By Britt Robson
January 18, 2011

We're at the halfway mark of the season and, not surprisingly, the team at the top of the Power Rankings is the one on a 70-win pace.

Yes, the Spurs have been healthier than the other top contenders, a huge factor when you consider the recent fate of the Mavericks and the 18-month saga of the Trail Blazers. But you don't win as often as the Spurs have without being a deep, resourceful team that knows how to close out games. San Antonio deserves the top spot without any caveats.

This edition of the Rankings is devoted to identifying the first-half MVP and runner-up for each team. Check back later this week for my team-by-team midseason grades.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 17.)

NBA Power Rankings
1 San Antonio Spurs
Last Week: 2
Their more up-tempo attack is tailor-made for Manu Ginobili, a player who has always thrived on (creating) tension and chaos. At 35-6, San Antonio is playing so well that every one of its top-10 players has an overall plus in the plus/minus totals. Yet without Ginobili on the floor, the Spurs have been outscored by their opponents, a statistical value none of his teammates can claim. While his shooting accuracy is about the same as previous years, the greater percentage of three-pointers he is taking (and making at the usual rate) sends his true shooting percentage (which factors in threes and free throws) above 60 for the first time in three years. Another factor in what is perhaps Ginobili's best season: He's been healthy enough to play every game.
MVP: Manu Ginobili
Runner-up: Tim Duncan
2 Boston Celtics
Last Week: 6
One of the great debates of the past few years has been whether Kevin Garnett or Paul Pierce is more valuable to the Celtics -- an argument further complicated by the emergence of Rajon Rondo as a third option. Garnett supporters can point out how dramatically Boston's defensive identity changed, and its record improved, when he joined the team. That's been reinforced this season, with Garnett leading the NBA in defensive rating, a measure of points allowed per 100 possessions. But Pierce has been healthier than either KG or Rondo, and he is a few missed free throws away from hitting the deadeye shooting trifecta of 90 percent free throws (he's at 86.1), 50 percent field goals (51.4) and 40 percent three-pointers (40.6). He's also a superstar with glue-guy skills to boot, which is why he has the most positive impact on the court of any Celtic, according to Basketball Value.
MVP: Paul Pierce
Runner-up: Kevin Garnett
3 Los Angeles Lakers
Last Week: 4
It's tempting, for a fleeting second, to think about Pau Gasol or Lamar Odom as the Lakers' first-half MVP. They are the ones who took on the extra minutes to compensate for Andrew Bynum's early absence and have performed at an All-Star level for most of the season; at the same time, Kobe Bryant throws temper tantrums and shoots his team in and out of games. Then reality sets in: Gasol and Odom were both considered a little soft, indifferent and inconsistent before getting beside the blast furnace that is Kobe's will to win. His knee is aching and he's been shooting more and enjoying it less than in the Lakers' championship seasons the previous two years. But this is still Kobe's team, and its record is 31-12.
MVP: Kobe Bryant
Runner-up: Lamar Odom
4 Miami Heat
Last Week: 1
Miami Heat (30-12)
LeBron James or Dwyane Wade? That's the question and the (ultimately moot) quandary confronting Heat observers, hopefully for years to come, when deciding on the team's MVP. Those who saw Wade nearly beat the Bulls single-handedly down the stretch Saturday were again compelled to remember how much more dominant he would be if not deferring so often to James, who sat out that road loss with a sprained ankle. Then again, Wade's usage rate (31.7 percent) is actually a bit higher than LeBron's (31.5). James has a slight advantage in Player Efficiency Rating (he leads the NBA and Wade is second) and win shares (his 7.2 edges Wade's 6.8, with both in the league's top five of a stat that calculates how many wins a player accounts for in a season). On the basis of that "overwhelming" evidence, and the fact that Miami is 1-1 without Wade and 0-2 without LeBron ...
