Midseason rankings and projected award winners

With the NBA All-Star break this weekend and all teams hitting the 33-game mark this week, Bulls.com’s Sam Smith ranks the league’s 30 teams and shares his first half winners for MVP, Coach of the Year and other awards.

There’s something nice about this 66-game shortened NBA season. The All-Star break comes at precisely midseason, which is a rarity. All teams hit the 33-game mark this week. So just what have we found out in this almost two month rush to judgment thus far?

Well, it’s been much quieter around Miami, and they’ve been better as perhaps that’s helped. They don’t talk about winning as much as showing it thus far. The Western Conference is just as wide open as most predicted even with Oklahoma City leading all season. Though questions remain about how far they can go. Jeremy Lin, obviously, has taken attention away from everyone the last few weeks, particularly the trade talk that usually would dominate, this season around Dwight Howard. The interest in Lin has overshadowed what usually would be the prime topic around All-Star time, which is trades. But there’s a later trade deadline this season, March 15, compared usually to just after the All-Star break. So speculation should begin in earnest next weekend. I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest name to move at the deadline isn’t Howard, but the Lakers’ Pau Gasol.

It’s been a surprisingly positive first half for teams like the 76ers, Spurs and Clippers. There’s some life in places there weren’t, like Minnesota and Cleveland. And still not much in Washington and Charlotte. So here’s a look at the first half of the season tied for fifth shortest season in NBA history.

