Ten players who could change the NBA in 2011

There is still a long way to go this season and a lot that can happen to change the balance of power. For now, though, Sam Smith provides one look at some of the big names who could be moving on to change the course of 2011 NBA history.

We’re about a week or 10 days until just about everyone hits the halfway point in the 2010-11 NBA season. The story of the rest of the season—after the Miami Three and the big Orlando breakup—is what will occur with Carmelo Anthony.

I know, boooorrriiinnnnggg. Haven’t we talked that to death already? But it’s still significant in that several teams likely are reluctant to make a move given they feel they still may have an outside chance to acquire Anthony. That’s because it remains questionable, especially watching them of late, that Anthony would want to sign an extension with the Nets, whom the Bulls visit Wednesday.

And it still seems questionable whether the Knicks, Anthony’s preferred location, can put together a deal that makes any sense for the Nuggets.

So teams like the Bulls wait and players like, perhaps Antawn Jamison, Zach Randolph, Stephen Jackson, Andre Miller, Carl Landry and several others likely are on hold for new destinations. They seem some of the bigger names who might well be available, and while the Bulls are considered a long, long shot by Anthony’s so called people, it is difficult to make the case he could go elsewhere and have a better chance to win, assuming, of course, he cares at all about that.

The Bulls’ play of late, though they’ve won, has looked suspect with Joakim Noah out. But I decided to look at some of the key indicators of success, and the Bulls are at or near the top at just about all of them.

The Bulls rank No. 2 behind Miami in defensive field goal percentage, No. 1 in defensive efficiency based on scores per 100 possessions, No. 3 behind the Heat and Hawks in defensive three point percentage and No. 3 in rebounding behind the Timberwolves and Lakers. And that’s with Noah or Carlos Boozer out.

Two of the primary indicators of success in the NBA are point differential and schedule difficulty, the latter meaning number of road wins versus home losses. You can almost predict a team’s number of wins on point differential with zero a .500 team and the best of all time, like the 1996 Bulls and 1972 Lakers above 12.

Here are the point differential leaders closing in on midway through the season:

Miami 9.4
San Antonio 8.9
Boston 7.8
Lakers 6.3
Bulls 5.4
Dallas 4.7
Orlando 4.6
Utah 3.0

Here are the leaders in schedule effectiveness (road wins minus home losses):

Boston + 10
San Antonio + 8
Miami + 8
Lakers + 7
Dallas + 6
Bulls + 5
Atlanta + 5
Utah + 5

All it likely would take for the Bulls to become a serious contender for Anthony is for him to push for Chicago. But all indications thus far are he hasn’t done that and apparently does not intend to. The interesting element is whether if the Bulls were to make a minor move could join those elite teams ahead of them. Or when Noah comes back will that be enough to make a move given older teams like the Celtics and Mavericks already are experiencing injury problems.

There’s still a long way to go and a lot that can happen to change the balance of power. For now, though, here’s a look at some of the big names who could be moving on to change the course of 2011 NBA history:

1. Zach Randolph. Somehow I see him ending up in Orlando. They’ve made clear they’re going for it now with the Gilbert Arenas trade and need a big man. The Grizzlies have been a disappointment this season despite a good win in L.A. Sunday, but there seems little chance they’ll resign free agent Randolph. He shares an agent with Ben Gordon and went to Michigan State and the Pistons have cap money for next season and no inside game, so he’d be ideal there. But perhaps Orlando could persuade him to stay on with a competitive team. The Magic has guards and perhaps something that includes Jason Richardson’s expiring and Brandon Bass.

2. Antawn Jamison. He’s got one more year after this at $15 million (which you may not have to pay all of in a lockout). They have to be looking for a major rebuilding and with that trade exception from the LeBron trade they may be very active (the same with Toronto). After all, they brought him in to play with LeBron. Maybe a team like the Knicks with that Curry expiring contract, and they throw in something.

3. Tayshaun Prince (Richard Hamilton). Prince has the expiring deal and with an out of it Pistons season you assume they’d just like to get something, like a pick, if they can exchange expirings. They won’t want to lose that expiring deal unless the Grizzlies want to do something with Zach. With two more seasons after this, it’s tougher to see who’d take on a declining Hamilton.

4. Stephen Jackson. You know it isn’t going to last long with Paul Silas’ day camp. Jackson needs structure, and Larry Brown was good for him. Jackson’s emotions will get the best of him. He’s a great one year addition, though he has two years after this on his deal. But you can see Charlotte wanting to cash him in for an expiring deal.

5. Carl Landry. The Kings dysfunctional season has wasted one of the game’s best glue players. No way Landry comes back as a free agent and with a modest $3 million salary, you figure the Kings will want to get something. You could name a half dozen playoff teams who’d love to have him as with Houston he was their closer last season. Perennially underrated player.

