Blake Griffin, Doc Rivers, LA ClippersStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

Chris Paul will become an unrestricted free agent in 106 days. Ditto for Blake Griffin.

The uncertain future of the two cornerstone players in Clipperland has been felt (and feared) by this franchise every single day since training camp commenced way back on Sept. 26.

So it goes when the widespread assumption in league circles holds that big changes are coming in the offseason if the Clippers fail to at least reach the Western Conference finals for the first time in CP3 and Griffin's six seasons together.

Yet what if our focus is misplaced?

What if the big change looming, in the event of another disappointing end to a Clippers season that began with such promise, occurs in the coaching box?

Doc Rivers is under contract to serve as Clippers coach and president of basketball operations through the 2018-19 season. This is Year 3 of the five-year deal Rivers landed with new Clippers owner Steve Ballmer -- believed to be in excess of $50 million -- after steering the club so admirably through the last days of Donald T. Sterling's famously chaotic and controversial reign that spanned more than three decades.

That monster pact, however, hasn't prevented Rivers' name from popping up in one of the league's more rampant recent conspiracy theories.

There has been persistent chatter for weeks on the NBA's front-office grapevine that the Orlando Magic and Rivers will explore a reunion down the road.

Now, you're certainly not alone if you're wondering whether down the road in this case should be measured in months or years.

More clarity, though, might not be far off.

The Clippers, for starters, are bound to put their entire operation under the microscope if their season continues to unravel in its current manner. Injuries have undoubtedly played their part, with Paul and Griffin playing together in only 37 of the Clippers' 69 games to date, but a 5-8 funk heading into Saturday night's home showdown with the Cleveland Cavaliers has threatened to knock the Clips down to the West's sixth or seventh seed.

Not what anyone expected, least of all Ballmer, when these same Clips jumped out to a 14-2 start.

The Magic, meanwhile, appear headed for their own sooner-rather-than-later shake up. League sources say without hesitation that Orlando general manager Rob Hennigan finds himself on the hot seat and is increasingly likely to be dismissed at season's end, with the Magic on course for a fifth successive losing season under Hennigan's watch.

It might only be a matter of weeks, then, before the Magic have a vacancy for a new lead voice in the organization.

The simpler move for Orlando, of course, would be to hire an on-the-rise executive to take over basketball operations and work with first-year coach Frank Vogel. Ex-Magic forward Pat Garrity, presently in Detroit as part of Stan Van Gundy's cabinet, has emerged as a potential target to come aboard in precisely those circustances and inherit Vogel, who appeared to be absolved from blame for Orlando's 25-45 misery this season when Hennigan conceded that the roster was overloaded with big men and traded Serge Ibaka to Toronto just eight months after surrendering Victor Oladipo, No. 11 overall Domantas Sabonis and a first-round pick to bring Ibaka in.

Talk of an eventual Rivers return to the Magic Kingdom, where he launched his coaching career, is nonetheless too prevalent among league insiders to ignore.

File it away, if nothing else, as we await a number of related dramas to play out. Such as:

  • Is the prospect of a new voice via coaching change, on top of Ballmer's vows to spend as much as it takes to keep his top two stars, something the Clippers should consider as part of its pitch to re-sign Paul and Griffin in the event this upcoming postseason plays out like the previous five?
  • Does it even make sense for the Clippers to try to keep that starry twosome together if this latest slide proves irreversible and they stretch it to six consecutive seasons in the Paul-and-Griffin era without progressing beyond the second round of the playoffs?
  • Is the simpler solution for the Clippers asking Rivers to merely surrender one of his titles -- meaning his GM hat -- to bring in a new team-builder that keeps one of the six active championship coaches in the game on his current bench?
  • Do the rumblings about Ballmer's close ties to former Seattle SuperSonics and Portland Trail Blazers executive Bob Whitsitt, as some league insiders believe, make Whitsitt destined to land in charge of the Clips in coming years?
  • Do this week’s complaints about the Clippers' approach and inconsistency coming from J.J. Redick hint at his free-agent departure this summer? Word is that some within the organization are concerned Redick is going to be too pricey to re-sign when the sharpshooter, like LA's starting point guard and power forward, hits the open market in July.

Weave through all of the above and there's clearly plenty here, dare we say, to keep you tuned in well after the Clips and Cavs hook up.


We're almost there.

The NBA, assuming it makes it through the next three-plus weeks with no coaching casualties, is about to record its first campaign since 1970-71 without a single in-season coaching change.

The league, for the record, only fielded 17 teams back then, compared to the current 30.

The next trick, of course, will be seeing how many teams change coaches in the offseason, since we can almost always bank on a surprise firing (or three) beyond those who find themselves fielding regular questions about job security as the regular season dribbles to a close (such as New Orleans' Alvin Gentry, New York's Jeff Hornacek and Chicago's Fred Hoiberg).

The last season in which every NBA team began with the head coach who finished the previous season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, was 1975-76 ... just when your humble correspondent was falling in love with this league as an inquisitive 6-year-old.

There were 18 teams, for the record, in that NBA season.


Jimmer FredetteVCG via Getty ImagesJimmer Fredette is back from China -- will he now take flight with an NBA team?


Jimmer Fredette, fresh off an MVP season with the Yao Ming-owned Shanghai Sharks, is back in the United States and eagerly awaiting the phone call that affords him another NBA shot.

Carlos Boozer, meanwhile, remains in China but has also played his way back onto the NBA's radar, having helped the Guangdong Southern Tigers, along with veteran guard Donald Sloan, advance to within one game of the Chinese Basketball Association finals.

After a bumpy adjustment period to the Chinese game, Boozer has joined Fredette as one of the CBA's most influential imports during the past two months. One source plugged firmly into the Chinese scene says that the Miami Heat and the aforementioned Clippers are among the teams tracking the 34-year-old's progress with Guangdong.

One potential problem for Boozer: If Guangdong indeed reaches the championship series in China, he might run out of time to make it back to the States in time to hook up with a playoff team. Boozer is eligible to play in the NBA postseason for anyone who signs him, since he hasn't been on a roster all season, but the one requirement is that he'd have to be signed back home before the NBA regular season ends April 12.


FWIW: The best available free agent, on this scorecard, is Omri Casspi, who endured the misfortune of suffering a broken right thumb in his New Orleans Pelicans debut on Feb. 23 but, according to league sources, was cleared this week to resume basketball activities ahead of schedule.

Given Casspi's ability to play small forward and power forward and shoot the ball from the deep, you have to believe a playoff-bound team will try to sign him in the coming days.

The Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, sources say, are among the teams that have expressed exploratory interest. The Grizzlies, in particular, appear to have an opening on the wing after Chandler Parsons was sadly ruled out for the rest of the season thanks to his own hard-luck meniscus tear in his left knee.


A few fun tidbits, via tireless ESPN research ace Micah Adams, about the Spurs' ridiculous run of 18 straight 50-win seasons:

  • The closest call to falling short of 50 occurred during the 2011-12 season, which, as you surely remember, was shortened to 66 games thanks to a lengthy lockout. The Spurs needed to finish that season with a 10-game winning streak to get to the big Five-Oh ... and naturally did.
  • The very first victory in this 18-season run came against Philadelphia on Nov. 2, 1999. Current ESPN analyst and longtime Spurs swingman Bruce Bowen played in that game ... for the Sixers.
  • Kawhi Leonard was 8 years old when the streak began./p
  • The Clippers entered 2016-17 with the second-longest active streak of 50-win seasons ... albeit with just four.
  • Gregg Popovich has employed 137 players during these 18 seasons. Tim Duncan holds the record with 1,260 games played during the streak; Alex Scales appeared in the fewest ... as in just one.
  • In yet another testament to the job R.C. Buford has done as Pop's trusty personnel ace: More than half of the Spurs' players in the past 18 seasons -- 56 percent -- were not first-round draft picks. Forty-three of them, furthermore, were undrafted.

AP Photo/Denis Poroy

Kevin Durant is not going to win the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year trophy.

Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert and Kawhi Leonard are, as usual, your headliners in the DPOY race ... with Andre Drummond quietly faring well in many advanced defensive categories despite the widespread so-so reviews of his play this season.

Yet this will also go down as the season that Durant established himself as a nightly defensive force. As of Sunday morning, in fact, Durant ranked an impressive eighth in the league in individual defensive rating and sixth in defensive win shares, according to Basketball Reference.

So this is no pity vote for Durant merely because he's out indefinitely and could miss the rest of the regular season in the wake of the knee injuries he suffered in Washington just days ago. Consider this our formal (and overdue) hat tip to the commitment Durant has brought to the no-fun end in his debut season as a Warrior, when many expected his new team to suffer greatly on D and on the boards because of a shortfall in the size and rim-protection departments.

