2012-13 NBA Preseason Rankings

With the new NBA season starting in just six days, here’s a look at my preseason rankings for the 2012-13 season. Here’s the article covering the lower half of the NBA and here’s the article on the league’s top 15 teams.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 20

Here’s an update on the latest NBA free agency news via Reup Sports, including analysis on Jeremy Lin becoming a Rocket, updated Dwight Howard trade rumors and recent signings in Los Angeles. Check out the article here.

NBA Free Agency Update – July 16

For the latest news and analysis on all the action of NBA free agency over the last few days, check out my article via Reup Sports. Today’s post includes Jeremy Lin heading to Houston, Phoenix picking up Luis Scola, the ongoing battle for Nicolas Batum and more!

Fourth Of July Free Agency Wrap-Up

In a particularly dry free agency day, one piece of news immediately jumped out and turned the whole day on its head. Here are the major headlines from the Fourth of July:

Steve Nash Heads to Rival Lakers:

The biggest news of the day was Steve Nash’s decision to play with Kobe Bryant on the Los Angeles Lakers, Phoenix’s biggest and most hated divisional rival. Although calling what the Lakers and Suns have a “rivalry” might not be completely accurate since Los Angeles seems to get the best of Phoenix every time these two teams meet, Nash’s decision quickly dissolved the happy memories of his time in Phoenix into outrage over his decision to put on the yellow and purple colors. Nash explained that the decision was influenced by his desire to be close to his three children in Phoenix and wished the Suns organization nothing but the best for the future, but there’s no question his departure for LA is still a stab in the back to the city of Phoenix. Nash signed a three-year deal with Los Angeles worth around $25 million, instantly turning Los Angeles into title contenders once again. How Nash and Kobe will function on offense remains to be seen, as both guards need the ball to be effective, but there’s no question that having a quality point guard like Nash increases a team’s pick-and-roll game and overall success. Suns management continued to baffle fans with this trade, as the Suns only got four future draft picks for their beloved marquee player who will now leave to join Phoenix’s hated rival. Phoenix received first-round picks in 2013 and 2015 and second-rounders in 2013 and 2014. Not bad overall, but certainly not worth Nash and definitely not enough to raise a fan base’s faith in their management, especially considering Phoenix’s history of wasting draft picks in exchange for cash considerations. To make matters worse for his former team, Nash will try and talk Grant Hill into joining him in LA. Hill said he would either join the Lakers or retire, but considering the fact that he went to Germany for a knee procedure (the same one that revitalized Kobe Bryant’s knee), it doesn’t seem that Hill is ready to retire just yet. If Hill does head to LA to join Nash, the Lakers could be looking at a potential lineup of Nash, Kobe, Ron Artest, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum with Hill, Steve Blake and Jordan Hill on the bench. Not bad at all, especially since the Lakers could look into Dwight Howard either next year or in a trade for Gasol/Bynum. Overall, it was a horrible day for Phoenix fans and a glorious one for LA supporters.

Nash will be joining Kobe in Los Angeles, much to the chagrin of every basketball fan in Phoenix.

Suns Sign Dragic and Beasley:

In a feeble attempt to compensate for Steve Nash’s departure for LA, the Suns signed Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley. Dragic was signed to a four-year deal worth $34 million and Beasley was signed to an $18 million deal for three years. Dragic was a very good signing by the Suns, especially now that Nash is gone. Considering how Dragic thrived in Houston as a starter when Kyle Lowry sat out, the Suns are getting a quality player who deserves a better contract as a starting point guard. As an added bonus, Phoenix was always particularly fond of Dragic when he backed up Nash and will be happy to welcome his back. Unfortunately, the signing of Beasley won’t get many (smart) Suns fans excited. Beasley is a decent player at best and considering how many of those are already on the roster, this isn’t the kind of quality player Phoenix needs, especially with Nash and possibly Hill leaving.

Nash is gone, but the Suns got a consolation prize in potential breakout star Goran Dragic.

Houston Offers Jeremy Lin a Deal: 

The Rockets have offered Jeremy Lin a four-year deal worth around $30 million. The Knicks can almost match Houston’s offer (four years, $24.5 million), but have made it clear they would have to think hard about matching other teams’ high offers for the breakout point guard. After losing Dragic to Phoenix, the Rockets could use a quality backup for Kyle Lowry in Lin, but keep in mind that Lin and the Knicks both want a reunion. What offer New York puts on the table could decide where Lin ends up.

Could Jeremy Lin be heading back to the Houston Rockets?

Jason Kidd and Mavs Close to Signing Deal:

Jason Kidd and the Mavericks are closing in on a multi-year deal that will allow the Dallas veteran to end his career where it all began. The amount is unknown, but it will likely be a bit higher than Kidd would normally be worth after the Mavs were unable to bring Deron Williams or Goran Dragic to Dallas.

Jason Kidd will most likely be ending his career in Dallas.

Spencer Hawes Signs Extension:

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philadelphia next year after signing a two-year, $13 million deal with the Sixers. Nothing much to report here other than the fact that the 76ers could be shaping up to be a pretty consistent threat in the playoffs for the next few years if they continue to keep so many pieces together (especially with so much youth).

