Tag: New Orleans Saints

Anthony Davis

The Extra Pass: Drafting the Rookie-Sophomore Game


The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme. Today, Kurt Helin and I draft our Rookie-Sophomore teams.

We love the idea of the Rookie-Sophomore game at All-Star Weekend being drafted by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal. We love it so much, in fact, that we decided to do it ourselves — me and Kurt Helin (who I have to say nice things about, he’s the boss and all).

Thanks to my two-headed quarter that I’ve been waiting to use for years, Team Foster will kick things off with the first pick:

Foster: You know, I really wanted to get cute here with the first pick because of positional scarcity, but I didn’t want to have a Sam Bowie moment in my very first draft. So instead, with the first pick, Team Foster selects Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He’s the game’s reigning MVP, he went 8-for-8 from deep last year, and there’s always the slight chance he plays in full Uncle Drew costume. Which set of ankles would you like Kyrie to break first, Kurt?

Helin: Well, fortunately Stephen Curry can’t play in the game this year, so those ankles are safe. Kyrie was the Anthony Davis pick — no brainer. No creativity. Austin Rivers was out there and you looked right past him and his potential just to go with a legit All-Star. Sure, if you want to build a team the safe way.

This is a guards’ game — fast paced, no defense, basically heaven for John Wall. So, Team Helin selects Damian Lillard of the Portland Trail Blazers. I’ll see your Rookie of the Year with the guy likely to win it this year.

Foster: I’m a big Lillard guy, but aren’t you worried about him being too mature for a game like this? Doesn’t he kind of strike you as the kid that skips out on laser tag to play Golden Tee? I’m worried this whole spectacle might be below him. And that’s the reason why I’m taking a guy who will cherish the opportunity to just run around and dunk everything. With the third pick, Team Foster takes Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons.

If Detroit somehow sneaks into the 8-seed and Portland fizzles out, you can at least make the case for Drummond as Rookie of the Year, right? What’s crazier — that, or this pick?

Helin: I don’t really think it’s that crazy. While a lot of people see the Rookie of the Year race like Secretariat at the Belmont, I think Drummond is one of two guys who could sneak up on him in the second half of the season and steal the award. I’ll take the other one.

Team Helin takes Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Hornets. I think he’s a perfect fit for this game — he cuts really well off the ball and can run the floor. He’s a finisher who will get some easy buckets from Lillard. And when your precious little Kyrie Irving drives the lane and tries a floater AD is going to send it to the third row.

Foster: Davis is probably my favorite player to enter the league in the last five years — he’s just so dang smart.

But you know what’s not so dang smart? Leaving this guy on the board for me to take! Dust off your best David Kahn jokes for me, because Team Foster selects Ricky Rubio of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Rubio was basically born to play in All-Star games. Can you imagine all the tricks he’s going to pull? Man, I love my team so far. Do you want to redraft? We can flip to see who goes first again…

Helin: Draft one more point guard and you will have gone the full Kahn. Then the Ricardo Montalban jokes will fly. I like Rubio, but I’ll get more guys to dish later, I want guys who can knock down shots in transition, run to the arc and not miss. My team will rain threes on you like a Seattle winter.

Team Helin selects Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. How I see this going is Lillard bringing the ball up and having options like Davis cutting to the rim and Thompson sprinting to the arc. Your defense will run around like chickens with their heads cut off… oh, who are we kidding. Nobody is playing defense in this game. Still, I’ll take my team any day against your Kahnesque lineup.

Foster: You dog. Thompson was easily the best pure shooter still available, and Rubio and Drummond aren’t really going to space the floor for me. Honestly though, who who needs something silly like spacing when you can just dunk everything? With that in mind, Team Foster selects Kenneth Faried of the Denver Nuggets.

The thing I like best about The Manimal is that he has no off switch. While everyone else is dialing it down two or three notches, he’s going to be flying around and crashing the boards like he always does.

Take a stand and pick Jorts enthusiast Josh Harrellson here, Kurt. I know you’ve got a few pairs in the old closet.

Helin: Like Blake Griffin visiting his younger self, I wore jean shorts when I was nine but figured out pretty quickly that was not a fashion choice that allowed me to date women. I’m no Dwyane Wade, my clothing choices were based on what didn’t repel women and now is based on what my wife allows.

