Those head-to-head games mean a lot with MVP voters even if they probably shouldn’t. So James Harden Sunday with the Rockets’ overtime win and LeBron James missing potential game winning free throws probably knocked LeBron out of an unlikely, anyway, MVP this season.
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So where’s the drama?

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By Sam Smith | 3.02.2015 | 9:21 a.m. CT

So where’s the drama?

About who will win the Central Division? The Eastern Conference winner is basically wrapped up with the Atlanta Hawks having a 10-game lead, 12 in the loss column over the supposedly most threatening Cleveland Cavaliers, who are now on the road just about all of March. The Golden State Warriors have the league’s best record and finish their last long road trip of the season Monday in Brooklyn. They have the league’s best home record and have the most home games left of the top Western Conference contenders. And the playoff lineup, if not precise matchups, probably is set in the Western Conference. Oklahoma City has eased ahead of New Orleans and Phoenix for eighth, and unless Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant are out for weeks it seems unlikely, especially with Anthony Davis also out, that the Thunder with their trading deadline haul won’t at least make the playoffs. And the struggling defending champion Spurs along with the Thunder have the next most home games to Golden State.

So where is the drama? How about that Eastern Conference tussle for eighth and trying not to be maybe the worst ever team to be in the playoffs. Well, it won’t be that bad because the NBA in its early days let basically everyone into the playoffs. Heck, Michael Jordan’s 1985-86 Bulls (when he was injured most of the season) got in at 30-52.

But how about this for excitement: There are now seven Eastern Conference teams within three games of one another in the seventh through 12th places in the conference. Two will make it with Miami the current leader eight games below .500. Miami and Indiana now are the last two teams with Brooklyn and Charlotte essentially tied and percentage points behind Miami. Yes, be still my heart.

The most likely to be selling playoff t-shirts and baseball caps?

Indiana Pacers: Currently eighth, but with a nice week coming up with the 76ers, and then the Knicks twice, which should make them smile. Paul George may return this month and they’ve got a pretty good bench for a team this far under .500. They should get to seven and maybe even six with a Bucks team that has started to stagger.

Brooklyn Nets: Give them the last spot, a veteran club that’s healthier than it’s been most of the season. Thaddeus Young was a good reserve addition as they’ve played well of late without the concomitant reward.

Miami Heat: Within hours of the terrific move to land Goran Dragic and the potential dream first round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs, Chris Bosh has to go out ill for the season. Bosh does so much without LeBron he’s tough to replace, though with the other excellent addition in Hassan Whiteside they’ll be right there to the end.

Charlotte Hornets: There’s just so much you can grind out. And they’ve got the toughest close with 11 of their last 18 on the road. But they are a tough group and Mo Williams’ addition gives them some hope once Kemba Walker can return. Still can’t count them out completely.

Boston Celtics: Danny Ainge did what he could other than the addition of Isaiah Thomas to undercut them enough that they’ll get another draft pick. But it’s a hard playing group and good coach who don’t give in. But with their big men hurt it’s probably too much.

Detroit Pistons: Probably should be out this week with a brutal Western Conference road trip and seven of their next nine on the road.

NBA news and notes

MVP race tightening up?

Those head-to-head games mean a lot with MVP voters even if they probably shouldn’t. So James Harden Sunday with the Rockets’ overtime win and LeBron James missing potential game winning free throws probably knocked LeBron out of an unlikely, anyway, MVP this season after James began talking last week about why he wasn’t being mentioned. Plus, the Cavs still are fourth in the East with nine of their next 13 on the road. Make Harden the leader for now along with Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook if he doesn’t miss too much time. Maybe LeBron ahead of Westbrook. But how about Kevin McHale, rarely much mentioned in coaching votes, as a Coach of the Year possibility? He’s been even keel in keeping things together with injuries and his GM usually spending the first 50 games of the season trying to trade everyone.

What to do in Brooklyn?

