The New Year begins with two months of evidence to help us separate the contenders from the disappointing. Here is a primer of what has happened so far, with the goal of trying to imagine the six months to come.
MVP: Chris Paul, Clippers. He has transformed what used to be the NBA's worst franchise, elevating the Clippers to real contenders. Paul has been a leader in all ways and no player has had a greater influence on the league. I still believe LeBron James is going to win this award -- his Heat rank atop the East and still haven't approached their peak -- but Paul is the current leader in this race.
ON THE BUBBLE: James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony.
Rookie: Damian Lillard, Blazers. Lillard has been durable, reliable and explosive while keeping Portland's thin roster in playoff contention.
ON THE BUBBLE: Anthony Davis.
Coach: Mark Jackson, Warriors. This young team minus Andrew Bogut has been the biggest of all surprises. Jackson has toughened the Warriors defensively while creating an environment in which Stephen Curry can show leadership and make plays down the stretch.
ON THE BUBBLE: Tom Thibodeau, Vinny Del Negro, Mike Woodson, Terry Stotts.
Defensive Player: Joakim Noah, Bulls. His defensive leadership has enabled the Bulls to stay within reach of homecourt advantage as they await the return of Derrick Rose.
ON THE BUBBLE: Serge Ibaka, Chris Paul, Andre Iguodala.
Most Improved: Serge Ibaka, Thunder. The defensive-minded power forward has improved his jump shot and overall offensive game just when the Thunder needed him to fill the void left by the departed James Harden.
ON THE BUBBLE: Jrue Holiday, Nicolas Batum.
Sixth Man: Jamal Crawford, Clippers. He is the explosive leader of the Clippers' formidable second unit.
ON THE BUBBLE: J.R. Smith, Jarrett Jack, Kevin Martin.
Executive: Sam Presti, Thunder. Forced to deal Harden, the Oklahoma City GM made a bold move that kept his team in contention while replenishing the Thunder with a trio of first-rounders (including rookie Jeremy Lamb). The cheap signing of Hasheem Thabeet is also paying off nicely.
ON THE BUBBLE: Danny Ferry, Daryl Morey -- and don't dismiss Mitch Kupchak.
There are five teams capable of winning the final game.
Miami Heat -- The defending champs are overwhelming favorites thanks to the league's most influential (and hardest to stop) player.
Oklahoma City Thunder -- Until proven otherwise, the favorite to defend their Western championship.
Los Angeles Clippers -- Could challenge Miami thanks to Paul's drive and their well-blended rotation -- though elite performances are needed from Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups.
San Antonio Spurs -- Duncan's stats appear to have undergone cosmetic surgery.
Los Angeles Lakers -- I continue to believe they'll be there at the end.
Contenders To Reach The Second Round (Or Beyond)
New York Knicks -- They need Amar'e Stoudemire healthy and complementing Anthony.
Memphis Grizzlies -- They could be an extremely difficult out.
Indiana Pacers -- If Granger is healthy, they'll be aiming to become the main challenger to Miami.
Chicago Bulls -- If Rose is healthy, they too could be the main rival to the Heat.
Boston Celtics -- They'll improve over the second half (so long as Pierce isn't dealt at the deadline).
Brooklyn Nets -- Who knows what will happen? But they have the talent to win a series.
Potential Names To Be Dangled At The Feb. 21 Trade Deadline
DeMarcus Cousins, Kings -- He didn't hire agent Dan Fegan because he's hoping to stay in Sacramento.
Tyreke Evans, Kings -- If Cousins goes, then Evans may follow him in a major house-cleaning.
Anderson Varejao, Cavaliers -- Big men are always in demand, but it's hard to believe Cleveland would move one of the league's most valuable team players.
Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, Raptors -- Dealing Calderon would provide a return on his expensive and expiring contract; moving Bargnani (currently injured) would launch a re-start for struggling Toronto.
Eric Gordon, Hornets -- Has he regained his health just in time for New Orleans to move him?
Paul Pierce, Celtics -- The underachieving Celtics will be gauging the market in order to hasten a new era.
