1. Second Trimester Report
It's a late-February tradition around here.
It's how we always commemorate the week after the trading deadline.
Second trimester report!
Regular readers know we like to divide the season into thirds as opposed to halves when it comes to the individual awards races. So it's time, with every team down to its final 25 games (or so) of the regular season, for our usual award-by-award pulse check.
Six of the top 10 MVP candidates listed in Maurice Brooks' most recent NBA Awards Watch are from the Western Conference, suggesting that the race for Best in the West as we close in on the 60-game mark is crowded and tight.
But it's not.
The confirmation can be found in the standings: The Thunder awoke Friday placed sixth in the West, just ahead of San Antonio and headed for the playoffs. Flanked by only two other players averaging double figures in scoring (Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green) and zero teammates averaging better than 6.2 rebounds, Durant has powered this vet-less group to a 48-win pace and just might wind up as the first scoring champion in OKC's shared history with the Sonics.
No Sonic ever finished as high as second in scoring; Spencer Haywood (1972-73) and Dale Ellis (1988-89) got as high as No. 3. Durant, though, is right behind LeBron at 29.8 points per game, knowing -- just like LeBron -- that he has to be great for his team to win. We know that because Durant has been held below 25 points just six times this season with the Thunder going 0-6 in those games.
An undeniable gap still exists between James and Durant. This is also where we are obliged to remind you that there hasn't been an MVP in the NBA from a team that failed to win 50 games since Houston's Moses Malone in 1981-82. Durant, though, would have a real shot to finish second in the overall MVP race if ballots were turned in today.
At worst, he'll finish third, if Bryant -- on top of all the late-game magic (see Box 9) that tends to leave an impression -- has a big stretch-run surge in store as the Lakers try to pip Cleveland for best record in the league and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
I said so when James was the only player invited to the All-Star Game from the team with the league's best record.
I can say so again, even louder, even with Dwight Howard playing some of the best all-around ball of his life.
We don't know whether these Cavs can ultimately win a championship or keep LeBron beyond June, but he's already clinched one trophy for the season.
As one Eastern Conference official said this week, referring to the load James shoulders compared to other franchise players: "I'm not even sure there's a third place in the East right now." Magic coach Stan Van Gundy reluctantly conceded the same in the midst of an attempt to highlight the offensive progress Howard has made, telling the Orlando Sentinel: "It's over. LeBron's going to get the award."
You only have to rewind as far as Thursday for a fairly typical example of the responsibility LeBron carries on an every-game basis. On a night that the Cavs lost Shaquille O'Neal to a thumb injury -- putting Cleveland down two centers, since Zydrunas Ilgauskas can't legally re-sign with them before March 22 -- James was directly responsible for 61 of the 79 points scored by the Cavs during his 35 minutes on the floor. LeBron scored 36 points and created 25 with his nine assists.
The only uncertainty here is how close James, with a résumé full of such performances, comes to unanimous selection by MVP voters when the ballots go out in April.
It has to be spotlighted here because this was a two-rook race between Evans and Brandon Jennings until Curry forced his way in with across-the-board production.
Gaudy numbers produced in the Warriors' undisciplined system will always be viewed skeptically, but Curry averaged 19.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds in January, then upped those numbers to 21.0 points, 7.6 assists and 5.4 rebounds in February. Even if you're eager to slap an asterisk on some of those figures because of the wild way Golden State plays, be advised that Jennings' scoring has dipped steadily every month, all the way down from 21.9 points per game at the end of November to 11.3 points per game this month.
We've seen some notable flashes from other rookies -- New Orleans' Darren Collison; San Antonio's DeJuan Blair; Denver's Ty Lawson; and, of course, our man Omri Casspi in Sacramento -- but credit Curry for injecting the ROY race with some unexpected intrigue as we reach the quarter pole.
After all, Curry just became only the third player in league history to have more than one 30-point, 12-assist game as a rookie, joining Oscar Robertson (who had 13 in 1960-61) and Michael Jordan (two in 1984-85).
This isn't normally a category teeming with worthy contenders, but there are lots of options here this time.
The Lakers are still ranked No. 1 in the league in defensive efficiency and haven't had any lasting in-house trouble with defensive catalyst and noted handful Ron Artest.
Cleveland's Anderson Varejao, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut and Oklahoma City's Thabo Sefolosha, meanwhile, are all routinely overlooked defenders who should be there with Charlotte's Gerald Wallace and Atlanta's Josh Smith.
Howard is leading the league in rebounding and blocked shots for the second straight season and has Orlando perched in the top 3 in defensive efficiency, even though he's routinely flanked by non-defenders such as Vince Carter and Rashard Lewis.