  1. Heat Not necessarily their record, but they’ve played with a confidence and belief less about proving everyone wrong than knowing they’re the best. By a lot. They’re deeper than last season and seem to be pacing themselves for a strong playoff run.
  2. Thunder They’ve got the talent to move to No. 1, but use it poorly at times. Their two scorers, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, dominate the ball too much, making spectators of some useful inside players. As a result, they turn the ball over too much, a worrisome portent for playoff basketball.
  3. Bulls Obviously with a lot of question marks given health issues for the second consecutive season. Derrick Rose should return soon, but no one knows about Richard Hamilton, and without him they’re not as good as last season and maybe not top five. Plus, Luol Deng has that no-longer-discussed wrist issue. They’re deep and should have a lighter second half, but they’ve had problems with the best teams in the league.
  4. Clippers Chris Paul has dribbled himself into the MVP conversation with a fabulous season and terrific fourth quarter play. You wonder if losing Chauncey Billups will hurt too much. They need to get Blake Griffin to make free throws, but Kenyon Martin is adding some needed toughness.
  5. Spurs This is a surprise, especially with Manu Ginobili out so long and out again after being hurt Saturday. If they could count on his health they could move into the top three the way they’ve played. Coach Gregg Popovich has rested Tim Duncan, but Tony Parker also gets into that MVP talk. They’ve run in a group of unlikely reserves who’ve come through, though they lost valuable Tiago Splitter as well Saturday.
  6. Mavericks They looked like they were throwing the season and Dirk Nowitzki had retired. But they are the veteran type team that was hurt more by the late start and roster uncertainty. They’ll still be a tough playoff opponent with more days off then. And then imagine if they could trade for Lamar Odom.
  7. 76ers The biggest overachieving team of the season. Especially with reinvigorated Spencer Hawes injured so much. You don’t expect much of them for the playoffs, but they play you as tough as anyone. They’re perfect for the short season as they rarely take games off, let alone plays.
  8. Knicks They are the new team you don’t want to face in the playoffs. There’s much debate about all the talent meshing, but the point is they do have a lot of talent. Lin looks legitimate, which makes Mike D’Antoni’s system again dangerous. In Phoenix they used to dominate East teams who couldn’t match that scoring. I think Carmelo Anthony will fit in better than many believe, and consider with Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and if J.R. Smith and Baron Davis can give them something that’s suddenly real depth.
  9. Nuggets The other of those teams you don’t want to play in the playoffs. They’ve been hit with key injuries, though Nene always is hurt. But they should quietly get Wilson Chandler back before the playoffs, giving them addition depth with the guys who have emerged of late like Corey Brewer.
  10. Pacers Another of the new breakthrough teams. They’ve had a little setback of late, but they are developing a reputation of being able to play a playoff style physical game. They’ll get George Hill back and with more from Tyler Hansbrough could surprise someone in the spring.
  11. Hawks One of the many teams with major injured key players, theirs Al Horford. He’ll return as well and Josh Smith is having an excellent and much more in control season. They’ve got Kirk Hinrich as a trade piece that could change their makeup some as they continue to try to add size. But there’s always just something missing.
  12. Lakers They continue to say they’ll be a better playoff team because of their half court strength, and they do have a tough potential matchup with Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum if Mike Brown ever figured how to use them. Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant looks like he’s shooting to be the oldest to average 30 points and you sense they are facing a crossroads.
  13. Grizzlies This is dependant more on Zach Randolph’s return, which remains uncertain. But they’ve hung in nicely, gotten good production from O.J. Mayo this season and if Randolph can be a force again with Marc Gasol it could be another playoff upset run.
  14. Magic They could be in store for a dive, but this is a first half ranking. They’ve got a heavy road schedule coming with always Dwight Howard’s status perhaps changing everything. Brook Lopez is returning, which will increase those rumors. There’s some speculation now they’ll keep Howard and call his bluff to leave. In Orlando, they’re hoping Howard makes a dramatic All-Star game announcement to stay. But most signs point to a crash.
  15. Trail Blazers The expectations have seemed out of proportion to the realities. Suddenly, Nate McMillan is under fire, point guard Ray Felton is being lambasted, Wesley Matthews is benched for Nicolas Batum and Jamal Crawford is both running the offense and firing 30 footers. It’s an odd mixture of talent that could get hot come playoff time, though with too many individual agenda for now.
  16. Celtics A team on the verge of considering the next step in their franchise lifetime. They’re in the midst of a heavy road schedule with the cloud hanging over them of being broken up before Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett leave as free agents. Though the key question is with Rajon Rondo, whom they are leaning against leading a retooling, and his Sunday ejection and eventual suspension just adds to the list.
  17. Timberwolves If they knew they could win, they’d probably win more. The combination of Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic suddenly is battering teams and their backcourt is electric to watch. If they could make some perimeter shots they could sneak into the playoffs.
  18. Rockets They seem to always be the same team, better than you figure they could be with the personnel they have. So it is once again as Kevin McHale has them competing. Though their GM likes to make moves and you can see something coming. They like their reserve points, which is why they gave up Jeremy Lin. So they could try to do something interesting as they already did try to trade Kevin Martin and Luis Scola. Another run at Pau?
  19. Warriors So far an underachiever with as much as they have in this depleted Western Conference. They’re said to be desperate to make a splash and will be active come trading deadline given the chances to easily get into the playoffs. What’s with Mark Jackson’s infatuation with Nate Robinson? Shocking for a point guard with a career of caution.
  20. Jazz They’ve had a remarkably good first half for not being sure whether they want to compete or make moves and retool. Al Jefferson remains another big name who could be moved, though they’d love to get something for the disappointing Devin Harris.
  21. Bucks They’ve been on the edge all season, winning games they didn’t figure to and not being able to hang onto wins they should. They need a big to help make up for the loss of Andrew Bogut, though with the Knicks coming on it appears the eight playoff spots in the East are getting closed unless Orlando implodes with a trade.
  22. Suns A tough situation to figure as everyone seems to be screaming for Steve Nash to be traded but Nash and the team. They were fortunate to steal Marcin Gortat from the unfortunate Magic, but they’re in mostly for a rebuilding and we’ll find out whether Phoenix is a destination anymore.
  23. Pistons They’re not threatening anyone yet. But Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight look like they could be something in this developing era of guards, i.e., like the 1960’s when both guards could play both positions. They’ve got a good one in Greg Monroe, so there is some light.
  24. Cavaliers I’d put them higher if Anderson Varejao hadn’t gotten hurt again. Kyrie Irving seems to have the inside track on top rookie and when they get LeBron James back... Oh, that was a joke.
  25. Kings You should get something for being the dumbest talented team in the league with DeMarcus Cousins the leader. He puts up some huge numbers throwing himself at the rim, taking goofy jumpers and then faulting his teammates. He reminds you of one of those park big guy bullies who shoot threes even though they could score inside every time. Hardly anyone passes the ball or defends, but otherwise there aren’t many issues.
  26. Nets It’s been an awful first half without Brook Lopez, and might be a bad second with him. Deron Williams bordered on being the first victim of spontaneous combustion with his daily outbursts. Hard to see how they could put together anything to get then Dwight Howard. So everyone can keep booing Kris Humphries, though finally having watched that TV show I can now understand why.
  27. Raptors If Andrea Bagnani had played more, they’d be a bit better. For whatever that’s worth. Their lottery still is overseas and Ed Davis might be something, so it’s still all about the future. Which generally is what these sorts of teams say.
  28. Hornets For a team trying to create some fan support, they have a funny way of going about it with all the mystery around Eric Gordon’s injury and the comings and goings of Chris Kaman. I still believe they’re better off with the pieces they got when the league rejected the earlier deal with all those long contracts and mid level players. But the larger issue is whether they can find a local owner. Or make Gordon Seattle's next best player.
  29. Wizards They would qualify as the amusement of the league with the antics of JaVale McGee, Nick Young and the other li’l rascals. It seems John Wall has gone to their dark side, and it’s a long way back from there.
  30. Bobcats And then there was Mike’s team. Whoever put Tyrus Thomas on that diet needs to be investigated. That’s the last guy who needed to lose 20 pounds. Someone feed him. They’ve got a couple of pieces and Gerald Henderson is getting better. It’s all about lottery luck for them now, which has saved a few teams, like the Bulls and Spurs. But it is a remarkably supportive fan base given the product of late.

