The NFL season is almost over, but the best of the NBA is yet to come (or so they hope in the Eastern Conference). Here is everything you might have missed over the opening three months of basketball while you were fixated on football.
Most surprising contender: Portland Trail Blazers
Two years ago they won 28 games. Now the Blazers will likely surpass last season's win total (34) by the All-Star break. The new partnership of 28-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge, sophomore point guard Damian Lillard and second-year coach Terry Stotts has exceeded all expectations, while virtually every move made by GM Neil Olshey has been constructive. Can a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 2000 turn this amazing start into an overdue deep playoff run?
Most surprising playoff team: Phoenix Suns
Phoenix has a rookie GM in Ryan McDonough, a rookie coach in Jeff Hornacek, a backcourt of two point guards and a front line of role players. Even after the recent knee injury to Bledsoe, who was a Most Improved Player favorite, the Suns remain a playoff team in the competitive West.
Most surprising loser: Brooklyn Nets
They invested $189 million in this year's payroll (luxury tax included) while surrendering virtually all of their future draft picks on an elderly roster and a rookie coach. Brooklyn may recover from its 10-21 start and may even reach the second round, thanks to the mediocrity of the Eastern Conference; but nothing short of injuries to Indiana and Miami can enable Brooklyn to contend for the NBA Finals.
Most overpriced city: New York
The Nets and Knicks' combined expenditures in payroll and taxes amount to $312 million. The combined record of these two teams from the NBA's No. 1 market is 33-49.
Most surprising trend: The rich suffer
See where this is headed? Five teams from the three biggest markets (Nets, Knicks, Bulls, Lakers and Clippers) opened the season in the tax along with Miami. The Heat and the Clippers are the only teams to be worthy of the investment. The Bulls have since traded Luol Deng's salary in order to escape the tax; in the meantime the Pacers, Spurs, Blazers and Thunder are contending for the championship while maintaining the discipline of middle-class budgets.
Worst injury: Derrick Rose
The Bulls' title hopes in the past two years have been sidelined by Rose's recurring knee problems, forcing them to withdraw and retool.
Second-worst injury: Kobe Bryant
He may not have been able to lead the Lakers to the playoffs, given the injuries to Steve Nash and all of their other point guards, but it was painful to see one of the NBA's greatest go down six games into his comeback from Achilles surgery. (And especially painful for the Lakers, who had given him a two-year $48.5 million extension.)
The Bulls and Lakers haven't been the only teams suffering this year. Consider all of the big names that have endured injuries so far already:
• Dwyane Wade. The Heat guard has missed 12 games with knee soreness and preventive care.
• Russell Westbrook. The Thunder guard is expected to return next month after undergoing yet another knee surgery in late December.
• J.J. Redick and Chris Paul. First Redick missed 21 games with a broken right wrist, and no Paul is out until next month with a separated right shoulder.
• Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter. The Spurs' emerging star, Leonard, will be sidelined for three to four weeks with a fractured right hand. Green, whose three-point shooting was the revelation of last year's NBA Finals, is expected to miss a month with a broken finger, while center Splitter could be out for a longer time with a sprained right shoulder.
• Eric Bledsoe. The most improved candidate has been out since New Year's Eve with knee surgery.
• Al Horford. The Hawks center (right pectoral surgery) is out for the year.
• Andre Iguodala. The Warriors went 5-8 while he recovered from a hamstring strain.
• Brook Lopez. The Nets' center suffered a broken fifth metatarsal in his right foot for the second time in three seasons. Deron Williams has been diminished by ankle problems for much of the season, Paul Pierce suffered a broken hand, Andrei Kirilenko (back) missed 26 games and Jason Terry (knee) was sidelined for 15.
• Javale McGee and Danilo Gallinari. The latter will miss the entire season after requiring a second knee surgery; the former has been out since early November with a stress fracture of the left tibia, leaving the Nuggets without their starters at center and small forward.
• Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis. Holiday is out indefinitely with a right tibia stress fracture, Anderson may miss the rest of the year with a herniated disk, and Davis missed seven games with a broken hand -- all good news for the 76ers, who receive the Pelicans' first-rounder so long as it's not in the top three.
• Larry Sanders. After signing a four-year, $48 million extension, the Bucks' center has missed 25 games after suffered a torn right thumb in an early November nightclub incident -- setting Milwaukee on a path to the league's worst record.
