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As football ends, attention turns to the NBA

One day after the end of the NFL season, Sam Smith of Bulls.com offers an update on the year’s NBA campaign which is nearly 60 percent done and projects winners of the top awards.
Sam Smith believes Defensive Player of the Year honors could come down to Joakim Noah or Tyson Chandler: "But Noah’s Bulls have the better defensive records and statistics by far, the Bulls are 3-0 against the Knicks, twice winning in New York, and Noah basically has outplayed Chandler to the point Chandler got into a fracas with Noah and got them both ejected in a game the Knicks’ coach and Anthony also were ejected."
(Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images)

OK, now go! Yes, the NBA season starts Monday for much of mainstream America with the conclusion of the Super Bowl. I hear this declaration often as people say they’re too busy with the NFL to pay attention until after the Super Bowl. With most of the games are on one day a week, I don’t always fully understand this. Though you can debate the other six days whether Tony Romo should be a top 10 or top 12 rated quarterback. Yes, that I can see.

Anyway, for those who just start tuning in Monday, I will offer an update with the NBA season almost 60 percent done. And perhaps they are right. Most teams have played close to 50 games and the principal conclusion I have is no one can win the NBA title.

We’ve pretty much excluded the Lakers already as its even odds if they even make the playoffs. The Thunder is the favorite in the West, though having traded James Harden probably not good enough to win. The Spurs are near the top again, but somewhat fragile with Tim Duncan hurt Saturday, fortunately not seriously, and Manu Ginobili in and out. The Clippers were hot, Chris Paul went out again and they’ve lost six of eight. So, really, it is interesting as depending on matchups maybe the Warriors (no, you weren’t sleeping 100 years), Grizzlies or Nuggets get there.

In the Eastern Conference with Derrick Rose still out after his knee surgery, Miami was the shoo-in. But they lose to the good teams a lot, twice to the Knicks and Pacers, to the Bulls without Rose in their only meeting. The Knicks are a half game behind them and the Bulls with half the team two and a half. You can’t turn it on and off being last in the league in rebounding, which they are. So perhaps the helmet heads are just in time.

And if you want to keep up with your fantasy leaguers, here’s the 57 percent-of-the-season look at the top awards:

MVP: Kevin Durant, Thunder. It should be just between Durant and LeBron James because they are so far ahead of everyone else. Some suggest Carmelo Anthony or Chris Paul. But the talent level and effect still is massive. I go with Durant with a slight, slight edge for losing Harden and still having to put up with Russell Westbrook’s erratic, emotional behavior.

Coach of the Year: Tom Thibodeau, Bulls. And the amazing thing was many had him first last season, also, when he finished second to Gregg Popovich. Can you win every year? The Bulls have by far been the surprise of the East with the Warriors the surprise of the West with Thibodeau a shade ahead for now of the Warriors’ Mark Jackson.

Rookie of the Year: Damian Lillard, Portland. The sixth pick pretty much has it clinched with Anthony Davis with a series of ankle injuries. But even healthy I’d have to admit after declaring Davis unbeatable that it should be Lillard, another bigtime scoring point. After that there are plenty. Davis, of course, and I like Harrison Barnes and Andre Drummond is coming on.

Defensive Player of the Year: Joakim Noah, Bulls. Noah’s been having a career year, averaging a double-double and making the All-Star team. There’s some vague mention of Tony Allen, Serge Ibaka, Larry Sanders. Mostly it’s for defending champion Tyson Chandler. But Noah’s Bulls have the better defensive records and statistics by far, the Bulls are 3-0 against the Knicks, twice winning in New York, and Noah basically has outplayed Chandler to the point Chandler got into a fracas with Noah and got them both ejected in a game the Knicks’ coach and Anthony also were ejected. I rest my case, your honor.

Sixth Man: Jamal Crawford, Clippers. He’s been their leading scorer, which is fairly amazing for a sixth man. But he’s also been the quintessential in defining the role with consistent scoring off the bench all season. There are a lot of good choices in this category with Manu Ginobili, J.R. Smith, Jared Jack and Carl Landry, Andre Miller and Kevin Martin.

Most Improved: Omer Asik, Rockets. This is more ill defined than MVP. Listen clearly: You cannot be so improved if everyone expected you to be good, you were drafted in the lottery and you were a flop before or didn’t much care or didn’t play. Still, some say players like Harden. Sure, he’s improved. But he was good. To me, Asik should be a runaway winner. Here’s a young second rounder from Turkey who most fan observers couldn’t believe the Bulls wouldn’t trade for Courtney Lee. He’s averaging a double/double and has been a force inside. I also like Greivis Vasquez and the Bucks’ Saunders.

