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

Warriors reveal reversible championship rings (VIDEO)

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The Golden State Warriors received their championship rings on Tuesday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, even with Patrick McCaw not in attendance.

The 2017-18 NBA champions have grabbed three titles in four years, and as such you’d expect them to get inventive with their hardware at this point.

Enter this season’s championship ring.

The Warriors revealed the ring’s design on social media on Tuesday, and it has one very specific feature. Specifically, the center area of the ring is completely reversible.

Check it out:

Championship rings are objectively ugly, gaudy things. But if someone offered you one, you certainly wouldn’t turn it down. Everyone wants to have a championship under their belt, and having a ridiculous ring with 74 diamonds in it and a twist-off top is just wild.

Glen Taylor says Tom Thibodeau’s job isn’t in danger

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Jimmy Butler is a member of the Minnesota Timberwolves, at least until the team finds a suitable trade partner. It seems the talks between the Wolves and the Miami Heat have gone dormant, and there isn’t an openly-interested party in sight.

Meanwhile, Butler is attending practices and is expected to play in the first game of the year for Minnesota against the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. As the team looks for trade partners, the question remains what will happen with head coach Tom Thibodeau. Things have quickly gone south under his watch, and many are calling for his firing from the outside.

In a conversation with the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, which Taylor owns, Taylor said that Thibodeau’s job is safe.

Via Star-Tribune:

Thibodeau has three years left on a five-year contract worth about $40 million. Is he coaching for his job?

“No, no, the only thing now is that we are starting to play games and I am asking him to concentrate on coaching,” Taylor said. “GM Scott Layden will help to see if any trades are available.”

Is Taylor still happy he hired Thibodeau in April 2016?

“Yes, yes, he is a good coach and I have faith in him,” he said.

Meanwhile Taylor says that he’s not thinking about selling the team, and that they will try to grit themselves through from here on out.

It’s a tougher Western Conference this year, and it was already up in the air whether the Timberwolves were going to be a playoff team. Now, it seems as though they are destined to miss the postseason yet again after making it last year.

Three Things to Know: Jayson Tatum is a star. Markelle Fultz…

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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. It’s good to have real basketball back — let’s get to it.

1) Kyrie who? Jayson Tatum is the star Boston was waiting for on opening night. So… anyone still want to argue Danny Ainge didn’t own the Sixers when he traded away the No. 1 pick to move back two spots and get Jayson Tatum?

Boston had stumbled its way through the preseason (to put it kindly) and the main issue then followed the team into the regular season: Adding Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward back into the lineup was not going to be simple plug-and-play. Irving missed his first eight shots and ended the night 2-of-14 from the floor. Hayward was 4-of-12 and it’s clear he still lacks explosion on his first step. Those two will be fine, eventually, but there is a lot of work to do.

What the Celtics have is depth. And Jayson Tatum.

Tatum picked up right where he left off in last season’s playoffs dropping 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting, and showing off his improved handles. Just ask Joel Embiid.

Boston leaned on Tatum (28.6 percent usage rate, higher than he ever had playing with Irving last year) and the fact they were willing to go to him is a good sign. Not only will the Celtics need Tatum while Irving and Hayward settle back in, but if Boston really is going to be a threat to Golden State they will need him to be elite.

It wasn’t just Tatum that was working in Boston. Marcus Morris had 16 points off the bench, and Terry Rozier was fantastic with 11 points and a +22. Al Horford is not Boston’s best player but he is their most important — he played great defense in the paint with five blocks, scored nine points, and just did whatever needed to be done to get the win. He is the glue that makes the whole thing work.

Don’t read much into Game 1 of 82, but for Celtics fans this was the kind of win that can fuel very big dreams.

2) Can the Sixers just blame everything on the China trip? Off-the-record (and occasionally on it), every team that does the NBA’s annual preseason trip to China complains when they get back about how it throws them off for weeks into the regular season. The Warriors felt that way last season, but I’ve had that conversation with a lot of teams who have made that trip. NBA owners love the idea of going (and expanding their franchise brand in that massive market) until they do it once and see the impact on their team when the games matter.

It would be nice to blame the Sixers struggles opening night on that.. but their problems against the Celtics were bigger than frequent flier miles in the preseason.

