Posts Tagged ‘Andre Iguodala’

Time To Step It Up For The Stretch Run


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the challenges facing the Knicks

Now that the slam dunking, 3-point shooting and other wretched excess of NBA All-Star weekend is in the rearview mirror, even those of us who aren’t 7-footers can stand on our tip-toes and see the playoffs from here.

There’s jockeying the standings to be done: Races for the No. 1 seeding in both the Eastern and Western Conference, the long-shot hopefuls trying to sneak in at the No. 8 spot and the down-to-the-wire elbowing for home-court advantage in the first round.

While Kobe Bryant continues driving himself to make it back onto the court this season because, well, he’s Kobe Bryant, there are a handful of other players and teams who need to step up their games coming down the homestretch:

Deron Williams — After a slow start a year ago, Williams found his stride and finished strong, averaging 22 points and 10 assists per game in the second half of the season. While the Nets have picked themselves out of the bottom of the garbage heap of the East to climb into the No. 7 spot in the standings thanks to Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett finally starting to come around, the most expensive roster in the league isn’t going anywhere in the playoffs if Williams can’t bounce back again and lead them. Is it the ankles? Is it the lack of confidence that he has mentioned? Or is he simply at the end of the line as an elite level point guard in his ninth season? Williams has scored 20 points just once since Jan. 4 and has only two games of handing out double-digit assists in 2014. He was even challenged to a 1-on-1 duel by coach Jason Kidd at a recent practice to try to light a spark.

Carmelo Anthony — He doesn’t show an interest in defense and, yes, he can turn Knicks games into a circus where he’s in the center ring and everyone else watches him hog the spotlight and the ball. Yet if it weren’t for Anthony carrying the offensive load, New York would be buried deeper in the standings. His PER of 24.61 is the second best of his career. Even at 20-32, the Knicks are within striking range in the East and Anthony is going to have to find a way to lift up his teammates — and save the job of coach Mike Woodson — rather than just outshine them before going into his summer of free agency. Of course, it wouldn’t hurt if J.R. Smith stopped his clown show and got back to playing basketball at least part time.

Timberwolves — The clock is ticking. Not just on another season when the Wolves were supposed become a playoff team that is slipping away. It could — and should — be ticking loudly on the end of Kevin Love in Minnesota. Two more seasons until Mr. Double-Double can fly out of the icy north to a landing some place where they actually do more than just talk about making the playoffs. Healthy again, Love is back to putting up big numbers. Yes, he’s faltered at times down the stretch as the Wolves have lost a ton of close games. But it really is a case of not having a supporting cast around him that has shown much inclination for improvement. That’s you, Ricky Rubio. Reports have said G.M. Flip Saunders is willing to trade anybody on the roster except Love in an attempt to keep him in Minnesota. But as another year comes off the calendar, you have to wonder if it isn’t already too late.

Manu Ginobili — Sidelined since the end of the January with a strained hamstring, the San Antonio firecracker is scheduled to jump back into the lineup this week. He’s not on this list due to underperforming but for how much the Spurs need him back in their lineup to get the fire burning again. Tony Parker got a chance to get a head start on his All-Star break because he has simply looked worn out this season after going all the way to The Finals last June and then playing for the French national team in EuroBasket. Tim Duncan is showing more and more of his age at times and there are rumors that he is thinking of retiring at the end of the season. The Spurs have played miserably against the top contenders in the West — just a single win over a Clippers lineup without Chris Paul. They need Ginobili to come back strong and healthy and durable to be considered real playoff contenders again.

Andre Iguodala — When the Warriors brought him in from Denver, the belief was that he’d upgrade the roster at both ends of the floor. They figured he’d be the slashing, penetrating force of the past, adding another scoring option and helping Stephen Curry distribute the ball and being a solid wing defender. While he’s helped move the ball and been solid on defense, the problem has been a lack of offensive production. He’s scoring just 9.6 points per game, the lowest since his rookie season in Philly. The Warriors don’t need him to challenge Curry or Klay Thompson as a big gun every night, but occasional flashes of firepower will be necessary if the team hopes to climb out of the No. 8 spot in the West and reach the preseason goal of a top four finish. Iguodala has scored 20 points only once since the opening week of the season.

Continuity Now A Strength For USA Basketball

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – USA Basketball announced its pool of 28 players that will make up the rosters for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball in Spain and the 2016 Olympics in Brazil. The roster, which includes 11 of the 12 players from the 2012 Olympic gold medalists (Kobe Bryant is the only exception), can be seen below.

Some things to know about the roster:

  • Note the word “initial” in the press release. Names could certainly be added to the roster between now and 2016. Players get hurt and have things that come up and keep them from participating. Also, there are no rookies or college kids on the list, and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo may want to bring a couple of young guys into the fold down the line.
  • Kevin Durant and Kevin Love have committed to play this summer in Spain.
  • The lack of continuity and stability were the USA’s weaknesses from 1998-2006, but have been strengths over the last several years. Even when the U.S. went to Turkey in 2010 with a new roster, the coaching staff was taking part in its fourth international competition and had a system in place. That coach Mike Krzyzewski is back for another run and so many players continue coming back is huge.
  • If the U.S. doesn’t win the World Cup later this year, they will have to participate in the FIBA Americas tournament in 2015 to qualify for the Olympics. After winning the Olympics in 2008, the World Championship in 2010, and the Olympics again in 2012, the U.S. has skipped the FIBA Americas tournament in 2009, ’11 and ’13.
  • If a player isn’t in the pool, it doesn’t necessarily mean that Colangelo and Krzyzewski didn’t want him. It’s possible that they asked and he declined.
  • Exactly half of the 28 players have experience in a major international competition. Blake Griffin was on the 2012 Olympic Team, but suffered a knee injury in training camp and was replaced by Anthony Davis. Colangelo often speaks of players earning “equity” with the program, so guys that have been on the roster before certainly have an advantage over those who haven’t.
  • Players’ NBA positions are listed below, but those aren’t necessarily their positions with the U.S. Team, which typically plays just one big man at a time and often has two point guards on the floor. LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony are power forwards, Love is a center, and Russell Westbrook is sometimes a small forward. The team wants to play fast and aggressive, especially on defense.
  • In 2008, ’10 and ’12, the team carried just three true bigs on the roster. There are 10 in the pool, including four with Olympic gold medals.
  • In addition to Bryant, active players with an Olympic or World Championship gold medal who are not in the pool: Chauncey Billups (2010), Carlos Boozer (2008), Chris Bosh (2008), Rudy Gay (2010), Eric Gordon (2010), Danny Granger (2010), Tayshaun Prince (2008) and Dwyane Wade (2008).
  • As noted by AP writer Brian Mahoney, the pool includes each of the top-10 scorers in the NBA. Also, Nos. 12 and 13.
  • Players who were at last summer’s mini-camp that aren’t on the roster: Ryan Anderson, Harrison Barnes, Mike Conley, DeMar DeRozan, Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, DeAndre Jordan, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Ty Lawson, Greg Monroe, Chandler Parsons, Dion Waiters, Kemba Walker, John Wall and Tyler Zeller. It’s a testament to how deep the point guard position is that Conley, Holiday, Lawson and Wall aren’t in the pool. Rockets beat writer Jonathan Feigen tweeted Wednesday that Parsons was not happy about his exclusion.
  • The field for the 2014 World Cup of Basketball can be seen here. The four wildcard teams (there were 15 applicants) will be announced on Saturday, Feb. 1. Spain, playing at home, is obviously the U.S. Team’s biggest threat.

