• Josh Smith, Hawks. I'm starting with the biggest surprise of all. In previous years, a silhouette of Smith launching a poorly aimed three-pointer had been the logo for much of what was wrong with the league in the preexisting era of AAU phenoms drafted straight out of high school. But Smith definitely belongs on the All-Star team now. Simply connect the power forward's numbers -- 14.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 3.8 assists -- to Atlanta's eminence as the No. 4 contender in the East on track for a 54-win season.
"That kid has grown up immensely, and I'm stunned," an NBA pro personnel scout said. "I will tell you I hated him -- his body language, his physical displays and immaturity on the floor. But this year I've seen him sit on the bench and not get playing time in the fourth quarter because the lineup is doing well, and they call him in to get the tip to win the game. And he's not mad. In fact, he's up like he's their best cheerleader. I don't know what award he should get, but he should get something for making the most emotional growth."
After going to Atlanta as the No. 17 pick in 2004 from Oak Hill Academy, the 6-foot-9 Smith won the slam dunk contest as a 19-year-old rookie and was typecast as an athlete who valued show over substance. He was asked to mature in public view while playing roughly 30 minutes per game over his first five seasons, and his insistence on attempting threes -- hoisting up as many as 152 in a season despite his career 26.8 percent rate from that distance -- was infuriating to watch. But this year he has shot three of them, which is a telling symptom of what has gone right for Smith and the Hawks.
"I came a long way as an athlete, as a player," Smith said. "Just understanding the strong points of my game and being able to help my teammates the most is by not shooting threes.
"I think I've come a long way, but I really think the media have come a long way, too, by being open-minded. Because they were very narrow-minded with me; they maybe listened to a lot of stuff that was untrue, and they just labeled me as being an athlete that had a [short] fuse on him or was uncoachable. I think they've grown and they really took time to see the player and understand the player instead of just judging me."
Having made the painful investment to develop him over the last five years, the Hawks deserve every benefit of Smith's strong play. At 24, he could become one of the league's dominant defenders as a hyperactive shot-blocker who controls the boards. And as his post moves continue to improve, his athleticism could make him unguardable in the paint. Best of all, he is showing qualities that win games, especially in the playoffs.
"What he does now is play to his strength -- blocking shots, rebounding, bringing energy -- and he's an excellent teammate," the scout said. "He has a certain flair, and if he got in [as an All-Star this year], he might be able to stay in the mix for another three or four years or more. He could be a special player, and I really can't believe I'm saying this, because I really didn't like him before this year."
• Gerald Wallace, Bobcats. While going through my ballot, I couldn't believe how unimpressive the East team has become. So few of the big-name stars are having All-Star-worthy years, with Kevin Garnett either being hurt or recovering from injury, Shaquille O'Neal playing fewer than 23 minutes per game and Gilbert Arenas attempting career suicide with unloaded weapons. It appears a sure bet Rajon Rondo will make his All-Star debut, while VinceCarter or Ray Allen might make the team by default, even though their numbers are down.
There are so many bad teams in the East that don't deserve to send an All-Star to Dallas. Andre Iguodala (listed at forward on the ballot) is putting up strong numbers, but what difference are they making for the lousy Sixers, who are 12-26? The same goes for everyone associated with the Pacers, Pistons, Wizards and, especially, the 3-35 Nets.
The last spot on my ballot comes down to David Lee or Wallace, who has shown elite versatility as a 6-7 small forward -- 17.9 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks to go with 1.9 assists. He is another player showing team-first discipline: Since Larry Brown arrived in Charlotte, Wallace has been attempting half as many threes as he did in 2007-08, when he made 32.1 percent of them.
"Larry has helped tighten his game," the scout said. "His rebounding is off the hook. I've never seen a more fearless player. He's gotten rid of the three-ball, so everything he does now is to the rim. Think about his versatility: In [2005-06] he led the league in steals, he could possibly lead the league in rebounds at some point and I bet he's up there as far as taking charges."