Josh Smith, Hawks -- Rivals dream of prying him loose because his contract is expiring, but will the Hawks really choose to move their best player as he approaches his peak years?
Al Jefferson and/or Paul Millsap, Jazz -- At least one figures to be gone, as both are on expiring deals with potential young replacements waiting in Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.
J.J. Redick, Magic -- A shooter who plays hard for a team that is seeking to rebuild -- contenders may be interested in him next month.
These injured players promise to either return to the court or regain their conditioning over the next four months. Each will provide their team with a huge boost.
Andrew Bynum, 76ers -- The chronically injured center has expressed optimism of returning soon. We'll wait and see.
Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks -- As his conditioning improves, so will Dallas.
Amar'e Stoudemire, Knicks -- They need his firepower in order to challenge Miami.
Derrick Rose, Bulls -- He could yet elevate Chicago to contention.
Danny Granger, Pacers -- Indiana's leading scorer could have huge a impact on the league's top defensive team.
Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups, Clippers -- The Clippers are good already, and these complementary stars will make L.A. better than ever.
Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves -- Minnesota will grow more dangerous as he builds up conditioning and confidence.
Avery Bradley, Celtics -- Boston has missed his defensive leadership.
John Wall, Wizards -- His healthy return would give Washington hope for the long term.
Iman Shumpert, Knicks -- Would strengthen New York's bench.
Andrew Bogut, Warriors -- He would be a big addition to surprising Golden State.
Steve Blake, Lakers -- Versatile guard would strengthen Lakers' bench.
Point Guards To Watch
These quarterbacks will play important roles down the stretch.
Chris Paul, Clippers -- An impending free agent who is focused on winning a championship now.
Steve Nash, Lakers -- Can he rally his teammates to contend for the championship?
Russell Westbrook, Thunder -- Must continue to show leadership, counterintuitively, by playing off the ball.
Derrick Rose, Bulls -- A terrific return should not be expected -- and yet will come as no surprise.
Rajon Rondo, Celtics -- His individual numbers are excellent, but his team has struggled.
Mike Conley, Grizzlies -- Unfair that he receives too little credit when they win and too much blame otherwise.
These players serve important roles without pursuing stats or credit.
Jason Kidd, Knicks -- He has renewed Carmelo Anthony's promise.
Andre Miller, Nuggets -- One of the league's most respected point guards.
David West, Pacers -- A leader by example.
Joakim Noah, Bulls -- Anchors the Bulls in Rose's absence.
Paul Millsap, Jazz -- Has played out of position to help Utah develop its young frontcourt.
Jarrett Jack, Warriors -- Does a bit of everything in Golden State's backcourt.
Potential Lottery Winners
Washington Wizards -- In no hurry to rush Wall back to the court.
New Orleans Hornets -- Might as well try to add more talent around Davis.
Sacramento Kings -- Another year, another high draft pick.
Cleveland Cavaliers -- Rebuilding through the lottery is the strategy here.
Charlotte Bobcats -- See above.
Detroit Pistons -- Would rather win games than pick high.
Toronto Raptors -- Midseason trades may help them in the lottery.
Orlando Magic -- Will they unload talent at the deadline?
Phoenix Suns -- No choice but to replenish with a high pick.
? To trade or not to trade DeMarcus Cousins? Kings president Geoff Petrie declared this week that Cousins will not be moved. But no one is believing it, because this is one franchise that has become impossible to analyze. The Kings have the worst arena in the NBA and no plans to build a new home. They have an escapable lease that would enable them to move quickly; whether they will be sold along the way is anyone's guess. Petrie is in the final year of his agreement and a contract extension is not anticipated. They haven't made the playoffs since 2006, when Rick Adelman was replaced; the ensuing five coaches have gone 171-337.
The fall from five straight seasons of 50 wins or more has been staggering. If the Kings were more stable, with an environment that demanded excellence and accountability from top to bottom -- an environment that doesn't exist, as proved by the results of these last seven seasons -- then they might not be experiencing so many difficulties with Cousins. His issues are a symptom of the larger problem that has eaten away at the franchise.
