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NBA player surprises -- positive and negative

Sam Smith of Bulls.com takes a look at ten players who have been impressive this season, as well as ten who seem to be trending down
Among the ten players Sam Smith lists as trending up are a pair of point guards in Houston’s Kyle Lowry and Memphis’ Mike Conley. “He’s emerged as one of the better point guards and among the league’s assist leaders and vital piece for the surprising Rockets,” he writes of Lowry.
(Joe Murphy/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 starters will be announced this week, and there shouldn’t be much surprise with Derrick Rose getting his second straight start in the Eastern Conference’s backcourt with Dwyane Wade. But what about some of the guys who won’t be playing in the All-Star game—those that don’t deserve to, certainly—and those not quite talented enough, but who are impressing this season. Let's take a look at the surprises both positive and negative.

Ten trending up:

  1. Paul Millsap: The Jazz are a surprise this season thanks to the undersized forward averaging more than 21 the last 10 games.
  2. Josh Smith: I’ve never been a big fan, and certainly not of guys who said now they really are in shape. But he’s gone back to being the defensive presence he could be and crucial in their success without Al Horford.
  3. Greg Monroe: It’s not very pretty in Detroit, but he’s a future double/double big man already close to those numbers.
  4. Roy Hibbert: It’s made a difference they’ve taken the pressure off him getting David West. I thought he’d be a bigger Aaron Gray. But his presence and clever hook is one of the reasons for their surge.
  5. Kyle Lowry: Previously an afterthought as just a tough little guy, he’s emerged as one of the better point guards and among the league’s assist leaders and vital piece for the surprising Rockets.
  6. Luke Ridnour: After being almost forgotten about after a nice start to his career, he’s come back thanks to playing with Ricky Rubio in bettering his career averages in about every category.
  7. Mike Conley: He’s become the rock for the Grizzlies with Zach Randolph out and a very solid point guard.
  8. Lou Williams: Not that he wasn’t good last season. But he’s become the engine for the biggest surprise team, the 76ers, and still off the bench. Jrue Holiday is in there with him.
  9. Al Harrington: Thought washed up for knee problems and disinterest, he’s come back for the strong Nuggets wit excellent shooting and solid play.
  10. Byron Mullens: Previously figured a bust, he’s not your classic big man. But he shoots well and contributes. Spencer Hawes goes in this category when he returns from injury.

Ten trending down:

  1. Metta World Peace (Ron Artest): And not because of the name. His game has disappeared as he can’t defend and never could shoot. What does he do anymore but get in the way?
  2. Tyrus Thomas: He coulda been a contender. Well, maybe. He continues to be that be that square peg or whatever. Likes to shoot form far out, doesn’t rebound, avoids contact. Infuriates coaches.
  3. Devin Harris: The Jazz really could be having a season if he were anywhere close to any previous season he’s had. His scoring down and shooting back to awful.
  4. Jameer Nelson: Not sure we can blame it all on Dwight, though we’d like to. He can’t even make shots now, less than 30 percent on threes. And that’s all he could do.
  5. Lamar Odom: Still one of the nicest people, but it doesn’t work as well when you can’t shoot, rebound or make plays anymore. That’s his reality now.
  6. Stephen Jackson: It’s not like Milwaukee is that smaller than Charlotte. A potent offensive force not long ago, he just seems to have given up.
  7. Channing Frye: He’s not there for rebounding or defense, and now he can’t make shots, either. And you’re playing with still a pretty good Steve Nash.
  8. Wesley Johnson: He sure looked like a good idea, and the Timberwolves would have something if he were. But he doesn’t shoot or do much of anything with all that talent.
  9. Jason Kidd: It does seem about the end as he’s barely shooting 25 percent from everywhere and averaging about a third his career average. I’ll give him some time with injury lately, but Dirk looked very not much into it as well when he opened the season.
  10. John Salmons: How the heck did he have that season with the Bulls. Shooting about 20 percent on threes, averaging barely seven points.