You'll recall that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975-76), Bill Walton (1976-77), Hakeem Olajuwon (1989-90) and Ben Wallace (2001-02) are the only other players in history to lead the league in both categories in the same season but Howard is on course to become the first player to do it twice after joining that exclusive club last season.
Let's face it: This is Dwight's domain. Again.
2. Second Trimester Report (cont'd)
Is this his turn at last?
Is the venerable Sloan, after 21 consecutive seasons on Utah's bench, finally poised to be named Coach of the Year for the first time?
Realistically? Probably not.
Too many things can happen over the final seven weeks of the regular season to derail Sloan, largely because there are so many other legit options in this category. Just to name five: Charlotte's Larry Brown, Milwaukee's Scott Skiles, Memphis' Lionel Hollins, Portland's Nate McMillan and, most notably, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, who must be doing some pretty good coaching -- even with the luxury of Durant as his go-to guy -- if the Thunder are a top-5 team in defensive efficiency with such limited depth, size and experience.
Sloan, though, has Utah challenging for the West's No. 2 seed after an 18-3 surge. The Jazz have also managed to maintain that push by sticking together in the face of Carlos Boozer's uncertain future and the open frustration voiced recently by Deron Williams after Ronnie Brewer and rookie guard Eric Maynor were traded away purely for luxury-tax reasons.
Denver's George Karl is another rival who could make a late COY bid if the Nuggets manage to hold Utah off for the Northwest Division lead, but Sloan's work never seems to slip. The voters are bound to notice one of these years.
Irked as I remain by the lack of All-Star consideration received by Stephen Jackson -- whose arrival in mid-November almost instantly transformed the long-suffering Bobcats into playoff material -- I remain just as wowed by the across-the-board jump in Wallace's effectiveness.
A sustained jump, too.
His ridiculously improved rebounding has tailed off a touch, but 10.7 boards per game for a slender small forward (to go with 19 points and 2.1 steals) did get Wallace to the All-Star stage, which is something I don't remember anyone forecasting back in 2004 when Charlotte claimed him off Sacramento's roster in the expansion draft.
The likes of Andrew Bogut, Chris Kaman, Rajon Rondo and obviously Durant are all playing in a new stratosphere, but those guys were also high lottery picks who were expected to reach those levels eventually.
I promised myself to recommit to my long-held credo that MIP votes are best saved for players who didn't come into the game with such high ceilings, such as Memphis' Marc Gasol, Houston's Aaron Brooks, Sacramento's Carl Landry or Atlanta's Josh Smith. OK, OK: Perhaps even a lower lottery pick like Chicago's Joakim Noah.
And definitely Wallace, who is quietly up to 39 percent on 3-pointers after barely skimming 30 percent last season.
Landry has landed here, just as he did after the first trimester, because he almost certainly won't be on Sixth Man Award ballots at season's end.
Last week's trade to Sacramento has made him a starter -- leaving Atlanta's Jamal Crawford as a heavy (and deserved) favorite to win this crown when ballots are tallied -- but we wanted to spotlight Landry one more time because the undersized power forward was consistently huge coming off the Houston bench, especially with his fourth-quarter scoring.
In 51 games as a Rockets reserve, Landry averaged 16.2 points and 5.5 boards. Nit-pick about those rebound numbers if you wish, but be advised that no bench player in the league has averaged at least 15 points and five rebounds -- while appearing in a minimum of 50 games as a sub -- since Portland's Clifford Robinson averaged 18.9 points and 6.4 rebounds in 70 games in 1992-93.
Crawford has been fantastic, too, rewriting his own reputation with a league-leading 10 25-point games off the bench for the Hawks, but Sixth Man honors will be much easier to win if Landry -- who will technically have a low enough number of starts to be eligible for the season-ending ballots -- is regarded as a starter from here.
The veteran sixth men in Texas -- Dallas' Jason Terry and San Antonio's Manu Ginobili -- are starting to heat up as the playoffs draw near. Also: Denver's J.R. Smith remains flammable, Minnesota's Kevin Love is quietly doing consistent double-damage since relinquishing his spot in the starting lineup, and folks seem to forget somehow that Cleveland's handy Anderson Varejao is a sixth man, too.
But Crawford, giving these Hawks an instant-offense dimension with their second unit that they didn't have before, has a clear edge if Landry is indeed out of the running.
3. Eastern Conference
The Wiz essentially regarded Howard as an expiring contract when they acquired him from Dallas in the deal that cost them Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood, knowing that the ability to pass on the team option in Howard's deal would help Washington create significant salary-cap space this summer to greet the expected ownership transfer to Washington Capitals boss Ted Leonsis.
