Chris Paul

There are countless injuries to star players in the West - Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and James Harden. Obviously, injuries to players of this caliber can devastate an NBA Franchise and its fan base, especially come playoff time. However, an injury early on during the season does not necessarily have to be devastating. When approaching the obstacle the right way, a team can use injuries as learning experiences and opportunities to develop players along the depth chart. Other than Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers, the three aforementioned names are all watching their teams blossom in their absence.

In Oklahoma City, Russell’s Westbrook’s injury initially caused major concerns for the franchise considering he suffered a season-ending injury just last season. Questions arose concerning his durability and his health come playoff time. Nevertheless, the Thunder didn’t shy away from this challenge. Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb stepped into the spotlight to become outstanding two-way role players. Durant now has a much more seasoned cast of players to help him defeat the West’s elite in April and May. Durant and the Thunder evidently used this as a learning experience and rose to uncharted territories.

In Los Angeles, Blake Griffin ensured the Clippers didn’t miss a beat as Chris Paul went down. Jamal Crawford stepped up as the second scorer, Deandre Jordan has become a defensive menace, and Griffin is playing with the confidence of an MVP-caliber player.

The Houston Rockets also seem to have forgotten that they don’t have their best player on the court. Without James Harden, the Rockets have a .750 record this season. Chandler Parsons and Terrance Jones, who was recently selected to the Rising Stars Challenge in New Orleans, have gained more experience as dynamic role players on this team.  

Every championship contender has to go through periods of adversity. Whether it be a star player going down for a part of the season or internal drama, the teams that shine during the playoffs are the ones that best overcome their obstacles during the regular season.  

Already? Yes, already. The fantasy basketball season has almost reached its midway point, which means the All-Star break is coming up in a few weeks. If there was a fantasy basketball all-star game, who would make the cut? Here are the players who would get votes on my ballot. Keep in mind each team has starters consisting of two guards, two forwards and one center, while reserves consist of two guards, two forwards and one center, plus two players of any position.

Western Conference:

Starters:

PG – Chris Paul (LAC): While CP3 is out with a shoulder injury, and has been for a couple of weeks now, you can’t take away from his first half performance. The best point guard in the NBA is averaging 19.6 points, 11.2 assists and 2.4 steals per game. Did I mention he shoots 87 percent from the stripe to go along with a solid 4.6 rebounds per game? He’s got my vote.

SG – Stephen Curry (GS): Coming off a stellar playoff performance last season, Curry is living up to the fantasy hype. He is averaging career highs in points (23.0), assists (9.2), rebounds (4.6) and steals (1.8). The last player to average at least 23 points and nine assists per game in a season was the Warriors’ Tim Hardaway in the 1991-92 season. 

SF – Kevin Durant (OKC): He’s the best of the best. He just might win the Most Valuable Player Award if this matchup were to play out. Durant is posting 30.0 points, eight rebounds and five assists per game. He also takes the ball away 1.5 times and shoots a high percentage, considering the amount of shots he takes.

PF – Kevin Love (MIN): He does what he does – rebound. Not only does he grab 13 boards per game, he also puts up 25.6 points including 2.4 threes per game.

C – Anthony Davis (NO): The kid from Kentucky puts up serious fantasy stats. 19.8 points, 10.2 rebounds and a league-leading 3 blocks per game will certainly get a vote.

Reserves:

G – Damian Lillard (POR): If game-winning shots counted, he could be a starter. The man is clutch. Lillard is having a tremendous season scoring 21.6 points per game and is first place in the entire NBA with 3.3 triples per game.

G – James Harden (HOU): Harden does it all, averaging 24.4 points, 5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.3 steals per game. Houston, we have a franchise player.

F – Dirk Nowitzki (DAL): The Germanator is still doing it at a high level, scoring 21.3 points per game while grabbing 5.8 rebounds and dishing out three assists. His 90.7 percentage from the free throw line helps too.

F – LaMarcus Aldridge (POR): What a year for the former University of Texas star. Aldridge is posting 23.8 points, 11.2 rebounds and one block per game. He also shoots 81.6 percent from the free throw line.

C – DeMarcus Cousins (SAC): Boogie is beasting, scoring 23.4 points and grabbing 11.6 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game.

