Free Agency Update – July 30

Here’s an update on all the NBA free agency buzz over the past week, including news and analysis on the latest with Dwight Howard, the Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves making moves and all other resigns and trades. Check it out here.

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 Update – July 12

Check out my free agency update via Reup Sports here! Today’s article has the latest news and analysis on Dwight Howard, the Brooklyn Nets’ active free agency, Jarrett Jack, the New York Knicks, Nicolas Batum, the Dallas Mavericks and Chris Kaman. Keep checking back for more free agency updates and in-depth analysis!

Head on over for an update on the last few days of NBA free agency action!

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.

Free Agency News: 7/3/12 Roundup

As is the case with free agency every year, it’s been a busy week filled with headlines for numerous stars and the smaller pieces that might go unnoticed. Here’s a quick recap of the major deals and rumors that have gone down in the past week.

Hawks Trade Joe Johnson to Brooklyn Nets:

I already covered this one earlier today, but the Hawks sent their All-Star guard and his not-so-All-Star contract to Brooklyn in exchange for the majority of the Nets’ bench and a future first round pick. Atlanta finally accepted Johnson and Josh Smith weren’t working out and the overpaid Johnson left for Brooklyn in exchange for Jordan Farmar, Anthony Morrow, Johan Petro, Jordan Williams and DeStawn Stevenson. The Hawks are looking like they’ll struggle during the 2012-13 season, but their next acquisition might help a little bit.

The Nets didn’t get the All-Star they wanted (Dwight Howard), but got Joe Johnson instead. Now they need to hope Deron Wiliams stays on.

Hawks Acquire Devin Harris from Utah Jazz Trade:

Don’t get too excited, Atlanta. You’re still going to be sorry next season, but at least the acquisition of Devin Harris from Utah will ease the incredible burden that’s been placed on Josh Smith’s shoulders. The Hawks sent Marvin Williams to the Jazz in exchange for Utah’s inconsistent point guard as Atlanta’s new GM Danny Ferry has wasted no time making his intentions clear: getting rid of the the organization’s two peskiest (and overpriced) contracts in Johnson and Williams. With so much money being cleared out, the Hawks are clearly trying to make room to make big moves, possibly for Dwight Howard or Chris Paul should he not resign with the Clippers. Whether high-caliber moves such as these happen this offseason or the next remains to be seen, but Ferry has done an excellent job with these two moves to ensure the Hawks see long term growth. Plus, Harris isn’t a shabby point guard and can certainly help a team out with 3-point shooting when his shot is on. His streaky shooting and overall inconsistent play makes him a bit of a gamble from week to week, but the Hawks need a revival and certainly got the upper hand of this trade with Utah. The move is particularly curious for the Jazz, who gain little from shopping their starting point guard for a former number two draft pick who hasn’t ever lived up to expectations.

The Hawks certainly improved by trading Marvin Williams for Utah’s Devin Harris.

Deron Williams Still Undecided:

At first, Brooklyn’s trade with Atlanta for Joe Johnson was contingent upon whether or not Williams resigned with the Nets. However, the deal went through anyway, leaving the Nets in limbo waiting for their All-Star point guard to decide between resigning or heading to his hometown of Dallas to play with Dirk Nowitzki on the Mavericks. Williams is likely to make his decision known within the next one or two days, either liberating Brooklyn from the ever-growing concern they might only be left with Joe Johnson’s ridiculous contract or turning Dallas into a much more dangerous force in the West. We’ve already been over what the Nets would look like in the backcourt with Johnson and D-Will, but if the Mavericks get their hands on Brooklyn’s star point guard, the combination of Williams and Dirk could get interesting.

Will D-Will stay with Joe Johnson in Brooklyn? Or will he join Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas?

Lamar Odom Goes To Clippers:

A few days ago, the LA Clippers and Dallas Mavericks worked out a deal that sends Lamar Odom back to his former team in exchange for Mo Williams. As part of a four-team trade, Odom will try to restart his career where it began in Los Angeles as Williams moves on to the Utah Jazz. I don’t see the move as a good one for the Clippers for the time being, but if Odom can play more like the Sixth Man of the Year that he once was, it could prove to be beneficial in the long run. The acquisition of Williams for the Jazz meant they had an extra guard, which might help explain why Devin Harris was shopped for Marvin Williams.

Lamar will get to revitalize his career where it all began in Los Angeles.