Spencer Hawes will be staying in Philly after signing a two-year extension.

Thunder Add Hasheem Thabeet:

The Oklahoma City Thunder signed former number two draft pick Hasheem Thabeet to a two-year deal. Thabeet has never really panned out to be the quality player with potential he promised to be, with career averages of just over two points and two rebounds per game in his limited time on the floor. This is a questionable signing by the Thunder, especially because Serge Ibaka’s return to OKC is not guaranteed at this point.

The Thunder signed Hasheem Thabeet. For some reason.

NBA Free Agency Roundup – 7/4/12

Another day, another hundred rumors and moves of NBA free agency. Here’s everything that went down today to keep you up to speed heading into Independence Day:

Deron Williams Staying With Nets:

Deron Williams came to his ultimate decision today, choosing to stay in Brooklyn over leaving for his hometown of Dallas to play for the Mavericks. Williams’ contract is a five-year, $98 million deal that will team him up with Joe Johnson for the time being. Williams coming back is great news for the Nets, but for now, he is just a piece of the puzzle that is still missing Dwight Howard.

D-Will decided to stay in Brooklyn in the hopes the Nets continue to brighten their future.

Trade Could Still Bring Dwight Howard to Brooklyn:

According to league sources, the trade for Joe Johnson didn’t quite put the Nets out of contention for Orlando superstar Dwight Howard. A possible trade that would send Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks, and first-round picks in 2013, 2015 and 2017 to Orlando in exchange for D-12 is being discussed although nothing is set in stone. The Nets are looking for a third party to facilitate the trade, but the Magic are also looking into possible trades with the Lakers, Hawks and Rockets. The Mavericks are also in the running to get Howard, but only if he waits to explore free agency next year. If the Nets were able to swing Howard down to Brooklyn, they would be giving up a lot, but they’d be looking at a potential nucleus of Howard, Deron Williams and Johnson as well as Gerald Wallace, who signed a four-year extension for $40 million, according to league sources.

Is this still a possibility for the on-the-rise Brooklyn Nets?

Eric Gordon Wants to be a Sun:

The Suns have offered Eric Gordon a four-year deal for $58 million and after visiting Phoxenix, New Orleans’ star point guard feels that it is the place for him. The Hornets can easily match the offer as they have been saying they would if Gordon received any max offers, but Gordon’s comments about wanting to play in Phoenix might mean that New Orleans chooses to let him go. Gordon was supposed to form a solid nucleus with rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, but it remains to be seen what the Hornets’ plan of action will be.

The Hornets could match Phoenix’s offer, but will they do it now that Eric Gordon made his desire to be a Sun clear?

Jason Terry Agrees to Three-Year Deal with Celtics:

Jason Terry and the Celtics reached an agreement to a three-year deal worth $5 million annually. Although the deal certainly strengthened the bench with a wily veteran sixth man, Boston remains adamant about their desire to resign Ray Allen and Brandon Bass. The Mavericks can match Boston’s offer, but might not do so if they continue to look into point guards and the possibility of Dwight Howard next year.

Unless the Mavericks match the Celtics’ offer, the Jet will be landing in Boston.

Ray Allen to Visit Miami, LA Clippers:

Boston free agent Ray Allen will be visiting the Miami Heat this week as he continues to take his time with his options. The Celtics are committed to resigning their 3-point shooting veteran and can offer him a two-year, $12 million deal. However, the lure of winning another championship is certainly going Miami’s way after LeBron James and the Heat defeated Boston in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before winning the title. Allen will also visit Los Angeles this week to hear offers from the Clippers, who view him as a starter. A few other teams are also still pursuing Allen, including the Grizzlies, Mavericks, Timberwolves and Hawks.

Ray Allen is still exploring his options between Boston, Miami and Los Angeles.

Jeremy Lin to Visit Houston Rockets:

A few weeks ago, it was very likely that Jeremy Lin would be returning to the New York Knicks. Now, the breakout star point guard is heading to Houston for a visit. The Knicks are certainly looking to resign Lin, but were unsure they’d be able to match other teams’ high offers and said they planned on playing it by ear. Other teams interested in Lin include the Raptors, Nets and Mavericks, although he is seen as a backup for each of these teams.

Jeremy Lin and the Knicks want to stay together, but Lin is still checking into his options.

More Point Guard Activity:

Now that the Mavericks failed to get their hands on Deron Williams, Dallas is looking for quality point guards, turning their sights on Steve Nash and Jeremy Lin. The Mavericks still haven’t made up their minds about Goran Dragic, who is reportedly having problems working out a contract with the Rockets and visited the Phoenix Suns Tuesday. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Lakers have also taken an interest in Nash, while free agent Jason Kidd has narrowed his decision down to either Dallas or the New York Knicks.

Goran Dragic and Steve Nash are still on the market as point guards for multiple teams.

