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Contenders, pretenders, wish-it-would-enders — taking stock of the NBA at the break

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Welcome to All-Star Weekend, when the NBA takes a break from playing games to talk about trades. And hear about the great parties that the players went to. Then talk about more trades. Then watch an exhibition with less defense than a Cavs-Raptors game.

For the rest of us, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are two-thirds of the way through the season. We pretty much know who the top teams are. We know who the guys in the running for MVP are. We know who has packed it in.

So let’s break it down.

Title contenders.

Boston Celtics (40-14). No coasting into the playoffs this season. Boston has improved in a couple key areas from a team that came within a quarter of winning it all last season. The Celtics are deeper along the front line (even if everyone seems injured at one time). Secondly, Rajon Rondo is doing a better job attacking the space that teams have been giving him (hoping he would take the jumper). They are still the best defensive team in the NBA.

San Antonio Spurs (46-10). Nobody expected this. But the Spurs altered their attack — Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are now the focal points, Tim Duncan works off them rather than being the hub. It works, they are the third-most efficient offense in the league. And they can still defend. They also have gotten great depth from George Hill, DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner.

Miami Heat (41-15). Before the season we said we knew they could score, the question was how well would they defend? Fourth-most efficient defense in the league. Impressive. They look every bit the contender… during the regular season. We’ve got questions about how they match up with real size in the playoffs.

Los Angeles Lakers (38-19). Yes, they lost to the Cavaliers. Yes, they have played poorly for stretches this season. Yes, they look old and not athletic enough at times. But scouts keep saying the team most likely to beat the Lakers is the Lakers. They’ve won two titles and if the sleeping giant wakes, they will be a force. Again.

Trying to crash the title party (teams that are close):

Chicago Bulls (38-16): New coach Tom Thibodeau has the Bulls playing great defense. Derrick Rose is having a season that has him in MVP contention. And we have yet to see them all healthy at once for any stretch. We don’t know how good they can be, but if the offense (18th in the league in points per possession) isn’t more consistent, they are out in the second round.

Dallas Mavericks (40-17). Their record means you have to take them seriously, and they are winning because they are deep with good talent. But when the rotations shorten in the playoffs, that depth doesn’t help as much. Will a handful of great players beat a bunch of good ones? In the NBA playoffs, usually.

Orlando Magic (36-21). I’m putting them in here because they have the best big man in the game and a quality defense. But I’m not sold. They will need to play better and more consistently than I have seen in the past few weeks.

Just end the season already.

Cleveland Cavaliers (10-46). We knew they would be bad, losing not only the best player in the game but also Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Shaquille O’Neal. The 7-9 start to the season was a mirage, but we didn’t know the desert would be this vast. Then they get hit by the injury bug — Anderson Varejao is out for the season and Mo Williams misses extended time. But they’ve beaten the Lakers.

Toronto Raptors (15-41). Chris Bosh is gone and this is Andrea Bargnani’s team. That’s really worked out well.

Minnesota Timberwoves (13-43). Why are they even here? Their rebuilding is done. Actually, they have a couple pieces to build around, including double-double machine Kevin Love, but there is a long, long way to go.

Sacramento Kings (13-40). Another team with a couple quality pieces to build around in Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins, except they can’t get along. And Paul Westphal seems unable to guide them. Or get them to listen.

MVP candidates

LeBron James (Miami Heat). He is the two-time defending MVP playing on an elite team. Still the best player in the game. And although his per-game numbers dropped a little, we’re still talking 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game. The Heat have become his team on the court.

Derrick Rose (Chicago Bulls). He announced his presence with authority dropping a career-high 42 on the San Antonio Spurs on Thursday, but he was being mentioned as an MVP candidate before that. Personally, I don’t think he’s there — he’s still not efficient enough for my tastes — but many voters are in love with the story.

Chris Paul (New Orleans Hornets). To me this should be the guy. Just him being back running the show — with an efficient 16.2 points and 9.6 assists per game — has turned the Hornets from a squad that looked lost last season into a solid playoff team in a deep Western Conference. He is the best point guard in the game and the player most valuable to his team.

Dwight Howard (Orlando Magic). He’s not going to win. I don’t know why, but voters are not into him, maybe because he’s a center who can make it look so easy. He’s the best defender of the paint in the league, he has become an efficient offensive player with a variety of moves, and he’s a beast on the boards. Guy is a complete player and the best big in the game. He deserves serious consideration.

Kevin Durant (Oklahoma City Thunder). Still leads the league in scoring  (28.9 points per game) on a team that is still entertaining to watch. The slow start shouldn’t hold his candidacy back. Problem is, we expected this team to take a leap forward this season and it hasn’t, and although that is not Durant’s fault, he will lose votes because of it.

Other awards:

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Chicago Bulls
Sixth Man of the Year: Jason Terry, Dallas Mavericks
Most annoying, never-ending story line: Carmelo Anthony trade talk
Most Improved Player: Jrue Holiday, Philadelphia 76ers
Player Most Wasted By Coach: Rip Hamilton, Detroit Pistons
Best Actor: Colin Firth, The King’s Speech
Best Lopez Twin: Still Brook (New Jersey Nets) by a country mile

Alivin Gentry, you worried about being fired: “I really don’t give a s— about my job status”

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 26:  Head coach Alvin Gentry of the New Orleans Pelicans looks on as his team plays the Denver Nuggets at the Smoothie King Center on October 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Denver won the game 107-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
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The Pelicans are disappointing this season — it is Anthony Davis vs. the world down there. Which is the main reason they are 7-16 this season. While things have gotten better since Jrue Holiday‘s return, Davis is averaging a league-best 31.4 points per game, it then drops off to Holiday at 15.4, and then E'Twaun Moore at 11.1.