And the winner is…

And with the Academy Awards coming up Sunday, if anyone can get themselves to turn away from the NBA All-Star game, also known as the most exciting last 22 seconds in sports, the envelopes please for the first half winners:

MVP: LeBron James, Miami Heat He’s playing at such an efficient, impressive level, out of the post, which he hasn’t done before, defending and with an assurance that seems less fragile. The Bulls’ 7-3 without Derrick Rose lessens his support, though we know how poor some of those teams were. We also know no one might be more important to their team than Rose, but the bloom has come off around the league and the talk has had Chris Paul, Tony Parker and Kevin Durant ahead of him. Perhaps even Dwight Howard.

Coach of the Year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia 76ers No one has done more with less. Reserve Lou Williams is their go to guy. Collins turned Andre Iguodala into a role playing All-Star. They’ve led their division all season, though the Knicks should make a run at them with twice the talent. Collins noses out the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, always one of the better coaches, but this time doing it without his stars other than Parker. He’s mixed and matched his way to the top of the West. Otherwise given circumstances, you also have to like the work done by Rick Carlisle, Stan Van Gundy, Tom Thibodeau, Kevin McHale, Rich Adelman, Tyrone Corbin, Doc Rivers and Frank Vogel.

Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers But it’s very close and I could change. It’s between two guys, and I’m not certain it should be Irving, even though his numbers are the best. Ricky Rubio already is one of the game’s most entertaining players, and the Timberwolves could make the playoffs. If they do — and the Cavs have come back from being the Cadavers even without Anderson Varejao so you could make the case for both — it could go to Rubio. No one is close to them.

Sixth Man: Lou Williams, Philadelphia 76ers You might go James Harden if Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook let him play more. Williams off the bench is pretty close to being the 76ers’ closer, and they’re leading the division. They’re way ahead of the pack.

Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic I hate to keep going with the same guy, but there really are no good perimeter defenders anymore. Part is because defensive schemes are the preeminent defense, and with rules changes it’s so much more difficult to defend on the outside. Thabo Sefolosha is good, but has been injured. Luc Mbah a Moute also is good, but not impactful enough. I like Grant Hill, but he cannot be there often enough. Serge Ibaka probably is next behind Howard while a lot of the guys who get steals are weak defenders playing the passing lanes.

Most Improved Player: Jeremy Lin, New York Knicks They’re going to have to give him something or the media will vote him MVP as ESPN has a large number of the MVP votes. I could go for Nikola Pekovic, though he only started playing regularly about a month ago. Marcin Gortat, Ty Lawson, C.J. Watson, Spencer Hawes, Kyle Lowry and Paul George might come up in other seasons.