MVP: LeBron James
Runner-up: Dwyane Wade
5 Chicago Bulls
Last Week: 5
Chicago Bulls (28-13)
This year has been a coming-out party for Derrick Rose, who has emerged as both a capable crunch-time scorer and a decent -- meaning significantly improved -- defender whose increasing dedication on that end of the court demonstrates his appreciation for what it takes to be a leader and a winner. The third-year point guard has been both this season, lifting the Bulls to third in the East despite injuries to the team's second- and third-best players, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, that have sidelined each for weeks at a time. Rose could always get to the basket, and his 5.3 attempts at the rim, while the lowest number of his career, is still 13th most in the league. But now Rose isn't hesitant about burning guards who play off him. He's already attempted more three-pointers this season than in his previous two years combined, and is making 37.6 percent, well above his career mark of 24.2 percent entering 2010-11. He shows every indication of being the player who leads the Bulls out of the shadow of Michael Jordan.
MVP: Derrick Rose
Runner-up: Carlos Boozer
6 Orlando Magic
Last Week: 3
Orlando Magic (26-15)
With two Defensive Player of the Year awards already under his belt at the age of 25, Dwight Howard is in excellent position to break the record of four shared by Ben Wallace and Dikembe Mutombo, and someday be regarded as second to Bill Russell as the greatest NBA defender of all time. (Russell, of course, retired years before the award was initiated.) Consider that Howard was the youngest to win it two years ago at age 23 (before that it was 24-year-old Michael Jordan in 1988), and that Orlando is structured to maximize his ability to protect the rim, otherwise playing offensive-minded small-ball with prolific scorers. Already Howard's combination of quickness, strength, instincts and durability put him in select company -- Russell, Wallace, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Kevin Garnett would be my list -- of players who can comprehensively defend a foot or two beyond the paint in all directions. Everyone but Wallace among that quintet has also won an MVP award. As he continues honing his offensive game, Howard, too, should clear a spot on his mantle.
MVP: Dwight Howard
Runner-up: Jameer Nelson
7 Oklahoma City Thunder
Last Week: 9
Few things about the game are more pleasurable to fans than watching a star blossom. And few stars blossomed as resplendently as Kevin Durant last season. Not only did he raise his scoring average five points per game for the second straight season with an effortless mixture of flick-and-swish jumpers and lanky glides to the hoop, but his defensive intensity and effectiveness also improved dramatically. Bottom line, Durant and the Thunder spoiled us last season, which makes it harder to appreciate that he is nearly matching those gaudy numbers of 2009-10 despite opponents' being prepared instead of ambushed when he unfurls his skills. And while neither Durant nor his team is playing defense as well as last season, the Thunder are four games better at the midpoint than they were during last year's magical emergence.
MVP: Kevin Durant
Runner-up: Russell Westbrook
8 Atlanta Hawks
Last Week: 8
Atlanta Hawks (27-15)
Someday Al Horford is going to hit his ceiling, but for the fourth straight season he's been a better player than he was the year before. With a 56.9 shooting percentage, Horford would be an automatic 20-point, 10-rebound guy if he attempted more than 12.5 field goals per game (earning more trips to the free-throw line, where he shoots 82.1 percent on 2.7 attempts per game, would help, too). Always a double-digit rebounder, his accuracy from the field has improved every year, just as his assists have risen and his turnovers have fallen. And on defense, his ability to joust with much bigger centers and also slide over to guard power forwards gives the Hawks great front-line flexibility.
MVP: Al Horford
Runner-up: Joe Johnson
9 Utah Jazz
Last Week: 10
Utah Jazz (27-14)
The archetypal point guards during Jerry Sloan's reign in Utah have been very much like the coach himself: malleable in doing what is needed but prickly and unyielding in substance, like barbed wire; instinctively unselfish, but seized by a personal responsibility to make something happen with the game on the line. So it was with John Stockton and so it is now with Deron Williams. It is a tribute to Williams that few people recognize what a massive overhaul has taken place in Utah over the past year. As a result of injuries (Mehmet Okur), trades (Ronnie Brewer, last February) and free-agent departures (Carlos Boozer and Wes Matthews), Williams was the only player among the team's five most frequent starters last year to suit up during almost the entire first half of this season. Guiding the team while everyone got acclimated, he is putting up career highs in minutes, points and true shooting percentage, leads the NBA in offensive win shares (which measures how many wins a player creates because of his offense) and has the Jazz tied for third in the West.
