Nash, Shaq rule first trimester
Hopefully, you had a happy and healthy Hanukkah, Festivus and Christmas.
Hopefully, you are safely tucked away with family for the approaching New Year celebrations.
Hopefully, you know what else the calendar calls for now.
You remember, don't you? With almost everyone in the league having played at least 27 games after Tuesday -- except for slowpokes Milwaukee (23) and Charlotte (24) -- it's time to take stockings of the season.
Because one-third of it is already gone.
If the Suns can maintain their tidy 73-9 pace, Nash has to appear among the top five on every voter's official MVP ballot at the end of the season. Has to. And let's face it -- that probably happens if the Suns win 60, because his impact in the desert has been that dramatic. I'm even starting to think he has a chance to muscle past the favored twosome of Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan to become the first recognized point guard since Magic Johnson in 1990 to actually win the award, and I'd love to see passing -- you remember passing, right? -- rewarded in a league where it's almost extinct. Nash's detractors are obviously wondering if his body will hold up for the rest of the season, but $66 million over six seasons is looking less outrageous by the day. As we told you before the season, Nash getting spurned by the Mavs sparked him like the Canadians of his youth who laughed when he told them he'd be in the NBA someday.
You could argue that Shaq hasn't been the most productive player on his own team. You could likewise argue that LeBron James has been more dominant individually than Dwyane Wade. Go ahead. We prefer to look at what Shaq has done for Wade, Damon Jones and Udonis Haslem in terms of making the game easier, even though it looks like he's coasting some nights to save something for the playoffs. As D-Jones, the league's most prolific 3-point marksman, so eloquently stated the other day when I asked him if Shaq really does make things so much better for the players around him: "Can I curse?" Jones said. "(Bleep) yeah."
Nate McMillan, Seattle
Nate Dog doesn't have a coach on the floor like Mike D'Antoni does. D'Antoni also didn't have to deal with a 30-point loss to the Clippers on Opening Night. There have been other teams winning more than expected in the season's first third: Johnny Davis' Orlando Magic, Eddie Jordan's Washington Wiz, even Bernie Bickerstaff's Bobcats -- but the Sonics have established a one-for-all team culture that didn't seem possible when they were 0-1. The coach has to get a nice slice of the credit, especially since Nate Dog is a free agent just like Ray Allen.
Emeka Okafor, C, Charlotte
Robo-rebounder Dwight Howard has coped with the preps-to-pros jump as well as the Magic could have hoped, but Okafor has been even better. Confession time: I thought he looked more than a stride or two off the NBA pace when I saw him practicing with Team USA before the Olympics, but Okafor couldn't be more dependable for this club of never-quitters. At last count, Okafor has 16 consecutive double-doubles, the longest streak for a rookie since Jerry Lucas did it twice during the 1963-64 season.
Andrei Kirilenko, F, Utah
I know, I know. You're thinking AK-47 has missed too many games to be considered here. Tough. Kirilenko's injury is what clinches his name in this spot; look at what's happened to the Jazz since they lost him.
Grant Hill, SF, Orlando
I hate to be the guy who's always reminding folks that this award no longer exists. There can't be a Comeback Player of the Year in the NBA, only a Most Improved Player (Chris Mihm, Nazr Mohammed, Brevin Knight, Drew Gooden and Jamaal Tinsley are among the early leaders there). So this is the place to recognize Hill, with the hope that we can do it again after the next two trimesters if his recovery (touch wood) continues. January is a pivotal karma month; all four of Hill's ankle surgeries have been January operations.
You haven't heard many Southleast jokes lately. Or Southworst jokes. That's because every team in this division, save woebegone Atlanta, is winning more than the preseason consensus suggested.
You're right. Probably a category we should scrap, with the head-to-head ledger at 98-68 in the West's favor.
This is a team category, and the Sonics just shade it over Orlando and Charlotte. I know we've harped on it a lot, but every time they put a streak together, I find myself harkening back to the team that looked like it was ready to mail in the season after one game. Phoenix, you say? It's tough to really consider the Suns a surprise any more. You expect the Suns to win now, don't you?
Again, this is a team category, and Houston's problems are the most striking. Detroit is the strongest threat to the Rockets here, because the champs have racked up more excuses than victories so far, but the Tracy McGrady-Yao Ming partnership has been a deadly duo exactly once so far, when T-Mac and Yao combined for 74 points in the recent win over Toronto. Expectations were probably too high in Houston given the Rockets' holes at the point and in the athleticism department, but sub-.500 ball is still unacceptable.
Indiana at Detroit, Nov. 19
No explanation necessary. Is there?
Phoenix at Seattle, Dec. 17
Even though Shaq-Kobe I on Christmas Day actually made a nice run at living up to its billing, the best basketball delivered to date came from the two teams -- both lottery teams last season, don't forget -- thriving most in today's new world of limited arm contact on the perimeter. The Sonics were up seven late when the Suns went on one of their gaudy runs and won 112-110 in a nice credibility grab in front of ESPN's cameras.
We leave the All-Star ballots for the fans in real life, but this is how we'd be voting if we did punch a ballot, going by positions as the players are listed.
|F -- Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves||F -- Antawn Jamison, Wizards|
|F -- Tim Duncan, Spurs||F -- Richard Jefferson, Nets|
|C -- Yao Ming, Rockets||C -- Shaquille O'Neal, Heat|
|G -- Kobe Bryant, Lakers||G -- LeBron James, Cavaliers|
|G -- Steve Nash, Suns||G -- Dwyane Wade, Heat|
We repeat: All selections are based on where the players are listed on the official ballots. Amare Stoudemire should be a starter in the West over Yao, but he's listed as a forward. And you can't, with a conscience, put Amare ahead of Garnett or Duncan just yet. It would likewise help the program if LeBron were listed as a forward, because the East is overloaded with guards. So overloaded that I can't put Allen Iverson, the league's top scorer, higher than No. 3 on my ballot, and Steve Francis no higher than No. 4. Jamison and Jefferson get my forward votes because Jermaine O'Neal has only played nine games, and because they trump Hill and Okafor by a shade.
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