You took the next player on my list with Manimal, but we are starting to think alike (which may not be a good sign for you) — I need a finisher. Team Helin selects Harrison Barnes of the Golden State Warriors. Word on the street — specifically Aaron Gray’s street and Ersan Ilyasova’s street and Nikola Pekovic’s street — is that he can finish.

Foster: You stole my guy again! I guess as a consolation, I won’t have a player on my team who nicknamed himself “Black Falcon.” Come on, Harrison. That’s the lamest nickname I’ve ever heard, and you picked it out yourself. I’m glad you’re on Team Jorts now, actually.

I’m scrambling a bit, but Team Foster selects Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards. Look, I’m not saying he’ll be Ray Allen, but Beal is going to take the “league’s prettiest jumper” title from Allen once he finally retires. That form, that release…it’s so absurdly perfect.

Helin: Beal is starting to really find a groove now that John Wall is back and creating space, in his last 10 games he is shooting 47.4 percent from three. He’d be the second best shooter in this game other than Thompson. Hopefully his wrist heals up a little and he can play.

I need another distributor and guy to run the show on this team. Someone to push the pace. Someone who can make plays. Someone who can give us normal-sized people somebody to root for. Team Helin goes deep on the draft board and takes Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings. Good luck keeping up with that pint-sized speed. Again, if anyone were actually going to defend in this game.

Foster: Thomas shoots a higher percentage at the rim than Blake Griffin and Dwyane Wade. I don’t even…how is that possible? I’m glad Keith Smart is finally giving him consistent minutes, he deserves them.

My team needs a salt of the earth type, so Team Foster takes Kawhi Leonard of the San Antonio Spurs. Leonard takes nothing off the table, and he could have a Greg Monroe moment and hilariously be the wet blanket to an alley-oop. I like that.

Helin: Leonard brings energy every night, he will run the floor, he will fit in well (even on your losing team in this scenario). Popovich would send you an angry letter (no way he texts) cursing you out for selecting Leonard just to wear him out during the break.

We’ve got a lot of young players who can shoot in this game, time to ugly it up — Team Helin takes Michael Kidd-Gilchrist of the Charlotte Bobcats. This kind of setting where he can just dunk and not have to shoot jumpers or try to draw fouls should suit him. He’s a guy who brings great energy every night and really does impact the game in a lot of ways, but somebody hire that man a shooting coach this summer.

Foster: Bold strategy, Cotton. MKG scared me a little bit coming out, mainly because everyone touted his biggest strength as “being a winner.” It was a little Mateen Cleaves-ish for my taste, but Kidd-Gilchrist should be a really nice rebounder (8.1 boards per 36 minutes already) and defender, if nothing else.

Since I obviously don’t want to miss out on the run on Bobcats players, Team Foster selects Kemba Walker of the Charlotte Bobcats. He’s made huge strides in his second season, and he’s quickly becoming one of the more dangerous pick-and-roll guards in the league. He’ll probably have to play power forward for my team, but that’s alright.


More point guards, you need to pick more point guards. Don’t just go small, go microscopic.

I need some size on my roster — at some point I need to balance all this out — so let’s go with someone who I like but doesn’t really fit this style of game. Team Helin selects Jared Sullinger of the Boston Celtics. I think he’s looked good because he is exactly what the Celtics need and lack up front. This is not his kind of game but he can grab some boards and body up Drummond and make the Boston fans happy. And don’t we all just want to make the Celtics fans happy?

Foster: Look at you being all responsible by filling out your roster properly. I think Sullinger needs to play more minutes next to Kevin Garnett — he’s a great grinder of a big man.

You know where GM’s screw up? They chicken out too easily and don’t follow through with their vision. Let’s keep this thing small, baby! Team Foster selects Chandler Parsons of the Houston Rockets. He plays on the fastest team in the league often as a smallball 4, which seems like a perfect fit for what I’ve got going on. Combine him with Rubio, and my team leads the league in handsome.

Two picks left for you, and two guys named Chris Johnson are still on the board. Coincidence?

Helin: I fear if I select one Chris Johnson first the other will be offended. And I want chemistry on my team, not bruised egos.

No, let’s go back to what we talked about this game being at its core — scoring in an open court with very little defense being played. A gunner’s paradise. And if you look at the last couple of drafts for a pure gunner, one name rises to the top. Team Helin selects Dion Waiters of the Cleveland Cavaliers. I’d say I’d give him the green light, but I’m not convinced he knows there is another color.

