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[/url]There has been a lot of speculation about what LeBron James will do after this season. He can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and re-sign with the Cavs or sign with another team. The Knicks and Nets are mentioned most among potential destinations followed by the Heat, Clippers and Bulls. But what about the Lakers? Lakers? Sam Smith writes for Bulls.com and describes a scenario that could pair James with Kobe Bryant.

Smith writes: "Going to the Lakers makes all the sense in the world, and, at least to my view, fits LeBron better than it would other players of his caliber. ... The obvious reason this never gets discussed is no one can see James hooking on with Bryant."

How does LeBron get to the Lakers? Here is Smith's scenario: "The Lakers certainly have no salary cap room. They are in no position to pay James, which remains the No. 1 priority for all free agents. James just has to explain to the Cavs he's leaving. If they don't accommodate him, he's going to New York or Miami and they get nothing. But if they do in a sign and trade to save the franchise, they get a young, potential All-Star center in Andrew Bynum. Maybe Lamar Odom as well or Ron Artest. Draft picks, some pieces like Jordan Farmar. The Cavs can compete in the East with a star center and some pieces added to what they have. It's better than nothing as cap room doesn't mean anything in Cleveland. No one's going there."

 

Chris Broussard

 

LeBron to Lakers not likely

"My 11-year-old daughters love to read fantasy. And this idea certainly qualifies. LeBron can only become a Laker through a sign-and-trade, and the Cavs are not going to aid LeBron's getaway in any way, shape or form - and certainly not for a volatile Ron Artest or an aging Lamar Odom."

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This has been a great week for the rookie class, which is quickly shaping up to be better than advertised. We'll break down how the newbies can evolve into quality players as we head into the holiday season, but today let's take a look at how some of the top rooks performed during the past week.

Ty Lawson | Rookie card

Most rookies coming out of college aren't adept at attacking ball screens, but Lawson is. His incredible quickness, low center of gravity, strong frame and burst of speed coming off a slower dribble make him extremely difficult to contend with in ball-screen action.

The key for him is not so much reading the screener's defender as it is monitoring what is going on under the rim. If Lawson overpenetrates, he can get into trouble. So he needs to be looking inside to see where the help defenders are as he's using a probe dribble on top of the screen.

 

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Flynn

Jonny Flynn | Rookie card

Flynn started the season making four of his first six 3-point shots. Then he hit just two of his next 13 from that distance. Like most young players (and far too many vets), Flynn's struggles from deep are due to both shot selection and mechanics.

When Flynn catches and shoots from 3, his shot looks smooth and in rhythm. But problems occur when he tries the 3 off a dribble, especially coming from ball-screen action, where Flynn's defender goes under a screen. His balance on those shots has been poor, with his lower body getting ahead of his upper body on the release, causing him to fall backward on the shot. At this point, Flynn would be better served asking for a screen much further inside the line, so if the defender goes under the screen, Flynn has a more makeable shot. Or he can choose simply not to shoot that shot.

 

 

Tyreke Evans | Rookie card

Like any rookie, Evans has a lot to learn about five-on-five defense -- he always must be alert to where the ball is and where the biggest scoring threats are on the floor. However, he has a catlike awareness when he's around the ball -- his burst of quickness on steal attempts is very impressive. Combine that with his superlong arms, and he is a dangerous guy to make casual passes around.

Because of Evans' size, scouts have struggled to figure out just whom he plays like. He does not have the elite athleticism of players such as LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. To my eyes, he's more like a mutant Tony Parker -- he's terrific at getting to the rim and being creative once he gets there. He's not much of a finisher now, but he will be, and if he learns to make some midrange jumpers while throwing in a floater or two, he'll end up being one of the top paint scorers in basketball.

 

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Jennings

Brandon Jennings | Rookie card

Jennings does two things that greatly enhance his ability to score: He can use his right hand to finish plays and can make midrange jumpers. On his right-handed finishes, he sets up the shot with excellent body control, hitting his defender before scooping it in.

And on his midrange jumpers, I like how he has showed the ability to jump straight up and land with balance, something few young players do. It's solid basketball mechanics. Now he just needs to do it more often, instead of shooting lean-backs that almost always fall short.

DeJuan Blair | Rookie card

Although Blair is proving he can be a force in the paint on this level, the Spurs rook is being forced to adjust his game to the taller guys he is facing. He's specifically having trouble finishing around the rim over players who have bodied up with their arms outstretched. He's kind of "throwing and hoping" at this point. Eventually he'll learn to power up over them or add a slight fade to his shot that would somewhat mitigate a defender's reach advantage.

 

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Casspi

Omri Casspi | Rookie card

Casspi is rounding into this class's version of Rudy Fernandez -- a 3-point threat whose energy fills an arena. His 3-point shooting has been top-notch, but he also brings a defensive intensity rarely seen in rookies. He plays with no fear, even when guarding All-Stars (something he routinely asks to do). His spirit in this area already has impacted the Kings franchise.

Chase Budinger | Rookie card

Even though he had a very poor shooting night in Dallas (1-for-7) on Tuesday, the Rockets must be thrilled that he had nine rebounds. Lots of young players lose sight of the big picture when their shot isn't dropping, so it's good to see Budinger find other ways to contribute.

 

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Teague

Jeff Teague | Rookie card

In a loaded point guard class, there might be not be a quicker and more dynamic driver than the Hawks' Teague. But, and this is a big but, he needs to learn how to read where the help action is coming from before he starts his drive.

A recent game against the Nuggets taught him that lesson, as he finished 1-for-9 with most of his misses coming on shots in the paint after strong dribble-drives. A floater, teardrop or simple pull-up jumper would serve Teague well here, because he's next to impossible to stay in front of.

James Harden | Rookie card

As I've written before, Harden plays at a veteran's pace. He can go at a pretty good speed, but he goes there only when he needs to. His slower, steadier pace allows him to read defenses better, and his ability to find a crease in the defense and execute the proper pass is of great value to the Thunder.

As he evolves as a scorer, his assists will increase because help defenders will become more alert to his moves.

 

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Holiday

Jrue Holiday | Rookie card

Holiday was the most effective ball hawk I saw in the two summer leagues. On Monday, in some first-half minutes against Phoenix, Sixers coach Eddie Jordan asked him to hawk Goran Dragic a full 94 feet. It took only a few possessions before he knocked the ball loose from Dragic in the backcourt, beat him to the ball and passed to an open teammate for the easy deuce. He followed up with consecutive 3-point shots and added a sweet step-back jumper from the left baseline. His performance should earn him considerable minutes soon.

Although Holiday was the last of the top-rated point guards to be drafted, his upside is considerable. Remember, he rarely played the point in college and at age 19 is the youngest player in the NBA -- almost a year younger than Brandon Jennings.

Tyler Hansbrough | Rookie card

Hansbrough always has been deemed a workhorse with a phenomenal motor. And it's an accurate description; in his first official game last week, he earned 10 free throws in just 14 minutes. However, he has another talent that can be a huge asset for the Pacers: his speed.

Hansbrough runs fluidly with excellent balance and power, and he does an excellent job of recognizing a change of possession and then exploding down the floor. When bigs change ends like he does, it impacts the entire fast break -- creating either a matchup problem inside or an open 3 for a teammate -- because of the attention they garner in the paint.

 

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Curry

Stephen Curry | Rookie card

Although Curry's numbers are dropping, I like that he's showing better control in Golden State. In time, I suspect we'll see a quicker trigger and more daring drives, but lately he's been a calm vessel in a very rough sea. Slowing down and learning to read the game will allow him to play more effectively when he starts speeding up.

Toney Douglas | Rookie card

Douglas is taking advantage of some playing time for the Knicks while Nate Robinson sits out with an injury. His 21 points in a valiant comeback effort against Utah had to give him and his coaches some confidence.

Douglas is well-schooled in how to handle the ball-screen game, as he transferred to FSU to learn the point guard position after scoring a ton as a combo guard during his freshman year at Auburn. Not only did he learn the position well, but his shooting stroke also improved and his on-the-ball defense grew to be stellar. He made himself into an energizing player, and he's in a perfect spot to show it. Although he's still more of a scorer, in time he can be an effective lead guard, at least off the bench.

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Welcome to the first edition of our sophomore rankings, in which we'll break down the top 20 second-year players every other week all season long.

We'll evaluate these players strictly on the merits of this season to date, including how they are impacting their teams (if two players are playing at about the same level, I'll rank the player on the more successful team higher). What these players did last season, or what I think they'll do over their careers, will have no bearing on this report. So a player like Derrick Rose, who obviously has a brilliant future but is currently struggling, will not score well here until his on-court production improves.

With these things in mind, here's our first look at the top 20 sophomores. And yes, it's all about the bigs this week.

 

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Gasol

1. Marc Gasol, Grizzlies

Lost in all of Memphis' early misery has been the play of Gasol. He finishes shots. He grabs defensive rebounds. He hits perimeter shots. And he's the Grizzlies' best team defender. If Memphis is to survive these tough times and ever returns to the playoffs, they will need someone steady like Gasol to do his thing every night.

2. Russell Westbrook, Thunder

Westbrook still has the upside we all saw last season: He's capable of carrying a team on offense while making play after play on defense. But like all young points trying to learn the position, it's been a roller-coaster ride. In a five-game stretch this season, he amassed a whopping 29 turnovers. Then on Tuesday he killed the Heat with 24 points on 13 shots, seven assists, a steal, a block and just two turnovers in a huge road win. That's the Westbrook we should be seeing more of in the near future.

 

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Hibbert

3. Roy Hibbert, Pacers

Hibbert is on the early list for most improved player. For a guy with a nice perimeter shot, he's using his size to pound the paint instead -- he's getting 69 percent of his baskets in the paint. His rebounding numbers are way up, too. And more importantly, he's helping the Pacers win; they've won five of seven games this month with Hibbert scoring in double figures and shooting better than 50 percent shooting in each game. Earlier this week, he had 19 points (on 9-of-11 shooting), 10 rebounds and three blocks against fellow soph Brook Lopez.

