But Durant and the Thunder -- despite a great start after the departure of Sixth Man Award winner James Harden -- have been almost completely eclipsed by the Knicks' shiny success, the Lakers-inspired schadenfreude and the Heat's occasional malaise. Durant may have years of feel-good coverage working in his favor, but in the most impressive season of his career he's been oddly under-covered. That quiet isn't likely to last, but in today's world of minute-to-minute reporting it's almost refreshing to see Durant very quietly close the gap on three-time winner LeBron James to the point where he makes for a credible MVP choice.
That's where Smith comes in, ready to tempt teams into handing out a massive contract when no better options come available. The 27-year-old Hawks forward is tremendously versatile, but his poor decision-making upends some of his varied production. Good passing skills inspire Smith to throw overly ambitious passes, a relatively nice handle encourages poorly conceived drives and the perimeter bent of his game instills an overconfidence in his jump-shooting abilities. But desperation often causes teams to overlook those very flaws, and the workings of the NBA salary structure (extensions, rookie-scale deals, etc.) force teams into using up cap space at specific times. For those franchises that have been planning around 2013, Smith may be the most attractive potential addition. He'll undoubtedly have a few teams competing for his services, and one is bound to offer him a maximum salary.
That won't prevent Rose from jumping back into the conversation of the league's best players, albeit with something missing. He'll still be quick. He'll still be clever. He'll still be exactly what the Bulls need. But he may be just a tinge slower with a game that's just slightly less deadly. It may not seem like much, but in a read-and-react sport dependent on quick-twitch reflexes, even the slightest hesitation could cost Rose a great deal.
Assuming that the Lakers stave off a midseason implosion and continue on their current trajectory, that leaves two other fringe playoff contenders unaccounted for -- and ultimately likely to fall into the chasm that separates the top eight from the rest of the pack. The Mavericks and Jazz both have the makings of competent teams, but unfortunately own the least promising résumés of all the West squads on the bubble.
In Dallas' case, the makeshift roster put together to coast through this season just hasn't panned out. Though no one expected the Mavs to hold pace without Dirk Nowitzki in the lineup, there was some assumption that they would be able to get more defensive mileage out of the system that's guided them through the last few seasons. To make matters worse, the lack of a reliable point guard has doomed too many possessions before they've even begun. Nowitzki, who returned this week from preseason knee surgery, will help disguise some of those flaws with his offensive contributions, but Dallas is in real jeopardy of missing the postseason for the first time since 2000.
Utah, on the other hand, is playing decently but remains ill-equipped to win out in this war of attrition. The Jazz rank only 24th in points allowed per possession, and the deficit created by their slow rotations leaves just enough of an opening for the rest of the playoff contenders to pass them by. A midseason trade could help rearrange some of Utah's resources, but even a fair deal isn't all that likely to save the Jazz from being nudged out of the postseason by a narrow margin.
A less active general manager might choose to sit tight. But the Nuggets' Masai Ujiri can't seem to help himself, and since his arrival in Denver the franchise has been turned over entirely and tweaked incessantly. The fact that the Nuggets are a middle-of-the-pack West team only makes a potential trade more likely, and one can only imagine how a deal might offer some resolution to a cluttered depth chart. Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried are more or less strapped down, but everything else seems available for trade. It'll just come down to Ujiri's tinkering with the offers available until he finds something he likes, with the timing and finances making sense for a Denver team with plenty of options.