2014-16 Men’s National Team Roster

Player Team POS Height Age NBA Exp. National team experience
LaMarcus Aldridge POR F 6-11 28 8
Carmelo Anthony NYK F 6-8 29 11 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012
Bradley Beal WAS G 6-5 20 2
Tyson Chandler NYK C 7-1 31 13 2007, 2010, 2012
DeMarcus Cousins SAC C 6-11 23 4
Stephen Curry GSW G 6-3 25 5 2010
Anthony Davis NOP F-C 6-10 20 2 2012
Andre Drummond DET C 6-10 20 2
Kevin Durant OKC F 6-9 25 7 2010, 2012
Kenneth Faried DEN F 6-8 24 3
Paul George IND F-G 6-9 23 4
Blake Griffin LAC F 6-10 24 4
James Harden HOU G 6-5 24 5 2012
Gordon Hayward UTA G-F 6-8 23 4
Dwight Howard HOU C 6-11 28 10 2006, 2007, 2008
Andre Iguodala GSW F-G 6-6 29 10 2010, 2012
Kyrie Irving CLE G 6-3 21 3
LeBron James MIA F 6-8 29 11 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2012
Kyle Korver ATL G-F 6-7 32 11
David Lee GSW F 6-9 30 9
Kawhi Leonard SAS F-G 6-7 22 3
Damian Lillard POR G 6-3 23 2
Kevin Love MIN F-C 6-10 25 6 2010, 2012
Chris Paul LAC G 6-0 28 9 2006, 2008, 2012
Derrick Rose CHI G 6-3 25 5 2010
Klay Thompson GSW G 6-7 23 3
Russell Westbrook OKC G 6-3 25 6 2010, 2012
Deron Williams BKN G 6-3 29 9 2007, 2008, 2012

Morning Shootaround — Jan. 18




VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 17

NEWS OF THE MORNING
Kobe’s return | Rondo returns | Durant explodes | Rubio’s thrill is gone | Red-hot Grizzlies

No. 1: Bryant has no intention of sitting out — It doesn’t matter that if his Lakers continue to plummet in the standings. It doesn’t matter if the team might be better off the long run — and for the end of his own career — by getting a high lottery pick and maybe a budding young star. It doesn’t even matter what legend Magic Johnson thinks. Kobe Bryant says he has every intention of returning to the court this season because, well, as he told Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com, he’s Kobe and that’s all he knows:

“The only thing I can afford to consider is getting better, getting stronger,” Bryant said before the Lakers’ 107-104 win over the Boston Celtics on Friday. “I can’t allow myself to think any other way. I can only think about the next step. To do anything else becomes distracting if you allow yourself, if you give yourself wiggle room to not push yourself as hard as you possibly can. To think about sitting out and this, that and the other, your motivation is all wrong. I refuse to think that way.”

Magic Johnson disagreed, as the former Lakers star questioned whether Bryant should come back at all this season in an interview with the Los Angeles Times this week.

“What is he coming back to? He’s not going to be able to stop the pick and roll, all the layups the Lakers are giving up,” Johnson told the newspaper. “He’s been hurt twice, give him the whole year to get healthy.”

In the same interview, Johnson called hiring Mike D’Antoni last season a “wrong decision.”

“Normally I don’t hear it until [the media] brings it up,” D’Antoni said, adding that he has never spoken to Johnson in person since joining the Lakers. “There’s voices everywhere, and it’s a hard job to do no matter what team you’re with. You do the best you can and you feel like every day is a new battle, and everybody has their opinion. There’s a saying about that. … So, that’s the way it is. You go on and do your job.”

Bryant, sidelined since Dec. 17 when he suffered a fracture of the lateral tibial plateau in his left knee during the Lakers’ 96-92 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, said he will return this season so long as he is medically cleared.
“We’ll see where it’s at in February and see if it’s good to go,” Bryant said, pushing back his return timeline ever so slightly, with D’Antoni having recently said Bryant would be re-evaluated Jan. 27, at the conclusion of the team’s current seven-game trip while the Grammy Awards take over Staples Center.

***

No. 2: Rondo looks and feels good in first game of season — It was his first game in almost a year, but Rajon Rondo showed no ill effects of the surgery to repair his torn right ACL. Even though the Celtics let the Lakers close with an 11-0 run to win the game, the new team captain told A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com that overall conditioning in his biggest hurdle going forward:

“I felt pretty good,” said Rondo, who didn’t have any significant pain but knows that could change within the next 24 hours. “When I got back in the second quarter I got pretty winded, but that was expected. Other than that, I didn’t feel like I was limited to anything tonight.”

Rondo has reiterated time and time again that his conditioning, more than anything else, remains his biggest hurdle.
For the 19-plus minutes he played, Rondo didn’t appear to show any concern or apprehension on the floor relative to his surgically repaired right knee.

In fact, the biggest issue facing Rondo going forward doesn’t appear to be what he’s doing on the floor.
It has to do with what happens when he’s not on the floor for long stretches of time, something that will inevitably happen as long as he has to play with minute restrictions.

Prior to Rondo’s first game, head coach Brad Stevens said he would be limited to 18-20 minutes per game.
It is unclear how long he will have minute restrictions.
“Coach (Stevens) and I talked about my minutes, how we were going to spread it out, you know, five minutes a quarter,” Rondo said. “I think that’s the best way to do it.”