We've seen this kind of thing before with unhappy players, and now it's going to play itself out again. The Kings are going to claim that Cousins isn't available. When teams call with trade proposals, the Kings will demand more than they can possibly get for Cousins. They'll be bargaining from a position of weakness that has been building for seven years. Rivals will believe they can salvage Cousins' career by establishing him in a more disciplined environment; they won't have to offer equal value for him because the Kings have little bargaining power. On their watch Cousins' value has hit bottom. All he has to do to force a trade out of Sacramento is to behave badly a few more times and shame them into dealing him. It's how these things go.
The biggest mistake the Kings can make is to blame all of this on Cousins. They knew who he was when they drafted him. The Kings will never return to prosperity under the ownership of the Maloof family unless they recognize where they've gone wrong and learn from their mistakes. It's too late to save their relationship with Cousins, or to salvage an equitable trade. The best they can do is to either (1) sell the team or else (2) hold themselves accountable in order to rebuild the franchise properly, so that one day the Kings can be the solidly managed organization that is positioned to steal a talent like Cousins in a trade, rather than be the team that is forced to give him away.
? P.J. Carlesimo coaches in Phil Jackson's shadow. "There are very few guys in the league that have it,'' acknowledged Carlesimo, the Nets interim coach, of the power wielded by NBA coaches like Jackson, Gregg Popovich and Jerry Sloan. "They have more credibility and leverage with the players than I do.''
The Nets would be crazy to not reach out to Jackson. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov should try to hire him. For his part, Jackson should be expected to demand total control of the franchise with final say over personnel. It would be fascinating to see if his expertise for coaching would transfer to management. I don't know whether he would succeed, but no one is more worthy of the opportunity to find out than the league's greatest modern coach.
The hiring of Jackson would amount to a long-term investment. He would be likely to make changes in team management in addition to moving players to fit his views. This is why it makes sense for the Nets' current management team to give Carlesimo a chance to turn the current team around. They invested big money in these players and they need to find out whether they can win. If they fail over the weeks ahead, and control of the team is handed over to Jackson, then the Nets are likely to embark on an entirely new course that will involve taking a couple of steps backward in order to rebuild to Jackson's specifications. In the meantime everyone employed by the Nets should be trying to win around Carlesimo -- as they did in their impressive 110-93 win at Oklahoma City Wednesday -- because no one knows how many of them will be retained if Jackson is hired.
? Amar'e Stoudemire returns. He provided 6 points in 17 minutes off the bench in his season debut Tuesday while Carmelo Anthony was scoring 45 in a loss to the visiting Blazers. The hopes for his team depend entirely on Stoudemire and Anthony learning to play well together over the next four months.
? Brandon Roy staves off retirement. "While practicing, I suffered a setback in my recovery," Roy said recently. "The past two days I have been weighing all of my options as I try to continue my basketball career. I have decided to explore additional treatment options and an extensive rehabilitation plan.'' At 28, Roy should be thriving. If this turns out to be the end for one of this generation's most gifted players, Roy wants to know he exhausted all of his options.
? Royce White remains sidelined. The rookie forward has yet to play as he and the Rockets continue to negotiate the medical terms of his employment. He was assigned to their D-League team this week but did not report. "Funny, headlines read 'Royce refuses D-League assignment.' NO! I refuse to go to work period. UNSAFE for just anyone to make medical calls,'' tweeted White, who has insisted that doctors have a larger say over the environment in which he works. White has suffered from a fear of flying, among other symptoms of his anxiety disorder. "Traveling conditions have long been settled,'' he tweeted. "Non-medical professionals making decisions in medical situations just isn't sensible. #Truth''
This is actually a constructive dialog between the player and his team. To his credit, White has refused to be ashamed of his condition. He has demanded that the team deal with his illness according to standards that have never been addressed by professional sports; the Rockets, in turn, are also trying to work things out rather than abandon their investment in him. I don't know whether White or his employer is right or wrong on this issue. But I do believe that years from now, this will be viewed as a negotiation during which mental health of athletes came out of the closet.