One more pick for you, one more chance to choose a point guard, and Austin Rivers is still on the board. Don’t blow this.

Foster: Waiters has the second worst field goal percentage (38 percent) of any rookie that has averaged at least 13.5 field goal attempts a game in the 3-point era. He’s still a talented guy, and one of us had to take him, but I feel like he may take 72 shots in the Rookie-Sophomore game.

I’ll resist the temptation to take a hack at the Rivers pinata, and instead have Team Foster selects Andrew Nicholson of the Orlando Magic. I really like this kid, and he’s a post scorer my team can go to if they get bored of all the easy dunks in transition. I have finally conformed with my last pick, and I’m not proud of myself.

Helin: I really, really wanted to go with PBT favorite Jae Crowder here. I really was tempted. But the fact is he is just slumping too much with his shot to warrant picking him over any number of other guys out there still on the board.

So I will take one more high-flyer, Team Helin takes MarShon Brooks of the Brooklyn Nets. Not because I think he’s playing great, but because his style of play fits this game. He can finish and he should have plenty of clear paths to the basket.

Foster: I almost took Crowder solely so I could have him switch jerseys with Kenneth Faried and see if anyone would notice. I’m also pretty bummed about leaving off dunk machine Terrence Ross, defensive studs Jimmy Butler and Iman Shumpert, and one of my favorite young bigs in John Henson.

Anyway, here are the final rosters:

Team Foster-Kahn: Irving, Drummond, Rubio, Faried, Beal, Leonard, Walker, Parsons, Nicholson
Team Helin-Jorts: Lillard, Davis, Thompson, Barnes, Thomas, MKG, Sullinger, Waiters, Brooks

Not that either of us want the bragging rights or anything…but which team would take it? Would Team Foster run to victory, or would Team Helin punish with their size? Let’s hear it.

It’s not always pretty, but Lakers pick up third straight win


There were stretches in this game where we finally started to see the Lakers we expected to see when this team was put together… well, not exactly what we expected to see because nobody thought Kobe Bryant the facilitator and Steve Nash working off the ball was what would work best. But it does. Kobe had 11 assists (a career best 39 over three games) and it has become contagious. The Lakers ball movement — and movement off the ball — was beautiful basketball. It torched the Hornets defense for long stretches.

Then there were stretches we saw the disappointing Lakers from much of this season. Like blowing an 18-point fourth quarter lead and having to scramble at the end to earn a 111-106 win at home over New Orleans.

Ugly or pretty, they’ll take it. The Lakers need wins and that is three in a row as they head out on the road for seven straight games. Keep playing like this on the road and then we can start to talk playoffs. But not yet.

The ugliest stretch of the game is why the Hornets had to play catch-up in the first place — Monty Williams did a hockey-change and brought in five guys off the bench and they proceeded to 15 consecutive shots. Ryan Anderson missed threes, Jason Smith missed jumpers, Austin Rivers was Austin Rivers. The Lakers rattled off 17 straight points and the Lakers had a lead they would never surrender.

The Lakers offense was impressive — quick ball movement, Pau Gasol making touch passes, Howard rolling toward the rim, Kobe passing out of doubles quickly. To use the Mike D’Antoni phrase, the ball had energy and when it does it finds the open man. That was Earl Clark at times as he had 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting (4-of-5 from three). That was Dwight Howard rolling to the rim and he had 24 points on 13 shots.

All those pretty passes had the Lakers up 98-80 in the fourth, but the Hornets went on 16-2 run — it started against the Lakers bench but when Kobe, Nash and Howard came back in they couldn’t stem the tide. Anthony Davis had three dunks in the run (he is going to be fantastic, he cuts off the ball like a veteran). It was a 4-point game with three minutes to go and got as low as one later.

But Clark got away with camping in the lane and eventually scored an up-and-under at the basket. Then there was a Steve Nash three. And it was a smart play by Antawn Jamison driving out of the corner and hitting a swooping shot in the paint to seal the win.

The Lakers offense was beautiful but had some dry spells. Their defense was spotty but good enough against the Hornets. It’s a win. The Lakers need wins.

But by the time this seven game road trip is over, we will know a lot more about this Lakers team. And we’ll know if they have a shot at the postseason.