F – Serge Ibaka (OKC): High field goal percentage, lots of blocks, improved three-point percentage and a near double-double gets my vote.

F – Blake Griffin (LAC): Although his free throw percentage is unattractive, you can’t take away his 22.3 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. He even gets you a steal each game.

Eastern Conference:

Starters:

PG – John Wall (WAS): Do the John Wall! Wall is having the best season of his career, averaging 19.7 points, 8.6 assist and two steals per game. He also drops in the three ball often and shoots 84.9 percent from the stripe.

SG – Paul George (IND): This guy has emerged as a top player in the league. He is scoring a career-high 22.8 points per game to go along with 6.2 rebounds, 1.8 steals and 3.6 assists.

SF – LeBron James (MIA): His name speaks for itself but, in case you don’t know him, he posts a stat line of 26-6-6 every single night.

PF – Carmelo Anthony (NY): Melo has improved fantasy-wise over the years. He is averaging a very high 8.8 rebounds while putting up his usual high-scoring 26.1 points per game.

C – Spencer Hawes (PHI): Not a big name, but not many good centers in the East. Hawes puts up 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game.

Reserves:

G – Kyle Lowry (TOR): The stats say it all for this point guard: 16 points, 4.1 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 2.4 threes per game.

G – Kyrie Irving (CLE): I was expecting a better season for Irving, as well as the Cleveland Cavaliers in general, but he still gets you 21.4 points and six assists per game.

F – Paul Millsap (ATL): New team, another impressive season. Millsap is averaging 17.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. On top of that, he makes a three each game.

F – Thaddeus Young (PHI): Believe it or not, I have two Sixers on this squad. Young does a little bit of everything; averaging 17.6 points per game, 6.6 rebounds, 1.8 steals, and one three per game.

C – Chris Bosh (MIA): Bosh is getting a solid 15.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and a block and a steal per game.

G – Kemba Walker (CHA): Someone has to do it for Charlotte. The former NCAA champion at UConn is having a productive season, scoring 19 points, grabbing 4.4 rebounds and 4.9 helpers per game. He also averages a solid 1.5 steals per game to go along with 1.6 threes.

F/C – Nikola Vucevic (ORL): As my friend from the University of Southern California would say, “Fight On!” The former USC Trojan is averaging 13 points, 11 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Look out for Vucevic.

Andre Miller and Chris Paul shine early in NBA playoffs

The NBA playoffs opened up on Saturday afternoon, and they got off to a decently anti-climactic start. Derrick Rose still hasn’t returned, Kobe Bryant is still hurt, and Jeff Van Gundy still seems uncontrollably bitter. The Chicago Bulls were the first road team to win a game, and that event didn’t happen until Monday night.  

It’s no secret the NBA often plays host to very lopsided playoff matches, and often times the first round doesn’t provide the sparks most fans want to see. That Golden State Warriors-Dallas Mavericks series seems like long ago at this point, but the opening weekend of the 2013 NBA Playoffs had its share of exciting moments.  
 
The Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets are matched up in what might be one of the most exciting series of the entire playoffs, and they didn’t disappoint in their first game in Denver. With seconds remaining Stephen Curry hit a corner three to tie the game at 95, and the recurring play Andre Miller took the ball strong to the basket for a go ahead lay-up with one second remaining to seal a Denver win.  
 
In similar fashion, Chris Paul dribbled out the winding seconds of the Clippers and Grizzlies game Monday night before attacking the paint for an off-balanced, banked shot at the buzzer to win the game. It might not be as good as Van Persie’s hat trick, but the NBA playoffs have given us some moments to be content with thus far.  
 
The saying in the league is that the series hasn’t started until the home team has lost. I guess if that’s sill the idea, then only one of our series has actually started. But this is usually what is to be expected with NBA Playoff Basketball, at least since the early 2000’s. The first round of the playoffs often isn’t the most exciting portion of the playoffs, but for an opening weekend there was not too much to be disappointed about. 
 
It was predictable that mostly home teams would win. It was rather predictable that Derrick Rose wouldn’t suit up. But what wasn’t predictable is that Chris Paul and Andre Miller would come up clutch for their teams when it mattered most. I wouldn’t have predicted it would take the Clippers four quarters to dunk the basketball in game one of their series, and the continuing emergence of Carmelo Anthony might lean a little more towards the predictable side, but it’s still satisfying to see.  
 