Raptors Offer Landry Fields Three-Year Deal:

The Toronto Raptors have verbally agreed with Knicks’ guard Landry Fields to a three-year deal for nearly $20 million. Fields cannot sign a new contract until July 11 (when all free agents can sign new contracts), but the Knicks can still hold on to him if they match Toronto’s offer. It remains to be seen whether or not New York would spend that kind of money on a role player with Carmelo Anthony, Jeremy Lin, Amare Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler and J.R. Smith all potentially coming back, however.

The signing of Landry Fields in Toronto may be a play to get Steve Nash to join the Raptors as well.

Pacers Agree to Five-Year Deal with George Hill:

Indiana point guard George Hill signed a five-year extension to stay with the Pacers, though details of the deal were not disclosed. The Pacers will also be looking to keep Roy Hibbert, who was offered $58 million in a four-year deal with the Blazers. Indiana will have to match that offer to retain their All-Star center. However, if they don’t match, league sources say the Pacers will pursue Denver’s JaVale McGee and New Orleans’ Chris Kaman.

George Hill signed an extension with the Indiana Pacers, ruling out any possibility they had for Nash or Dragic

Nets Add Bosnian Forward Teletovic and Reggie Evans:

The Nets have verbally agreed to a three-year deal with Mirza Teletovic worth just under $16 million. Teletovic, a Bosnian forward at 6’9″, averaged 22 ppg and six rpg in the Euroleague this season. Since the Nets gave away almost their entire bench to get Joe Johnson and would have to give up even more for Dwight Howard, this signing could prove to be a very helpful addition if his game can translate decently into the NBA. The Nets also acquired the Clippers’ Reggie Evans from the Clippers in exchange for a future second-round pick. Evans was signed to a three-year, $5 million deal.

The Nets added LAC’s Reggie Evans and the Bosnian Mirza Teletovic.

Miami Closes Out Knicks At Home

After looking flat and failing to sweep the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in Game 4, LeBron James and the Miami Heat left nothing to chance and dominated New York at home with a 106-94 victory to end to close out the series in five games. Carmelo Anthony led the Knicks with 35 points and eight rebounds, but didn’t get enough help on the offensive end from his teammates, and New York exited the playoffs immediately following their celebrated Game 4 win that snapped an NBA record 13 consecutive playoff loses.

LeBron James led Miami with 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists. James didn’t shoot the lights out, but he got to the free throw line 15 times and only missed two to add to his total. The Heat jumped out to a lead in the first half and never let it go after that, taking an 11-point advantage at halftime and extending it to 14 by the end of the third. James led the way for the Heat, but it was an all-around team effort from Miami that prevented the Knicks’ defense from getting the stops they needed to win the game. With Baron Davis out with a severe knee injury, Mike Bibby moved into the starting lineup. Miami took advantage of Bibby’s inability to defend their guards as Mario Chalmers had 10 points and Mike Miller chipped in three 3-pointers for nine points off the bench. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had 19 points apiece to complement James, once again overwhelming one-dimensional Knicks attack with the balance of Miami’s big three and some contributions off the bench. For the Knicks, the one-handed Amare wasn’t able to duplicate his impressive 20-point, 10-rebound performance from Game 4 and finished with just 14 points and four rebounds. Tyson Chandler grabbed 11 boards but had just seven points. And J.R. Smith, who was once a huge contributor off the bench, continued his abysmal shooting streak with a 3-of-15 night off the bench.

Melo had another good shooting night, but the Knicks’ defense couldn’t get the stops they needed to hang around.

For the Knicks, the series was a disappointing end for a team that entered the playoffs as one of the hottest teams in the East. But despite being knocked out of the first round in just five games, New York has a bright future and shouldn’t hang their heads about their performance; after all, they were playing without quite a few key players that would have definitely made them more competitive. Jeremy Lin wasn’t on the court because of a knee injury, Amare Stoudemire missed a game after slicing his hand open, Iman Shumpert tore his ACL in Game 1 and Baron Davis tore ligaments in his knee in Game 4. The injury-depleted Knicks never really got a chance to gel this season because those injuries kept their three best players (Melo, Amare and Lin) off the court at separate times. They dealt with a coach who wasn’t a good fit for the team, they battled rumors about Melo’s interest in playing in New York and they handled all the attention that Linsanity brought. This was a team with high expectations put on them by the media and the fans, which is why being dismantled by the Heat seemed so disappointing. But in reality, Miami was and still is the favorite to win the Eastern Conference, while the Knicks never had sufficient time to build chemistry and were missing a number of key players.

For the Heat, this victory was dominant but nothing that we shouldn’t have expected. Miami was supposed to win this series convincingly, especially with no Lin, Shumpert and Amare (for one game). LeBron James put on impressive performances and the Heat’s big three proved to be too much for the Knicks’ lone superstar. The Heat now face a much better team in the second round in the Indiana Pacers, who have been convinced all year they are destined for more than what people expect out of them. The Pacers are my sleeper team, but a matchup with the Heat definitely favors Miami in every area except in the paint (thanks to Roy Hibbert). But the one area of concern that could show up in Miami’s future playoff games is how they handle crunch time in a close contest. With the game on the line in Game 4, LeBron James was stuck in a corner while Dwyane Wade dribbled around, lost the ball and hoisted a fadeaway 3-pointer at the buzzer. If this is the extent of Miami’s last-second strategy, they will fall short of winning a championship for the second year in a row and could possibly even fall to the Pacers if they don’t take them seriously. Erik Spoelstra has to recognize that this is LeBron’s team now, and despite the fact that the sports world has completely condemned his ability to perform with the game on the line, LeBron can get to the rim easier than anyone in the league and should be given the ball in a potential game-winning situation. If the Heat develop a pattern of not giving the ball when things get tight against an easier competitor like the Knicks, what’s going to happen when they face a title contender or even the dangerous Pacers and the pressure is on? Time will tell, but unless LeBron is given an opportunity to build his confidence with the game on the line, we could see another disappearing act when the going gets tough.