• Omer Asik. The Rockets center (bruised right thigh) has been out since early December, which coincides with his trade request.
Most jarring reversal of identity: The Clippers and Lakers in L.A.
It's as if the franchises exchanged brain waves in some creepy sci-fi movie from the 1960s.
Best 10 teams: Eight are in the West
Which is why fans in the East must stay up late if they want to watch meaningful basketball.
Best rookies: Michael Carter-Williams
Outside of Carter-Williams, Trey Burke, Victor Oladipo and Giannis Antetokounmpo have also stood out. Beyond those four, you're reaching. No. 1 pick Anthony Bennett has scored 75 points in 31 games and has yet to be sent to the D-League -- perhaps because the Cavaliers worry that he won't play well in the minors, either. Four of the top six picks have combined for 135 points.
Best individual duel: LeBron James vs. Kevin Durant for MVP
Durant has been torrid, and LeBron has upheld his high standards while driving the Heat to a fourth-straight NBA Finals, which no team has achieved since 1987. The strain on James is unique. He's my choice for MVP right now, though Durant may yet surpass him.
Best team rivalry: N/A
As in not applicable. Indiana vs. Miami is all that matters in the East, but the Pacers have never beaten the Heat in a decisive game. Portland and OKC might have had something going regionally if the Thunder hadn't left Seattle. A feud may yet break out in the playoffs between the Spurs and Thunder, who have won all three of their meetings this year with San Antonio. But the truth is that it's going to be harder than ever for team rivalries to develop in this new collectively-bargained era of redistributed talent.
Most interesting controversy: Tanking
The new CBA encourages teams to build via the draft. To many teams that naturally means putting out lineups of young developing players meant to derive high picks. Are those teams in the wrong? Aren't they abiding by the rules per the best interests of their franchises? So now the NBA is shocked, shocked to find that teams are losing on purpose ... which is why all kinds of ideas are being promoted to replace the current lottery.
Top performance: Kevin Durant's 54-point game
The Thunder needed his scoring (in the absence of Westbrook) during their 127-121 win against the visiting Warriors last week. Durant required only 28 shots to dominate, affirming an ongoing trend of torrid efficiency in January.
Least reliable player: J.R. Smith
He missed the opening five games because of a drug suspension. He attempted one shot in a game that the Knicks could have and should have won at Boston, which came the day after a reported argument with coach Mike Woodson. He was fined $50,000 for repeatedly untying opponents' shoelaces. Worst of all is his 36.5 percent shooting from the field.
Biggest deadline move: Adam Silver replaces David Stern
The league has been preparing for the deputy commissioner to take command next month on the 30th anniversary of Stern's ascendance. Silver is expected to negotiate a lucrative new TV deal while providing his own point of view on issues like the lottery, advertising on uniforms, the prevention of injuries (see above) and other issues.
The 6-6 shooting guard was averaging 11.6 points since moving into the starting lineup of the resurgent Raptors 22 games ago. Ross, 22, won the Slam Dunk contest at All-Star Weekend as a rookie last season.
1. He grew up in Portland, Ore. "I've been playing since I was a baby. My parents both played at Cal Pol Pomona. I didn't beat my mom one on one until I was in sixth grade. She's 6-foot tall, she was a post player, and she would go out there and give me a little jab-step jump shot.''
He became best friends with Terrence Jones, now the 6-9 starting power forward for the Rockets. "Me and Terrence, we met in sixth grade. We were playing on the same AAU team. The first time we were at practice, we were all standing on the sideline and the coach said, 'Terrence ...'. We both said, huh? We were standing next to each other. Which Terrence are you talking to? So after that we always stayed close.
"Terrence actually was a point guard in AAU for a long time. I was 6-2 or 6-3, and Terrence was maybe 5-11 for about a year. Then we noticed he started to catch his growth spurt. In seventh grade he was 6-1, as a freshman he was 6-5, and after that he was shooting up. When I played with Terrence's team, I sat on the bench for awhile, and he used to start over me. Then some kids got hurt and coach told me, 'Just shoot it.' That's when he I realized I could shoot, and I realized I could do something.''
2. After earning Oregon player of the year while leading Jefferson High School to the state championship as a sophomore, Ross moved to Rockville, Maryland, to play basketball at Montrose Christian School. "That was tough. I moved right when the summer ended, I was out there for a year and a half, and I didn't know anybody. I went to school, went to practice, and right back to the house I lived in, and nothing outside of that. So I didn't have any type of life or anything. Didn't see my friends, didn't see my family a lot.