Bulls Looking for Veteran Guards:

With Derrick Rose likely missing a significant chunk of the next NBA season, it’s no surprise the Bulls are looking for veteran guards who won’t eat up too much money and can step in to take over while their star point guard recuperates. The Bulls have already reached out to Derek Fisher and Brandon Roy and while there are no solid deals to report on yet, keep your eye on this one. Fisher is also being pursued by the Thunder, Heat and Mavericks while Roy is fielding offers from several teams as well.

With Derrick Rose recovering on the sidelines, the Bulls will need to add another point guard.

Celtics Hoping to Resign Allen, Bass, Green:

Despite the popular opinion that Ray Allen will be in a Miami Heat uniform next season, Danny Ainge has said that the Celtics are making resigning Allen a priority, along with Brandon Bass and Jeff Green, who may be able to return to Boston as a free agent. While the possibility of resigning all three of these Boston regulars may be difficult, I wouldn’t doubt that they get their hands on at least two of those three. Allen has been offered deals with Miami and the Memphis Grizzlies, but would make the most money if he stayed in Boston. It will come down to whether or not he believes he can win with Miami and whether or not he’d be willing to take a pay cut to do so, but for the time being, nothing has been decided regarding Allen, Bass or Green yet.

Will Ray Allen choose the Celtics and more money over the lure of a championship in Miami?

Dwight Howard Drama Continues:

Dwight Howard came out and said there’s only one team on his list earlier this week, and although he wouldn’t say outright that it was the Nets, no one else seemed capable of being that team if not Brooklyn. Until yesterday, that is, when the Nets basically took their names out of the Howard sweepstakes with an ill-advised trade for Johnson, who will take up a considerable chunk of cap space. The Mavericks and Hawks are both clearing room for big offseason acquisitions, so Howard might want to think about adding more teams to his stubbornly short list. Howard said if he doesn’t get traded to the one team on his list, he would play the season out and then explore free agency, although the choice is not his to make if the Magic decide to shop him.

Dwight Howard continues to ruin his legacy by running his mouth about his trade demands.

Steve Nash’s Future Still Unclear:

The Toronto Raptors made Nash a 3-year offer, which Phoenix seems unwilling to do at this point. The Suns are leaning toward a 2-year deal if their All-Star point guard stays, but with the drafting of Kendall Marshall, they seem to be preparing for the worst. Nash says he is keeping his options open, which is a smart decision considering his large number of suitors, which includes the Knicks, Mavericks, Raptors and Suns. At this point it seems more and more unlikely Nash will stay in Phoenix, but to leave one non-contender for another doesn’t seem like something an aging veteran in search of his first title would do (ruling out Toronto).

Nash’s future in Phoenix seems unlikely, but no one else has put a great offer on the table yet.

Roy Hibbert Offered Deal by Portland:

The Portland Trail Blazers are looking to strengthen their frontcourt even further after offering All-Star center Roy Hibbert a four-year deal for $58 million. The Blazers went through a major upheaval last season and had a disappointing year but adding Hibbert to LaMarcus Aldridge would form a formidable team in the paint, especially with rookie Meyers Leonard likely coming off the bench. However, if Hibbert is smart (and not motivated primarily by money), he’ll stay in Indiana. After such a disappointing playoff performance with the Pacers, Hibbert definitely has something to prove to his team, a squad that can actually contend in the East if they continue to mature.

Hibbert has unfinished business in Indiana. It’d be a shame for him to leave for the weaker Blazers just for the money.

That’s all for now, but keep checking back for the latest free agency news and analysis.

Dwight Howard’s 2011-12 Season

Dwight Howard’s year started off and for awhile, it looked like it would be a memorable one. Superman had the Magic at the third spot in the East despite carrying a lackluster supporting cast night in and night out. But Howard’s potential MVP season went downhill pretty quick and will forever be scarred in history by a season-long drama that culminated with yesterday’s announcement that he will miss the remainder of the regular season and the entire playoffs for the Magic. The herniated disk in Howard’s back will require surgery and sideline him from contact drills for four months, meaning he’ll be back next season in full health. But after a tumultuous season full of flip-flopping, behind-the-scenes moves, rumors and apparent backstabbing, should Orlando even want him back?

