The NBA's official award ballots, which arrived this week via e-mail, are not due back into the league office until the day after the regular season ends.
SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Golden choice for MIP award
But one ballot in particular demands our immediate attention.
That's because I've been promising an extended dissection of the deep-as-ever Most Improved Player race all season, knowing I'd need all that time to settle on one choice. Regular visitors to Stein Line HQ know that we always say Coach of the Year and Most Improved Player are the most crowded award races, but the MIP field this term is ridiculously overcrowded.
There are at least five different player genres, in fact, from which to pick an MIP.
1. You have the kiddies from whom nothing (or close to it) was expected before the season began: New York's David Lee, Luke Walton of the Lakers and the Golden State duo of Andris Biedrins and Monta Ellis.
2. You have the unheralded guys who've been bouncing around the basketball world, looking for a team they could latch onto and making a surprising impact instead: New Jersey's Mikki Moore, Charlotte's Matt Carroll and Miami sharpshooter Jason Kapono.
3. You have the group of youngsters who've shown flashes in the past but are suddenly delivering regularly: Boston's Al Jefferson, Philadelphia's Andre Iguodala, Milwaukee's Mo Williams, Atlanta's Josh Smith, Denver's J.R. Smith and Sacramento's Kevin Martin.
5. And lastly you have the frontline players who made the very difficult leap to All-Star status (or thereabouts): Washington's Caron Butler, Chicago's Luol Deng, Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa and Utah's Carlos Boozer.
That's 20 guys in total and I'm sure you'll e-mail me more.
As a first step, I wanted to narrow that list down to one choice from each of the five genres, but the first and third aren't so easily whittled. Lee, Biedrins and Ellis all deserve the strongest consideration from pool No. 1. Ditto for the onrushing Jefferson and Martin, who has been at the forefront of everyone's MIP list since he started the season so strongly, from pool No. 3.
Kapono also has to make the list of finalists out of pool No. 2, coming from nowhere to lead the league in 3-point shooting percentage (.518) and seize a major rotation role with the defending champs.
The lads from district No. 4 are at a disadvantage, here and with other veteran voters, because they were all drafted to be franchise cornerstones. As such, it's a philosophical struggle to get behind any of them for a serious MIP push, even though Curry, Chandler and Williams have all posted breakout seasons and with Williams making an All-Star push of his own in just his second season to help the Jazz maintain a wire-to-wire bid for top-four status in the West.
That brings us to the fifth and final genre, from which Boozer jumps out. I'm actually tempted to make Boozer my winner, too, given how he rebounded from missing almost half of his first two seasons in Utah with injuries to become a full-fledged face of the franchise. Few players had their reputations savaged like this guy after signing that six-year, $68 million contract with the Jazz in 2004. This Jazz team, furthermore, was not exactly a consensus pick to make the playoffs but will wind up winning 50-plus games with a newfound toughness personified by Booz missing only eight games this season after suffering a fractured tibia.
The league's MIP guidelines clearly state that the award "is designed to honor an up-and-coming player" and that it is "not intended to be given to a player who has made a 'comeback.' ''
Don't know that Boozer, in his fifth season and with some Team USA experience on his résumé, can really be classified as an up-and-comer. Since he's also just below the Suns' Amare Stoudemire on the mythical list of Comeback Kids -- there is no official Comeback Player of the Year award in the NBA, remember -- and since Williams and coach Jerry Sloan also have been major factors in Utah's rise, Boozer's MIP candidacy carries some complications.
Martin. Jefferson. Biedrins.
Those are my top three and I'm going with the lefty.
But that's not why.
Martin has been a 20-point scorer since Opening Night in spite of unprecedented chaos in Sacramento, although his MIP detractors would argue that he's merely more consistent with the promising flashes he showed us in the playoffs. Jefferson, like Utah's Williams, improved his physique substantially by slimming down and rose to a level of consistency that prompted the Celtics to deem him off-limits in trade talks for Allen Iverson and Pau Gasol. Progressing so quickly from underachiever to untouchable status is as substantial as improvement gets and thus puts Jefferson right there with Martin.
