HoopsHabit Hangout #3 – NBA Northwest Division Preview

In this past Sunday’s HoopsHabit Hangout session, my fellow HoopsHabit writers and I discuss the Northwest Division in an NBA season preview. Fans of the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Portland Trail Blazers, Utah Jazz or my basketball opinions should give it a listen!

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!

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.

2012 NBA Draft Recap

In a particularly deep draft class, a few teams came out as clear winners with multiple picks that are set to have an immediate impact, while others simply settled for the best selections available. Here are the winners, losers and question marks of the 2012 NBA Draft:

Winners: New Orleans Hornets

No surprises here, but the New Orleans Hornets came out better than everybody as far as their draft picks are concerned. By virtue of the (flawed) lottery system, the Hornets stole the number one pick from the more deserving Charlotte Bobcats and didn’t let it go to waste, taking the clear best choice with Kentucky freshman Anthony Davis. However, the Hornets also put their 10th pick to good use, picking up Duke guard Austin Rivers, son of Boston Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Then New Orleans used their 46th pick to grab the small forward Darius Miller, a fellow UK teammate of Davis. With Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers in the backcourt and Anthony Davis in the middle, the Hornets have a very talented, very young core group to build around in the future. The Hornets won’t find immediate success as they still need talent at the forward positions, but this draft couldn’t have gone any better for a team that floundered in its first year without Chris Paul.

Anthony Davis was taken first in the 2012 NBA Draft by the New Orleans Hornets.

Winners: Houston Rockets

The Houston Rockets also had a nice draft, capitalizing on multiple selections early on. What they intend to do with those picks remains unclear, as the Rockets’ plan to lure Orlando into sending Dwight Howard to Houston for numerous draft picks has been mentioned many times, but for now, they have a young nucleus to work with. The Rockets took advantage of UCONN’s Jeremy Lamb still being on the board and grabbed him with the 12th pick before selecting Iowa State’s Royce White at number 16. Two picks later, they added Kentucky power forward Terrence Jones to the mix. While the Kyle Lowry/Goran Dragic situation plays itself out, at least Houston was able to add young talent to their roster for the time being. Keep an eye on this team during the offseason however; they could be looking to make some major moves.

Here’s a look at the young talent that the Houston Rockets brought in this year.

Winners: Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers didn’t have the sexiest draft and they will most likely continue to struggle next season, but they did make good use of their picks. Portland has been seriously lacking at the guard positions ever since Brandon Roy was forced to retire and Raymond Felton has been extremely disappointing for Rip City. So with their number six pick, the Blazers selected Damian Lillard, a dynamic point guard from Weber State with one major attribute in his ability to score in droves. The Blazers also tried to get LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum some help in the front court by picking up Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick. Leonard has a lot of work to do to be a contributing big man in the NBA, but he also has the potential to help out in the paint.

The face of Portland’s new point guard: Damian Lillard

Winners: Golden State Warriors

Once again, this is a team that may not be a contender next year, but they’re certainly starting to turn things around with a young nucleus. After trading Monta Ellis for an injury-prone big man in Andrew Bogut, many feared the worst. But the Warriors had a solid draft, picking up Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, Draymond Green and Ognjen Kuzmic. While Kuzmic might not have much of an impact, the other three picks are very good ones. Harrison Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact while Ezeli will strengthen a frontcourt that depends too much on the shaky health of Bogut. Green isn’t the most enticing pick, but I think he will contribute if he can work his way into the rotation with David Lee, Klay Thompson and a hopefully (healthy) Stephen Curry.

Harrison Barnes joins Festus Ezeli and Draymond Green in Golden State.

Winners: Milwaukee Bucks

With mediocre position in the draft, the Bucks were able to get a quality big man and shot-blocker in John Henson, as well as a skilled shooter in Doron Lamb. Although these two acquisitions might not turn many heads this season, Milwaukee got a little bit of what it needed after trading away their injury-prone center. The backcourt is set with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings, now the Bucks needed to add a paint presence and more shooters on the perimeter, which is exactly what they did.

The Bucks needed a shot-blocking big man and they certainly got one in John Henson.

