Monday Morning Point Guard
The first half of the NBA season is over, and four teams have traded time atop the standings -- Cleveland, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston and Orlando -- while the rest of the league has lagged behind. LeBron James has been the runaway choice for league's most valuable player, while Chicago's Derrick Rose is favorite to win rookie of the year.
Despite the impressive starts of Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, the Eastern Conference has again been an overall disappointment, with just six teams with winning records. Eight teams, however, all have shots at claiming one of the final two playoff spots in the conference. The Lakers have led the Western Conference all season, while the race between the teams seeded No. 2 and No. 9 is tighter comparable to last season.
Several teams, including the local five, have already been eliminated from playoff contention and coaches have been fired at an alarming rate. With the exception of the New Orleans Hornets, every team has played at least 41 games, so this is a good time to look back and present some unusual first-half awards:
Most Questionable Firing: This has been the firing season in the NBA, with Memphis last week making Marc Iavaroni the seventh coach to get a pink slip before the all-star break. Few of the coaching changes have resulted in much tangible improvement on the floor, but the most damaging has taken place in Toronto, where the Raptors fired Sam Mitchell after the team started 8-9. Since then, Mitchell's replacement, Jay Triano, has gone 10-19.
Worst (Gold Medal) Hangovers: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade credited the experience of winning a gold medal last summer to inspiring their MVP-caliber campaigns. But for some of the other members of the team, the return to the NBA season has been, well, rough. Milwaukee Bucks guard Michael Redd is out for the season with a torn left knee ligament. Utah's Carlos Boozer has missed most of the season with a knee injury. His Jazz teammate, Deron Williams, is slowly returning to form after spraining his ankle in preseason. Denver's Carmelo Anthony has been battling a sore elbow all season and is currently out with a broken hand. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant dislocated his right ring finger, but is still playing. And while Dwight Howard has led the surprising Orlando Magic, his string of 351 consecutive games came to an end.
Most Emphatic Dunk: Josh Smith, the 2005 Slam Dunk champion, should've been forced to participate in the competition this year against his former AAU teammate Dwight Howard because it would've been thrilling, to say the least. But Smith provided the best dunk of the season on Sunday when he turned Phoenix's Steve Nash into bowling pin and scored a perfect 10.
Best Nickname for a Travel: Unless you were taught the intricacies of scoring in the low post, you probably were unfamiliar with the term "crab dribble." But Cleveland's LeBron James made the term his own when he attempted to explain how he was called for taking too many steps at the end of the Wizards' 80-77 win over the Cavaliers on Jan. 4.
Worst Domino Effect: The huge free agent signings of last summer have mostly been big duds, with the biggest winner, Gilbert Arenas, yet to play after signing a $111 deal. But for the players who have seen the floor, Elton Brand, Baron Davis and Corey Maggette have been unable to have a positive influence on their respective teams. Brand has missed a month with a dislocated right shoulder. Davis has been in and out with injuries. Maggette is piling up points and losses in Oakland. But what would've happened if Brand had never jilted the Clippers for Philadelphia, Davis never left Golden State for the Clippers, and Maggette never signed with Golden State? You could make a strong case that Philadelphia, the Clippers, and Golden State would've been better off if they all stayed where they were.
Best Imitation of a Mad Man: Kevin Garnett has been an intense competitor his entire career, but he has reached another level, crossing over into the Unnecessary Taunting Zone, the season following his first NBA championship. He has clapped at Toronto's Jose Calderon, dropped on all fours in front of Portland's Jerryd Bayless and then drove his teammate, Glen "Big Baby" Davis to tears with a sideline rant. What will he be like next season if the Celtics repeat?
The "What-Did-He-Just-Say?" Award: Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas has kept a relatively low profile as he rehabs his surgically repaired left knee, but Arenas has opened himself up to ridicule the few times he has opened his mouth. He first sparked some controversy when he wrote about his aversion to voting, then he said it might be good for the Wizards to stink so that they can get the No. 1 pick. And, finally, when asked about returning this season, Arenas mentioned the Wizards' lousy record and asked back rhetorically, "Would you?"