Lin makes the cut for All-Star weekend

The NBA did get Jeremy Lin into All-Star weekend amidst calls for Lin to even be placed on the All-Star team. Inappropriate, of course, given Lin having started for maybe two weeks. Though if he had been playing all season, he probably would have legitimately made the team. But there is an answer now. The fans got one wrong in the All-Star starters’ voting, Carmelo Anthony, who wasn’t playing very well for a losing team. In 2003, the other All-Stars basically made a recalcitrant Vince Carter give up his starting All-Star spot to Michael Jordan in his final All-Star game. Jordan had been picked as a reserve. The popular Carter, known as “Vinsanity” then for his high flying appeal, wasn’t very happy even though his selection was questioned because he was hurt and not playing as much. Anthony, similarly, has had an injury-plagued first half. So perhaps he should volunteer to give up his All-Star spot to Lin. I’m actually kidding here. Jordan, by the way, was about to be the MVP of that game until it went double overtime and Kevin Garnett had a big finish to get the MVP. ... It’s appropriate the All-Star game is in Orlando as it’s the 20th anniversary of perhaps the most heartwarming All-Star game ever. It was when Magic Johnson, out of the league that season after he revealed having the HIV virus, was voted an All-Star starter by the fans. There was considerable debate given Johnson wasn’t playing, and some NBA players said they didn’t want to play with him for fear of catching the virus. Johnson did play, was embraced by Eastern team members led by Isiah Thomas to start the game. And with time running out, Johnson signaled for Thomas to guard him and swished a three pointer for 25 points and the MVP award. I’ve covered the last 23 All-Star games and watched them for decades before when it was a great event of the NBA season. The larger winning share mattered, so guys competed. It also was a chance to see greats the TV networks rarely showed since you’d pretty much only get Boston, Philadelphia and New York. So you’d get to see Elgin Baylor and Bob Pettit and Oscar Robertson. Two of my favorites were when the unknowns of their eras, Adrian Smith in 1966 and Randy Smith in 1978 (I just liked the names, I guess) were MVP’s coming deep off the bench. But Magic’s 1992 game was the most exciting, heartwarming feel good one ever. I hope he’s there to take a bow.

NBA news and notes

-- Yup, the smartest fans in the world, eh? Kings rookie Isaiah Thomas was booed by the New York crowd when announced. Of course, no relation and different spelling. But the foul odor could have made them dizzy. ... The Knicks in their good win Sunday over Dallas got 15 points in 30 minutes (six of 16) from J.R. Smith, who just joined the team Sunday and coach Mike D’Antoni said didn’t know any plays. Which is perfect for J.R, who basically never pays attention to them, anyway. ... The other lucky guy is little known San Antonio agent Roger Montgomery, whose two NBA clients are Maurice Evans of the Wizards and this Jeremy Lin kid. Montgomery gets a lot more calls and Nike probably sends him sneakers now as they’re said to be planning an ad campaign around Lin. My favorite Lin rumor of the week was Kim Kardashian asked for his phone number. ... The only NBA guy who seemed to resent the Lin story was New Jersey’s sunshine kid, Deron Williams of the perpetual frown. When reporters asked Williams about Lin, Williams got testy, which is difficult to tell from any other moment with him, actually. Williams asked why he would care about the Knicks and then “what phenomenon” to more Lin questions. The irony is Lin likely would have been cut or sent back to the D-League if Williams had been able to contain him as Lin’s first big game was against Williams and the Nets and was more of a one-game look at the time. ... New York media who were lobbying for Mike D’Antoni’s firing (they lobby for someone to be fired every week) were saying last week with Lin that D’Antoni would have to get an extension because his open pick and roll style fits Lin. So much for Phil Jackson, then, whose triangle offense doesn’t employ a traditional point guard.