4. Jason Thompson, Kings

Thompson has had some monster games for the resurgent Kings, showing his promise as both a power forward and a center. His activity inside, combined with his size and length, create many opportunities for him as both a scorer and a rebounder. Unfortunately, it also puts him in frequent foul trouble. As he learns to play smarter, the Kings will have a legit starting big man.

 

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Oden

5. Greg Oden, Trail Blazers

This big guy's confidence is coming on strong. He's averaging 11 points, eight rebounds and two blocks a game in November, while hitting almost 62 percent of his shots. All in just 24 minutes a game. (It's not his fault the Blazers have the best rebounding center in the league playing behind him.)

He's often been dominant on the defensive end and on the backboards. If he begins to assert himself more on offense, we'll be talking about All-Star Game appearances soon.

6. Brook Lopez, Nets

Lopez has been solid, improving in a few areas since last season. Unfortunately, he is far from being able to carry a team on his own. At least this injury-plagued team. He's also not shooting well from the perimeter right now -- just 36 percent outside the paint. His shooting skill is what made him such a tough cover last season, when the floor was better spaced with scoring threats around him. As the Nets get healthier, Lopez's numbers should, too.

 

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Anderson

7. Ryan Anderson, Magic

What a difference a trade makes. Anderson now plays for a team that not only can contend for a title, but employs an offense that fits perfectly with his talents. His 3-point shooting (40 percent) and hustle in the paint allow him to serve as a Rashard Lewis clone. He has already had a big impact in many games, and his upside on this team is considerable.

8. Anthony Randolph, Warriors

Who would have guessed that Randolph, who looked the part of an immature teenager at times last season, would end up being more professional than many of the people around him on his team? Despite the turmoil in Golden State, Randolph has played some excellent basketball. He's third among all power forwards in the NBA in defensive rebound rate, he's hitting 85 percent of his free throws (40-for-47) and he's scoring 12 points a game in just 20 minutes per game. And he just turned 20 this past summer -- he's younger than DeJuan Blair by three months and a few months older than Tyreke Evans and Brandon Jennings.

 

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Fernandez

9. Rudy Fernandez, Trail Blazers

Some guys take major and obvious steps forward in their second season. Others, such as Fernandez, take incremental but pivotal steps that significantly impact their team. Fernandez is still shooting and making a lot of 3s this season (19-for-47 -- 40 percent), but it's his defense that has people taking notice. Fernandez may well be the Blazers' best perimeter team defender. In other words, their defense may be at its best when he's in the game compared to any other guard or wing.

10. Chris Douglas-Roberts, Nets

Injuries have opened major minutes for CDR, and he's taken advantage of the opportunity. He's coming off back-to-back career highs (27 and then 31 points) and getting to the free throw line a good deal. More impressively, he pulled down 22 rebounds in those two games combined. Injuries or not, CDR looks to have earned a place in the Nets' rotation.

 

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Mayo

11. O.J. Mayo, Grizzlies

It's not his fault his team is crummy, although his overall defensive production hasn't been that good (but I'm not sure he's to blame). Mayo was projected as a guy who was ready to play when he entered the league, and that's been pretty on the mark. His production -- scoring, shooting, trips to the line -- has been pretty much the same as last season. On a better team, we'd hear about him more often.

12. Eric Gordon, Clippers

Gordon has not played since Nov. 7 due to a groin injury. But he was playing at a fairly high level before then, averaging 18 points and four assists per game, while shooting better than 40 percent from 3-point territory. He has outplayed every guard in this class so far, except maybe Westbrook.

 

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Gallinari

13. Danilo Gallinari, Knicks

Since he was drafted, there has been a lot of buzz from Knicks personnel about what a great shooter Gallo is. He's proving them right. He has hit 34 of 72 3s (47 percent) and 22 of 25 free throws (88 percent). He can change a game with that kind of shooting, and already had a game in which he made 8 of 16 3s. However, he's doing little else of impact right now. He's not among the top 50 power forwards in defensive rebound rate. To be worthy of his draft slot, he needs to do more.

14. George Hill, Spurs

Hill is quietly becoming a very solid NBA player. He has nice range on his shot (10-of-24 from 3 -- 41.7 percent), rarely turns the ball over (just 11 turnovers after 10 games) and, most importantly, plays terrific defense on the ball. He is in San Antonio's regular rotation and is averaging more than 30 minutes a game in November due to Tony Parker's injury.

 

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Ilyasova

15. Ersan Ilyasova, Bucks

Drafted in 2005, this is only his second season playing in the NBA. His feel for the game and coordination at 6-foot-10 give him the ability to be a strong role player in this league. But his 19-point, 12-rebound game against Dallas and his excellent 3-point shooting suggest he may have the potential to be even more.

16. Donte Greene, Kings

No player has been a more pleasant surprise than Greene, who is playing extremely well in just 13 minutes a game. I've always loved the spirit he brings to games as a benchwarmer, but now he's doing it on the court with his play. He's scoring off the dribble and in transition, and he recently recorded a career-high 24 points on 19 shots against the Bulls. If he stops taking so many 3s and focuses on his game inside 16 feet, he might earn himself a starting spot in Sacramento.

 

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Chalmers

17. Mario Chalmers, Heat

Chalmers is another guy who has improved slightly since last season, specifically as a shooter. This is great on a Miami team that needs its perimeter players to make shots, of course. Most of his other metrics, however, are down a tad at the moment, though they'll likely improve to last season's levels. Still, he's starting for a playoff contender, playing solid team defense and averaging almost two steals per game.

18. J.J. Hickson, Cavaliers

After barely playing at the start of the season, Hickson exploded last week with games of 18, 20 and 21 points on a combined 23-of-31 shooting. He's starting to figure out how to play next to LeBron and within the offense. By taking fewer perimeter shots, he's giving himself a chance to use his athletic talents and size around the paint. Watch out for him; he's capable of earning a top-10 spot in our rankings by April.

 

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Rose

19. Derrick Rose, Bulls

Rose is almost unrecognizable right now. The 2008-09 rookie of the year is worse in almost every statistical category this season, and his ability to blow past defenders is nonexistent. It appears his ankle injury is the reason for the latter, but that doesn't explain his poor shooting mechanics currently on display. He has one of the lowest player efficiency ratings of our top 20.

He does, however, seem completely aware that he has to play better for the Bulls to win consistently. I suspect he will and, thus, will rise up our rankings. His second half against the Lakers on Thursday night was a step in the right direction.

20. Michael Beasley, Heat

Beasley has been even more disappointing than Rose this season. Like Rose, his numbers have dropped in almost every statistical category, and his perimeter shooting has been awful.

On the plus side, Beasley appears to be making some strides playing team defense. But too many of his classmates have outplayed him thus far, and he's fortunate to even make our top 20. If he pays more attention to the little things and shows more passion in the big things (such as rebounding), he's sure to zoom up this report.

Honorable mention: Marreese Speights, 76ers

No player in this class was playing at a higher level this season than Speights, who has quietly become one of the best finishing big men in the game. He is the PER leader for all sophs, and outperformed Elton Brand early on. Unfortunately, a knee injury (torn MCL) will sideline him for a couple of months.

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We're still more than a month away from the trade deadline, but as Oklahoma City showed with its recent heist of Eric Maynor from Utah, trading season is already underway.

 

As we head toward the Feb. 18 deadline, we'll hear lots of names and teams come up. Virtually every club in the league has some interest, whether as a buyer or a seller, in reshaping their roster.

 

For that reason, lots of potential trades could happen. Lots and lots and lots of them. But today, I'm going to focus on a much smaller subset of those -- the trades that have to happen.

 

NBA Trade Machine

Put on your GM hat and make your own trades and deals.

Trade Machine

 

In each case, a team finds itself over the luxury-tax line and heading nowhere, providing a mammoth incentive to cut money between now and Feb. 18 to get under the threshold. The Wizards, of course, are the most prominent example, thanks to the Gilbert Arenas saga and their 11-22 record. But the Hornets, Jazz and Heat all find themselves over the tax line but without any realistic hope of contending. As a result, they're not just hoping to make a deal -- they need to.

 

Thus, I expect most of the action to happen around those four teams on deadline day. Other swaps can and probably will happen, but there's much less urgency to them. These are the four situations I'll be watching most closely over the next month, as they'll likely be the epicenter of any trade discussions:

 

 

Washington Wizards, $8.75 million over the luxury tax

 

The Wizards are going nowhere fast, so it seems preposterous to think they'll fork out nearly $9 million in tax and forego another $4 million or so in distributions from the league just to win 28 games instead of 25 (presuming they'll be unsuccessful in voiding Arenas' contract before the trade deadline).

Here's where it gets tricky -- since Oklahoma City swallowed up Matt Harpring's deal in the Maynor trade, there's nobody left with the cap space to take on a big contract. The most-discussed deal for Washington would be to send Antawn Jamison to Cleveland for Zydrunas Ilgauskas' expiring contract, since that gets Washington off the hook for the last three years of Jamison's deal; I have no doubt Washington could also be persuaded to waive Ilgauskas to allow Cleveland to re-sign him.

The problem is that such a deal does nothing for the Wizards' present tax situation. As a result, there's less urgency for such a trade than there is for other possibilities. In fact, the Wizards' best chances at deals may not involve any of their big three of Jamison, Arenas and Caron Butler.

For instance, consider this deal: Orlando uses its massive trade exception from the Hedo Turkoglu trade, adding Mike Miller, Dominic McGuire and DeShawn Stevenson (with the exception) from Washington, while sending J.J. Redick to Washington and Mickael Pietrus to Memphis. The trade would shore up the Magic's shooting and also clean up next year's balance sheet a bit.

If Orlando doesn't like that one, several potential variants work. For instance, Wizards center Brendan Haywood could go to the Magic while Redick stays in Orlando ... or the Magic could add Haywood, send Redick and Anthony Johnson to Memphis and hang on to Pietrus ... or the Magic could acquire Butler instead of Miller ... or the Magic could obtain Jamison instead of Miller and send either Brandon Bass or Marcin Gortat (with his consent, which presumably he'd give) back to Washington.