NBA Power Rankings: Spurs back in the saddle again

Tony Parker

You know the consistently good Spurs are going to climb into the top spot a couple times during the season. The top four remain the same but we see some teams fall farther down the list while teams like the Wizards and Hornets climb.

source:  1. Spurs (36-11, last week ranked No. 2). They have won eight in a row and have a top five offense and defense. They bring a level of execution to the regular season every other coach covets. So why do I still feel like the elite teams can scheme them out of the playoffs with time to prepare?


source:  2. Thunder (34-11, LW 3). As expected, they beat one Los Angeles team this week and lost to the other… wait, they lost to the Lakers? They went 3-3 on a six game road trip, which feels pretty blah for their standards.


source:  3. Heat (28-13, LW 4). They still seem to be just coasting through games like the Sunday loss to the Celtics. Do that this week against the Nets and Pacers and they will pick up a couple more losses.


source:  4. Clippers (33-13 LW 1). They had lost four in a row before Blake Griffin and the front line took over against the Trail Blazers Sunday night. Chris Paul (bruised knee) keeps missing games and that’s okay, they have Eric Bledsoe. Let CP3 get right.


source:  5. Bulls (26-17, LW 10). Tough road trip that will really test the team starts this week — six games, all against winning teams and the first four against teams from the East (Bucks, Nets, Hawks, Pacers). This is a huge stretch for Chicago.


source:  6. Nets (26-18, LW 8). The big question — does Brook Lopez get called up to take Rajon Rondo’s spot on the All-Star team? David Stern makes the pick and he is not bound by position.


source:  7. Knicks (27-15, LW 5). Raymond Felton’s back and maybe that can mean some easy buckets for Tyson Chandler off the pick-and-roll. But Sunday against Atlanta shows us again that when the Knicks just knock down threes they are dangerous.


source:  8. Nuggets (27-18, LW 9). They have won 8 out of 10, they are playing at a faster pace and Ty Lawson seems to be thriving in that environment. Amazing what a few games in a row at home can do.


source:  9. Grizzlies (28-14, LW 7). Mike Conley tweaked his ankle Sunday but it doesn’t appear to be serious, which is good for a team that’s offense is already dragging the team down. In their last 10 games the Grizzlies have averaged 96.4 points per 100 possessions, 28th in the league for that stretch.


source:  10. Warriors (26-17, LW 11). They beat both the Clippers and the Thunder last week, how about that for a statement? When they focus on defense and rebounding they still do well, but they’ve had some inconsistent moments on that end recently.


source:  11. Pacers (26-18, LW 6). Their eight-game road trip comes to an end Monday in Denver and they have gone 3-4 on it so far (and Denver with it’s fast pace is about the worst place to end a trip on). Back home look for them to rack up a few wins.


source:  12. Hawks (25-18, LW 15). Atlanta is becoming the Utah Jazz of the East — really good at home and really beatable on the road — they have lost 7-of-8 away from home and the one win was against Charlotte. They have four of the next five at home, then 8 of 10 out on the road again.


source:  13. Bucks (23-19, LW 13). In his last five games, Ersan Ilyasova is shooting 53.3 percent overall and 60 percent from three, and that’s been part of the Bucks success under interim coach Jim Boylan. He looks like the Ilyasova from last year smart fantasy players snapped up.


14. Jazz (24-20, LW 14). They are 4-1 in their last five, mostly because the offense really seems to have found its groove. They have six of their next seven at home, where they are 15-4 on the season. This is a good time to solidify a playoff spot for them.


source:  15. Rockets (24-22, LW 17). James Harden will get a heroes welcome as the lone representative of the host Rockets at the 2013 All-Star Game. He’ll get more than that if he can get this team back up into the eighth playoff spot in the West.


source:  16. Trail Blazers (22-22, LW 16). They are stumbling of late, 3-7 in their last 10, and starting Friday they will have seven of eight games on the road. They are one game out of a playoff spot now and can’t slip way back during this upcoming stretch.


17. Celtics (21-23, LW 12). No Rajon Rondo is going to mean a lot of trade rumors and talk of blowing it up, and as much as Doc Rivers will play it down and there is a veteran core on this team, it will be hard for this not to impact them.


source:  18. Mavericks (19-25, LW 18). They are starting to make their push up the standings, but like the Lakers the math is hard for them to climb all the way back into the playoffs.