Dwight Howard put his city through hell this season, but Orlando’s been in an uncomfortable position ever since Howard announced he was unhappy there with Stan Van Gundy. Then management started catering to his every whim in order to appease their spoiled but lovable superstar. They brought in Glen Davis and Gilbert Arenas last year to make him happy, shipping off the now-valuable Brandon Bass to Boston. They most likely bent over backwards before the trade deadline this year to try and bring someone else in to appease Superman. They allegedly told him he’d have managerial powers beyond that of a player, effectively being able to decide the fate of both Van Gundy and GM Otis Smith at the end of the season. Ever since Howard made his discontent and desire to be traded known to the public, Magic management has has done everything but appoint him as head coach and GM in order to get him to stay. Which is still not guaranteed. Enough is enough.

Now I’m not one of those who immediately jumped on the “Blame Howard!” bandwagon when the Magic’s season first started to take a turn for the worse. I didn’t think he was faking his injury or using it as a form of protest after Van Gundy publicly threw him under the bus. Yesterday’s report describing the severity of his injury should prove those rumors to be false. I still don’t know for sure whether or not Howard has to power to decide the fate of Orlando’s head coach and GM. And I understand Howard’s frustration with his team and his coach. If you were a once-in-a-lifetime superstar, would you want to play for the sarcastic Van Gundy surrounded by a bunch of role players who most likely wouldn’t even start for some of the better teams in the league? J.J. Reddick, Jameer Nelson, Hedo Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and even Ryan Anderson are all quality role players and outside shooters at times, but those aren’t the players you build a championship team around. So everyone should ease up off of Dwight Howard a little bit. But it’s just a bit, and that bit ends there.

Howard played through the pain and made his back worse to prove to his team that he wasn't quitting on them. That's gotta be worth something.

What we’ve seen from Howard this season has been downright despicable at times. This isn’t the kind of behavior you want to see out of any player on your team, let alone your franchise star. Howard has vehemently denied his involvement in management, he’s denied that he wants Van Gundy gone, he’s denied that he quit on his team and he’s denied that his injury was just an excuse to spite his coach and his teams with all the rumors swirling around him. But Howard is guilty of leaving an entire organization and fan base hanging. He is guilty of flaking back and forth between staying and leaving on the day of the trade deadline. He may be guilty of trying to usurp his head coach who helped develop him into the defensive juggernaut he has become. And while his performance on the court says otherwise, his off-the-court actions, “roll the dice” comments and overall lack of commitment to the city that’s given him so much is just as good as quitting on his team, his fans, his coach and his city. Howard doesn’t understand that he can put up 30 points and 20 rebounds every night for his team, but it won’t make him a team player or a franchise star worth remembering if he’s doing it while looking into where he can play next season.

I think there are a lot of people to blame in this season of melodrama between Dwight Howard and Van Gundy. Howard shouldn’t be orchestrating these managerial moves behind closed doors if he is, just like Van Gundy shouldn’t have said what he said to throw his star player under the bus. You can say all you want about how “that’s just how Van Gundy is” and how he just wants everything to be out in the open, but there are some things you should keep within the family. Telling reporters that Superman wanted him gone was a huge mistake that broke this story open again.

When reports surfaced Thursday morning that Howard wouldn’t play anymore for Stan Van Gundy, I didn’t know what to think. I hesitated on writing about it or passing out judgement until the full story was revealed, and thankfully, Howard furiously denied the latest rumors again and the real report that he required season-ending surgery on his back came out. Never mind the fact that his back got a lot worse because he played through the injury, which happened after people questioned his dedication to his team and the game with that mailed-in performance (the day Van Gundy called him out). Never mind that before all the trade deadline drama and Van Gundy’s foolish mistake, the Magic were playing pretty well behind a terrific season from Howard that deserved MVP consideration. I think that Howard tarnished his legacy in both Orlando and the NBA this season. Some of what ruined his reputation is fair and he should bare the blame for the things he did wrong, but there are some things that Van Gundy and Orlando’s management should have handled better that are unfairly placed on Superman. It will be interesting to see where Van Gundy and Howard end up next season, but for now, blame Dwight for what Dwight did and don’t buy into the rumors until the full story is unveiled. Because things are way too political and deceptive down in Orlando right now to know fact from fiction. Orlando fans should want Dwight Howard back, even if he’s on thin ice. Given the choice between Howard and Van Gundy, they’d be foolish not to pick Howard. But one thing is for sure: lf Dwight Howard is in an Orlando Magic uniform next year, he’s going to have to bust his ass to move up from Clark Kent to Superman again.

Howard's 2011-12 season will be forever stained by all the drama and flip-flopping. But Magic fans should want him back if he's committed to winning for them again. We'll have to wait it out to see.