Heading into Sunday's Madison Square Garden date with the Knicks, Golden State ranked No. 2 overall in the league in defensive efficiency behind only San Antonio and one spot ahead of the Gobert-led Jazz. Yet the Warriors actually wound up fielding the league's top team defense during trimester 2, allowing just 100.4 points per 100 possessions to finish narrowly ahead of the Spurs (100.8 points per 100 possessions).

And Durant, for his part, averaged 8.3 rebounds over those 28 games to rank second on the team only to Green's 8.5 RPG in the same span. Better yet: As Golden State was going 24-4 in that stretch, Durant held players he directly guarded to 38 percent shooting for the trimester ... better even than Green's 41 percent.

Durant's D has been such a season-long plus that, in the wake of his injury, it became a common reaction to hear various NBA analysts out there opine that the Warriors would miss him as much (or more) at that end as they would offensively.

It's an unarguable statistical fact, whether or not you agree, that Golden State had logged 215 minutes at the time of Durant's injury with Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and all on the court and KD spectacting. The Dubs were 11.2 points per 100 possessions worse defensively in those situations.

Durant, mind you, would be the first to say that Green remains Golden State's unequivocal defensive anchor and the co-favorite along with the menacing Gobert to end Leonard's two-year hold on this award. And Green's trimester 2 defense was absolutely smothering; Golden State allowed just 97.3 points per 100 possessions with Green on the floor in those 28 games and giddily watched him force a turnover on 13 percent of all plays when Green was the primary defender (according to ESPN Stats & Info player-tracking data).

However ...

Too little has been said and written about the sort of defender Durant has become to offset the departures of Andrew Bogut and Harrison Barnes, while he obviously continues to rank as one of the most-feared pure scorers this game has ever seen. So we decided to rectify that today.

What Green can show us in Durant's absence might prove to be the extra dose of defensive goodness he needs to trump Gobert, Leonard, Drummond, Anthony Davis, Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, Hassan Whiteside, Giannis Antetokounmpo and everyone else vying for the DPOY award ... as well as stealth Spurs candidate Dewayne Dedmon. But spotlighting Durant in this category for the very first time just felt right.

Don't be surprised if Durant winds up on the NBA's All-Defensive Team for the first time, too.

Kawhi LeonardSoobum Im/USA Today Sports


Russell Westbrook.

Or James Harden.

Most NBA award voters would tell you that the Most Valuable Player race in this league is going to come down to those two offensive dynamos when ballots are cast in mid-April.

Barring a stretch-run groundswell of support for LeBron James in one of his strongest overall campaigns, or Stephen Curry shifting into flamethrower made to compensate for the sudden loss of Kevin Durant, I certainly expect the same.


We don't have to decide that now, though.

Harden has the slight edge with us here entering the season's final 20 (or so) regular-season games, undoubtedly helped by Oklahoma City's slip to seventh in the West despite all of Trimester 1 MVP Westbrook's triple-double brilliance. But the time to truly put their respective cases under the microscope is about a month from now.

We're here today to pay tribute to the perennially overlooked excellence that emanates from San Antonio's Kawhi Leonard, whose résumé for the season's middle third can live up to anyone's you wish to submit.

West or East.

Across the season's second Trimester, Leonard averaged 27.3 points on 50 percent shooting from the field, while also chipping in 5.7 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.5 steals and 1 block per game.

He also happened to string together the four highest-scoring games of his career during that slice of schedule: 41 points, 38 points and two 36-point outings. Prior to Trimester 2, Leonard had never scored more than 35 points in an NBA game.

Dig even deeper and you'll find that Leonard, over a 16-game stretch starting Jan. 10 and leading into All-Star Weekend, reached the 30-point plateau 11 times. He had registered only 12 30-point games in his career before that hot streak.

The NBA's two-time reigning Defensive Player of the Year, in other words, has officially transformed himself into an elite scorer.

Instinct nonetheless tells me Leonard shouldn't expect to finish higher than fourth in real-life MVP balloting. Not with the seasons Harden, Westbrook and James are having.

Interesting question to ponder: What happens if San Antonio takes advantage of Durant's knee injuries to swipe the No. 1 seed in the West from the mighty Warriors?

While you let that one marinate, please at least join us in anointing Leonard as the West's best for the Trimester that just finished. The Spurs, after all, are suddenly just two games behind Golden State in the race for the top seed in the conference after Saturday night's overtime win over Minnesota, even though LaMarcus Aldridge is carrying his lowest scoring average (17.3 PPG) since his rookie season ... and despite the fact Pau Gasol really hasn't come close to filling the Tim Duncan void ... and with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, like it or not, making less of a mark than they ever have.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Kawhi is one of only three players leaguewide who has managed to increase his scoring average for five successive seasons, alongside fellow All-Stars Gordon Hayward and Jimmy Butler. But in Leonard's case, that jump is from 21.2 points per game last season to a heady 25.9 PPG this season, good for No. 8 overall when you click to the league leaders.

A season that was supposed to be a seismic shock to everyone's system in the Alamo City looks as Spurs-y as usual. Franchise patriarch Gregg Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford certainly deserve their slice of the credit for that, but they'd surely also be the first to say that no one is more responsible than Kawhi.

Getting the Trimester 2 hardware here, then, seems like the least Leonard deserves.

Tobias HarrisGregory Shamus/Getty Images

The NBA's eventual Sixth Man Award winner for the 2016-17 season is very likely coming from the Houston Rockets.

Eric Gordon and new teammate Lou Williams have unquestionably been the most impactful sixth men in the league from opening night into March. And now they're on the same team.


Seeing them on the same roster, however, is bound to complicate things for some voters. Judging by Williams' first four games in a Rockets uniform, in which he averaged 19.3 points in 25.3 minutes per game, it would be unwise to assume that Gordon will continue to generate the gaudiest numbers off of Houston's bench.

Gordon cemented himself as a key figure in Houston long before winning the 3-point contest at All-Star Weekend, thanks largely to those 13 successive games from Nov. 25 through Dec. 17 in which he found a Steph Curry-esque groove and drained at least three 3s per game. He's still a heady No. 3 in the league in 3-point makes for the season (202) despite some recent ups and downs, trailing only Curry (235) and teammate James Harden (203) entering Sunday's play.

Yet if Williams continues to average 18-plus points in fewer than 25 minutes per game for the season, he'll join the San Diego Clippers' Freeman Williams (19.3 PPG in 24.1 MPG in 1980-81) as the only players in league history to do so.

What we're trying to say is that we could really use more time -- as well as the forthcoming 20-ish games' worth of data -- to untangle the Gordon/Lou Will conundrum. Their production was very similar during the second trimester (as the accompanying chart shows), which only makes these two harder to separate.

So ...

Allow us to train our lens on Motown, where Tobias Harris has quietly emerged as perhaps the most credible threat to the Houston duo's presumed duopoly in the Sixth Man race.

Harris was moved into a reserve role by Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy right around the start of the second trimester and, after a brief return to the starting lineup, returned to the bench for good Jan. 23. In the 17 games since he became a full-time sixth man, Detroit has gone 9-8 to cling to the No. 8 seed in the East, with Harris shooting nearly 52 percent from the floor and averaging 16.7 points per game as a sub.

Which leaves Harris trailing only Williams (18.7 PPG) and Gordon (17.2 PPG) in terms of bench scorers this season.

The rub, of course, is that Harris can qualify for official Sixth Man Award consideration only if he has fewer starts than nonstarts by season's end. Assuming he plays in all 19 of the Pistons' remaining regular-season games, that means Harris must appear as a reserve in at least 18 of them.

But when we laser in specifically on trimester 2, during which he was largely deployed as a sixth man, Harris has a sneaky-good case. In those last 17 games, for example, Detroit has been better on both ends of the court with Harris on the floor, posting a net efficiency of plus-4.5 points per 100 possessions when he plays compared to minus-4.9 points per 100 possessions when he doesn't.

Memphis' Zach Randolph, Miami's James Johnson, Denver's Wilson Chandler, San Antonio's Patty Mills and Milwaukee's Greg Monroe have also all had their moments as game-changers off the bench. (Editor's note: Enes Kanter removed himself from the conversation despite his usual top-shelf offensive production and board work in limited minutes -- at least for this trimester -- when he punched that chair.)

Yet it looks as though Harris, based on what he just did during the season's middle third, is the only real threat to prevent Gordon or the newly acquired Williams from bringing home the first Sixth Man trophy to Houston in franchise history.

AP Photo/David Zalubowski


I've heard all the arguments.

I've seen all the wails of protest on Twitter after my suggestion earlier this week that Joel Embiid, without playing another minute this season, still stands as the most likely Rookie of the Year in the NBA.

And I see no reason -- yet -- to budge. No matter how loud you shout.

He won't even end up playing half the games.

He's not really a rookie.

Durability is a huge part of the NBA player's resume.

You can believe all those things with a maximum amount of conviction. But it still doesn't change the reality that a defensible alternative to voting for Embiid has yet to present itself.