19. Lakers (19-25, LW 23). The Lakers have won two in a row but now comes the real test — starting Wednesday in Phoenix the Lakers are on the road for seven straight. Any dreams of getting the eight seed (and getting thumped by the Thunder in the first round) hinge on having a good road trip, at the very least 4-3.

source:  20. 76ers (18-25, LW 20). It’s really simple — they are 2.5 games back of the Celtics now and now catching them suddenly looks more possible. But Boston still defends and will not make it easy. Jrue Holiday making the All-Star Game is well deserved, not sure I’d give him Rondo’s starting spot over Kyrie Irving, however.


source:  21. Pistons (17-27, LW 24). They are 5-5 in their last 10 and four games back of the Celtics. Eight of the next 11 Pistons games are in Detroit, if they are going to make a run between now and the All-Star Game is when they need to do it.


source:  22. Raptors (16-28, LW 21). Toronto is playing better of late and that is sparking playoff dreams north of the boarder — but making up five games and leapfrogging two teams (Detroit and Philly) is going to take more than the 4-6 they are in their last 10.


source:  23. Hornets (15-29, LW 25). Something to watch as the Hornets keep picking up wins (like Sunday against Memphis): Anthony Davis to start closing the Rookie of the Year gap on Damian Lillard. Davis is playing smart, efficient basketball and people are starting to notice.


source:  24. Wizards (11-31, LW 26). They are 7-3 in their last 10 and the losses they made the other team work for it — finally healthy they look like a playoff team. Unfortunately injuries dug them too deep a hole to start the season.


source:  25. Cavaliers (13-32, LW 27). Kyrie Irving has this team winning three games in a row and in my book is the guy who should get Rajon Rondo’s starting spot in the All-Star game.


source:  26. Timberwolves (17-24, LW 19). Four game losing streak and they have lost 9 of their last 10. The good news is Rick Adelman is back at the helm as coach, but the Timberwolves woes go well beyond interim coach Terry Porter and straight to the rash of injuries.


27. Kings (16-29, LW 22). They have lost four games in a row and it seems like nobody is noticing because the focus is off the court. On the court Tyreke Evans has played better of late.


source:  28. Suns (15-30, LW 29). Lindsay Hunter is 2-2 as a coach but you can see why he was hired on Sunday — it was an ugly loss but Kendall Marshall played nearly 15 minutes, the most he has in months. It’s about playing the rookies.


source:  29. Bobcats (11-32, LW 30). They have won two of their last five (including one over the one team below them) but have six of their next seven on the road and the only teams below .500 in that stretch are the hot Cavaliers and the Lakers.


source:  30. Magic (14-29, LW 28). J.J. Redick is playing well (31 on Sunday), so expect a whole lot of trade rumors to start flying around him as we move closer and closer to the deadline.

Baseline to Baseline recaps: ‘Melo sparks Knicks win

New York Knicks forward Anthony reacts to hitting a three-point shot against the Atlanta Hawks in the second quarter of their NBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden in New York
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Welcome to PBT’s roundup of yesterday’s NBA games. Or, what you missed while doing the Bernie lean

Lakers 105, Thunder 96: For two consecutive games the Lakers have basically moved Kobe Bryant to the point and put Steve Nash off the ball, and their offense has looked better. We have a lot more detail on this game, our man Brett Pollakoff broke this game down.

Celtics 100, Heat 98 (2OT): It was a dark day for the Celtics, which is too bad because this is the kind of game they could have built on. We broke down the game then we broke down what the Celtics need to do next.

Knicks 106, Hawks 104: Defense? Who wants to see defense? Both teams had offensive ratings of 121 (points per 100 possessions) and the Hawks shot 60 percent for the game. But if you’re going to play a game with just scoring and no defense, you are playing into Carmelo Anthony’s hands — he had 42 points including nine three pointers. Plus, with the game tied late he isolated on Josh Smith, drove around him and got the and-1 layup that won the game for the Knicks.

Josh Smith had his chances to be the hero for Atlanta, but in the games final plays he committed an offensive foul that gave the Knicks the ball back setting up Carmelo’s game winner. Then with time running out he got a good look at a three for the win but missed.

J.R. Smith and Amar’e Stoudemire each added18 points off the bench for New York. Raymond Felton had 12 points and 10 assists. Jeff Teague had 27 points for Atlanta and was aggressive.