LeBron James and the Heat were too much for an injury-plagued Knicks side, but there has to be concern about what will happen against better teams when the game is on the line.

Knicks End Playoff Drought

The New York Knicks ended an NBA record 13-game playoff losing streak and avoided a first round sweep by edging the Miami Heat in a 89-87 Game 4 victory today. Carmelo Anthony finally had an efficient shooting night, shooting over 50 percent to lead the Knicks with 41 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists. Amare Stoudemire, who played with padding on his injured left hand after missing Game 3, notched 20 points and 10 rebounds in his return.

After a poor first half, Melo and the Knicks made a third quarter run to enter the final period with a three point lead. The Heat didn’t exactly look like they had the killer instinct to put New York away and the Knicks capitalized on it, even though no one other than Anthony and Stoudemire scored more than seven points. J.R. Smith, who scored those seven points, had an appalling 3-for-15 shooting night and Baron Davis went down in the third quarter in the middle of New York’s run, dislocating his right kneecap. Thankfully, Mike Bibby stepped in and hit a few big 3-pointers to keep the Knicks on top. But even though it was a much-needed win for a franchise that hasn’t had much to celebrate over the years, the likely reality is that the Heat will advance in five games. With the series shifting back to Miami and the Heat wanting to get as much rest as possible before the second round, they should return to their business-like mentality and play much better in Game 5.

Carmelo Anthony dropped 41 points and led the Knicks to a Game 4 win over the Heat.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh led their team in Game 4, but lacked the championship mentality to put this inferior team away and get some extended rest time with a sweep. James and Wade came alive in the fourth quarter, but by then it was too late. But even with the Heat’s lackadaisical Game 4 performance, even with Melo dropping 40 and even with Amare back on the court and playing well, the Knicks still only won by two points. So as happy a moment as it was for New York to win a playoff game and avoid being swept by LeBron and the Heat, all signs point to an absolute blowout in Game 5 in Miami. Just because Melo finally shot the ball well doesn’t mean he’ll do it again; just because Amare meshed well with Melo and was able to contribute while favoring one hand doesn’t mean it’ll happen again; and just because the Heat failed to come out with a finisher’s mentality doesn’t mean they’ll do so at home.

Miami should have swept this series. Not to take anything away from the Knicks, but there’s little excuse for letting Melo go for 40 and allowing a one-handed Amare Stoudemire to put up 20. There’s no excuse for losing the a New York team without Jeremy Lin and Iman Shmpert. It’s true that the Knicks had a lot more to play for and benefitted from an enthusiastic and victory-hungry home crowd, but if LeBron James wants to become a leader for a championship team, he needs to elevate his game in potential series-clinching moments like these. LeBron has worked hard to prove naysayers wrong and in today’s game he actually played well in the fourth quarter to keep Miami in it. But what should have been LeBron’s moment to take over, win the game and send the entire Madison Square Garden home empty-handed and heavy-hearted was stolen by Dwayne Wade’s ridiculous 3-point attempt at the buzzer. At the beginning of the season, I could understand why the Heat would stick LeBron in the corner and leave the last-minute duties to D-Wade. But LeBron has become the leader of this team with an MVP-caliber season and was playing much better at the end of this game than anyone on the floor for Miami. Believe it or not, Wade should have given the ball up to LeBron and let him decide the fate of the game. But the fact that LeBron didn’t demand it is a little worrisome; he seemed perfectly content with Wade’s decision and shot selection afterward. In a close game, the way LeBron failed to rise to the occasion and allowed his team’s fate to be decided by someone else could come back to haunt the Miami Heat against a better opponent.

The loss really doesn’t matter other than ending the Knicks’ playoff drought, but should we be concerned that LeBron didn’t get the ball at the end?

Knicks’ Playoff Hopes Extinguished

From the beginning of this New York-Miami series, it was obvious Carmelo Anthony would have to put up superstar performances every night for the Knicks to have a chance. But even after he put up 30 points to lead all scorers (in addition to nine rebounds, one assist and one steal), Miami still came out on top in authoritative fashion, 104-94. The Heat’s Game 2 victory gives them a 2-0 lead in the series and puts the Knicks in serious trouble heading back to Madison Square Garden. But what’s even more worrisome is that New York might have to play with an injured Amare Stoudemire after he suffered lacerations on his left hand from hitting the glass case enclosing a fire extinguisher in frustration after the loss. Paramedics were called to the locker room and he left the arena with his hand bandaged and his arm in a sling. So where to the Knicks go from here?