Winners: Oklahoma City Thunder

They only had one pick in the draft, but the Oklahoma City Thunder sure made it count by picking up Perry Jones III out of Baylor. Although there are some concerns about Jones’ knee, the rewards outweighed the risks by the time the 28th pick of the draft rolled around. If PJ3 can stay healthy, he can be an extremely helpful presence in the paint off the bench for the Thunder, especially if they can’t hold on to Serge Ibaka. At the worst, he’ll be a bust, but the Thunder did just make it to the Finals, so if anyone can afford to take the chance, it’s OKC.

Perry Jones III may have been the steal of the draft, falling to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 28th pick.

Losers: Brooklyn Nets

This was already decided months ago, but the decision to give Portland draft picks in exchange for Gerald Wallace makes this an easy choice for one of the bigger losers in the 2012 NBA Draft. Wallace was a dynamic player…when he was in his prime. With that decision, the Nets settled for Ilkan Karaman with the 57th pick, which was their only selection of the night. Not exactly the kind of way to convince your star point guard to stay instead of bolting for Dallas. That could change if the Nets are able to find some way to entice Dwight Howard to come to Brooklyn, but if not, there’s little reason for Deron Williams to stay.

Was he really worth not getting any new talent in the 2012 NBA Draft?

Losers: Phoenix Suns

It’s ironic that I’m labeling the Suns as losers when they actually made an intelligent selection based on what was left by the time their 13th pick rolled around, but choosing a great passing point guard in Kendall Marshall only reaffirms the fears that are in every fan’s mind: Steve Nash might really be leaving. Suns management denied that free agency had anything to do with it, but why else would they ignore the other gaping problems in their roster if they weren’t at least a little concerned that Nash might be gone next year? Yes, the Suns are lacking a big in the backcourt after Nash (Sebastian Telfair is the Suns’ second point guard at this point) and Phoenix is already up to their ears with small forwards, but is choosing a backup point guard really the best draft strategy with the 13th pick if you really think Nash is going to stay? I didn’t think so. Everyone was big on this pick, but all I see right now is an insurance policy.

The Suns swear the Kendall Marshall pick wasn’t influenced by free agency coming up, but why else would they take a passing point guard unless they were worried Steve Nash might leave?

Losers: Los Angeles Lakers

I loved watching Robert Sacre play at Gonzaga, but it seemed that with each passing year he never seemed to get better. Los Angeles didn’t have great position in this year’s draft which was part of the problem, but I don’t see Sacre having much of an impact and I certainly don’t see him providing help in the paint for a team that may be trading Pau Gasol away very soon. The Lakers would have been better off with a role player like the undrafted double-double machine Drew Gordon, who can score and grab rebounds. They did get their hands on Darius Johnson-Odom from Marquette by virtue of Dallas’ pick, but I just don’t see him helping a very lackluster LA bench. The Lakers have problems to sort out and even though a few offseason moves could quickly right the ship, the 2012 draft didn’t accomplish very much.

Robert Sacre is heading to LA, but he won’t be able to replace Pau Gasol is he’s traded away.

Losers: Charlotte Bobcats

Yes, they got Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a very coveted piece at the number two spot in the draft. But after hearing rumors about what some teams were offering Charlotte for the chance to pick up Gilchrist, it’s a little disappointing the Bobcats weren’t able to work out something better. Not that Gilchrist won’t be able to help in some way in his first season with the abysmal Bobcats, but at this point Charlotte needs a miracle to turn their organization around. They already got screwed over in the draft lottery when they couldn’t land the number one pick, so I don’t think Gilchrist (and the strikingly similar selection in Vanderbilt’s talented Jeff Taylor) will be enough to turn this ship around.

The Bobcats got Kidd-Gilchrist, but then spent their second pick on the similar Jeff Taylor.

Question Marks: Boston Celtics

There were already question marks surrounding the Celtics before the draft got underway. Will Kevin Garnett be back? Is Boston still planning on trading Rajon Rondo any time soon? Will Brandon Bass stay? And would Ray Allen really leave for the Miami Heat? Now they’ve added more questions to the mix with their selections of Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo, two talented big men who also have slight downsides. For Melo, there are rightful concerns about his attitude and overall basketball IQ, making him a bit of a project for Doc Rivers. As for Sullinger, the risk of his back problems could prevent him from seeing a lot of playing time. But that’s okay, the last injury-prone big man out of Ohio State turned out to be just fine and had a long and successful career, right?

The Celtics picked up two quality big men, but both are major projects for Boston to work on.

