By Marty Burns
January 20, 2005

With the NBA All-Star Game almost upon us, it's a good time to take a break and size up the league at the midway point. While no team has emerged as a clear-cut favorite so far, such is not the case with the MVP. It's Kevin Garnett, hands-down.

Garnett leads the NBA in rebounding (14.0) and is fourth in scoring (24.5). He's dishing out 5.2 assists, remarkable for a big man. He's one of the best defensive players in the league (2.26 blocks, 9th overall in the NBA). He shoots a high percentage (49.4 percent, 12th in the NBA).

Long one of the game's best players, Garnett this year has been even better. No other player this season, including Tim Duncan, Jermaine O'Neal or Peja Stojakovic, has done more at both ends. Duncan comes closest, but his slow start and wretched foul shooting have put him behind Garnett -- at least for now.

Garnett's leadership, too, has been off the charts. Yes, he's been helped greatly by the arrivals of Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell. But he's still the only real big man on his team, sharing the frontcourt with the likes of Mark Madsen and Oliver Miller. Most important, he has led the T'wolves to within a whisker of the NBA's best record.

After seven consecutive first-round playoff exits, Garnett seems like a man on a mission. Always a fierce competitor, he has turned it up even another notch. It probably didn't hurt that he rested this summer instead of playing in the Olympic qualifying.

Whatever the reasons, Garnett has set the standard. He never seems to get tired or miss a game to injury. He comes to play every night. He crashes the boards despite often having to play out on the perimeter. He sets picks and finds teammates for open passes. His all-around efforts make him an easy choice for midseason MVP.

Despite unprecedented expectations, James has more than lived up to the hype. He is averaging 20 points, six rebounds, six assists and 1.5 steals while leading the Cavs into the playoff chase in the East. Confident and poised, James has the look of a 10-year veteran. He has won the respect of coaches and opponents, and he's already made Cleveland his team. A special player. Denver's Carmelo Anthony has been great, too, but not like James.

Without John Stockton and Karl Malone, the Jazz were picked by many to finish dead last in the NBA. Then they lost free agent Keon Clark to injury. Their rotation consists of no-names like Carlos Arroyo, DeShawn Stevenson, Raja Bell and Greg Ostertag. But Sloan somehow has them playing .500 ball in the tough Western Conference. Denver's Jeff Bzdelik and Milwaukee's Terry Porter also deserve kudos, but the Nuggets have more talent while the Bucks play in the weaker East.

His numbers are good enough (15.9 points, 6.4 rebounds in 30.1 minutes), but what has set him apart so far is his attitude. A former 20-point scorer in Golden State, Jamison has willingly accepted a bench role in Dallas. As a result, the Mavs have overcome a slow start to get back in the West title chase. Sacramento's Bobby Jackson has been stellar again, as usual, and Indiana's Al Harrington is coming on, but Jamison deserves the nod for now.

Isn't it about time a non-big man won this thing again? Artest is a true stopper, a guy who hunkers down and uses superior strength and balance (and yes, volatility) to get in his foe's head and shut him down. He's been a big part of Indiana's rise to the top of the East. Garnett, Duncan, O'Neal and Ben Wallace are all deserving, but they have an advantage with their size. Artest makes just as much impact at 6-foot-7 as those 7-footers.

Like Utah, Milwaukee was supposed to be rebuilding this year. The George Karl/Big Three Era had been blown up. With a rookie coach (Porter), a rookie point guard (T.J. Ford) and no true center, the Bucks seemed headed to the lottery. Instead, like the Jazz, the Bucks have played unselfish team basketball to stay above the .500 mark all season. Porter has nurtured Ford nicely, while getting the most out of guys like Joe Smith, Brian Skinner, Dan Gadzuric, Damon Jones and Erick Strickland.

It's hard to believe any team could match Orlando (a 19-game losing streak, despite the presence of Tracy McGrady), but that's how bad Chicago has been this season. After five years of post-dynasty rebuilding, the Bulls were supposed to be a playoff team again. But youngsters Eddy Curry and Jamal Crawford were unable to produce consistently, and Tyson Chandler went down with a back injury. The glory days of Michael Jordan have never seemed so far away in the Windy City.

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