We’ve played 20 games, let’s give out some awards

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There’s a lot of people around the league that say you don’t really know much until you’re about 20 games into an NBA season, then the patterns have established themselves.

Well, we’re about 20 games in now, one quarter of the season gone. Patterns are established. So…

Let’s give out some first-quarter awards to players and teams. Take stock of the league.

Most Valuable Player

1. Chris Paul (PG, New Orleans Hornets). This race is going to be interesting because the preseason frontrunners — Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant — are around but kind of a step back right now. They are behind Chris Paul, who is healthy and back to being one of the league’s dominant players. The rest of the Hornets roster isn’t that good, but they look it when Paul is setting the table. We’re overlooking the Hornets recent slide — for now.

2. Dwight Howard, (C, Orlando Magic). The guy gets overlooked every season, but he is the anchor in the middle on a contending team. A defensive force. And before you say, “he doesn’t have enough offensive moves” I suggest you go watch his play again this season. Best he has played in his career so far.

3. Russell Westbrook (PG, Oklahoma City Thunder). Durant who? Okay, maybe it’s not quite that bad but early on this season the Thunder have been Westbook’s team. He is attacking in transition, making shots, setting up teammates and has the second best PER in the league. He’s in the mix.

Others in the mix: Kobe, LeBron, Manu Ginobili, Dirk Nowitzki, Al Horford and Deron Williams.

Biggest Disappointment (Player)

1. John Salmons (G, Milwaukee Bucks). This is very subjective because it is based more on expectations than anything. And Salmons is getting scapegoated here for a disappointing Milwaukee team. But the last two seasons he was the guy traded at the deadline that sparked his new team into the playoffs. Last season with the Bucks he scored 19.9 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, this season he is averaging 12.6 points on 36.9 percent. Injuries are a part of that, but still.

2. Yao Ming (C, Houston Rockets). Again hopes and expectations dashed by injury. Not that this is his fault, it’s just disappointing.

3. Tyreke Evans (G, Sacramento Kings). His reworked jump shot is no better than his old one so far, he is attacking less, and he is at the helm of the worst team in the NBA right now. Again, injuries play a pretty big role.

Others in the mix: Joe Johnson, Terrence Williams, Brendan Haywood… really, we could go on forever here.

Rookie Of The Year

1. Blake Griffin (PF, Los Angeles Clippers). This would be a runaway right now. Not that other rookies haven’t been good, but Blake has been just a beast scoring inside, rebounding, running in transition. Oh, the highlight reel dunks are in there too.

2. John Wall (PG, Washington Wizards). We all knew he’s a blur with the ball, but Phil Jackson made a good point about him before the Lakers game Tuesday — Wall is just starting to figure out his spots on the floor in the NBA. Every scorer has his spots he wants to get to, Wall is just discovering his, and as he does his shooting numbers will improve.

3. Landry Fields (SG, New York Knicks). Steal of the draft. Out on the West Coast we saw plenty of this Stanford product and thought “he’ll make a nice rotation player in a few years” but he is starting for the resurgent Knicks, giving them 11 points and 7.5 boards a game, and is just playing smart ball. Some guys just get how to fit in the NBA faster.

Most Disappointing Rookie

1. Evan Turner (G, Philadelphia 76ers). He was supposed to be the guy with the NBA-ready game who could slide right in and play. Maybe not the ceiling of others, but he could play now. Or not. He’s not sure how to fit in the system, Doug Collins doesn’t seem to know how to use him, but if he would just make some shots (41 percent overall and 1 of 11 from three) things would look better.

Others in the mix: Nobody is really close to Turner here. Some slow starters but you see potential elsewhere that Turner has yet to show.

Most Surprising Team/Coach of the year

1. San Antonio Spurs/Gregg Popovich. We lump these two together because the coach of the year is usually the guy whose team surprised us the most by exceeding expectations. And so far that is the Spurs – we knew they would be good and solid, but so far they look like contenders. They are pressing the tempo with Tony Parker, forcing turnovers, and counting less on Tim Duncan and more on their fantastic guard play. We’ll see if they can stay healthy, but 20 games in they are the biggest surprise because they are such a threat.

2. New York Knicks/Mike D’Antoni. Hey, who knew — you can run an up-tempo offense in the East. Well, of course you can, it’s a matter of having the talent to do it, and with Amar’s Stoudemire and the fast-improving in the system Raymond Felton the Knicks now have it. Wilson Chandler and others are playing their roles well. The schedule has been soft, but they have been better than advertised so far.