ABA receiving long overdue recognition from NBA

-- Yes, it’s a way to sell retro jerseys, and the NBA store will be doing so starting Thursday. The NBA this month will feature nine teams — Charlotte Bobcats, Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves, New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs — from the areas where the ABA mostly played wearing American Basketball Association jerseys. But it’s a significant milestone as for decades, even after the merger after nine ABA seasons in 1976, the NBA condescendingly ignored the ABA. So it’s an appropriate recognition because the ABA truly brought the NBA into its golden era of the 1980’s. Much is attributed to the coming of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979. But it really was the influence of the ABA, its players and its marketing which remade the NBA to the league it has become. The ABA originated the slam dunk contest, and probably the slam dunk, which is the most popular moment of basketball play in this era. The three point shot was started with Abe Sapertein’s shortlived American Basketball League in the early 1960’s, though it was the ABA where it gained traction. The ABA effectively invented most of the statistics of the NBA as the NBA only began keeping blocks, steals, turnovers and offensive and defensive rebounds after the ABA began doing it. Although Chicago never had a franchise, it had many ABA connections with Joliet and DePaul’s George Mikan the first commissioner and legendary Johnny Kerr the GM of the Virginia Squires, who first signed two unknowns, Julius Erving and George Gervin. The ABA began the so called hardship draft of underclassmen and the courts sanctioned it. It brought from the shadows players who were unjustly banned, like Connie Hawkins and Roger Brown, respectively the forerunners of Dr. J and Larry Bird. Although the NBA would see Erving, in his prime in the NBA there never has been a better open court player, and that includes LeBron James.

It was a vagabond league of franchises moving and going out of business, odd occurrences and arenas, like the Commack Arena in Long Island where I used to go to watch New Jersey/New York Americans games. There was no heat and fans and players on the bench alike wore coats. Singer Pat Boone owned a franchise as did singer Isaac Hayes. Owners came and went as frequently as told in the best book about the league, "Loose Balls" by Terry Pluto.

Batavia’s Dan Issel was a star along with eventual Bull Artis Gilmore, the first pick when the league was absorbed into the NBA. The ABA outbid NBA franchises regular for talent, and had the Bulls not low balled him as much they would have had Maurice Lucas. The NBA’s worst ever era was the 70’s, and the ABA was the reason why. The ABA raided the NBA for players and even the top officials. It’s coaching innovations had Larry Brown’s trapping game and Alex Hannum’s double picking. Games were cancelled when airlines lost luggage and in places like Commack and Teaneck, New Jersey, where the Americans also played, crowds of 500 were typical. But there were strongholds like Indiana and Kentucky. And when just four teams came into the NBA and 84 players still left playing in the NBA, that first season the ABA came into the NBA 10 of the 24 All-Stars were from the ABA, five of the 10 starters on the ’77 Finals team were from the ABA as were four of the NBA’s top 10 scorers. It’s an appropriate recognition long overdue for the league that helped make the modern NBA.

Howard’s future remains in question while Magic struggle

-- I know Dwight Howard has been blaming his teammates for this Magic collapse which began with the two pathetic second halves and losses to Boston. And he blew up at halftime, telling teammates to leave if they didn’t want to play. Which was quite the irony for the guy telling them all season he is leaving. It’s difficult to blame them for not having his back. After all, it seems he quit first on them. Meanwhile, the Celtics in the first meltdown last week guarded Howard effectively with Jermaine O’Neal and Greg Stiemsma, and the next game O’Neal didn’t even play and Chris Wilcox was a problem. Boston generally doesn’t double Howard and stays on the shooters. Howard is putting up credible double/doubles, but it could be so much more if he apparently was trying. Of all players, he criticized teammates for losing composure even as he routinely draws the most technicals in the league. And he remains a late game problem still under 50 percent free throw shooting. Can you win with him? In watching, you can see his lack of interest in making things much different, thus apparently giving him a personal and mental justification for wanting to be traded. See, the Magic has no chance. It would be nice to try to do more about that, but it does seem Howard has checked himself out without a receipt.

