Dwyane Wade, LeBron James

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

Kevin Hart, Draymond Green get in All-Star Saturday three-point shootout

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TORONTO — This is going to come up in the Golden State locker room.

Right before Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry put on a three-point shooting exhibition, actor/comedian/self-promotor Kevin Hart came out and challenged Draymond Green to a shooting contest. Green was ready to go. They did the three-point shooting contest, and Green put up a total of 12 (which would have been dead last in the actual three-point contest, for the record).

Then Hart stepped up — and tied him with 12 points.

Steve Kerr, if you’re ever looking for a lineup to go REALLY small….

Other All-Stars pay tribute to Kobe Bryant’s legacy

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TORONTO — This is Kobe Bryant‘s weekend.

In what will be his final All-Star Game, he has been an absolute rock star in Toronto — huge ovations, huge crowds (of fans and media), and cameras trained on him everywhere he goes. The weekend has been a celebration of one of the game’s all-time greats and a storied career.

Over the course of the weekend, nearly every other All-Star has been asked about Kobe and the impact he’s had both on the game and on the players, personally. For many of them, this is personal, the younger NBA players grew up idolizing him. Here are a sampling of their responses.

James Harden (Houston Rockets):
“He’s been my idol growing up, my basketball idol. Like I said, just watching him play meant everything to me. So this is his last year, and he’s going to retire, and there’s going to be no more Kobe Bryant playing basketball, it’s kind of sad. It’s kind of sad about that, but at some point he had to go.”

Kyle Lowry (Toronto Raptors):
“He’s the Michael Jordan of our era. He’s the most competitive player we’ve played against, and the thing he’s done throughout his career and the things he’s done to change the game, to motivate the players is unbelievable.”

Chris Bosh (Miami Heat):
“Kobe, this is his weekend. I know he probably would never say that or admit that, but, yeah, he’s one of the iconic players of this — greatest iconic players this league has ever had. He’s had such an imprint on our childhood. I know he had an imprint on my childhood. And then I was in that mix where I was a kid, and then I was trying to figure it out in the NBA, and next thing you know you’re competing against him. So, it’s been crazy.”

DeMar DeRozan (Toronto Raptors):
“I grew up watching the Lakers. I grew up watching him his whole career and getting a chance to have a relationship with him and kind of, you know, patterned my game after him so to speak, so definitely speaks volumes.”

Russell Westbrook (Oklahoma City Thunder):
“Me growing up in Los Angeles and being able to see Kobe, obviously he’s one of the greatest players to play the game. It was a true honor to be able to learn from him. It’s a great experience to be able to learn different things from him, not just on the floor but off the floor as well and very different experiences.”

Tyrone Lue (Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers):
“When I first got there (playing for the Lakers) he was still young. He was Kobe, but he hadn’t been a starter yet. And that third year of his career, that was my first year, Rick Fox went down, and he stepped in and took a starting role. But just seeing the film he watched all the time, the players he was talking about, the Oscar Robertsons, Michael Jordans, the Magics, he knew from day one who he wanted to be like. He knew that to be the best, you had to work hard. That’s what he did every single day. Not one day did I see him take off.”

Paul George (Indiana Pacers):
“He was just fearless. He’s a champion. To get to where you want to get to, you have to put the work in. His work ethic is one thing that he has. That’s the reason why he’s so great.”

Paul Millsap (Atlanta Hawks):
“The only thing I can remember is him always beating us when I was at Utah in the playoffs. We always had to try to overcome the Lakers and Kobe Bryant and just could never do it.”

John Wall (Washington Wizards):
“Basically, the Michael Jordan of our era is what I see with all of his dedication to the game, his competitive drive. He’s one of those guys that always wants the ball in a tough situation. No matter the circumstances, he believes in himself, no matter what.”

Aaron Gordon (Orlando Magic):
“I watched Kobe growing up and watched him in the All-Star Game. The impact he’s had on my basketball game and in my life and so many other people, it’s really big. It’s astronomical. That’s Kobe. That’s the man.”

Draymond Green (Golden State Warriors):
“He’s meant so much to the game. Growing up in the era that I did, Kobe was that guy. So to play in an All-Star Game with him, I mean, that’s special. I grew up a Kobe fan, so it’s something that’s really special.”

C.J. McCollum (Portland Trail Blazers):
“He’s had a huge impact (on me). Obviously for us, he was the Michael Jordan of our era, a guy we watched. He emulated Michael. He had a lot of the same fadeaways, sticking out his tongue, winning championships. Just a sense of self to understand exactly what it takes to be successful. So for us, he was a guy I looked up to. His work ethic, his understanding and he knew how to bounce back from losses and shooting air balls in the playoffs as a rookie to hitting game winners.”

Watch it again: Epic dunk contest duel between Zach LaVine, Aaron Gordon

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TORONTO — I am always hesitant to say a player/team/situation is one of the best of ever because the history of the NBA is filled with greats. We tend to overstate how good something current can be.  That said…

That was one of the best dunk contests ever.

Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon put on a show for the ages. Gordon had the best dunks of the night (in my opinion), but LaVine is consistently amazing, every dunk he does is flat out ridiculous.

Officially, LaVine won. In reality, we all won. Enjoy watching it one more time.

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.