Just 24, Durant playing at a historical pace

-- So is Kevin Durant better than Michael Jordan? Hey, that got your attention. No, it’s not LeBron, and not Kobe anymore. Michael was first about scoring, and as quietly as anyone ever has been doing what he is doing, there is no one in the game who scores like Durant, seemingly as easily as Durant despite the defense and who could be on the way to ending up with more scoring titles than Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain. Jordan has the most with 10. Chamberlain has seven, all consecutive while Jordan also has seven straight. Durant is on his way to his fourth straight this season at 24 years old. At 24, Jordan was working on his first. And with the trade of James Harden, it probably isn’t what the Thunder most wanted, but it likely means Durant cannot ease up on his scoring responsibilities. And especially not with the latest mental problems Russell Westbrook seems to be experiencing the way he actually walked out of a game to cool off after openly blaming Thabo Sefolosha — on national TV yet — for ruining his chance to score again by getting in his way. And there doesn’t seem anyone to really challenge Durant’s routine 30 points per game like Jordan had in his era with Dominique Wilkins, Karl Malone, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson and Charles Barkley. Perhaps Harden given his teammates has the best chance to be that 30-point player to supplant Durant. Carmelo Anthony has a chance, though he’s in his 10th season. Durant scores 30 points more effortlessly than perhaps anyone other than Wilt. Jordan was an amazing scorer, but it was with a fury, attacking the rim, fighting through defenses. As graceful as he could look flying in for dunks, Jordan didn’t get that many easy points because early in his career Jordan wasn’t a great shooter and never a three-point threat. Jordan scored a lot from the foul line, as Durant does, averaging 9.5 per attempts game, second to Harden at 10.1. Jordan averaged eight per game in his career, but 11.9 in his biggest scoring season, 1986-87. Durant overall also averages eight free throws attempted per game, but is on the way up. Though the big difference with Durant is like with Wilt, there’s no one like him in the game. He’s basically a three-point shooting seven foot guard. There have been big guys who shoot before, namely Dirk Nowitzki. But no one who is an athlete and play maker and ballhandler in the open floor like Durant is, averaging 4.4 assists per game this season. And with a scoring mentality. Imagine if his point guard, Westbrook, really was a point guard instead of a shooting guard in disguise. Durant is on the way to joining Jordan and Wilt as the only players to win four straight scoring titles. Another reason why Durant has the edge on Jordan assuming he stays healthy is Durant already is becoming one of the best shooters in the history of the game. He is shooting 51.6 percent from the field, 41.4 percent on threes and 90.4 percent on free throws. Only five players in league history — Nowitzki, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Larry Bird and Reggie Miller — have done so. Jose Calderon did, but didn’t qualify in official NBA statistics with not enough attempts. The next Michael? Could be.

Howard likely to stay in Los Angeles, unless he doesn’t

-- I still think in the end Dwight Howard doesn’t pass on the big money difference and stays with the Lakers. But one big move in the next few weeks could give something away. His name basically never comes up, but one player I’m watching in potential trades is the Hawks’ Al Horford. It seemed pretty clear the Hawks aren’t going anywhere the way they surrendered again to the Bulls junior varsity team Saturday. And this really isn’t a going anywhere year, to be fair, with the departures of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams to begin looking toward free agency. But the Hawks also have quietly been making their case to attract Howard, you’d think a far better one than Dallas’ with certainly the portrait of Dirk aging. Josh Smith is a free agent, but also was a childhood teammate of Howard’s. As was Lou Williams, out for the season but with a three-year Hawks deal. If the Hawks can deal Horford, their payroll will be completely scrubbed except for Williams. They could re-sign Smith to team up with Howard and Williams in sort of the kind of security cocoon you know Howard would prefer. And they could bring in their friends like Chris Paul is starting to do with the Clippers and James and Dwyane Wade have done some in Miami in what truly is the new free agency. You could see under those circumstances Howard, who seems to prefer the camaraderie to the championships, going back home and constructing the kind of team where he again can be top cat and have guys who think his jokes are funny.

NBA news and notes

-- Imagine how good the Celtics could have been if they never had Rajon Rondo? That’s the storyline now as the Celtics have won four straight since Rondo went out after having lost six straight. They’re a bit like the Bulls with Doc Rivers’ tough defense and accountability for players stepping off the bench. Not sure how long it can last without the size, even limited, as Jared Sullinger also is out for the season. Most expected the Celtics to shop Rondo around some before the trade deadline Feb. 21 with the team sliding. But they’d be asking too much, basically in the Russell Westbrook neighborhood. So is this fool’s gold as the Celtics moved a game over .500 Sunday? I thought Memphis was the only spot for Paul Pierce. Kevin Garnett with his no trade becomes uncertain, though maybe if he sees a better chance to win again to go somewhere like in Houston. Boston probably rides it out now as it’s tough to move after you win games. It’s probably the worst thing for the future of the franchise if they end up with nothing for Garnett and Pierce. ... You wonder if some NBA players know everyone can see what they write on Twitter. This was last week from J.R. (Just Ridiculous) Smith: “Laughing at the haters cause at the end of the day when you go to sleep an wake up you still won't be me!” Got to love that Knicks’ P.R. machine. ... You had to love LeBron James’ sideways response to Reggie Evans suggesting a tainted title in a lockout season. James praised the Nets but said he felt badly their players didn’t feel strong enough to want to play hard for their previous coach. LeBron James and subtlety. Who knew?

