1. What Scouts Are Saying At Midway Point
This wasn't the case last week, but we're there now: Every team in the league has passed the 41-game pole.
So it's time, again, to check in with the advance scouts who see three to four games every week. It's a habit here to tap into their up-close perspective on some of the league's major developments as we move into the second half of the regular season, just as we do after 20 games and will repeat after 60.
The five scouts consulted -- two from the East, three from the West -- were granted the condition of anonymity to speak as freely as possible about the following hot topics:
Eastern Conference scout choosing his top team in the East
"I'd still stick with Boston when they're healthy. They have the two best interior defenders [Kevin Garnett and Rasheed Wallace]. They have enough size and physicality that LeBron [James] won't dominate them like he does to so many others. The problem is that nobody thinks they can stay healthy.
"Their biggest weakness is backup point guard, but teams don't necessarily take advantage of that as much as they should. Ray [Allen] is wearing down ... he doesn't have the same automatic-ness to his jumper that he used to. And Rasheed's presence takes away from [Kendrick Perkins'] touches and confidence.
"But they've been there, done that. This will be the last year for this group, but I'd still have to take Boston over Cleveland and Orlando."
"Jamison can help them more short-term, but I like Murphy's contract better.
"Jamison is better around the basket. He can shoot 3s like Murphy can. But the last year of Jamison's deal -- $15 million when he'll be 35 -- would scare me. So I'd go with Murphy.
"He doesn't play defense like the Cavs [expect], but he only has one season left after this one [at nearly $12 million]. If I'm the Cavs and I end up losing LeBron, I'm not going to want Jamison on my books in that last year at $15 million."
Eastern Conference scout on the Orlando Magic's up-and-down play
"Athletically they've improved. Defensively they've improved because [Matt] Barnes and [Mickael] Pietrus can really cover a lot of ground. Everyone talks about how much they've missed Hedo [Turkoglu] and I think that's true. They miss his ballhandling and playmaking. He did so much off the dribble and in pick-and-rolls and was such a willing passer. But they look a little bored sometimes. That's it as much as anything.
"It's a long season and they have so much talent on that roster. They just look stale to me at times. I've been to a few of their games lately and it really looked to me like Stan [Van Gundy] is making an effort to not be as vocal as he usually is. Maybe he's trying to be conscious of not wearing them out.
"They're definitely missing the ability of Hedo to play pick-and-roll. Jameer [Nelson] has to be on the ball more, and Vince [Carter] ... he can play pick-and-roll but not to the extent Hedo does. And that affects Rashard [Lewis]. But I still think they're really good. I think Orlando is still right there with Cleveland and Boston and I'll even throw Atlanta into the mix.
"It's an interesting little circle they've got going [at the top of the East]. I don't think Boston wants to play Cleveland in the playoffs. Atlanta doesn't want any piece of Orlando. Whoever wins the East is going to come down to matchups. Whoever gets the most favorable matchups in the second round and conference finals."
Western Conference scout on the Memphis Grizzlies' unexpected surge into playoff contention in the West
"What position aren't they good at? Zach [Randolph] can score in the post. Marc Gasol is not his brother, but he's still pretty good and he can score in the post, too. [Jamaal] Tinsley has really helped them even though he doesn't play big minutes. Getting Iverson out of there was obviously huge and I've seen Tinsley settle them down in a few big games. And I think O.J. [Mayo] might wind up being a better player than Rudy [Gay].
"But don't be shocked if Rudy gets a huge contract this summer. If LeBron stays in Cleveland and you're New York, who do you go after? If you're Chicago, who do you go after? Do you go after Joe Johnson or the young guy? Rudy might mess around and get a max contract.
"And I've never been as against Zach as other people have -- I always thought he was hard to stop -- but he deserves his All-Star spot. They've got a lot of pieces and they're a hard group to guard, but it all starts with him."
Eastern Conference scout on whom he sees as the league's most improved player
"David Lee is going to make a lot of money in free agency. He's a point forward now. He gets a lot of hockey assists ... he makes the pass that leads to a pass that leads to a basket. They're running a lot of offense through him. You can't just relax on him because he's shooting jumpers confidently. He's responsible for their [improvement]. He didn't have this much responsibility before. I'm sure he's disappointed that he didn't make it [as an All-Star in the East], but he's going to make himself some cash this summer."