3. New Orleans Hornets/Monty Williams. If one team is really going to fall from this list, my pick is the Hornets. Not because of Chris Paul or the players so much — although the roster’s limitations will catch up with them — so much as teams going through ownership turmoil just tend to crumble.

Just missing out: Indiana Pacers/Jim O’Brien.

Most Disappointing Team

1. Milwaukee Bucks. How does a team with Brandon Jennings, John Salmons, Andrew Bogut and Corey Maggette have the worst offense in the NBA? Yes there have been injuries but this team has been flat out ugly to watch.

2. Portland Trail Blazers. Injuries are the reason here — another season lost for Greg Oden and Brandon Roy’s knees will never be right — but that doesn’t make it any less disappointing. Hopes were high.

3. Houston Rockets. Again injuries, to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks have hurt. But even when they have played this team just has not molded together well.

Some quick hits on my other votes (well, if I had a vote):

Defensive Player of the Year: Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic. (Kevin Garnett is close behind.)

Sixth Man of the Year: Wilson Chandler, New York Knicks. (Jason Terry will probably win it, and he has earned it, but I wanted to vote for someone different).

Most Improved Player: Roy Hibbert, Indiana Pacers.

Report: Sixers want first rounder, have shot down multiple trades for Markelle Fultz

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What’s going on with Markelle Fultz? That’s the question everyone wants to know not only in the Philadelphia 76ers organization, but around the NBA.

The former No. 1 overall pick has struggled with his shot the last two seasons, and his recent diagnosis of the thoracic outlet syndrome isn’t the end of the story. Teams have reportedly been asking around about Fultz, and there have even been some denials about which teams are interested in the young guard.

This week Candace Buckner published an excellent profile of Fultz and some potential issues caused for him by an over-domineering inner circle. That profile also had sourced information from Buckner saying that the Sixers continue to field trade calls from interested parties for Fultz.

Via Washington Post:

While the Sixers pledge to support their player in his recovery process and are believed to have a relationship with Brothers and Fultz’s inner circle, the organization has been protective in its own way. According to people in the league, the Sixers have rejected multiple trade offers for Fultz. It’s not just that Philadelphia remains hopeful of getting Fultz on track to be a star in Philadelphia — much like prior top picks Ben Simmons and Embiid, who both missed their rookie seasons because of injuries. The Sixers have not received trade offers with what they believe to be equal value, a telling sign that indicates how other teams in the league view Fultz and the rocky start to his career.

If you are a fan looking in from the outside, this tells you two things. First, that no matter how much a player appears to be damaged goods, NBA GMs will do their due diligence and make a call to see if they can nab a player on the cheap.

Second, it lets you know that Fultz’s value right now is only at that “first call” level. Fultz showed a lot of promise during one season with the University of Washington, and that’s enough for Philadelphia to hold out on trading him for spare parts at this juncture. When we start getting word of teams sending actual, meaningful offers, that might give us a sort of triangulated idea of his stock around the league (and perhaps his recovery).

The Sixers’ asking price, for the moment, remains high. According to Philly.com’s Keith Pompey, 76ers brass are looking for a first round pick as part of the exchange in any Fultz deal. What that translates to is, Philadelphia isn’t ready to deal just yet.

Via Philly.com:

The ownership group also isn’t in total agreement with what do with Fultz, according to league sources.

A league source said the Sixers don’t want to part ways with Fultz unless a first-round pick is packaged in a deal for him. And they’re not talking about a late first-rounder, either.

League executives believe the Sixers will settle for less as it gets closer to the Feb. 7 trade deadline, because there really isn’t a trade market for Fultz right now. There’s too much skepticism surrounding his shooting woes and his shoulder issues.

Fultz is due $9.7 million next season but then has a player option for 2020-21 of $12.2 million. Since the Sixers still have time, we might be hanging around for a while to see Fultz in any other jersey outside of Philly.

What was Klay Thompson trying to say during this interview?

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In-game interviews are both an interesting layer of texture that adds depth to a TV broadcast and perhaps a distracting commitment for those playing or coaching in an NBA game.

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised when things like this happen.

As the Golden State Warriors took on the Sacramento Kings on Friday night, Klay Thompson was pulled aside for an in-game interview with our friends over at NBC Sports Bay Area. Thompson was asked a question by Kerith Burke about ball movement leading to 3-pointers. Thompson was apparently in need of some sports drink because his answer was a little loopy.