On the question of whether to go with Lee or Wallace, I sought out the opinions of an Eastern GM and two pro personnel scouts (one from each conference). The GM and one of the scouts suggested that Lee's impressive numbers -- 19.0 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists -- are inflated by MikeD'Antoni's offense.
"A lot of us in the league right away discount the stats because of the number of possessions and the pace [the Knicks create], which may or may not be fair," the scout said. "People who have worked with Lee say no way is that fair, and the [coaches] in New York love him, but I think a lot of us feel he pads his rebounding numbers by not getting the tough rebounds so much as the free-throw rebounds and the loose-ball rebounds. He's one of the bigger enigmas in the league."
"I completely disagree," the other personnel scout responded. "They say Lee benefits because Mike runs up and down? Well, they don't run up and down anymore. Look at the stats."
It's true their offense has slowed down. The Knicks are attempting three fewer field goals than last year, and they rank a middling 11th in scoring.
"I completely disagree it's because of the system," the scout said. "David Lee was a double-double guy for Isiah [Thomas] and now for D'Antoni. You're telling me those systems were the same?"
I'm leaning toward Wallace based on Charlotte's superior record and his all-out style of play. The East coaches, who select the reserves, should recognize Wallace in order to set an example for their own players to emulate. But Lee should not be dismissed as a candidate.
• Zach Randolph, Grizzlies. He has helped lead one of the NBA's most surprising teams by averaging 20.4 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 50.2 percent -- Randolph's best in his seven years as a starter. But I don't know anyone who thinks the 6-9 power forward will be recognized as a Western All-Star. "If it was fair, he'd make it," a Western GM said. "But the coaches won't vote for him."
"Zach has surprised everybody this year," a Western personnel scout said. "But people are going to resist believing in what he's doing because a zebra doesn't change its stripes."
Randolph developed his negative reputation over a number of years, and it looks as if he'll need more than a half-season to work it off. If he maintains this high level one year from now, maybe then he'll be awarded a place among All-Stars.
At the moment, I'm listing him on my ballot, with the understanding that the Western coaches will ignore Randolph in favor of a reliable frontcourt performer such as New Orleans' David West or a newcomer like the Lakers' Andrew Bynum.
• Chris Kaman, Clippers. He's averaging 20.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, with the latter stat diminished by sharing the frontcourt with Marcus Camby, who is averaging 11.7 boards. I'm listing Kaman as the No. 2 center in the West behind Amar'e Stoudemire. "Before he got hurt," a Western scout said of Kaman's injuries over the previous two seasons, "people would say this guy is a top five-six-seven center. How many guys can score like he can -- left-handed, right-handed? He has the complete arsenal."
• Al Horford, Hawks. Who would have guessed that Atlanta's undersized power forward-center combination of Smith and Horford would be All-Stars this year? But compare Horford's numbers to his rivals'. With 13.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, his only meaningful competition (from a winning team) to become the No. 2 center in the East is Boston's Kendrick Perkins.
"I love Horford, primarily because he's an incredible locker-room guy," the Western scout said. "He instantly became a leader, which is astounding. His value is greater than his numbers, and he is contributing to a very good team."
On to the rest of the Countdown ...
Undersized power forward Carl Landry, the victim of a shooting 10 months ago, is the No. 2 scorer for the surprising Rockets.
• The shooting. "I went out," he said matter-of-factly, "and got something to eat very late at night -- about 3 in the morning -- and had an attempted carjacking that went wrong and got hit in the leg with a bullet."
Landry was midway through his second NBA season when, on March 17, he was attacked. He said the shooter was within 10 yards when he fired two shots. "And I kept running, so I was really blessed,'' he said. "I didn't know that I got shot. I guess I was lucky it didn't hit a nerve, it didn't hit a bone, it didn't hit anything up here." He placed his hand over his chest. "It hit my calf and it was just flesh, just meat. It was almost like going to the doctor and getting a shot in your arm. It was really no pain."
Nontheless, it hit him hard.