Amare Stoudemire took his frustration out on a fire extinguisher case. Unfortunately for him and the Knicks, the glass case won.

Well for starters, the Knicks are pretty much done in this series. What I thought would be a competitive first-round matchup has proven to be nothing more than LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh overpowering Melo and the Knicks with their stifling defense, transition offense and sheer athletic ability. Game 2 was one superstar pitted against three and of course, the side with three is rarely going to lose that battle. Melo started off on fire, dropping 15 points on Shane Battier and the Heat in the first quarter. But Dwyane Wade kept the Heat on top with a solid first half. Without Iman Shumpert in the game to guard him, D-Wade was able to take advantage on numerous plays, cutting through the lane for easy baskets multiple times. Miami entered the locker room with a six-point lead despite LeBron not really doing much up to that point.

That’s a huge reason the Knicks don’t have a shot at winning this series: even with LeBron only putting up 19 points and Melo having a proficient scoring night, the Heat were still balanced enough to convincingly win. Miami’s bench and role players, who have been seen as huge weaknesses at times, made the difference in the game and are the main reason why there will be no upset here. No one in Miami’s big three played particularly dominant, but they didn’t need to. The three of them combined for 65 points, but it was the bench that kept Miami ahead for most of the night. New York can’t afford for Shane Battier and Mike Miller to both hit three 3-pointers and finish with 11 points apiece. They can’t allow Mario Chalmers to finish with 13. An area that should have been an advantage for the Knicks (a tiny advantage, but still an advantage, nevertheless) has turned into one of the biggest reasons it’s impossible to believe in an upset.

The final reason, aside from Miami’s big three and their solid bench contributions, is that LeBron James has been more efficient than Carmelo Anthony. Melo had a game high 30 points, but half of them came in the first quarter and he fizzled from there. LeBron only had 19, but his points came at game-changing moments, giving his team a crowd-rousing boost and extinguishing any New York momentum. Throw in the fact that Amare never woke up and that Tyson Chandler was never dominant on either end of the court and it’s easy to see why New York couldn’t make it a better game. Now with Amare possibly missing time or playing injured for the rest of the series, New York doesn’t have much hope to win. They needed consistent 3-point shooting from J.R. Smith and Steve Novak, but they haven’t gotten it. Melo had to go head-to-head with the best player in the league and be more efficient, but that hasn’t happened either. The Knicks could take one game at home with Amare out, because Melo will have more space to work and more shots to put up. They could definitely win without Amare if Novak and Smith hit a few long-range jumpers. But at this point, Miami’s big three look like they’re too powerful for this Knicks team without Jeremy Lin or Amare Stoudemire at full strength.

Carmelo Anthony scored more points, but LeBron James was more efficient and without Amare Stoudemire, New York could be done.

Top 20 Players To Watch in The Playoffs

Now this list can’t technically be fully complete since the playoff teams aren’t determined yet, but I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on which players have had the most meaningful seasons for their teams and which ones will be the most essential to both their team’s success and a viewing audience. So even though Milwaukee is only two games back and Utah is only half a game behind, for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume they don’t make it to the postseason. The Suns currently hold the eighth spot, owning a tiebreaker over Houston, and since they’re both so close to the Nuggets and Mavs, I included a player from each of those four teams just in case. Spoiler alert: the biggest snubs on this list are Dwyane Wade, Andrew Bynum, Russell Westbrook, Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin. Now that that’s out of the way, without further adieu, here are the top 20 players you need to watch in the NBA playoffs this year:

20) Steve Nash – There’s no guarantee this guy even gets a chance to make some noise in the playoffs, but if Phoenix does somehow maintain their current playoff standing, Steve Nash is the one you want to pay attention to. The way he facilitates and runs the point guard is absolutely gorgeous to watch, and if he takes a decent number of shots, he can be pretty entertaining in close games as well. Don’t count this championship-hungry point guard out just yet.

Can Steve Nash give the Suns another playoff run?

19) Andre Iguodala – I’m not big on the 76ers. The numerous posts I’ve written about them this year should have gotten that point across already. I didn’t even want to put anyone from Philadelphia on this list, because they don’t really have anyone exciting on their roster anymore, but if anyone in Philly were to help the Sixers finally get past the first round of the playoffs, it would be Andre Iguodala. The new A.I. has seen better seasons, but he finally hit the 20-point mark for the first time in 40+ games. If he can somehow put up solid numbers in multiple categories like he tends to do, who knows? Maybe Philly will be worth watching this year.

Andre Iguodala will need to score for Philly to have a prayer.

18) James Harden – What? Russell Westbrook gets snubbed and somehow James Harden makes the cut? Let me explain. While Westbrook is certainly one of the top players to watch every night for his pure athleticism and entertainment value, James Harden is the definitive role player to keep an eye on during the postseason this year. We’ve grown accustomed to both Kevin Durant and Westbrook going for 40+, but few people realize how vital James Harden’s scoring ability is for this team. Harden has been the perfect sixth man and third-best player on the Thunder, and if he plays as well as he has all season, I still think the Thunder are favorites to make the NBA Finals. Plus, for the millionth time, you can’t ignore that ferocious beard!