In any case, a three-way deal with Orlando and Memphis is the obvious escape hatch for the Wizards' predicament. But Memphis (or Sacramento) must be involved, since all the avenues above require using nearly all of the Grizzlies' or Kings' $4.2 million in remaining cap space. The best arrangement I come up with has Washington sending Randy Foye and Javaris Crittenton to Memphis and the Grizzlies sending Hamed Haddadi and Steven Hunter to Washington to complete the deal.

At the end, the Wizards will have wiped away $9 million in tax obligations, even before we get into any of the particulars with Arenas.

 

New Orleans Hornets, $3.33 million over

 

The Hornets may make the playoffs despite their slow start, but that doesn't change their terrible economics. The Hornets aren't making much bank and are unlikely to sign off on what amounts to $10 million in expenses ($3 million in salary, $3 million in luxury tax, $4 million in foregone distributions) just to give themselves a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs as L.A.'s Round 1 punching bag.

New Orleans has added incentive because the Hornets already are over next year's projected luxury-tax line by several million dollars. (Orlando, the Lakers, Denver and Dallas are the only other four teams that are certain to be over, though several other clubs dance perilously close to the line.) Because of this, some wonder if the Hornets will be forced to deal David West, but I doubt it will come to that.

As luck would have it, the Sacramento Kings are $4.15 million under the cap at the moment, making them an obvious trade partner. The two sides could set some kind of record for dead money included in a deal, actually, if the Kings swapped Kenny Thomas and Andres Nocioni to the Hornets for Darius Songaila, James Posey, Morris Peterson and Hilton Armstrong.

Such a deal would likely cost the Hornets cash and a first-rounder, too, since the Kings would be eating into their potential 2010 cap space. In fact, the Kings might turn the screws and demand that promising point guard Darren Collison be part of the swap. Nonetheless, that might be worth it for New Orleans since it would get them under next year's tax as well as this year's -- much as it made sense for Utah to deal Maynor recently.

Other variations on this deal also work. For instance, replace Nocioni with Beno Udrih and Armstrong with Devin Brown and the Hornets save just as much this year, albeit less next year. Subtracting Thomas and Posey from the deal also works. In all of these scenarios, incidentally, the four-for-two or three-for-one nature of the deal would require Sacramento to cut Sean May. But I presume they'd get over it quickly.

The point is that the Hornets have an obvious incentive to rent the Kings' cap space, and the Kings could use some of what the Hornets have to offer (cash, a pick, potential relief from the 2011-12 money owed to either Nocioni or Udrih). It cuts into Sacramento's cap room for next summer by about $3 million (depending on the exact parameters), but considering that draft picks normally cost $3 million, they'd get cash and a couple of useful players out of it. And since they weren't going to be in the LeBron sweepstakes anyway, it works out nicely on their end, too.

 

Utah Jazz, $4.86 million over

 

The trade of Harpring and Maynor was only the first salvo for the Jazz, who still have work to do to pull themselves under the luxury-tax threshold. As with their fellow small-market club in New Orleans, it simply isn't worth it for the Jazz to rack up such a tremendous expense just to be a fringe playoff team.

The Jazz have an obvious gem to dangle before interested parties in the form of Carlos Boozer, who has an expiring contract worth $12 million and has performed at an All-Star level through the first half of the season. Utah would likely need to package him with Kyle Korver, who has an expiring deal of his own worth $5.1 million.

One such scenario, for instance, would be if the Jazz sent Boozer to Charlotte, a team that's suddenly angling for a playoff spot and in need of some help at power forward given Boris Diaw's disappointing output. The potential haul from such a deal is likely disappointing from Utah's perspective, as they could get Diaw, Gerald Henderson and a lottery-protected first-round pick. But that's about all they can expect considering Boozer will be a three-month rental for whoever acquires him.

If they made it a three-way deal by sending Korver to the Clippers, Ricky Davis to the Bobcats (using the trade exception from the Raja Bell deal) and Mardy Collins to Utah, it would get Utah under the tax. The Clips would probably sign off on such a scenario only if Korver shows he's returned to health, so there are several hurdles here. But it strikes me as the most likely alternative as the Jazz aim to hit their financial goals, because the other potential acquirers would either put themselves deeper into the tax or have no strong need for a scoring power forward.

 

Miami Heat, $2.81 million over

 

Miami's decision to guarantee Carlos Arroyo's contract for the rest of the season surprised me because it made it harder for the Heat to get under the tax line come February. But with Miami's American Airlines Arena drawing poorly and another first-round playoff exit seeming highly likely, they're another team that I expect to cut money in the next month. It's not quite the slam-dunk case that the first three examples offer, but the dollar amount is small enough that Miami could accomplish the savings without much pain.

The simple, one-step plan for doing this is called "trading Dorell Wright." If there is one player I can almost guarantee will be changing uniforms in the next month, it's Wright -- the financial incentives are too good not to.

The Heat can offer anyone the $951,066 he'll have left on his contract on trade-deadline day to take Wright off their hands, likely adding a sweetener for the trouble (for instance, either more cash or one of the two second-round picks they got from the Hornets on draft day last year). Any number of teams could pull off such a deal, with the prime suspects being the Clippers (a $3.3 million trade exception from the Zach Randolph deal and an owner who loves to make a buck) and the Grizzlies.

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The Rockets are shopping Tracy McGrady's expiring contract. Where will T-Mac wind up? Stay tuned.

Although the trade deadline is still a little more than a month away, a number of GMs are reporting that they're already receiving a record number of phone calls about deals. Contenders are trying to shore up their rosters. Some teams are trying to rebuild. And others are just trying to save some cash. In short, it looks as if we'll see a number of significant deals in the coming weeks.

 

NBA Trade Machine

Put on your GM hat and make your own trades and deals.

Trade Machine

 

Who will get traded?

 

After talking with teams throughout the league, here's a look at 25 players who could be changing uniforms by Feb. 18.

 

We'll keep updating this list through the Feb. 18 trade deadline as new rumors and potential trades develop.

 

Impact players most likely to be moved

 

(Ranked from most likely to least likely to be traded)

 

 

Jamison

1. Antawn Jamison, F, Wizards

Jamison is at the top of this list for three reasons. First, the Wizards are a mess and seem to be moving rapidly toward a fire sale. Second, Jamison is in the latter stages of his career. Neither he nor the Wizards want him stuck on a terrible team. Third, a number of contenders want him, namely the Cavs. That's the perfect recipe for a big deadline trade.

 

2. Troy Murphy, F, Pacers

The Pacers look as though they're moving toward a youth movement as they continue to build around Danny Granger. With a number of contending teams interested in Murphy, the Pacers seem to be in the right place to make a deal. While Murphy may be overpaid, there are few bigs in the league who can rebound and spread the floor the way he can. With just one more year left on his contract, Murphy could be the missing piece for a team trying to compete for a title.

 

The Cavs seem to have the most interest, though several other teams have also told me they'll make a run at him. At the very least, the Pacers should be able to deal Murphy for expiring contracts and one asset (either a draft pick or a young prospect).

 

 

Prince

3. Tayshaun Prince, F, Pistons

Joe Dumars didn't expect the Pistons to be championship contenders this season. But he also didn't anticipate the team losing 13 games in a row. The fact that the Pistons drafted three small forwards in last year's draft and that two of them -- Jonas Jerebko and Austin Daye -- look very promising is all you need to know. The word on the street is that the Pistons are in very active trade discussions on Prince.

 

While the team would prefer to move Richard Hamilton, I don't think it's going to be able to find a home for him given his enormous contract. If the Pistons can swap Prince for some help in the paint, they've got to do it. The combination of Charlie Villanueva, Jason Maxiell, Ben Wallace and Kwame Brown just isn't getting it done.

 

4. Caron Butler, G/F, Wizards

If Jamison goes, Butler probably won't be far behind. He actually has a little more desirability than Jamison because his contract is shorter (just one year remaining) and he's younger. However, it's not clear that the Wizards are willing to just give away Butler, who is a good player in his prime. The Wizards have to build around someone, don't they?

 

 

Miller

5. Andre Miller, PG, Blazers

Miller may be a wily veteran, but he's struggled to adapt to Portland's culture and, more specifically, head coach Nate McMillan. Miller's addition was never seen as a slam dunk, but more of a desperation ploy by the Blazers, who felt compelled to use their cap space this past summer after being spurned by Hedo Turkoglu.

 

While the team's original stance was that it wanted to hold on to Miller, his recent run-in with McMillan has cleared the way for a possible trade. If the Blazers want expiring contracts in return, they can probably move him. If they demand a young player or a future first-round draft pick, probably not.

 

6. Jeff Foster, C, Pacers

The Pacers appear to be committed to developing Roy Hibbert and Tyler Hansbrough, leaving little room for Foster -- a mobile, high-energy big man who can defend 4s and 5s.

 

If you are a Western Conference team trying to stop Pau Gasol, Foster would be a great get. The Nuggets have shown considerable interest in Foster, but they aren't alone. The Blazers, Jazz, Spurs and Suns would all like to get him, too.

 

 

Hinrich

7. Kirk Hinrich, G, Bulls

The Bulls need to move Hinrich for an expiring contract in order to have a realistic shot at making a pitch to both LeBron James and Chris Bosh this summer. Can you imagine a team with LeBron, Bosh, Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Joakim Noah? John Paxson can. If Bosh isn't traded before the deadline, you have to believe the Bulls have a good chance to get both.

 

However, trading Hinrich won't be easy. His productivity has really fallen the past two years, and he still has two years and $17 million left on his contract. Bill Simmons swears the Celtics will be interested. But that's a lot of money for a backup point guard.

 

8. Tyrus Thomas, F, Bulls

Thomas has a lot of talent but has been unable to put it all together. At times, he has been more of a distraction than an asset in Chicago. The challenge in trading Thomas is twofold. One, the Bulls don't want to wreck their cap space this summer, meaning what they'll likely want in return is an expiring contract and a draft pick. Two, whoever trades for him has to decide quickly whether he's worth keeping, given that he's heading toward restricted free agency this summer.

 

Those two factors complicate things pretty dramatically. But given that there's interest from both the Bulls and Thomas' camp in moving on, don't be surprised if a deal happens.