"The coach had bought a house right next to the school, we had a house mom, and all the players from out of the area stayed in that house. I lived there with four or five other basketball players on the team. It was kind of like a dorm, but not really.
"I was there for academic reasons. It was a better school; the school I was at was kind of rough, it was a low graduation rate, and my mom thought it was a better opportunity for me -- it was a private school, a smarter school, and they had better basketball. But things didn't end up working out there so I ended up moving back.
"But I think it made me mature. It made me a lot more independent, and I didn't rely on my mom as much after that. It was a good experience, it kind of shaped me, it gave me an independence from being away from home.''
When he returned to Portland midway through his senior season, he was ruled ineligible to play for Jefferson. "I still practiced with the team every day. It wasn't that bad. Every open gym there was, I went to, and every time I had a chance to play against other players, I did. I just made the most of it.''
3. Ross played two years at Washington before the Raptors picked him No. 8 in the 2012 draft. "Moving away at an early age helped me, because I'm now living in a different country. I'm enjoying myself. I love the city. People are very welcoming, and the city is diverse.
"Winning the slam dunk was fun. It was my first time doing a real dunk contest. In college people knew me for a shooter and a scorer, and this year now it's going back to a shooting mentality. They know I can dunk, but they look at me as a shooter now.''
His move into the starting lineup -- created by the December trade of Rudy Gay -- has simplified the game for Ross. "I'm just trying to understand the game a little more. I've got a lot of veterans around me to help me with that. They've been in the league four or five years now, and for a young guy like me to know that they're going to point me in the right direction, it helps.''
An NBA advance scout makes observations on the first half of the season:
"LeBron is still the best player in the league. He's using every tool, like a baseball player being a five-tool player; he's not taking nights off while Dwyane Wade or Ray Allen are taking nights off. His supporting cast is not as strong every night as the Pacers have been around Paul George.
"One thing I don't see from George is the killer instinct. LeBron has it, but George is the kind of guy who is content to make some cute plays in the first half. In second-half scoring, George is No. 1 in the league, but I see him playing around with the game a little bit in the opening half.
"There's something missing with Minnesota, and I'm not convinced that Kevin Love is everything he's made out to be. I think it showed when he sold out his teammates a few weeks ago. But they have issues, and when you see them in person, you can see some complaining going on between their guys. They're going to be an interesting team to be watched.
"I think there has been, and there still will be a little tension for Oklahoma City as long as Russell Westbrook is out. Kevin Durant feels like he's got to do everything, and he does. Serge Ibaka doesn't help out inside offensively; he wants to shoot jumpers all the time. Reggie Jackson is a good player as a scorer, and he's trying to do the right thing by passing the ball; but it's just not a natural thing for him, which makes it hard. There are times you can tell he wants to score, but he knows he can't do it as much because of the way they have to try to play. As coaches we all appreciate what Kendrick Perkins can do, but his productivity and impact has shrunk. With Westbrook? Then they'll be fine as far as their starting lineup.
"But their depth is not going to be up to the level of the Spurs in the playoffs. As deep as the West is, I don't think there is any team besides the Spurs where you look at their rotation and say wow. The Spurs, with their depth and their day-in, day-out system, have everything. As long as Tim Duncan and Tony Parker stay healthy, they're going to be my pick to make it back to the Finals and win the championship. It's not even close. I don't think another team in the conference challenges them. They're just pacing themselves right now.
"It's pretty clear that the Spurs, Miami, and Indiana are the three elite teams, and after them it's another level down.''
The All-Star Teams
The NBA announced its All-Star starters on Thursday and will reveal the full rosters next week. Below are my picks, These are my picks, minus the likes of Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and other injured stars who may or may not be available for the Feb. 16 All-Star Game in New Orleans:
F: LeBron James
F: Paul George
F: Joakim Noah
G: Dwyane Wade
F: Carmelo Anthony
F: Roy Hibbert
F: Chris Bosh
G: John Wall
G: Kyrie Irving
G: Kyle Lowry
F: Kevin Durant
F: LaMarcus Aldridge
F: Tim Duncan
G: Damian Lillard
F: Kevin Love
G: Tony Parker
G: James Harden
F: Anthony Davis