Four star-studded teams take the spotlight Friday night for an ESPN doubleheader (Bulls vs. Knicks, 8 p.m. ET; Thunder vs. Lakers, 10:30 p.m. ET). Who's the best player of the bunch? Most overrated? Our panel weighs in.
1. Who's the most valuable player in Friday's doubleheader?
Jim Cavan, KnickerBlogger: Kevin Durant. For as well as Melo and Kobe have played, KD has a pair of things working in his favor: His team isn't five games below .500, and he hasn't missed seven games because of injury and suspension. Melo losing his cool and Kobe and his team's confidence aside, it's hard to argue with Durantula's next-level resume.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: Kevin Durant. Though he's not as productive in sheer numbers as LeBron might be, he's the best of the rest. Statistically, Durant is a better-scoring LaMarcus Aldridge who's also in the 50/40/90 shooting club. That's just not fair.
Curtis Harris, Hardwood Paroxysm: Kevin Durant is not only MVP of tonight's doubleheader, but probably MVP of the whole NBA right now. He's simply having a monstrous season -- historically monstrous. We're talking Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek and Larry Bird in their primes territory. He's passing, scoring, defending and rebounding in ways that few small forwards ever have.
Matt McHale, Bulls By The Horns: Kevin Durant. He'd get my vote for MVP of the league if LeBron James disappeared from the face of the Earth. He's second in the NBA in player efficiency rating and there isn't much he can't do. There's certainly nobody better playing tonight.
Jared Wade, 8 Points, 9 Seconds: Kevin Durant. New York's woeful shooting Thursday against the Pacers may suggest that Carmelo is technically "more valuable" to his team than any other star in the league. But Durant is just better, and the Thunder need him just as much as the Knicks need Melo.
2. Who's the most underrated player in Friday's doubleheader?
Cavan: Joakim Noah. Despite some statistical down-ticks, Noah's indispensable interior defense, barbaric rebounding and screaming leadership have been key to the Bulls' keeping pace in the East. None of these tend to register above the NBA fold, but for a team awaiting a savior's resurrection, they're all important. Also, I'm glad I offered this response before tonight's game.
Haberstroh: Nick Collison. Give him the Lifetime Achievement Award for underratedness. Oklahoma City fans still haven't figured out why Collison, not Kendrick Perkins, was riding the pine for most of the NBA Finals. Collison habitually ranks in the top 20 league-wide in adjusted plus-minus, which is the ultimate measure for guys who do the little things that affect on the scoreboard, not the box score.
Harris: Nick Collison. He's beloved by the hoop savant, but criminally ignored by the masses. Collison is an excellent defender and no one is better at stepping in to absorb a charge. On offense he sets durable screens and knows how to swing the ball off to the open man. It's always a joy to watch him play.
McHale: Kirk Hinrich. Statistically, he's having a terrible season, shooting a miserable 36 percent from the field with a PER well below the league average. That said, Hinrich is by far the team's best backcourt defender, and Chicago's defense suffers when he's not available. This was glaringly apparent the other night when Milwaukee's Brandon Jennings scored a season-high 35 points -- which also happened to be an individual season high for a Bulls opponent -- in Hinrich's absence.
Wade: Luol Deng. Led by LeBron and Carmelo, the early 2000s saw an influx of new small forwards who were supposed to become stars. Andre Iguodala, Danny Granger and Deng never truly did, but arguably the best of the three, Deng, seems to be the one who is never discussed.
3. Who's the most overrated player in Friday's doubleheader?
Cavan: Kobe Bryant. Am I allowed to say that? Pinnacle efficiency aside, the fact that Bean has hoisted more shots than Pau Gasol, Steve Nash and Dwight Howard -- even granting injuries -- points to a player more invested in pride than the kind of collaboration and creativity necessary to forge a new way forward.