 

 

Camby

9. Marcus Camby, C, Clippers

Camby may be one of the hottest commodities on the list. Not only is he still a legitimate defensive force in the paint, but he also has an expiring contract. You get a player for the rest of the season and cap relief at the end. The biggest question isn't whether the Clippers could move Camby, it's whether the Clippers will move him. And as Marc Stein wrote this week, Blake Griffin's absence complicates the Clippers' calculations.

 

The team is positioned to have significant cap room this summer if it keeps Camby and lets his contract expire. Whatever offer they get for him will have to match or exceed what they believe they could get on the open market next season.

 

10. Carlos Boozer, F/C, Jazz

Boozer is in the same camp as Camby. He's a very productive big man in the last year of his deal. However, Boozer is infinitely harder to move than Camby. Why? Because the Jazz want something significant in return and because Boozer will want a huge contract as a free agent this summer.

 

A team trading for him is making a huge commitment. Not only is it giving away a prized asset (probably some combination of a young player or draft pick plus cap relief), but it is also committing to being held over the coals by Boozer and his agent, Rob Pelinka, this summer. That's why it's harder than you might think to move Boozer.

 

 

Calderon

11. Jose Calderon, PG, Raptors

Calderon was considered a gem just a year ago, but he struggled out of the gate this season, and the Raptors have played much better without him. Now that he's back from injury, you can expect the Raptors to shop him around. They could really use some help at the 2-guard position. DeMar DeRozan is a nice prospect, but he's not ready yet.

 

There have been rumblings of a Calderon-Kevin Martin swap. The move would give the Raptors a lot of offensive firepower, but it would also cement their status as one of the worst defensive teams ever.

 

12. Al Jefferson, PF, Timberwolves

David Kahn has been pretty adamant that he's not shopping Jefferson, saying he wants to use the entire season to evaluate his players. But a number of GMs around the league are equally adamant that Jefferson's name has been brought up in discussions. Kahn doesn't sound like a guy who's convinced Kevin Love and Jefferson can play together in the frontcourt.

 

Kahn knows he wouldn't get a talent like Danny Granger in return, but if he could get an athletic center or a big-time shooter for Jefferson, he might decide to make a move.

 

 

Harris

13. Devin Harris, PG, Nets

Last year we were plugging Harris as an All-Star. This year? I have sources who say the Nets are no longer sold on Harris as a core piece on the team. If they can package him with an expiring contract or two and get a young All-Star in return, they might do it. If they knew they were getting John Wall, they'd surely do it.

 

But even if they have to settle for something else, it sounds as though Harris' lackluster performance this season has soured folks on him. There will be a lot of interest in Harris, but I'm not sure anyone will be willing to give up an All-Star for him.

 

14. Chris Bosh, PF, Raptors

Much to the chagrin of Raptors fans, I've been writing that Toronto needs to trade Bosh now while it can still get value for him. The closer we get to the trade deadline, the more real that possibility sounds.

 

Over the weekend, reports by ESPN's Marc Stein and the New York Post fingered the Rockets and Lakers as teams with heavy interest in Bosh. While neither team has made an official offer for Bosh, I expect both will by the deadline.

 

I'm not sure the Rockets can put together a compelling package, but the Lakers can. If L.A. offered Andrew Bynum, Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo would have to say yes, wouldn't he? Bynum is a legit center who is still only 22 years old. And most important, he is already locked into a long-term deal. If the Lakers are willing to offer Bynum (a big if), the Raptors won't get a better offer.

 

 

Stoudemire

15. Amare Stoudemire, PF, Suns

Amare would have been at the top of this list in August. However, the Suns are back to playing Mike D'Antoni basketball, and the team is winning and having fun again. While I wouldn't call the Suns contenders quite yet, they've been very competitive against the top teams in the West. That should effectively squelch all of the potential Stoudemire trade rumors we expected to hear.

 

The Suns are clearly trying to go for it all, and I doubt they'll disrupt the flow and swap Stoudemire out before giving him and Steve Nash one more chance to lead Phoenix to the Finals.

 

Expiring contracts

 

 

Ilgauskas

1. Zydrunas Ilgauskas, C, Cavs

Cleveland may be the most motivated team in the league to do a deal. Another playoff failure could devastate the Cavs' chances of keeping LeBron this summer. Ilgauskas is their biggest chip. He can wipe nearly $12 million from someone else's books. Also, the team that trades for him would most likely waive him, allowing Big Z to rejoin the Cavs.

 

2. Tracy McGrady, G, Rockets

McGrady may no longer be a superstar, but his contract is. A team trading for T-Mac can wipe $22 million off its books next year.

 

The key for the Rockets is to get back players worth paying and worth giving up this season's potential cap space for. For the most part, talks have been slow. Teams like expiring contracts but tend to shy away from giving All-Stars or top young prospects in return. Too bad Chris Wallace doesn't need to cut payroll this season.

 

3. Kenny Thomas, PF, Kings

The Kings are suddenly better than anyone expected. However, they would still love to cut long-term payroll. They've been using Thomas' $8.8 million expiring contract as bait. In other words, you can have it if you take Andres Nocioni, too.

 

 

Dampier

4. Erick Dampier, C, Mavs

Dampier is another intriguing trade chip. He's having a good season, and the Mavs are right in the Western Conference hunt. So, Dallas could surely use him. However, the fact that his contract isn't guaranteed next season makes him a tremendous asset and gives Dallas one last shot at adding a younger veteran who could put it over the top.

 

5. Brendan Haywood, C, Wizards

6. Mike Miller, F, Wizards

7. Mike James, G, Wizards

With the Wizards in rebuilding mode, you can be sure that all three contracts are coveted. Together they're worth about $20 million of cap relief. The Wizards may have to give away Jamison and Butler, but with these expiring contracts, they could end up with some decent young players or future first-round picks in return.

 

8. Travis Outlaw, F, Blazers

9. Steve Blake, G, Blazers

Together these two players can get roughly $8 million off a team's books. If Kevin Pritchard decides to make a big move, both players could be key assets to making a deal happen.

 

10. Kwame Brown, C, Pistons

Brown has been a bust in Detroit, just as he was in Washington and L.A. The Pistons will try to package his expiring $4 million contract with either Tayshaun Prince or Rip Hamilton to continue to remake their roster.

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Another week of phone calls to general managers and others in NBA front offices has unearthed some new names along with new insights on players from last week's list.

 

Here are 10 names for whom the trade buzz is getting louder around the league:

 

NBA Trade Machine

Put on your GM hat and make your own trades and deals.

Trade Machine

 

Amare Stoudemire, F, Suns

Stoudemire made our list last week, but just barely. The thinking was that, given the Suns' recent success, the team would likely hold on to him, see how far it could get in the playoffs, and then, this summer, try to sign him or try to do a sign-and-trade.

 

But the feedback I've received in the last week has caused me to recalibrate the chances of Stoudemire getting traded. The Suns are in a slump (losers of 15 of their last 26), and the word out of Phoenix is that there has been some tension in the locker room involving Stoudemire.

 

Stoudemire won't be easy to trade. He can become an unrestricted free agent this summer, and any team that trades for him is going to want some sort of guarantee that he'll sign an extension or a new contract this summer. If Stoudemire's willing to give it, and a team is willing to give up a substantial asset for him, the Suns may very well pull the trigger.

 

 

Iguodala

Andre Iguodala, G/F, Sixers

For the past several weeks, I've dismissed the idea that the 76ers, even if they are desperate to reduce payroll, would give away Iguodala for the expiring contract of Tracy McGrady. But after talking with a number of people close to the situation, I think it's plausible.

 

A deal of Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert for McGrady would work under terms of the collective bargaining agreement. While it would eat up any cap space the Rockets might have this summer, if Iguodala is the prize, who cares?

 

So what's the holdup? A couple of things. From Houston's point of view, Dalembert's 15 percent trade kicker would be a bitter pill. And from Philadelphia's perspective, it's important to get back an asset for a building block like Iguodala. While the Sixers love the idea of getting his long-term salary and Dalembert's off the books, they want something in return. The Rockets could offer Trevor Ariza or Aaron Brooks to sweeten the deal, but it sounds as though talks haven't gotten that far yet.

 

 

Gay

Rudy Gay, F, Grizzlies

The Grizzlies are playing their best basketball since Jerry West was the GM, so why would they mess with a good thing?

 

There are two reasons, according to a pair of general managers who have spoken with the Grizzlies in recent days. One, Memphis is concerned that this summer a team flush with cap space will offer Gay (who will be a restricted free agent this summer) a huge contract that Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley will be unwilling to match. Two, the team, currently at 22-19, would love to make the playoffs and believes it's a veteran defensive presence away from getting there.

 

While a number of teams would be interested in Gay, a rising talent at age 23, keep your eye on the Pistons. They have been hunting for the right trade in which to move Tayshaun Prince. If Prince is healthy (he has been battling back and knee injuries all season), he might fit the bill for Memphis -- and the Pistons could throw in a lottery pick from this year's draft to sweeten the deal.

 

 

Thabeet

Hasheem Thabeet, C, Grizzlies

Gay isn't the only player the Grizzlies would move for the right price. Thabeet is off to a slow start in his rookie season in Memphis and doesn't fit into the team's current plans. Still, he was the No. 2 pick in the draft, and he has value in the league.

 

If a team is willing to give up a veteran defensive presence, I think he could be had.

 

 

Robinson

Nate Robinson, G, Knicks

Robinson stayed in Mike D'Antoni's doghouse for weeks and got fined by the league when his agent publicly requested a trade. But lately he has been playing -- and playing well -- and I think some have assumed that the Knicks would no longer be interested in trading the free agent-to-be, preferring to see what kind of deals would be available over the summer.

 

Not true. New York will move him if it can, especially if he is needed as part of a package deal with Eddy Curry or Jared Jeffries so the team can clear more salary cap space for the summer.

 

 

Augustin

D.J. Augustin, PG, Bobcats

The Bobcats are looking more and more like a playoff team, and coach Larry Brown is beginning to make a push to add one more veteran for the second half of the season. Their best trade bait is Augustin, a second-year point guard.