***

No. 3: Durant takes his game to new heights with 54 points — If there comes a times next May or June when Kevin Durant is raising the MVP award above his head, will this have been the night when he wrestled the trophy out of the grasp of LeBron James? K.D. took on the Splash Brothers Friday night and gave them a dunking with a career-high 54 points on just 28 shots and staked his claim in leading the Thunder past the Warriors. Berry Trammel of The Oklahoman says it was Durant’s best night ever:

“He’s a special talent, a superstar basketball player, an all-time great,” said Golden State coach Mark Jackson.
The game started as a sharpshooting duel between teammates. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, who put the gold in Golden State, seemed to be playing a solitary game of H-O-R-S-E in the first quarter.

But by game’s end, there was no doubt who wore the crown. This was Durant’s finest offensive game as a pro.
Durant made 19 of 28 shots and virtually matched the long-range bombs of Curry and Thompson. The Warrior backcourt duo each nailed two 3-pointers in the first seven minutes and each nailed three treys in the first quarter.
Curry and Thompson finished with a combined 63 points. Curry had 37, making six of 10 3-pointers; Thompson had 26 points, making six of nine deep balls.

But Durant finished five of eight on 3-pointers. His 19 field goals tied a career high. The only two times he’s made more than 16 baskets in a game, he’s gone 19 of 28 overall. Friday against Golden State and Feb. 2012 against Denver, when Durant scored 51 points in a 124-118 Thunder victory.

But this performance was better. That Denver team included Andre Iguodala, one of the NBA’s few defenders capable of giving Durant a rough time, but Iguodala missed that game.

Now a Warrior, Iguodala played 29 1/2 minutes Friday night but was no match for Durant.

“The great players, you can play great defense and he can have numbers,” Jackson said. “It’s just a question of making him work. He hit some tough shots, some incredible shots. Give him credit.”

Durant now is averaging a career high 30.6 points a game this season. He was asked to carry a heavier load when Russell Westbrook underwent another surgery just after Christmas, and Durant has responded. He’s averaged 36.8 points the last five games.

***

No. 4: Rubio says he isn’t having any fun these days playing ballRicky Rubio says a lot of the blame for the Timberwolves disappointing 18-21 start to the season should be placed on his shoulders. The flamboyant point guard admitted to John Krawcyznski of the Associated Press that he just isn’t enjoying playing the game this season:

“I’m going to be honest. I’m not feeling comfortable out there,” Rubio told The Associated Press after a light practice on Thursday. “I’m not being myself and the team is noticing. I just have to be back where I was, be myself. I’m working on that. It’s something that’s missing. It’s tough for me, too.”

Rubio’s shooting numbers have never been great, but harping on that always seemed to be nitpicking for a player who sprinkled magic point guard dust all over the court — slipping passes through a defender’s legs for an open 3-point shot, picking a player’s pocket to start a fast break and seeing windows open before the defenders knew what hit them.

Even when he wasn’t starting his rookie season, the arena would crackle when he stepped to the scorer’s table to check in and his teammates’ eyes would widen in anticipation of a passes that came from impossible angles. It was still there last season when he returned from a torn ACL in December, even though his body took some time to ramp back up to the NBA’s pace of play.

“It’s basketball. I love it,” Rubio said. “But I’m just not having as much fun as it used to be. I know it has to be professional. But I just want to have fun. It’s hard to find it right now.”

***

No. 5: The Grizzlies are finally making their move –Just in case anybody forgot how important Marc Gasol is in Memphis, the All-Star center made a game-saving deflection to clinch a win over the Kings. The Grizzlies are now 3-0 since he returned to the lineup after a knee injury, have won five in a row overall and have crept back above the .500 mark and into the playoff picture in the West. Ron Tillery of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal has the details:

Gasol said later that he got fortunate on a gamble. But nothing about the Grizzlies’ season-high, five-game winning streak could be reduced to a stroke of luck.

The Griz (20-19) moved above .500 for the first time since early December and now they can claim a steadily improving defense. Memphis trailed 86-79 with 5:19 left and allowed Sacramento just one field goal the rest of the game.
Gay’s putback dunk cut the Grizzlies’ lead to a point with 38.9 seconds left. There had been no movement in the score when the Kings received the ball with 15.1 ticks remaining.

The Griz were as disruptive on the final possession as they had been the second half of the fourth quarter. Gay had the ball slapped away twice as he tried to attempt a game-winner from 15 feet. The Kings never got a clean look at the basket down the stretch.

“We’re making the right decisions at the right time,” Conley said after scoring a game-high 25 points. “I told the guys that it’s good to have games like this where you have a little adversity and come back. Those are the ones you learn from the most.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: J.R. Smith shows signs of positive life in Knicks loss … DeAndre Jordan wants to be more than just a dunker Jimmer Freddette could be turning a corner with steady playing time.

If Wins Matter, Is Kevin Love Still An All-Star Slam Dunk?


VIDEO: Kevin Love talks about dealing with tough stretches on ‘Inside Stuff’

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – This post might embolden a pitch-forked mob to burn my basketball-writing credentials at the stake, but here goes: Don’t chalk up Kevin Love as an automatic Western Conference All-Star reserve just yet. Not as long as the West coaches who will select those reserves stick to the notion that winning matters.

NBA All-Star 2014Here’s Dallas Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle three years ago when asked if Tim Duncan deserved to be selected despite averaging career lows in points and rebounds in the first half of the 2010-11 season: “Those guys are 37-4 or something. You’ve got to take a strong look at that. That’s meaningful, that Duncan is on a team that’s winning every game. That’s a big deal, and it should be.”

Duncan made the squad at the expense of statistically better options that included Love (later picked as an injury replacement for Yao Ming), LaMarcus Aldridge and Zach Randolph. Coaches will again have to take a strong look at Duncan, 37, when they cast their votes (selections will be announced on Jan. 30).

Duncan’s stats — 14.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg and 1.97 bpg in 29.0 mpg — again pale next to those of his younger counterparts even though he’s essential to the Spurs sitting atop the West at 31-8.

The West’s frontcourt field is stacked. The starters, as voted by the fans (voting ends Monday), appear set: Kevin Durant, Dwight Howard and Blake Griffin (although Love was only about 17,000 votes behind Griffin for the third starting spot after last week’s third returns; Love being voted in would render this conversation moot). Coaches will select four frontcourt reserves from a deep pool that as of now includes Love, Duncan, Aldridge, Dirk Nowitzki, Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and David Lee among a few others worthy of consideration (Nicolas BatumAndre Iguodala, Randolph?).

There will be quality snubs.

Love’s statistical credentials are spotless: 25.6 ppg (fourth in the league), 13.0 rpg (second), 4.0 apg (tied for first among power forwards) and 39.0 percent shooting from beyond the arc (10th overall) in 36.2 mpg. His presence, at least offensively, is essential: Minnesota’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) soars to 109.3 with him on the floor; without him it plummets to 93.0.