Western Conference scout on the New Jersey Nets' ability to avoid setting a record for most losses in a single season
"They should be better than a four-win team. Their starting group really isn't that bad. But it could be one of those things where a losing mentality sets in. You've got a lot of guys at the end of their deals, nobody knows the new owner coming in and your team gets so down. No confidence. No energy.
"I do think they have some good pieces: Yi [Jianlian], Devin Harris, Brook Lopez. They should get more than nine wins because their personnel is better than that [of Philadelphia in the 76ers' 9-73 season in 1972-73]. I think most teams would want Yi and Lopez. But they don't shoot the ball well as a team and that's another factor.
"[The Nets] will tell you that Harris is more hurt than people know about and I hope that's the case, because he's not playing anywhere near the level he played at last year. He's shooting poorly from 3, poorly from 2 and doesn't look like he has the same explosiveness to the bucket. You put Monta Ellis on a bad team and he's going to get you 30 [points]. Harris isn't getting those kinds of numbers, so it makes you wonder what's going on."
Western Conference scout on the biggest threat to the Los Angeles Lakers in the West
"To beat the Lakers you have to have multiple scorers. So I'll say Dallas if you force me to pick someone. They're loaded. They come off the bench with good players and to me the Lakers have no bench. I like the size Dallas has with [Erick] Dampier and [Drew] Gooden. Dallas is an interesting team. If they're firing at the right time, they can cause more trouble to the Lakers than anybody.
"But it's the Lakers and everybody else in the West. They're just so big and long. So much talent. Just reading into it and hearing things, I don't think Kobe [Bryant] believed [Pau] Gasol was as hurt as he was saying [when Gasol missed 17 games earlier this month]. But the Lakers are so talented that they overcome those things.
"Denver has the talent, but I don't think Denver has the discipline to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series. [The Nuggets] score the basketball so easy. They don't get rattled, they've got an inside presence and they can shoot the ball from the perimeter. But you need good discipline to win a seven-game series against the Lakers and I just don't think [the Nuggets] are as professional as they need to be. Chauncey [Billups] has made a big difference there, but he's just one guy. I don't know if he can change a whole culture.
"The last few weeks it seems like the Lakers have kind of taken their foot off the pedal. Plus Kobe hasn't been healthy. Two months from now, you watch. He'll be healthier. He'll have more juice. Can they self-destruct? I guess. Can their bench mess them up a little? I guess. But you can overcome a lot of things with talent. You focus on all the other guys and all of a sudden [Andrew] Bynum will step up with a big game. They just have too many weapons."
Eastern Conference scout on the surprising Oklahoma City Thunder
"They're good enough to get to the eighth spot in the West, which says a lot for Kevin Durant and Scotty Brooks because this is pretty much the same roster as last [season's]. They don't have shot-blockers or great rebounders, but they've obviously got a superstar in the making in Durant.
"His leadership is better. He carries himself like more of a go-to guy, which happens when you start winning. He's shooting the 3, he's got length to do a little bit in the post and he can get you off the dribble. He's just kind of improved in all phases.
"There are so many teams in the West [in the race for a playoff spot] that I'm not sure they can finish in the top eight. They're long and young and athletic and they've never been in a race before, so we'll have to see [how they cope]. But having Durant means they're always going to be able to score."
Western Conference scout on the state of the San Antonio Spurs
"I just had this argument with a [fellow scout]. He thinks they're still going to be a factor in the playoffs; I don't think they can make a run.
"Their team speed and quickness have taken a hit. [Manu] Ginobili can't seem to get back to where he was, and getting another scorer [Richard Jefferson] to break into that trio has been harder than they thought.
"The other difference is defense. They used to be able to lock you down for eight or nine possessions in a row in the fourth quarter and win it with defense. But they don't defend like they used to."
2. Western Conference
Making it to the All-Star Game for the first time comes with a bonus for Grizzlies big man Zach Randolph.
Randolph's selection by Western Conference coaches triggers a contract bonus of $333,333.
Randolph won't receive that money -- and it won't be added to the Grizzlies' payroll -- until after the season.
