With the NBA All-Star break upon us, let’s hand out some midseason hardware and look ahead to the second half of the season.
Most outstanding player: LeBron James
Kevin Durant is in the midst of his finest season, about to win his fourth consecutive scoring title and making improvements in nearly every statistical category to become a more complete player. All of that is good enough to give him a firm, unwavering grasp on his position as the second-best player in the league. Since winning his third most valuable player award, first NBA championship, a Finals MVP and a second gold medal, LeBron James is no longer chasing his contemporaries; he has his eyes set on playing the perfect game, transcending the hype and truly being an all-time great.
Most unappreciated player: Tony Parker
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The San Antonio Spurs’ regular-season accomplishments often get diminished because the franchise hasn’t advanced to the NBA Finals since winning the last of four championships in 2007. And Tony Parker’s status as an elite point guard is often overlooked because he plays alongside a generational big man in Tim Duncan and a whirling dervish in Manu Ginobili. Some analysts even had the nerve to question his fifth all-star selection.
Biggest surprise: New York Knicks
The post-Patrick Ewing era in New York hasn’t exactly engendered much good favor from Knicks fans, who have remained loyal despite Stephon Marbury, Isiah Thomas, lottery seasons and early playoff exits. After losing to Miami in five games as a No. 7 seed last postseason, the Knicks didn’t exactly make many bold roster moves – aside from signing Ray Felton and becoming the equivalent of a retirement home for players born in the early to mid 1970s – and started the season with Amare Stoudemire on the shelf because of left knee surgery. But the early absence of Stoudemire helped Carmelo Anthony finally take control of the franchise that he begged out of Denver to lead.
Biggest disappointment: L.A. Lakers
Kobe Bryant is not willing to cede anything, even though age and declining athleticism have knocked him from his perch. As he closes in on the conclusion of a career that could possibly end next season, Bryant has become more blunt and defiant than ever. But no matter what Bryant does (he currently ranks third in scoring at age 34) or says (his Twitter account is among the most revealing), the future Hall of Famer has been powerless to keep this from being his most disappointing season in a Lakers uniform. And on a much more serious note, team owner Jerry Buss – who brought 10 championships to Los Angeles – has recently been hospitalized, reportedly with an undisclosed form of cancer.
Exciting trend: The 3-Ball Era
Teams that live by the 3-pointer used to suffer an unsightly death of long rebounds and easy transition baskets for the opposition when those long-distance shots didn’t fall. But in the modern NBA, the 3-point shot is the weapon of choice for teams that hope to go on big runs or make up large deficits. NBA teams are averaging about 40 combined 3-point attempts per game. Of the 17 teams averaging at least 19 3-pointers per game, 11 currently occupy playoff positions.
Discouraging trend: Injured point guards
Ten months after buckling to the ground with a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee, Derrick Rose has yet to play a game this season for the Chicago Bulls. A healthy Rose could elevate an already competitive Bulls team into a contender, but he recently stunned many when he declared that if his knee doesn’t heal properly, he doesn’t “mind missing this year.” The Boston Celtics already know they won’t have Rajon Rondo for the rest of the season after he tore his right ACL in Atlanta. John Wall returned after missing 33 games with a stress injury in his left knee and immediately provided hope and disappointment of what could’ve been, with the Washington Wizards going 10-8 after a 5-28 start without him.
• Durant will become the seventh player in NBA history to shoot 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from beyond the 3-point line and 90 percent from the foul line.
• James will join Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history with at least four MVP awards.
• The Lakers will make the playoffs.
• Portland’s Damien Lillard will become the fifth point guard in the past eight seasons to win NBA Rookie of the Year.
• Oklahoma City will defeat Miami to win the NBA championship.