So what would you do if you were Brook Lopez and the Nets? Lopez can opt out of $16.7 million next season and become a free agent and try for a long term deal. The assumption has been he won’t given a history of foot problems. But he’s played well and been healthy much of this season. But if he would try to get a longer deal with his team, as many players do as they have Bird rights and can pay more, would the Nets even do so because it would mean luxury tax for the fourth straight season and the more penal repeater tax? And with the franchise for sale? But then basically losing your best big man player for nothing? Tough being the Nets. For many reasons.

Could the Knicks have worked this season?

It’s easy to demean Phil Jackson’s preseason belief the Knicks would be a playoff team. But they were on paper. Just not on the court. Though most New Yorkers are famous for their lack of basketball perspective in favor of instant gratification, it’s clear Andrea Bargnani (averaging 14 since back healthy) would fit ideally in the sort of system Derek Fisher was promoting. Playing with Carmelo Anthony, a good shooting point guard like Jose Calderon and J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, who have decided now to compete in Cleveland, that certainly is playoff talent in the Eastern Conference. Sometimes it doesn’t come together and you go to Plan B. But it hardly was a misread of talent. Some guys sometimes just decide to give up and you can’t predict until they do. It was not unlike the 2007-08 Bulls coming off a 49-win season with the same team and everyone healthy who gave up for some reason. That 33-win season enabled them to draft Derrick Rose.

Will Toronto be there in the end?

The Raptors fell into a tie for second in the East with the Bulls after their Saturday night loss to the Knicks, their fifth straight. Toronto shooting endless threes and not working much inside looks like another East pretender along with the badly slumping Wizards, who hung on to beat Detroit at home Saturday. The Bulls have plenty of injury issues, obviously, but someone who should not be in the conference finals in the East may well be.

Executive of the Year?

Could it be executive of the year for Jackson with the Knicks’ lineup with Langston Galloway, Lou Amundson, Bargnani and Cleanthony Early winning back to back over the Pistons and Raptors? Probably not. OK, the Cavaliers fell into LeBron James. But midseason adding Smith, Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov has to have Cavs GM David Griffin among the leaders. Of course, if Andrew Wiggins is MVP in five years maybe it doesn’t look as good with the Kevin Love deal. Michael Carter-Williams sent the message to the rest of the NBA to be wary about Philadelphia and if you get drafted there start looking toward free agency. The traded reigning rookie of the year told Milwaukee media: “As far as I heard I was involved in the long term plan, especially me, Joel (Embiid) and Nerlens (Noel). It was the three of us that was the core group and were told we were going to be there a pretty long time and we really want to build around you.” There were reports at the trade deadline the 76ers were asking about interest in Embiid, who has yet to play, and they’ve long been open to moving Noel. Friends around the league say coach Brett Brown, who has been shockingly loyal, remains hopeful of riding it out and retaining his reputation enough to get another job elsewhere.

Rodeo trip concludes

The Suns signing of Isaiah Thomas was so disruptive, eventually leading to the trade of Goran Dragic, the word there was the three point guards were barely speaking ... The Spurs finished their annual “bonding” rodeo trip upbeat with a blowout win over the setting Suns, but with a losing record at 4-5. Said Danny Green: "We're all getting on each other, Pop's getting on us. It's hard to play basketball when we're not the happy fun team we were last year." The Spurs always called that trip a vital kickoff for their stretch runs into the playoffs. Because they won. Now it’s not because they lost. Oh, that’s it. It’s a good trip if they win. At least Tony Parker having his worst season since his rookie year and getting poorer averaging 6.8 points on 26 percent shooting the last five games has perspective. “You just have to keep pushing and stay positive. It’s hard for me to complain,” Parker told reporters. “Look at Derrick Rose. You always have worse around you. I wish I felt better, but it’s like that.” Parker’s legendary ability to get into the lane—he actually once led everyone in points in the paint—has diminished badly, also resulting in fewer free throws and a staggered Spurs offense ... Forget being cautious for rookie Wiggins. He’s really good. He’s developed a strong post game with his long arms and athletic ability, is a tough defender already and looks on the verge with another season or two of becoming a true star. He’s a lock for Rookie of the Year. The 76ers say they’d trade him.