It starts with Markelle Fultz — his jumper is simply not a threat, defenders are backing off of him because of it, and Fultz is not yet confident attacking into that space. What that leads to is a clogged halfcourt offense. This isn’t a new concern, a lot of people (myself included) wondered before the season how the Sixers starting lineup would work having Fultz, Ben Simmons (not a jump shooter) and Joel Embiid (he can hit threes but needs to be in the paint primarily) on the court together. We saw it a lot in the first half — it was tough to make post entry passes to Embiid because defenders backed off Simmons and Fultz and took away the pass, daring them to shoot.

Fultz, Embiid, and Simmons were on the court for 14.3 minutes in this game and during that time the Sixers shot 38.7 percent overall and 18.2 percent from three. To be fair, they were +1 as a team in those minutes, but the offense struggled. It’s just one game, but Fultz showed that while he has made strides in improving his jumper, he’s not yet back to where he was.

The Sixers need another shot creator off the dribble besides Simmons and the underrated T.J. McConnell. By the fourth quarter Tuesday it seemed Landry Shamet was getting minutes that could have gone to Fultz — and he should have. Shamet played well.

It’s a long season and what matters is where Fultz is come March and April, not October. That’s a long time from now, but he has a long way to go.

3) Dennis Schroder may be what Oklahoma City needs off the bench. Schroder, in his first game for the Thunder (after five seasons in Atlanta), was thrust into the starting lineup Tuesday night because Russell Westbrook isn’t yet cleared after having his knee scoped in the offseason. In that starting role, Schroder was up and down — defensively he was asked to track Stephen Curry at times and Steph dropped 32 on the night.

But offensively, once he is coming off the bench with the second unit, this may be a fantastic fit. Schroder finished with 21 points (on 19 shots) and had nine assists on opening night, showing his value as a shot creator.

Things were not perfect — he shot 4-of-12 from the midrange, which is both a low percentage and too many shots from there — but the potential is there. He was hitting spot-up looks and played defense at times.

Westbrook will be back soon (possibly even Friday against the Clippers in Los Angeles) and when he is Schroder goes to the bench. If he accepts that role and creates shots the same way with the second unit (and just shoots a little better, something that will come, he had a solid 51.5 true shooting percentage last year) he could be a Sixth Man of the Year candidate leading that unit.

Warriors get rings, still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and that’s too much for OKC

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For Oklahoma City, this game was encouraging. Paul George had 27 points and five assists, pushing the Thunder in the second half, but that was almost expected with Russell Westbrook out (still recovering from off-season knee surgery). What was more encouraging was Dennis Schroder‘s 21 points, 9 rebounds, and six assists, he is going to be a valuable shot creator for this team off the bench. It was encouraging to see Steven Adams looking solid with 17 points and 11 boards. It was encouraging to see a couple of threes from Alex Abrines off the bench. The Thunder put up a fight.

However, there are no moral victories.

The Warriors won on opening night in Oakland and it didn’t even feel like they had to break a sweat.

Stephen Curry dropped 32 points, reminded everyone he is a master of getting space for his shot off the pick-and-roll, and he hit five threes. Kevin Durant had 27 points and was the guy who took on the defensive responsibility for George much of the night (and did an okay job, but struggled following him on off-ball picks). And the new center combination of Damian Jones (12 points on 6-of-7 shooting, three blocked shots) and Kevon Looney (10 points, good game on both ends and was +22) held down the center spot reasonably well.

It was a good night for the Warriors. First they got their championship rings.

Then started out the season with a 108-100 win.

The one concern for the Warriors was Andre Iguodala leaving the game in the second quarter with what was described as a tight left calf, and he did not return.

Mostly though, the Warriors won this game the way they will win a lot more this season — because they have more talent than the team they are playing and can overwhelm them. Klay Thompson was cold (1-of-8 from three, but it doesn’t matter if one of the scorers goes cold because another one will step up. That was Curry.

The game was a bit sloppy, as first games of the season tend to be. But for both teams, there were good takeaways, positives they can build on as they go through the remaining 81 games.

It’s just the Warriors have a lot more talent on the roster, so they start 1-0.