With the NBA all-star break upon us, let’s hand out some midseason hardware and look ahead to the second half of the season.
Most outstanding player: LeBron James
Kevin Durant is in the midst of his finest season, about to win his fourth consecutive scoring title and making improvements in nearly every statistical category to become a more complete player. All of that is good enough to give him a firm, unwavering grasp on his position as the second-best player in the league. Since winning his third most valuable player award, first NBA championship, a Finals MVP and a second gold medal, LeBron James is no longer chasing his contemporaries; he has his eyes set on playing the perfect game, on transcending the hype and truly being an all-time great. Already an unstoppable force when attacking the rim, James has become a more lethal jump shooter — with his accuracy extending well beyond the three-point line — and an effective playmaker and scorer in the low post. James is operating on a different plane than the rest of the league, playing at such a high level that he can observe the competition from the window seat of a private jet.
Most unappreciated player: Tony Parker
The San Antonio Spurs’ regular season accomplishments often get diminished because the franchise hasn’t advanced to the NBA Finals since winning the last of four championships in 2007. And Tony Parker’s status as an elite point guard is often overlooked because he plays alongside a generational big man in Tim Duncan and a whirling dervish in Manu Ginobili; some analysts even had the nerve to question his fifth all-star selection. But the Spurs have been atop the standings for most of the season despite the extended absences of Duncan and Ginobili, because Parker is performing at what Coach Gregg Popovich described as “beyond All-Star level.”
Biggest surprise: New York Knicks
The post-Patrick Ewing era in New York hasn’t exactly engendered much good favor from Knicks fans, who have remained loyal despite Stephon Marbury, Isiah Thomas, lottery seasons and early playoff exits. After losing to Miami in five games as a No. 7 seed last postseason, the Knicks didn’t exactly make many bold roster moves — aside from signing Ray Felton and becoming the equivalent of a retirement home for players born in the early to mid 1970s — and started the season with Amare Stoudemire on the shelf because of left knee surgery. But the early absence of Stoudemire helped Carmelo Anthony finally take control of the franchise that he begged out of Denver to lead. Anthony also no longer had to bump heads with Mike D’Antoni or worry about battling for the top of the marquee with Jeremy Lin, giving greater comfort with his surroundings. With Anthony getting some slight MVP consideration and Coach Mike Woodson developing a style of play dependent upon solid defense and proficiency from beyond the three-point line, the Knicks have moved up the ranks in the Eastern Conference and are currently second behind defending champion Miami. They struggled when Felton sat with a broken hand, and their older players are beginning to show their age, but if this team can win a playoff series — or more — for the first time in 13 years, those problems will be long forgotten.
Biggest disappointment: Los Angeles Lakers
Kobe Bryant is not willing to cede anything, even though age and declining athleticism have knocked him from his perch. As he closes in on the conclusion of a career that could possibly end next season, Bryant has become more blunt and defiant than ever. But no matter what Bryant does (he currently ranks third in scoring at age 34) or says (his Twitter account is among the most revealing), the future Hall of Famer has been powerless to keep this from being his most disappointing in a Laker uniform. Even if the Lakers are able to go on a miraculous run over their final 28 games to make the postseason — which will be difficult with Pau Gasol sidelined with a torn plantar fascia — this season was supposed to be about their return to contender status. Instead, the circus has returned in full force. Lakers executive vice president Jim Buss fired Mike Brown after five games and bypassed Phil Jackson to hire Mike D’Antoni. Bryant’s relationship with Dwight Howard has been more heavily scrutinized than Chris Brown and Rihanna. And on a much more serious note, team owner Jerry Buss, who brought 10 championships to Los Angeles, has recently been hospitalized, reportedly with an undisclosed form of cancer.
Exciting trend: The 3-Ball Era
Teams that live by the three-pointer used to suffer an unsightly death of long rebounds and easy transition baskets for the opposition when those long-distance shots didn’t fall. But in the modern NBA, the three-point shot is the weapon of choice for teams that hope to go on big runs or make up large deficits. NBA teams are averaging about 40 combined three-point attempts per game. And of the 17 teams averaging at least 19 three-pointers per game, 11 currently occupy playoff positions. Golden State, Oklahoma City, Miami, San Antonio, Atlanta and New York are shooting better than 38 percent from beyond the arc and all are no worse than second in their respective divisions. The Atlantic Division-leading Knicks lead the league with 29 three-point attempts per game and are on pace to finish with 2,378, which would break their previous NBA record of 2,284 set in 2008-09. The Houston Rockets, averaging 28.3 attempts and on pace to shoot 2,320, recently tied the NBA record for three-pointers in a game with 23 in a 140-109 win over Golden State. They possibly could’ve broken the mark if Warriors Coach Mark Jackson hadn’t ordered his players to intentionally foul shooters down the stretch.
Discouraging trend: Injured point guards
Ten months after buckling to the ground with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in left knee, Derrick Rose has yet to play a game this season for the Chicago Bulls and has left many pondering his return. A healthy Rose could elevate an already competitive Bulls team – which features two all-stars in Luol Deng and Joakim Noah — into a contender. But the former league MVP recently stunned many when he declared that if his knee doesn’t heal properly that he doesn’t “mind missing this year.” The Boston Celtics already know they won’t have Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season after he tore his right ACL in Atlanta. When the Celtics announced the painful discovery in late January, Coach Doc Rivers suggested that people shouldn’t write his team’s obituary and it has gone on to win seven of eight in Rondo’s absence. John Wall returned after missing 33 games with a stress injury in his left knee and immediately provided hope and disappointment of what could’ve been, with the Washington Wizards going 10-8 with him after a 5-28 start without him. Ricky Rubio has been slow to fully recover from his torn ACL, contributing to the Timberwolves’ woes and the Nets’ Deron Williams has had another relatively down season, playing all year with bone spurs in his left ankle that may eventually require surgery.
– Durant will become the seventh player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the three-point line and 90 percent from the foul line.
– James will join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain as the only players in NBA history with at least four MVP awards.
– The Lakers will make the playoffs
– Damian Lillard will become the fifth point guard in the past eight seasons to win NBA rookie of the year.
– Michael Jordan will win whatever the opposite of the Larry O’Brien trophy is for the second straight year after the Charlotte Bobcats again finish with the NBA’s worst record.
– Oklahoma City will defeat Miami to win the NBA championship.