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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

Watch Amar’e Stoudemire’s top 10 career plays (video)

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When Amar’e Stoudemire retired, I said history will treat him better than present-day analysis — maybe even to the point he gets legitimate Hall of Fame consideration.

Get past Stoudemire’s injury-caused decline with the Knicks and his wayward years with the Mavericks and Heat, and Stoudemire was a heck of a player with the Suns (and in his first year in New York).

Thanks to the NBA, the process of remembering Stoudemire for his peak can begin immediately. I was blown away by the first few highlights before realizing they were just the introduction for the top 10.

Kings GM Vlade Divac: DeMarcus Cousins is ‘most dominant player in the whole world’

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  DeMarcus Cousins #12 of the United States Men's National Team dribbles the ball up court against the China Men's National Team during the first half of a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Vlade Divac isn’t calling Rudy Gay with trade-talk updates.

So, how is the Kings general manager spending his time?

Watching DeMarcus Cousins with Team USA.

James Ham of CSN California on Cousins:

He’s primed to show the world what both he and plenty of others around the basketball world already believe — that he is the best big man in the world.

“It’s a no-brainer,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said from his courtside seat. “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world. And being from Serbia, I have to root for Serbia, but I feel bad for them. He’s going to kill them.”

If we take Divac’s statement — “He’s the most dominant player in the whole world” — at face value, nope. LeBron James is. Other players like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are also better than Cousins, but big men can dominate in a way perimeter players can’t

If Divac meant just among big men, there’s a case. When Cousins is fully engaged, it’s one I’d definitely buy. He’s a load to handle inside, and his defense can be top-notch.

There are just too many times Cousins checks out. It’s a fine line, because Cousins’ emotions carries him to his highs. But he hasn’t yet found an ideal equilibrium point. His lows are still too low and too frequent.

That said, no center nears Cousins’ peak dominance. DeAndre Jordan and Draymond Green, when he plays the position, need too much help from teammates to be considered truly dominant. Andre Drummond isn’t polished enough. Even with his flaws, Cousins is probably already the NBA’s most dominant center.

Most dominant player, though? No. That’s a step too far.

 

NBA’s 2017 London game to feature Pacers and Nuggets

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - FEBRUARY 10:  Paul George #24 of the Indiana Pacers shoots the ball during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on February 10, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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The NBA has held regular-season games in London the last four years.

The league isn’t exiting England now.

Pacers release:

Indiana Pacers will travel to London, England to face the Denver Nuggets for a regular season game to be played at The O2 on January 12, 2017.

 

The game will be designated as a home game for the Nuggets.

This could be a solid matchup.

The Pacers had a highly touted offseason, trading for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young. Both players should fit better with the up-tempo style Larry Bird wants to play. And, of course, Paul George will be the best player on the floor.

The Nuggets had a quieter summer, but they nailed the draft with Jamal Murray, Juancho Hernangomez, Malik Beasley and Petr Cornelie. Add that to a young core that already includes Nikola JokicEmmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic, and Denver is cooking. Veterans Danilo Gallinari,Kenneth Faried, Wilson Chandler and Will Barton allow the possibility of a quick rise. With Michael Malone coaching, it seems like only a matter of time.

Both teams should be intriguing in January — gaining chemistry and still in the playoff hunt.

 

Report: Celtics to pay second-round pick Demetrius Jackson more than 10 first-rounders next year

PHILADELPHIA, PA - MARCH 25:  Demetrius Jackson #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates after defeating the Wisconsin Badgers with a score of 56 to 61 during the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Wells Fargo Center on March 25, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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The Celtics became the first team to pay a second-round pick more the season immediately following the draft than some first-rounders received. Last year, No. 37 pick Jordan Mickey had a higher salary than four 2015 first-rounders.

Now, Boston is pushing the envelope even further.

No. 45 pick Demetrius Jackson will make more than the last 10 (!) 2016 first-rounders can earn in the NBA next season.*

*At least two players picked in that range, No. 23 pick Ante Zizic and No. 26 pick Furkan Korkmaz, will play overseas next season. Their salaries with their foreign teams might be higher than they could’ve gotten in the NBA.

Jackson’s salary will be $1,450,000, according to Yahoo Sports. No. 21 pick DeAndre’ Bembry will get $1,499,760 from the Hawks next year, and following first-rounders will fall in line behind him.

The issue is the antiquated rookie scale, which was set well before new national TV contracts pushed the salary cap north of $94 million. With all this new money flooding the system, everyone can grab a share — except first-round picks, who are tied to the scale.

That leaves even more money for second-rounders, and Jackson is the second to cash in in this major way. No. 31 pick Deyonta Davis will get $1,275,917  next season — more than the last six first-rounders. But the Grizzlies also guaranteed Davis’ first three years.

Jackson’s contract becomes much more team-friendly after this season. His salary the following three years is slated to be lower than this year’s: $1,319,500, $1,384,750 and $1,319,500. Yahoo’s wording is ambiguous, but it appears none of those seasons have any guaranteed compensation.

So, the Celtics are getting something in exchange for paying Jackson more now — flexibility in later years. The bargain works for them, because with the salary cap suddenly so high, they had little other use for that 2016-17 money. They essentially bought a better deal later by spending more when they were overrun with cap room.

And Jackson gets a bigger payday as he enters the pros. If he plays well, he’s stuck with a lower salary — though, for the next couple years, it’s still higher than a few first-rounders. If he doesn’t play well, he can be waived at no more cost. This is the opposite of betting on yourself, but that’s totally fine. Jackson will earn a lot of money this year in exchange. He got something significant with his bargaining power.

Projected by some to be a first-round pick, Jackson fell to the middle of the second round. Predictably, that probably turned out better for him.