6. Andre Iguodala. It’s a big contract with three years after this, so that makes it tough to take in this era. But you can see him being an addition by subtraction guy who you might get cheaply as the 76ers would like to get Evan Turner in more and go with their younger guys. Maybe Dallas with injuries uses Caron Butler’s expiring if he’s out for the season and throws in some stuff. The Mavericks always make a February move and will take on long term deals.

7. Jamal Crawford. Where are they going, anyway? Hard to see them resigning him with three eight figure contracts with Al Horford’s extension kicking in next season. If someone will take Marvin Williams, there could be a larger deal, though that seems unlikely. But the reigning Sixth Man could make a difference in a playoff setting.

8. Jeff Green. The Thunder has been a conservative organization and is coming up on cap room for free agency. But all indications are they won’t add Green to their extension list. You’d have to pay him big taking him on and it’s not like he’s a difference maker, but if the Thunder could parlay him into a big man you figure he’d be part of the package.

9. Andre Miller. With a year left and the Trailblazers stuck with the Brandon Roy conundrum, you figure they have to try to begin putting together some assets for the future and Miller is an attractive guard for maybe a team like Atlanta with an aging Mike Bibby. And you never know what Cleveland would do with that exception and an owner anxious to overcome the losing.

10. Jonny Flynn. He’s been hurt, so he’ll have to show he can play. But someone probably will believe they can steal a young point guard. Luke Ridnour has played well and they’re committed to Ricky Rubio, and certainly going nowhere.

Cavs’ Scott said teams in ‘80s and ‘90s played harder

-- I didn’t ask specifically, but I don’t think it’s because he no longer has Jason Kidd or Chris Paul to coach. Yes, it’s a lot more difficult for Byron Scott, coaching the LeBron-less Cavs. Scott was in Chicago the other night and we got to talking about play in the NBA in this era. While, yes, he would be biased given his playing history with the championship Lakers, and no, he said he wasn’t talking about his Cavs. But Scott is a big advocate of the NBA returning to players being ineligible to come to the league until at least two years after their high school class graduates, and he says the play in this era isn’t nearly as serious and intense as it was.

“We played harder. Simple as that,” said Scott.

I asked him why he feels that way and the typically blunt Scott said: “Because it’s the truth. I feel in the ‘80s and ‘90s guys played a lot harder than they do now. I think a lot has to do with the AAU (system), the money. I thought basketball (in the ‘80s and early ‘90s) was at its highest level ever.”

Scott said it’s not universal and he named teams like the Bulls, Celtics, Magic and Heat, for example, who play hard regularly.

“There still are some young guys and players who don’t give 110 percent every night,” said Scott, mentioning transition defense as an example. “You’ll see a lot of players run on offense when they have the opportunity to score. To prevent a guy from scoring, they don’t have the same effort. This league is so much younger now (because of the high schoolers who came directly and now one year and out guys). I go back to the AAU where a lot of guys are being hand fed and told how great they are and you have coaches here getting on them and they can’t handle it.

“We’d get cussed out by the coach and you take it out by playing harder and showing him,” said Scott. “These days with a lot of guys it goes the other way. But that’s our league and that’s the way it is. I’m not saying it’s the majority of players, but I have seen it enough to know back in 80’s and 90’s that wasn’t the case.”

Poor sportsmanship or let ‘em play?

-- So does etiquette have a place in the NBA? Does the NBA have unwritten rules like in baseball? There was this dustup last week when the Thunder had clinched a win over the Hawks. Russell Westbrook was an assist short of a triple-double, so with seven seconds left and a big lead he passed to Serge Ibaka for a dunk. Not supposed to do that, though I found more issue with Westbrook padding his stats. I don’t know why he has to do that as it seems all they do is run clear outs for he or Durant. I know it’s become accepted in the NBA if you have an insurmountable lead in the last 15 or 20 seconds you basically let the clock run out. The Thunder didn’t, and I do have a different issue than the Hawks had, though the Thunder players and staff were apologetic as well except for Westbrook. It is reminiscent of the famous Anthony Bowie triple-double when Doug Collins had his Pistons refuse to guard Bowie who called timeout with seconds left and a big lead to set up a play for the triple-double. That’s different, but why do players have to stop playing when they have a big lead? Why can’t both teams play it out until the end? It wasn’t exactly the same situation, but I give credit to the NFL Bears Sunday for playing their regulars in the final game even as it meant nothing for them. The essence of sports is competition, and even if you have a big lead, why stop playing and why stop defending? I don’t recall that, actually, from the ‘80s, which maybe is part of what Scott is talking about. Why do you have to apologize for continuing to compete? It’s not piling it on against pros. If they don’t like it, let them stop you.