MVP: Deron Williams
Runner-up: Paul Millsap
10 New Orleans Hornets
Last Week: 11
As I've noted before, Chris Paul's reluctance to call his own number on offense is one of the more confounding elements of the season. He's making 45.2 percent of his three-pointers (a career high) and 90.1 percent of his free throws, for a gaudy true shooting percentage of 60.7. Yet he is attempting the fewest field goals and second-fewest free throws of his six-year career for a team that, even with Chris Paul on it, ranks 23rd in offensive efficiency. But Paul's refusal to maximize his own contribution has been about the only flaw in his game. Advanced statistical metrics like PER and win shares rate him among the game's top three players. The Hornets are 26-16, and after preseason stories about Paul's disgruntlement in New Orleans, he and the team seem committed to focusing on the games at hand.
MVP: Chris Paul
Runner-up: David West
11 Dallas Mavericks
Last Week: 7
This is a no-brainer. The Mavs lost more during the first eight games Dirk Nowitzki was injured (2-6) than they did in the first 29 he was healthy (24-5). When he came into the league 12 years ago, Nowitzki personified the stereotype of the soft European big man: Nearly half his shots were three-pointers and his defense ranged from indolent to lackadaisical. Although never much of a shot-blocker or steals guy, the savvy 7-footer has refined his on-ball and team-rotation defense to an above-average level. This year, one of the game's premier marksman is posting a career-high 63.4 true shooting percentage, mostly because of his 54.3 field-goal percentage. Amar'e Stoudemire, at 50.5, is the only other top-10 scorer shooting better than 50 percent.
MVP: Dirk Nowitzki
Runner-up: Tyson Chandler
12 Denver Nuggets
Last Week: 14
All the distractions Carmelo Anthony has endured would be a great excuse for his worst season in five years, were it not for 'Melo himself being the distracter-in-chief. OK, he doesn't want to sign a max deal with Denver unless it is an extend-and-trade and unless that trade destination is the Knicks. Meanwhile, because he converts only 52.6 percent of his attempts at the rim and 26.9 percent of his three-pointers, his true shooting percentage is 52.2, below the NBA average of 54.2. By contrast, Nene is leading the NBA in field-goal percentage (63.8) and is the only Nugget whose absence from the court results in more net points for opponents.
MVP: Nene
Runner-up: Chauncey Billups
13 New York Knicks
Last Week: 12
Amar'e Stoudemire is not one of the five best players in the NBA today, and the Knicks aren't going to be challenging for a championship without one or two significant new pieces beside him. That said, Amar'e belongs among the top five in the MVP race and the Knicks would be scrounging alongside the Pacers, Sixers and Bucks without him. It is to his remarkable credit that he is enjoying arguably his best season even without Steve Nash to feed him, winning over Knicks fans not only with his scoring but also by compiling career highs in blocks and assists and playing inspired (if not always competent) defense. He has also embraced a leadership role with a passion that was expected and a level-headed maturity that has been a revelation. Whatever else happens -- Amar'e has been fragile in the past, fans can be fickle and the next step forward will be harder than this one for the franchise -- it has been a joyful three months for a populace starved for competitive NBA basketball and a star who has exceeded the hype.
MVP: Amar'e Stoudemire
Runner-up: Raymond Felton
14 Portland Trail Blazers
Last Week: 13
This was supposed to be Greg Oden's team by now, in tandem with Brandon Roy. Now that knee injuries have waylaid them both severely enough to cast their careers in doubt, Portland has needed a complementary player to step up. And to the best of his considerable ability, LaMarcus Aldridge has complied. The fifth-year forward ranks second in the NBA in total minutes, a burden made more impressive by the change in his game from being primarily a mid-range jump shooter to someone who can also bang for points in the low block. He's getting to the rim for 5.7 shots per game, well above his previous career high of 4.1, and grabbing more offensive rebounds than ever. According to Basketball Value, Portland is 13.1 points better per 100 possessions when he is on the court compared to when he sits, the best differential on the team.