? Eric Gordon plays. The Hornets plan to continue restricting Gordon's playing time after he was held to 49 minutes in his first two games with New Orleans this season. Rivals continue to wonder if Gordon's end-game is to force a trade out of New Orleans. If so, then Gordon, 24, should be careful what he wishes for: Him and 19-year-old big man Anthony Davis could build a championship contender together in New Orleans.
? Suspensions in Dallas? "I've had to literally scream in the face of two guys in practices and shootarounds to get the point across -- and I will continue to do that,'' said Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle amid the team's six-game losing streak. (The Mavs have since gone 1-1.) "If I have to start suspending guys for not doing things they're supposed to be doing on the court, I'll do it. And Mark [Cuban] and I will get into it about that. But somehow, things have got to change and it can't just be about that it's a tough schedule. It just can't."
Carlisle later backed off his threat of suspensions. The bottom line is that the Mavericks are trying to maintain standards around Dirk Nowitzki. They hope to squeeze a few more years of title contention around him, and they want to sell a promising future to prospective free agents (including Dwight Howard) this summer.
Get To Know: Tyler Zeller
The 7-footer is averaging 8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a rookie for the Cavaliers. Zeller, 22, joined them as the No. 17 pick after four years at North Carolina.
? He and his brothers grew up playing in Washington, a small town in southwest Indiana. "Southern Indiana is crazy about basketball. My gym [at Washington High School] seats 7,000 people and we sold it out a couple of games my senior year. We averaged like 4,500 people at every game, and our own cheering section and the away cheering section would be going at each other, and it was fun. We always had battles there, but at the same time we always enjoyed it.''
The values of Indiana basketball defined him. "You've got to be able to play team basketball in order to have a chance to win a state championship in Indiana. Every night you've got to be ready to play, and it's not like some other states where you don't have that quality of basketball every night. Sure, we did have games we won by 40, but there were a lot of battles with our rivals -- I think the most we ever won by was like eight or 10 points. They were always tough games.''
His Indiana background prepared him to play for North Carolina. "Indiana was kind of in disarray when I came out, so that put them out of the picture. Being able to play at North Carolina -- I loved it ever since I [visited] there, and it's something I never regretted. I wish it could have been closer to home, but at the same time you don't really get to go home a lot anyway.''
Zeller is glad his background led him to the Cavaliers. "I'm from a town of 12,000 people, so going to New York [in the draft] would have driven me crazy just for how big it is and how much is going on. I think over time I would have been fine there, but for a first city, Cleveland is perfect. There's not a lot to do, so you stay focused on what you need to do; but there is enough to do that you can find something to do.''
? His older brother, 6-11 Luke Zeller, is a member of the Suns after four years at Notre Dame, while younger brother Cody Zeller is a 7-foot sophomore at Indiana. "All of our games are a little bit different. I always loved watching Tim Duncan play because of how fundamentally sound he is, he does everything perfect. And then you've always got to respect Dirk [Nowitzki] for what he does. But you've also got to be your own player, and you've got to take and choose what you can do and what you can't.''
He was a relatively late bloomer. "I actually didn't play a lot in middle school. I wasn't a huge fan of it. It was one of those things I played for fun with my friends. And then I grew eight inches in a year -- I was 5-10 in eighth grade, and I've grown a lot since then. Through junior high I was always Luke's little brother instead of being my own person. So it's been fun being able to go through high school and get better every year.
"It was probably my freshman year in high school when I started to play a lot. I remember one Fourth of July, we went and shot off fireworks, and then they were all going to party somewhere and I went to the gym for a couple of hours. I got kicked out of the gym a couple of times because I was in there at like 1:30 in the morning. I really do love it."
? Staying for four years at Carolina set him up for the NBA. "Being part of the tradition of that program has been excellent and I've learned a lot. We get a lot of past players that come back and play with us every summer and that makes for great pickup games.