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.

EASTer Update

Happy Easter, NBA fans! Just in case you haven’t been following all the recent developments in the league this week, here’s a quick rundown of where everyone stands:

Chicago Bulls – The Bulls still have a three-game lead over the Miami Heat for the first seed in the Eastern Conference. But in addition to all this news is that Chicago’s star point guard Derrick Rose is hopeful to play today against the New York Knicks after missing 12 games with a groin injury. If D-Rose can mesh with the team chemistry the Bulls established without their MVP on the court, look out for this team in the playoffs.

Miami Heat – LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have dropped some games this week, raising concerns about whether or not this team will be peaking at the right time. People are right when they say that you can’t just turn it on and off, but if any team can, it’s the Heat. Despite getting smashed by the Grizzlies, keep in mind that Memphis is the sleeper team of the West and it was only one game. Miami and LeBron made a statement in a win over the Thunder on Wednesday and should be comfortable entering the postseason with the two seed.

LeBron James settled the MVP debate with a dominant performance against the Thunder Wednesday.

Indiana Pacers – Despite dropping a game against the Celtics at home in an ugly offensive performance, the Pacers have taken the three spot in the East like I predicted they would. The Pacers were on a five-game winning streak until their off-night against Boston and have looked impressive with wins over Houston, New York and OKC. Danny Granger has been a terrific leader and has stepped up his offensive production when Indiana has needed him to. Don’t be surprised if this sleeper team makes some noise in the playoffs as the third seed.

Danny Granger has stepped his game up and the Pacers have moved up the standings as a result.

Boston Celtics – The Celtics have been on the rise in the past few games thanks to Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce, but you can expect them to lose a fair amount of games down the stretch because of their tough remaining schedule. The Celtics have a two-game lead over the 76ers for the fourth seed and the top spot in the Atlantic division, but with their remaining schedule, it’s even money on who takes this spot. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Celtics did hang on, if only because of how bad the Sixers have been lately.

Atlanta Hawks – While the Hawks haven’t proven much in their three-game winning streak (they beat Charlotte twice and Detroit), they are only a half-game behind Indiana for the third seed. Josh Smith has been playing like a man possessed this month, doing it all for Atlanta. The Hawks’ remaining schedule is pretty favorable, but it remains to be seen how this inconsistent team will fare once the playoffs roll around.

Orlando Magic – After a tumultuous week of friction, media criticism and poor play, the Magic ended their five-game losing streak with a much-needed win in Philadelphia. Even though Philly isn’t playing good ball right now, the win was impressive because Orlando was without Ryan Anderson and Hedo Turkoglu, as well as the fact that Dwight Howard has been getting hammered for the past few days. Superman responded with a statement game: 20 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 steal and 2 blocks. As long as Stan Van Gundy and D12 focus on playing basketball, the Magic will at least compete.

Dwight Howard silenced his critics with a 20-point, 22-rebound performance against the Sixers.

Philadelphia 76ers – The Sixers have lost three straight and four of their last five. I predicted this team was a pretender, but I didn’t think they’d collapse like this heading into the postseason. Philly has an easier remaining schedule than Boston, but the way they’re playing right now, with Andre Iguodala getting booed at the free throw line at home, things are looking good. All this combined with their ever-present inability to score should make for a first-round exit in the playoffs.

New York Knicks – The Knicks are playing great basketball right now and Carmelo Anthony has finally started to play like the quality superstar fans have waited for since he first came to New York. It took almost an entire season, but Melo is finally in shape and shooting well, so even with Jeremy Lin and Amare Stoudemire still sidelined, the Knicks are in good shape. Iman Shumpert and the rest of the Knicks’ role players have all stepped up, but New York still has to keep winning because of how good the Bucks are playing. The Knicks are only one game behind Philly for the seventh seed but are just one game ahead of Milwaukee for the final playoff spot.

Carmelo Anthony has finally started playing like one of the NBA's elite superstars again.

Milwaukee Bucks – The final playoff-contending team in the East is doing everything it can to catch the Knicks for the last postseason spot, but the Knicks are doing extremely well in winning to keep Milwaukee at bay. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis look like they’ve grown acclimated to each other and form one of the most formidable backcourts in the NBA. Jennings, Ellis and Ersan Illyasova, along with a suddenly lively bench, will keep them in the playoff hunt until the end.

Happy EASTer basketball fans!