Wizards sliding?

I know all the reporters are mad about the new players’ association director using expletives in an ESPN interview to say reporters are basically perverts wanting to watch naked men dressing and suggesting reporters stay out of locker rooms. If only. I won’t get into another self serving response, but it’s the players and the league who basically want the publicity to elevate them for their “brands” and commercial opportunities. This kind of representation makes you root for Scott Walker ... So much for the bonding as the Wizards’ entire team went to a Brazilian steak house (you hope Nene got them a discount) after their 10th loss in 12 games and then lost to the 76ers. They blew a big lead, were tied and then barely beat the Pistons Saturday to break their fall. Title talk suddenly has tempered as John Wall told reporters: “I wouldn’t say rock bottom. It’s a tough stretch. We’re still above .500.”

Lob City

I know Chris Paul is really good, but is the real issue he’s the guy who gets you only to the brink and not one to carry you to the mountain? It is difficult if you are a small guard not named Isiah Thomas. Paul again blew a late game situation losing the ball and the game to the Grizzlies last week like that playoff loss last season to the Thunder. Everyone makes mistakes. No big deal. And Paul makes big shots to keep his team in games. But down the stretch Paul has a long record of frustration. It doesn’t demean him as a player but perhaps best explains why he’s never been beyond the second round of the playoffs. It just may be he’s a secondary level star talent who just isn’t good enough to carry a team when they need someone. It’s no shame; few are ... They love Doc Rivers as coach in Los Angeles and they should. Most teams would love to have him. But can he do both jobs? It’s really almost impossible The Los Angeles Times last week blistered Rivers’ personnel moves of trading Eric Bledsoe, then giving up a draft pick to get the Bucks to take Jared Dudley, drafting Reggie Bullock and C.J. Wilcox and bringing in Jordan Farmar, Ekpe Udoh and Hedo Turkoglu for a team with a weak bench. Stan Van Gundy is the latest to try and thus far he’s helped, but coaches rarely have the long, sensible view about personnel.

It's not the same

I get Toronto resting Kyle Lowry against the Knicks Saturday, though it backfired as the Knicks won. But really, do the best athletes in the world really need rest playing three or four games a week? And a week after taking an extra week off for All-Star break? Kyrie Irving is out, so the Cavs rest LeBron James in Indiana. Maybe you excuse LeBron a bit. After all, following three times in the Finals, Jordan retired twice. But how soft are these guys becoming as taking games off now is De rigueur, Really, this is getting embarrassing. Personally, I blame it on apparent work stoppage rules sought by their union. Then the Hawks rested both Jeff Teague and Al Horford Saturday. And won. Which probably says something about Miami. I’ll plug my new Jordan book here, There Is No Next. One of my favorite stories is from Doug Collins when he was coaching Jordan in Washington. The Wizards were getting beaten badly and then next game was Jordan’s first trip back to Chicago. So Collins decided to take Jordan out of the game early, but Jordan wouldn’t allow it. It was about playing and trying to win because that’s what you owed the game, your team, yourself and the fans. And, remember, the guy was almost 40 then. Yes, that’s why it’s not the same.

Around the NBA

It might not make up for trading Harden—consider with Westbrook’s season along with Harden and Kevin Durant that could be three league MVPs on one team—but the Thunder suddenly has one of the top front courts with the trade addition of Enes Kanter, who had the first 20/10 game in Thunder history for a center (no wonder with Kendrick Perkins), rugged Steven Adams and Michigan’s Mitch McGary, who has been another terrific big man backup as a low first round pick.

At least the Knicks and 76ers players look like they are trying. Then there’s the Nuggets. Talk about your players packing it in. But it seems different this time as they look like they’ll fire the players and keep the coach, who doesn’t look all that great benching Kenneth Faried, who usually looks like the only guy trying. They benched Faried Friday for someone named Joffrey Lauvergne, whose plus/minus of -36 was one of the league’s worst of the season. Faried was back starting Sunday in their loss to New Orleans without Davis, Ryan Anderson and Jrue Holiday. Faried at least only had the second worst plus/minus of the starters of minus 7.