"The summer is a big time there. They're always kind of pushing us, trying to make us better. At the same time we'll get 20 people and we'll have two courts going, and you don't want to be on that losers' court the whole time. So you've got to make sure you keep getting better and that you're working together when you start to play, because if you don't work together you're going to be in trouble.
"I got to know quite a few of [the Carolina alums]. Sean May -- he's been in and out of the league and he's overseas now -- and Marvin Williams have probably been the two biggest ones that I was around a lot, just because they were big men at Carolina and they're back every summer. Marvin will do anything for anybody. He's somebody that comes back and is always trying to help you and make you better, but he's also very competitive. As soon as he gets the chance, he's going to try to score on you.''
Zeller considered turning pro after his junior year. "It was a tough decision. I'd been there three years, and people had told me that your senior year is something you never forget. We had a chance to win a national championship. It was a fun group. I really did enjoy my junior year, so all of that went into the decision -- and then there was the lockout. Ultimately I came back and I really did enjoy my senior year. I only had two classes in my senior year, so I didn't really have to go to school. So it was very nice.
"Going through everything we do every year at North Carolina is something that has helped me now. We get up and down a lot, and practices are tough. Rebounding-wise I grew a lot that year. I think I'm more prepared than most players coming out, because I am older. But at the same time it's interesting how people develop. In the NBA the game is completely different than the college game, but you still have to have talent to be able to do it.
"I want to continue to get better every year and continue to learn more. This year is going to be a huge learning year for me. I'm really looking forward to the summer. I know where I need to be and what I need to work on, and I can really put a lot of work in in the summer.''
Quote Of The Week
"I'd probably force Shaq to do it."
He was asked whom he would ask to present his jersey when his number is retired by the Lakers. I don't think he was joking.
Game Of The Week
Los Angeles Lakers at Los Angeles Clippers, Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET. This local derby has never been so competitive. An NBA advance scout breaks down the matchups:
"There's no question Chris Paul is the best leader in the league. He really is like Magic Johnson in a 6-foot body, because he controls so much for that team. I think he's one of those guys who will be leading a team 10 years from now, like a Jason Kidd type. He's so smart and he has the talent and personality to be a leader for as long as he wants to be.
"But I have to say I'm not a fan of either team right now. I picked the Lakers to win the championship before the season, but now I don't think it's going to happen. As well as the Clippers have been playing lately, I still think they're going to have trouble in the playoffs. Their problem is that they're so thin up front.
"Lamar Odom is the key guy for the Clippers now. If he keeps getting better, if he gets back to what he was, then they'll have a better shot at it [in the playoffs]. But they're so thin up front. They have two big guys that are great -- Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- and their third big guy has to be Lamar, because they can't count on Ryan Hollins to give them anything.
"I would guess in the playoffs they'll have Caron Butler playing a little bit of 4. But to me they're not in the same league as San Antonio or Oklahoma City. I hear people say that San Antonio doesn't match up well, but I think in a playoff series they'd hammer the Clippers by wearing them out inside. I may be wrong about this, but I'll believe it when I see them going deep in the playoffs with Griffin and Jordan.
"Right now the Clippers are playing so well, I think they'll beat the Lakers. The Lakers aren't the kind of team that's going to say that this is a big game for us. It's not like they have to prove to themselves by beating the Clippers in January. Kobe, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard -- they don't care about beating the Clippers or being the best team in L.A. Those guys are Hall of Famers, they've been there, done that. They're not a young, up-and-coming team. They know you don't win a championship right now.
"Nash and Paul will both be effective, but the Lakers may have trouble switching Nash to defend the other guard if the Clippers put Eric Bledsoe out there with Paul.
"I always think it's important to not get too caught up by what happens this time of year. It matters for a team like the Clippers, but the Lakers are going to be worrying more about getting better every day.''
Based on what we've seen so far:
C Joakim Noah
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant
G Chris Paul
G Kobe Bryant
F Tim Duncan
F Carmelo Anthony
F David Lee
F Blake Griffin
G Tony Parker
G Dwyane Wade