Yet one source with knowledge of the Wizards' thinking -- while acknowledging that things are still fluid in D.C., with Gilbert Arenas still on the payroll and the transfer of operation control to Leonsis not yet complete -- told ESPN.com this week that re-signing Howard at a lower number has not been ruled out.
Howard will become an unrestricted free agent when the Wizards decline the team option and faces a less-than-encouraging market in the midst of his recovery from knee surgery. Yet the source said the Wiz do have a level of interest in re-signing the former All-Star swingman, depending on the price.
It's worth noting, though, that veteran Wiz-watcher David Aldridge of TNT and NBA.com threw out an interesting theory earlier in the week, suggesting that Leonsis could choose to preserve most of Washington's newfound cap space until the summer of 2011. That's when Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony headlines free agency.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
2: In Monday's easy win at Madison Square Garden, Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut became only the second Buck in team history to record 20 points, 20 rebounds and five blocks in the same game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it twice during the 1973-74 season; Bogut had 24 points, 20 boards and five blocks against the Knicks.
4: The Celtics' Ray Allen responded to not being traded -- after rampant speculation on that subject -- with four consecutive 20-point outings and shot 64.9 percent from the field (37-for-57) in those games.
51: After making 51 free throws in a row for the season's longest such streak, Detroit's Rip Hamilton shot 2-for-8 from the line in Wednesday's road loss to the Clippers. Adding to the absurdity of the moment: Hamilton was fouled by Eric Gordon on the game's last possession with the Pistons down by four, nearly banked in a wild 3-pointer as he was fouled and wound up with nothing, instead of a four-point play to tie it, by missing the first two free throws and then missing the third intentionally.
19: With his next double-figure-assist game, Cleveland's LeBron James will establish a new single-season best for games with at least 10 assists. LeBron has matched last season's total of 19 with 23 games to go in the Cavs' regular season. Before that, James had 16 double-digit-assists games in 2007-08, five in 2006-07, eight in 2005-06, 14 in 2004-05 and six as a rookie in 2003-04.
It had been widely assumed since January that the Heat could have traded Dorell Wright to Memphis whenever they wanted to.
The Grizzlies had more than $3 million in available salary-cap space -- which they ultimately used on trade-deadline day to steal Ronnie Brewer from Utah -- and were prepared to take Wright from Miami for a future second-round pick. Such a swap would have dropped the Heat under the $69.9 million luxury-tax threshold and ended Memphis' search for an extra wing player.
So why didn't it happen before the Griz moved on to the Brewer deal?
It's true that the Grizzlies wanted to wait to see what other options (like Brewer) would materialize before the trading deadline. But one source close to the situation noted that Dwyane Wade and Wright are super close, which apparently made Miami reluctant to send Wright away in a purely tax-cutting deal.
The Heat were unable to "fast-track" their plans -- using Pat Riley's own description -- to get Wade some All-Star help, despite making attempts before the deadline to trade for Amare Stoudemire or Carlos Boozer. You can imagine how Wade might have reacted if the only move Miami made was a Wright giveaway.
4. One-On-One To Five
Five questions with Pacers forward Troy Murphy:
Q: What was it like seeing your name in the trade headlines for literally months, not just weeks?
A: I guess I got used to it. When you're on a team that's not winning, you expect changes. And I think that's what [the Pacers] were looking to do, make some changes. But I tried not to pay attention. I know it's part of the business, but I wasn't trying to follow all the rumors.
Q: How hard was that, though, when you knew that a team like Cleveland was interested in you?
A: That [part] was nice. To have interest from other teams in the league, it's always nice when people respect what you do and respect the effort you put forth out there on the court.
Q: Was it also kind of a letdown when you knew there was a chance that you could get sent to a championship situation and then it didn't happen?
A: Not really. Until they tell me otherwise, I'm here and I'm going to go out and try to play as hard as I can. And that's that.
Q: The interesting thing about the Cavs' interest in you is that they targeted Antawn Jamison and you as big men who could stretch the floor with your outside shooting. You didn't always have that range, so how did you get it?
A: I just shot, shot and shot every summer; really worked on it until I got there. Three or four years, I wasn't able to go [beyond] the 17- to 18-foot range. Now my range is better, and I can space the floor out and open things up for drivers.
Q: Jamal Crawford going to the playoffs would stick you with the longest wait to taste the playoffs of any active player. So have you been rooting against the Hawks all season?