-- I’ve always believed NBA executives and scouts have a blind spot for small guards, and you could say they definitely missed on two of the best ever, John Stockton and Steve Nash, who were not lottery picks. Mark Price was a second rounder as was Nick Van Exel. How about some other late first round picks, like Mark Jackson 18th, Rod Strickland 19th, Norm Nixon 22nd, Joe Dumars 18th, Sleepy Floyd 13th, Mo Cheeks 36th, Tim Hardaway 14th and undrafted Avery Johnson. Or second rounders and Hall of Famers Calvin Murphy, Dennis Johnson and Tiny Archibald. Lin’s not the only one they missed. ... Big surprise to hear Tracy McGrady trying to blow up the Hawks with his personal complaints blasting coach Larry Drew after not playing the second half in Portland. He didn’t play in Phoenix, but that was because he doesn’t feel up to playing back to backs. It’s another reason why you cannot afford to add those former superstars who don’t have the game anymore. They never can forget who they were, and it’s also why Allen Iverson can’t get back into the NBA. No matter what they say, they rarely ever accept who they are, especially when their careers are cut short like with McGrady. ... Someone go save Kirk Hinrich. The former Bulls guard is having by far his poorest season ever averaging 4.8 points in limited playing time. He’s in his final season making $8 million. Would it be worth it to the Bulls to put something together, though it would cost them two players? As little used as he is with the Hawks, who visit the United Center Monday, maybe they’d be interested if you threw in a future pick. Hinrich was scoreless in 20 minutes in Saturday’s loss in Portland. He’s scored in double figures once since returning from injury, early of course, Jan. 25. ... John Wall was upset being selected 12th for the rookie/sophomore (rising stars) game in the pickup style draft. He questioned whether there were 11 such colleagues better than him, but the word seems out. No one is sure if he’s a basketball player or track star. They picked Kemba Walker and Marshon Brooks ahead of him. Cool. ... Dwight Howard’s been on a media boycott of late because he said he was misunderstood by a Fox reporter (yes, in sports, too) about wanting to close games. ... Scott Skiles hasn’t lost his droll wit after Howard put up another 20/20 on Bucks starting center Jon Leuer, who managed four fouls in seven minutes. “Not too many Dwight Howards in the Big 10,” Skiles offered.

-- I know the latest LeBron drama was last week’s comments he could see going back to play in Cleveland at some point. When you are a polarizing character the world isn’t fair. First, what’s wrong with wanting to finish in Cleveland, where he lives (Akron, actually)? I do believe he’d rather have stayed if he could have gotten Chris Bosh to come there. Guys always finish their careers somewhere else. He’s not leaving Miami as long as they are a great team. Hey, Michael Jordan ended in Washington. You think Cleveland wouldn’t want him back at any time? But what’s really missed here is LeBron steps in this stuff all the time because he’s not particularly bright. Actually, he’s a much better guy than many NBA players as he’s always cooperative and genial with media. But he’s been a sheltered kid much of his life surrounded by people living off him. He never attended college and never has had much world view. So he stumbles into unnecessary misstatements. We expect these kids to be savvy sophisticates because they are rich and famous. It doesn’t work that way. I think he was just trying to make up with Cleveland, which he regrets hurting, I truly believe ... Really nice story on Chris Paul in the Los Angeles Times, written by T.J. Simers, who generally seems to hate most athletes. Simers quoted Paul saying: "I have the best wife anyone could ask for, and it's a privilege to do what I do for a living. I'm fortunate and I'm so happy to be playing here (with the Clippers). I give my parents a lot of credit for who I am. You know how a lot of people in this league will say in an interview: 'Hey, Mom, I love you?' I'm fortunate enough to say, 'Mom and Dad.' And my Dad truly loves my Mom. That's what I know and what I've always seen." ... I didn’t think the Stephen Jackson meltdown would come until after this short season. Oh, well. He’ll be tough to move with $10 million more next season on his deal and talk of needing an extension (who doesn’t?). But Milwaukee did move Corey Maggette and John Salmons, the latter lately benched by the Kings, so taking on Jackson was worth the risk. The issue is his J.R. Smithesque shot selection and an aging body. ... Ben Wallace, saying it’s definitely his last season, broke Avery Johnson’s record for most games by an undrafted player. Bodysanity? Supposedly also the record for most layups missed in pregame layup lines as well.