Love’s team, however, the thought-to-be playoff-ready Timberwolves, is a disheartening and seemingly unraveling group. At 18-20 they sit 11th in the West, four games out of the final playoff spot behind Nowitzki’s Mavericks. After a recent debacle of a home loss to Phoenix, Love publicly called out a pair of sulking teammates, a move that has been met with both praise and criticism.

Speaking of Nowitzki, how difficult will it be for coaches to pass on the NBA’s 13th leading all-time scorer who is averaging 21.4 ppg, is flirting with a 50-40-90 season and has his team playing mostly above expectations? Nowitzki’s 11-year All-Star run ended last season following preseason knee surgery. Aldridge and Batum have helped make the Blazers the NBA’s surprise team of the first half. An All-Star last year, Lee is averaging 19.2 ppg — shooting 52.8 percent — and 9.9 rpg on a top-five squad.

Like Love’s Wolves, Cousins’ Kings are on the wrong side of the win-loss coin, but the enigmatic center with the bad rep is having a monstrous season (one quite comparable to Love’s) — 23.4 ppg (49.6 FG%), 11.6 rpg, 1.8 spg and 1.1 bpg in 32.4 mpg. Sacramento (14-23) got off to an awful start, but has played better of late, winning six of its last 10, including wins over Miami and Portland, and have just three more losses than the Wolves.

The Kings closed that gap Wednesday with a 111-108 win at Minnesota. Cousins had 20 and 11 with five turnovers. Love had 27 and 11 with five assists. Cousins got the W.

Another intriguing point regarding Cousins’ chances for a first All-Star appearance: Last year the NBA altered the ballot, scrapping the traditional positional breakdown of guard, forward and center to simply backcourt and frontcourt to reflect the lack of true centers in today’s game. Under the old format, would not Cousins be a shoo-in as the backup center?

Love’s statistics scream All-Star. His team has been a dud. In a season in which the player field is so competitive, and if team wins are truly weighted as significant, the West coaches will be faced not with a slam dunk vote for Love, but rather embroiled in a most difficult process of elimination.

Report: Warriors Get Celts’ Crawford, Heat Get Douglas In Multi-Team Deal


VIDEO: The Starters crew break down the Celtics-Warriors-Heat trade

From NBA.com staff reports

The Golden State Warriors have been the hottest team in the league lately, with 11 wins in their last 12 games (and a 10-game win streak just a week or so ago). But as our own John Schuhmann has pointed out, Golden State has lacked in guard depth all season long, forcing it to play point guard Steph Curry and playmaking forward Andre Iguodala major minutes to offset that shortcoming.

But that changes with reports of a three-team trade between the Warriors, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat that will send Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks from Boston to Golden State for future picks. The Celtics will end up with Joel Anthony and some future Draft picks from the Heat, and the Heat get Toney Douglas from Golden State. Rumors of the trade were first broken by veteran NBA reporter Peter Vecsey and have been confirmed by Yahoo! Sports.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

As part of a three-team deal, the Boston Celtics have traded guards Jordan Crawford and MarShon Brooks to the Golden State Warriors, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

The Warriors will send guard Toney Douglas to the Miami Heat, and Miami sends center Joel Anthony and a future first-round pick and second-round pick to the Celtics, league sources told Yahoo Sports.

Miami will send a first-round pick it owns from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Celtics, but that pick becomes two second-round picks should the Sixers miss the playoffs in 2013-14 and 2014-15. The Heat will save $11.5 million in salary and luxury tax with the unloading of Anthony’s contract. Anthony has appeared in just 12 games for Miami this season, averaging a little more three minutes.

Gary Dzen and Baxter Holmes of The Boston Globe provide some additional context on the deal:

In a separate move, the Celtics assigned Rajon Rondo, out since last January with a knee injury, to their Maine affiliate in the NBA D-League. Rondo is expected to test his knee there before returning to the Celtics, possibly as early as Friday.

“Rajon is progressing terrifically in his rehab and this is the next step,” Celtics boss Danny Ainge said. “This is a brief assignment so that Rajon can participate in a workout this afternoon with the Red Claws and he will be called back up to the Celtics upon the conclusion of the workout.”

Rondo’s impending return and Boston’s rebuilding plans made Crawford expendable. When Rondo returns, he’ll join a backcourt rotation of Avery Bradley, Jerryd Bayless, and Phil Pressey.

Crawford, who is making $2.16 million this season, averaged 13.7 points, 5.7 assists, and 3.1 rebounds in almost 31 minutes per game this season will the Celtics. Brooks has seen very limited action since being traded to Boston over the summer.

After figuring heavily in Miami’s rotation three seasons ago, the 6-foot-9-inch Anthony was averaging 3.1 minutes per game for the Heat this year. He is owed $3.8 million in salary next season.

Free-Agent Barometer: Boom or Bust

Back in the hot fun of summertime, when there seem to be more dollars available than grains of sand, every free-agent signing is made to feel like a day at the beach.

Now, as we approach halfway mark of the season, it’s time to take the temperature:

GLOWING


VIDEO: Relive Dwight Howard’s signing with the Houston Rockets

Dwight Howard, Rockets — There are times when he is too passive and does not demand the ball enough from all of the inexperienced hands in the Houston lineup. But a healthy, happy Howard has been everything the Rockets hoped for when they forked over $88.5 million to lure him away from the Lakers. There is a bounce to his step and joy to his game that had been missing since the 2008-09 season in Orlando. With him in the middle and playing off James Harden, the Rockets are on track to eventually becoming a championship contender.

Andre Iguodala, Warriors — Don’t try to pigeonhole him or stick on a label as an elite defender or a greyhound that thrives in the transition game. He is simply a wonderful all around player that can do whatever is necessary in any situation. He was the spark that lifted the Nuggets a year ago to a franchise-best 57 wins and he’s moved to Golden State to become a difference-maker for the Warriors. For all of the (deserving) All-Star accolades to Stephen Curry and attention paid to Klay Thompson, Iguodala is the one that makes this fun and entertaining team truly dangerous.

Paul Millsap, Hawks — When it finally came time for the Hawks to cut the cord with Josh Smith, they went for his polar opposite. Not at all flamboyant, never trying to things outside his job description, Millsap comes to work every night and never leaves his team feeling shortchanged. His two-year, $19 million contract might have been the best free-agent bargain of the summer and he’s fit right in perfectly on the frontline in Atlanta. He’s blue-collar ways in the low post and on the boards has been needed even more since Atlanta lost Al Horford for the season.