Question Mark: Dallas Mavericks

After a lot of trades and flip flopping of picks, the Mavericks ended up with Jared Cunningham (an attacking shooting guard from Oregon State), Bernard James (a 27-year-old center from Florida State) and Jae Crowder (a very undersized but tough “power forward” from Marquette). While I understand the need to put young pieces around Dirk with young in the hopes of rebuilding with Deron Williams, I’m not sold on Dallas’ selections. They’re not terrible selections and they could prove me wrong very easily, but for the time being, I need to see where the Mavericks’ offseason takes them.

I still need to see how these draft picks play in to acquiring Williams before I pass judgment.

Question Mark: Indiana Pacers

The Pacers had a tremendous season but fell short to the Heat because of two main reasons: 1) Roy Hibbert crawled into a deep dark hole and couldn’t be bothered despite Indiana’s enormous advantage in the paint (especially with Chris Bosh out) and 2) they didn’t have a consistent sixth man to help ease the pressure when their starters needed a breather. Indiana can’t do anything about Hibbert except hope he rises to the occasion next time, but they had power over the second part of that equation. Unfortunately, I don’t see Miles Plumlee as the answer to the bench problem. On a team with Tyler Hansbrough and Lou Amundson, why use your only pick in the draft for another unathletic rebounder who can’t score? In their defense though, they did get their hands on Orlando Johnson, a dynamic scorer from UC Santa Barbara who could be the exact lift off the bench the Pacers need. But for the moment, that hope remains uncertain.

You’re looking at the face of a coach who doesn’t have much to be excited about after the draft.

Question Mark: Minnesota Timberwolves

With Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love to build around, the Timberwolves are one of the youngest and most promising squads of the future. Unfortunately, the 2012 draft did little to make that statement even stronger. I’ve always liked Robbie Hummel and I do think he can add points off the bench because he’s an elite shooter and a smart player. Unfortunately, I don’t think he’ll be enough to raise the Timberwolves to the next level. Hummel has pretty much reached his peak (or will soon enough) and the Wolves really could have benefitted from a better spot than the 58th pick of the draft.

The Wolves have a promising future, but needed to do more in the 2012 draft.

Question Mark: Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are usually very good about their draft picks (Kenneth Faried is going to be a beast next year), but this year raised more than a few doubts. Nuggets fans are usually pretty accepting and trusting of their management, but I have to question the drafting of so many foreign players who haven’t proven they can play at an NBA level. Denver took Evan Fournier of France and Izzet Turkyilmaz of Turkey, who both have many areas they need to improve. However, the Nuggets also took Quincy Miller from Baylor, who could be quite the steal if he stays healthy. Nuggets fans trust their management and it usually pays off, but I need to see more before I can say it was another successful draft for Denver.

I don’t see any Kenneth Farieds in the Denver’s 2012 draft selections.

Question Mark: Cleveland Cavaliers

Sure, they added some length with Tyler Zeller and moved up in the draft to go along with their fourth pick. But I’m still struggling with the selection of Dion Waiters as the number four pick of the 2012 draft. Whatever Cleveland saw at the NBA Combine must really have impressed them, because Waiters’ stock rose incredibly fast after being projected in the middle of the first round just a few weeks ago. Zeller adds more size and depth to a Cavs team in need of both, but if Zeller can’t produce and hold his own at the next level and if Waiters doesn’t pan out to be a complementary guard for Kyrie Irving, Cleveland might regret this draft.

I can’t help but think the Cleveland Cavaliers could’ve done better with their picks in the draft.

In closing, here is the complete list of every pick of the 2012 NBA Draft:

  1. Anthony Davis – New Orleans Hornets
  2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – Charlotte Bobcats
  3. Bradley Beal – Washington Wizards
  4. Dion Waiters – Cleveland Cavaliers
  5. Thomas Robinson – Sacramento Kings
  6. Damian Lillard – Portland Trail Blazers
  7. Harrison Barnes – Golden State Warriors
  8. Terrence Ross – Toronto Raptors
  9. Andre Drummond – Detroit Pistons
  10. Austin Rivers – New Orleans Hornets
  11. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
  12. Jeremy Lamb – Houston Rockets
  13. Kendall Marshall – Phoenix Suns
  14. John Henson – Milwaukee Bucks
  15. Maurice Harkless – Philadelphia 76ers
  16. Royce White – Houston Rockets
  17. Tyler Zeller – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Cleveland Cavaliers)
  18. Terrence Jones – Houston Rockets
  19. Andrew Nicholson – Orlando Magic
  20. Evan Fournier – Denver Nuggets
  21. Jared Sullinger – Boston Celtics
  22. Fab Melo – Boston Celtics
  23. John Jenkins – Atlanta Hawks
  24. Jared Cunningham – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  25. Tony Wroten Jr. – Memphis Grizzlies
  26. Miles Plumlee – Indiana Pacers
  27. Arnett Moultrie – Miami Heat (traded to Philadelphia 76ers)
  28. Perry Jones III – Oklahoma City Thunder
  29. Marquis Teague – Chicago Bulls
  30. Festus Ezeli – Golden State Warriors
  31. Jeff Taylor – Charlotte Bobcats
  32. Tomas Satoransky – Washington Wizards
  33. Bernard James – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  34. Jae Crowder – Cleveland Cavaliers (traded to Dallas Mavericks)
  35. Draymond Green – Golden State Warriors
  36. Orlando Johnson – Sacramento Kings (traded to Indiana Pacers)
  37. Quincy Acy – Toronto Raptors
  38. Quincy Miller – Denver Nuggets
  39. Khris Middleton – Detroit Pistons
  40. Will Barton – Portland Trail Blazers
  41. Tyshawn Taylor – Portland Trail Blazers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  42. Doron Lamb – Milwaukee Bucks
  43. Mike Scott – Atlanta Hawks
  44. Kim English – Detroit Pistons
  45. Justin Hamilton – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Miami Heat)
  46. Darius Miller – New Orleans Hornets
  47. Kevin Murphy – Utah Jazz
  48. Kosta Papanikolaou – New York Knicks
  49. Kyle O’Quinn – Orlando Magic
  50. Izzet Turkyilmaz – Denver Nuggets
  51. Kris Joseph – Boston Celtics
  52. Ognjen Kuzmic – Golden State Warriors
  53. Furkan Aldemir – Los Angeles Clippers
  54. Tornike Shengelia – Philadelphia 76ers (traded to Brooklyn Nets)
  55. Darius Johnson-Odom – Dallas Mavericks (traded to Los Angeles Lakers)
  56. Tomislav Zubcic – Toronto Raptors
  57. Ilkan Karaman – Brooklyn Nets
  58. Robbie Hummel – Minnesota Timberwolves
  59. Marcus Denmon – San Antonio Spurs
  60. Robert Sacre – Los Angeles Lakers

NBA Trade Updates – 6/26/12

Two minor trades have gone down in the past few days with the NBA draft and free agency looming. Here’s a quick rundown:

Bobcats Trade for Ben Gordon – In exchange for Corey Maggette, the Charlotte Bobcats got their hands on Pistons’ sixth man Ben Gordon, along with a 2013 protected draft pick. The move saves Detroit $14 million in the long-term and gives them the 13-year veteran Maggette, who averaged 15 ppg last season despite only playing half of it because of injuries. Maggette has averaged just over 16 ppg in his 13 years in the league and will be a welcome addition after Gordon’s lackluster couple of seasons in Detroit. The trade greatly benefits both sides, as the Bobcats now have a talented albeit streaky shooter in Gordon, and perimeter shooters is an area that Charlotte desperately needed help in. Gordon averaged 12 ppg last year with the Pistons, including one transcendent performance in which he totaled 45 points after making nine 3-pointers without missing.

Detroit traded Ben Gordon and a 2013 draft pick to the Bobcats for Corey Maggette Tuesday.

Houston Rockets ship Chase Budinger to Minnesota – This move isn’t going to drastically alter the fate of either team next year, but it is a slightly curious one for Minnesota nevertheless. The Timberwolves traded their first round pick in the 2012 NBA Draft (number 18) for Chase Budinger and the draft rights to Lior Eliyahu, an Israeli power forward currently playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Budinger averaged just under 10 ppg last season for the Rockets, but the decision to trade a first round pick is slightly questionable considering the talented draft class coming in and the fact that Budinger never really developed into the superstar some predicted him to be. However, the young and talented nucleus of Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio and others will certainly welcome more points from this new acquisition. For Houston, this move is a smart one, as the Rockets look to make big offseason moves and will need draft picks to either trade (rumor has it they’re going to go for Dwight Howard) or use to bring in more young talent.