-- Even mild mannered Paul Silas has given up. Tyrus Thomas appears even out of the rotation with pathetic Charlotte, failing to score in three of the last four games with eight minutes combined the last two. ... My colleague Ira Winderman with the Ft. Lauderdale Sun Sentinel was answering mail again last week about why James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were in late into the fourth quarter in a blowout win against the Hawks last week. See, it’s not just Chicago fans who don’t want their best players playing. This is getting a bit ridiculous. Fans are asked to pay an awful lot of money for these games. I hate to agree with Jeff Van Gundy rants instead of making fun of him, but he is right. Since when has playing and competing been inappropriate? .. On their current rodeo road trip now with six straight wins, the Spurs again are the under the radar story of the NBA with Tony Parker scoring at least 30 in four of the last seven games. Said Manu Ginobili: “It’s been 10 years, and he’s had some amazing games, some amazing streaks. But he owns the team now.” Saturday’s ending was the most incredible of the season with the Clippers up three with six seconds and the ball. The Spurs stole the inbounds and Gary Neal, who’d just committed a turnover, dropped in the tying three as the Spurs then won in overtime. Though Chris Paul took the blame, inbounder Ryan Gomes, into the game for the first time, threw the ball into the frontcourt as Paul was going into the backcourt to get it. So Paul had to deflect it and it went right to Neal. ... Interesting closeouts for the Grizzlies, who in consecutive games went to Rudy Gay for game winners. He missed both and the Grizzlies won both on putbacks. ... See, if Jeremy Lin weren’t in New York it wouldn’t be the same. They call it “PecTacular” in Minneapolis with Nikola Pekovic, a burly second rounder who’d played in Europe. The Timberwolves want him in that “rising stars” game the league put Lin in, but they seem not to be getting their calls returned. The less heralded Timberwolves are back to .500 as Pekovic has seven double/doubles in the last 11 games, and missed three others by one rebound. Overall, he’s averaging 18.4 points and 10.7 rebounds in that stretch. ... Maybe no big surprise with Kevin Durant with 51 and Russell Westbrook with 40 in the Thunder’s overtime win over Denver Sunday. But maybe the league’s most underrated player is their Serge Ibaka with a rare triple double with blocks, Ibaka’s third game of at least 10 blocks this month. He’s probably the league’s second best interior defender after Dwight Howard.

-- The Warriors are taking a lot of heat for releasing local kid Jeremy Lin with the big Asian population in the area, especially as they seek a point guard. Though when they signed him, many in the media criticized the team and accused management of trying to add an Asian player only to sell more tickets. ... Another bad road loss Sunday for the Lakers in Phoenix and now 5-11 on the road, a game and a half out of ninth in the West. Lot of interesting substitutions again by coach Mike Brown with Andrew Bynum sitting out most of the fourth quarter, though Bynum didn’t run the court much. It’s coming to an explosion there. The big questions continue to circle around Pau Gasol, who despite Lakers’ denials is said around the league is to be the most likely to be traded. The Warriors are desperate for a big man, though don’t have the point guard the Lakers want. Maybe the Rockets do in Kyle Lowry if you’d pair him with Luis Scola. Though the other big name you hear mostly out west is Monta Ellis. There are increasing calls even in the Golden State media to finally break up he and Stephen Curry, both effectively shooting guards, with the Warriors again headed for the lottery. And Ellis’ playing time has been erratic recently, suggesting issues with coach Mark Jackson. With rookie Klay Thompson, the Warriors feel they have their shooting guard/sixth man. So if I were the Bulls I’d take a run at Ellis. How about big man Omer Asik, point guard C.J. Watson, though the Warriors did let him go, Ronnie Brewer and a first? The Warriors are said to be seeking much bigger names and near All-Stars for the high scoring Ellis. Though you figure you’d have to take a look if Ellis truly were available. Even if it would seem a long shot. ... Oh, and for the internet rumor of the weekend from a publication in Spain (last month it had the Bulls signing Fabricio Oberto) that Rose supposedly without quotes or direct comments would like to play with Gasol. I assume he would. I’d like him too. I assume Rose would also like to play with Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Kevin Love. I assume Kobe would like to play with Rose. But as Gasol is a four-time All-Star with two championship rings and still regarded by some team executives as the game’s best all around center and that the Lakers desperately need an All-Star point guard, who exactly are you going to trade to get Gasol?