The Magic’s plan all along has been to keep Howard through All-Star weekend in Orlando as a final pitch to persuade him to resign. That seems a fantasy now, though seeing that the talk around the NBA is the offers aren’t that serious. Howard supposedly has designated the Nets, Mavericks and Lakers as his preferred destinations. The Mavericks have nothing that makes sense for Orlando. And likely neither do the Nets with the underachieving Lopez. Although I’ve long suggested maybe the Magic call Howard’s bluff and see if he’ll walk and take some $25 to $30 million less, it’s probably time to cash in. The issue is whether you make a bid for Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol — getting one doesn’t make sense &mdaash; or just go for draft picks and cap space as after next season Orlando can get well below the cap and rebuild. Also, you could move Gasol somewhere as the Rockets supposedly still remain furious the NBA turned down that preseason Chris Paul deal in which they got Gasol. The Rockets have the Knicks' No. 1 protected through five this season. And Orlando does have a history of being able to attract free agents. I’d probably go that way as youth and anticipation like with Minnesota generally sells more tickets and excites a fan base more than the guys we already know who can’t or don’t win and are too old. If I could get a young player and an upcoming lottery pick, I’d trade him to a team that might be desperate and wants to take a chance he’d resign. Perhaps someone like the Warriors or Rockets or Wizards. I’d take JaVale McGee and a pick and take my chances. I’d forget where Howard wants to go. Those teams don’t do much for you. Short of that, ride it out, get one more playoffs in, begin cleaning house and start over in 2013-14 and begin preparing for Kevin Love and his contemporaries. And enjoy watching Howard squirm not being one of the highest paid players on his team.

NBA news and notes

-- You wonder if Howard is watching Carmelo Anthony in New York and the so-called formula for building a winner. Or perhaps Deron Williams. The teams that traded Anthony and Williams, the Nuggets and Jazz, are having revival seasons, while the Knicks are in a freefall with finger pointing at Anthony as the problem for shooting too much. The Nets did lose center Brook Lopez to injury, but Williams, never particularly pleasant to deal with, has been sneering even more than usual and supposedly trying to find his next home. Better watch out what you wish for, though Williams did not seek a trade to the Nets. ... As Celtics observer Rick St. Jean noted when the Celtics did a video tribute with Glen Davis’ return last week, he’ll wait until they do the one for Henry Finkel. ... Is Doug Collins going Zen? Collins last week had his team do a yoga session instead of practice. Though the Bulls looked toward Miami to open the road trip, the 76ers are one of the league’s toughest home teams at 10-2 with all double digit wins and the Knicks Thursday are expected to have Baron Davis back, though what that means remains as uncertain as their team. ... Larry Bird may be on the way to the most remarkable trifecta in league history. He was an MVP and coach of the year, and with the Pacers resurgence and still substantial salary cap room for another major free agent next summer, Bird has an excellent chance of adding to that executive of the year, which would be unprecedented in sports and certainly the NBA.