MVP: LaMarcus Aldridge
Runner-up: Andre Miller
15 Memphis Grizzlies
Last Week: 15
Rudy Gay may have signed a maximum five-year, $82 million contract last summer, but the team's top wage-earner this season is the other starting forward, Zach Randolph, who is making $16.7 million in the last year of his deal. And that's as it should be, because while Gay's upside is higher, Randolph is the horse in the low block that Memphis is riding into playoff contention. Randolph's 23-point, 20-rebound game in Saturday's win against Dallas was his fourth 20-20 performance of the season -- three of them resulting in victories -- and he is the league leader in offensive rebounding rate. The Grizzlies are better when they run their offense through Randolph -- they're 12-6 when he scores 20 or more points and 7-16 when he doesn't. He has improved every month, topped by 25 points and 14.7 rebounds in nine January games, making his overall numbers comparable to last year's, when he went to the All-Star Game. Memphis may not be able to afford Randolph after his contract expires, but for now he and Gay make a potent one-two combo.
MVP: Zach Randolph
Runner-up: Rudy Gay
16 Phoenix Suns
Last Week: 22
Phoenix Suns (17-23)
You know it has been a disappointing half-season for Steve Nash when there has been more speculation about if and where he'll be traded than about Phoenix's playoff prospects. Only six active players are older than the 36-year-old Nash, and just one of them, Dallas' Jason Kidd, is averaging more than the 32.7 minutes Nash plays. Management decisions have deprived him of his two favorite targets for assists the last two years, Amar'e Stoudemire and Jason Richardson. And yet, on a team going nowhere with ever-changing personnel, Nash is still averaging 17.2 points and 10.8 assists while shooting 52. percent.
MVP: Steve Nash
Runner-up: Jason Richardson (traded to Orlando)
17 Los Angeles Clippers
Last Week: 18
Not since LeBron James in 2003-04, or perhaps Tim Duncan in 1997-98, has a rookie made such a significant splash as Blake Griffin this season. If his 22.5-point average holds up through the second half, Griffin will be the highest-scoring rookie since Allen Iverson in 1996-97. He is also the league's fourth-leading rebounder and the runaway winner in the sort of spectacular dunks that draw casual fans to arenas and television sets. More to the point, after a 5-21 start, the Clippers have won 10 of 14, including back-to-back victories over the Heat and Lakers.
MVP: Blake Griffin
Runner-up: Eric Gordon
18 Houston Rockets
Last Week: 16
If the NBA were composed of nothing but Kevin Martins, 48-minute games would finish 150-148 from an onslaught of three-pointers, free throws and subpar defense. With Yao Ming out for the season, Martin represents the Rockets' new, offensive-minded identity. Only the Knicks, Suns and Nuggets average higher-scoring games than Houston, and Martin qualifies as one of the NBA's more relentless, and underrated, offensive juggernauts. He has converted the most free throws and the sixth-most three-pointers in the league, but is only 10th in scoring (23.3 points) because he plays less (31.4 minutes per game) than anyone in the top 40. It is a toss-up between Martin and Luis Scola for team MVP, but because Martin seems so emblematic of the style Houston has adopted, he gets the nod.
MVP: Kevin Martin
Runner-up: Luis Scola
19 Philadelphia 76ers
Last Week: 17
The Sixers lack a clear-cut first-half MVP. Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand are the established, expensive veterans, but Iggy has been beset by myriad injuries and Brand, despite his solid bounce-back season, is no longer the consistent low-post force he was three and four years ago. That leaves 20-year-old point guard Jrue Holiday, a precocious playmaker who has embraced the mentorship of coach Doug Collins with staunch perimeter defense that exploits his rangy, 6-3 physique; and sixth man Thaddeus Young, a combo forward whose offensive versatility gives Collins plenty of flexibility in working for matchup advantages.