When a team struggles, usually that is a bad sign for the coach. Not because it’s always their fault, but because GMs choose not to fire themselves for poor roster construction. Which leads to the question: Alvin Gentry, are you concerned about your job? (Warning, NSFW)

Gentry with classic coach-speak: Control what you can control.

New Orleans’ struggles are not on Gentry, certainly not completely. He’d like a roster that can play uptempo, that has depth. What he got instead was a good point guard, an elite 4/5, a rookie in Buddy Hield that maybe pans out down the line, and then… nada. And the roster Gentry has often is banged up.

If anyone is in trouble, it is GM Dell Demps. Remember, Danny Ferry was hired last summer for the vague role of “special advisor.” Gentry is in his second year, and the issue is the roster he was given. But the Pelicans are a patient organization that values continuity, so… who knows. But the clock is ticking on Davis;, it’s years away, but the Pelicans need to build a team around him and are far from that right now.

Cavaliers’ James Jones says he’ll retire after next season

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  James Jones #1 of the Cleveland Cavaliers receives his championship ring from owner Dan Gilbert before the game against the New York Knicks at Quicken Loans Arena on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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James Jones has made a business of playing with LeBron James, and business is good.

Jones has ridden LeBron’s coattails to three contracts with the Cavaliers and appearances in five straight NBA Finals – the second-longest streak (behind LeBron’s six) outside the 1950s/60s Celtics:

But the 36-year-old Jones is preparing to retire.

Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:

Jones told the Beacon Journal he will retire after next season, which will be his 15th in the NBA. His ultimate dream is to ride off after three consecutive championships in Cleveland

“I know playing 15 years is a number where I can look back and I can be like, ‘I accomplished something,’ ” Jones said. “Fourteen vs. 15 may not be much, but to be able to say I played 15 years, that’s enough for me to hang ’em up.”

Jones’ contract expires after the season, so the Cavs will have a say in whether he returns. Safe to say if LeBron wants him back, Jones will be back.

But the Heat got into trouble relying on washed-up veterans around LeBron, wasting valuable roster spots on players who could no longer contribute.

Is that Jones? Not yet. Though he’s out of the rotation, he has still made 11-of-12 open 3-pointers this season. There’s a role for him as spot-up shooter when Cleveland needs one.

Still, the Cavaliers ought to be mindful of Jones’ likely decline over the next year and a half. Plus, it’s not a certainty he holds to his timeline. Cavs veterans have a history of changing their mind on retirement.

PBT Extra: What did Phil Jackson think he would accomplish with shot at ‘Melo?

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Phil Jackson wants us to know Carmelo Anthony can hold on to the ball too long and stall out the offense.

Shocking. Such a revelation. It’s not like he knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension… oh, wait, everybody did know that already.

Which leads to my criticism of Jackson in this PBT Extra. Taking a shot at a player as a coach who sees said player every day comes off differently than the same thing from the ivory tower criticism of a GM. Plus, Jackson’s timing made no sense.

Carmelo Anthony says Phil Jackson’s comments “temporary black cloud over our heads”

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 07:  Carmelo Anthony #7 of the New York Knicks and the rest of the bench react to the loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers at Madison Square Garden on December 7, 2016 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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The New York Knicks were on a four-game winning streak, they have looked like a potential playoff team in the East, team chemistry has been pretty good, and there seemed to be more sun shining on Madison Square Garden then we have seen in a few years.

So Phil Jackson decided that was a good time to a CBS Sports Show and take a shot at Carmelo Anthony, saying he could play the MJ/Kobe role, but he holds the ball too long on offense. Anthony wouldn’t comment on the shot at the time, then took to Instagram to express his frustration and displeasure.

How do we know for sure it was aimed at Jackson? Because on Friday Anthony said so, adding that Jackson’s comments were unnecessary. Here is what ‘Melo said, via Stephan Bondy of the New York Daily News.

“At the end of the day we’re playing good basketball,” Anthony said. “That’s the only thing that matters at this point. So any negativity that’s coming towards me or towards the team, I don’t think we need it at this point…

“I feel like we’re playing good basketball, and just to have a temporary black cloud over our heads,” he said. “I don’t know when the comments were made or the gist of them, I just know something was said.”

Anthony is spot on here. Jackson isn’t wrong that Anthony can hold the ball too long, but Jackson knew that when he gave Anthony a five-year contract extension. Also, the Sports VU camera data shows Anthony is holding the ball less and dribbling a little less than previous seasons.

But the real question: What did Jackson think he would accomplish with this? He’s too smart, too calculated — he doesn’t just say things to the press without a motive. But with everything going about as well as one could hope with the Knicks, and with Anthony not at a point in his career he’s going to change his game, what’s the point?

Anthony has a right to be ticked.