I’ve slowly realized this isn’t the same NBA I grew up watching. Dirk, Kobe, Vince Carter, and the cast of characters who owned the 2000’s are slowly being filtered out completely. It’s a strange thing to see as a fan that fell in love with the sport in that era, but the opening round of the playoffs was a friendly reminder that the league is in a great place.  

Top 10 NBA MVP candidates

1. LeBron James – Winner of three out of the last four MVP awards, LeBron has dominated the game of basketball like few have ever done before. It is already evident that Lebron will be among the greatest players ever by the time his career is finished. There really isn’t much James isn’t capable of accomplishing on the court. To top that off, he is only getting better. Every offseason James makes it a goal of his to improve an aspect of his game. Last offseason it was a deadly post-up game; this upcoming season he promises a lethal hook shot. But the real phenomenon worth noting is the profound mental resilience he has gained this past year. In the playoff series against the Indiana Pacers and the Boston Celtics, James illustrated a new side of his basketball character. He demonstrated to the world that he is no longer the man who had a complete meltdown in crucial playoff games against the Boston Celtics in 2010 and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011. No, this was a new James who wouldn’t back down in the most important moments. The 45-point, 15-rebound and five-assist performance, facing an elimination game against the Celtics, really sums up this mental growth and his newly acquired killer instinct. Watch out, ladies and gentlemen, because you will be awe-inspired by this phenomenal player who finally has both the physical and mental tools to become the greatest ever.

2. Kevin Durant – Since 1980 only two players have won three or more NBA scoring champion awards in a row: Kevin Durant and Michael Jordan. That is some exclusive company. It goes without saying that Kevin Durant is one of the most gifted scorers this game has ever seen. However, the improving aspects of Kevin Durant’s game are grossly underrated. Last year, Durant had career highs in rebounds, assists and blocks. Not only is this 24-year-old already the leader of a championship contender, but he is also very humble and willing to improve his game. Just this past offseason after the most success he has seen in his NBA career, Durant added approximately 15 pounds of muscle to his lanky frame in order to better play the power forward position for the Oklahoma City Thunder and also become a stronger defender. This guy is a workhorse. We have definitely not seen the best of Durant yet.

3. Chris Paul – With a continually developing frontcourt in DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, Chris Paul’s game will only get better. Griffin and Jordan will make Paul look better by the year because of their expanded offensive arsenals. With the absence of Derrick Rose for the majority of the year, the light will shine ever so gloriously on the incredible play-making abilities of the best point guard in the league. However, in order for Paul’s rank to be this high, his individual play is not sufficient. He must also be able to will the Clippers into the championship contender they are capable of becoming.

4. Kobe Bryant – As the greatest player of this generation, Kobe Bryant will have a lot to leave on the court in his last two years in the NBA. Very recently, Bryant chuckled when Ken Berger of CBS Sports questioned him about his willingness to play second fiddle or as a role player, reportedly saying, “That’s not gonna happen. That’s just not me.” Even as a spectator of the sport, it should become painfully obvious that Bryant will not want to leave the league without a final championship stamp on his first ballot Hall of Fame resume. With recent additions Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, Bryant’s offensive load will certainly lessen, allowing him to be the most efficient player he can be.

5. Deron Williams – Deron Williams had gone into the shadows for MVP discussions these past two years. However, there is good rationale to explain that. No player since the 1982-1983 season has won the MVP award while playing for a team with a winning percentage lower than .610. It is fairly reasonable to say that the Nets weren’t close to achieving that standard those past few years. After nearly three or four seasons of pointless basketball, Deron Williams finally has a team that will motivate him to reach his full potential. The addition of Joe Johnson and Gerald Wallace will solidify the Nets as a second-round playoff team and give Williams all the motivation in the world. Watch out for Williams to have a statement year for the rising Brooklyn Nets.