But the All-Star bonus in the 28-year-old's contract will now be classified as a "likely" bonus as opposed to an "unlikely" bonus, increasing Randolph's salary-cap number to $17,666,666 for 2010-11.
Some numbers of note in the West this week:
10: Memphis' Randolph is tied with Toronto's Chris Bosh for the league lead with 10 games with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds. Orlando's Dwight Howard is next with eight, and New York's David Lee has seven.
5: The Clippers' Chris Kaman, edged out of an All-Star berth by Randolph, recently became just the fifth center in the league to post two 20-point games in the same season in head-to-head starts against Washington's Brendan Haywood. The others: Shaquille O'Neal (2004-05 season and 2005-06), Orlando's Dwight Howard (2006-07), Milwaukee's Andrew Bogut (2007-08) and Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire (2007-2008).
5-2: Denver is 5-2 in games Carmelo Anthony has missed this season after winning in Houston on Wednesday night while Melo rested a bad left ankle. The only other teams in the NBA that have a winning record without their leading scorer are San Antonio (3-0 without Tim Duncan) and Dallas (1-0 sans Dirk Nowitzki).
27: Tim Duncan's career-best 27 boards in Wednesday's home win over Atlanta are the most for any Spur since Dennis Rodman's 27 against Houston on March 5, 1995. The victory enabled San Antonio to avoid its first four-game losing streak in eight years.
34: The Clippers' Marcus Camby remains the oldest player in league history, at 34, to grab at least 25 boards in one game with his 27 rips at Chicago on Dec. 17, 2008. Duncan, at 33, is the second-oldest player on the list and now has 20 career 20/20 games, fourth all-time among active players behind Shaquille O'Neal (35), Kevin Garnett (27) and Dwight Howard (26).
3. Trade Chatter
The Blazers have indeed registered their interest in Washington center Brendan Haywood, given Haywood's obvious appeal as a short-term replacement -- with an expiring $6 million contract -- for the fallen Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.
But one source close to the situation said that the talks didn't go far when the Wiz indicated that they'd want both Rudy Fernandez and Nicolas Batum headlining the return package for Haywood, who's averaging 9.8 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.1 blocks.
Portland, meanwhile, continues to insist in the strongest terms that guard Andre Miller is not available, even as rival teams continue to whisper otherwise.
It surely won't surprise you to hear that the Blazers, given the injury losses on their front line, are also among the teams that have inquired about the availability of Bulls big man Brad Miller.
Chicago, though, is said to be increasingly reluctant to move Miller before the deadline. For a couple reasons.
1. It's no secret that the Bulls want to clear as much salary-cap space as they can for this summer's free-agent bonanza, which is why you're hearing more and more about their willingness to move Kirk Hinrich and John Salmons as covered here last week. Miller's $12.3 million expiring contract is central to that strategy, so it's going to take a special offer to get Chicago to part with him.
2. The Bulls have moved into seventh in the East with an 8-2 run that has put them on a pace to match or exceed last season's 41-41 mark, when they still had Ben Gordon. The run includes four road successive wins against teams in the West's playoff mix: Phoenix, Houston, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. Miller, furthermore, just scored 25 points in the Houston game in place of the injured Joakim Noah. So even if the Blazers could get to Miller's salary range with expiring contracts -- Steve Blake and Travis Outlaw aren't enough to make the salary-cap math work -- it's reasonable for the Bulls to ask themselves: Why change anything unless it's a clear upgrade?
Miller, though, would almost certainly have to be involved if the Bulls end up going ahead with a firm bid for one of the bigger names/contracts that could potentially move in the next 22 days, such as Chris Bosh, Amare Stoudemire or Tracy McGrady.
4. Marc's Quote
"I'm glad I ain't guardin' that any more."
Mavericks forward Drew Gooden, paying tribute to teammate Dirk Nowitzki in a month in which Nowitzki became the 34th player in NBA history to score 20,000 points and the Mavs' all-time leader in regular-season games played with 884.
With Thursday's 112-106 loss in Phoenix, Nowitzki broke the team record set by his good friend Brad Davis, who played in 883 games for Dallas from 1980 to 1992 and remains with the team as a radio broadcaster and assistant coach.<
5. Eastern Conference
It remains unclear how Gilbert Arenas will eventually extricate himself from the Wizards, since the exit route that plugged-in sources have said for days is the most likely scenario -- Arenas and the Wizards reaching some sort of buyout agreement -- will obviously be more complicated than most buyouts because of the huge dollar amount involved.
