Updated: January 30, 2010, 2:54 AM ET
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images Zach Randolph has embraced coach Lionel Hollins and an All-Star berth in his first year in Memphis.

1. What Scouts Are Saying At Midway Point

By Marc Stein

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."

Western Conference scout on whether the Cleveland Cavaliers would be better off acquiring Antawn Jamison or Troy Murphy

"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."

Dimes past: Jan. 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15-16 | 17 | 18 | 19 | 20 | 22-23 | 24 | 25 | 26 | 27

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.

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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.<

The only other active players who lead their current team in career games played entering the weekend: Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas (753 games) and Charlotte's Gerald Wallace (373).


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