Al Jefferson, Bobcats — One thing rookie coach Steve Clifford knew was that for the Bobcats to pick themselves up from their semi-permanent residence on the Eastern Conference floor, they needed a low-post presence to get some hard-fought points in the paint. He suffered an ankle injury in training camp and started slow, but once Jefferson got his legs under him, he’s averaged 16.8 points and 10 rebounds. It’s no coincidence that Charlotte (16 wins) is a sure bet to surpass last season’s 21-win campaign.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavericks guard Monta Ellis

Monta Ellis, Mavericks — We won’t go as far as Dallas owner Mark Cuban to say that the jury is still out on whether Ellis or Howard is the free-agent catch of the season. After all, we’re pretty sure Cuban would make a 1-for-1 swap right now. As coach of the Warriors years ago, ex-Mavs coach Don Nelson called Ellis selfish. But the once shot-happy Ellis has reined some of his tendencies and found a comfortable home in Dallas. He’s averaging 5.8 apg and his upbeat production is keeping the Mavs alive in the West playoff race.

Kevin Martin, Timberwolves — Every team he’s played on throughout a 10-year NBA career has gotten efficiency and production. He’s one of those players who can give you 20 points a game on a minimum number of shots due to a knack for drawing free throws. There have been many things lacking for Minnesota during another underachieving run, but Martin has come through with the kind of numbers — 19.3 points per game — that were expected.

SUNBURNED


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses where Andrew Bynum may end up next

Andrew Bynum, CavaliersSigning him to a two-year, $24 million contract (that was only half-guaranteed in Season 1) was supposed to make it a no-brainer for the Cavs. Of course, the no brain place continues to be between Bynum’s ears as he quickly alienated teammates, the coaching staff and the entire organization. He had a pair of 20-point games with 13 and 10 rebounds. But his biggest positive effect was as a payroll-slashing trade chip that eventually brought in Luol Deng.

Josh Smith, Pistons — Don’t let Joe Dumars near your piggy bank. Four years ago, the general manager wasted a Brinks truck full of money to bring in Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva and put the Pistons into a deep hole. This time Dumars dug deeper with his idea that he could give $54 million for four years to Smith and put him into a super-sized front line with Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. Smith has clashed with coach Maurice Cheeks, found himself sitting on the bench at the end of games and still takes bad shots at a high rate. Is anybody surprised?

Chris Kaman, Lakers — The money spent by the Lakers — $3.2 million, one year — could probably have been scraped up out of the sofa cushions in the luxury suites at Staples Center. But no matter how you slice it, the thought that Kaman was going to return to L.A. and help the Lakers in their most trying season was laughable in hindsight. Kaman has never found a way into the rotation, has frequently expressed his displeasure with coach Mike D’Antoni and now spends more time lobbing verbal bombs in frustration than tracking down rebounds or shooting.

IN THE SHADE

Tyreke Evans, Pelicans — With Jrue Holiday out of the lineup indefinitely with a stress fracture in his leg and the team still reportedly trying to trade Eric Gordon, this would be the time when Evans can step up and really shine. He’s been far from a bust and doggedly fought to keep himself in the Pelicans’ lineup despite the fact that he keeps reinsuring a sprained left ankle. But that $44 million, four-year contract raises expectations for more than 12.6 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. At this point, the jury is still out.

Six Worthy Below-The-Radar All-Stars

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors' leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

DeMar DeRozan is the Raptors’ leading scorer, at more than 21 points a game (Rocky Widner/NBAE)

We know the fan balloting to select the NBA All-Star Game starters is a beauty pageant more than a referendum on results.

Kobe Bryant, playing only six games this season, leading the balloting for the West backcourt and Rajon Rondo, who hasn’t played at all, ranked in the top six in the East means all that is missing is a sash and tiara.

With less than a week left in the voting for the starting lineups, it will be up to the coaches — they name the reserves — to fill in the blanks and rectify some of the slights. But there’s still more than handful of deserving players who could be left out. We’ll call them the All-Fars, as in too far under the radar:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Paul Millsap, F, Hawks — When teammate Al Horford was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle, it certainly made life a little more difficult for everyone on the Hawks. But it also shed some light on Millsap’s contributions. After six years in Utah, the Jazz let Millsap walk in the name of their youth movement. So he took his lunch-pail attitude to Atlanta as perhaps the best free-agent bargain of last summer. He’s rung up 16 double-doubles in the first 37 games this season and, along with point guard Jeff Teague, is responsible for keeping the Hawks in the No. 3 spot in the East.

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo (Fernando Medina/NBAE)

Arron Afflalo, G, Magic — Location, location, location. Afflalo is hardly in the prime real estate spot for getting notice with the also-running Magic. There was a great deal of speculation that he would have to be traded before the start of the season to make way for rookie Victor Oladipo. But the Magic are glad they resisted the urge and kept him around. He’s averaging more than 21 points, four assists and four rebounds per game and shooting better than 40 percent from behind the 3-point line. Is it too much of a stretch to label him the second-best shooting guard in the East behind Paul George? Dwyane Wade certainly gets the notoriety and the votes, but Afflalo has the credentials to be in the conversation.

DeMar DeRozan, G, Raptors — If Afflalo is held back by Orlando being mired at the bottom of the East standings, how much of a bump can DeRozan get from being the lead dog pulling the wagon for the Atlantic Division-leading Raptors? That is odd just to type. But there’s no question that Toronto has come together in the aftermath of the Rudy Gay trade. The 24-year-old DeRozan has ably stepped up to carry the offensive load and has shined in big wins at Oklahoma City and at home over the Pacers. He’s scoring, passing and rebounding. The only thing missing is a dependable 3-point stroke.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Ty Lawson, G, Nuggets — With the injuries to Kobe Bryant and Chris Paul, it seems that the All-Star door is finally going to swing open for Stephen Curry. But that still leaves a gigantic logjam of point guards in the West. Never mind the populist voting that has the likes of Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin in the top 10. Lawson still has plenty of competition from Damian Lillard and Tony Parker, both of whom play for teams that are significantly higher up in the standings. The Nuggets had to do an extreme makeover with the departure of Andre Iguodala and the loss of Danilo Gallinari to a knee injury. Lawson has to carry the lion’s share of the load and is the only player on the roster averaging more than 30 minutes per game. He said he didn’t like coach Brian Shaw’s system at the start of the season, but he has thrived in it.