NBA players and teams don't typically enter into divorce proceedings when the player has four years and $80.2 million left on his contract.
This situation, though, is anything but typical. And if you subscribe to the widely circulating notion that the Wizards will not have the sufficient grounds to successfully void Arenas' contract, hammering out a buyout would appear to be the only way both sides will be able to move on with their lives at season's end, given that Washington had no success when it shopped Arenas before the gun incident and can't dispute that he's as close to untradeable now as it gets when you add up his legal situation, damaged reputation, contract and injury history.
We've already fast-forwarded once past all of the above complexities to examine where Arenas will be able to turn if he does become an unexpected big-name addition to the Summer of 2010 free-agent class.
And Orlando continues to be mentioned more prominently than any other potential destination, thanks largely to Arenas' close relationship with Magic general manager Otis Smith. I was assured earlier this month that the Magic will give the matter legit consideration this summer, even if Arenas figures to be the party pushing hardest for it.
My colleague Chris Sheridan has also explored the possibility of the Knicks giving Arenas his comeback platform (as they did with Latrell Sprewell), but another potential landing spot was introduced this week amid the rising assumption that Arenas will never play another game for the Wizards.
One source close to the situation told ESPN.com that Arenas ultimately landing in Cleveland with the team that has regularly tortured the Wizards in recent seasons -- as a sidekick whose arrival would theoretically help the Cavs ensure the re-signing of LeBron James -- is a legit possibility to file away.
You can likewise count on more teams popping up as potential destinations if Arenas can reach buyout terms with the Wiz to become a free agent. For all the supposed drawbacks, Arenas averaged 22.6 points and 7.2 assists in 32 games this season and will be only 28 when next season starts. Too many teams will have money to spend this summer -- with only a handful of difference-makers expected to be on the market -- to prevent Arenas from attracting interest.
Some numbers of note in the East this week:
3: LeBron James has recorded a double-digit assist total in three of Cleveland's past five games.
4: With 23 points in Wednesday night's win over Minnesota, J.J. Hickson became just the fourth Cav not named LeBron to lead Cleveland in scoring. Mo Williams has been Cleveland's leading scorer five times (three outright), and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West have done it once each.
27: Toronto's Andrea Bargnani became the first starting center to score at least 25 points in a game against Miami this season with 27 points Wednesday night.
3: Brandon Jennings became just the third rookie this season to record a game-winning bucket in the final 30 seconds of regulation or overtime with his driving floater Wednesday night with 22 seconds to play in Milwaukee's 91-88 triumph over Philadelphia. The others are Sacramento's Tyreke Evans, who made a game-winning layup against the Bucks on Dec. 19, and Utah's Sundiata Gaines, who drained a memorable 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Cleveland on Jan. 14 just days after being called up by the Jazz out of the D-League.
8: The Pistons have had a losing record in eight straight calendar months, which is the league's longest such streak. The franchise record is 20 consecutive "basketball months" with a sub-.500 record, from April 1977 through March 1980.
Bobcats center Tyson Chandler has filed a formal appeal of his $7,500 fine in late November for posting a message via Twitter during a game.
According to the protest, Chandler insists that the tweet was actually an automated tweet generated three hours before gametime Nov. 25 in a 116-81 rout of Toronto. But a technical issue prevented the message from posting to Chandler's Twitter feed until the game was already underway; Chandler says the automated feed has since been disabled.
A decision on the matter is not expected until the end of the regular season, when most fine appeals are heard.
Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman of the Los Angeles Clippers both have had notable performances lately. (See Box 2.)
7. One On One ... To Five
Five questions with Pistons center Ben Wallace, who is four swats away from becoming the shortest player in league history at 6-9 to block 2,000 shots:
Q: You've won a championship and done a lot of things in your career, but where will it rank when you get to 2,000 blocks?
A: Oh, man. It'd be amongst the top for me because that's been a huge part of my game. I always had a knack for the ball and that goes both ways with rebounds and shot-blocking. But I never really thought when I came into the NBA that I'd have the opportunity to have 2,000 blocks.