The Minnesota Timberwolves received Chase Budinger for the 18th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

That’s all for now since nothing new has been reported about Ray Allen wanting to join the Miami Heat, but keep checking back to get the latest on NBA free agency and all offseason trades.

The Surging Celtics

A little over a month ago, the Boston Celtics didn’t have much in their favor looking ahead to the remainder of the season. Philadelphia had a commanding lead of the Atlantic division. Boston’s remaining schedule looked like a nightmare. “Rajon Rondo Is A Poor Influence In The Locker Room And Needs To Be Traded” reports were running rampant, along with “Danny Ainge Is Going To Split Up The Big Three Before The Trade Deadline” stories. Ray Allen seemed like he was washed up and Kevin Garnett wasn’t faring much better. But as it turns out, trade speculation and widespread doubt make a potent mix with brotherhood and championship experience.

The Celtics have won four games straight and eight of their last ten, including victories against the Hawks, Pacers, Sixers, Timberwolves and Heat twice. Their two losses came against the East-leading Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs during their 11-game win streak. Rajon Rondo is facilitating and racking up triple doubles. Paul Pierce has been unstoppable. Kevin Garnett can’t miss and continues to hit the boards. Ray Allen is back and contributing. But even though the Big Three and Rondo improving their play has been extremely instrumental in turning the season around, there’s more to Boston’s newfound success.

Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett have been shooting the ball effectively and the Celtics continue to win.

It’s been an all-around team effort in changing the team’s mentality and winning tendencies. The Big Three and Rondo are the biggest factors, but even the role players are stepping up: Brandon Bass is scoring and rebound efficiently, Greg Stiemsma is contesting shots at the rim and Avery Bradley, quite possibly the best on-the-ball defender in the league, is starting to chip in points as well. This is how the Celtics have become one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference. It’s looking like the Celts will wrap up the fourth seed, meaning they will either play Chicago or Miami in the second round. The Heat had better pray Chicago gets the one seed so they can avoid meeting up with this team; Boston isn’t scared of LeBron James and company and haven’t had a problem playing like it.

While I don’t think Boston is a championship contender anymore, it’s also true that with a few upsets, it wouldn’t be impossible if the Celtics found themselves in the Eastern Conference (and possibly even the NBA) Finals. It’s funny to see those words after so many trade rumors about Rondo’s poor attitude and how he was a total detriment to the locker room circulated for the first half of the season. Speculation about Danny Ainge splitting up the Big Three to try and start the rebuilding process early became a popular story topic. And if everything had gone according to plan, the Celtics would have crumbled and possibly missed the postseason. But all that adversity gave Boston something to play for, another task to overcome together. Give Doc Rivers credit for his incredible coaching this season and for engineering his team into such a tightly knit group. Now Boston is bringing its A-game to the court every night, showing the world that they aren’t scared of anybody and can play with the best in the league. They may be getting older, but this Celtics team has the experience, the charisma and the guts they need to be one of the least favorable matchups for opponents in the Eastern Conference playoffs.

Avery Bradley's on-the-ball defense and improving ability to score are just small examples of the Celtics' role players stepping up.

Updated Top MVP Candidates

A lot of things have changed since the time I listed the top MVP candidates for the 2012 season. A seemingly clear MVP race has become a lot closer than it was a month ago, which is why it’s time to take a look at who the most deserving candidates are for the award this year.

1) LeBron James – I still feel that LeBron is the best choice for the MVP award this year. This is a lot more difficult to say now because of his recent slump (as well as Miami’s), but don’t forget that his numbers are better than anybody’s and that the Heat will at the very least make the Eastern Conference Finals, barring an improbable meltdown. While Kevin Durant has stated his case for the MVP with inspiring play over the past month, the MVP Award is about the entire season, not just the month leading up to the playoffs when everyone starts paying close attention. The MVP Award summarizes which player has been the most dominant over the course of the season, the NBA’s alpha dog, the best overall player. Yes, sometimes the MVP Award does have a “value” component which takes into account a player’s necessity to their team, meaning: If you were to take that player away from their team, how would the team function without him? The “story” component also arises sometimes, such as when a talented player has never won the award or when a superstar has a particularly impressive season and becomes a popular underdog choice just so we don’t have to pick the same guy again (i.e. Derrick Rose last year, Charles Barkley in ’93, Karl Malone in ’97). That being said, LeBron’s season has a slight blemish on it thanks to the past few weeks, but overall, he remains the most deserving candidate.