The fact that Embiid will have only played 31 of 82 games this season is bound to upset lots of people if the Sixers' charismatic center is indeed chosen as the NBA's 2016-17 Rookie of the Year. As we've noted on numerous occasions lately, Patrick Ewing's 50 games played in the 1985-86 season is the previous record low for a ROY winner. Embiid is going to fall nearly 20 games shy of Ewing's total.

Yet there's simply no good fallback option, as we speak, some three decades removed from Ewing's ROY nod. Withholding a vote for Embiid because of the injury plague that has cursed him again means you have to cast a vote for someone else. Which raises the obvious question: Who?

During the season's just-completed second Trimester, only three other rookies besides Embiid averaged at least 10 points per game: Dallas' Yogi Ferrell (13.6 PPG), Philadelphia's Dario Saric (11.5 PPG) and Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon (11.2 PPG).

Embiid averaged 23.6 PPG in Trimester 2 in 14 games. (Ferrell, for the record, only played eight games in the Trimester).

The gap between Embiid's production so far this season, compared to the rest of this rookie class, gets even more pronounced when you click to the PER numbers for rookies. Embiid (24.33), New York's Willy Hernangomez (18.63) and the Los Angeles Lakers' Ivica Zubac (15.16) are the only rooks at 15 or better.

Any PER reading below 15, remember, is considered below average.

It's also worth remembering that Embiid has often been brilliant when we have seen him out there, which is something you don't hear much about rookies anywhere these days. The 7-footer wound up averaging 20.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in a scant 25.4 minutes per game in those 31 precious outings, leading the long-suffering Sixers to a record of 13-18.

When Embiid isn't in uniform, Philly is 10-20.

And let's please stop with the nonsensical claims that Embiid being drafted in 2014 and missing the entirety of his first two NBA seasons is some sort of grand advantage he holds over other rookies. Seriously? Did anyone who works in this league or simply loves it from the outside ever think Embiid would produce at anywhere close to the level he has after -- we repeat -- losing two full seasons to injury?

Stop it.

There's still time, of course, for Saric or Brogdon or Denver's Jamal Murray -- or whoever -- to wow us in Trimester 3 and provide a defensible voting option. When we sat down with Embiid for an ESPN Radio visit, he insisted it would be Saric, who happens to be averaging 19.4 points over his past 10 games.

Saric, though, isn't there yet. He's averaging a mere 11.4 points per game for the season and sporting a PER of 12.12. If that doesn't sound ROY-esque to you, that's probably because it would represent the lowest PPG posted by a ROY winner since Fort Wayne's Monk Meineke averaged 10.7 points in the 1952-53 season ... which happens to be the first season that the NBA handed out this award.

Those who take issue with how much more "grown up" Embiid is than other rookies are also advised to recall that Saric, just like Embiid, was drafted in 2014. He spent the past two seasons playing top-level European basketball in Turkey before matriculating to the Sixers.

The goal here, though, is not to pick on Saric or Brogdon, who has shown his own promising flashes by breaking into Milwaukee's rotation as an unheralded second-round pick and shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range. Let's see what happens in the final 20 (or so) games of the regular season. Maybe Saric or Brogdon can seize the opportunity.

All of the above, though, is meant to illustrate that Embiid's excellence -- however fleeting -- makes him the standout rookie so far.

By far.

And this ROY voter, speaking purely for himself, simply refuses to make this race all about the GP column when the numbers we're seeing from the overwhelming majority of Embiid's peers are so pedestrian everywhere else you look.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami HeatKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The last man to win NBA Coach of the Year honors from a non-playoff team was Doc Rivers with the Orlando Magic in 1999-2000.

Consider this your warning to take note of what's happening in Florida's other NBA city nearly two decades later.

Houston's Mike D'Antoni, Boston's Brad Stevens, Utah's Quin Snyder, Memphis' David Fizdale and, of course, San Antonio's Gregg Popovich all remain prime contenders for the ultimate COY prize. Washington's Scotty Brooks, furthermore, has added himself to that group by masterminding the Wizards' recent turnaround.

Yet it's Miami's Erik Spoelstra who boasts the most irresistible case to score our nod for the second Trimester, given what legitimately ranks as an unprecedented in-season turnaround for a team that reached the season's halfway point on pace to win 22 games.


Entering Friday's disappointing showing in Orlando, Miami was on a 17-3 fairy tale of surge that (A) features what many are calling the most improbable 13-game winning streak in league history and (B) accounted for the best record in the NBA since Jan. 17.

What Spoelstra has done with an injury-riddled roster that had pundits and hoop know-it-alls howling for the Heat to tank when they were 11-30 is truly special. Yet those who know Spoelstra best will tell you he's obsessive about trying to find an edge, constantly studying any piece of data he can muster in the search for the best lineups and schemes and, as he's in the process of showing us, adept at squeezing month-to-month improvement from the group no matter who is wearing the uniforms.

As mentioned in Monday's Power Rankings, this is the complete list of players Spoelstra deployed as starters in those 13 wins in a row: Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder, Luke Babbitt, Willie Reed and Wayne Ellington.

Spoelstra, incidentally, isn't the only coach from a non-playoff team who's building some COY momentum. With Rick Carlisle pushing the buttons in Big D like only he can, Dallas posted a 16-12 mark over the season's middle third, after the Mavericks had stumbled to a 6-20 start marked by countless injuries.

The improvement was the league's largest in win-percentage terms, from Trimester 1 to Trimester 2, with Carlisle's decision to move Seth Curry into the starting lineup paying particular dividends. When Curry starts, Dallas is 14-9.

We still say D'Antoni will be tough to beat at the COY finish line if the Rockets, currently on a 57-win pace despite coming into the season with such modest expectations, win at least 55 games. Voters are bound to be drawn to what D'Antoni's system has done for James Harden as well as the corresponding freedom he he's handed to his new star ... while revitalizing Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson along the way.

It also has to be said that if the Celtics somehow overtake Cleveland for the East's No. 1 seed -- or if the Spurs wind up winning the West in their first season post-Tim Duncan and with injuries/inconsistency plaguing star swingman Kawhi Leonard's supporting cast -- Stevens and/or Popovich would suddenly reduce D'Antoni to mere co-favorite status.

Brooks is another name to monitor in the wake of the Wizards' surge from 12-14 in Trimester 1 to 21-7 in Trimester 2, which has thrust the Wiz into contention for a top-three seed in the East after a nightmarish 2-8 start.

But Spoelstra, frankly, strikes us as the most interesting what-if in the conversation. Seriously. Imagine if the Heat snag a playoff spot. What then?

Spoelstra has to get some COY votes in that scenario, considering Miami's playoff chances were down to 0.04 percent, according to ESPN's Basketball Power Index, when it was mired at 11-30.

Just before the Heat launched what our pal Micah Adams from ESPN Stats & Information likes to refer to as "the least likely double-digit win streak in NBA history."

Nikola JokicKevork Djansezian/Getty Images

What a difference a Trimester makes.

At Christmastime, I thought Giannis Antetokounmpo had the NBA's Most Improved Player trophy pretty much wrapped up. He had quickly put himself on a pace to become the first player in NBA history to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, steals and field goal percentage. The Greek Freak had risen to such prominence so quickly that, within weeks of our first batch of Trimester honorees this season, he was not only selected to his first All-Star Game, but voted in as a starter.

Who in the world could compete with that?

Nikola Jokic, naturally!


Jokic was so freakishly good in his own right in the season's middle third that he would be fully justified to ring us up and ask why he isn't our West MVP for the same reporting period.

How freakishly good?

In Trimester 2, Jokic posted a PER of 31.5, which ranks as the league's best in that span, as calculated by ESPN research ace Micah Adams.

Jokic averaged 21.3 points, 10.0 rebounds and 5.3 assists while shooting a seemingly impossible 60.8 percent from the floor in just 29.4 minutes per game over that slice of schedule. Compare that to his numbers in the season's opening third: 11.0 points, 7.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 23.7 minutes per game.

The improvement was so sharp and sudden that the Nuggets felt compelled to first nudge bruiser Jusuf Nurkic out of the rotation and then ultimately trade the 2014 first-round pick to Portland.

Thanks to the rise of Jokic, furthermore, Denver is unexpectedly the team several other Western Conference residents have been forced to chase for the West's final playoff berth. The Nuggets were 13-11, to be exact, in the 24 games Jokic played in Trimester 2; they went 1-3 in the four games he missed.

Jokic, in case you'd forgotten, was selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft, 23 spots after Nurkic.

That's Giannis-level madness.

From here, then, we won't even dare to make predictions about what happens next in this crazy MIP race. It's been too wild.

Instead of the usual overflow of candidates in this category, with voters typically struggling to choose between all the various types of MIP contenders that surface, Antetokounmpo and Jokic have made such dramatic leaps in stature that players like Harrison Barnes and Tim Hardaway Jr. scarcely get mentioned in this race.