A: I'm not rooting against the Hawks and Jamal Crawford at all. They've had a great season, and he has especially played at a high level for them. I don't think teams around the league blame me for the circumstances [behind the record]. I think a team like Cleveland being interested shows that.
5. Western Conference
Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley was not the only big Hasheem Thabeet fan in the organization when Memphis used the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft to select the UConn big man.
One source with knowledge of Memphis' thinking told ESPN.com that Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins was high on Thabeet going into the draft as well.
Yet Heisley is widely regarded as the voice that pushed hardest for the selection of Thabeet, which only makes this story wilder. You'd figure box-office reasons would be the primary consideration when an owner wants a certain player drafted. The decision not to select local collegiate star Tyreke Evans at No. 2 gets even more curious when you're reminded that Heisley was hooked more than anyone else in the organization on Thabeet's size (7-foot-3) and wingspan.
The immediate challenge Thabeet faces is shaking off the stigma that comes with being the highest draft pick ever assigned to the D-League, but the reality is that the move will give him the game time he sorely needs. For all the jabs he's going to take a result of the painfully slow start to his pro career, compared to Rookie of the Year favorite Evans, it's easy to forget that the Tanzanian has only been playing basketball for six years. He's clearly still learning the game, and certainly didn't ask the Grizzlies to heap even more pressure on him by drafting the project big man one slot after Blake Griffin went No. 1 overall to the Clippers.
The D-League isn't the most center-friendly league in the world with its up-and-down pace, so many guards looking to score and very few traditionally sized bigs for Thabeet to match up with. But he's expected to spend 10 days with the Dakota Wizards, play six games in that span and log the sort of extended minutes he has little chance to claim in Memphis with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol ahead of him. Add it all up and, like the Grizzlies did, you just might spot a positive or two attached to the most attention-grabbing NBA assignment in D-League history.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
0-19: Sub-.500 teams, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, are 0-19 at Staples Center this season: 0-10 against the Lakers and 0-9 against the Clippers. San Antonio (11-0) is the only other team in the league that hasn't lost a home game to an opponent that currently sports a losing record.
26: With 20 points and 14 rebounds in Tuesday's home loss to the Lakers, Memphis' Zach Randolph set a new franchise record with his 26th 20-point/10-rebound game of the season. The previous single-season best in team history: 25 20-and-10 games by Shareef Abdur-Rahim in 1999-2000 in the Grizzlies' second-to-last season in Vancouver.
37: With 37 points in Tuesday's loss at Cleveland, New Orleans' Marcus Thornton became only the second rookie since the 1981-82 season to score that many points in a game as a non-starter. The only rookie with more off the bench in that span: Sacramento's Walt Williams with 40 points in a 154-98 rout of Philadelphia on Jan. 2, 1993.
20: Dallas' Brendan Haywood, with 20 rebounds in Monday's win over Indiana, became just the third player in the past 20 years to post a 20-rebound game for two teams in one season. Haywood also had a 20-rebound game for Washington before being dealt to the Mavericks on Feb. 13; Dikembe Mutombo (Atlanta and Philadelphia in 2000-01) and Olden Polynice (Detroit and Sacramento in 1993-94) are the last two players to pull that off.
9: Darren Collison has logged at least 40 minutes in nine straight games for the Hornets in place of the injured Chris Paul. The only other active NBA players with streaks of at least nine consecutive 40-minute games as a rookie are Grant Hill (1994-95 with Detroit), Michael Finley (1995-96 with Phoenix), Allen Iverson (1996-97 with Philadelphia) and Shane Battier (2001-02 with Memphis). Collison also moved into some really exclusive company by recording seven consecutive games with at least 18 points and nine assists; Oscar Robertson is the only other rookie (1960-61) in league history to hit such heights.
Warriors assistant Scott Roth has again been offered the job as coach of the Dominican Republic's national team, according to NBA coaching sources.
After two successful qualifying campaigns coaching the DR -- which counts Atlanta's Al Horford, Detroit's Charlie Villanueva and Sacramento's Francisco Garcia among its eligible players -- Roth could not reach terms on a new contract last summer and left the post. But sources say the Dominican federation is now trying to bring Roth back, after the DR -- even with its three NBA stars -- failed to qualify for this summer's FIBA World Championships in Turkey under Puerto Rican coach Julio Toro.
Warriors coach Don Nelson, who previously had Roth on his staff in Dallas, brought the 46-year-old to Golden State after watching Roth win plaudits for the job he did coaching the D-League All-Stars to a 3-2 record in last July's NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. Roth emerged last season as one of the top coaching prospects in the D-League with the Bakersfield Jam, after leaving a scouting position with the Milwaukee Bucks to focus on his coaching career.