Yet no one else in this conversation reinvented himself like Biedrins. He averaged 3.8 points, 4.1 rebounds and 0.7 blocks last season. He's now a double-double guy for a team still challenging for a playoff spot -- unlike the Kings and Celtics -- even though it was the since-traded Troy Murphy who was supposed to benefit more than any other Warrior from Don Nelson's arrival.
I know, I know. The Warriors like to say that even they're not sure who qualifies as the most improved player on their team: Biedrins or Ellis.
But I'm sure. Or as sure as you could be in a season where you can make a passionate case for so many different kinds of MIP candidates. Pretty much every other player listed here had someone touting him somewhere back in October, Martin especially after his strong postseason and stronger summer league. Outside of Latvia, did Biedrins have any fans before this season?
AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt
Carlos Boozer might not get this Most Improved Player vote, but things are finally looking up for him in Utah. Perhaps division rival KG should ask him what it's like to change teams. (Read below.)
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:
Dan (Minneapolis): A lot of people here in the Twin Cities want the Wolves to trade KG. We don't want to lose him, but we want him to win a championship. He deserves it. The man is all class. But with Kevin McHale running the insane asylum that is the Wolves' front office, that will never happen here in Minneapolis. Sad but true. That's why I think there are actually more KG fans in Minnesota right now than there are Timberwolves fans. We're willing to part with him to see him win. After doing your interview with him, do you think this is the year we finally trade KG?
I don't know yet.
The consistent word you hear in GM circles these days is that the Wolves are going to strongly consider trading KG for the first time this summer. KG himself said in our conversation "that we're going to finish this year out and everybody's going to assess and do what they have to do for themselves" and that he's "no different from that."
If you give the interview a good read, it seems rather clear that Garnett, as ever, doesn't want to leave his beloved 'Sota unless he has absolutely, positively exhausted every last shred of hope. The Wolves, meanwhile, are clinging (at least for the moment) to their long-held policy of not shopping Garnett unless he asks to be shopped, according to NBA front-office sources.
Garnett has not yet asked and hasn't quite reached the depths of full-on despair, either, no matter how bleak the Wolves' situation looks to all of us.
Maybe that's because there is one last, long-shot scenario that could breathe new life into the Wolves. And we don't mean McHale's expected departure from the Wolves' front office.
Now that the charade of chasing a playoff berth is over -- and assuming that they close the season with a late flurry of losses like last season -- what happens if the Wolves get lucky and land a top-two pick in the lottery? Put Greg Oden or Kevin Durant next to Garnett and Minnesota's outlook suddenly takes a sharp U-turn away from bleakness. The Wolves, in that fantasy scenario, would either have a young superstar to team with KG or one of the hottest possible trading chips to fetch the assistance he needs.
Of course, thanks to Forbes magazine's favorite general manager, Minnesota won't even get to keep its lottery pick unless it's a top-10 pick. McHale's willingness to package a future first-rounder with the best point guard in franchise history (Sam Cassell) to the Clippers in a 2005 sign-and-trade for Marko Jaric will enable L.A. to claim the Wolves' pick in June if that pick is No. 11 or lower.
And even if the Wolves do get to keep their pick, let's face it: Chances are they won't have the good fortune of leaping all the way into the top two. But it could happen, which would be a monumentally lucky break that KG fans everywhere believe this poor guy deserves more than anyone.
In other words, Minnesota has at least until the May 22 lottery before we declare total hopelessness. Let's see how Secaucus treats these guys . . . and then we'll deal with what the Wolves should do if they don't get lucky in the lottery. (Or we'll just get into it in Tuesday's chat, when I have a feeling there might be another KG question or two.)
PS -- I also honestly struggle to believe that there are more KG fans than Wolves fans in the Twin Cities. Is that really the case? Hopefully chatters will weigh in Tuesday on that one as well.
Q: You guys were 20-20 when Dwane Casey was fired and now you're on the verge of being eliminated from the playoff race. Do you have any theories to explain what's happened?