-- If the Lakers are going to get into the playoffs, someone has to fall. And you’d think based on how they’ve played it would most likely be the Jazz. Assuming Portland doesn’t nuzzle its way in. I guess I can understand the sympathy coach Tyrone Corbin feels with Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Mo Williams (out now along with Earl Watson), Jamaal Tinsley and Randy Foye all free agents. As a former player, he knows sitting a veteran in his contract year can hurt financially. But it’s amazing to continue to watch the Jazz fall behind to open games with most of the veteran free agents starting and looking for their points and then getting back in games as Corbin moves in the young players. Though you can’t fully blame Corbin as teams should never let that many veterans get to free agency at the same time and think they are a playoff team. Witness: Dallas. It’s difficult to believe the Jazz will allow this to carry past the trading deadline. One thing they may forget: NBA players don’t particularly like to play in Salt Lake City. If you don’t play your kids, then you risk losing them. And to assure your veterans get good deals in free agency? What’s going on there? ... Well, that probably ends the Allen Iverson comeback talk for now. The TMZ website reported the divorce settlement for Iverson in which the judge termed Allen a terrible parent. OK, there are others. But Iverson’s drinking issues surfaced again in the court documents according to the web site and he’s ordered to AA meetings and to stop drinking to even see his kids. The alcoholism allegations long have bubbled up around Iverson, which has been said to be the main reason teams fear bringing him back. The Georgia family judge called them “obvious and serious.” ... The Kings still are in Sacramento, but it appears the players have bought their tickets for Cancun. Saturday’s 39-point loss to the Knicks when they were down 50 at one time was their second in the last five by at least 25 and they also lost by 18. They’ve lost seven of eight and it seems likely DeMarcus Cousins (big surprise there) has booked his vacation plans with a mail-it-in three points and two rebounds in the loss to Denver. His biggest game in the last two weeks was against the Knicks as his team was losing by 50. With a potential move to Seattle looming, it could be a distraction for anyone. And likely they can’t trade until a deal is done or Sacramento steps in. And there was Cousins last week ripping Kings management and blaming them for Isaiah Thomas not being selected for the rookie/sophomore game and declaring, "I'm a loyal guy. I'm a family-orientated guy. But not so much in this league. You've kind of got to look out for yourself most of the time and always do what's best for you." How could you not want to build your team around him?

-- Rudy Gay’s been terrific in his brief stay in Toronto so far not withstanding Sunday’s loss to Miami which sends Erik Spoelstra and staff to the All-Star game. With starter Rondo out, Spoelstra gets to replace the starter as the commissioner selected Brook Lopez as the replacement. Spoelstra said he may start Chris Bosh to make it three Heat starters, saying his first loyalty has to be to the Heat. But I digress. Part of the Gay acquisition seemingly was to make up for the misplaced free agency acquisition of Landry Fields, who came up with back spasms after the trade. But with Gay, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and rookie Terrence Ross they’re overloaded with ball stopping shooters and still no size. Though Aaron Gray, whom I generally consider among the top 10 worst players in the NBA, had his fourth straight double figure rebounding game Sunday. Which says more so that anyone can win the title if Gray can get those numbers. The Raptors have been trying to make the playoffs to get back their No. 1 pick, which will go to the Thunder from the Lowry trade if the Raptors get a pick four through 14. ... Tayshaun Prince left Detroit, the last of the players who won six straight Eastern titles, fifth alltime in Pistons games played and eight alltime in scoring. But it seemed more an ambivalent reaction. There was some thought it was Prince’s perpetually annoyed demeanor, being the fifth guy and being around with the current losing Pistons. But Prince was probably the reason the Pistons didn’t get Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade. The Pistons mostly were excused the Darko Milicic pick in 2003 passing those three when they won a title the next season. And Prince did make the play of the playoffs with the famous chase down block — no, LeBron didn’t invent it — of Reggie Miller to save Game 2 of the conference finals. But a big part of the Pistons thinking on passing Anthony was having Prince, whom they felt fit better with the scoring players they had in Richard Hamilton and Chauncey Billups. So they decided to gamble on a future big. Maybe that’s what’s buried deep in the minds of Pistons fans.

-- Well, that honeymoon didn’t last long. The headline in the Orlando Sentinel last week was: Who can we blame for the Magic being the worst team in the NBA? ... His streak continues as the high scoring Monta Ellis failed to make the All-Star team again. He has the highest career average without ever being an All-Star at 19.7 followed by Kevin Martin, Jason Richardson and Rudy Gay. So you can’t fully blame the Grizzlies for not wanting to pay Gay $36 million over the next two seasons. I really can’t. ... Quote of the week has to be Wizards coach Randy Wittman after the 11-32 Wizards lost to the Kings: “I think we fell victim a little bit to our success.” ... Until I saw this in the Memphis Commercial one from Lionel Hollins on the departure of Gay: “When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market. I've been with the Grizzlies for 11 years in Memphis. Rudy Gay has been a big part of our success. I've known him as a kid as a rookie coming in. He's a big part of my success as a coach here and I feel I was a big part of his success and I wish him the best as he moves forward into the second chapter of his career.” Or put another way, “I’ve got all new bosses and I’m done here.” Hollins is one of the better coaches and should find another job next season if he so chooses.

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