2011-12 Stats: 26.7 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 6.4 apg, 1.9 spg, 0.8 bpg, 53.7 FG%

2) Kevin Durant – Unfortunately, being deserving doesn’t always result in hoisting the MVP trophy. That’s why Kevin Durant is my pick to win it. Not because he’s had a better season than LeBron and not because he’s the NBA’s alpha dog. But because he is becoming the popular choice over LeBron, who hasn’t exactly thrilled us in the past few weeks. The Heat have floundered a little bit, losing potential statement games to OKC, Chicago, Indiana, Orlando and Boston. Kevin Durant is now the nation’s favorite choice because he is the best player on what appears to be the best team in the league. His numbers for this month are up, his team is winning and he has hit some clutch shots all season long. KD has become the sexy choice even though LeBron has had a better overall season. Why? Well, aside from the reasons I just listed, Durant has won scoring titles but he’s never won the MVP Award. That automatically increases his chances. Then, you add in the media and public opinion that favors Durant over LeBron, if only because most people still hate on LeBron for taking his talents to South Beach. So even though LeBron is the most deserving candidate for the second year in a row, my guess at the most likely winner for this year is Durantula.

2011-12 Stats: 27.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 3.5 apg, 1.4 spg, 1.1 bpg, 50.2 FG%

3) Kevin Love – I only had Love as an honorable mention in my last MVP post, but his continuing ability to put up big numbers, his will to win, his unquestionable value to a team riddled with injuries and a lack of talent and his general dedication to an otherwise unimportant team have all changed my mind. If not for LeBron and KD, people would be noticing that Love has been quietly having his own MVP-caliber season. A big man that crashes the boards, attacks the rim with a variety of post moves, and can also drop threes on unsuspecting big men? I would describe that as un-guardable, which is exactly what Kevin Love has been for the Timberwolves. Although you usually like your MVP-candidate to be on a more successful team (a lack of team wins even when your personal stats are outstanding doesn’t look as impressive), no one can deny Love’s incredible value in Minnesota and the incredible season he’s having.

2011-12 Stats: 26.5 ppg, 13.6 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.9 spg, 0.5 bpg, 45.1 FG%

Honorable Mentions:

Kobe Bryant – Kobe is the best player on one of the best teams in the West. But the fact that he has to shoot so many times to fill up the stat sheet takes away a lot of his value. He’s not always the greatest team player and although he’s a cold-blooded killer in the fourth, a lot of attention is given to Andrew Bynum and his shooting percentages have been  a bit off in the past few weeks. This season won’t be remembered as one of Kobe’s most memorable, which is essentially what we want in an MVP.

2011-12 Stats: 28.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.6 apg, 1.3 spg, 0.3 bpg, 42.7 FG%

Chris Paul – CP3’s numbers are the least impressive of anyone in the bunch, but his ability to manage every game for LAC with complete control makes him the perfect point guard. Paul attacks the basket when he has to, takes over games in the last five minutes, and spend the rest of the time setting up teammates and facilitating. Any point guard that defers to his teammates and makes them better is an incredibly valuable piece to his team, but one with as much talent, competitive fire and crunch-time drive is definitely his team’s most valuable player.

2011-12 Stats: 19.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 8.8 apg, 2.4 spg, 0.1 bpg, 48.6 FG%

Dwight Howard – Howard’s performance this season is undeniable. Superman has been a beast in the paint and is the sole reason for Orlando’s success this season. Replace Dwight Howard with any other center in the league and the Magic’s defense falls apart and this team probably doesn’t even make the playoffs. But the whole controversy and flip-flopping about leaving Orlando is the exact opposite of what we want to see in an MVP. Howard wanted out, then committed to the Magic after he had pissed off management with his “roll the dice” comment, then decided he wasn’t sure, and then finally caved under the pressure and committed to Orlando for the next year. This indecisiveness in regards to something so important to an entire fan base and playoff-contending team will stain this season and really diminishes his beastly statline.