MVP: Jrue Holiday
Runner-up: Thaddeus Young
20 Golden State Warriors
Last Week: 19
Monta Ellis plays like Mighty Mouse. There are the small, chiseled features, the gravity-defying flights and the super-heroic endurance that has him leading the league in minutes. But those were all part of Ellis' game last season, too. This year, there is more leadership and teamwork on display. Ellis, who once said that he and Stephen Curry wouldn't work as an undersized backcourt, has thrived with or without Curry beside him, dishing 37 assists in the six games Curry was sidelined by a sprained ankle in mid-December, but sharing ball-handling responsibilities fairly seamlessly since Curry's return. His three-point accuracy has improved markedly even as he shoots them more frequently. He's getting to the line more, and his assists are up while the turnovers are down. In a bit of an upset, Ellis, and not Curry, is the must-have as well as must-see player in the backcourt for Golden State this season.
MVP: Monta Ellis
Runner-up: Dorell Wright
21 Indiana Pacers
Last Week: 24
This is a difficult call. Indiana's figurehead star, Danny Granger, is having a bad year; theoretically valuable primarily for his scoring, he is converting a career-low 42.3 percent from the field, his true shooting percentage is below league average and his PER is barely above average. Center Roy Hibbert would have been an obvious choice in early December, but he has endured an extended slump. Let's go with Mike Dunleavy, who leads the Pacers in true shooting percentage and win shares per 48 minutes while having the most positive impact of any Indiana player.
MVP: Mike Dunleavy
Runner-up: Roy Hibbert
22 Detroit Pistons
Last Week: 25
No doubt team president Joe Dumars would prefer that the Pistons' first-half MVP be one of their expensive free agents from a year ago, Ben Gordon or Charlie Villanueva, or a young up-and-comer such as Rodney Stuckey, Greg Monroe or Austin Daye. And actually, the statistics support Stuckey, who leads the team in points and assists, or Gordon, who has a strong plus/minus. But when you watch the Pistons play, it's 30-year-old Tayshaun Prince who gets the ball in crunch time and defends the opponent's best wing scorer, and it's Prince who has put forth the most consistent and professional effort in a very trying season in Detroit.
MVP: Tayshaun Prince
Runner-up: Rodney Stuckey
23 Charlotte Bobcats
Last Week: 21
Coach Larry Brown is fanatical about "playing the right way," implementing a standard and attention to detail, especially on defense, that has been extremely successful -- and occasionally disastrous. When Brown lost Bobcats point guard Raymond Felton (who, it should be remembered, he nagged constantly during Felton's time in Charlotte), he seemed destined to be unhappy with the makeup of his roster, a dolor that spread throughout the team. Yes, owner Michael Jordan bears some blame for letting Felton and center Tyson Chandler go for money-saving reasons. But Jordan was shrewd enough to fire Brown and hire Paul Silas, the well-liked former coach of the Charlotte Hornets. Freed from Brown's bad juju, the Bobcats responded by winning six of their first eight under the 67-year-old Silas. While the Bobcats still sorely miss Felton and Chandler (Brown was right to be discouraged), and the schedule is again beginning to toughen after an easy patch, they remain in the hunt for a playoff spot in the East.
MVP: Paul Silas
Runner-up: Stephen Jackson
24 Milwaukee Bucks
Last Week: 20
The season has been an uphill climb for center Andrew Bogut, who has been slowly and not always surely recovering from the elbow, hand and wrist injuries he suffered on a single play last April. His teammates likewise haven't found the synergy that helped them to overachieve last year in finishing 46-36 and nearly upsetting Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. Yet despite the obstacles, Bogut continues to be gritty, like his coach, Scott Skiles, and has retained enough skills and smarts to remain one of the NBA's most well-rounded centers. Expect the scoring (13.1 points) and assists (1.8) to go up in the second half, while the impressive rebounding (11.7) and block (2.8) totals stay about the same.
MVP: Andrew Bogut
Runner-up: Ersan Ilyasova
25 Washington Wizards
Last Week: 27
Last week in Minnesota, John Wall kicked it into an extra gear and drove by three surprised Timberwolves for an easy layup. On his way back down the court, a limp that had been barely perceptible throughout the game became more pronounced for the next 10 seconds or so. For a 20-year-old rookie reliant on speed to leverage his skills in the NBA, Wall's sprained foot and bruised knee are difficult obstacles for him to overcome, and a team that ranks 24th in field-goal percentage certainly doesn't help the point guard's assist totals. Yet Wall has still shown enough to be among the league's top three rookies -- and the MVP in Washington.