6. Rajon Rondo – After his meteoric rise in the 2009 NBA playoffs, when he nearly averaged a triple double, Rondo has not failed to deliver in each of the following seasons. Since 2008, Rondo has made four NBA All-Defensive teams, led the league in assists and steals and dominated ball game after ball game without scoring a single point. Not much will change this year. Expect Rondo to grow as a leader and continue dominating games in ways very few can match.

7. Kevin Love – Is it safe to say Kevin Love is the best power forward in the league right now? After averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds last year, Love is poised to maintain that status (unless Dirk Nowitzki’s knee concerns dissipate). The addition of a resurgent Brandon Roy, the recovery of Ricky Rubio and the growth of Derrick Williams should finally provide Love with all the tools he needs to forge a playoff contender, almost a necessity for an MVP. The 24-year-old’s best days are still ahead of him.

8. Russell Westbrook – Kevin Love’s teammate at UCLA, Russell Westbrook, is not doing so bad himself. Although he plays second fiddle to Kevin Durant, Westbrook’s tremendous athletic ability and growing maturity make it impossible to leave him off this list. To me, Westbrook is the next Dwayne Wade of basketball, able to assassinate as he wishes through sheer athleticism. However, the next step in Westbrook’s development as a player has nothing to do with his athleticism. Rather, it has to do with the refining of his decision-making process and his leadership abilities.

9. Dirk Nowitzki – If not for the knee problems and potential arthroscopic injury, Nowitzki could beat out Love as the best power forward in the league. The ability of Nowitzki to instantaneously take over a game whenever he chooses to makes him a phenomenal player on the dark horse contender that is Dallas. At this point of his career, his offensive output might not match Durant’s or Lebron’s, but this guy can score at will. Because Nowitzki’s game doesn’t require tremendous athleticism, expect his game to age very gracefully. His fadeaway matches Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s sky hook as the most unguardable shot in the history of the NBA. So age should be no deterrent for Nowitzki this season.

10. Dwight Howard – In the ongoing debate surrounding the best center in the league, neither Dwight Howard nor Andrew Bynum seems to be a promising selection. Howard is coming off major back surgery and Bynum’s longtime best friends — knee injuries — are back in full force. However, Howard tops Bynum because he can impact the game so effectively in a multidimensional manner. Without even scoring, Howard’s dominant defense and rebounding abilities can create the largest imprint on a given basketball game. Although Bynum can finally be that No. 1 guy, the franchise player, he has to prove himself as a mature leader before he surpasses Howard.

*Before chaos ensues, there is a reasonable explanation for leaving out Dwyane Wade. His athleticism-based skill set does not age gracefully (ask Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady). Also, the addition of Ray Allen at shooting guard and Wade’s open willingness to defer to LeBron will slightly diminish his role on the Heat this upcoming season.

Celtics shopping away Rajon Rondo

The Boston Celtics are actively trying to trade their star point-guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics are shopping away Rondo after his attitude and personality have become too much of a burden on the organization, said an ESPN report.

The three-time All-Star is arguably among the top-five best point-guards in the league averaging a career high 14 points per game and more than nine assists per contest.

His on the court play has remained steady for the aging Celtics, but the off-court distractions have the Celtics front office listening to offers. Rondo’s clashes with Head Coach Doc Rivers have earned him a reputation of being high maintenance.

With the championship window likely shut on their current roster, the Celtics are looking to rebuild. Sources say the Celtics front office believes that Rondo isn’t worth the headaches and are no longer trying to build around the 26-year-old guard.

Golden State has become a likely destination for Rondo if he is traded before the March 18 deadline. The two teams have had discussions about a possible Rondo for Stephen Curry trade, but Curry’s recent ankle injuries have kept the Celtics from pulling the trigger on the deal.

Celtics GM Danny Ainge acknowledged in early January that Rondo’s name came up in trade talks before the season when elite point-guard Chris Paul was on the trade block. Ainge said at that point he wasn’t shopping Rondo he was just trying to acquire a player of the caliber of Chris Paul.

"I was not trying to trade Rajon Rondo," said Ainge. "There's a big difference between trying to acquire a player and trying to trade a player."

Even with the Celtics new stance on the former Kentucky guard, they aren’t planning to just dump Rondo. They would like to receive a high quality player in return for him, similar to what they would have obtained had they landed Paul.

Rondo has three years and $36 million remaining on his contract after this season.