 

After a solid rookie season, he's been a disappointment, but a number of teams were high on him as a draft prospect, so there might be a market. If the Bobcats can add the right veteran for their playoff run, they'll do it.

 

 

Martin

Kevin Martin, G, Kings

The Kings have maintained that they want to get a good look at how rookie Tyreke Evans and Martin, their veteran shooting guard, coexist in the backcourt. They believe Evans is a point guard and should be able to play well alongside Martin.

 

While Martin is still playing himself back into shape, the results are fairly lopsided right now. The Kings are just 1-8 when Evans and Martin have started in the backcourt together, but they were 14-18 when Martin was out of the lineup.

 

I think the Kings are going to take a few more weeks to see how things go once Martin gets his legs under him. But if the two aren't working out well, I think the Kings will be willing to deal. The franchise is still in a financial crunch and this is no longer Martin's team. Evans has taken the reins and he isn't giving them back.

 

 

Nocioni

Andres Nocioni, F, Kings

The Kings have also been active for months to see if they can find a way to get cap relief and an asset for Nocioni. They really like rookie forward Omri Casspi, who virtually duplicates what Nocioni brings to the table at a fraction of the price.

 

There was some feeling out about a Nocioni swap between the Kings and Celtics at last year's trade deadline and again earlier in the season. And the latest chatter has been about a potential Nocioni return to the Bulls, though that seems like a real long shot given that Chicago is trying to clear cap space for the summer, not add payroll.

 

But there will be interest from contenders in the toughness that Nocioni brings. I'm just not sure his contract is all that movable in this economic climate without some sort of sweetener from the Kings.

 

 

Carter

Vince Carter, G, Magic

The Eastern Conference champs are struggling. The Magic have lost seven of their last 10 games, and fingers are pointing in virtually every direction, with much of the blame directed at Carter, who has been awful in January.

 

In his defense, a nagging shoulder injury is partly to blame for his poor shooting numbers -- but there are rumblings that Carter hasn't been great for the team's chemistry even when he's played well.

 

Right now there's not a huge market for Vince, who makes a lot of money and has another year left on his deal. There have been rumblings of a swap of cousins -- McGrady for Carter -- but I can't believe Houston GM Daryl Morey would ever do that given the money left on Carter's contract.

 

 

Battier

Shane Battier, F, Rockets

Battier is the heart and soul of Morey's Rockets. Remember, Houston traded lottery pick Rudy Gay for him in 2005, shortly after Morey's arrival, and has never looked back. While Gay has been the more electric prospect, Battier has done what Battier does: all the little things that translate into chemistry and wins. I don't think any team in the league values him the way Morey does.

 

That said, there have been rumblings that Battier is available for the right price. The Rockets are after a big man, and, well, isn't just about anyone available for the right price? I don't see a team making an offer that knocks Morey's socks off, but you never know.

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I know what you're all thinking: Utah?

 

Utah?!

 

OK, Utah.

 

The Jazz are No. 1 in the Power Rankings, ahead of the mighty Cavs and Lakers, after rallying from 17 down to beat Phoenix on Monday night -- their latest high-profile win in a torrid 10-game stretch. The Jazz are 8-2 in their past 10 games, including six victories against teams with winning records, and several of the wins were impressive: They beat Memphis by 23 without Deron Williams, topped Miami by 29 and dumped Dallas by 18 on the road. They also, of course, had that dramatic nationally televised win over Cleveland, when little-known Sundiata Gaines hit a game-winning 3 at the buzzer.

 

Still, the Jazz are 26-18 overall, while the Lakers and Cavs are seven and eight games ahead of them in the standings at 33-11 and 35-11, respectively. Are we really saying that the Jazz are better than those two?

 

Let me offer a brief defense of the Jazz before I give the final answer:

 

1. The records lie

Utah is 26-18, but has the scoring margin of a team that should be 30-14. The Jazz haven't been fortunate in close games (5-8 in games decided by five points or fewer) but have been in nearly every other contest. Utah's only two blowout losses have come in the infamous 101-77 loss to the Lakers in which they scored only six points in the fourth quarter, and a 96-83 loss to Atlanta in which they pulled the starters when trailing by 27 in the middle of the third quarter.

 

As a result, the standings don't reflect Utah's true strength. Most notably, the Jazz trail Dallas by three games in the standings despite a much better scoring margin.

 

2. Their schedule has been difficult

The Jazz have played more home games than road games, something they have in common with several West rivals at this point (among the conference's upper crust, only the Mavs have played more on the road than at home). That may make it seem like the tough part of their schedule is still to come. In truth, the Jazz just finished the tough part and they slapped it around.

 

Utah opponents have a .521 winning percentage when not playing the Jazz; only Houston, Miami and Toronto have faced tougher slates thus far. Cleveland opponents are at .497 (19th), and the Lakers, at .512 (seventh), aren't too far behind Utah. But L.A. has had even more home cookin' than the Jazz, having played 26 home games and only 18 away from Staples Center.

 

Looking ahead, the Jazz should be able to make up some of the ground in the standings, as Utah faces only one elite team on the road the rest of the season (the Lakers). The next-best team the Jazz play away from home is Oklahoma City, with the rest coming against losing teams or fringe playoff contenders.

 

3. They have held up against the big guns

In addition to their well-chronicled 4-0 season sweep of the Spurs and the aforementioned win over Cleveland, the Jazz nearly beat the Cavs on the road without Williams on Nov. 14 (a 107-103 loss in Cleveland) and split the season series with both Orlando and the Lakers (with two more games against L.A. still to come). It's a small sample and I don't put a lot of weight on it, but since a lot of people want to compare how heavyweights did against one another, it's worth noting that the Jazz have held their own in this department.

 

4. Recent history

OK, this is the crux of the issue. The most recent 25 percent of games played are weighed most heavily by the Power Rankings, and that's only 11 games at this point in the season. It may not seem like it because they aren't on a huge winning streak -- they're 8-3 in their past 11 games -- but the Jazz have been far and away the best team in the league in that span.

 

Against the fourth-most-difficult schedule, the Jazz's average scoring margin over their past 11 games is plus-11.3 -- nobody else is better than plus-7.0. Even if you take away the scrimmage against the lowly Nets on Jan. 23 they're plus-9.1, and that's against opponents with an average winning percentage near .600; no other team has faced opposition better than .562 in the same stretch. Use any formula you wish, mutilate the calculation as badly as you want, and you'll still reach the same conclusion: The Jazz have been the league's best team over the most recent quarter of the schedule.

 

5. It's a compressed league

I keep getting back to this because it's true … and because it's a huge point. The Lakers and Cavs may have the two best records, but the margin between those two and the pack has never been as large as the distance last season between the top four teams and everybody else.

 

We perceive the Lakers and Cavs as miles ahead of the field, but in reality that hasn't been true. L.A. and Cleveland have scoring margins of 61-win teams, which is excellent but hardly dominant. Factor in the schedules, and the Playoff Odds project the Lakers and Cavs to finish with 57 and 60 wins, respectively.

 

Those are the two best projected records in the league, and nobody else projects to win more than 53 games. If that holds up, it would be the first time since 2002-03 that no team won more than 60 games, the first time since 2001-02 that the league didn't have multiple 60-game winners and the first time since 1987-88 (when it was a 23-team league) that there weren't at least three 55-game winners.

 

We're seeing that reflected in the Power Rankings. The Jazz, Cavs and Lakers all have ratings in the 106 range -- which is good, but in a normal year, it would not be leading the league. Nine teams behind them clump together with ratings between 102.3 and 104.8, and their positions shift almost daily. A second group of seven hopefuls between 100.0 and 101.5 stands in a similar herd.

 

Compaction is an important concept to remember when eyeing the Lakers, Cavs and Jazz as well. Remember, the number in the second column of the Rankings (overall record) is more important than the number in the first column (rating). Utah's lead over the other two is small enough in the first column (0.57 over L.A., 0.70 over Cleveland) that a bad outing in Portland on Wednesday night could easily shift the Jazz back to third.

 

So … on to the big question: Am I saying the Jazz are better than the Cavs and Lakers? Depends on what you mean by "better." The Jazz are playing better than anyone in basketball right now, and that's why they're No. 1 in the Power Rankings -- which, by nature, are designed to put a heavy weight on a team's current form. If the Jazz were to start a series against Cleveland or L.A. that tipped off Tuesday, I'd be seriously inclined to pick them.

 

But "better" in the global sense? I'm not going anywhere near there yet. The Jazz earned the top spot in the Rankings thanks to a lack of dominance from the league's elite and their own recent torrid play, and props to them for it. That said, I need to see them do it for more than a couple weeks before I anoint them as legitimate challengers to the throne.

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i just signed up for a year of espn the mag (from which you can get insider) on discountmags.com for $10.50.

 

use the coupon codes "79921" and "save10" to get ~$5 off. just a quick tip for anybody that hasn't made the jump like me.

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I upgraded my phone, and I apparently no longer have access to ESPN MVP. Which blows, because the phone is more badass. Anyway, please?: http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/columns/story?columnist=law_keith&id=4861174&action=upsell&appRedirect=http://insider.espn.go.com/mlb/insider/columns/story%3fcolumnist%3dlaw_keith%26id%3d4861174

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As I did last year, I offer this teaser to Thursday's ranking of the Top 100 prospects in baseball by ranking the 30 farm systems based on the current inventory in each organization. This ranking includes only players who are still eligible for the Top 100 prospects ranking -- that is, players who still retain rookie status for 2010.

 

A system that recently "graduated" a number of top prospects -- Oakland, for example, with Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Vin Mazzaro and Andrew Bailey losing eligibility for the ranking -- will rank lower on this list because I'm considering only what is currently on the farm. It's a snapshot look rather than a look back over a year or two of farm productivity. So at the bottom you will see a mix of teams that have graduated or traded good prospects in the last year and teams that just haven't done a very good job of stocking the system.