A: As cliché as it sounds, our record could be seven or eight games different right now. And if it was seven or eight games different, then all of a sudden we're looking at the playoffs. If you look at the games we've lost, unfortunately, we should have won between six and 10 of them. Point blank. And so the frustration mounted. Everyone is frustrated, from the coaching staff to the players to management. We all had higher expectations than this.
Q: What changed besides the head coach?
A: I think the biggest issue on this team is that we just haven't found that on-court chemistry. Off the court we have great chemistry. In the locker room we have great chemistry. Guys are laughing, joking, messing with each other. There's no issues. But on the court, we haven't found that intangible ability to come together. And I don't know why.
Q: What impact do you think a third straight season without a playoff berth will have on Kevin Garnett's future with the team?
A: I lived in a major media center for three years [playing with the Lakers], so I know the affection and the esteem that fans throughout the country have for Kevin Garnett.
In the offseason especially and even during the season -- at the airport, at the train station, at the restaurants -- that's one of the questions I get the most: "How's Kevin doing? Is he going to stay in Minnesota or is he going to leave?" It's so interesting. In the public, it's a huge debate. In our locker room, it's a non-issue.
Q: Really? You guys aren't just as curious as us on the outside?
A: We all recognize that, hey, this is a business. Kevin has said he wants to be here and until something changes -- and anything can change at any time -- he comes here every day in practice and in games and lays it on the line. That's all any teammate can ask for.
When Shaq got traded, that showed that no one is untradeable. But Kevin is one of the most loyal people you'll ever find. He said he wants to be here. He wants to bring a championship here. No one else can speak for Kevin. No one.
Q: What do you tell those folks on the street who ask you KG questions?
A: I say Kevin Garnett is one of the best teammates I've ever had. Like one of my friends told me, Kevin Garnett is Minnesota. My friend was exactly right. Kevin Garnett is Minnesota. Kevin Garnett is one of the best players who's ever played this game. It's none of any of our business to ask Kevin or try to figure out what Kevin's thinking.
Until something else happens, Kevin is giving his 100 percent commitment to the Timberwolves. That's the way he is. There's nothing in his character that would allow him to do anything different.
Thomas Oliver/NBAE via Getty Images
Kevin Martin quickly soared to the forefront of the MIP race as this season's only bright spot in Sacramento, but he'll come up just short of scoring the first-place vote here.
It's increasingly clear that speculation about Brian Hill's imminent demise in Orlando isn't going away, even with the Magic pretty much down to one team that can knock them out of the playoffs (Indiana) and no matter how many times Magic general manager Otis Smith insists that Hill will be back next season.
Yet even if the rumblings are true about Hill's approval rating with his players sinking to 1997 levels, there are no indications that any dissatisfaction Dwight Howard has with Hill is prompting the 21-year-old future of the franchise to start plotting a Shaquille O'Neal-style departure from Central Florida.
"He doesn't want to leave Orlando," one Magic insider insists. "He just wants the ball."
Howard is averaging just 10.6 shots per game and has attempted 10 or more shots in just three of nine games since rumbling for 30 points and 15 rebounds in a home win over Utah on March 14. His free-throw woes and turnover problems -- Howard averages 3.9 giveaways per game, compared to 3.8 for a guy like Steve Nash who has the ball in his hands all night -- have made Hill reluctant to go to Howard in the fourth quarter.
The Magic (or at least Hill) appear to be operating on the premise that making the playoffs, at any cost, is the priority over Howard developing better skills dealing with double teams and making use of his considerable physical gifts.
It's still considered a lock, though, that Howard will sign a max contract extension this summer just like LeBron James did last summer in Cleveland.
Perhaps he'll opt for the three-year extension favored by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as opposed to the full five-year extension preferred by Carmelo Anthony, but it's difficult to imagine a scenario where Howard opts to pass on an extension and leave so many millions on the table when he'd still have to play out two more seasons to get to unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2009.
How do the Heat have a 15-7 record since Dwyane Wade suffered that separated shoulder?
"They take away your first option better than any team in the league," Wolves coach Randy Wittman said of Miami's defense.
The Knicks were intentionally omitted from the first paragraph in the first item above.
But they were only 2½ games behind Orlando as of Friday morning, you say?
