By Chris Le
With just under half the season done, we have a decent picture of how teams and players are shaping up. For sure, the NBA season is long, and its second half–when seeding battles and playoff pushes provide nice drama–can bring about drastic changes no one can foresee (injuries, trades, scandals, slumps). But, broadly speaking, the first 41 games give a rough estimate of how things might pan out near regular season’s end.
The preseason favorites (Lakers and Celtics) are still near the top, certain squads have risen as legit title contenders (Cavs, Magic, Spurs and…Denver?), others underwhelm (Raptors, 76ers), and some teams we thought would suck, well…they suck (Thunder, Kings).
The same goes for player evaluations. The best are still the best. Fools like Danny Granger, Paul Millsap, Devin Harris and Jameer Nelson get better (or, at least, they boast improved statistics). And others aren’t quite as good, ahem, Steve Nash and Baron Davis.
The playoff picture is still a bit hazy at this time of the year, but things are slowly coming into focus. Most importantly, though, especially to nerds like me who love to rank everything, we have sufficient data to realistically begin debating the league’s Most Valuable Player.
Here’s how I see it at the halfway mark:
1. LeBron James – The game has never looked easier for the preseason favorite, who is making each possession his very own dunk showcase. The effortlessness with which LeBron is driving—and finishing—is reminiscent of Barry Bonds or Babe Ruth smashing to right field baseballs fruitlessly lobbed down the middle of the strike zone. Of Jim Brown running over and around hapless defenders half his size. Of Joe Louis knocking out “bums” every month. LeBron is at that level of good. In his sixth year, James’ game–and his team–is of the championship caliber we all expected it to be since he was drafted in 2003. But of all his gaudy stats, the most telling may be his 36 minutes played per game—by far the lowest of his career in which he averages 40.8. Cleveland is blowing teams out at a league-leading clip of 12.4, so James is sitting out most fourth quarters. Watch out in the playoffs. No one can touch The King right now. And with his Cavs playing so well, especially on the defensive end (an area where James has seriously picked up his game), LeBron is, at the moment, the runaway favorite for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy.
(The gap between number one and everyone else is significant. And with the way LeBron is playing, it’s widening.)
2. Dwyane Wade – D-Wade is playing out of his mind, arguably better than anyone in the league. He’s scoring–and shooting–more than ever, leading the league in points (29.0) and shot attempts per game (21.8). He’s playing like it’s the 2006 playoffs, when he carried his team to the title. Wade will have to shoulder this 2009 squad, too, if he wants to even make it out of the first round because the rest of the Heat aren’t very formidable. Coming into the season, with three rookies serving as head coach (Erik Spoelstra), starting point guard (Mario Chalmers), and second scoring option (Michael Beasley), I had very low expectations for Miami. I was anticipating seeing, at season’s end, the Heat in the bottom third of the Eastern Conference rankings. But the fact that Wade is overcoming, really, a dismal situation which lesser players would crumble under, is proof of how boundless his skill and competitiveness are. In any other year, Wade would be a slam dunk pick for MVP.
3. Kobe Bryant – The defending MVP has probably exerted himself on the court, maybe, 25 times this season. Or so it seems. That’s how well-rounded and dominant the Lakers have been so far. And yet, Kobe is still dropping 27 points (good enough for third in the NBA), 5.2 boards, and 4.6 dimes in just under 36 minutes–that just shows how good he is. No other guard (besides Chris Paul and the man just above) plays as efficiently and, without question, no one in the game is as smooth. The Lakers’ defense may have dipped as of late, allowing a middle-of-the-pack 98.9 points a game, but that’s forgivable (for now) seeing how they lead the league in total scoring (107.8). As things stand, the Lakers are undeniably a top-three team, and all the success they enjoy begins and ends with Kobe.
4. Dwight Howard – It’s tough for me to say this, but Howard is slowly eclipsing my boy Tim Duncan as the best big man in the game. The front-runner for defensive player of the year, Howard leads the Association in blocks (by far with 3.3 a night), is second in defensive rebounds (9.3), and anchors a Magic squad that ranks third in both opponent field goal percentage (42.8) and points per game (93.3). And he’s doing all this without any help in the interior. Offensively, D12’s numbers overall are down a bit, and he is still a turnover machine who doesn’t consistently pass well out of the post. But his true imprint on the game is seen in the attention he receives down low. Since opposing teams are doubling, even tripling Howard, his teammates are getting wide open looks–and they are capitalizing. The Magic are second in the league in three-pointers made (10.4) and second in three-point percentage (40.1). Who would’ve thought, at this time, the Magic would have the third-best record in the NBA? Not me. And if you say you did, you’re lying.
5. Chris Paul – Chris Paul is shaping up to be the perfect point guard. I honestly have trouble finding a flaw in his game. With the exception of Kobe, I can’t say this about anyone else. So it kills me to rank CP3 this low. It’s just the Hornets’ underwhelming performance so far. When results don’t quite meet expectations, you shouldn’t be rewarded, right? But don’t blame Paul for New Orleans’ slower than expected start. Now more than ever, I believe the Hornets would be a sub .500 team without Paul. Peja Stojakovic, hampered by injuries, is shooting an abysmal .393 from the field and scoring 12.5 a night, the lowest output since his second year in the league. Tyson Chandler has regressed to his former Chicago Bull-self, seeing remarkable drops in points (9 from 11.8) and rebounds (8.1 from 11.8). Credit Paul’s sheer will to win for the Hornets’ 24-12 record.
6. Tim Duncan — Timmy is where he and his Spurs have been his entire career – under the radar. Expectations were low, with Manu Ginobili beginning the season on the bench and Tony Parker tweaking his right ankle six games in. Experts and the less faithful were beginning to shovel dirt on the Spurs, all but pronouncing them dead. But Duncan proved his leadership by rallying a completely new-look team and going 6-2 with Ginobili and Parker in street clothes. The rest of the league blew their chance at putting them away. Now the Spurs boast the third-best record in the Western Conference and once again figure to be championship contenders. As always, Duncan is the reason why.
7. Chauncey Billups — The Nuggets began the season 1-3. They then trade Allen Iverson for Billups and proceed to go 25-10, currently holding the third-best record in the West. Yes, you read it correctly–the third-best record in the West. This is no coincidence. Billups has provided much-needed leadership and infused defense (if only just a little) to a talented but once-lost Nuggets team. Who would ever think Denver would be fifth in the league in opponent field goal percentage (44.2)? Billups, averaging a career-high 18.8, has given the Nuggets some mental toughness, and it’s rubbing off on his teammates.
tie. 8. Paul Pierce/Kevin Garnett — I have a hard time, especially this year, deciding who is the more valuable of the two. KG still plays DPOY-level defense and commands everyone on the team. But at the same time, Pierce’s playmaking and clutch scoring may very well be just as important. In the end, the Celtics wouldn’t be close to 32-9 without either of them. I’ll cheat and call it a tie. But if you held a gun to my forehead and forced me to choose, I’d blurt out Garnett.
10. Brandon Roy – I recently read a description that fits Brandon Roy perfectly: imagine Tim Duncan as a 6’6” perimeter player. This is a compliment, trust. And it fits Roy to a T. Like Duncan, smooth and subtle is Brandon’s game but disregard its lethality at your peril. Don’t think he’s particularly fast? Pressure his dribble as he blows by with understated quickness. Don’t think he can throw it down? You won’t see any 360 windmills from him, but Roy’s not afraid to make a poster of anyone. He is a menacing killer wrapped up in a stoic’s body. Questions of whether Roy would ever be a “superstar” or be an elite-level player have gone from whispers to straight-up silence.