Here come….the Jazz? Not that Kanter was the problem, but they sorted out their front line moving in shot blocking, dirty work Rudy Gobert to complement Derrick Favors. They’ve won six of eight with wins over the Pelicans, Spurs, Trail Blazers and Bucks Saturday. "We went through all that last year, all that tanking talk, how we need to lose games here and there,” Favors told the Salt Lake Tribune. "We've improved a lot. We're not going out there trying to lose games. We're trying to go out there and just build on what we got and keep improving every year to get back in the playoffs.” It’s the issue with the youth/draft build. OK, now. What have you got? Is it enough? This is the Jazz’ fourth year of the youth experiment. There rarely are stars anymore at 19. Anthony Davis is, but this is his third season, likely not a playoff season and his body with so much pounding in the pros so young it’s no surprise he breaks down every season. By the time he’s a free agent, the Pelicans still may not be a playoff team.

Coach Byron Scott and then Kobe Bryant on the Jimmy Kimmel show—enough already; here’s a guy who you could barely get a word out of for years who now won’t stop talking—condemned Lakers’ players Nick Young (who else?), Jordan Hill and Carlos Boozer (Holdat!) for being too happy, clowning around a bit in a post game interview after they beat the Celtics. C’mon, are they serious? I mean Scott and Bryant. It’s entertainment; basketball should be fun when you win. Enjoy it. Management didn’t put together a competitive team. If anyone needs to be sad all the time it’s Mitch Kupchak. You should enjoy winning no matter the losses. It’s one game at a time, right? Have some fun. It’s OK. This may be the larger problem with the Lakers, that they may be listening to Bryant and Scott.

Maybe the Timberwolves didn’t want to give him up at the trade deadline, but for about $7 million in this era’s salaries, it’s surprising someone didn’t take a shot at Kevin Martin with his streak scoring ability.

One of the league’s best big basket makers remains the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley and it’s amazing the coaches can’t notice as he keeps getting left off All-Star teams.

Interesting dilemma for the Cavs, who would like some bench upgrades, especially at point guard. Though the most vulnerable would seem favorites of LeBron James, Mike Miller and James Jones. Would they dare upset the king? Would the king give up some of his personal gold for the good of the people? Always better to have the king, but it comes with complications.

This is the end for Shawn Marion when he does return from injury as he’s admitted to insiders he likely cannot play another season.

Kendrick Perkins told Cleveland media he was deciding between the Clippers and Cavs after being released. On a roll since joining the Cavs, Perkins had two points in 16 minutes with eight fouls in three games. Having gotten a basket in three games there’s some media sentiment he should be the league’s Most Improved. Having apparently seen enough, Perkins was benched for Sunday’s overtime game in Houston.

Has Rajon Rondo been exposed? Difficult to deal with, sure. He was that way with a title team goes the response. But in a smaller role with three future Hall of Famers. Other than Rondo’s fit and suspension, the larger issue they say behind the scenes in Dallas is Rondo’s relentless dribbling getting everyone standing around and then no one guarding Rondo because he can’t shoot. Or is he just not the same after the ACL surgery? And this was not a highly skilled offensive player at his healthiest. If Rondo would have stayed in Boston, the assumption might have been he needed contention to take the game seriously again. Now that he’s been with a contender and they’ve done poorer with him and are much unhappier because of him, who exactly is going to pay big money to the free agent to make him one of the faces of your franchise? By the way, you had to love Rondo’s explanation for why he went off on Carlisle. "Coach and I, when I first got here, we were talking a lot and watching film a lot after every game,’’ Rondo told Dallas media of he and Carlisle. "He’s backed off a little bit with the addition of Amar’e (Stoudemire) and trying to help him and get him up to speed. Our communication was great at first. It’s just that we weren’t communicating enough for me, I don’t think.” No one’s paying attention to me. Whaaaaaaaa.