NBA quarter pole awards: Yes, LeBron is the MVP

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We are a quarter of the way into the NBA season, which is far too early to start talking about end of the season awards, playoffs or much of anything else.

I’m going to anyway.

Here are the awards in a few categories as we reach the quarter pole. We’ve got a long back stretch not to mention the final straightaway to go, but right now we’re starting to get a feel for the races (and some other random categories thrown in).

League MVP: LeBron James. A bunch of LeBron haters just read that then used my name in conjuction with some anatomically impossible acts, but it’s the truth — LeBron has been far and away the best player in the league so far. His PER is more than 8-points higher than the guy in second (Kobe Bryant, technically Manu Ginobili is closer but he has been out). Michael Jordan never had a PER this high for an entire season. He is averaging 29.7 points (on 56.4 percent shooting), 8.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists plus a couple of blocks per game. He is getting to the free throw line more, his post game is better, his shot selection is better, his midrange jumper is improved… and he was already the best player in the league. Kobe and Kevin Durant can battle it out for a distant second with a lot of ground to close.

Best team in the league: The Miami Heat. Yes, the Chicago Bulls have played better team defense and have a better record, plus with the addition of Richard Hamilton their offense is vastly improved. Miami has had injuries (Dwyane Wade is still out) but their new up-tempo offense, the addition of Norris Cole and Shane Battier, plus getting Mike Miller healthy means they are still the team to beat. Miami made the finals last year and are better this year. The Bulls and Thunder can make a serious run at them, but watching the Heat get some easy buckets with their new offense makes me think they are still the team holding up the trophy at the end of the year.

Who are the dark horse contenders: Denver in the West, Orlando in the East: Denver is playing fantastic team basketball — fast and good on offense, with impressive ball sharing and balance. If they bring back some of Wilson Chandler, Kenyon Martin and J.R. Smith after the Chinese season ends, they get that much better.

Orlando (despite the off night in Boston) has the best center in the game and has surrounded him with shooters. They run the pick-and-roll well and Ryan Anderson is a perfect fit in the offense (he is four, the guy you want to help off of to Dwight Howard, but he makes you pay for that with his threes). They play good defense and know who they are. If they keep Howard and can survive the rumor mill, they are the team that could threaten the big two in the East in the playoffs (but most likely they are out in the second round, then will Howard stay?).

Most fun team to watch: Minnesota Timberwolves. The Clippers are the obvious choice here — and with Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, D’Andre Jordan and the rest they certainly are a good choice. But I find myself gravitating toward Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and the Timberwolves. They are a team getting better every game and that makes them fun to watch.

Most disappointing team: New York Knicks. I thought going into the season they were the third best team in the East, but not only are they losing they look ugly doing it. Carmelo Anthony is not a point forward and Mike D’Antoni has ill-fitting pieces for his system. They need Baron Davis, and I don’t love Baron Davis as a savior. And somebody start using Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler better in the pick-and-roll, they are beasts. Honorable mention to the Celtics and Lakers.

Rookie of the Year: Ricky Rubio. This is shaping up as a two point guard battle, with Kyrie Irving as the other guy. And certainly Rubio has more talent around him to work with, but he comes in a much more polished floor general and a guy who can command a game. Plus his shot is better than we expected at 37.1 percent from three (the mechanics are still a little odd and shot-put like, but fixable).

Sixth Man of the Year: James Harden. It’s not close. There are the Williamses — Lou in Philly and Mo with the Clippers — who are playing well, but the only way Harden loses this is if Scott Brooks sobers up and moves Harden to the starting lineup.

Coach of the Year: Doug Collins, Philadelphia. This is one where there are few good candidates — Nate McMillan in Portland, Frank Vogel in Indiana, George Karl in Denver — and it is really open. But I’ll go with Collins, who has given Philadelphia a system that has made them the story of the young season.

Thing we’ve not liked this season: Sloppy basketball. The lack of training camp, the condensed schedules leaving less practice time, conditioning, it has all led to much sloppier basketball then we saw in years past. It feels like preseason games far too many nights. It’s not pretty to watch. The blame goes on everyone — owners and players — because they wanted as much money as they could after the lockout and gave us this ugly schedule with ugly, sloppy games. It’s hard to watch at points.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.

Watch Jerry West’s emotional memories of trading for/his relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Jerry West has never understood why people thought he was brilliant for recognizing the talent of a 17-year-old Kobe Bryant coming out of high school. To him it was obvious.

If it had been obvious (and if that era had not frowned on the development that came with drafting high school players), Kobe wouldn’t have been a Laker, and NBA history might be very different.

For West, Kobe was not just another player, he was like a son. West talked about it on the well done TNT special commemorating Kobe Tuesday night.

What those neatly packaged TNT clip does not show is just how difficult and emotional it was for West to talk about Kobe.

West has had a life of incredible highs, but also more lows and pain than many — abused by his father and battling depression his entire life — and this is another emotional tax on the NBA legend.

Joel Embiid returns to Philadelphia rotation after nine-game absence

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When you saw the image of Joel Embiid‘s dislocated ring finger facing a direction no finger should face, you knew he was going to miss some time (even though he had it taped up and returned to that game). Embiid had surgery to repair a torn radial collateral ligament on the ring finger of his left hand. Ultimately he missed nine games while he recovered.

Tuesday night against the Warriors, Embiid will be back.

He will have a soft wrap on his left hand that has been cleared by the league.

Philadelphia went 6-3 while Embiid was out.

Ben Simmons stepped up — in his last five games (before Tuesday) he averaged 24 points a game on 70.6 percent shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 8.6 assists a game. Without Embiid in the paint or taking up touches, Simmons took over the offense and looked much more comfortable in his role.

However, the Sixers’ offensive rating in those nine Embiid-less games was 104.9, 29th in the NBA (even in the last five it was 103.2, still 29th in the league). Simmons may have been playing better but the offense was not.

When Simmons and Embiid share the court this season, their offensive rating is 106.7 — not great, but better than without Embiid playing.

Victor Oladipo returns to Pacers Wednesday, likely off bench with minutes limit

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Indiana has gone 30-17 this season and sits as the five seed in the Eastern Conference — and Wednesday they get their best player back.

Victor Oladipo — the former Most Improved Player and All-NBA team member who has been out for most of a year with a right quad tendon rupture — practiced with the Pacers on Tuesday and, as expected, will make his return to the court Wednesday night against the Bulls.

Coach Nate McMillan would not say how he planned to use Oladipo but, considering the minutes limit, off the bench seems the most likely move. McMillan said the team would revisit the minutes and role after the All-Star break.

While Milwaukee has separated itself atop the East, the next five teams — Miami, Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Indiana — are all within 2.5 games of each other and could end up in any order. If Oladipo can return close to the All-NBA form he was in prior to his injury, the Pacers become a big threat to break out of that group. If nothing else, they become a much tougher out in the postseason.