I give you...the black King Leonidas!

17) Paul Pierce – Rajon Rondo is running the show down in Boston as the ringmaster, but Paul Pierce is the main attraction. Pierce is the one who puts up big points, take game winning shots and usually rises to the occasion when matched up with another superstar at his position (LeBron James especially). Rondo is the one with the pretty assists making critical plays for his team, but Paul Pierce is the one knocking down threes and somehow getting around younger defenders to the rim to fire the crowd up.

Pierce dropped 43 last night. Safe to say he's still got it.

16) Chris Bosh – Yes, I am fully aware the Dwyane Wade is probably the biggest snub on this list (Russell Westbrook is up there too), but from a team’s success standpoint, the Miami Heat always have the comfort of D-Wade showing up to play well. Saying Wade is going to play well in the playoffs is like saying the Bobcats are a terrible team; we already know that. But whether or not Chris Bosh shows up will be a huge question for Miami. If Bosh rebounds and puts up 20+ points a night, the Heat will be extremely tough to beat, but if he disappears, so will Miami.

Plus, come on, how funny is that?

15) Arron Afflalo – I wanted to give this spot to Danilo Gallinari, but with the way Arron Afflalo’s been playing lately, it’s impossible to deny that he is the player to watch on the Denver Nuggets this postseason. It’s hard to pick just one player on such a balanced team, but Afflalo’s been leading this team in scoring and playing very effectively. While I still think the Nuggets need Danilo Gallinari to play like an All-Star to win and even though Ty Lawson is prone to having big nights, Afflalo will most likely be Denver’s most consistent offensive weapon.

Arron Afflalo is leading the charge for a balanced Denver team.

14) Tony Parker – Someone from the Spurs had to make the list, and since Tim Duncan is so fundamentally sound that his dominance has become boring to us, I had to go with Tony Parker. Parker has had an All-Star season and is probably the most exciting player to watch on a very mundane Spurs team. San Antonio has never been the most entertaining team to watch, but if they want to avoid another first-round playoff exit, they will rely on Tony Parker to run the offense and pump up the fans.

Tony Parker is the Spurs most entertaining and essential player.

13) Goran Dragic – Now everyone in the NBA knows what Phoenix Suns fans have known for years: Goran Dragic is a quality point guard who should be starting somewhere. Now that he’s gotten that chance in Houston, he hasn’t disappointed expectations, averaging 19.9 ppg, 7.4 apg, 3.4 rpg and 2.0 spg in April. He was a terrific replacement when Kyle Lowry was out with a bacterial infection and is keeping Houston in the playoff race as a starter even with Lowry playing again. Dragic is exciting, athletic, attacks the basket and has been an extremely pleasant surprise for the league. Keep your eye on this kid, he can score points in bunches.

Dragic has become the man down in Houston.

12) Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay is Memphis’ main main and can get a crowd on their feet extremely fast with one his signature high-flying dunks. Marc Gasol will need to keep performing consistently and I almost gave this spot to Zach Randolph because of how badly the Grizzlies need him to play well again, but Rudy Gay will be leading his team in the playoffs this year, for better or worse.

Rudy Gay is an exciting player on a surging Memphis squad.

11) Rajon Rondo – Paul Pierce connects better with the crowd, but Rajon Rondo’s tendency to rack up triple doubles and find the open man with fancy passing and dribbling makes him the show-stopper in Boston. Rondo doesn’t always put up big scoring numbers, but the way he runs the point powers this Celtics team and is worth noticing.

Rondo is one of the most exciting guards in the league.

10) Josh Smith – Josh Smith is Atlanta’s Do-It-All Guy. The Hawks really don’t look like they’ve improved much over the past few years and seem primed for a first-round playoff exit (again), but if they somehow do compete, it’ll be behind superhuman performances from Atlanta’s high-rising, all-around stud Josh Smith. Smith can score, rebound, block shots and do whatever else his team needs to win. Joe Johnson used to be the alpha dog in Atlanta, but Smith has taken over that role now.

Josh Smith is a high-rising dunk machine, but he's an all-around great player too.

9) Dirk Nowtizki – Don’t forget the guy who’s the main reason we refer to the Dallas Mavericks as “defending champs.” Dirk has struggled at times this season, but if he finds the right motivation, he can single-handedly keep his team in games down the stretch. Dirk is nearly impossible to guard, so when he’s starting to get hot, you can almost guarantee audiences are in for something special.

You definitely can't forget about the big German in the playoffs this year.

8) Dwight Howard – After a drama-filled season, Dwight Howard almost needs to come back and play. Herniated disk in his back or not, Superman has to show up and play his heart out this postseason to save his team and his reputation. The Magic have been on the steady decline with Howard sitting out, and after all he’s put the Orlando organization and fanbase through this season, the least he could do is come out and roll over every center unfortunate enough to cross his path. Dwight Howard flip flopped on staying in Orlando. He was involved in rumors that he wanted Stan Van Gundy fired. He mailed-in an awful, half-hearted performance the day those rumors surfaced. He owes the Magic everything he’s got and if he’s healthy (big IF there), we could be in for a treat.