That's the same Barnes, for the record, who has merely supplanted Dirk Nowitzki as the No. 1 offensive option in Dallas by hiking his scoring average from 11.7 points per game last season in Golden State to 20.2 PPG this season.

How on Earth are we going to choose between The Greek Freak and The Joker when official league award ballots hit our inbox in six weeks' time?

Excellent question.

One Trimester removed from what seemed like a runaway for Antetokounmpo, Jokic just joined Russell Westbrook and DeMarcus Cousins as the only players in the league to average 20-plus points, 10-plus rebounds and 5-plus assists during the second Trimester.

As predicted by no one.

Isaiah ThomasJaime Valdez/USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers are not going to be happy.

I just read all of their rather determined lobbying on behalf of LeBron James' MVP candidacy in a neatly assembled piece Friday by my longtime colleague Dave McMenamin. Yet it wasn't going to sway us ... as well-timed as it was.

Not even as we acknowledge, along with several of his Cavs teammates, that it's hard to believe LeBron hasn't hoisted the Maurice Podoloff Trophy since the 2012-13 season.


As ridiculously good as James was in February -- 63.7 percent shooting from the floor and 56.8 percent shooting from deep jump off the page most -- Trimester 2 in the Eastern Conference belonged to Isaiah Thomas more than anyone.

Or have you forgotten what LeBron himself dubbed a " s---ty" January?

Thomas, meanwhile, posted a player efficiency rating (PER) of 31.1 in the season's middle third, which was tops in the East in that span.

Within that same slice of schedule, Boston's little big man established himself as the NBA's Mr. Fourth Quarter, averaging 13.1 points per game in the final period in that time frame. Next in line leaguewide was Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook ... at 9.1 points per game in the fourth quarter.

Of greatest importance, Boston went 21-7 in Trimester 2, matching Washington's 21-7 mark for best in the East and helping the Celtics seize control of the East's No. 2 seed, despite all those well-chronicled concerns about Thomas' defensive limitations.

As a bonus, Thomas is the closest competition Westbrook has for the league's scoring title, which is something no Celtic, amazingly, has ever won. And this is a franchise, remember, that boasts 33 Hall of Famers.

Factor in Thomas' increase from 22.2 points per game last season to 29.6 PPG this seas on and we'd probably be talking about him as a Most Improved Player candidate as well ... if not for the fact that IT essentially disqualified himself from that category on our ballot because we typically don't give MIP consideration to players who've already reached All-Star status.

Let's be clear here as we swing this back to Bron: Taking James for granted is the last of our intentions. He was our First Trimester MVP in the East and has been undeniably brilliant when you zoom out from Cleveland's January struggles and remind yourself that James has a good shot to average better than 25 points, eight assists and eight rebounds per game for the season while shooting better than 50 percent from the field.

There have been only two such seasons previously recorded in NBA history: Michael Jordan in 1988-89 and Oscar Robertson in 1962-63.

However ...

Thomas is getting the nod here as we move into the season's final third, because we see him, in recognition terms, as the Kawhi Leonard of the East.

In other words: Thomas is the underappreciated star in his conference who realistically can't win the MVP award but deserves much more frequent mention as a contender for one of the five spots on the official MVP ballot than he's been getting.

Stein IllustrationShea Serrano

After 14½ seasons on its own, ESPN.com's famed NBA Power Rankings Committee (of One) is going to try a community approach.

On a one-Monday basis.

This is your long-awaited opportunity, faithful readers, to join the process by submitting comments via Twitter that will be considered for usage in our rankings that hit cyberspace Monday, coming out of All-Star Weekend.

The 1-to-30 order teams are placed in, of course, will remain the Committee's domain.

All rankings devotees worldwide are invited to tweet their smartest thoughts -- between now and Sunday, Feb. 19 -- summing up their team's 2016-17 season so far in 140 characters or less.

We repeat: Sum up your team's season to date -- be sure to include the hashtag #ESPNPowerRank -- and fire away!

The best tweets we get will be used in the comment space for all 30 teams Monday. It's a chance to see your Twitter handle immortalized in some of the brightest lights you'll find on ESPN.com.

This is your long-awaited chance to get involved. We're looking for smart NBA analysis for all 30 teams, so start tapping!

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY SportsSerge Ibaka is averaging a career-high 15.1 points per game with the Magic. Could he be on the move come deadline day?

While Kevin Durant was reacquainting himself with Oklahoma City soil on Saturday, former teammate Serge Ibaka was a three-hour drive away from the KD-in-OKC tension, playing for the Orlando Magic in Dallas.

Stay tuned, though.

There's a growing sense around the league that Ibaka could be on the move again as the league's Feb. 23 trade deadline draws near.

The Thunder shook up the 2016 NBA draft when, just days before Durant's free agency, they dealt Ibaka to the Magic. Orlando was willing to part with Victor Oladipo and the rights to No. 11 pick Domantas Sabonis to make the swap, confident that Ibaka could be sold on a long-term future in the Magic Kingdom.

Seven months and change later, Orlando is exploring all of its options anew. League sources say the Magic are fielding calls from a handful of teams on Ibaka as the deadline approaches, amid undeniable concern that retaining the Congo native in free agency come July will prove much trickier than initially anticipated.

Sources say Toronto and Miami are among the Eastern Conference teams that have expressed interest in Ibaka this month. More than one rival club has expressed the belief that Orlando will use the next 10 days before the deadline to keep fielding offers and then, ultimately, choose the best available package for Ibaka on Feb. 23 and make the move.

Can the Magic get a first-round pick for Ibaka from a team seeking a playoff-tested vet to add to its front-court rotation? Or can they get a quality player under 25 a la Oladipo?

Like we said: Stay tuned.


Dribbling around the league for more of the latest personnel chatter in advance of the league's Feb. 23 buzzer for trades:

  • Skepticism about Atlanta's recent insistence that Paul Millsap is completely off the market has been fairly rampant. The Hawks, however, are adamant that Millsap is staying put in the wake of the Kyle Korver-to-Cleveland deal in early January ... whether rival teams believe them or not. Atlanta began sounding out teams about potential Millsap interest at the same time Korver was made available in early January. Then the team abruptly changed course and told Millsap he should plan to play out the season with the team he's about to rep in his third successive All-Star Game, even if that means Atlanta risks losing the 32-year-old for nothing when Millsap hits free agency in July.
  • Now that the Jusuf Nurkic trade we've been anticipating for weeks has materialized at last, league sources say Danilo Gallinari is a prime Nugget to watch between now and the deadline. The Raptors and Clippers are among the teams said to be monitoring Gallinari's availability, amidst a growing belief that Denver is prepared to move him, given that the Nuggets anticipate that Gallinari will bypass the final season of his current contract (valued at $16.1 million) and join Millsap on the open market, and they don't plan to spend big to retain the Italian.
  • Sources say Portland is determined to move injured center Festus Ezeli before the deadline and is pitching him in particular to teams well below the salary floor that would be willing to take on Ezeli's contract with some level of draft compensation attached. This is the first year of a two-year deal that pays Ezeli $7.4 million this season but is guaranteed for only $1 million next season. Denver ($7.6 million), Philadelphia ($7.5 million) and Brooklyn ($6.8 million) are the three teams that sit the farthest under the league's $84.7 million salary floor.
  • The Nets, as ESPN.com reported in late December, continue to demand two first-round draft picks if they are to part with center Brook Lopez before the deadline.
  • Mavericks guard Yogi Ferrell revealed in his recent appearance on the "NBA Insiders" show on ESPN Radio that he had convinced Dallas to give him a two-year deal even before his 32-point eruption in a nationally televised win over Portland. The second season is a team option at $1.3 million, but it is fully guaranteed if the Mavericks elect to pick it up. Dallas will have to make that call by June 24.

Through play Saturday, there have been 66 triple-doubles in the NBA this season, with Draymond Green's one-of-a-kind contribution Friday night in Memphis putting the league just 13 triple-doubles shy of a new single-season NBA record.

That's with a full 60 days to go in the regular season.

We're on pace to see 99 triple-doubles by season's end, which would crush the single-season high established in Magic Johnson's heyday in 1988-89.

The previous league record for triple-doubles before the All-Star break, in case you're wondering, was 45 -- in Oscar Robertson's historic 1961-62 season that we've been referencing on a daily basis, thanks to the Russell Westbrook triple-double train. We saw 40 triple-doubles before the All-Star break last season.


If I'm going to reference my beloved Buffalo Braves at every opportunity -- something we've imposed on you in this cyberspace for 15 seasons and counting -- it's only right to pass along the most painful of remembrances when it's so unavoidably relevant.

Leave it to the Elias Sports Bureau to inform us that Durant, with his 34 points in Saturday's OKC homecoming, just became the first player to post three 30-point games in one season against the team he played for the previous season since (gulp) Bob McAdoo in 1977-78 ... for the Knicks against my Braves.


