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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

Shareef Abdur-Rahim to take over as president of the G-League

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You likely remember Shareef Abdur-Rahim as No. 3 overall pick in the 1996 Draft out of Cal who went on to play a dozen seasons in the NBA, even making an All-Star Team in 2002 as a member of the Atlanta Hawks.

Since his playing days, he has stayed in basketball. He was the GM of the G-League’s Reno Bighorns, assistant general manager of the Sacramento Kings, and most recently has been the NBA’s vice president of basketball operations. He’s climbed the ladder fast at age 42.

Now he will take over as president of the G-League, the NBA announced Tuesday. Abdur-Rahim replaces Malcolm Turner, who is leaving the position to take over as the athletic director at Vanderbilt University.

“I am thrilled to have this extraordinary opportunity with the NBA G League,” Abdur-Rahim said in a released statement. “I’ve seen firsthand the NBA G League’s remarkable growth under Malcolm’s leadership, and I look forward to working with the players, teams and my colleagues to take the league to even greater heights.”

“Shareef’s unique experiences as a player, team executive and member of the NBA’s Basketball Operations department make him a fantastic fit to be the next President of the NBA G League,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in a statement.

The NBA is working to turn the G-League into a true minor league where teams develop players — they have had success in the past year with two-way contracts bringing us guys such as the Knicks’ Allonzo Trier — as well as making the league a real option for young players leaving high school who don’t see a year or two in college as a fit for them. It’s also where the league experiments with rule changes before putting them in action in the NBA, such as resetting the shot clock to 14 (instead of 24) after an offensive rebound.

For Abdur-Rahim, running the G-League could prove to be another stepping stone in his career.

 

 

Anthony Davis hears your cheers, reiterates he wants to win in New Orleans

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When Anthony Davis was introduced and stepped on the court at the Boston Garden Monday night, Celtics fans did their best to recruit him and show their love.

Davis has gotten the same reaction in Los Angeles and other cities. If the Pelicans ever decide they have to trade him — something that will not happen until this summer, if it happens at all — or if he decides to leave the Big Easy as a free agent in 2020, the Celtics, Lakers and every other team in the NBA will be lined up for the chance to get a transformational player entering his peak.

Davis has heard the cheers. He knows the situation. He knows every other fan base in the NBA covets him.

And he reiterated again Monday night — after his squad fell to a shorthanded Celtics team — that what he really wants to do is win In New Orleans. Davis told Tim Bontemps of ESPN he thinks the Pelicans can repeat or improve on their trip to the second round from last season.

“For sure,” he said after scoring 41 points to go with 7 rebounds in Monday’s loss. “We had everybody healthy the first four games, and we went 4-0. Then Elfrid [Payton] goes down, I’ve been out a couple games, Niko [Mirotic] … a lot of guys have been out. Every time we’ve had a full roster, we’ve been a tough team to beat….

“I heard it tonight,” the 25-year-old said when asked if he heard the local fans cheering for him during the game. “But I’m just focused on this team. I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team get wins with the roster we have. It’s been a rocky season, so it’s on me to try to figure it out….

“So for me, I just go out there and play with this team and go out there and try to have fun and get wins. That’s all I’m worried about is getting wins for this team and hopefully we can get further than we did last year.”

The 14-15 Pelicans sit as the current 10 seed in the West, just two games out of the final playoff slot. If they can get healthy, if they can string some wins together they can certainly make the playoffs. There it will become all about matchups, but the Pelicans showed last season that behind Davis they have the talent to advance.

Will that be enough for the competitive Davis, who wants to take his seat with the best in the game today?

Only Davis knows, and all he has ever said is he wants to win in New Orleans.

Come July 1, the Pelicans will offer Davis the designated veteran max extension, which is in the ballpark of $230 million (or more) over five years. That’s more than any other team will be able to offer him, and it’s A LOT of money. Not something someone walks away from lightly. He may well re-sign in New Orleans (he would sacrifice $33 million guaranteed if traded to another team and he re-signs there, he would give up $84 million guaranteed to leave as a free agent).

If Davis and new agent Rich Paul say no to the contract extension, then the Battle Royale to trade for his services would be on. Probably. Would the Pelicans trade him or try to woo him for another season, players like this don’t come around often? Would Davis try to exert control over the trade process saying he would only re-sign with certain teams? Would a team roll the dice with an over-the-top offer thinking that they could win him over (sort of like OKC did with Paul George and Toronto did with Kawhi Leonard)? There are a lot of variables.

But that is all just speculation. Right now, Davis is just trying to win with the Pelicans.

Jimmy Butler says he shot only once while leading Timberwolves’ third-stringers to practice win over starters

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Fed up with Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins not matching his competitiveness, fed up with the Timberwolves for not trading him yet and apparently fed up with being told he must practice… Jimmy Butler unleashed hell during a scrimmage before the season.

Butler reportedly arrived late, led third-stringers to a win over the starters, talked smack and then left early. The Minnesota practice instantly became legendary.

And we didn’t even realize the full extent of Butler’s showing.

Butler, via The Ringer:

The most interesting detail of that whole scrimmage that nobody knows: I only shot the ball once.

Oh, I was dominating, but I only shot the ball once. Dimes, boom, boom, boom. Steals, blocks. I only shot the ball one time.

That is peak Jimmy Butler. He is so good. Though he’s a quality scorer, he affects the game in so many ways. Nearly all stars are excellent with the ball, but the ones who contribute to winning without the ball give their team an extra edge.

Butler has those skills, and it allows 76ers teammates like Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid more room to operate in their comfort zones. With so many questions raised about Butler as a teammate, I’d take him on my team any day.

NASA offers Stephen Curry tour or lunar labs after claim we didn’t land on the moon

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In the pantheon of really terrible conspiracy theories, the one that the moon landing was faked is right up there with “the earth is flat” and Pizzagate in their level of provable idiocy.

Yet, Stephen Curry said he was down with the idea that we did not go to the moon. Rockets GM Daryl Morey even knocked Curry for that one.

NASA has invited Curry for a tour of one of their lunar labs (maybe that was what Curry was going for all along).

“We’d love for Mr. Curry to tour the lunar lab at our Johnson Space Center in Houston, perhaps the next time the Warriors are in town to play the Rockets,” Allard Beutel, a NASA spokesman, said in a statement to NBC News…

“During his visit, he can see first-hand what we did 50 years ago, as well as what we’re doing now to go back to the Moon in the coming years, but this time to stay,” Beutel said.

NASA sent six rockets to the moon between 1969 and 1972 with a dozen American astronauts walking on the moon’s surface. It’s really not up for debate, it happened. If you choose not to believe it, it really says more about you than the facts. Which is the saddest part about this for Curry (and his fans).

That said, he is the master of PR spin, look for Curry to make a positive out of this somehow.

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