Rating the rookies—Favors declines, while Turner on the rise

-- The Bulls see the Nets and rookie Derrick Favors again this week, and while the Nets have said they want to start Favors, coach Avery Johnson suggested he still isn’t playing well enough coming off zero rebounds in 12 minutes in a loss to Minnesota and averaging 3.5 rebounds after a 13-rebound game against the 76ers in mid-December. … My Most Improved guy is turning into most disappointing with the Pacers Roy Hibbert benched after averaging 10.9 in December after about 16 until then. … With Andre Iguodala out, Evan Turner has averaged 17.5 points and 5.5 rebounds and showing the promise of a No. 2 pick who was highly regarded. Said Jrue Holiday: “His swag is coming back.” Someone should have told Doug Collins that’s all it was. The Bulls visit the 76ers Friday after that 45-point destruction in Chicago.

NBA news and notes

-- There’s somewhat less bitterness, at least outside Cleveland, toward LeBron James’ decision to leave, and it was an academic exercise last week when Stan Van Gundy was in Cleveland with the Magic and he and Byron Scott considered identifying with one team. "It's like Magic [Johnson] will always be a Laker,” said Scott. “Or Larry Bird is a Celtic. I know Michael played with Washington, but that was at the end of his career. He will always be a Chicago Bull." There was Stockton and Malone and Duncan and Robinson and Olajuwon. But Kevin Garnett enhanced his career going to Boston and it likely doesn’t diminish Shaq, though as Van Gundy contended, “Kobe will always be bigger with the Lakers. He stayed there. He is an icon guy." But times are changing and it’s likely we’ll see more such James changes than fewer. … Here’s a big problem with taking on a guy like Tracy McGrady in his condition. Losing to the Bobcats last week, coach John Kuester asked McGrady to start the fourth quarter, but McGrady said he couldn’t because he was stiff from sitting in the third quarter. … How about Danny Granger averaging 21 points and merrily firing away at about 37 percent the last month and shooting at least 50 percent in seven of the last 28 games. That, folks, is a chucker. … In case you missed it Saturday, the Timberwolves beat the Nets in the LeBron Contraction Bowl among the teams James said might have their players distributed around the NBA. James later said he’d never heard of the word contraction, though he does have a child. I guess no Lamaze classes.

-- Better be careful about free agency, as the Nets’ free agents, Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar are both shooting well under 40 percent with Anthony Morrow hurt while in Phoenix Josh Childress and Hakim Warrick have fallen out of the rotation. … Kobe Bryant on the Lakers being a little testy of late with losing: We're all moody. Fish got a tech today and he's the basketball version of Barack Obama." … After averaging more than 20 points into mid-December, Pau Gasol is averaging 13.6 points and 9.3 rebounds in the Lakers’ last six in which they’ve lost four and barely squeaked by the 76ers at home. … That was a perfect game for Steve Nash Sunday hitting all his field goals, including two threes, and free throws despite another Suns loss to fall to 14-18. With the Suns sliding, you wonder if they can afford to hang onto Nash much longer with Nash having one season left on his deal. Similarly with Grant Hill, the latter on his final season. Both like Phoenix, but they are the kind of veterans who could be big pieces on a contending team and can the Suns afford not to begin to retool? Their value cannot be with a losing team headed out of the playoffs.

-- At least a half dozen guards, including Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Brandon Jennings, Joe Johnson, Mo Williams, Baron Davis and Marco Bellineli are shooting 41 percent or less, which is difficult in the no hand checking era. … Gilbert Arenas had his curious view on Dwight Howard’s technicals, now four short of a suspension. Said Arenas: "I think sometimes he looks to get the techs, but he plays like he's not looking to get the techs.” This view on things is not unusual for Arenas. … John Wall, frequently injured, shooting barely 40 percent, being regularly schooled by vets like Chris Paul Saturday and his team ahead of only Cleveland no longer is much being talked of in top rookie discussions. … The Lakers have lost four of their last six games, all by at least 15 points after losing by 19 at home to Memphis Sunday. That hardly suggests a bump in the road. … Phil Jackson was at it again with his latest tweak of the league (this has to be his last season the way he’s poking fun at the league and you’ll recall he left before the last lockout) about the Hornets being owned by the league now. “Who’s going to trade whom to whom? Who’s going to pull the button on trading players or when Chris (Paul) says he has to be traded? How’s that going to go?” Of course, everyone has wondered that despite the mirage of local control. The league has long wanted George Shinn out and though commissioner David Stern is said to want the team to remain, the league quietly has been hoping the team would miss the attendance average to renew the lease, which seems likely now with big recent attendance as the governor has gotten involved. Not that Stern wants to move the team, but he was seeking more control of its future and no lease was part of the plan. … How bad was that shocking Tyreke Evans’ 60-footer to beat Memphis last week? The Grizzlies passed in that draft on Evans, who played all season in front of them at the University of Memphis, for Hasheem Thabeet. … Jazz rookie Gordon Hayward, finally getting some time, is averaging 13.7 on 53 percent shooting the last three. … That Evans’ winner against Memphis, by the way, came after Evans missed the third of three free throws to allow the Clippers to escape with a one point win at the buzzer. The Clippers won similarly against the Bulls on a Derrick Rose free throw miss as Vinny Del Negro is establishing himself as the league’s best late free throw defense coach.