  25. Raptors: At this point there’s no way to figure the worst of the worst. They’re perhaps the best of the really worst because new coach Dwane Casey has them playing defense and has awakened Andrea Bargnani some. Wow, there are some amazing No. 1 overall picks playing for the league’s worst teams.
  26. Kings: Poor Jimmer Fredette. He couldn’t have any idea the NBA was like this with crazed Cousins and streetball Evans. Fredette used to prepare by playing against prison teams and you get the feeling he may believe they were more stable guys.
  27. Pistons: It didn’t exactly make up for Darko, but they began to dig out with the Greg Monroe pick. Still too many guards and too many others who don’t guard. What does it tell you about Tayshaun Prince resigning there and then complaining they aren’t a good team. Quite the thinker.
  28. Nets: Wonder if they’d like to trade Deron Williams for Derrick Favors and some draft picks and really start to build. They are without Brook Lopez, and if they somehow end up with Dwight Howard they can laugh back. For now, it’s nothing but tears.
  29. Bobcats: They really are the worst team, at least in talent, though Jordan made it clear he’s breaking down the team now for financial reasons. He can laugh if he hits it big in the lottery. Perhaps because he was underpaid most of his career he believes that players are so overpaid now.
  30. Wizards: What a mess. John Wall suddenly has morphed into the next Michael Olowokandi. It’s a mismatched roster with some talent if they didn’t all have to play together. Before season’s end you assume guys will be wrestling on the floor to get the ball to shoot. Though it is a fitting symbol of mutual dysfunction for the team that represents the U.S. Congress.

Rose a likely USA Basketball finalist

-- USA Basketball Monday will announce the finalists to try out for the 2012 Olympic basketball men’s team. The list is expected to include 20 NBA players with Derrick Rose, who played for the 2010 USA Basketball World Championship team, among them. Chairman Jerry Colangelo emphasizes “equity” for players chosen, meaning ones who have committed to USA Basketball previously and played. Thus the roster will basically be made up of the 2008 Olympic gold medal team and the 2010 team. In looking at the rosters, I’d say there only might be one spot open for the 2012 team in London.

My guess is eight players are chosen from the 2008 team: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade and Deron Williams. Likely not included on Monday’s 20-player list will be Carlos Boozer, Jason Kidd, Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd because of age and injuries since.

Then I see three more definites from the 2010 team: Rose, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. There’s always talk the U.S. team lacks size, which got Tyson Chandler on in 2010. But I think there is enough as Bosh mostly played center for the 2008 team. International centers generally play outside, so interior size isn’t as crucial as a big man who can shoot. The one player who has yet to participate whom you might add is the Clippers’ Blake Griffin. But that would make 12 with a roster of two centers (Howard and Bosh), five forwards (Anthony, James, Durant, Love and Griffin) and five guards (Bryant, Wade, Williams, Paul and Rose).

The way I see the team, I’d say they most need three point shooting, vital in the international game. Currently, from the 2008 and 2010 teams, only Danny Granger is ranked among the NBA’s top 20 in three point shooting. I don’t see him making the team. Durant and Love are good big man three pointer shooters, which is important in international play. Granger is more a volume shooter. The question is whether you pass on a third point guard or fifth forward to add someone like Ray Allen, who probably is the game’s best pure shooter and ideal for international spot up play with so much U.S. talent. Allen is deserving of an Olympic bid with his great, classy career. Stephen Curry played for the 2010 team and is a great shooter, but injury questions always are there with him. It’s going to be a tough decision for what looks like one last spot.

Interested in Rasheed? Think again

-- You’ve got to love that trial balloon floated last week by Rasheed Wallace about making a comeback. Though when thinking of Wallace you do think about inflation, that being his bloated, out of shape body that left the NBA after the 2009-10 season after career lows in about everything but missed shots. Sounds like someone may have spent all his money. That didn’t take long. He may not be the worst person ever to play in the NBA given Bill Laimbeer was there, but he’s certainly in the team picture. Here’s my ‘Sheed story. It’s when I was president of the basketball writers association and Wallace was again abusing reporters with foul language he saved for officials as well. I tried to get him aside and make a plea of understanding and that reporters were merely a way of communicating with the fans who supported the game. He listened briefly, then he said, “I don’t give a crap (much worse word) about anything but myself and my family.” Which also included not much caring about his team or the NBA. So I could go, well, you know what he suggested. If any team were to sign the 37-year-old it would suggest a move beyond desperation and a strike at the integrity of the game itself.