Howard is currently questionable for the playoffs, but he needs to suit up and play some amazing basketball for the sake of his team, his coach and his legacy.

7) Danny Granger – Danny Granger never gets enough credit for being the superstar that he is; he didn’t make the All-Star team this year getting completely snubbed, yet he’s led the Pacers night in and night out. Indiana still isn’t getting credit as a tough postseason matchup, yet they’re third in the Eastern Conference and find a way to just keep winning thanks to Granger’s consistent scoring every game. The Pacers were my sleeper team before the season even began, and rightfully so after they gave the Bulls all they could handle in the first round last year (Chicago won in 5, but had to work for all of those wins). If the Pacers turn out as dangerous as I think they are, Danny Granger will be the guy to keep an eye on.

The Pacers are dangerous. Is it Danny Granger's time to move into the elite category?

6) Kobe Bryant – Kobe Bryant is always a player to watch come playoff time, but this year his story will be more interesting based on how he deals with that shin injury that has sidelined him for five games now. Make no mistake, Kobe has no problem playing through pain. So with him missing so much time, he is either in a lot of pain or he’s really making a commitment to being 100% for the playoffs. Either way, how Kobe comes to play this postseason will be worth following, especially now that the Lakers have established some chemistry and have been able to win without him on the floor. Andrew Bynum was a big snub, especially considering his temper and what he did in the postseason last year, but Kobe is still the biggest reason to watch the Lakers and that won’t change even if Bynum is still a head case.

Kobe Bryant is still THE player to watch down in LA

5) Chris Paul – There is one player you need to watch during the playoffs this year on the Clippers, and no, it isn’t Blake Griffin. I’m sure Griffin will provide us with plenty of Lob Alert specials on SportsCenter’s Top Ten, but Chris Paul is the player to watch for LAC this season. CP3’s complete control of the game has been quintessential of what a true point guard does: managing and facilitating, deferring to teammates for the majority of the game and taking over in the fourth quarter when they need it the most. If there’s a close game for the Clippers, notice how it will come down to Chris Paul’s heroics.

CP3 has taken worse teams to the playoffs before. How far can he take the Clippers?

4) Derrick Rose – The Bulls success this postseason is contingent upon one thing: how Derrick Rose fits in with Chicago’s new team chemistry. Everyone knows the Bulls won’t win a championship without D-Rose, but it’s also pretty clear they can’t win if he’s taking too many shots or not 100% up to speed. Because of all the time he’s missed with injury, D-Rose has to make sure his own skills and play are up to par as well as fit in with the team dynamic again. The Bulls are the best team in the league as of right now, so if Derrick Rose can elevate his game again and if Chicago’s supporting cast can play as well as they have without him on the court, the Windy City might get its first championship since the days of Michael Jordan.

Can D-Rose stay healthy long enough to give the Bulls more last-second, game-winning magic?

3) Carmelo Anthony – Here’s his recent resume: over 30 ppg and 7 rpg in the month of April, singlehandedly turned New York into the most dangerous underdog in the East, inspired the entire city’s hope in a Knicks team with an interim coach, finally started playing like the top 5 superstar he was down in Denver, played much better defense, looked like he cares about both sides of the court, developed into a leader for a team without Amare Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin, and finally looked happy playing the game again. I’d say that sounds like a player worth watching when the playoffs roll around. Based on how everyone in the NBA is playing right now, if I had to pick one guy to lead this Knicks team to a first-round upset over the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls (their most likely opponents as of right now), it’d be Carmelo Anthony. I told you Melo wasn’t the problem!

Carmelo Anthony has finally got his game face on. He dropped a triple double last night. What does he have in store for the playoffs? I'm excited to find out.

2) Kevin Durant – People have been saying it all season long: This is Oklahoma City’s year. This is Kevin Durant’s year. The Thunder have handled all that talk all year long and have done it well until recently when they dropped a few games. But OKC still sits atop the Western Conference and anything less than the Western Conference Finals would be a big failure for them. Kevin Durant has stepped up in big games all season long, can score from anywhere on the court and electrifies audiences and home crowds with elite crunch-time performances. Durantula is one of those players that you just sit back, relax and enjoy.

Is it finally Kevin Durant's turn? If OKC is going to win it all, Durantula is has to bring it.

1) LeBron James – LeBron might be the number one guy to watch this postseason. Not only because of his MVP season that he’s had this year, but because this year, LeBron NEEDS to win it all to save his name, his reputation, his Decision and possibly even his legacy. The fact that Miami didn’t win it all last season was disappointing, but not inexplicable; it was only their first year together. But this year, after having a whole season to improve with that thirst and anger after losing last year, falling short this year would be indefensible. So now everyone will tune in to watch LeBron James either finally succeed, score in the crunch time and prove everyone wrong, or they will watch as LeBron shies away from the fourth quarter spotlight, the Heat implode and revel in watching this misunderstood superstar fall flat again. Either way, you know you’re going to be watching.