Here’s what Thompson said in response to Burke:

“It’s great on both si— uh. It’s great, both of them are great. And we’re getting out and pushing them on the pace. That’s when we’re at our best.”

I’m not sure what I can parse from that. Maybe you can do better?

Thompson had 27 points, nine rebounds, and three assists in the win over the Kings, 130-125.

Raptors, Nuggets to face off in game between conference leaders

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Sunday night’s marquee matchup in the NBA features the top teams in the Eastern and Western Conference.

No, it’s not Boston vs. Golden State, as many would expect. Instead, Toronto and Denver lead their respective conferences a third of the way through the season.

The Raptors (23-8) come into Sunday’s matchup in Denver banged up, but they have company. The Nuggets are missing three starters from opening night but have been able to push through for their best start in decades.

Denver (19-9) leads the Western Conference this late in the season for the first time despite not having forward Paul Millsap (broken toe), guard Gary Harris (hip) and forward Will Barton (core muscle surgery). Coach Michael Malone has dug deep into his bench and found some production.

Most notable among the players stepping up is third-year forward Juancho Hernangomez. The Spaniard has played well this season, including 16 points in a key win over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

He also had a big block in the final seconds of a 100-98 win over Golden State in the third game of the season.

“Juancho always plays extremely hard,” Malone told reporters after Friday’s win. “I think in his first two years he was playing very hard but not a lot of discipline. He was just all over the place. I think he’s calming down, he’s understanding who he’s guarding, tendencies, he’s having a lot more discipline within the game plan.”

Toronto has also adjusted to injuries, but it will be tested without center Jonas Valanciunas, who underwent surgery on his dislocated left thumb Thursday and is expected to miss four to six weeks.

Forward Kawhi Leonard scored 28 Friday night at Portland after missing two games with a hip injury, and guard Kyle Lowry is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game with a thigh injury. He didn’t play against the Trail Blazers two nights after having 23 points and 12 assists in a win at Golden State.

Lowry had been struggling a bit before the win over the Warriors, which was a surprise to teammate Fred VanVleet.

“It’s unusual to see a guy who plays at a high level like that go through slumps,” VanVleet told reporters earlier in the week.

“But it comes and goes. It was just shot-making, really. It wasn’t like he wasn’t showing effort. He was probably frustrated he wasn’t making shots, but that comes and goes, and he’s right back where we want him, and where we need him to be.”

VanVleet had 21 points and eight assists Friday and likely will be tasked with trying to contain Denver point guard Jamal Murray.

The job of containing Nuggets center Nikola Jokic should fall to Serge Ibaka or Pascal Siakam, but not many have been able to contain the Serbian.

Toronto will be looking for some revenge, too. The Nuggets snapped the Raptors’ eight-game winning streak with a 106-103 victory on Dec. 3. Jokic had a triple-double and Lowry missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have tied it.

Denver had Millsap and Harris in that game but won’t have either Sunday.

Jabari Parker says he doesn’t expect benching to be permanent

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Jabari Parker is no longer a part of the Chicago Bulls lineup, and he is reportedly available in a trade.

Parker was taken out of the Bulls regular rotation after their game against the Orlando Magic this week, and it was just another odd story coming out of the Windy City. In addition to the Parker saga, the team has also fired their coach and had a player-organized protest of his replacement.

The Chicago native is the highest paid player on the Bulls roster, but his short time with the team has been rocky. He’s not been the player the Bulls want, and his attitude hasn’t been great, which led to his benching. For his part, Parker told media that he didn’t think his removal from the lineup would be permanent.

Via Chicago Tribune:

“I’m not expecting it to be (permanent),” Parker said. “Everybody is telling me the truth and that’s just to stay ready. They’re not telling me things I want to hear. They’re not pointing fingers. And personally, I know I’ve done my job to embrace Jim as the head coach. I’ve been nothing but welcoming of him. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”

It’s hard to say for certain what will happen with Parker, but it does seem at this juncture that he’s more likely to be traded than he is to be reinserted into the Chicago lineup.

Then again, it will be difficult to trade Parker for anything substantive. His deal is expiring after this season, with a team option for next, but it comes at a whopping at $20 million price tag. That will be hard for teams to swallow, and the best choice for the Bulls might be just to eat Parker’s deal for this season and keep their cap flexibility for next.