Time to step back and answer five big-picture questions...
Don't bury the Heat just yet
1. Who's your favorite player to watch right now, and why?
Dwyane Wade. I'm a big fan of watching guys at the end of games. I don't get excited watching individual performances until the fourth quarter, when it means the most. Although Kobe and Dirk are close runners-up, D-Wade will also give you something before the fourth that makes you say, "Did he just do that?" And he'll make it look easy!
2. Who's struggling now, but by season's end is most likely to be thriving?
Elton Brand. His summer was draining mentally as well as physically. Getting married, playing in the World Championship, and not getting more than a week and a half off is draining in every part of his being right now. He'll get recharged, probably after the All-Star break, to make a solid run for the Clippers in the playoffs.
3. Which team that is struggling now is most likely to be a playoff force?
The Miami Heat. Things couldn't be much worse for them right now. But with the East being the weakest it has been in years, it doesn't look so bad. When Shaq returns, he will have had the adequate rest he needed to recharge the Heat. Remember, anything but championships are not enough for Diesel.
4. Which player has surprised you the most? Why? Who are some solid runners-up?
J.R. Smith. His development in three weeks has been very impressive. He has become a legitimate second scoring option for Denver. His shooting and half-court decision making have rapidly improved. Deron Williams' ability to lead the Utah attack under Jerry Sloan has probably not been surprising to the coach, but it has to a lot of fans. Williams is poised and seems perfect for that system. Josh Smith -- last year I just wanted to see him dunk. Now he's establishing himself as the type of player he can be in this league. I'm not sure he was comfortable being outside the 3-point line last season. Now he's shooting the 3 with confidence.
5. If you were starting a team with a player not named LeBron, who would it be and why? Runners-up?
Carmelo Anthony. The best offensive player in the game right now. He's unguardable by one person. Even the best defenders in the league will tell you this. Too big and strong for guards, and too quick for big men. His shooting touch pulls it all together.
Dwight Howard. Can't find big men like this anymore. Don't let the smile fool you. As good as he is, his potential is even scarier. Leading the league in rebounding by averaging 13.7 per game.
ESPN analyst Allan Houston played 12 years in the NBA before retiring in 2005.
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Dwight Howard had 21 points and 16 rebounds to help the Orlando Magic beat the Jazz 88-75 Monday night in a matchup of the teams with the best records in each conference.
FLA. WITH ME: Considering how badly the East teams are performing as a group thus far, can someone tell me why Orlando won't be the team to beat come playoff time? I'm watching them (and their top competitors) looking for reasons, and I can't find a good one. -- David Thorpe
PHILLY ILLY: Bad: Iverson took 37 shots against Miami, equal to the other four Sixers starters.
HILL? NO: Have you ever been watching a game when a player makes a play that completely takes you by surprise? That's how I feel when I see Grant Hill make a mental mistake. -- Thorpe
BE STRONG: Darko Milicic has a surprisingly advanced finesse game. Now he needs to heed the advice Brian Hill gave him in the fourth quarter of the Magic's win in Utah -- "Be strong!" -- Royce Webb
On Kansas forward Julian Wright:
I've been reporting on Wright's potential for the past two years, but this is the first NCAA game I've seen in which he really played up to it. He was sensational in just about every aspect of the game, and the NBA folks I spoke with couldn't stop raving about him.
Wright played with his usual energy and enthusiasm, but was much more aggressive offensively than we've seen him in the past. He was hitting midrange jumpers (his biggest Achilles' heel), putting the ball on the deck and driving to the basket, and picking up offensive rebounds for put-backs ... in other words, he scored in just about every way possible.
Where he really shined was in the point-forward role. He made several jaw-dropping passes that won't soon be forgotten. While Wright made some defensive mistakes and was relatively quiet offensively in the second half, the reviews afterwords were glowing.
"He reminds me of a mix between Kevin Garnett and Boris Diaw," one executive told me. "He's got Garnett's energy and athleticism, and he combines with with Diaw's versatility and basketball savvy. If he continues to attack that way on the offensive end, the kid's a top-five pick. You can't teach what he has."
I was talking to another NBA GM in Maui who told me that his top scout pushed and pushed him to make a guarantee to Wright coming out of high school. The GM didn't know enough about the kid to make that type of commitment, and Wright ended up going to KU. Now that we're starting to see the progress he's making as a player, it looks like it's a good thing for Wright, but not such a good thing for the GM who passed on a chance to get him late in the first round
Magic roll over Jazz
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Andris Biedrins' offense was big, but swatting three straight Tim Duncan's shots midway through the fourth quarter was even bigger, helping Golden State stop San Antonio's franchise-best road start at seven wins with a 111-102 victory.
Quotes of the Day
-- Andrew Ayres
Troy (Detroit, Michigan): The Pistons will win the East -- even with Shaq back. I think the biggest problem for the Pistons will be the Cavs and the LeBron-loving league (and refs). Comments?
John Hollinger: The Pistons might win it by default at this point. They and the Magic are the only teams playing up to their preseason expectations. Even the Cavs have been shakier than their record indicates. But the key for Detroit will be keeping their Big Four healthy, because the reserves remain a big step down.
Dwyane Wade had 33 points and 13 assists against the 76ers on Monday after having 35 points and 12 assists on Saturday against the Bobcats and 33 points and 15 assists Friday against the Magic. Only three other players in NBA history have had at least 30 points and a dozen assists in as many as three straight games.
Remember the catchy phrase "Fear the Fro" that was associated with Ben Wallace in Detroit?
Well, it's time for Scott Skiles and John Paxson to truly fear the 'fro now. Because if Wallace shows up Tuesday at the United Center against the Knicks with his hair blown out into an afro, the only way he'll be able to contain it is by wearing a headband.
But Wallace wouldn't do that again, would he? He wouldn't escalate his feud with Skiles that much, would he?