Maybe so, but the Knicks also began the weekend having lost five straight home games against teams with losing records after Wednesday's 92-90 setback to Philly.
You can't get away with that kind of streak and still make it to the postseason. Not even in the East.
They're clearly missing the injured Jamal Crawford and David Lee, but as our man Howard Beck of the New York Times reminds, banged-up Team Isiah can hardly protest when it's 16-26 against teams with losing records and just 3-10 against fellow Atlantic Division tenants.
They touched on all the usual subjects: Mavs vs. Suns, Dirk Nowitzki vs. Steve Nash in the MVP race and Liverpool's success in the Champions League since being purchased by Texas Rangers/Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks and partner George Gillette.
But Marc Stein and Randy Galloway also share strong displeasure with the latest round of NBA snubs by the Basketball Hall of Fame and discussed it at length during their weekly visit on ESPN Radio in Dallas (103.3 FM).
The signals coming out of L.A. continue to suggest that Phil Jackson, newly minted Hall of Famer, will coach the Lakers for two more years if everything falls into place.
That naturally depends mostly on Jackson's health. He's likely looking at another surgery in the offseason to fix his other ailing hip. Any deterioration in the 61-year-old's condition, from the struggles he's already dealing with on a daily basis since undergoing his first hip replacement in October, naturally would change the equation.
Yet Lakers owner Jerry Buss remains keen on adding at least one more season on the bench to the one season left on Jackson's contract.
The motivation for the Zenmeister to continue as Lakers coach? Besides Jackson's chase for a 10th championship ring to break his tie with Red Auerbach, I'm told that it means almost as much to Jackson to help Kobe Bryant win his first post-Shaq ring.
The reunited couple, of course, will be expecting some sort of splashy trade in the offseason that gets the Lakers closer to the West's elite after their trade-deadline pursuits of Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby fell short. They can't be in the championship mix without one.
There hasn't been a sub-.500 playoff team in the mighty West since 1997, when there were three: Phoenix and Minnesota at 40-42 and the Los Angeles Clippers at (yikes) 36-46.
A decade later, with less than two weeks left in the season, it appears that order has been restored.
It looked for months like we'd have at least one West playoff representative with a losing record, but the No. 8 Clips went into the weekend at .500 (37-37) for the first time since Feb. 9, when they were 25-25.
There are realistically still five teams in contention for one of the last three spots, with surging Golden State trailing the Clips by just a game and a half and New Orleans/Oklahoma City (out by 2½) playing L.A. twice more.
"A lot of organizations say they want to win, but they don't make the necessary moves to win. But I'm not going to give him any advice. Nobody felt sorry for me [in the years Shaq wasn't winning championships], so I don't feel sorry for anybody."
Heat center Shaquille O'Neal, speaking before a game in Minneapolis, when asked if he planned to offer consoling words and/or advice on how to address the future to pal Kevin Garnett, with the Wolves headed for a third straight season out of the playoffs.
It's one of the readers' favorites and we do it every week: Trot out five (or so) responses to the latest edition of my NBA Power Rankings to make sure you have your say.
Straight from the rankings mailbag:
Jeff (Patrick AFB): The West is way better than the East. Everyone thinks so, so it must be true. Ignore the fact that the worst team in the NBA plays in the West. Ignore the fact that the West is likely sending a sub-.500 team to the playoffs as well. The West has to be better. But here's a newsflash: The East is still sending someone to the Finals. So how can the Pistons be No. 5 when they are going to the NBA Finals? Detroit should be No. 2. Or No. 3, at worst.
Committee's counter: Jeff, Jeff, Jeff. You're conveniently leaving out the part about how the East houses only three teams (Detroit, Cleveland and Miami) with winning records against the West ... and how the Heat took over their division after losing Dwyane Wade ... and how the three biggest title favorites (Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio) all reside in the West.
Oh, yeah: You're also handing the East title to the Pistons when they won't even be favored in the East finals if Wade and Shaq are playing. You started off with some decent momentum, but you went too far. The Pistons were right where they belonged Monday morning when they checked in at No. 5.