NBA news and notes

-- On ESPN’s basketball page Sunday the first five stories were: Heat unsure how long Wade out, CP3 day to day, Melo hurting, Kidd misses 4th straight and Nash and Hill with quad problems. Injuries are becoming the story of this season with All-Stars like Manu Ginobili, Zach Randolph and Al Horford with major injuries that could cost them big parts of the season. You can’t find a team without key players in and out of the lineup, though many of the injuries are routine sprains and strains which normally occur, and who plays 82 games in this era, anyway? But with the shortened camp and preseason, the team that survives with the fewest major injuries will be in the best shape to play for the title. You know, like always. … You had to love Deron Williams’ return to Salt Lake City Saturday. Before going he told reporters: “I don’t think it’ll be as bad as (Carlos) Boozer’s.” Perhaps worse, and Williams folded with a three for 15 shooting disaster as he was booed, heckled and tormented every time he was mentioned or touched the ball. At least with Boozer he could say some people were yelling his nickname. Williams afterward said he felt the greeting was mixed as his nose actually began to grow. Williams, meanwhile, has been mostly troubled this season, shooting 36.6 percent and last week getting himself ejected for arguing calls in the Denver game. Mehmet Okur, meanwhile, was cheered in the same game for the Nets. … Spencer Hawes told Philadelphia media he credits former star and later punch line Shawn Kemp for a lot of his improvement this season as Kemp has gotten his life together as a businessman and radio host in Seattle and basketball teacher. … Miwaukee’s Brandon Jennings, off to a hot start for the cold Bucks, told the Milwaukee Sentinel he worked out in the offseason with former Bulls lottery pick Jay Williams as his instructor. … Indiana’s Danny Granger says the Pacers are back as well: “We're a force to be reckoned with in the East," he told the Indianapolis Star. "It's not one of those fluke things where we start having a good beginning of the season and we're going to fade. We're actually a legitimate contender in the East."

-- Interesting comments by Chris Bosh to GQ about who should take the last shot: "Dwyane." Why? "Because of his success in the past, given what he's done," Bosh said. "He's a champ. He's an MVP, and he's hit a bunch of last-second shots. That's the time you have to put pride aside a little bit, and do what's best for the team. He's quickest, and he's gonna get a shot off. He relishes those moments. I tell the truth, and if somebody doesn't like it, I can live with myself, because I'm being honest. If you can't honest, what do you have?" Bosh, you may recall, also said during last season he thought Derrick Rose should be MVP. Maybe it’s because LeBron makes him dress alone. Anyway, James again faltered at the end of games last week in losing to the Warriors when he didn’t shoot in the fourth quarter and then when he gagged up some free throws in losing to the Clippers. True, other guys miss those times and never are called on it like James, though if you name yourself “King” people do expect more. But James does continue to show a propensity to give up the ball late: Smart, unselfish player? Or avoiding the pressure? The debate continues. … Norris Cole’s Hall of Fame entry has been delayed after scoring in single digits four of the last five games with his three point percentage down to 25 and getting three or fewer assists his last three games. … The NBA doesn’t do it often, but it agreed LeBron James should have been called for traveling when he failed to dribble when taking about five steps in a big play that helped send the game with the Clippers into overtime.

-- Interesting column in the Orlando Sentinel pointing out how a Chicago Tribune columnist called Dwight Howard “stupid,” “idiot” and “chump” for saying he didn’t want to play for the Bulls. Howard hasn’t exactly said anything one way or the other, but knowing Howard well in Orlando they know how sensitive and seeking of acceptance he is and wondered how he’d like the major media markets as opposed to Orlando, where reporters generally ask him if it’s OK to say he didn’t shoot well. The column also noted how even playing in the small market Howard remains the leading All-Star vote getter, a national endorser and has appeared in movies. And pays no state tax. So what’s in New Jersey? Hard to figure this guy. … After being outplayed last week by John Lucas, you wonder how the Wizards feel about John Wall and having given up the draft rights to Ricky Rubio for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. … Bobcats coach Paul Silas finally had enough after Tyrus Thomas went 26 minutes without a rebound and Boris Diaw was scoreless in the same 26 minutes in a 30-point loss to the Hawks without Al Horford. Diaw was finally benched and is available in trade with an expiring deal, Thomas was returned to power forward from small forward and rookie Kemba Walker starts with D.J. Augustin in the six foot and under backcourt. I see Lucas posting them when they visit the United Center Saturday. … Impressive for the old warrior. With Manu Ginobili out, the Spurs have won six of their last eight and in the last four Tim Duncan is averaging 17 points and 9.8 rebounds and shooting almost 60 percent. … He’s had a lot of tough things happen in his life beyond basketball as Lamar Odom seems to be going through a meltdown before our eyes, being quoted saying he’s unprepared to play, condemning media as his Kardashian wife fills up the social pages of Dallas media and apparently crying through some interviews. And Monday the Mavs are in L.A. to play the Lakers. Odom is averaging almost half as many points and rebounds as his career averages. … Brutal start for free agent shooting guard Jamal Crawford, shooting 34.7 percent for the Trailblazers and 30 percent on threes. … After a fast start with three of seven threes in his first game trying a comeback with the Suns, who visit the Bulls Tuesday, Michael Redd has missed eight of nine shots since.

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