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

Raptors hire Spurs video coordinator, who just happens to be Kawhi Leonard friend

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Jeremy Castleberry played his high school ball in Riverside, California, on the same team as Kawhi Leonard. When Leonard went on to San Diego State for college, Castleberry went too and was a walk-on for that team.

When the Spurs drafted Leonard, it was not long before Castleberry was a video coordinator and on the staff in San Antonio. Now Leonard is a Raptor so… you know what’s coming. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN explained it well.

The Toronto Raptors are hiring San Antonio Spurs staffer Jeremy Castleberry — a close friend of Kawhi Leonard — to a position on their coaching staff, league sources told ESPN.

Castleberry has worked with Leonard as a Spurs staffer and played with Leonard in high school and at San Diego State, where he was a walk-on.

Is this alone going to keep Leonard a Raptor next summer when he’s a free agent? No. But this is how the game is played — make the star player you’re recruiting feel comfortable, wanted, a key part of everything. Bringing in a friend to a new city for him fits right into that plan.

The smart money is still on Leonard bolting next summer to go to Los Angeles, but if the Raptors are able to change his mind — ala Paul George — it will not be one big thing but a thousand little ones. And a lot of wins. But hiring Castleberry is a start.

Brandon Jennings signs to play in Russia next season

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Brandon Jennings has just never been the same since his 2015 torn Achilles. He hasn’t shot over 40 percent from the floor for a season since then, he hasn’t moved well defensivly, and he had a PER of 19.3 the season it was torn and it’s never been above 13.7 for a season since then. In the past couple of seasons he has played in the G-League and China, and he played 14 games at the end of the season for the Bucks last campaign.

This summer, there were no offers. He is now headed to Russia, according to multiple reports, including EuroHoops.net. He will play for Zenit St Petersburg.

He’s only 28 years old, there is time for him find a way to make his game fit into the NBA landscape again. He’s just not there yet, and maybe the opportunity in Russia will lead him there. If not, he’s still getting paid to play at a high level.

Some owners reportedly want access to mental health files of players

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If you read one thing NBA related today, it should be the first installment of Jackie MacMullan’s brilliant series at ESPN on the mental health of players and staffs in the NBA, and how the league is handling it. MacMullan not only got Kevin Love and Paul Pierce to open up about their challenges, but she also got into the challenges the league faces in confronting this issue head-on.

One such challenge: Owners wanting access to players mental health “files.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, players union executive director Michelle Roberts and their respective teams are reportedly working on a new mental health policy for the league. Privacy is going to be a big part of that. From MacMullan:

Yet there remain many obstacles to confront, chief among them the stigma attached to mental health that prompts many players to suffer in silence. The union also insists that mental health treatment be confidential, but some NBA owners, who in some cases are paying their players hundreds of millions of dollars, want access to the files of their “investments.” That is not, however, the league’s position. “The NBA fully supports protecting the confidentiality of players’ mental health information and, accordingly, committed to the players association that any mental health program we undertake would do so,” NBA spokesman Mike Bass says.

Confidentiality, says Love, has to be non-negotiable. Without it, he says, he never would have become comfortable enough to announce from that All-Star dais that he was seeking treatment.

Those files must be private. This is different from a torn knee ligament or sprained ankle (and on those we have HIPPA laws for good reason). For one, this is something more unpredictable in treating. Second, it comes back to the stigma of mental health issues and how the information about them might be used.

That stigma still exists, both in society and the NBA — McMullan gets into the players and their wives talking behind Love’s back All-Star weekend, and the players currently seeking treatment who do not want it public. The “real men don’t talk about this” mentality is everywhere, but it has fertile ground in professional sports locker rooms where players see themselves as invincible.

That mentality, that stigma will be the hardest thing to change in altering the culture of mental health issues in the NBA. There are no easy answers here. Does anyone think the owners who want access to those files wouldn’t use against the player in negotiations (never underestimate an owner’s effort to gain leverage)?

The players’ union will not allow that in whatever the framework is for the leagues’ new mental health policy. Nor should they.

Love, DeMar DeRozan, Royce White and others broke barriers stepping forward into the spotlight to discuss their challenges. But there are a lot of barriers still up, and a lot of work for both the NBA and society to do on this front. And privacy must be part of that.

Rebuilding Hawks add depth by signing Daniel Hamilton, Alex Poythress.

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ATLANTA (AP) — The rebuilding Atlanta Hawks have added depth by signing guard-forward Daniel Hamilton and forward Alex Poythress.

Poythress was signed to a two-way contract, so the former Kentucky player will split his time with the Hawks’ G League Erie team.

Hamilton is on a fully guaranteed one-year contract after impressing the Hawks playing for the Thunder Summer League team. He averaged 2 points in six games with Oklahoma City last season while on a two-way contract with the Thunder. He spent most of the season with the G League Oklahoma City Blue.

Poythress averaged 1 point in 25 games with Indiana last season. He began the season on a two-way contract.