Hornets 91, Grizzlies 83: Memphis scored just 15 points in the fourth quarter and that did them in — Memphis is a great defensive team but sometimes that can’t cover for their bad offense. Rudy Gay was 0-of-4 in the fourth (3-of-17 all night), and both Tony Wroten and Jerryd Bayless were 1-of-5 in the final frame. The Hornets got their points from their bench — Ryan Anderson had 22 and Jason Smith 16 leading a bench that scored 55 on the night. Zach Randolph had 20 points and 13 boards for Memphis.

Clippers, 96 Trail Blazers 83: This looked nothing like Saturday’s close Blazers win in the first of this home-and-home, save for the names across the teams’ chests. The Clippers owned the paint in this one, scoring 56 points there and they were led by Blake Griffin, who had 23 points and 9 assists (and didn’t set foot on the court in the fourth quarter). The Clippers pulled away in the third and unlike Saturday (when Los Angeles blew a 9 point lead in the final two minutes) they didn’t let up.

What went wrong for the Blazers? Let us count the ways. Portland scored just 12 points in the fourth quarter. Portland also committed the cardinal sin against the Clippers, turning the ball over 19 times (that fuels L.A.’s fast break). The other big difference from Saturday? Portland couldn’t hit a three to save its life (3-for-15).

Pistons 104, Magic 102: Orlando is now 3-15 with games decided 6 points or less. Some of that is just bad luck, but another reason is what we saw at the end of this game — they don’t have anyone who could create a good shot for himself in crunch time. Detroit did — Will Bynum was slicing into the lane and kicking out to shooters and that was the difference (he had 12 assists on the night.

It was tied 95-95 with three minutes when Bynum drove the lane, kicked out to a wide-open Tayshaun Prince for a three, and he missed it. Jameer Nelson got the rebound and threw a home-run ball lass to E’Twaun Moore for a layup and-1. Next trip down the Pistons missed two more threes but Greg Monroe was grabbing offensive rebounds and eventually found Brandon Knight who knocked down a three, part of his career high 31 points on the night. Next trip down was another three for Knight, this one open from the corner. Moore was getting buckets for the Magic on his way to a career high 18, but the Pistons kept getting better looks late. J.J. Redick, who had 31 on the night, had a shot at a game winner but couldn’t create space for himself and it was contested and never really had a chance.

Mavericks 110, Suns 95: Fourth game in five nights for the Suns and it showed, they looked tired. Credit the Mavs for taking advantage of that — Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion each had 18 points. The Suns made a run and cut the lead to five in the fourth quarter, but that was all the energy they had. Dallas went on a 10-0 run and that was it.

PBT’s NBA Mid-Season Awards: All hail Kevin Durant

Oklahoma City Thunder v Golden State Warriors

It’s the halfway point of the NBA season. To me having a serious discussion about end of season awards before this point is like discussing the 2016 presidential election today — it’s all speculation and wishful thinking.

Now we have enough games to have a body of evidence and a discussion. So here are my picks for all the awards, as things stand at the midway point of the season. I’ll give you my top five for MVP and three for everything else — including team to beat for the NBA title.

1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Chris Paul
4. Carmelo Anthony
5. Kobe Bryant

To me this is a two man race with a gap to the No. 3 spot. Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two best basketball players walking the face of the earth and both are having monster seasons — LeBron is averaging 26.5 points per game on 55 percent shooting, plus 7.1 assists and 6.9 rebounds a game, with a PER of 30.3. Durant is at 29.6 points a game on 52 percent shooting with 7.4 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game with a PER of 29.2. It’s tight.

What puts Durant on top for me is he is leading his team to more consistent play — the Heat appear bored and coasting to wins some nights, the Thunder seem to bring it every night. In the playoffs when the Heat are focused the outcome may be different, but this is a regular season award and I think Durant is getting more out of his team — James Harden was traded, he had to take on more playmaking load and the Thunder are better than last year. So he gets the big award for now.

Rookie of the Year
1. Damian Lillard
2. Anthony Davis
3. Andre Drummond

This is not the runaway some fans think it is — Lillard is putting up 18.3 points and 6.6 assists per game and has taken charge of the Trail Blazers offense, but his defense is not good and his PER of 16.6 reflects some inefficiency in his game. He’s been fantastic, he’s the clear leader halfway home, but there are other good rookies, too.

