The 2010-11 NBA season was supposed to be all about the Heat and nobody else. Well, put this in your crock pot and heat it: As teams pass the 20-game mark, the first installment of the quarterly report is due, and it's decidedly Heat-free. I hereby present not a single first-quarter award -- good or bad -- to the team with all the talent in South Beach.
The team the rest of the league loves to hate (if not sue for tampering) has recovered from an inauspicious start by ripping off six straight wins, and it looks like better days are ahead for the Supertwins with Chris Bosh. But the truth is they haven't done anything good enough or bad enough to warrant mentioning as we enter the second quarter of the NBA season. Instead, we start off with another team that doesn't really fit into an award category but deserves props: the New York Knicks.
|NBA Quarterly Report|
After a 3-8 start that seemed to imperil the decision to pair Amar'e Stoudemire with Raymond Felton and hope for Steve Nash-like results, the Knicks are among the hottest teams in the league at the quarter pole. They've won six in a row and 11 of 12, and while they've played some feeble defensive teams during that stretch, their nine road wins are the most in the league -- impressive regardless of the competition. After striking out on LeBron James and Dwyane Wade during free agency, the Knicks (14-9) are off to their best start since the 1994-95 season, when Pat Riley was the coach.
Following early growing pains between Stoudemire and Felton, the pick-and-roll tandem has been impossible to slow down during this 12-game stretch. Stoudemire especially has been dominant. He has six straight 30-point games and is third in the league with 25.7 points per game, behind Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. He's rebounding (11 double-figure games) and blocking shots, too (he has a chance to average two blocks a game for only the second time in his career).
Chris Paul is my first-quarter MVP, with Dirk Nowitzki a close second and Stoudemire third. He has been that good. In the team awards, I would've made the Knicks my biggest surprise except for the fact that I don't find this surprising; remember, I told you this was going to happen.
The Knicks remain a flawed defensive team -- no surprise there, either -- but if they keep getting to the foul line and shooting (and making) 3-pointers the way they are now, they could wind up sitting there at the Feb. 24 trade deadline realistically one dynamic wing scorer away from being the fourth-best team in the East behind Boston, Orlando and Miami.
The key has been the addition of a dynamic finisher for Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll game and a deft point guard who became a fast learner at how and when to get Stoudemire the ball. With athletes instead of albatrosses, the Knicks are constantly in attack mode, and it shows with their dramatically improved free-throw rate. D'Antoni always fires back at his detractors by saying he doesn't need shooters; he needs makers. Finally, he has a few -- including Danilo Gallinari (.374 from 3-point range), Wilson Chandler (.348) and the surprising Felton (.377), who has already made 43 threes after making 60 all of last season with Charlotte.
For the first time in ages, the Knicks have Madison Square Garden buzzing and have the payroll flexibility to get better. What a concept. There will be rocky times, especially against teams with size and teams that defend the 3-point shot. But if the Knicks can draw on their newfound confidence and ride Stoudemire as far as he'll take them, this may not be the last time they lead the league in intangibles on the quarterly report, which goes like this at the first-quarter horn:
|Chris Paul's value to the Hornets exceeds other MVP candidates' importance to their teams, including Amar'e Stoudemire. (AP)|
MVP dark horse: Derrick Rose. Without Carlos Boozer for all but five games so far, Rose has been electrifying. And if Boozer makes the Bulls that much better, Rose will be in position to get a lot of well-deserved votes come April.
Rookie of the Year: Blake Griffin, Clippers. Man among boys. Too bad he's a Clipper.
Rookie under the radar: Landry Fields, Knicks. With guile beyond his years and underrated athleticism, Fields (39th pick) has made a bigger impact so far than some lottery picks -- even though a fair number of teams didn't even have him in the top 100 on their draft boards.
Biggest surprise: Indiana Pacers. Indiana's inspired play and potential for its first playoff berth since 2006 is worth a nod. It has been a long road back from the Malice at the Palace. The Hornets are a close second.
Biggest letdown: Portland Trail Blazers. Even with the devastating news about Greg Oden and Brandon Roy's knee issues, the Blazers are athletic and talented enough to be better than a .500 team. Even more disappointing to me than Houston.
Best overall performance: San Antonio Spurs. Just when you think the Spurs are out, they pull themselves back in.
Ticking time bomb: In absentia, Rasheed Wallace. Under contract, DeMarcus Cousins, aka Sheed's Short Fuse Times 1,000.
Best dunk: Russell Westbrook over Shane Battier. Mama.
First annual Kevin Love award: This goes to -- who else? -- Kevin Love. He isn't MVP material but, like Stoudemire, Love deserves some love and his own award for his 31-point, 31-rebound game on Nov. 12. Wilt Chamberlain had more than 100 30-30 games in his career. After the Big Dipper? Nate Thurmond is next on the list with four. Four! And Love's effort clearly wasn't a fluke. Since then, he's had 10 double-doubles and four 20-20 games (including a 30-20) and leads the league with 15.5 rebounds per game, three-plus more than the Bulls' Joakim Noah (12.3).
Best coaching job: Rick Carlisle, Mavs. With a point guard who can no longer defend point guards (Jason Kidd), a key reserve injured (Rodrigue Beaubois), and two new centers (Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood), the Mavs have shown themselves to be the biggest threat to the Lakers in the West.
Worst coaching job: Byron Scott, Cavs. What? Dude loses LeBron and gets a dishonor like this? Well, it's not entirely his fault, but the Cavs have shown a troubling tendency to do what Cleveland fans accused LeBron of doing in Game 5 against the Celtics. The Cavs looked like they quit against LeBron's Heat and in lopsided losses to beatable teams like Minnesota, Detroit and Philly.
Lamest duck: Jay Triano, Raptors. I don't foresee a lot of in-season coaching changes, because plenty of teams have new coaches already and why would you want to go into a lockout with two coaches to pay? But Triano has been around long enough to be an easy fall guy if things don't turn around in Toronto.
Biggest trade chip: Andre Miller, Trail Blazers. Not only is he a crafty, effective point guard who could push a contender to the next level, his contract also is fully nonguaranteed next season. Why own when you can lease?