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum (Sam Forencich/NBAE)

Nicolas Batum, F, Trail Blazers — He’s a victim of his own teammates. While the Blazers’ surprising rise in the standings is giving LaMarcus Aldridge his star turn, and Damian Lillard is constantly providing his own end-of-game highlights, the young Frenchman stands in the background and rarely draws more more attention than the wallpaper. He’s still long and lean, but seems to have grown in confidence with his offense. As part of the bombs-away Portland attack, he’s firing up at least five 3-pointers per game and connecting at a 40 percent clip. He’s also playing more of a role as a distributor and remains an excellent finisher on the Blazers’ break with his speed and length. Likely the only way Batum will ever get his due is if he helps take his team all the way to The Finals, where nobody gets overlooked.

Anthony Davis, F, Pelicans — A year ago, it was easy to look past the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft because his coach did more to stop him with a lack of playing time than any defender on the court. But the reins are off now and Davis has become a real force at both ends of the court, averaging just under 20 points, nine rebounds and more than two blocked shots per game. Coach Monty Williams says there is virtually nothing he doesn’t trust Davis to do on the court now. The 20-year-old, who’s expected to be the foundation of the franchise for the next decade, has had to shoulder even more of the load due to the spate of injuries that have taken down Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Ryan Anderson. He’s got a particularly tough road to travel to the All-Star Game in his hometown of New Orleans with Aldridge, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, to name a few, blocking his path. Plus, he’s playing in the depths of the standings. But growth in the shadows is still growth.

Curry’s On The Rise And Dubs Following


VIDEO: Stephen Curry finishes incredible, off-balanced layup against the Bucks

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Something BIG happened Thursday in the third returns of All-Star fan voting regarding the Western Conference backcourt.

Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry overtook his Los Angeles Clippers counterpart Chris Paul as the No. 2 vote-getter. Paul is regarded almost unanimously in the basketball universe as the top quarterback in the game today, yet the fan vote positions Curry to start ahead of him at the 63rd All-Star Game in New Orleans on Feb. 16.

On the verge of making his first career All-Star appearance — whether it’s as a starter through the fan vote or he earns the nod of the Western Conference coaches who left him off as a reserve last year — Curry surged past the wildly popular CP3 and leads him by some 26,000 votes heading into the final stretch. Fan voting ends on Jan. 20.

Paul likely won’t be able to play anyway because of the separated right shoulder he sustained a week ago in Dallas. There’s no telling how the injury might have shifted would-be Paul votes to Curry. But it’s reasonable to think it made no difference at all. Kobe Bryant has played in just six games yet has garnered more votes by a wide margin than all West backcourt candidates. Chicago’s Derrick Rose is third in the East despite playing in just 10 games.

Perhaps Curry got a bump from overseas fans or maybe the Warriors faithful is stuffing the ballot box at Oracle Arena and online after he trailed Paul by nearly 52,000 votes after the second returns and almost 66,000 after the first. Or maybe we’re just witnessing a young, incredibly exciting player on a meteoric rise to stardom. Still, his surge past the incumbent Paul is astonishing.

All-Star starting spots don’t just pop free. Players are often entrenched in starting roles for years. Paul has been selected to six consecutive All-Star Games. He’s started the last three and four of the last five with only Steve Nash nabbing the spot in 2010. Before Curry captured the world’s imagination with breathless playoff performances, he finished eighth in last year’s fan voting. Paul was named the All-Star Game MVP, and he’s having another terrific season.

Yet suddenly, Mr. Assist is taking a back seat to a player some call the baby-faced assassin.

This is big for Curry and the Warriors, who for most of their existence have languished in mediocrity and far off the radar of NBA fans beyond their own long-suffering devotees. They produced mostly bad teams interspersed with entertaining ones that still never accomplished much. Some caught lightning-in-a-bottle like Don Nelson‘s 2007 bunch that he dubbed “schmoes” during their upset of No. 1 seed Dallas.

Think of this: Curry’s Warriors, barring a major catastrophe, are headed to the franchise’s first consecutive playoff appearances since 1991 and 1992. They went from 1995 to 2006 without making the playoffs once. In 2011-12, Curry played in 26 of 66 games due to injury. The Warriors won 23. Last season he played in 78 and the team won 47. This season, his fifth, Golden State (24-14), having withstood an early injury bump, is on pace to crack 50 wins for the first time in 20 years.

Curry delivers undeniable star-power and brand-power at a time when the franchise finally means business under the well-heeled and opportunistic ownership group headed by Joe Lacob. Curry makes the Warriors must-see TV and a target on every free agent’s wish list. That was witnessed last summer with Golden State’s late entry into the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and their signing of free-agent forward Andre Iguodala, a vital addition that has helped a team with an explosive offense now rank fourth in defensive rating behind only Indiana, Chicago and Oklahoma City.

With Curry, anything seems possible. The Warriors are a percolating franchise and a Western Conference contender at this very moment, and for the foreseeable future. The impending move into a sparkling, waterfront arena in San Francisco (as much as I personally hate to see the team leave the East Bay) will strengthen the franchise’s profit margin and transform it into a “big market” club that chases top free agents and willingly steps into the luxury tax when applicable. Golden State is on the NBA map.

If Curry, 25, finishes second in fan voting and is a starter in his first career All-Star Game, he will have earned the popular vote through performances that almost seem mythical. He’s averaging career-bests of 23.1 ppg and 9.4 apg — blowing away last season’s career-high of 6.9 apg. While his shooting percentages (44.0 percent overall  and 38.9 percent on 3s) are actually career lows, and turnovers (a career-worst 4.2) continue to be an issue, he’s taken on more responsibility than ever and is the go-to gunner and leader of a team with growing aspirations.

Yes, Curry is on the rise, and he’s taking the Warriors with him.

And that’s BIG.

Warriors Run Out Of Gas Against Nets Before They Can Make History

VIDEO: Nets snuff out Warriors

NEW YORK – No team in NBA history had ever swept a road trip of seven games or more.

There’s a reason for that, and for why that bit of trivia still applies after Wednesday’s game in Brooklyn. Playing seven road games in a row is really hard.

The Golden State Warriors made it through six straight wins – including a victory in Miami last Thursday – but didn’t have enough gas in the tank to get win No. 7 on Wednesday, falling to the Brooklyn Nets, 102-98.

As much fun as it is to watch Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson launch 3s, to watch the second-best passing forward in the league, to watch David Lee‘s brilliance on the pick-and-roll, and to watch Andrew Bogut‘s craftiness inside, the Warriors’ 10-game winning streak and 19-3 record with both Curry and Andre Iguodala healthy was about defense.