The last word in this Son of Weekend Dime goes to Stephen Curry, courtesy of our visit with No. 30 for SportsCenter on the floor moments after Golden State finished its 130-114 triumph on a wild night in Loud City.

Asked about the vitriol that greeted Durant, as well as KD's third-quarter tangles with both Russell Westbrook and Andre Roberson, Curry said:

"For us, it was very, very similar to what we've experienced [in OKC] before. But I know, for him, it had to be weird. It had to be.

"This game meant a lot to both sides. There's a lot of chirping, a lot of back-and-forth, a lot of competition. There's some familiarity obviously. He knows every single guy in that locker room over there, so you had to expect something to happen. But at the end of the day, we focused on basketball."

video
When the Cleveland Cavaliers aren't dodging the New York Knicks' attempts to sell them on a Carmelo Anthony trade, or auditioning available free agents, they're engaged in some serious finger-crossing.

They’re hoping/rooting/wishing for a quality veteran or two to pop onto the free-agent market via buyout after the Feb. 23 trade deadline passes.

Los Angeles Lakers guard Jose Calderon and Dallas Mavericks center Andrew Bogut, league sources tell ESPN.com, have emerged as two players who greatly interest the Cavs in their search for bench help.

The NBA's reigning champions, who come face-to-face with Anthony in Saturday night's ABC showcase game at Madison Square Garden, are also closely monitoring Bogut teammate Deron Williams.

Yet this is where we have to point out that merely monitoring, as they say in those commercials, isn’t the same as fixing the problem. Actually finding a way to acquire even one of those three intriguing potential contributors is another matter entirely.

The Cavs know trading for Calderon, Bogut or Williams is highly unlikely given Cleveland's various salary-cap and asset limitations. The best they can realistically hope for is that one or more of those three gets bought out after the trade deadline and eventually hits the free-agent market.

Another pesky complication: Neither Bogut nor Williams, according to the latest signals emanating from Big D, is said to be particularly interested in a buyout if they're still with the Mavericks after the Feb. 23 buzzer for trades. The Mavericks' recent 9-3 surge, furthermore, has given Dallas some life of its own in the hunt for the West's No. 8 spot despite a 6-18 start, which could well lessen Mark Cuban’s appetite for weakening his roster.

Carmelo Anthony, LeBron JamesNBAE via Getty Images, USA TODAY SportsCarmelo Anthony and LeBron James will battle at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night (ABC, 8:30 ET).

All that would appear to establish Calderon as the most likely of the three to ultimately became available for the Cavs to pursue. But rest assured that the Lakers and Mavericks will spend the next 19 days looking for workable trades first that can bring an asset back as opposed to simply setting up Cleveland to appease an antsy, edgy LeBron James.

You've been hearing for weeks now that the Cavs are on the hunt for a seasoned point guard and another big man to fortify their bench, with James openly unhappy that the voids created by the offseason departures of Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov have yet to be filled.

The trouble is that there are obstacles in any direction Cleveland looks these days.

In the most recent Son of Weekend Dime, we highlighted a couple of intriguing veteran guards -- Utah's Shelvin Mack and Denver's Jameer Nelson -- whose salaries would fit into one of Cleveland's available trade exceptions.

The respective salaries possessed by Calderon ($7.7 million), Bogut ($11 million) and Williams ($9 million), by contrast, are too big for the Cavs to absorb into a trade exception.

Utah and Denver, meanwhile, both currently sit below the league's $84.7 million salary floor for the season, which helps explain why neither team is likely itching to just send Mack or Nelson rushing to LeBron's aid. Nelson, on top of that, played meaningful minutes in Denver throughout the month of January, with Mike Malone and his Nuggets unexpectedly in a playoff chase.

Stay tuned, though. The key time frame from the Cavs' perspective, if they can’t find what they need via trades or those free-agent workouts, is what happens from Feb. 24 through the March 1 buzzer for playoff eligibility.

The rule is the same for all teams when it comes to the buyout game: Players remain playoff-eligible for their next team as long as they're released by 11:59 PM ET on March 1.


Remember the Cavs’ plan we shared after the Cavs’ Christmas Day victory over Golden State?

The one about reducing James’ minutes at the end of January?

Hasn’t quite happened yet.

James recently logged 43-plus minutes in three successive games at the tail end of Cleveland’s 2-6 nosedive. It was the first time he pulled off that sort of hat trick since March 2009 ... when he was 24 years old.

Thanks to comparatively light loads in the four games since -- minute totals of 34, 37, 37 and 34 -- James has slipped to No. 2 in the league in terms of minutes per game behind Toronto’s Kyle Lowry.

Which is a good thing.

Leading the league in minutes per game, we’re guessing, was not one of LeBron’s goals coming into the 2016-17 campaign. Finishing No. 1 in that category, in James’ 14th season, would make history, nudging him past Allen Iverson as the oldest player in NBA annals to hold that distinction.


Maybe the best news for the Cavaliers of late is the fact that Golden State has four All-Stars.

As mentioned earlier this week in our Power Rankings, it’s not the sort of good omen you’d expect, since only two of the previous 10 teams to feature four All-Stars went on to win it all that season.

Philadelphia was the most recent champ in 1982-83, after Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney represented the East in the Marvin Gaye All-Star Game in 1983. Boston was the first in 1961-62, with Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones and Tom Heinsohn earning All-Star status.

The Warriors will be the fifth team in the past 20 seasons to try to halt a drought that stretches back to that unforgettable ‘Fo-Fo-Fo’ Sixers team. The list:


Who would dare to take on the Super Bowl head-to-head?

For the third successive year, no less, ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Amin Elhassan will join me Sunday night on ESPN Radio for another (brave!) installment of the “NBA Insiders” from 7-10 p.m. ET.

Three high-powered guests joined our first show of the season, so we’ve decided to share a highlight here from each of those convos:

*Warriors general manager Bob Myers on the looming free agencies of both Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant: “I certainly think we’re in a good spot. I think we’re a team that they want to stay with and have done well with. But at the same time you really just don’t know. We’ll do everything we can to retain them. That’s the No. 1 goal. But resting on your laurels in this business, you may be able to get away with it for a little while, but it’ll catch up to you.”

Listen to the full convo with Myers

*Hawks forward Paul Millsap on Atlanta’s recent insistence to interested teams that it has ruled out dealing him before the Feb. 23 trade deadline: “I feel good about it. But who knows? I don't decide that. Only thing I can control is getting out there playing basketball [and] helping this team win. Whatever happens happens. But I feel [that] the organization feels like we’re headed in a good direction.”

Listen to the full convo with Millsap

*Wizards guard Bradley Beal covered so much ground in our visit that ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk devoted a whole story to it.

The 2016-17 NBA All-No-Trade Team

January, 28, 2017
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Courtesy of the latest dramas involving the New York Knicks and Carmelo Anthony, talk of no-trade clauses in the NBA is a daily staple of the news cycle as the league's Feb. 23 trade deadline draws near.

The reality, though, is that only three players in the league possess an outright no-trade clause in their current contract ... half as many as last season.

In addition to Anthony, it's Cleveland's LeBron James and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki. That's the list.

Those are the headliners on ESPN.com's annual All-No-Trade Team, which we assemble every January to acquaint you with any player who possesses the rare (and usually temporary) power to block a deal if he wishes.

There are 19 players on the 2016-17 squad, in addition to the Big Three, once you account for the various folks who -- through fine-print measures in the league's labor pact -- have the privilege of saying they can't be traded this season without their consent.

Stress this season.

The aforementioned 19 players break down into three distinct categories:

1. What makes Melo, Bron and Dirk so special?

Regular readers surely know this lecture by heart by now. NBA players are only eligible for an outright no-trade clause in their contracts after spending eight seasons in the league -- at least four with the same team -- and only when the clause is specifically negotiated into a new deal as opposed to an extension to a previous contract that did not contain a no-trade clause.

Those three future Hall of Famers are the only players on the NBA map at present with the ability to check all of those boxes.

2. League rules dictate that any player who signs an offer sheet with a new team in restricted free agency, only to see that offer sheet matched by the incumbent team, can't be traded without his consent for one full year after the offer sheet was matched.

Miami's Tyler Johnson and Portland's Allen Crabbe thus both possess the right to block any trade until July 10, 2017.

Johnson and Crabbe, in addition, can't be traded to the Brooklyn Nets until after that date even if they did consent, since they are precluded from being dealt to the team that tendered the offer sheet -- Brooklyn in both cases here -- for a full calendar year.

LeBron JamesAP Photo/Kathy WillensCarmelo Anthony and LeBron James both have no-trade clauses -- Dirk Nowitzki is the only other player who currently has one.

3. The final category is made up of 14 players on one-year contracts who are commonly referred to as One-Year Birds.

Such players, in other words, possess one-year deals and can't be traded without their consent because they've signed with the same team two seasons (or more) in a row and would have to forfeit their free-agent Bird rights if traded elsewhere before the end of the current season.