 

Within each system, I considered the entire list of prospects but gave much more weight to top prospects, particularly high-impact prospects, than to organizational depth in average to fringe-average prospects. I also considered how much major league value each organization is likely to produce over the next few years. So a system with high-impact prospects who are relatively close to the majors ranks high, even if the system lacks depth in second- and third-tier prospects. Of course, a couple of impact prospects plus organizational depth is ideal.

 

1. Texas Rangers

The best system in baseball for the second year in a row, the Rangers are strong in many areas down on the farm. They continue to draft or sign young pitching in what is starting to look like a pathological fear of an impending pitcher shortage, and their stable of arms includes potential No. 1 and No. 2 starters to innings-eater types to front-line relievers. They have big bats, some with positions (Justin Smoak) and some not so much with the glove thing (Mitch Moreland). Their system was light on middle infielders, so they signed two of the top international free-agent shortstops in Jurickson Profar and Raul Sardinas. They're light behind the plate and in center field, but they're headed for a situation where they have excess pitching and can actually trade some of it to fill other needs, an enviable position for any team unwilling to pay market prices for major league free agents. Even a shaky 2009 draft class, for which the Rangers didn't sign their first-round pick and took a couple of toolsy high school players who are light-years from being productive in pro ball, didn't sink this system, as they were active again in the international market and picked up an out-of-favor prospect from Kansas City during the season.

 

ESPNDallas.com

For more, check out the Rangers blog on ESPNDallas.com.

 

GM Jon Daniels, who has overseen the farm system's renaissance, recently gave international scouting director A.J. Preller -- who is responsible not just for Texas' signings in Latin America but for identifying players like Neftali Feliz, Engel Beltre, and Carlos Melo as throw-ins in larger trades -- responsibility for the Rule 4 draft as well, consolidating all amateur scouting under one person and perhaps leading to a quick bounce-back from a poor performance in last year's draft. The AL West has suddenly become very competitive, with four well-run organizations all trying to balance immediate contention with long-term building goals, but Texas remains the best-positioned team there for long-term success.

 

2. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have more players in the top 100 than the Rangers and have almost comparable depth, but they don't have the high-end prospects to match a Smoak, a Feliz, or a Martin Perez, all of whom are high-ceiling and nearly major league-ready. Boston has stuffed its lower levels with gambles on over-slot high school kids after the first two rounds, giving the Red Sox a chance to add those high-ceiling kids even though they don't typically have a pick among the first 20 overall.

 

ESPNBoston.com

For more, check out the Red Sox blog on ESPNBoston.com.

 

3. Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays have graduated a fair amount of talent in recent years but continue to come up with arms, while using their stumble last year to flip Scott Kazmir and add three solid prospects to their system. They could easily graduate three more above-average or better prospects this year if openings arise at the big league level.

 

4. Cleveland Indians

They continue to build depth without a ton of impact prospects, although Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall are exceptions to that rule, and they have a handful of low-A/short-season guys who could break away from the pack. There's still value in a system that can keep pumping out average or fringe-average big leaguers, simply because it keeps you away from the Jason Kendalls of the free-agent market.

 

5. Atlanta Braves

Having Jason Heyward helps, but they have a troika of Latin American arms about to march up the system that would make a heck of a 2-3-4 behind Tommy Hanson starting in 2013 or so. They would have been higher except for a brutal draft in 2009.

 

6. Baltimore Orioles

A top-10 system despite the graduations of Matt Wieters and Chris Tillman as well as several lower-tier young arms speaks volumes about the organization's turnaround under GM Andy MacPhail and scouting director Joe Jordan.

 

7. Chicago Cubs

They've hit on several top draft picks under scouting director Tim Wilken as well as a couple of later-round finds, but the system is led by 19-year-old Dominican shortstop Starlin Castro, who is already in Double-A.

 

ESPNChicago.com

For more on the Cubs, check out Bruce Levine's blog on ESPNChicago.com.

 

8. Colorado Rockies

A solid mix of high-end arms like Tyler Matzek and Rex Brothers, tools prospects like Hector Gomez and Wilin Rosario, and safer college guys like Tim Wheeler. The system also just spit out Seth Smith and Dexter Fowler, both of whom contributed to the Rockies' playoff berth in 2009, as well as most of the core of the '07 pennant winner.

 

9. Kansas City Royals

Could easily be a top-five system in a year with the sheer number of arms they have headed to high-A and Double-A, as well as a couple of talented bats coming off disappointing years in Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas.

 

10. Cincinnati Reds

A couple of near-in prospects, including pitchers Aroldis Chapman, Mike Leake and Travis Wood, combined with some raw but tooled-up Latin American position players, including Juan Duran, who has grown three inches since signing and now stands at 6-foot-7.

 

11. San Diego Padres

The Padres' low-A affiliate and extended spring rosters will be stacked with prospects between their 2009 draft class and their stable of young Latin American signings, but there's almost nothing in the cupboard at the higher levels after the team spent years drafting low-ceiling college players.

 

12. Florida Marlins

A top-heavy system with two potential monster bats and a monster glove at third base, but very little up the middle, plus it lacks potential starters after '09 first-rounder Chad James. The Marlins do replenish the farm regularly through trades and, of course, promote aggressively from within.

 

13. Minnesota Twins

They could have two perennial All-Star bats in Aaron Hicks and the just-signed Miguel Jean (Sano), and grabbed a few talented arms who fell in the 2009 draft, but there's not much in the upper levels to help the team in 2010.

 

14. Oakland A's

A year ago, they were flush with pitching, but most of it ended up in the big leagues, so the strength of the system is now position players; the A's are primed to jump back into the top 10 once guys like Grant Green, Max Stassi and the mysterious Michel Ynoa get full years under their belts.

 

15. New York Mets

It's fashionable in New York to bash their system, but productive international scouting continues to bail out their draft efforts, which are repeatedly hamstrung by ownership's refusal to exceed slot in the first few rounds.

 

16. Toronto Blue Jays

Let's just say it's a good thing for this list that they traded Halladay and Rolen; without those four prospects (Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart, Brett Wallace, Travis d'Arnaud), the Jays might have ranked last.

 

17. Detroit Tigers

Their top prospect, Rick Porcello, graduated, but they replaced him with another high-ceiling arm in Jacob Turner and added a number of prospects or low-service big leaguers in the Curtis Granderson trade.

 

18. Pittsburgh Pirates

They're gradually adding depth to another farm system that was left fallow by a previous regime, but right now it's very light on upside. They took a number of fliers in the 2009 draft on prep arms, but it remains to be seen whether any of them will emerge as top prospects.

 

19. Los Angeles Dodgers

They have almost nothing at the upper levels, but are overflowing with power arms below that. Possibly the best organization at converting players from one position to another, or from hitting to pitching, or vice versa.

 

ESPNLosAngeles.com

For more on the Dodgers, read Tony Jackson on ESPNLosAngeles.com.

 

20. San Francisco Giants

A number of promising prospects here had disappointing seasons, so it's a system that could bounce back in 2010 even without a major infusion of talent. The Giants still have two to four very high-ceiling guys, but the supporting cast is thinner than it looked a year ago.

 

21. Seattle Mariners

I would say acquiring Cliff Lee and pushing for a pennant run qualify as good reasons to gut a farm system. One of the game's best international scouting groups continues to find prospects all over the globe.

 

22. Los Angeles Angels

Extra picks in this year's draft likely made it easier for GM Tony Reagins to trade three prospects for Scott Kazmir, but the result is that the bulk of the value in their system is now in the lower levels, much of it high-risk/high-reward.

 

ESPNLosAngeles.com

For more on the Angels, read Mark Saxon on ESPNLosAngeles.com.

 

23. Washington Nationals

Getting there, slowly, but a number of top draft picks from 2006 to 2008 haven't developed as expected, and two of their top three guys -- including Stephen Strasburg -- came in the 2009 draft.

 

24. Philadelphia Phillies

They kept their best prospect, Domonic Brown but traded everyone else, and their next wave of impact guys largely spent 2009 in short-season ball. The Lee trade with Seattle restored some depth between Brown and the Anthony Goses and Sebastian Valles of the system.

 

25. New York Yankees

Lost picks and trades depleted the system; they traded two guys currently in the top 100. After Jesus Montero, the next impact guys are probably Slade Heathcott and Gary Sanchez, with three pro games combined to date, while their highest-ceiling arm, Andrew Brackman, struggled with command in his first full year back from Tommy John surgery.

 

26. Milwaukee Brewers

They have a few moderately high-ceiling bats but very little in the way of pitching, which seems to be sort of a chronic problem for this organization. Eric Arnett and Jake Odorizzi do offer some hope on the mound, but both are probably a few years off.

 

27. Arizona Diamondbacks

The Diamondbacks tied for the fewest players in the top 100 of any team, but I could see them landing five or six more spots next year after they had the best draft of any club in 2009. The system was all but barren before that draft, however, and it's going to take some time for that new talent to percolate on to the master ranking.

 

28. Houston Astros

Two drafts under new scouting director Bobby Heck got the Astros out of the cellar, but the scorched earth he inherited will take more time to reach the top half of this list. Emphasis on athletes and prep arms gives them a shot at ceiling but with some added risk. They also seem to be inching back into involvement in Latin America after giving a six-figure bonus to Dominican righty Edgar Ferreira in December.

 

29. St. Louis Cardinals

The Matt Holliday trade cost them both depth and one impact prospect, and the Mark DeRosa trade cost more depth, while uber-prospect Colby Rasmus spent the year in the majors and no longer qualifies as part of the farm system. I may be underrating their 2009 draft, particularly USC catcher Robert Stock, who had a strong pro debut after a disappointing college career, and they do have power arms in the system, many of whom project right now as relievers.

 

30. Chicago White Sox

They don't spend money in the draft, they don't spend much in Latin America except for Cuban free agents who might be closer to the big leagues, they've been quick to trade prospects for major league value when they were contending, and their first overall pick from 2008, future star Gordon Beckham, is already ineligible for this list (one of only two first-rounders from 2008 to do so).

 

 

They did take on a little more risk than usual with their first draft pick in 2009, outfielder Jared Mitchell, a high-ceiling, two-sport college player, who is probably their best shot at getting an impact player from anyone in their system right now.