Anthony Davis is not getting noticed because: 1) He’s on the Hornets and they only make news because they are about to be the Pelicans; 2) He has an unconventional offensive game — he doesn’t have a go-to offensive move, he doesn’t rack up a lot of highlights. What he does is space the floor well, play efficiently, defend well and he’s great on the roll or cutting off the ball. He’s going to be very special soon.

And my god Lawrence Frank, why are you playing so much Jason Maxiell and not so much Andre Drummond? You’re not making the playoffs, develop your young star. Drummond has the best PER among rookies at 22.9.

Sixth Man of the Year
1. Jamal Crawford
2. Jarrett Jack
3. J.R. Smith

This race is still really wide open for me. J.R. Smith puts up big numbers at times but he’s a little too streaky and inefficient for my taste. Jarrett Jack is right there because not only does he come in and anchor the second unit for the Warriors, he is a guy they trust with the ball in his hands at the end of games. He’s got the best PER of the group at 17. But he’s getting outscored pretty heavily by the other two, averaging 12.5 points a game.

Jamal Crawford’s flashy game — he finally practiced dribbling last summer! — fit with the Clippers “new Showtime” style, but the key is he is second on the team in scoring (16.6 points a game) and he leads the best bench unit in the NBA. He has been streaky and inefficient as well, but has had better results.

Defensive Player of the Year
1. Joakim Noah
2. Marc Gasol
3. Chris Paul

This is a tough and deep category — notice I don’t have any Pacers on here and they have the best defense in the land. Paul George easily could be on this list. Chris Paul makes it because he is leading the league in steals (2.6 a game) which is key to a pressure Clippers defense designed to set up fast breaks and highlight alley-oops to Blake Griffin. The Clippers have been good defensively and Paul leads them on that end, too. Marc Gasol is second because… have you watched him or Memphis? He just owns the paint and makes smart reads.

But the top spot goes to the Energizer Bunny that is Joakim Noah — the Bulls are a playoff team without MVP Derrick Rose because Noah has anchored their defense and brings it every night. Tom Thibodeau rightfully gets a lot of credit for what the Bulls do defensively, but it doesn’t work without Noah, who plays the role Kevin Garnett did in the scheme in Boston just as well.

Coach of the Year
1. Mark Jackson
2. Frank Vogel
3. Mike Woodson

Right or wrong, this award generally goes to the coach who exceeded expectations with his team. Woodson has gotten more out of the Knicks and got them to jell in a way Mike D’Antoni simply could not. Frank Vogel has the Pacers playing the best defense in the NBA by being smart and playing to their strengths. The Pacers have been without Danny Granger all season, have watched Roy Hibbert slump all season, and are still right there in the East and getting better.

But the award goes to Mark Jackson. And I’ll take my crow cooked medium rare — I thought this was a bad hire, taking the inexperienced coach out of the broadcast booth and it would backfire. But the fact is once he got a healthy team Jackson’s skill is getting guys to buy in and believe in the system and with that he has the Warriors impressing everyone (they beat the Thunder and Clippers in the last few days). Most importantly, Jackson got them playing good team defense, and that was a huge change.

Teams Most Likely to Win NBA Title This Season
1. Thunder
2. Heat
3. Clippers

When the Heat and Thunder were playing last year, I was saying not to be surprised if we saw that same finals three out of the next five years. It looks as if we might get a rematch this June. The Thunder are better — Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both 24, they are still at the point in their careers where their games make big strides each year. After their first Olympic experience, both came back better playmakers and that helped because when James Harden was traded the Thunder needed them to fill that gap. They did. Throw in the improved Serge Ibaka and good production from Kevin Martin and the Thunder are the team to beat in the West. The one team that can do it — the Clippers. Vinny Del Negro may run simple sets, but when you have Chris Paul letting him make decisions and improvise is smart coaching. Most importantly for the Clippers, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have learned how to defend as a unit on the back line (most of the time) and when the Clippers defend they are hard to beat. They are also much deeper now.

The Heat are coasting to the best record in the East. You only see their pressure defense and full intensity for a quarter here or a half there — but when you do you wonder if anyone can beat them when they are focused. And as we head into the playoffs they will get focused.

(Note: There are no picks for Most Improved Player because I can’t stand the award in concept and how it is usually handed out to a guy who just got more minutes because his coach finally woke up.)