-- Chris Bosh was on a bigtime scoring streak until Dwyane Wade’s return Friday and he was still doing it mostly with jumpers. Said Bosh: "People say don't fall in love with it, but it loves me, so I love it back." ... Kirk Hinrich quietly returned from injury last week, early as usual, but it appears he’ll remain the backup guard to Jeff Teague once Teague returns from an ankle injury. ... Both Joe Johnson and Josh Smith are going to be hard to ignore for All-Star consideration with the Hawks continuing to win without Al Horford ... It was a classy Flip Saunders who after being fired told the Washington Post the issues of rebuilding make things difficult for everyone. Though as Saunders noted, his tenure didn’t begin that well with grand jury appearances hours before games after Gilbert Arenas’ hand gun adventure. Interim Randy Wittman also was a prior Timberwolves coach and in the history of the Washington franchise, they have fewer 50-win seasons than Saunders does in his coaching career, five versus seven. Wittman is Washington’s fourth coach in less than four seasons. Stay in school kids. Or at least big kids. The Magic declined an option on first round pick (29) Daniel Orton, who never has played for the team until Friday. The record of freshman and sophomore big men going in the NBA draft is dismal and likely costing them lucrative careers. Even admirers say Tim Duncan as a freshman may never have become an NBA All-Star. ... Magic GM Otis Smith said Jameer Nelson was affected by Dwight Howard shopping for better point guards, but we couldn’t imagine this. After Orlando scored 56 points last week in losing to Boston, Avery Bradley, not yet in the Hall of Fame, told NBA TV Nelson asked him not to play tough defense on him. “He seemed like he didn’t even want to bring the ball up,” Bradley said. “I looked at him and he kept telling me throughout the game, ‘You know what, don’t pick me up, don’t pick me up.’ And that’s when I knew, if I brought pressure, he didn’t want nothing to do with it.” Nelson had five points and five turnovers. So that’s what they’re saying out there.

-- In a new sort of Space Jam, the Thunder’s Kevin Durant is starring in a movie called Thunderstruck with lost basketball powers and other film classic. ... It’s a bit unusual for, well, a bit player. But the Spurs are retiring the number of Bruce Bowen, the defensive specialist on some their title teams. Though many suggest it demeans the recognition of truly great players, it is a reasonable acknowledgement of team and the importance of role players. Though I wouldn’t get too excited if I were Will Perdue. If I were the Spurs I’d probably most want to recognize Dominique Wilkins, who got them through the 1996-97 season as the high scorer and just in the right position to be able to draft Tim Duncan. Now, that’s what I call immortal. Though Bowen was an eight-time all-defensive team player, the Spurs best defender ever probably was Alvin Robertson. But being a defendant several times he is often more forgotten. ... With the Hornets in free fall there’s been no talk yet to dump GM David Stern. ... So much for showcasing as the Hornets announced they were looking to trade Chris Kaman and thus benching him. Which is a good buyer beware. That probably suggests they fear the oft-injured Kamen might not last through a game or two in order to get traded. ... The Rockets picked the wrong draft to gamble on, or at least the wrong players. They made numerous trades to get Hasheem Thabeet, Jonny Flynn, Jordan Hill and Terrence Williams, who were among the top 11 picks in the 2009 draft. Only Hill is in the Rockets’ rotation, and his role has been reduced of late as coach Kevin McHale, quietly doing a nice job, has gone to playing a smaller, quicker lineup and getting results. The irony, of course, is the Hall of Fame big man playing three and four guard lineups to succeed. ... The Mavericks are doing a lot of psychology for a depressed Lamar Odom, who is having his poorest season even while the local media records virtually every movement of his celebrity Kardashian wife. It’s a lot easier in Los Angeles, where she isn’t such a celebrity. ... On McHale’s return to Minnesota last week he was heartily booed, though that then condemned Kevin Love for O.J. Mayo draft day deal now looks pretty good for the former general manager. And McHale did draft that high school kid Kevin Garnett when drafting high schoolers was considered a huge risk. Though things didn’t always go so great in between. ... McHale did, at least, complete the sweep of his former employees Friday as the Rockets beat the Wizards and new coach Randy Wittman after previously beating Saunders’ Wizards.