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Can someone get this article for me?

 

Its Bruce Feldman's article titled "Williams, Rouse, other recruits who didn't pan out"

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Williams, Rouse, other recruits who didn't pan out

Wednesday, February 3, 2010 | Feedback | Print Entry

Signing day is here, and every coach can say how great things have gone. Of course, we won't really know how good any of these two- or five-star recruits truly are until they suit up and play some games.

We've seen countless reasons there is no such thing as a can't-miss recruit. In that vein, this week's list: the top 10 recruiting disappointments of the past decade. (I'm not calling them "busts" because a few of them were sidetracked by nagging injuries.)

1. Willie Williams, Miami Hurricanes, 2004: Williams' story sounds like a modern-day Dan Jenkins tale. The Miami native is practically iconic in recruiting discussions because of the startling recruiting diaries he helped write for The Miami Herald during his recruitment. Everything about the linebacker's over-the-top recruiting visits screamed excess, and in response, the NCAA folks screamed reform to try to remove -- or at least diminish -- the aspect of celebrity involved in the process.

Right after Williams announced his commitment to Miami, word of his rap sheet spread. UM president Donna Shalala defended the decision to admit Williams amid controversy, and she sent a letter to students and alumni to explain her reasoning. Turns out Williams, the No. 6-rated recruit in his class according to Rivals.com, had little impact for the Canes on the field. He couldn't crack the linebacker rotation and then bailed, beginning a mind-numbing series of moves. First he went to West Los Angeles CC and then the Louisville Cardinals, where he spent less than a half-season before getting into trouble. Then he went to Division II Glenville (W.Va) State before finishing his college career at Union College, a National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics school in Kentucky.

 

2. Whitney Lewis, USC Trojans, 2003: Touted as a physical wideout, Lewis was ranked No. 3 overall in the nation. USC coaches had even higher hopes. In a class with Reggie Bush, LenDale White and Steve Smith, Lewis was the recruit the Trojans' staff thought would prove to be the best. Instead, he had conditioning issues and didn't seem to want to play at USC. He barely touched the field, catching three passes for the Trojans before transferring to Northern Iowa after three seasons. Lewis played at both running back and receiver for the Panthers and had a modest career there in the Gateway Conference.

3. Fred Rouse, Florida State Seminoles, 2005: The gift that keeps on giving to the Noles. Rouse, a local product from Tallahassee, admittedly struggled to handle his recruiting process (he was the country's No. 6-rated recruit) and came to FSU with huge expectations. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound receiver played as a freshman for the Noles and flashed some talent but eventually was kicked off the team after being arrested with a teammate and charged with breaking into the apartment of an FSU player. Rouse later transferred to the UTEP Miners, for whom he caught 25 passes, but he left after the season for personal reasons. He almost enrolled at Texas Southern, but that didn't work out, so instead he played this season at tiny Concordia College in Selma, Ala. A few months ago, Rouse was linked to the Noles again as part of an "Outside the Lines" investigation into FSU's academics.

4. Kyle Williams, Iowa Hawkeyes, 2004: The touted linebacker, ranked 14th in the class, had to leave Iowa because of NCAA eligibility clearinghouse issues, so he headed to Milford Academy. He signed with the Purdue Boilermakers a year later and made 28 tackles there. But in 2007, he was sentenced to 37 years in prison for assault.

5. Jason Gwaltney, West Virginia Mountaineers, 2005: One of the most celebrated football recruits to come out of Long Island, Gwaltney was a punishing runner who had offers from coast to coast. He was a five-star back, and the difference between him and '05 WVU classmate Steve Slaton -- a three-star rusher -- is fascinating. Slaton earned All-American honors and has done well with the NFL's Houston Texans. Meanwhile, Gwaltney gained only 186 yards as a freshman (almost 1,000 fewer than Slaton had that season) and then ran into some off-the-field issues. He later played for C.W. Post and resurfaced this season at Kean University, a Division III school in New Jersey, but suffered an ankle injury that sidelined him early.

6. Nate Robinson, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, 2003: Greg Schiano's first blue-chip recruit had committed to Miami but was told he wouldn't be admitted. So he spent two seasons at RU and battled conditioning issues before being dismissed. He then transferred to Akron. He later signed as a free agent with the New York Sentinels of the United Football League but was cut before the season started.

7. Ben Olson, Brigham Young Cougars, 2002: The nation's top quarterback prospect from Southern California picked BYU, redshirted, went on a two-year mission and then transferred home to the UCLA Bruins, where he struggled with some nagging injuries and couldn't beat out Patrick Cowan. However, after Cowan went down with a serious injury, Olson broke his right foot. Then, on the brink of the Bruins' pro day, Olson reinjured his foot and had to sit out. He has not played since.

8. Brandon Jeffries, Tennessee Volunteers, 2002: Touted as arguably the nation's top O-lineman, the North Carolina native never got on the field for the Vols. He transferred to NC State, but didn't make an impact for the Wolfpack. Then he transferred to Division II Newbury College.

9. Ofa Mohetau, BYU, 2003: Mohetau is a bulldozer. The 6-3, 350-pound guard started eight games to begin his career at BYU, but then he was derailed by academic issues and injury. He transferred to the College of the Sequoias in California and then to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, where he didn't contribute much. He has resurfaced recently in the mixed martial arts world, as online reports say he won the Native American heavyweight world championship at the Gladiator Challenge. Interesting stuff.

10. Xavier Lee, FSU, 2004: In a long line of celebrated passer recruits at the Florida schools, "Xavier the Savior" appeared to have as much raw talent as any of them. He threw for more than 9,000 yards in high school and was a two-time Mr. Football in Florida. Trouble was, despite his powerful arm, the nation's No. 10-rated recruit couldn't overtake Drew Weatherford. Lee ended up bypassing his senior season to enter the NFL draft but wasn't invited to the combine. He went undrafted but was signed by the Baltimore Ravens as a tight end. In 2009, he played receiver for the Arkansas Twisters of the Arena Football League 2.

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Florida and Texas inked the two top classes in the nation and, perhaps, two of the best all time on Wednesday's national signing day.

History in the making?

 

Florida and Texas have assembled what may be two of the top classes in recruiting history. How do they stack up against one another?

Category 57.gif251.gif Signees 28 25 ESPNU 150 recruits 17 15 In-state signees 16 22 Top recruit ATH Ronald Powell DE Jackson Jeffcoat Legacy Jordan Hayden (Joe) Case McCoy (Colt)

 

The Gators landed the top class in the country, without a question, having signed 28 players. The Longhorns, however, put together a class of 25 that would have ranked No. 1 in most, if not all, years in recent memory. In fact, the duo put together the top two classes since Scouts Inc. began ranking classes in 2006, combining to snag 32 of the top 150 prospects in the nation. That number includes six of the top 10, 10 of the top 20, and 18 of the top 50 prospects.

Florida's class

 

By the numbers:The Gators signed a record 17 members of the ESPNU 150. The tremendous haul includes four of the top 10 prospects in the country -- No. 1 Ronald Powel (Moreno, Valley, Calif./Rancho Verde), No. 3 Dominique Easley (Staten Island, N.Y./Curtis), No. 9 Matt Elam (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla./Dwyer) and No. 10 Jonathan Dowling (Bradenton, Fla./Southeast).

As impressive as signing four five-star prospects might seem, reeling in 11 of the top 50 prospects in the ESPNU 150 is even more impressive. To put the Gators' haul in perspective, Miami's 2008 top-ranked class included 12 of the top 150 in the country.

Florida also totaled 14 in the top 100, which is more than any top-ranked class signed out of the ESPNU 150 since the rankings of players began by Scouts Inc.

Secondary matters: The Gators signed as many as seven defensive backs, depending on the future home of Matt Elam, whom coach Urban Meyer noted Wednesday will begin his career in the secondary. The list of secondary prospects is made up of two five-stars, three four-stars and two three-stars. Florida more than made up for the departure of corner Joe Haden and safety Major Wright, who opted early for the NFL.

Line on fire: The defensive line haul for Florida also includes two five-star prospects and two four-star prospects.

Sustained success: The top ranking is the second for Florida (the other was 2006). The Gators have finished in the top five in each of the five seasons Scouts Inc. has ranked classes.

 

Texas

 

By the numbers: Texas signed 15 of the ESPNU 150, including six of the top 20 prospects. The Longhorns inked two of the top four prospects in the country in No. 2 Jackson Jeffcoat (Plano, Texas/West) and No. 4 Jordan Hicks (West Chester, Ohio/Lakota West). Hicks is the lone prospect that the Longhorns and Gators battled head-to-head on.

 

rise_e_hicks_200.jpgThomas E. White\ESPN RISE MagazineJordan Hicks is one of the most explosive LBs in the country.

 

 

Front and center: The Longhorns signed the best front seven in the country, featuring two five-star prospects and seven four-star prospects. The otherworldly group includes No. 2 DE Jeffcoat, No. 8 DE Reggie Wilson (Haltom, Texas), No. 23 DE Greg Daniels (Houston/St. Pius X), No. 2 DT Taylor Bible (Corinth, Texas/Denton Guyer), No. 4 DT Ashton Dorsey (Tyler, Texas/John Tyler), No. 27 DT DeAires Cotton (Alief, Texas/Taylor), No. 1 OLB Jordan Hicks, No. 6 OLB Tevin Jackson (Garland, Texas) and No. 9 OLB Aaron Benson (Cedar Hill, Texas). In fact, Texas signed seven future front seven players who are members of the ESPNU 150.

The Longhorns face the task of replacing defensive tackle Lamarr Houston, hybrid end/linebacker Sergio Kindle, versatile linebacker Rod Muckelroy and nose guard Ben Alexander. Those departures might not be a problem. What the freshmen will lack in experience next year they will more than make up for in raw talent and impact playmaking ability.

Reaching new heights: The second-place finish is the highest for the Longhorns since Scouts Inc. has been publishing rankings. Texas finished third in 2006 and '07, 10th in '08 and third in '09.

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Thanks. I find the duplicates hillarious. I also wish it was a top 50 and not a top 10.