During the streak, the Warriors scored 103.4 points per 100 possessions, a little over the league average for offensive efficiency. But they allowed just 93.3, a little over what the Indiana Pacers — the No. 1 defense in the league — have allowed this season. In the 22 games that Curry and Iguodala had played, they had allowed 94.9. Overall, they ranked fourth in defensive efficiency entering Wednesday’s action.

And it was on defense where fatigue affected them most in Brooklyn. The Warriors got off to a hot shooting start, held the Nets to just 16 points on their first 24 possessions of the night, and led by 16 late in the first quarter. But over the final 12 1/2 minutes of the first half, Brooklyn scored 43 points in 26 possessions.

The Warriors were a step slow on most possessions, two steps slow on others. Joe Johnson and Shaun Livingston seemingly strolled to the rim on a few occasions. And really, as the Nets took a seven-point lead into halftime, it looked like the Warriors (and the streak) were done.

But they fought back, took the lead late in the third quarter, and went down to the wire. And again, they just didn’t have enough in the tank, shooting 1-for-8 (0-for-5 from 3-point range) in the final four minutes.

The Warriors’ lack of depth certainly contributed to their fatigue. Back-up guards Toney Douglas and Kent Bazemore had an atrocious stretch in the second quarter, so Curry and Thompson played the entire second half. Curry led all scorers with 34 points, but went 0-for-8 from 3-point range after making his first two bombs in the first period.

And that’s the issue with the Warriors going forward. They’ve been terrific when they’ve been healthy, but their lack of a competent back-up for Curry could wear him down by April. So it’s no wonder they’d love to acquire Andre Miller or Kyle Lowry.

Still, a 6-1 trip is impressive. A top-five defense will win them a lot of games. A potent offense could help them deep in the playoffs. And the toughness they showed in Brooklyn on Thursday will help them in big spots down the line. Though the end-of-the-trip fatigue was obvious to any observer, the Warriors weren’t using it as an excuse.

“It’s a long road trip,” Curry said, “but we can’t let that be an excuse for how the game ended. We have to find a way to win.”

“Give them credit,” added head coach Mark Jackson. “They got in a rhythm, put us in tough situations with their pick-and-rolls, and they made plays.”

Indeed, the Nets deserve credit. They’re playing their best basketball of the season and have found some success with a small lineup. Now they have the longest winning streak in the league at four games. Three of the wins have come against teams with winning records and two have come without Deron Williams.

But this game was as much about the Warriors’ schedule as it was about how well the Nets have played in 2014. Seven games in seven cities over 11 days is rough, especially when the trip ends with a back-to-back in Milwaukee and Brooklyn.

“It was a frustrating way to end the streak,” Lee said, “but overall, a 6-1 road trip is very positive.”

So … Who Wants To Be No. 1 In The West?

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – We’ve spent two months knee-slapping and belly laughing over the bumbling, stumbling (L)Eastern Conference while keeping nightly tabs on the Western Conference’s conquests over the feeble JV division. The divide’s grown so disproportionate it’s no longer worth counting.

And then something silly happens like Miami going on the road, and without LeBron James in uniform, drop-kicking West-leading Portland. Just like that, all the ribbing of the other side doesn’t seem all that appropriate — or wise. The West might be deeper, but the cream still rises in the East.

The Heat continue to find ways to remind us that they still rule the NBA. And the East, as exasperating as it is to look at teams No. 3-15, is delivering a stout two-team race: Miami and its lone challenger determined to prevent the Heat’s fourth consecutive Finals appearance — the self-assured Indiana Pacers.

The West is not the East. The West is entangled, wild and woolly; a shootout, a grudge match and pure survival every night. Think about this for perspective: The West’s 12th-best team, Memphis, would be fifth in the East. With so many capable teams, an injury here, a cold snap there, a trade down the road can tip the balance of power.

As we steamroll into 2014 and toward the mid-February All-Star weekend and then the trade deadline, these forces are already at work, making the West far more unpredictable than even what we thought at the beginning of the season.

No one team is pulling away. Several have key injuries. And all are not without a potential fatal flaw.

THE UPPER CRUST

Oklahoma  City Thunder (27-7): Russell Westbrook‘s combination of strength, power and speed makes him indispensable to a Thunder title charge. A third surgery in the span of eight months on his right knee is hardly optimum, but at least the last two were both arthroscopies and therefore far less invasive than the original April surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Judging by his rapid return last time and his explosive play, we’ll lean toward Westbrook again returning as if nothing happened (especially since early reports of his recovery already sound encouraging). OKC is better equipped than last season to survive a potential two-month absence. Reggie Jackson is having an excellent season, Serge Ibaka has All-Star credentials, the bench is deep and OKC is committed to elite-level defense. And then there’s that guy Kevin Durant. The Thunder, an impressive 17-5 against the West, remain my pick to be last team standing — as long as Russ can be Russ.


VIDEO: See why OKC’s Kevin Durant was named the Kia Player of the Month winner for December

San Antonio Spurs (26-8): Coach Gregg Popovich bristled at the notion that the Spurs’ win over the Chris Paul-less Clippers on Saturday night should go on the board as a win over a big-boy team. While the Spurs own the second-best record in the West, they’ve done it by rolling everybody but the teams closest to them in the standings. They’re 1-6 against the four other teams that have mostly made up the top five all season (0-1 vs. Portland; 0-2 vs. Oklahoma City; 0-2 vs. Houston; 1-1 vs. the Clips). They’re also 0-1 against Indiana. It certainly does raise eyebrows, but at the same time, it’s not like the Spurs don’t know how to raise their level of play when it counts. Popovich is thinking down the road, too, manipulating his deep roster and spreading minutes. Tony Parker is the only player averaging more than 30 mpg (30.8). San Antonio plays solid defense, Parker remains phenomenal, Manu Ginobili has raised his game and the Spurs can shoot the 3. It’s not quite time to worry that the Spurs are yet again too old to keep up with all of the West’s young bucks.

Portland Trail Blazers (26-8): No one predicted upper-crust status at this point and I even hesitated putting them here now with their recent slowdown. But with wins over San Antonio, Indiana, Houston, the Clippers and two over Oklahoma City (one without Westbrook), it would be unfair to deny this team what they’ve earned. Led by star-in-the-making point guard Damian Lillard and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, they own the league’s most efficient offense and absolutely shoot the lights out from downtown, already hitting a franchise-record 21 3-pointers in a game twice. While they don’t possess a great defensive rating, they are certainly capable defenders and can surge at that end from time to time. They added nicely to a thin roster with center Robin Lopez and reserve guard Mo Williams, and rookie C.J. McCollum is on his way back. Yet, you have to wonder if they’re ultimately deep enough behind their starting five, and too reliant on the long ball when push comes to shove in the playoffs.