2011-12 Stats: 20.9 ppg, 14.9 rpg, 1.9 apg, 1.5 spg, 2.1 bpg, 58.0 FG%

Western Conference Predictions

The West always seems to come right down to the wire in determining its eight playoff teams, and this year is no different. Only 3 and a half games separate the fourth seed in the Western Conference from the tenth spot, meaning that these next few weeks will be critical, not only to determine postseason matchups, but also which teams even get in. Here are my predictions for who will end up in seeds one through eight, including which last three teams will be left out in the end.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder – This one is fairly easy since the Thunder currently have kept their distance from the rest of the West all season long and have now won four straight. It would take a meltdown for OKC to relinquish its number one seed to San Antonio, especially since Gregg Popovich will likely rest his older players as his team’s position in the West becomes more set in stone at the two spot. And despite the fact that OKC has a formidable schedule down the stretch (Chicago, Miami, LAL twice, LAC twice, and Indiana), this is the time of year they could send a message by finishing strong and locking that first seed down. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are playing great ball as always, but if James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins continue to play the way they have been, no one’s going to beat the Thunder in the postseason.

Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the rest of their supporting cast are too good to not lock up the number one seed.

2) San Antonio Spurs – The Spurs could make a push for the first seed, but knowing Gregg Popovich and his older players, San Antonio might just coast in their last few games unless the Lakers and everyone else in the West puts serious pressure on them for the second seed. This seems unlikely since the Lakers are still four and a half games behind the Spurs. San Antonio usually cruises into the postseason and tries to make the switch as soon as the playoffs start, and this season should be no different since the Spurs have a pretty favorable path to the end of the regular season. Plus, Stephen Jackson’s promising play and the recent signing of Boris Diaw and backup point guard Patty Mills should add further depth to an already impressive San Antonio bench. I don’t see the Spurs letting the gap dissolve with such a favorable remaining schedule and they should easily take the two spot.

The Spurs have added valuable role players recently, including Boris Diaw.

3) Los Angeles Lakers – Despite Kobe only shooting 37.8% from the floor in his past six games, the Lakers are currently two games ahead of the Clippers and Mavericks for the third seed. Although Vinny Del Negro received a vote of confidence from his owner and GM and the Clippers no longer have to worry about a firing tearing the team apart, they still have to worry about the negative effect of the fact that Del Negro is staying: the fact that Del Negro is staying. The Clippers will still lose some games because of his poor coaching and a lack of floor experience (Chauncey Billups), and the Mavs have been too hit-or-miss this season to put a run together. So I don’t see LA falling to the fourth spot unless this whole Mike-Brown-benching-Kobe-Bryant-and-now-Andrew-Bynum thing gets blown even more out of proportion to the point that there’s disunity in the locker room (which would eventually lead to Brown getting the axe). Bynum shouldn’t have shot that ridiculous 3-pointer, but Brown needs to tread carefully; the Lakers have been looking like contenders recently, so there’s really no reason to create drama now.

If Andrew Bynum continues to make a big deal about getting benched, there will be problems in Los Angeles.

The last five seeds are really a toss-up at this point, but here’s how I think things will unfold:

4) Dallas Mavericks – Dallas has one of the toughest remaining schedules in the NBA and has been hit-or-miss all season. However, Dirk Nowtizki has been on a tear lately, averaging 25 ppg this month, and another team with a tough remaining schedule is the LAC, who is their biggest competition for this spot. Jason Terry and Dirk bring the leadership necessary for this veteran team to start peaking at the right time. Terry, Jason Kidd and Rodrigue Beaubois have all increased their offensive production in March. Dallas has a horrendous lineup waiting for them, with a particularly rough upcoming stretch (Miami, Orlando, LAC, and Memphis). But if they can get through it with a few wins they get a slight break before taking on the rest of their challenging schedule (Utah, Houston, LAL, Chicago and Atlanta).

Dirk has been putting up big numbers for the Mavs in March.

5) Los Angeles Clippers – LAC’s tough remaining schedule and Vinny Del Negro’s job security will prevent the Clippers from keeping their current spot as the fourth seed in the West. The Clips’ remaining schedule includes OKC twice, LAL, Dallas, Memphis, Atlanta and New York. Chris Paul brings playoff experience, but I don’t think it will be enough to guarantee this team the fourth seed compared with Dallas’ veteran experience and superior coaching. Mo Williams being out for a few weeks is also a big blow to LAC’s bench that Randy Foye and Nick Young might not be able to fill. The Clippers won’t fall apart, but I don’t think they have the chemistry and floor leadership without Chauncey Billups to net that four seed.