MVP: John Wall
Runner-up: Kirk Hinrich
26 Toronto Raptors
Last Week: 23
The Raptors have tied their fortunes to former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, a 7-footer who is an above-average scorer out to the three-point line but doesn't defend or rebound well. That makes 6-9 forward Amir Johnson a valuable complement and a very handy, if fairly expensive, glue guy. Johnson is arguably Toronto's best interior defender, but unfortunately finds himself in chronic foul trouble. That's why he's ninth on the team in minutes despite efficient scoring and a team-best positive impact of 8.86 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court, according to Basketball Value. Can someone who averages 24.8 minutes be a team's MVP? On the defensively inept, 13-28 Raptors, the answer is yes.
MVP: Amir Johnson
Runner-up: Andrea Bargnani
27 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last Week: 28
In addition to playing the position pretty well himself, former Wolves GM Kevin McHale has an eye for power forwards. He helped engineer the trade for Tom Gugliotta -- the Wolves' first All-Star -- before officially taking over personnel matters in Minnesota, then did something considered really risky back in 1995 by drafting a high school kid named Kevin Garnett. Then there is the final imprint of his Timberwovles' legacy -- trading O.J. Mayo to Memphis for Kevin Love in a draft-night trade in 2008. By now you know that Love is the NBA's best rebounder since either Dennis Rodman or Moses Malone. But he also happens to be a top-20 scorer, averaging 21.2 points, mostly through a combination of put-backs and accurate long-range shooting that has him making more threes, in fewer attempts, than Jason Terry, Paul Pierce or LeBron James.
MVP: Kevin Love
Runner-up: Michael Beasley
28 Sacramento Kings
Last Week: 26
Everything you heard about 20-year-old rookie DeMarcus Cousins is true, the good and the bad. The mentors who coach him and the centers who defend him will both curse his name under their breath and boil over in frustration over their encounters with him. What's the defining moment for Cousins this season? Was it giving the choke sign to a Golden State Warrior after a missed free throw minutes before Cousins and his Kings themselves choked away the game? Or was it the 21 points and 16 rebounds he hung on Memphis in a winning effort eight days later? Was it getting thrown out of practice more than once? Or was it bursting through the rookie wall to make January his best month of NBA play so far? The answer is yes, to everything.
MVP: DeMarcus Cousins
Runner-up: Tyreke Evans
29 New Jersey Nets
Last Week: 29
For the past season and a half, New Jersey's two best players have been point guard Devin Harris and center Brook Lopez. That the Nets are 22-101 in that span indicates how limited and inconsistent this undeniably talented duo has been. After Lopez had a stellar rookie season, it was reasonable to envision him becoming a perennial 20-point, 10-rebound performer. Instead, the 7-footer has regressed to grabbing only 5.9 rebounds per game, although back-to-back 30-point games last week gave hope that his play had been affected by a bout with mononucleosis. At his best, Harris is a top penetrator, able to draw fouls, knock down free throws and dish off the dribble. His recent slump has been blamed on trade rumors. In any case, Lopez and Harris remain the flawed cornerstones on a bad team, yet both could easily flourish again surrounded by better personnel.
MVP: Brook Lopez
Runner-up: Devin Harris
30 Cleveland Cavaliers
Last Week: 30
There is one area of comparison where the Cavs still maintain bragging rights over the Miami Heat: home attendance. While the Heat are drawing announced capacity-plus crowds on average of 19,762, good for fifth in the NBA, the Cavs are second behind only Chicago, with an average of 20,562. Granted, not everyone shows up, and more than a few bought their season tickets with the expectation of watching LeBron. But in a season that has gone from betrayal to bad to worse, thousands of fans of this wretched team put on their wine-and-gold gear and represent. The biggest basketball story in Cleveland this season has been about their passionate response to LeBron's return. For that, and for the people who continue to show up without bags on their heads, this sincere salute.
MVP: The faithful fans
Runner-up: Anderson Varejao

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