Q: What's harder? Being a good rebounder or a good shot-blocker?
A: Shot-blocking for sure. You can rebound both ends of the floor. You might only get one, two, three opportunities a game to block a shot. Blocking shots is definitely harder.
Q: I think you've surprised a lot of people with your rebounding numbers at 35. How did you get back to double-digit territory?
A: Coming into the season, that wasn't my intention at all as far as proving people wrong. I just think over the last couple years I was hurt. I was injured. Some games I had no business being out there the way my body was feeling. ... Probably haven't been this healthy for three years.
[Last season] I could get to the spot, but I just couldn't get to the ball. I knew where the ball was going, but I just couldn't elevate the way I wanted. I couldn't move the way I wanted.
Q: With Rip [Hamilton] and Tay [Tayshaun Prince] in so many trade rumors these days, do you guys ever talk amongst yourselves about who might be the last man standing from the great teams you guys had?
A: I already left and now I'm back, so it's different for me. But that's not something we sit around and talk about. We're just trying to find a way to win games right now.
I always tell people: I've been in a couple different spots since I left here and there's a lot of bad things worse than getting traded. The worst thing that can happen to you in this league is when they can't trade you because nobody wants you.
Q: How hard is it to be in rebuilding situation in Detroit after all that success and do you have it your head how much longer you want to keep playing?
A: It's tough, man. It's tough. When you're used to being at the top for so long and now having to go out there and try to climb back up, it's a tough feeling. It's more mental than anything. It beats you up mentally.
But I really don't have a number on it. I take it one year at a time at this point. As long as I can stay healthy, that'll be something for me and my family to talk about in the offseason.
8. Big Plans In Big D
The Mavericks continue to evaluate their options in advance of the Feb. 18 trade deadline and continue to be regarded as one of the few "buyers" out there.
Which is another way of saying that Dallas is seen by other teams around the league as one of the few potential trade partners willing to take on some significant salary before the buzzer sounds.
Said one source with knowledge of the Mavs' thinking: "They are looking hard."
But they are also still strongly weighing whether it's smarter to keep Josh Howard past the trading deadline. That would preserve the option to package Howard (who becomes an $11.8 million expiring contract for 2010-11 once his team option is picked up) with Erick Dampier (whose $13.1 million salary next season is fully unguaranteed) as a combo-pack of assets for an offseason trade splash.
The comments from Mavs owner Mark Cuban last weekend in New York seemed to indicate that hanging onto Howard -- even if it's just for the long-shot possibility that Dallas could emerge as a sign-and-trade destination for one of this summer's marquee free agents -- holds great appeal.
"You know, every team wants to get better," Cuban told reporters Sunday. "And you look at the best guys in the league and you say, 'What gives me an opportunity to add them to my team?' Some people want cap room, some people think sign-and-trade. So it just depends. We'll see. You just never know. You never know."
I took that as not-so-veiled backing of what we wrote back in November, when the Mavs were listed as No. 5 on a list of five teams most capable of landing LeBron for next season. Even if the odds of a sign-and-trade for someone from the LeBron/Chris Bosh stratosphere in July are small, Dallas will be undeniably tempted to preserve every possibility for a miracle, especially when you can legitimately question whether anyone it can acquire during the next three weeks can really close the gap between the Mavs and the mighty Lakers.
Dallas' interest in Sacramento's Kevin Martin was last week's big trade topic, but the Kings keep saying that Martin is not available. And while Washington's Caron Butler and Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala are most certainly available, one plugged-in source insisted this week that the Mavs have real reservations about trading Howard for Butler and are hesitant regarding Iguodala as well largely because of the four years and $56 million left on the Philly swingman's contract after this season.
The Mavs, remember, were reluctant back in November to take on the contract of Stephen Jackson, who wanted so badly to come to Dallas before Golden State traded him to Charlotte ... and who would have been half as expensive as Iguodala.
The impact Jackson has had with the Bobcats actually leads you to wonder how much the Mavs now regret their refusal to gamble on Jackson, but recalling the reasons behind that reluctance helps explain why I've been advised more than once this week that Iguodala -- as it stands with three weeks to go before the deadline -- appears unlikely to be Dallas-bound.
To read the complete ESPNDallas post, click here.