Can Chris Paul and Blake Griffin carry the Clippers any higher than a five seed?

6) Memphis Grizzlies – As much as I like Memphis to make some noise in the playoffs this year, their remaining lineup of opponents does not favor the Grizzlies. This season, Memphis is 17-18 against teams in the Western Conference and 12-17 against teams .500 and above. Of the Grizzlies’ remaining 18 games, 13 are against teams in the West and 10 are against teams at or above .500. So despite Zach Randolph’s return and the signing of Gilbert Arenas (which I’m still waiting to be excited about), I don’t see the Grizzlies out-winning the Clippers or Mavs. However, they should grab the six seed and pick up wins against the lesser teams they play thanks to their solid 15-4 record against teams under .500.

Does Zach Randolph have any playoff magic in store for us this year?

7) Denver Nuggets – The Nuggets have struggled this season and never lived up to the West powerhouse they looked like they would become, but their remaining opponents aren’t too intimidating. Denver really only plays the Magic twice, LAL, LAC and OKC to close the season, and their matchup with the Thunder comes at a time when OKC should be resting their starters. However, the Nuggets have been too inconsistent lately to put them higher than a seven seed for now (they beat the Derrick Rose-less Bulls and then lose to the Raptors?). Kenneth Faried stepping up with Nene gone has been huge, but injuries have crippled this team’s chemistry at times (Danilo Gallinari, Rudy Fernandez, Kosta Koufos), and no one has been able to fill the void left by Gallinari.

Kenneth Faried has been a pleasant surprise for the Nuggets this year, but Denver needs Gallinari back.

8) Utah Jazz – I’m still not entirely convinced about Utah. They had a nice winning streak but the biggest reason I’m putting them in the final spot is that I don’t like Houston without Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin and Phoenix is too far behind to catch up. The Jazz have an 11-19 record against teams above .500, and 9 of their last 15 games are against teams that fit that description. The Jazz have definitely turned their season around, becoming one of the hottest teams in the NBA, but I still don’t think they will get the wins they need to pass Denver or Dallas.

The Jazz need Al Jefferson to just keep plugging away.

Didn’t Make the Cut: Houston Rockets, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves

9) Phoenix Suns – The Suns are currently only two games back in the playoff race at the ten spot, but I don’t see them closing the gap in time. The Suns have an incredibly tough remaining schedule: Utah twice, Denver twice, LAL, Memphis, OKC, LAC and San Antonio twice. There are too many other teams in the driver seat that the Suns need to lose for me to have any confidence in their playoff chances. If the season wasn’t shortened to 66 games, they’d have a better chance, but there are no guarantees that Phoenix’s hot streak is anything but a desperation push for the postseason. With Utah and Denver looking to turn things around and hold on to their current standings, the Suns will be hard-pressed to beat those teams along with the other powerhouses coming up, so even though I think they will make a run at it thanks to their dramatically improved bench play, I don’t think there’s enough in the tank for Phoenix this year.

Sorry, fellow Suns fans. I just don't see it happening this year.

10) Houston Rockets – I labeled the Rockets as playoff pretenders a long time ago, so Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin missing extended time during the most critical stretch of the season doesn’t help. Goran Dragic definitely stepped up in Lowry’s absence, but now he sprained his ankle and I don’t see this team having enough to get back into the playoff picture. Houston has a much more likable remaining schedule than their competition for a playoff spot, but the Rockets have shown they’re just as capable of beating anyone as they are losing to anyone and I don’t see them grabbing a spot. Unless Phoenix falls away and we see a complete Denver collapse, that is. And the Nuggets’ loss to the lowly Raptors last night shows there’s definitely a possibility of that happening, so Houston fans shouldn’t despair just yet. But I still don’t see it happening for Houston this year.

Dragic filled in nicely until he got injured. Houston is running out of offensive options.

11) Minnesota Timberwolves – Rubio is down. Nikola Pekovic is going to play in pain. JJ Barea is out for the time being. The Timberwolves are 2 and a half games back. Kevin Love is playing out of his mind and Minnesota is still having problems getting much-needed wins. It would take a miracle at this point for the T-Wolves to make the necessary push for a playoff run.

So there are my picks for the Western Conference. Do I have them right? Who did I leave out unfairly and who should be higher or lower on the list?

One man. One beard. One playoff dream barely still alive.