The league thus mandates that One-Year Birds, before they can be thrown into a deal, have to grant permission, which affords them a soon-to-vanish measure of clout on the Anthony/James/Nowitzki level that expires on Feb. 23 as soon as the deadline passes.

Atlanta: Kris Humphries
Cleveland: James Jones
Dallas: Deron Williams
Detroit: Beno Udrih
Golden State: Ian Clark, James Michael McAdoo and Anderson Varejao
LA Clippers: Luc Mbah a Moute
LA Lakers: Metta World Peace
Miami: Udonis Haslem
Milwaukee: Steve Novak
New York: Sasha Vujacic
San Antonio: Manu Ginobili
Washington: Marcus Thornton

Editor's note: We're all still learning things about the freshly negotiated and ratified labor agreement that will take hold July 1. But here's a morsel of good news for those of you (like us) who don't like change: It's status quo in the new CBA when it comes to no-trade clauses. Eight years of service time -- with at least four of those seasons coming with the team issuing the contract -- will remain the requirements.


* Orlando, according to league sources, remains focused on acquiring a proven scorer on the wing before the Feb. 23 trade deadline if the ever-elusive right deal presents itself. The corresponding expectation in league circles is that the Magic will try to move a big man to make that happen, with Nikola Vucevic continuing to rank as the most likely of Orlando's bigs to depart because Serge Ibaka is headed for free agency in July (which complicates trading him) and with Bismack Biyombo only in the first year of a four-year, $68 million deal bound to put some teams off. Vucevic, by contrast, is a proven scorer and rebounder whose comparatively modest $11.8 million salary will presumably offset some of the defensive concerns in circulation. But sources say Boston's talks with Orlando to date on the Vucevic front haven't progressed past the exploratory stage ...

* The simpler option for the reigning champions, as opposed to a Melo-sized blockbuster deal, might prove to be a smaller swap in which the Cavaliers absorb the salary of a veteran point guard into their $4.4 million Anderson Varejao trade exception that expires Feb. 20. Sources say one vet known to interest the Cavs -- one who possesses a salary that would fit into that exception -- is Utah's Shelvin Mack at $2.4 million. Mack, according to sources, is most definitely available. The Cavs, though, would be forced to use the $4.8 million trade exception they just created in the Kyle Korver deal (with an expiration date of Jan. 7, 2018) to absorb the salary of Denver's Jameer Nelson, who is said to be another Cleveland target but makes $4.5 million this season ...

* The long (and confusing) Mo Williams saga ended at last this week when the 76ers, after claiming Williams off waivers and immediately releasing him, resisted the urge to do it again. When Philly passed and Williams finally cleared waivers Thursday, it meant Denver will wind up saving $1.2 million in salary after all the twists and turns detailed in our story here. But the Nuggets had to acquire Williams twice -- once by trade and again by reclaiming him off waivers earlier this week -- to realize those savings. Denver also received $650,000 in cash from Atlanta when it first traded for Williams, who never intended to play this season but will have drawn paychecks from four teams (Cleveland, Atlanta, Denver and Philadelphia) by month's end.


Our dreams have been dashed.

We tried. We composed a video essay for NBA Countdown earlier this week to lobby on Joel Embiid's behalf. Yet we ultimately failed.

Eastern Conference coaches, as I realistically feared from the start, couldn't bring themselves to put a rookie on the All-Star squad ahead of Paul Millsap -- or, let's not forget, fellow snub Melo -- when Embiid has missed 14 of Philadelphia's 45 games this season while averaging just 25.4 minutes per outing this season.

It would have been so much fun to see Embiid in the Big Boy Game in New Orleans on Feb. 19. It would have been historic, too. Thanks to our man Micah Adams from ESPN Stats & Info, we discovered that only four players have ever previously earned an All-Star nod averaging fewer than 25 minutes per game.

They are:

1. Yao Ming appeared in only five games in his final NBA season in 2010-11 and averaged just 18.2 minutes in that handful of appearances. Houston came into the season only planning to play him 24 minutes per game (and no back-to-backs) even if everything went right, but Yao was voted in as a starter anyway even as his body was forcing him to leave the game, all thanks to his immense popularity back home in China.

2. Alonzo Mourning was selected by the fans as an Eastern Conference starter in 2001 despite missing the entire season to that point due to the kidney condition that would ultimately force him to retire briefly in 2003-04.

3. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, averaging 22.9 minutes per game as a 41-year-old in his swan song season, was selected as a West injury replacement for Magic Johnson for the 1989 All-Star Game.

4. Nearly 30 years ago, in what ranks as one of the more surprising All-Star selections we can remember, Portland Trail Blazers big man Steve Johnson was chosen as a Western Conference reserve. He had to miss the game due to an ankle problem that ultimately limited him to 43 games and 24.4 minutes per game for the season, with Johnson later telling The Oregonian newspaper in a 2009 interview that he "really made the All-Star Game from [his play] from the year before."

Coach voting for All-Star reserve selections for the 66th NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans must be completed by Tuesday afternoon.

At Stein Line HQ, meanwhile, tradition dictates that we fill out our own ballot using the exact same league guidelines the coaches themselves must adhere to.

Those conditions are as follows:

1. Coaches must vote for two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild cards in their respective conferences.

2. Players must be ranked on the coach's ballot in specific order of preference in all three categories.

3. Coaches are explicitly told as part of the voting process that the position at which a player "is listed on the All-Star ballot should have no bearing on your vote." Each coach is encouraged, per ballot instructions, to vote for players "at the position he thinks is most advantageous for the All-Star team" and "not necessarily the one he plays most often during the season."

4. Coaches are obviously not allowed to vote for their own players.

The starters in the East, as announced Thursday night, are LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt, with Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan in the backcourt. The starters in the West are Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and hometown favorite Anthony Davis in the frontcourt, with Stephen Curry and James Harden in the backcourt.

The respective benches, which will be revealed Thursday night on TNT, would look like this if it were up to us:

Eastern Conference

Backcourt

1. Isaiah Thomas
2. Kyle Lowry

Thomas was one of my choices last week to start in the East, so he's naturally the proverbial first name on the team sheet here. Dwell on his defensive deficiencies if you wish. I prefer to focus on Thomas' ongoing emergence as one of the league's foremost fourth-quarter forces.

Lowry is likewise unlucky to start ... especially when the unstoppable Kevin Pelton trots out numbers that illustrate just how valuable he is to the Raptors when he's on the floor compared to when he sits. But I'm stubbornly sticking to my contention that teammate DeRozan, from start to finish so far this season, has the better overall 2016-17 résumé through 43 games and thus deserved his first starting berth in the All-Star Game.

That doesn't mean DeRozan has supplanted Lowry as Toronto's most important player. And I don't think the flip-flopped roles bother Lowry too much after he started for the East in each of the past two All-Star Games. Based on everything I heard while in suburban Toronto for this week's D-League Showcase, Lowry was rooting for his backcourt mate as hard as anyone.

Frontcourt

1. Kevin Love
2. Paul George
3. Joel Embiid

Hard to believe that Love got a championship ring in Cleveland before he managed an All-Star berth with the Cavs. But it's true: This will be Love's first appearance on the East squad after conference coaches bypassed him the past two winters. Don't see any way that happens now given Cleveland's sizable lordship over the East and the way Love has expanded his game to shoot the 3 ball more than he ever has before. Despite his chilly January and recent back woes, Love is converting those long-range attempts at nearly 38 percent.

Over in Indiana, George hasn't come close to mounting the MVP challenge he was vowing to submit in the wake of his successful return to international basketball with Team USA at the Rio Olympics. Yet he remains one of the league's most celebrated two-way players -- even if Professor Pelton's numbers show there has been a drop-off defensively -- and also benefits here from the fact that there's a serious shortage of frontcourt candidates in the East playing All-Star ball. Just to erase any remaining doubt: PG-13 is one of four players averaging at least 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook are the other three.

And now for the choice/explanation you've all been waiting for:

Don't even try to feed me that old-school hooey about how rookies have to wait their turn to be chosen for All-Star Games. Spare me the #wellactually lecture about the heavy minutes restrictions Embiid has faced.

AP Photo/Matt SlocumDoes Joel Embiid belong in the All-Star Game? The Sixers rookie is averaging 19.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks in limited minutes this season.

It's undeniably true that Embiid has been forced to sit out 12 games as an offshoot of the foot troubles that cost him his first two NBA seasons. It's also true that he’s been on the court for only 37 percent of the Sixers' collective minutes played this season.

Stuff it.

None of that matters to us. Nor should it matter to the coaches doing the voting.

Just answer these three questions:

Has Embiid been one of the East's 12 most impactful players this season? Do the Sixers function like a completely different (and competent) team when he's out there? And is there anyone in the conference who wasn't already voted in as a starter that the basketball public wants to see more in the Big Boy Game on Feb. 19?