-- In a dreary season, the Raptors are getting some good defensive play from former Bulls No. 1 pick James Johnson, who is becoming one of the league’s better perimeter defenders. He is among the league leaders in blocks at 1.8 and along with Atlanta’s Josh Smith the only non interior big man near the top. Said coach Dwane Casey: “He’s been one of our most consistent defensive stoppers, I’m really happy for him. He’s done a great job protecting the rim, protecting the basket and he’s never given up on a play. ... Ahead of Atlanta by six with about 30 seconds left Friday, the Pistons let Joe Johnson hit a tying three with a second left not only with a foul to give but when two free throws can’t exactly beat you. It was Wizardsesque. ... Ricky Rubio got his eighth double/double and third in four games in Friday’s win over the Spurs, who had a 16-game winning streak over Minnesota coming into the season and now have lost two straight. The Spurs fell to 9-6 without Manu Ginobili. Pounded once again inside, this time by Minnesota’s Nikola Pekovic, the Spurs joined the chase for the questionable Kenyon Martin. Which is officially desperation. ... It’s the “Who is the coach?” trip for the Bulls, with Flip Saunders out in Washington Monday for Randy Wittman, Mike D’Antoni with the staggering Knicks Thursday, and then the following week Paul Silas with the toothless Bobcats. Silas got an early ejection last week in another blowout loss, which was what Saunders began doing just before he was fired ... Wonder which guy named Tyrus Thomas coach Silas was talking about to the Charlotte Observer: "I get through to a lot of them. And that's more important than the ones I can't get to." ... How about Eric Gordon, even though injured again, rejecting a four year deal to become a free agent even though on the open market the most he can get is four years and the Hornets can match. Who does his math? ... The Nuggets are off to their best start ever after 19 games. They send regards to Carmelo. ... Kyle Korver come back. The surprising Jazz is suffering from three point range with Gordon Hayward at 23 percent on threes. ... Twin Cities media now are praising the patience and resolve of GM David Kahn with a glowing column from St. Paul writer Charley Walters suggesting most of the NBA owes Kahn an apology regarding the drafting of Ricky Rubio. ... After losing to Portland by 38, the Suns, who throughout their history have been a high scoring team even well before Steve Nash and Mike D’Antoni, rank in the bottom third in the NBA on offense. It would seem only a matter of time before they have to move Nash, which was again advocated by a local columnist last week.

-- I questioned last week whether Kevin Love was worth a true maximum extension given he isn’t the type player to carry a team like the MVP candidates. But I said I’d probably do it given its Minnesota and what free agent is going there. The Timberwolves, obviously, had some questions as well as they offered only a four-year deal with an out after three seasons. Love did want to stay and did want five years. "I was willing to make a commitment for five years, they thought otherwise," Love told Minneapolis media. "I think it's a good situation for me to be here four years, and I'm excited. I can always be here longer." There was an issue with the new rules as teams are allowed just one so called “designated” player for a five year deal. If it was Love, the Timberwolves couldn’t offer that to Ricky Rubio. Now, they can with the popular Rubio—or someone else in a later draft—and Love can extend after three years and get that same deal. Though the Timberwolves leave themselves open to losing Love in three seasons, and teams will be holding cap room for him. So what would you have done? It was a conundrum. … Pau Gasol, working on career low scoring, had the most succinct analysis of coach Mike Brown. Gasol told a Spanish newspaper, which was translated by the Hoopshype website that Brown’ philosophy was to “Defend to the death and with the talent we have we will find ways to score.” It’s exactly why the Lakers are 20th in scoring and stumbling even with two All-Star level centers and Kobe Bryant. Brown reminds me of Vinny Del Negro with Luol Deng. Del Negro as a rookie coach ran basic offenses, so someone had to be left out. Deng was. As for Brown, he just doesn’t seem to know or care about offense, believing defense does all. That’s his misunderstanding of the Spurs and Gregg Popovich, who evolved offensively and changed according to personnel. Thus Gasol is virtually ignored, standing outside and mostly watching or passing. Actually, Brown makes Vinny look like Don Nelson and has not only taken the Show out of Showtime but turned the Lakers into one of the dullest, least interesting teams to watch in the league. Of course, since Brown cannot figure out how to use two centers, it now makes sense to trade Gasol and Bynum for Dwight Howard. After all, the Lakers are just barely in the playoff picture, tied for eighth in the Western Conference and have played a home friendly schedule already. And how long before Kobe decides playing all these minutes on a fractured wrist doesn’t make that much sense for this team?

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