• His reaction. "He really is an underdog," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "He came in the summer league [as a rookie] out of shape and he looked terrible, and we told him that. And then he came into training camp in great shape. He's learned as he's gone, but he's got so much room for growth."
Landry was acquired by Houston in a 2007 draft-night trade after the Sonics took him early in the second round. A history of severe knee trouble had kept him at junior college and Purdue for five seasons, making him a 24-year-old NBA rookie. Over his first two seasons with the Rockets, he would be hard on himself, wary of his small margin for error. He took criticism to heart.
"I want to say the turning point for Carl was last season after the shooting," Rockets player programs director Shawn Respert said. "That's when he realized how delicate the balance was between keeping himself ready to play and how easy it is to lose it by making some poor decisions. It has opened his mind to learn to have more fun. It does seem as if he's way more outgoing, not in a child's-play way, but in the right way. There is a lot of joking. He's kind of the lighthearted one now."
• His offseason. "I spent a lot of time with my family, rested, got fat," Landry said with a laugh.
"He came in mid-summer a little bit heavy. Not that that's wrong. I'm sure half of the guys in this league after having the playoffs sat out and took some time off," Respert said. "But he came back almost 10 pounds heavier. I said, 'Carl, this is not what you want to do after getting a big contract.' "
Landry is guaranteed $3 million annually through next season.
"I said, 'This is not how you want to reward yourself. You can't afford to do it,' " Respert said. "He worked his butt off and he came back to training camp in great shape. At the end of the summer, he was back to where he was at the end of the playoff run. He was working hard and he was having some fun with it. We didn't drill-sergeant him to death. It was fun, and I also think it was a thrill ride for him to see what us getting out of the first round had done and the spark the city had when we did it."
The Rockets came into this season without their top post players in Yao Ming (out for the year) and Ron Artest (departed to the Lakers). With Tracy McGrady sidelined by knee surgery, they were an undersized team lacking in star power and scoring. They would need more production from Landry, who averaged only 8.7 points over his first two years, and yet he appeared to feel no pressure.
"I started to appreciate every pass, every score, every rebound and things like that," Landry said. "You never know when it might be your last game. You always hear it, and with me it never registered. But after that day it did."
• His breakout year. The 22-17 Rockets rank among the league's most impressive surprises, and Landry is in the middle of it. Averaging 16.6 points, he is their second-leading scorer while playing an efficient 27.1 minutes off the bench, launching his candidacy for the Sixth Man and Most Improved awards.
"I want to be an All-Star in this league someday," he said. "I want to win awards like Sixth Man and Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year. I want to be that kind of player, and it starts now. The opportunities that I have with those guys being out, it starts now and I can't waste it. It's an opportunity I may never have again."
Adelman does not hide his admiration for Landry. "He's very willing to listen, and his game has gone from last year to here, to way up," Adelman said. "He's much more confident attacking the basket now, and he's a very good 15-foot jump shooter. It says something about him that we just kind of turn the game over to him in the fourth quarter and he responds.
"I think he can be a very good defender, he plays people out on the floor well and he's learning how to guard better inside. His quickness and explosiveness catch people off guard. We've seen people try to put bigger guys on him and intimidate him, and he's too quick.
"But what I love about him this year," Adelman said, "is when we give him the ball, he is not scared. He is not scared to make a play. He challenges the other team."
He is no longer afraid.
"It's amazing how that keeps him going, for a guy I thought put tons of pressure on himself because he expected himself to be very good from the beginning," Respert said. "His role is to score points in that low post and to run the floor and help rebound. And if he defends, it's even better. He knows it's such an easy job for him to do. Guys would love to have that job, and he saw that after the shooting and not being able to play. He saw guys who were in there doing those things, and how it doesn't slow down, it doesn't stop for anybody. This thing just keeps going and going, with or without you."
I sat next to Landry in the locker room before a recent game and built up the nerve to ask a ridiculous question: Did that shooting liberate his career? Did it turn out to be a good thing that happened to him?