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Sometimes narratives take on a life of their own. For instance, let's say there's a player who we'll call "Chris." Let's say "Chris" has a bad year in 2008-09, missing a bunch of games with an injury and playing poorly in many of the others.

Let's say, further, that Chris gets in great shape the following offseason, shows up with a much-improved face-up game and a renewed zeal for scoring in the post, and puts together his best season as a pro. It's a great story, right?

But we can never stop there. We can't just say Chris had a good season ... we have to take it a step further and start campaigning to put him on the All-Star team. "But it's such a good story!" we argue. "How can you ignore it?"

And it is a good story, and it makes us feel really jolly. Except there's another half we don't consider -- that maybe there's another player, or even several players, who have played better than Chris. These other guys have been starved for attention, relatively, because we expected them to be good in the first place. As a result, there's no great story to be told, and thus no reason to start a let's-put-him-in-the-All-Star-Game campaign, but in truth they're more deserving.

If you haven't figured it out yet, "Chris" in this case is Clippers big man Chris Kaman, whom the commissioner selected as an injury replacement to the All-Star team Monday despite the fact that Carlos Boozer, Marc Gasol, Nene and Andrew Bynum are all having better years. Kaman is a great story, yes, but he's also third in PER on a team that's 21-29.

As a result, Kaman becomes our lead item in today's theme: A look at who and what are overrated and underrated so far this season.

With Kaman out of the way, let's take a look at a few other stories that are getting way too much (or too little) attention:

 

434.jpg

Kirilenko

Underrated: The Revival of AK-47

 

When we talk about players who merit consideration for one of the several All-Star spots likely to come open in the Western Conference, I'm surprised Andrei Kirilenko hasn't received more attention. Right now, his bad haircut is getting more airtime than his stellar play, and that's unfortunate.

One of the big reasons behind Utah's recent change in the standings, and in particular the Jazz's improved defensive play, is that Kirilenko has suddenly reverted to his mid-2000s form. Over the past eight games, he's averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting a scalding 72.1 percent from the floor.

That's impressive enough, but what's really notable is how he's filling out the rest of the stat sheet with six rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks per game. It's a throwback to his "5x5" days, except now he's hitting midrange jumpers consistently. Kirilenko's impact has been notable on D, too -- Utah gives up 6.8 points fewer per 100 possessions with him on the court.

As a result, he's been more than able to offset Utah's other issues on the wings -- the nondevelopment of Ronnie Brewer and C.J. Miles, for instance, or the injury to Kyle Korver -- and provide a reliable wingman for the Deron Williams-Carlos Boozer star tandem.

 

nba_g_dumars_65.jpg

Dumars

Overrated: Joe Dumars

 

Let's look ourselves in the mirror, fellow media members: We've all given the guy a free pass because of his amazing run to six straight conference finals and blithely ignored the fact that he's screwed up a hundred ways from Tuesday since he decided to whack Flip Saunders after the 2008 conference finals.

Check out the résumé and find me a correct decision. Just one. Fire Saunders? Wrong. Hire Michael Curry? Wrong. Trade Chauncey Billups? Wrong. Extend Richard Hamilton? Wrong. Sign Kwame Brown? Wrong. Go after Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva? Wrong again.

In two years, the Pistons have gone from one of the best teams in basketball to among the worst. They stink, they're capped out, and they don't have much in the way of young talent; for all we know, in two years they're going to be the Pittsburgh Pisces or the Seattle Grunge or something. If Isiah Thomas or Rob Babcock had done this, we'd have buried them alive by now, so it's only fair for us to point out that regardless of his previous track record, Dumars is on a two-year losing streak of McHalian proportions.

 

568.jpg

Mohammed

Underrated: Nazr Mohammed

 

I'm going to keep talking about this 'til I'm blue in the face because nobody else seems to be catching on to Mohammed's dramatic career turnaround this season. Yes, Cap'n Jack has made an impact; yes, coach Larry Brown has these guys defending like never before; and yes, Gerald Wallace is showing the full arsenal now that he's finally staying healthy.

But I would argue Mohammed is a bigger story than those other guys, and absolutely nobody is talking about him. He was left for dead at the end of the bench last season, and this season he's been killing. The Bobcats lost Tyson Chandler and immediately embarked on a winning streak because Mohammed started channeling Dave Cowens -- how about 23 and 17 against Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, or the fact he's averaging 20.2 points and 12.0 boards per 40 minutes, or that he's shooting 57.3 percent from the field?

Mohammed has been playing only 20-25 minutes a game, which has kept his numbers down and prevented more people from noticing him. While I don't think he's quite this good, I've always believed him to be underrated because of his knack on the boards and ugly-but-effective 10-to-12-foot jumper.

 

1981.jpg

Hinrich

Overrated: Kirk Hinrich

 

I get about 20 e-mail questions a day about Hinrich, which might make sense if he had made a basket at any time in the last month. He is making more than $9 million this season and is shooting 37.7 percent, leaving me scratching my head wondering why fans of other teams still clamor for him.

It's not like this season is some dramatic outlier -- he's shot 41.3 percent for his career. His PERs the past three seasons are 13.41, 13.97 and 10.24, and, I repeat, he makes an average salary of $9 million a year -- not just this year, but next year, and the year after that, when he's 31. Sure, he's an accomplished wing defender, and that has value. But do you really want to kill your team's cap/tax situation by paying this guy star money to shoot bricks and play defense when similar players can be found for a fraction of the price?

Overrated: Steve Nash at 30

 

Hang on ...

 

592.jpg

Nash

Underrated: Steve Nash at 35

 

Steve Nash at 30 was a Big Story. Steve Nash at 35 isn't. But what Steve Nash is doing at 35 is way, way, way more amazing than what Steve Nash did at 30.

For starters, you'd have a hard time proving that the 35-year-old Nash is any worse than the 30-year-old Nash. Compared to his first MVP season in 2004-05, Nash is averaging three more points a game, providing just as many assists and rebounds per minute, and shooting better on 2s, 3s and free throws. He has a good shot at establishing a new career high in PER, not to mention becoming the first player in history to set a career high in scoring at age 35 or older.

Now that we've got that out of the way, go through the archives and find a point guard who did anywhere near as well at Nash's age. I'll just wait here for you to get back to me. ... Still waiting. ... Anything? No?

Truth is, no point guard in history can touch Nash's performance this season. In fact, only one guard prior to Nash has had a PER of 20 or more at the age of 35 or later: John Stockton.

Granted, Stockton did it six times, but the post-35 Stockton never had a year like Nash has put together this season. For starters, Utah managed Stockton's minutes carefully, but Nash is playing 33.5 minutes per game. Moreover, they're hard, active minutes as the engine for a Suns' offense lacking other players who can create their own shot. Second, he's doing it for one of the league's fastest-paced teams. Despite those added requirements, he has the best PER in history for a guard aged 35 or above.

About the only other historic parallel is Lenny Wilkens, who came to Cleveland at age 35 and helped an awful Cavs team become slightly less awful by averaging 20.5 points and 8.4 assists and making the All-Star team. But that was on a 50-game loser; Nash's team might win 50, and he's been their best player. It's unprecedented, and considering all the fawning over him in 2005 and 2006 -- when he wasn't playing any better than he is now -- it's getting shockingly little attention.

 

2751.jpg

Ellis

Overrated: Monta Ellis

 

Ellis is almost the perfect prototype of an overrated player: He's a low-efficiency player who plays a lot of minutes on a fast-paced team, so he ends up with gaudy per-game averages even though he's not advancing his team's cause much.

For starters, take the air out of his Golden State-generated stats and you're dealing with a much less impressive résumé. Ellis averages 26.2 points per game, which ranks sixth in the league and at first glance seems very impressive. But once you adjust for his league-leading 41.7 minutes per game and the hyper pace the Warriors play at, his scoring numbers look much more ordinary. On a per-minute basis, he's not even the best scorer on his own team -- that would be Corey Maggette.

Moreover, if you look at pace-adjusted points per minute, Ellis isn't 6th ... or even 16th. He ranks a mere 18th, placing behind former teammates Jamal Crawford and Al Harrington, among others.

Meanwhile, his efficiency numbers are brutal. Ellis ranks in the bottom half of shooting guards in true shooting percentage, but what's worse is that he doesn't create offense for others. Among shooting guards who have played at least 1,000 minutes, only one -- Denver's J.R. Smith -- has a worse pure point rating than Ellis.

I point out Ellis' startlingly poor offensive efficiency because it's of more than merely academic interest. I'm still dreading he'll be chosen as an All-Star sub (if his own knee injury suffered Monday night isn't serious) since about half of the Western Conference team seems to be on the verge of pulling out of the game, and the lure of the scoring average may be too much for the commissioner to resist.

(That said, an equally awful choice would be Houston's Aaron Brooks, and I've heard as much momentum for picking him as for taking Ellis. Baron Davis is still miles better than both of them even while taking every third night off; he's the obvious choice here. Unfortunately, the league may be reluctant to take a second Clipper, meaning the botched Kaman pick will lead to an equally idiotic outcome in the backcourt.)

 

2747.jpg

Bogut

Underrated: Andrew Bogut

 

Well, let's put it this way: He's been better than Chris Kaman. I left him off my All-Star team, but I think he may have moved past New York's David Lee in the competition to be chosen as a sub. Milwaukee is making a legitimate push to squeeze into the postseason -- my projections have them finishing 42-40 -- which would be a huge development for a team that was thought to be about half a notch above New Jersey before the season started.

Bogut is an underrated key at both ends. Offensively, he's become a go-to guy for the Bucks, thanks to an improving series of jump-hook moves in the lane; he averages 19.7 points per 40 minutes, with reasonable efficiency, and has dramatically cut his turnover rate from last season's unacceptably high levels. He's even making foul shots once in a while, converting a career-best 64.0 percent.

Meanwhile, he's been a key to the Bucks' defense despite an inability to challenge shots at the rim. Bogut specializes in taking charges and plays physical post defense, helping the Bucks rank eighth in the NBA in defensive efficiency despite the fairly limited defensive assets on the Milwaukee roster.

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