6. All-Longevity Team
Even if Zydrunas Ilgauskas goes back to the Cleveland Cavaliers in March -- which is the outcome quietly expected even by the dreamers, er, contenders in Atlanta, Dallas, Denver and Utah trying to secure a free-agent commitment from Big Z this weekend -- it appears that history has been rewritten.
No longer can Ilgauskas unequivocally claim he is No. 2 in the NBA behind Kobe Bryant on the list of players with the longest unbroken tenure with one team.
Although representatives from the league office and the Elias Sports Bureau stress that no formal ruling has yet been made on the subject, let's review the facts.
• Ilgauskas was dealt to Washington in the three-way deal that landed Antawn Jamison in Cleveland.
• Ilgauskas was assigned No. 17 by the Wizards.
• And he had to be bought out and waived by the Wiz on Thursday to have the freedom to rejoin the Cavs after a mandatory 30-day wait or sign with one of the dreaming teams.
Ilgauskas never came close to playing for Washington, but he undoubtedly was a Wizard for nine days. Which means his tenure with the Cavs was undeniably interrupted, even if they will remain the only team he ever plays for.
Which means we have no choice but to update our recent All-Longevity Team published in early December:
7. Sixth Chase
Carl Landry is now a starter with the Kings, but his time averaging 16.1 ppg off the bench for the Rockets puts him at the head of the Sixth Man chase at this juncture. (See Box 2.)
8. Marc's Quote
"Is he better than Josh Smith?"
My 6-year-old son Alexander the Greatest, after meeting Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins during All-Star Weekend, and then responding to his breathless father's hurried history lesson explaining why he was so lucky to get a fist-pound from Nique.
Nique was thankfully out of earshot when Alex questioned how anyone could be more synonymous with the Hawks than Smith and fortunately there was plenty of YouTube footage waiting at Stein Line HQ to slam home my case.
9. The Kobe File
I'm guessing by now you've probably heard that Kobe Bryant -- on the night he became the youngest player in league history, at 31 years and 184 days old, to appear in 1,000 regular-season games -- drained a game-winning triple in Memphis in his first game back from a five-game injury absence.
I'm guessing you also already know that it was hardly Bryant's first game-winner of the season.
But for those of you who haven't memorized the specifics of Bryant's five daggers to date, here's your breakdown:
December 4, 2009 (Lakers 108, Heat 107)
Bryant banks in a wild 3-pointer at the buzzer from the top of the key.
December 16, 2009 (Lakers 107, Bucks 106 OT)
Bryant drains a jumper at the buzzer from the left elbow after missing a similar shot at the end of regulation.
January 1, 2010 (Lakers 109, Kings 108)
Bryant shakes loose on an inbounds play and splashes a 3 at the buzzer from the left wing right in front of the Kings' bench.
January 31, 2010 (Lakers 90, Celtics 89)
Bryant swishes a go-ahead fallaway jumper over Ray Allen from just beyond the free-throw line with 7.3 seconds left.
Tuesday (Lakers 99, Grizzlies 98)
Bryant calmly drains a long 3 from the right wing off a feed from Lamar Odom with 4.3 seconds to go.
And here's more dagger data:
Most Field Goals Made In Final 24 Seconds, One-Possession Games 2009-10 Season
10. Ringing Endorsement
It sounds as though contending teams that expected to have a shot at signing defensive ace Raja Bell for the stretch run are going to be disappointed.
Reason being: Bell is not seeking a buyout from the Golden State Warriors.
The 33-year-old had wrist surgery in early December but is on course to make his comeback next month. After the trading deadline passed without the Warriors plugging his $5.3 million expiring contract into a deal, Bell would have been a natural free-agent target for playoff teams, such as Denver and San Antonio, seeking an extra wing defender to throw at Kobe Bryant.
Bell, though, told ESPN.com that he is not pursuing a buyout, which would have to be completed before March 1 for Bell to be eligible for the playoffs with a new team.
"I'm fully prepared to play here," Bell said last Friday.
Hearing that will undoubtedly please the Warriors, who want Bell to finish the season with them and still hold out hope that they can convince him to re-sign in Golden State this summer, since this is a young team clearly in need of example-setting vets who know how to win.
Can't say I'd give the Warriors great odds of pulling off a re-signing -- since it's hard to picture the ultra-competitive Bell being able to stomach a non-playoff situation for long -- but Bell did return to Oakland last week to start preparing for his return to the floor after spending the past two months after surgery at home in Miami.