He stared at me and then laughed loud and hard. "I guess so, yeah," he said. "If that's what it took for me, that's what it took. It may not take that for everybody; it may take something different. But that was the moment where I matured, and I was more grateful."
• Jamal Crawford seems to have enhanced the Atlanta Hawks' roster enormously. Coming off the bench, he adds the explosive scoring ability that they lacked in that role in recent years. I consider him the most valuable bench player in the NBA right now. Do you agree? And if not, who do you consider the best sixth man so far?-- Shelley J., Apex, N.C.
This is a strong year for sixth men. I'd say it's a four-man race among Crawford, Landry and guards Jason Terry of Dallas (last year's winner) and Manu Ginobili of San Antonio. I'm giving Crawford the slight edge based on his impact on the Hawks' superior record, but Landry is right there with him. Most years, I view the sixth man as a trumped-up award, but this season it has meaning and I look forward to charting the contenders over the second half.
• Without Blake Griffin, what can the Clippers realistically expect for the rest of this season, and (hopefully) the postseason?-- Anderson G., Los Angeles
They should continue to pursue the playoffs. Griffin's absence means they're less likely to make a midseason deal to unload Marcus Camby, who can be expected to provide a strong second half in his pursuit of a new contract. If Griffin were healthy, they might have traded Camby by now, so Camby's lingering presence lessens the damage.
Kaman should be an All-Star and Baron Davis is playing better. I don't think they'll make the playoffs -- they stand four games behind Utah and Houston for the last two playoff spots, with Chris Paul's Hornets three games ahead of the Clippers and also fighting to get in -- but the postseason is within the Clippers' reach, and one extended winning streak would put them in the middle of the race.
• Rumors of Chris Bosh to the Lakers for Andrew Bynum sparked my interest. If the Lakers do make that trade, Bosh is a free agent at the end of the year anyway. What benefit would it give the Lakers after this year? If they make the trade and Bosh walks away at the end of the year, who do the Lakers target as a superstar power forward to fill the void?-- Derrick, Sanford, N.C.
They wouldn't make the trade unless Bosh let them know he would re-sign with the Lakers for the long term, and I don't see why he wouldn't stay in Los Angeles for a chance to win multiple championships with Kobe Bryant. If the Lakers believed they could move Bynum for Bosh, I'm certain they would do it instantly. Kobe, Bosh, Pau Gasol, Artest, Lamar Odom -- that would be an amazing team, as long as Phil Jackson remained to make sense of it and keep the ball moving.
But I don't see anything like that happening in the next month, unless Bosh tells the Raptors he has decided to leave. And I've been told he has not said that. If team president Bryan Colangelo were to preemptively trade Bosh for a lesser talent like Bynum, the fans in Toronto would never forgive Colangelo.
The Raptors insist they haven't given up hope of retaining their best player. If Bosh is destined to leave Toronto, then I think he and the Raptors will work to end the relationship amicably, because Bosh does not seem like the type to make enemies while Toronto needs to be viewed as a city that is friendly to NBA stars.
When the Bucks announced this week that Redd had suffered tears to the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments of his left knee for the second straight year, I recalled a conversation I had with him in October. At that time, he had recovered more quickly than anticipated from the original ACL injury.
The first surgery was bad enough, as you'll read here. Imagine how Redd must feel about undergoing the same surgery again. You can't help but feel badly for him, not only for the pain he's enduring but also for the shock from repeating the injury.
• His optimism as he looked forward to coming back this season. "I've always been pretty much a healthy guy," Redd said last October as he stood outside the Bucks' locker room at the Bradley Center. "This was the first time I had surgery. Six months before [the injury], I'm on the pedestal at the Olympics with the gold medal and a great atmosphere and a great team. And six months later, I'm at the other extreme, where I didn't know if I would ever be the same again as a basketball player. It's been a wild year, a wild year."
He went seven months without shooting a basketball after he suffered the original knee injury in January 2009.
