March 20, 2007

NBA teams are finally playing with a sense of urgency as the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. In the West the Warriors are in the eighth spot with a bullseye on their backs, courtesy of the Clippers, Timberwolves and Hornets. In the East the Nets (seventh) and Pacers (eighth) are being chased by the Magic and Knicks. Meanwhile, teams like the Celtics and Grizzlies are busy watching the NCAA tournament to check out Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, debating what so many pundits have been talking about since November. There will be plenty of time for the Oden/Durant argument when the playoffs conclude, but without further adieu, here are the top NBA earners (min. games played = 50):

1. Kobe Bryant, SG, Lakers: Bryant takes over the top of our list as his numbers have continued to flourish despite the Lakers' second-half struggles. His 65-point performance in an overtime win over the Blazers on March 16 showcased yet again that he is the most dominant scorer in the NBA. He's averaging 31.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists in his last 10 games, so look for him to keep filling the stat sheet as the Lakers try and fend off the Nuggets for the sixth playoff seed.

2. Kevin Garnett, PF, Timberwolves: The T-Wolves have lost seven of their last 10 but are still in the hunt for the eighth playoff seed in the West. Playoffs or no playoffs, Garnett has no off button for his intensity (or effectiveness for that matter) on the court. In his last five games he's averaging 28.8 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two blocks per game. With little to no supporting cast, the weight of the T'wolves looks to be too heavy for KG to carry into the playoffs.

3. Gilbert Arenas, PG, Wizards: With Caron Butler banged up, Arenas will have to carry more of the scoring load. The Wizards are trying to fend off the surging Heat for the Southeast Division title. Arenas has poured in 29.2 points, dished out 5.4 assists and notched 2.4 steals per game in his last five outings. With all of the chips slowly being removed from his shoulder, dreams of an NBA championship should still be more than enough to motivate Arenas. He's no Van Gogh, as evidenced by his new adidas commercial (he should have stuck to stick figures), but he remains a potent scorer.

4. Steve Nash, PG, Suns: The talented Suns rode into Dallas on Mar. 14 on a five-game win streak and pulled out a double-OT win. However, they followed up that big win by getting blown out by the Pistons and the Nuggets (whom they could meet in the first round of the playoffs). With Shawn Marion having trouble on the offensive end, Nash will have to call his own number more often to get the Suns back on track. The league's MVP the last two seasons is more than up to the challenge and has averaged 21 points and 9.8 assists in his last 10 games.

5. Dirk Nowitzki, PF, Mavericks: Nowitzki managed only 13 points in 28 minutes in a 117-100 loss at Golden State on March 12. The Mavericks still hold the best record in the NBA and it would take a sizeable late-season collapse for them to cough up their top seed. In his last 10 games Nowitzki has averaged 24 points, 10.7 rebounds and four assists as the Mavs have won eight of 10 (losing to Golden State and the Suns). This versatile big man should continue to flourish as teams search for a way to neutralize his inside-outside offensive game.

6. Shawn Marion, PF, Suns: The Matrix seems to still be having trouble with his bruised right hand as his offensive numbers have dipped considerably since the injury in late February. In his last 10 games he is averaging 15.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.2 blocks and 1.2 steals. The Suns could look to rest him down the stretch as they will need him at full force in the Western Conference Playoffs.

7. Ray Allen, SG, Sonics: Allen is playing with bone spurs in his left ankle and should require surgery at season's end. With the playoffs out of reach the Sonics guard could have easily opted for season-ending surgery. Even with the injury Allen remains one of the NBA's best perimeter scorers and he should continue to put up All-Star numbers. In his past five outings he has averaged 24.4 points, 5.4 rebounds and four assists. Not too shabby for the walking wounded.

8. Elton Brand, PF, Clippers: Brand has really come on in the second half after appearing fatigued from a summer with USA Basketball. As Brand has come along, so have the Clippers, who are vying for another playoff berth. With Shaun Livingston out, Brand will need Sam Cassell to come on strong for the Clips to make the playoffs. In his last 10 games Brand has averaged 19.2 points, 10.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.3 blocks. His numbers have regressed from his MVP-caliber 2005-06 season but he still remains an adept scorer in the low post and from mid-range.

9. Marcus Camby, C, Nuggets: Camby continues to anchor the Denver defense and do the dirty work for the Nuggets. His durability has been questioned since he entered the NBA but looks to break the 70 games played barrier this season for the second time in his career. He'll average 15-plus points per game, especially playing alongside the trigger-happy duo of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony but his rebounds and blocks more than make up for it. He is currently leading the NBA in blocks per game (3.2) and is fifth in rebounds per game (11.6).

10. LeBron James, SF, Cavaliers: It was inevitable that James missed a game last week with back spasms after three-plus seasons carrying the Cavs on his back. The back issues should not keep him out of the lineup as Cleveland looks to catch the Pistons for the top seed in the East. LeBron has come alive in the second half and quieted the doubters who thought he didn't have the "killer instinct." Since the All-Star break he has averaged 31.8 points, seven rebounds, more than six assists and close to two three-pointers per game. Because he gets to the line close to nine times per game, his 68 percent from the stripe is keeping him from climbing this list.

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