VIDEO: Inside the NBA’s crew discusses Portland’s place among the West’s elite

THE TASTY FILLING

Los Angeles Clippers (24-13): Doc Rivers‘ team has been more inconsistent than many thought, and early on were downright awful defensively. It hasn’t helped that J.J. Redick has been out for five weeks with a fractured hand. Now, of course, comes the ultimate test with Paul sidelined for six weeks with a separated right shoulder. The Clips don’t have an athletic, playmaking wing and will need Jamal Crawford to help take pressure off of Blake Griffin, who will be targeted by every opponent. Bottom line is L.A. will really have to claw to remain in the top five or six in the absence of CP3, the league’s assist leader. L.A.’s defensive rating now ranks eighth and they’ll have to rely on that end of the floor to win games in the interim or else it could mean giving up homecourt advantage in what promises to be a difficult first-round matchup.


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses Chris Paul’s injury and its effect on the Clippers

Golden State Warriors (23-13): Early turbulence, namely a hamstring injury to glue guy Andre Iguodala, sent the Warriors into weeks worth of sketchy play. A nine-game win streak has made that slog a distant memory and now the Steph Curry-led Dubs look like the team everybody expected after last season’s playoff breakthrough. As always, this team will go as far as Curry and his fragile ankles (knock on wood) take them, plus the health of center Andrew Bogut, who has managed to play in 35 of 36 games and average double-digit rebounds and 1.74 bpg. The big issue with Golden State is exhaustion. With the reliable Jarrett Jack gone, Toney Douglas has averaged just 11.7 mpg in 21 games. Curry and Klay Thompson are averaging close to 38 mpg, a pace that could take a toll down the road.

Houston Rockets (22-13): We knew it would take some time for this team to come together and they’ve certainly had bouts of inconsistency marked by trouble closing out games. They’re also only 12-11 against the West, meaning they’ve gotten fat off the East. However, they’ve also dealt with injuries to James Harden, Jeremy Lin and Patrick Beverley and have managed to hang tough. Dwight Howard (17.8 ppg, 12.9 rpg) has put up good numbers and on some nights he looks like the force he was before these last few years of perplexing indecision. Yet at other times, he still seems to be out of sorts. His presence in the middle hasn’t made the Rockets an elite defensive team, ranking in the middle of the pack.

Phoenix Suns (20-12): The Suns were headed for the next group on our list until some deeper thought got them in at the last second. With two wins against Portland, and wins over Houston, Golden State and a blowout on the Clippers’ home floor, plus a top 10-rated offense and defense, they belong here. The question is can a journeyman like Gerald Green (13.4 ppg, 39.0 3-point FG pct.) and a young, overlooked center like Miles Plumlee (9.9 ppg, 9.2 rpg) continue to produce at their current levels? More than a third of the way through the season, that appears more and more to be yes. Both Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic have been All-Star worthy and with blue-collar workers like P.J. Tucker and the Morris twins, the Jeff Hornacek‘s Suns possess the toughness to compete every night. The hallmark of this club has been one that doesn’t take a play off.


VIDEO: The Starters give Suns coach Jeff Hornacek some props

THE OUTER CRUST 

Dallas Mavericks (19-15): While the Dirk Nowitzki-Monta Ellis combo gained traction early, this team has perhaps irreparable flaws starting with a porous defense. Center Samuel Dalembert is proving unreliable and leaving Dallas severely outmanned in the middle. Point guard Jose Calderon, while being a smart and steady quarterback and an excellent shooter, has seen the West’s athletic point guards exploit his size and lack of foot speed. Even Nowitzki recently questioned his team’s playoff chances after it continues to blow leads.


VIDEO: NBA Action catches up with Mavs guard Monta Ellis

Minnesota Timberwolves (17-17): Perhaps the biggest mystery team of the bunch. Thought to be a playoff team for two seasons now, this time they can’t use injuries as an excuse. Even with Kevin Love putting up monstrous numbers, the Wolves can’t close out games and have lost a handful of games they seemingly had in their back pocket. That’s no way to do business in this conference. Perhaps most perplexing is point guard Ricky Rubio, who has not emerged as an All-Star candidate this season and seems to have little confidence in his shooting ability.

POTENTIAL FILLER

Denver Nuggets (16-17): It’s been a roller coaster season under first-year coach Brian Shaw. A slow start gave way to an impressive winning streak that crumbled into a rather stunning losing streak. More roster shakeup is on the way with disgruntled Andre Miller on the outs. At some point Danilo Gallinari will return from the ACL injury suffered late last season, providing 3-point pop and needed depth. They aren’t hanging their hat at either end of the floor right now, adding skepticism that they can improve enough to nab the final playoff spot.

New Orleans Pelicans (15-17): Anthony Davis is proving why he was the No. 1 pick in 2012, averaging a double-double (19.0 ppg and 10.1 rpg) while leading the league in blocked shots (3.2). Ryan Anderson missed the first part of the season and now is out indefinitely with a herniated disk.  You certainly wonder where this team might be if it had full health (Davis also missed seven games) from the jump. We’ve seen glimpses of how dangerous the backcourt of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon and Tyreke Evans can be. The question is: can do it with consistency?


VIDEO: Inside Stuff catches up with Pelicans star big man Anthony Davis

Memphis Grizzlies (15-18): Under rookie coach Dave Joerger, the Grizz were wobbly before Marc Gasol went down with a knee injury after 13 games, but as he nears a return, there is optimism that he, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph can pull things together and make a run. That’s why they dealt Jerryd Bayless to Boston for a better 3-point shooter (Courtney Lee). If they don’t get things together, Randolph could be on his way out.

MYSTERY INGREDIENT

Los Angeles Lakers (14-20): Will Pau Gasol remain a Laker? Will Kobe Bryant be back sooner than later? Can Steve Nash return with anything left to offer?Can they steady the ship since their swift downturn after Bryant fractured his knee? If the answer to those questions is yes, then it’s possible — not likely — but possible the Lakers can make a second-half charge similar to last year when it appeared they were cooked, yet grabbed the No. 7 seed.

LEFT OUT

Sacramento Kings (10-22): DeMarcus Cousins is putting up All-Star numbers, but the Kings’ poor start negated all the positive preseason momentum.

Utah Jazz (11-25): Rookie Trey Burke is looking good. But Jazz fans had already come to grips that the name of the game is patience as they wait on the youth movement.