Haberstroh: Kendrick Perkins. Perkins' advocates point to his outstanding win percentage in the playoffs as a starter. I point to the more outstanding fleet of Hall of Famers that he has been lucky enough to play with his entire career. For the third season in a row, the Thunder have been better with Perkins on the bench than in the game. If he's that good of a leader and that bad on the floor, here's an idea: make him an assistant coach.
Harris: J.R. Smith. Landing in New York after being exiled in China was surely a relief for Smith. However, his game is the same as it ever was. Smith remains a low-percentage shooter who can go on incendiary hot streaks and put down seriously amazing dunks. It's fun to watch, but don't let the bright lights fool you.
McHale: I will provide my answer in the form of a question: Why is Kendrick Perkins still in Oklahoma City's starting lineup?
Wade: Richard Hamilton. I think close watchers know he is well past his prime, but many sports fans still think he is a difference-maker. The fact is that he has become a jump-shooter who doesn't make all that many shots anymore and now lacks the foot speed to play high-level defense.
4. Who's the best scorer in Friday's doubleheader?
Cavan: Durant. It's darn close -- Melo's inside-out arsenal is as good as they come, and Kobe is still very much Kobe. But neither has the combination of quickness, length, range and creativity of KD, whose every other move seems like it should be illegal. If I'm picking first from this crop for a 2-on-2 tournament, this is my guy.
Haberstroh: Durant. Carmelo Anthony is having a career year in the shooting efficiency department and yet he still can't sniff Durant's percentages. Yes, Carmelo has more points per game, but that's because he's the No. 1 and the No. 2 scorer on the Knicks. If Durant didn't have to share the rock with Russell Westbrook, he'd score 35 points a game in his sleep.
Harris: Kevin Durant is undoubtedly the best scorer. He is shooting the holy trinity of 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the charity stripe. Pick your poison and be happy you at least got to decide how KD dismantled your team.
McHale: Kevin Durant. With all due respect to Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant Durant is the complete offensive package and shoots lights out from pretty much everywhere. This season he's entering that hallowed 50-40-90 stratosphere: 51.9 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from 3-point range and 90.4 percent from the free throw line. All three of them can score virtually any way they want. Durant simply does it more efficiently.
Wade: Kevin Durant. Carmelo may have a little more versatility and Kobe may have more desire to shoot, but neither helps his team more than KD. Durant spaces the floor so well that it makes the entire offense, not just him, immeasurably difficult to cover.
5. Who's the best defender in Friday's doubleheader?
Cavan: Luol Deng. Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, Thabo Sefolosha -- these guys are all quantum on the defensive end, for similar and disparate reasons alike. But in today's NBA, having a player who can lock down multiple positions is a platinum commodity, and Deng does that as well as just about anybody. On the ball, he's terrifying. Off it, he's nearly just as good.
Haberstroh: This season? Joakim Noah. Typically, it's Tyson Chandler. But the reigning Defensive Player of the Year hasn't been healthy this season and it shows. The Knicks rank 17th (tied with Philadelphia) in defensive efficiency and the Bulls have been top five all season. Credit Thibs for turning Noah into a dominant force on that end.
Harris: Serge Ibaka. Lots of good defenders, but at this moment Ibaka is the best one. Tyson Chandler and Joakim Noah have slipped a bit this season. Meanwhile, Dwight Howard is having a hard time fully recovering this season from his April 2012 back surgery.
McHale: I'd say this one comes down to Joakim Noah versus reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tyson Chandler. At the risk of coming off like a homer, I'm going with Noah. Both of them anchor their team's defense, but after a strong start, the Knicks have dropped to 17th in defensive efficiency while the Bulls are ranked fourth. Noah does what he does in long minutes (currently fourth in minutes per game) while ranking third in defensive win shares. Chandler isn't even in the top 20.
Wade: Joakim Noah. With Serge Ibaka you get more highlights. With Noah you get the anchor of the most reliable defense in the NBA.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Tom Haberstroh writes for ESPN Insider and ESPN.com's Heat Index. Jim Cavan, Curtis Harris, Matt McHale and Jared Wade are part of the TrueHoop Network.
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