Best Self Promotion: Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh generated considerable buzz last season when he dressed as a used car salesman to get fans to vote him into the All Star Game. The video was popular, but Bosh still finished behind LeBron James and Kevin Garnett. This year, Bosh didn't do a video, so Phoenix's Amare Stoudemire filled the void with a creative campaign -- sans costume. And, he wound up getting voted to the all-star team for the first time in his career.
Best Reason to Stick to Gummi Bears: Chicago rookie Derrick Rose missed practice and needed 10 stitches in his arm to close a gash in his forearm after he said he rolled onto a knife while eating an apple in bed.
Most Difficult First Half: On a serious note, no player in the NBA has probably had a more difficult season than New York Knicks center Eddy Curry. On the court, Curry doesn't fit into Coach Mike D'Antoni's uptempto offense and a right knee injury has limited him to less than three minutes played. Off the court, Curry's former limousine drive slapped him with a $5 million lawsuit claiming sexual harassment, and tragically, his former girlfriend and the mother to his 3-year-old son was murdered Saturday in Chicago.
Most Exciting Finish: The New Jersey Nets defeated the Toronto Raptors 129-127 in overtime on Nov. 21, when Vince Carter came back to haunt his former team by scoring 12 consecutive points and nailing a three-pointer with 0.8 seconds remaining to force an extra period. Booed every time he touched the ball, Carter won the game with 2.1 seconds left when he caught an inbounds lob and made a reverse dunk.
Nuisance of the First Half: The New York Knicks don't want him -- and they don't want him to be happy, either. First he was benched, then he was sent home. Now, Stephon Marbury awaits a buyout so that he can play somewhere. But the Knicks are still paying him $20.8 million to relax and chill, and Marbury seems content going to Lakers' games.
Best Ankle-Breaking Crossover: Before Rose looked silly with his apple-cutting incident, he made Philadelphia's Andre Miller look silly with a wicked crossover dribble that had Miller slipping, falling and bouncing off the floor.
Most Bungled Contract Situation: The Portland Trail Blazers had glorious plans for the oodles of cap space it was prepared to have this summer -- until Darius Miles kept his promise to come back from a serious knee injury and put $18 million back of Portland's books. To keep Miles from playing, the Blazers started a whisper campaign to scare teams from signing him, then after attempts to claim him off waivers and stash him failed, they threatened to sue any team that signed him. Nasty stuff, but Miles is playing and Portland is paying.
Most Impactful Trade: Chauncey Billups had taken the Detroit Pistons as far as he could -- to six consecutive Eastern Conference finals and one NBA championship -- but that didn't mean that he was done providing boosts to franchises. The Denver Nuggets became legitimate threats to win a playoff series for the first time since 1994 once they swapped Allen Iverson for Billups. Iverson has sent the Pistons into a state of confusion that may not clear up until he becomes a free agent this summer.
Best Dress Code Endorsement: DeShawn Stevenson's velvet sport coat, which has turned heads coast-to-coast. It took a lot of "swag" to rock that. Commissioner David Stern probably didn't have this in mind when he instituted the dress code in 2005.
Silver Lining Award: Trading Kevin Garnett to Boston for Al Jefferson and table scraps was arguably the last in string of questionable moves Kevin McHale made as general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves. His list of blunders is longer than his arms -- from failed draft picks, the Joe Smith contract debacle, and so on. But after the Timberwolves fired Randy Wittman and replaced him with McHale, the Hall of Fame player may have discovered his true calling as an NBA coach. McHale has led a team that started the season 4-15 to an 11-4 run its past 15 games.
Best Rebirth: When the Miami Heat sent him off to the desert last February, Shaquille O'Neal was a banged up, big man, destined to be an Amare Stoudemire-coattail-riding, role player until his contract expired in 2010. But the Suns dusted him off and got him back healthy again. New coach Terry Porter put the ball in his hands and after failing to average at least 15 points the previous two season, he is averaging close to 18 points and 9 rebounds this season.
Worst Wardrobe Malfunction: In the third quarter of a 109-97 victory over the Houston Rockets on Dec. 8, Memphis Grizzlies center Darko Milicic was so enraged that he ripped an 18-inch tear down the center of his jersey.
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