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.

Everything big and small goes right for DeMarcus Cousins in Warriors debut

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LOS ANGELES — It was the little things.

Not that DeMarcus Cousins’ overall line — he fouled out with 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting, 3-of-4 from three, six rebounds, three assists, one block, and he was +21, all in 15 minutes — was bad at all. In fact, it was pretty damn good. In his first game in nearly a year, Cousins looked like a slightly rusty version of himself. All the trademarks were there, from hitting threes to complaining about calls.

Cousins made the Warriors better from the moment he stepped on the court, and while the big things were obvious it was the little things should worry any challenger to the crown. For example:

• Cousins’ ability to not just score but to be a playmaker out of the midpost adds a new dimension to the Warriors offense.

• Cousins provides versatility to sets the Warriors already run regularly. For example, in the third quarter, he was the guy making the entry pass on the double-screen play the Warriors like, with Draymond Green in the post and Klay Thompson curing off the screens. Cousins set a hard screen that freed Thompson up for a clean look.

• He gives them another three-point shooter, one that creates matchup problems for defenses. The Clippers chose to chase Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson over picks and play on top of them, but that means the big has to drop back and protect against backcuts and drives. Do that with Cousins off the ball and he’s wide open for threes.

“I want to know what the scouting report is on me,” Cousins joked about how open he was from deep.

• Cousins is strong on the offensive glass and that’s going to lead to more kick-out threes for Golden State’s shooters.

• Cousins also gives the Warriors some defense. He’s a big body in the paint who knows how to get in the way. At one point on back-to-back plays Cousins drew a charge on Tobias Harris, then on the next trip down stripped Harris when he drove.

“Like a kid on Christmas,” Cousins said of how he felt on the night. “It’s been a long journey… this was probably one of the best days of my life, just being out on the floor again and playing the game that I love.”

Cousins was part of the Warriors picking up their seventh straight win, beating the Clippers 112-94. Curry led the way with 28 points.

Everything went Cousins’ way — he even got a standing ovation from the bench when he fouled out.

“Hopefully that’s the last time we give him a standing ovation when he fouls out, but it was great to see him out there,” Durant said.

“Probably all the fakest love I’ve received in my life,” Cousins joked.

The NBA world shook when Cousins signed with the Warriors last July. Everyone knew it was going to take him a long time to get healthy and right, but Golden State was a team that could be patient and wait for him, not rush him back, and when he did play it would be another weapon to punish switches or just use in their existing sets.

“I thought, good for him. It’s a good spot for him,” Clippers’ coach Doc Rivers said of his reaction when he read about the Cousins signing. “And then I thought, wow, that’s not right.”

Cousins started the game with Curry, Thompson, Kevin Durant, and Draymond Green, which meant nobody could really double him.

“This is a first, like in my entire basketball career,” Cousins said of the lack of doubles thrown at him. “I definitely can get used to this.”

Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior was a thunderous dunk, one created because his man had to focus on Durant (and Danilo Gallinari was late with the rotation).

“I’m just glad to know I can still dunk,” Cousins joked.

Cousins said he was nervous before the game but his girlfriend sent him a picture of himself in the hospital, sitting in a wheelchair the day after his surgery. That helped put the journey in perspective.

“It’s been a year since his injury, he’s gone through a long rehab process…” Kerr said before the game. “This is not the end of the story, this is sort of the middle of the story and it’s a milestone but there is a long way to go.”

Cousins is going to get better at things big and small as that journey continues.

Which should scare the rest of the NBA.

DeMarcus Cousins’ first bucket as a Warrior is a monster jam

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LOS ANGELES — DeMarcus Cousins sure looked his hops are back on this throw down.

Cousins started for the Warriors Friday night after missing almost a full year with a torn Achilles, and on the Warriors first possession they fed him the rock in the post. Cousins faced up on Marcin Gortat, drove baseline with a nice first step, but got caught under the basket and couldn’t power it up through the Clipper big, getting his shot blocked.

Nobody was blocking his next shot.

It was a side pick-and-roll where Gortat had to cut off Durant’s drive, but Danilo Gallinari didn’t tag into the middle to cut off Cousins’ roll (or, made the business decision not to). The result was an impressive first bucket for DeMarcus as a Warrior.

Cousins’ first shift was three minutes long. He’s on a minutes restriction for a while.

D’Angelo Russell drops 40 on Magic including shot that put Nets up for good

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D'Angelo Russell is playing like a guy in a contract year. And that’s just fine with Brooklyn.

Russell tied his career best with 40 points Friday night against the Magic, including hitting the shot that put the Nets up for good on the night with 27 seconds remaining. Russell was 16-of-25 shooting, including 8-of-12 from three, and he was an analytics dream — Russell took all but one of his shots either in the paint or from three.

The Nets — now 24-23 on the season and the sixth seed in the East — came from 21 back to get the win and that included their guards hitting the big shots at the end.

First up was Spencer Dinwiddie.

Then came Russell’s shot that proved to be the game winner.

With the Nets extending Dinwiddie during the season, it’s unlikely Russell returns to Brooklyn next season, but a number of teams are interested in him as a free agent (restricted, the Nets can match if the offer is low).

Report: Isaiah Thomas could return to Nuggets right before All-Star break

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The Denver Nuggets have shown off their depth this season. Three starters — Will Barton, Gary Harris, and Paul Millsap — have missed a chunk of time and yet until a few days ago the Nuggets were the top seed in the West, and they are still a clear second.

And all of that without Isaiah Thomas, their biggest name reserve. He has been recovering from hip surgery last March.

The Nuggets are hoping Thomas will make his debut next month, right before the All-Star Break, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Thomas has been gathering momentum in his rehabilitation process from hip surgery in March, and there’s hope among Thomas and the Nuggets organization he could return as soon as a Feb. 11-13 homestand against Miami and Sacramento, sources said.

There’s strong confidence that he will return no later than the first game after the All Star break on Feb. 22 in Dallas, league sources said….

The final hurdle for Thomas remains playing full 5-on-5 scrimmages. He is expected to start that process soon.

Thomas was playing well and playing through pain in Boston, becoming a fan favorite and pulling that team into the postseason, before his hip injury caught up with him. He tried to recover without surgery playing for the Cavaliers and Lakers last season, but that never really worked like he hoped. He had the surgery and signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets.

Thomas could provide a playmaking guard off the bench, although Monte Morris has filled that role for the Nuggets so well he gets mentioned as a most improved player candidate. Coach Mike Malone will need to finesse the minutes to get both of them touches and involved. How much Thomas can help the Nuggets in the playoffs depends on how he recovers (he has always been a defensive liability because of his size, which factors in as well).

If Thomas can show he would have value as a bench player he will have teams calling next July about a much bigger contract. He has motivation, and he’s popular around the league — people want to see him succeed. But is he fully healthy and does he still have the lateral explosiveness that made him so hard to stop on drives to the rim? We should find out the final couple months of the season.