Dwyane Wade, LeBron James

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


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

Jimmy Butler wants Mason Plumlee to pay fine after scuffle (video)


Jimmy Butler and Mason Plumlee got into an altercation in the Bulls’ win over the Trail Blazers last night.

Plumlee lowered his head and tried to barrel through Butler’s chest on a Butler screen. Butler fell and retaliated by putting Plumlee in a leg lock, causing Plumlee to fall.

You might remember a leg lock as what Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova did to Bulls forward Taj Gibson during last year’s playoffs. For all the talk then of Dellavedova being a dirty player, Butler seems particularly aggrieved after getting a technical foul, which comes with a $2,500 fine – the same penalty Dellavedova eventually received. (Plumlee got a flagrant foul.)

Butler, via Vincent Goodwill of CSN Chicago:

“He thought he was playing football for a second there,” Butler said. “Almost had to let the Fort Greene Projects out of me, Brooklyn, you know what I’m saying?”

It was said tongue in cheek considering Gibson was a few feet over and Butler wanted to draw some laughs. Gibson is a Brooklyn native and grew up in the Fort Greene Projects while Butler grew up in Tomball, Texas.

It was no laughing matter when he said he would find a way to approach Plumlee about the fine money, jokingly suggesting he would have his agent email him at “Mr. Dukie@yahoo.com or something” and made a joke about Mike Dunleavy applauding Plumlee’s act.

Plumlee and Dunleavy are products of Duke University.

“Yeah, he cost me 2,500,” Butler said. “I’m not happy about that. Gonna ask him to pay me back and I’m not playing.”

Is that MisterDukie@yahoo.com, MrDukie@yahoo.com or Mr.Dukie@yahoo.com. Or is it Dookie?

These are important questions – at least if you’re trying to turn the conversation away from your dirty play and toward your colorful quotes.

Breaking news: Leandro Barbosa dunked


The Warriors became the first team in NBA history to start 16-0.

In the process of getting that record-breaking win over the Lakers, something nearly as historic happened.

Leandro Barbosa dunked.

The 32-year-old Golden State guard last jammed in January 2011.

For a little more perspective, look how Barbosa handled a breakaway layup earlier in the fourth quarter:

You think that man can still slam?

Yes. Yes, he can.

Magic benching Victor Oladipo, starting Channing Frye

Stephen Curry, Victor Oladipo, Channing Frye
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Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Evan Fournier, Tobias Harris and Nikola Vucevic have started eight of the Magic’s 14 games, including the last three.

But after Orlando dropped two straight, Scott Skiles hinted at lineup changes.

The Magic coach will deliver against the Knicks tonight, swapping Channing Frye for Oladipo.

Skiles, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“It’s nothing punitive,” Skiles said after the Magic’s shootaround.

“It’s just we feel like we’ve got to try to find a little bit better balance. I’d like Victor to have some more opportunities like he’s had a little bit in the past where he can be on top of the floor and attack and get a little bit more vertical and not only get to the rim but just be a little bit more on the attack but not necessarily start the game that way.”

Here are the offensive/defensive/net ratings for the

  • Former starting lineup: 94.7/111.2/-16.5
  • New starting lineup: 117.2/90.3/+26.8

The new unit has played just 33 minutes in two games, so major sample-size caveats apply. But I like idea of seeing more of what has worked.

I suspect Skiles also wants to keep his players from becoming content. At 6-8 and coming off three straight seasons outside the playoffs, they should have no reason to feel satisfied, but the hard-driving Skiles will be proactive.

If Oladipo – whose defense Skiles values – can get sent to the bench, anyone can.

At some point, the Magic must determine whether Oladipo and Payton – both below-average 3-point shooters – can share a backcourt. But it’s also worth knowing whether Oladipo can excel as a super sub leading bench players.

This switch might help the Magic win now, but at worse, it’ll give them more information for evaluating their young roster. Seems smart all around.

Dwight Howard says he’s cleared to play back-to-backs

Dwight Howard
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The 5-9 Houston Rockets need some wins.

The Houston Rockets have a back-to-back coming up, Sunday against the Knicks then Monday against the Pistons (both on the road). Two teams with quality big men.

Combine those things and you end up with Dwight Howard being re-evaluated by team doctors and getting the training wheels taken off, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle.

This, plus a mini training camp the past few days, is part of new coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s effort to turn Houston’s season around.

Houston’s defense is 1.9 points per 100 possessions better this season when Howard is on the court and the Rockets are stronger on the glass. The problem is the offense is 7.8 points per 100 worse with Howard on the court. How much of that can be changed with some roster tweaks — like limiting the time James Harden and Ty Lawson share the court — and how much is due to Howard demanding touches and not doing enough with them we will find out quickly.