The NBA’s strike-shortened 66-game season is about at the one-third mark. Though unbalanced scheduling has had the Clippers only play 18 games, while the Bulls have played 23, we thought it was time to hand out some early awards.
MVP: LeBron James. Before you roll your eyes – he’s shooting 55 percent while attempting 19 shots a night (career high), shooting 40 percent from three (career high), and taking 8.3 rpg (also, career high). Runner up: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City.
Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving, Cleveland. The No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft hasn’t disappointed: 18.1 ppg, 51 percent field goals, 41 percent on three-pointers. Runner up: Ricky Rubio (11.4 ppg, 8.9 apg, but he’s only shooting 38 percent). A big knock on Rubio was that he plays no defense, but he’s tied for second in the league in steals (2.2 per game). Rounding out the all-Rookie team: Brandon Knight of Detroit, Markieff Morris of Phoenix and Jimmer Fredette of Sacramento.
Most Improved Player: Jeff Teague, Atlanta. Playing 20 minutes more a night, the former Wake Forest star is averaging 12.9 ppg and 5.2 apg. We saw flashes of Teague’s potential in the playoffs, and he’s playing very well early. Runner up (tie): Ryan Anderson, Orlando and Kyle Lowry, Houston. Anderson, playing the Rashard Lewis role of 3-point shooting power forward, is scoring 16.2 a night and shooting 41 percent from three while collecting 7.2 rpg. Lowry had a nice season last year in Houston, but the 6-foot point guard has been terrific for the Rockets this season: 14.6 ppg, 8.0 apg, 6.4 rpg. Most complete tiny point guard since Fat Lever?
Surprise Team (So Far): Utah. The Jazz are 12-7 but it’s probably a mirage: They’re 10-3 at home, and play nine of their next 14 on the road. The home games during this grueling February stretch? Clippers, Lakers, Thunder, Wizards, Spurs. Runner up (tie): Atlanta and Philadelphia. 16-6 and 15-6, respectively.
Current Sub-.500 team That’ll Make the Playoffs: New York. Only 8-13 but Baron Davis is probably only a week or so away! He is the savior! If I keep telling myself that, perhaps I’ll soon believe it.
Biggest Disappointment (Team): The Knicks win this one in a landslide. Their first full season with ‘Melo and Amare was supposed to automatically vault them into the upper echelon of the NBA, but they’re one of the worst shooting teams from the field (42 percent) and are tied for 2nd in turnovers per game (16.1). Runner-up: Washington. What the hell, John Wall? The Wizards have talent, but are only 4-17.
Biggest Disappointment (Player): DeMar DeRozan, Toronto. This was supposed to be his breakout year, but his shooting percentage is down, his assists are slightly down, and his turnovers are slightly up. His scoring is down, from 17.2 to 14.4.
Blame the Lockout: January was the lowest scoring month (94.2 ppg) in the NBA since March 2004. February could be uglier.
Smells Like a Bust from the 2010 Draft: Wes Johnson, Minnesota. The No. 4 overall pick from Syracuse is having a brutal start to his sophomore year, making only 23 percent of his 3-pointers and scoring just 5.8 ppg. You’d think with a legit point guard (Rubio) and a legit star (Love), Johnson would be getting good looks. He’s only shooting 36% from the field, and I expect his minutes to dwindle now that Michael Beasley and Martell Webster are healthy.
Overcoming injuries: The Hawks lost Al Horford to torn pectoral muscle, and surprisingly, have gone 9-2 without the All-Star power forward. The Spurs are 10-7 without Manu Ginobili. The Grizzlies are 10-7 without Zach Randolph.
Current Over-.500 team That’ll Miss the Playoffs: Orlando. The Magic are 12-9, but struggling mightily, and the prospect of Dwight Howard getting dealt hangs over this team like the sword of Damocles.
Coach of the Year: Rick Carlisle, Dallas. Very tough call here, as no coach has really emerged as a front-runner. I went with Carlisle because he lost a lot from his championship-winning team, started the season 0-3, and has played without Dirk and Jason Kidd. I’m surprised they’re 14-8. Runner-up (tie): Doug Collins, Philadelphia and Larry Drew, Atlanta.
5 biggest questions heading into the 2nd leg of the season (games 22-44):
1. As the weeks with 4 and5 games mount, how do the older teams – Boston, San Antonio, Dallas – cope? The Spurs have the best bench. Not surprisingly, all three have already struggled with injuries (Pierce, Allen, Rondo, Ginobili, Dirk, Kidd).
2. Can the Clippers keep this up? At 12-6, they’re No. 2 in the West, but they’ve played an NBA-low (well, tied with Utah) six road games.
3. Kobe can’t keep taking 24 shots a game, can he? It’s the second most attempts per game he’s had in his career (in 2005-06 he took a staggering 27 shots a night, and led the league in scoring at 35 per game; that’s the season he dropped 81 on the Raptors). He’s jacking up far too many 3-pointers, and shooting just 28 percent from behind the arc (it’s been a decade since he’s shot that poorly from three). He’s only 33 years old, but when you factor in all the playoff runs and Olympic competitions, you might as well tack on another season to those legs.
4. When do the tsunami of trades happen? I’m hoping for a domino effect – Dwight Howard gets dealt, then Steve Nash is traded (New York?), somebody gobbles up Chris Kaman (Philly?), the Celtics decide to blow it up, the Pacers get the scorer they need (Eric Gordon, assuming he’s healthy and the Hornets are up for parting with him?) and Clippers manage to trade Mo Williams for some more front line beef (Kenyon Martin?).
5. Anthony Davis sweepstakes? The bottom of the NBA is exceptionally bad this year. So far, the Bobcats, Pistons, Wizards, Hornets and Kings have been considerably worse than the rest of the league. Will all these teams stay in the mix for Kentucky’s athletic center, Anthony Davis? How about a Davis/Monroe frontline in Detroit? The Davis/Cousins UK pairing in Sacramento would have serious potential. The Wizards might have the best shot-blocking tandem the league has seen in years if Davis lines up next to McGee. Davis and Emeka Okafor would block plenty of shots in New Orleans. It’s probably better if the Bobcats don’t get Davis, since they can’t score and Davis is far from polished offensively.