"You really learn to appreciate what you do when you're not doing it anymore," he said. "I really love the game, and I missed playing. I missed getting beat up, I missed the physical play, I missed the competition. When I got hurt, I really didn't watch basketball too much. I would go to our games and support our guys, but the playoffs -- I didn't watch too much. Even though I'm a fan of the game, I didn't hardly watch because it was kind of hard."
He returned to a question I had asked earlier. "You made a comment about what motivates me, even though I have a guaranteed contract," said Redd, who is owed $17 million this year and $18.3 million next season. "I still consider myself one of the top guards in the league, and so I want to stay there. I want to be known as a guy you've got to worry about, that 'Tonight you've got to play Michael Redd.' That's what motivates me to be the best."
I then asked him: Do you believe you'll be the player you were?
"Better," he said. "I'll be better. I mean, I'm so way ahead of where people had predicted me to be at this point, and at the same time, I'm just trying to be wise. But definitely, definitely better.
"You question whether you would be the same again, or whether you would be agile or you could move the same. But I found myself to be almost stronger than I was before, because you were training every day. My left leg now is stronger than my right, even thought we tried to train both of them at the same time. My left leg is so much stronger than it was before."
• The pain that lies ahead. "The night of the surgery was the worst pain I ever felt in my life," he said, referring to the reconstructive knee operation he underwent last March. "It was the type of pain to where I was saying I want to quit playing basketball. My wife would tell you, it was the worst pain. I was like, 'I retire! I retire!' It was almost-in-tears, man, the pain."
He was unable to sleep. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "You can put as much ice on it as possible, all the medicine -- it won't work. It's something I wouldn't wish on my enemy.
"I went to rehab the first day after the surgery. They had me get on the bicycle and just go back and forth, and I could barely do that. And on the first day, I did it all the way around and it was the worst pain, the worst pain. Once you've been through that, you develop tougher skin. Things that used to hurt you in the past may not be as effective, because of the surgery and the pain that I went through in the first week and a half. It was the worst week and a half of my life."
Now he faces the same harrowing process all over again.
• As attributed to Scottie Pippen. Last week, I received the following release from PR Newswire Association, a New York clearinghouse for publicity agents. The release was put out by Chris Anderson of the Dallas-based firm The Marketing Arm. Anderson declined to return my calls or reply to an e-mail message, but his firm appears to be legitimate.
In addition, the press release appears to be confirmed by the following YouTube video.
I do not believe this to be a hoax, even though it certainly reads like one. It has been online and republished in blogs for a week now without being shot down by Pippen. In any case, I present to you the best press release I have ever read:
Scottie Pippen Issues Statement Regarding 'Midgets vs. Mascots' Movie
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla., Jan. 8 /PRNewswire/ -- Scottie Pippen, a seven-time NBA All-Star and a member of six NBA title teams, today issued the following statement regarding his role in the movie "Midgets vs. Mascots":
"Given the recent controversy surrounding Gary Coleman, the fact that I've been repeatedly asked questions about my small part in the movie 'Midgets vs. Mascots,' and a related video posted online which shows me being assaulted by a group of Little People, I want to clear up any misunderstandings.
"In 2008, I agreed to play a cameo role in a movie titled 'A Tribute to Big Red' (now titled 'Midgets vs. Mascots'). My role was scripted, and the first two scenes went off without any problems. During the third scene, I was told that four Little People, along with actor Gary Coleman, were going to become angry with something I said and storm off as the scene ends. Instead, they basically attacked me, with Gary Coleman apparently climbing on a chair behind me to hit me over the head with a phone (twice).
"A short fight ensued before I heard the film's director yell 'cut.' As I recall, some of the Little People were laughing as the director explained that the scene was 'sort of like an episode of the TV show Punk'd.' At that point, I left quickly without a clear understanding of what was going on.
"As for the Little Person who claims he was injured in the attack, I really don't think I caused the injury or can be held to blame. To the best of my knowledge, there is no action being taken against me, nor am I pursuing any action. For the record, I have never seen the movie and, in hindsight, wish I'd not been involved with it. I simply wanted to make clear my role and position as I understand the movie is coming out soon. I will not be answering any further questions regarding the film."