Win or lose, choke or championship, you know you want to see this guy either way.

NBA Injury Update – 4/14/12

In today’s star-studded NBA Injury Update, a lot of playoff-bound teams are dealing with injuries to their key players. Here are the top injury headlines of the past week:

Dwight Howard – Howard left for Los Angeles to get a second opinion on his back injury and was told he has a herniated disk in his lower back. He will most likely miss the Magic’s games Sunday and Monday, which would be eight in a row. Word on the street is that people within the Orlando organization wanted Superman to return to the court, but Howard wasn’t taking any chances and wanted to be completely healthy for the playoffs, which is why he sought a second opinion. There is no timetable for Howard’s return at this point.

Dwight Howard is seeking a second opinion but should be ready come playoff time.

Kevin Love – Kevin Love suffered a mild concussion and neck strain against the Nuggets on Wednesday and missed yesterday’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers. There is a chance that Minnesota will shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any potential risks that concussions bring. With so few games left in the season and the Timberwolves not contending for anything, don’t be surprised if Love is done for this year.

Kevin Love sustained a mild concussion and the Timberwolves may consider shutting him down

Kobe Bryant – Kobe sat out for the Lakers’ game last night against the Denver Nuggets. Bryant has missed the last four games with an inflamed left shin, but the injury is apparently not too serious; although he’s missed a few games, the only reason is because of the nature of the injury. Once he’s been inactive long enough, the shin shouldn’t bother him for the rest of the season. The only problem is waiting it out until Kobe reaches that point.

Kobe is surprising everybody by being patient and fully recovering for the postseason.

LaMarcus Aldridge – Aldridge will miss the rest of the season with a hip injury as the Trail Blazers’ injury woes continue. Although Portland isn’t contending for anything, Blazer fans won’t be happy to hear that an MRI found an abnormality in his hip that will warrant further evaluation. He may undergo surgery, but hopefully this isn’t the kind of injury that will affect him for next season.

LaMarcus Aldridge's hip injury will require surgery and keep him out for the rest of the year.

James Harden – James Harden, the best bench player in the league and OKC’s most important piece in winning a title this year, missed last night’s game with a sore left knee. It was only the second game Harden has missed all season. Knee injuries are never a good sign, but hopefully it does not amount to anything more than just a sore knee.

James Harden missed his second game of the season last night with a sore knee.

Ray Allen – Allen remained behind on the Celtics’ road trip last night to receive treatment on his ankle injury. It’s not certain whether or not he will rejoin the team for the remainder of their four-game road trip but Danny Ainge said he expects him back on the court soon.

Kyrie Irving – Irving is still about a week away from being able to return, but by that point, the Cavs may just shut him down for the rest of the season to avoid any risk to their rookie sensation. It’s much more important for Cleveland to make sure he’s healthy for next season since the Cavaliers aren’t contending for anything.

Jarrett Jack – Jack will miss the remainder of the season recovering from a stress fracture in his right foot. The Hornets haven’t been able to catch a break this season, as injuries to Jack, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry have crippled them at times.

Amare Stoudemire – Amare is still going to be out for awhile thanks to a bulging disk in his back, but his return seems a lot closer than it did a few weeks ago. Stoudemire could be back on the court in just a few weeks, perhaps making an appearance in the Knicks first-round playoff matchup if all goes according to plan. However, no specific timetable has been given.

Jeremy Lin – After having knee surgery, Lin said he feels better but probably won’t be available for New York’s first round playoff matchup. This means Lin would probably only be available for the Knicks this season if they somehow got past either the Bulls or the Heat in the first round.

Andrea Bargnani – Bargnani has struggled with injury problems all season long, so it’s unfortunate that he will miss the remainder of the season with a calf injury. The Raptors have no reason to rush him back to the court and given his injury history, it’s no surprise they’ll allow him to sit for the rest of the year.

Hedo Turkoglu – Turkoglu will miss another two weeks after having surgery to repair facial fractures he sustained about a week ago. The Magic could have him back in time for their first round playoff series.

Nene – Nene, no stranger to this injury list, has missed six straight games due to plantar fasciitis in his left foot. However, he is expected to return sometime next week for the Wizards.

Gerald Wallace – After hurting his hamstring in Sunday’s game against the Cavs, Wallace has missed his last two games. No timetable on his return has been given yet.

Jose Calderon – Calderon missed Toronto’s game against the Celtics last night with an eye injury he sustained after taking an elbow to the eye Wednesday against the Nets. He had to get three stitches above his right eye for the injury.

Luke Ridnour – Ridnour has missed the Timberwolves’ last five games due to a sprained ankle and looks doubtful for tonight’s game against the Thunder.

Darren Collison – Collison missed last night’s game against the Cavs with a groin injury, which has sidelined him for the past three games.

Tony Allen – Allen missed the Grizzlies’ game against San Antonio on Thursday, but is set to return tonight against the Jazz after missing five games with a facial laceration.

Kevin Martin – Martin, who has not played since March 11 with a torn right shoulder, is going through rehab but is not expected to return anytime soon.