Exactly.

The Sixers sport the average nightly scoring margin of a 55-win team when Embiid is on the floor ... compared to the scoring margin of an 11-win team when he sits. He deserves an All-Star berth, in other words, no matter how many red lights are flashing when you click to his minutes-per-game average of 25.3.

Wild cards

1. John Wall
2. Kemba Walker

For all the obvious struggles to find worthy frontcourt candidates in the East, here's the happy counter: Good guards are everywhere you look on the right side of the conference divide.

Based on these selections, Wall is merely the No. 4 point guard in the East, when the reality is that his case for a starting spot appeals to some folks more than the arguments for Thomas or Lowry.

That would naturally mean Walker has to settle for the No. 5 spot in the East's latest QB ratings. But I'm convinced he’s done enough -- with a PER of 22.8 in his breakout season as the driving force for a team with a winning record -- to earn his first All-Star berth. The selection would bring his city just a hint of solace after the city lost next month's All-Star Game to New Orleans; Gerald Wallace was Charlotte's most recent All-Star in 2010.

FIVE TOUGHEST OMISSIONS: Paul Millsap, Hassan Whiteside, Dwight Howard, Kristaps Porzingis and Bradley Beal.

Western Conference

Backcourt

1. Russell Westbrook
2. Mike Conley

Think we'll spare you the long-winded justification for Westbrook's presence in the top spot. He was averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game as of Sunday morning to put the Kevin Durant-less Thunder on pace for 47 wins. I think you get it.

(But for the record: I didn't find it controversial that Stephen Curry edged out Westbrook for a starting spot in the West backcourt alongside James Harden. For those of us less than completely sold on the media's place in new All-Star voting procedures, it was reassuring to see the fan totals still carrying the most meaningful weight to break such a high-profile tie.)

The other spot, meanwhile, has to go to the game's highest-paid (for now) player and a bring a halt to Conley's l-o-n-g wait to become an All-Star for the first time.

Conley was off to the best start of his career when he suffered a serious back injury in late November, then showed the whole world how tough he is by making it back onto the floor after missing only nine games, then resumed playing as well as he ever has.

Chris Paul was the obvious first choice behind Westbrook if he hadn't ripped up his left thumb. Have to say I like Pelton's suggestion to the West coaches that they should select Paul anyway and make NBA commissioner Adam Silver name an injury replacement for CP3.

Either way, though, it's Conley's time to slip on a West jersey.

Frontcourt

1. DeMarcus Cousins
2. Draymond Green
3. Rudy Gobert

It's perhaps the lone positive you can draw from the otherwise demoralizing "race" for the No. 8 spot in the West that has uncharacteristically kept alive a slew of sub-.500 teams.

We're referring, obviously, to how the underwhelming records sported by Cousins' Sacramento Kings and Anthony Davis' Pelicans haven't hurt their respective All-Star cases.

It'll be a nice little moment to see Davis lined up for the opening tip in an All-Star Game played in the shadow of Bourbon Street. But Cousins' across-the-board production, no matter what his detractors might say, is in the same zip code as The Brow's, which should make him a lock for selection by West coaches.

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY SportsDespite losing some spotlight to Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green still deserve plenty of All-Star consideration.

Ditto for Golden State's Green. He has such an impact on the Warriors' fortunes, at both ends, that you rarely hear anyone bring up his seemingly mortal scoring average (10.8 PPG). The talk, more appropriately, is how Green is bidding to become the first player in league history to average better than seven assists, seven rebounds, two steals and one block over the course of an entire season.

Then there's Gobert, who has emerged as the co-biggest threat to Green’s dream of winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year alongside Kawhi Leonard

Gordon Hayward is the free agent-to-be who'll soon be in great demand, but Gobert just might be Utah's most influential player thanks to his offensive improvement. He's averaging 12.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, which represent three benchmarks no Jazzman in team history has ever hit in the same season.

The only player in the league at present who can match (or exceed) Gobert in all three categories? Anthony Davis.

Wild cards

1. Klay Thompson
2. Gordon Hayward

Popular question: Do the Warriors deserve four All-Stars?

My response: Did you watch them play this week?

Thompson arguably has the toughest job in Golden State's star quartet, waiting to see from night to night how much the Dubs will ask of him, but his consistency as a two-way impact player earns him bonus points with us.

Let's also not forget that Thompson can be an irresistible showman in his own right. With apologies to Harden's 53-point, 16-rebound, 17-assist masterpiece against the Knicks, it was Klay who delivered the most stirring individual display of the season so far with his 60-point eruption against Indiana in early December.

So, yeah, he’s an All-Star.

The same has to be said for Hayward, who appears poised for his maiden All-Star nod from West coaches as a reward for his offensive consistency in the face of Utah's numerous injuries – including Hayward’s fast recovery from his own broken finger during training camp. This is the sixth straight season that Hayward has increased his scoring average, nudging him to a level (22.2 PPG) that makes him the most prolific scorer seen in Salt Lake City since
Karl Malone.

FIVE TOUGHEST OMISSIONS: Marc Gasol, Karl-Anthony Towns, Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum and Eric Gordon.video

Chris BoshTommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

MISSISSAUGA, Ontario -- In this latest Son of Weekend Dime compilation, we've amassed the freshest dribbles of pertinent chatter from the NBA's annual D-League Showcase ... with the league's annual trade buzzer just over 30 days away:

No one in the NBA knows if Chris Bosh will ever play professional basketball again thanks to his unfortunate bout with blood clots. That sadly goes for Bosh himself, as he recently explained during an appearance at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Yet there were a couple interesting Bosh rumbles in circulation this week in suburban Toronto:

1. More than one rival team has said they don't expect Bosh to be waived by Miami until after March 1, thereby ensuring he's not playoff-eligible for another team. The prospect of removing Bosh from the team's payroll becomes an active option for the Heat after Feb. 9, which is the one-year anniversary of his last game for the club.

2. If Bosh, who turns 33 in March, makes it back onto the floor next season, word is that the Chicago Bulls are already plotting a run and will be at the front of the line to try to sign him.


The most substantive trade proposal generating buzz among the various team officials, scouts and agents assembled this week at the Hershey Centre: Orlando, according to league sources, recently tried to engage Miami on a Goran Dragic deal in which the Magic were said to be offering center Nikola Vucevic and a future first-round pick.

The Heat, of course, already have a well-compensated starting center in Hassan Whiteside and, sources say, had no interest in Orlando's pitch. The South Beachers continue to leave the impression that they're resistant to surrendering Dragic before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.


A player who is sure to move between now and the trade deadline?

Denver's Jusuf Nurkic.

Sources say that the Nuggets, having acknowledged that Nikola Jokic and Nurkic didn't click as a pairing, are actively working to find Nurkic a new home that would give him the chance he deserves to be a front-line center.


Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

You'd struggle to find a single team with a representative at the Showcase that believes Atlanta has permanently pulled All-Star forward Paul Millsap from the trade market.

The skepticism has been so loud that it leads one to imagine Millsap might still prove to be the biggest name in play between now and Feb. 23, assuming Dragic indeed can't be had and with Sacramento's Rudy Gay suddenly out for the season.


The Kings naturally became a popular topic in the wake of Gay's torn Achilles suffered Wednesday night.

The bulk of the external trade interest Gay attracted came in the offseason, most notably from Oklahoma City, Miami and Portland, but sources say Sacramento has had opportunities to move Gay since the season began and chose to hold off, presumably in hopes of giving itself the best chance of snagging the West's No. 8 seed and thus bringing a halt to the league's second-longest playoff drought (10 seasons and counting).

The Kings, though, just went 1-6 on a crucial homestand to fall to 10th in the West at 16-25 and Friday begin an eight-game road trip (yes, eight) in Memphis.


Given Gay's long-term unavailability and Sacramento's well-known hopes of convincing DeMarcus Cousins to sign for the long term, two wings have emerged as the most likely Kings to be dealt:

Ben McLemore first and foremost, followed by Arron Afflalo.


The Clippers have offered a future second-round pick for Suns forward P.J. Tucker -- who is said to have a not-so-secret admirer in Doc Rivers -- but sources say Phoenix is holding out for a first-rounder in exchange for the rugged defensive specialist.

Tucker and out-of-favor guard Brandon Knight are widely regarded as the most "gettable" Suns. Coach Earl Watson announced this week that veteran center Tyson Chandler is "not going anywhere."


This one's not exactly a trade item, but there's an expectation in Denver that the Nuggets -- after taking on Mo Williams in a deal with Atlanta -- plan to re-sign Alonzo Gee once Williams clears waivers.

Denver can sign Gee to one more 10-day contract before it must decide whether to ink him for the rest of the regular season or let him go.

James Harden, Russell WestbrookAP Photo, USA TODAY Sports


Scratching out a column every January to advise East and West coaches on the All-Star reserves they should pick is an annual tradition here at Stein Line HQ.

Choosing five starters and filling out an actual All-Star ballot?

Can't remember the last time we actually did that. Probably not since my teenage years.

So, yeah, it feels strange. It will take some getting used to.

Speaking strictly for myself, it's not because casting one ballot's worth of All-Star votes presents some sort of huge moral quandary, since the reality is that many of us covering this league often unknowingly have a tangible impact on NBA proceedings with so many things we write and say. In this brain, I simply always imagined that the All-Star starters were strictly the fans' domain and should/would remain so.

But I get it.

In the electronic age, when intricate voting campaigns can be waged on behalf of undeserving All-Star candidates, adding the league's nearly 450 active players and a panel of media members to the voting process to short-circuit such shenanigans is a natural counter. It also gives the guys on the court, who've wanted more of a voice in these matters for a long time, what they've been seeking.

So here we are. Our unofficial reserve selections are coming next Friday after the starters are announced, as always, but let's first share our first-ever formal picks for the starters in each conference, with all balloting (for fans, players and the press) scheduled to end Monday night at 11:59 p.m. ET:

Western Conference

Backcourt: James Harden and Russell Westbrook

It's hard to imagine Stephen Curry finishing anywhere but No. 1 among West guards in fan balloting. But Harden and Westbrook are widely regarded as the league's top two MVP candidates at the season's halfway point, which figures to make them both pretty automatic with the media.

Harden is in the midst of a revolutionary season as a full-time point guard for the first time, meshing with new coach Mike D'Antoni and the retooled roster around him to such a positive degree that the Rockets are on pace to jump from last season's 41 wins to 62.

Westbrook, meanwhile, has a 50 percent chance of becoming just the second player in league history to average a triple-double for an entire season, according to the latest calculations from ESPN's tireless Kevin Pelton.

Our firm belief is that Curry's supposed drop-off is really more of a scaling back from last season's historic production, which was probably inevitable with the arrival of Kevin Durant and the equally inevitable adjustment phase for all involved.

He'll likely have to surrender his starting spot once the player and media votes are factored in, but Curry has nothing to worry about here. He's an All-Star lock, too.

Frontcourt: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis

The pool of worthy candidates for just three available spots is seriously deep.

Davis and DeMarcus Cousins jump out as two names from losing teams that you suspect will do well in voting by their on-court peers, which is bound to make things interesting.

Yet there are realistically two locks no matter how you look at things.

Durant has not only made a highly efficient start to life in the Bay Area, but has also played bigger and with more consistent force as a defender than we've ever seen.

Down in San Antonio, Leonard's reputation as one of the game's foremost two-way stars only grows, thanks to the additional offensive responsibility he has taken on in his first season post-Tim Duncan, on top of his well-chronicled work as a perimeter stopper that opposing teams strain to avoid.

So those are your gimmes: KD and Kawhi. The toughest call among West starters, assuming you're casting these votes on merit, is trying to narrow down a starry quartet of deserving choices -- Draymond Green and Marc Gasol in addition to Davis and Cousins -- for one remaining slot in the West frontcourt.

As often as Warriors coach Steve Kerr calls Green "in some ways our most important player," Draymond's case is a strong one on that basis alone, given that the 34-6 Warriors -- for all the things they're purportedly still trying to iron out -- sport the league's best record.

Gasol gave us plenty to think about too, having overcome an 11-game injury absence for Mike Conley in December, as well as the intermittent availability of Chandler Parsons, to help keep Memphis among the league's top three defenses and, until recently, on a 50-win pace. Big Spain also gets some extra credit here not for the questionable Conor McGregor imitations but for expanding his game offensively to become a 3-point threat.

Ultimately, though, it’s Davis who has the edge – with the game in New Orleans -- as he tries to drag the Pelicans to the postseason in the wake of an 0-8 start. We haven’t seen that sort of recovery in the NBA since Chicago did it in 2004-05.

Both Davis and Cousins have their teams close enough to the No. 8 spot in the West to get a pass from this stubborn media mainstreamer who can't resist throwing that trusty team-success card on the table. I'd frankly be good with either one of them starting.

Eastern Conference

Backcourt: DeMar DeRozan and Isaiah Thomas

Remember when I mentioned how strange this assignment feels?

It didn't get any more comfortable when I got to this section, with only two open spots for five players who could inspire a daylong debate when you try to separate them.

Kyrie Irving. John Wall. Kyle Lowry. DeRozan. And Thomas.

Good luck.

Irving, of course, is the runaway No. 1 choice in the fan vote and, truth be told, presumably would be No. 1 on most anyone's list if the assignment were simply drafting the standout from the five players mentioned. But our aim here is to reward the best seasons we've seen to this point. I don't think Irving, on an individual basis, can claim he has had a stronger start to 2016-17 than Wall, Thomas or the Toronto duo.

Yet that still leaves plenty of work to do. Thomas or Wall? DeRozan or Lowry? The two Raptors together? Some other combination?

Tempting as it was to choose both DeRozan and Lowry, I only managed to make room for one of them. And that's DeRozan, who won bonus points here for those 19 days in a row in November when he stood as the league's leading scorer, helping Toronto get off to a fine start and, just as crucially, taking the early pressure off Lowry as his fellow Olympian eased into the season without the same splash.

Lowry is rolling now, but DeRozan -- No. 5 in the East in player efficiency rating as of Friday morning -- couldn't have come back from Rio more ready.

Wall vs. Thomas is another coin flip. You can't go wrong with either. I know Wall has won many admirers for the way he sparked Washington's turnaround from a 6-12 start, but we're giving the edge to the little lefty because of Thomas' consistency, his fourth-quarter excellence and the way he kept the Celtics afloat while Al Horford was missing all those games in November.

Frontcourt: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler

In stark contrast to the point guard overflow that complicates backcourt selections in the East, this is a frontcourt trio that essentially picks itself.

I realize that the latest returns from the fan vote, released Thursday, have Kevin Love in a starting spot, but I suspect that the overwhelming majority of media ballots will look like this one, with Antetokounmpo and Butler joining LeBron in the first five.

It's not like Love would be out of place as a starter, but there's a convincing argument to be made that The Greek Freak and Butler -- like LeBron -- have been top-10 players league-wide in terms of impact this season.

The Rise of Giannis as one of the leading vote-getters, having never been an All-Star before and playing out of humble Milwaukee, also happens to be one of the stories of the season.

There can be no dispute, at worst, that Antetokounmpo and Butler have been top-5 players in the East to this point, which we anticipate will force the likes of Love and Paul George to rely on East coaches to secure a reserve spot.

(One quick footnote on the prospect of LeBron, Kyrie and Love all starting for the East: 1989-90 is the last time three starters from one team -- -- Magic Johnson, James Worthy and A.C. Green of the Lakers -- were voted in by the fans. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all started the 2013 All-Star Game for the East, but Bosh was starting in place of the injured Rajon Rondo.)


  • The Rockets, according to league sources, were among the teams that looked into acquiring Mike Dunleavy last week when Atlanta was initially searching for a third team to get involved in the Kyle Korver trade with Cleveland.

    Sources say Houston is not currently itching to make a move -- why would you want to change much at 31-10? -- but these are still the uber-aggressive Rockets. So count on them to stay on the lookout for an extra shooter or one more big man as the Feb. 23 trade deadline draws near.

    Sources say, furthermore, that swingman K.J. McDaniels has emerged as the most likely Rocket to move this trade season ... more likely now than Corey Brewer. Our own Zach Lowe reported recently that the Rockets were gauging Brewer's trade value, but Brewer has since moved back ahead of McDaniels in D'Antoni's rotation.

  • The Cavs might not necessarily be done with trades for the season.

    LeBron James still wants a certified backup point guard to ease Irving's regular-season burden -- as you might have heard -- and Cleveland still has $4.4 million left of its Anderson Varejao trade exception to use post-Korver to take in additional salary before the exception expires Feb. 20.

    So a free-agent signing, such as Mario Chalmers, Jarrett Jack or Norris Cole, isn't the Cavs' only option.

  • Stan Van Gundy has openly scoffed at the suggestion that Detroit is looking to trade Reggie Jackson amid the disappointing Pistons' 18-23 struggles. Yet there's a growing impression around the league that, at the very least, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has moved past Jackson onto Detroit's short list of untouchables, alongside Andre Drummond.
  • It remains to be seen whether Portland proves to be as active in the trade market as many league observers expected coming into the season, but here's a pertinent bookkeeping note: Allen Crabbe, Maurice Harkless and Meyers Leonard all finally become eligible to be traded Sunday after the big deals all three signed over the summer.

Horford will play his first game as an Atlanta visitor Friday night when the Hawks entertain Horford's Celtics.

And here’s a quick history lesson to commemorate the occasion: Seven different players appeared in 200 or more games alongside Horford in the ATL. But after last week's trade that sent Korver to Cleveland, none of those seven is still with the club.

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