If you missed Part 1 of the annual "Who has the highest trade value?" column, click here. This is Part 2.
And yes, I handed it in before Roland Lazenby nearly blew up the Internet with his "I'm hearing the Lakers are trading Pau Gasol" tweet at 3:30 EST on Friday afternoon. Oh, well.
GROUP H: "Thanks Anyway, But He Should Probably Retire With Us (and It Would Be Bad Karma If He Didn't)"
26. Tim Duncan
25. Manu Ginobili
24. Paul Pierce
The inherent flaw of this column: Some guys aren't getting traded for the same reason that you wouldn't trade your kids, your dog or your spouse. [Thinking.] You're right, some people would trade their kids, dog or spouse.1 But once you win a title with someone, you can't just callously cut ties with them. Here's a good example of why I'm right
Let's say Indiana offered Paul George straight up for Pierce — something that's actually conceivable because Indiana is $14 million under the cap right now (and could contend this spring with a short-term Pierce/George upgrade). You're running the Celtics. That trade saves you $12.9 million plus another $8.9 million in luxury tax money in 2012, then puts you $38 million under the cap heading into the 2012-13 season. It doesn't totally ruin this year's season and makes you better defensively. It gives you two-thirds of a pretty sweet under-27 core: Rondo and George. Really, it's a logical deal except you'd be crapping on a future Hall of Famer who just gave you 13 great years, wanted to retire with Boston and planned on going down as one of the six or seven best Celtics ever. That's why Boston would say no, just like the Colts would say no if they had a chance to release Peyton Manning and build around Andrew Luck.
(Hey, wait a second )
GROUP G: "Too Young, Too Cheap, Too Good Stop Calling Me"
23. Ricky Rubio
Poor Ricky played himself out of the top 15 with a ghastly shooting slump (he's down to 35.5 percent shooting for the season) that mushroomed these past eight games (17-for-69), a swoon that would feel like a bigger deal if Jason Kidd didn't shoot 38 percent for his first three seasons. Special players figure it out. Rubio sees the floor differently. He's always a half-step ahead of everyone else, especially defensively. His unselfishness is genuinely infectious in a Bird/Magic kind of way; along with Rick Adelman (it's 1999 Sacramento all over again for him), that's the biggest reason why the Timberwolves have morphed into the league's best passing team. And you can't deny his effect on Nikola Pekovic (a stiff last season) and Kevin Love (now a franchise guy). Watch the Wolves every week and you can't help but mutter, "Those guys look like they're having fun." Yeah, because it's fun to play basketball with Rubio and Love when Adelman is coaching you.
Of course, you can pick apart Rubio's "impact" pretty easily with advanced stats, which actually makes me feel better about basketball as a whole. I'm glad Ricky Rubio can be picked apart. I'm glad he's the 33rd best point guard in PER right now. That reinforces everything I believed about those numbers in the first place. Sometimes, they're going to be a little off. They should be used to accentuate what we're watching, not to single-handedly shape opinions or beliefs. You can't fully measure how teammates relate to one another and fit in with each other; even the five-man plus/minus stat (which I like) only goes so far. We'll always have players and teams defying their metrics. Kyrie Irving is better than Ricky Rubio — we can all agree, right? — but I'm not sure this particular Timberwolves team would be better with Kyrie Irving. That's why I love basketball. It doesn't always make sense. And by the way
A. Minnesota is going to make the playoffs unless somebody gets hurt.
B. Rubio could shoot 30 percent the rest of the way and still be the second-biggest reason it happened. So there.2
22. Mystery Player B
All right, release that thought (from Mystery Player A, ranked no. 32 in Part 1). Contrast these 2011-12 numbers
Mystery Player A: 29.4 MPG, 16.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 BPG, 43% FG, 73% FT, 21 PER
Mystery Player B: 32.7 MPG, 16.4 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 2.5 APG, 0.6 BPG, 50% FG, 79% FT, 23 PER
Slight edge to Player B, right?
OK, so let's say Player B is a normal guy and Player A is an unpredictable loose cannon who may or may not have just gotten his first coach fired a few weeks ago. Now which guy are you taking?
Here's the point: Boogie Cousins gets more hype than Greg Monroe; he got drafted two picks ahead of him; his upside seems like it should be higher; he's more fun to follow; he has a better nickname; and he's always going to seem a little more overpowering when he has it going. In the Grantland headquarters, we've probably had 20 Boogie Cousins conversations and 135 moments where Jay Kang cackled, "I LOVE BOOGIE!!!!" I don't remember anyone discussing Greg Monroe even once. I'm not even sure half our staff knows what he looks like. Just know that Sacramento would flip Boogie for Monroe in a cocaine heartbeat and if the roles were reversed, Detroit would hang up.
GROUP F: "I'm Hanging Up and Calling You Back From a Pay Phone"
21. Andrew Bynum
Has there ever been a better "We'd be selling high if we traded him right now" example? From 2007 through 2011, Bynum played 35, 50, 65 and 54 games. Miraculously, he's played 35 consecutive games this season in a lockout-shortened season, no less! We keep hearing that Jimmy Dolan 2.0 (a.k.a. Jimmy Buss)3 won't trade Bynum because that's his guy, but man, wouldn't it make sense to flip a healthy-right-now-at-this-moment Bynum for a point guard and/or multiple pieces for one last three-year run behind Kobe and Gasol? What am I missing? Could you get Lowry, Chase Budinger and Luis Scola for him? What about Nash and Gortat? What about Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert? What about Josh Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Jeff Teague? What about Elton Brand, Nik Vucevic and Evan Turner for Bynum and cap fodder? What about ?
20. Deron Williams
Yeah, what about Deron Williams??? Isn't "Bynum and Steve Blake for Deron and Johan Petro" the single most logical basketball trade any two teams could make right now? Why aren't the Nets frantically trying to trade Williams for a proven name instead of crossing their fingers for the Dwight/Deron era? Why does Williams seem so content to waste his prime running plays for Lakers castoffs and Kardashian castoffs? Why would he ever in a million years re-sign with the Nets unless he thought someone else was coming? Is someone else coming? Why are NBA insiders equally adamant that (a) Dwight and Deron are going to Dallas, and (b) Dwight and Deron are going to Brooklyn? Why does Jay-Z hold so much sway over this situation when he owns 1 percent more of the Nets than you do? Who's going to root for the Brooklyn Nets when we just proved with Linsanity yet again that everyone in New York loves the Knicks? What's going on here? Seriously, what's going on here? Why can't I stop asking questions? Could someone slap me in the back of the head like a wonky TV screen?
19. Carmelo Anthony
Dear New York Knicks fans,
I know you're a little testy right now because Linsanity was so much fun, and now it's not as much fun. I know it's easy to redirect your anger and angst at someone whose name rhymes with "Bardello." Just remember
A. Your team is struggling because its schedule got tougher post-Linsanity, and because you have a floating bull's-eye on you right now (not because 'Melo came back).
B. You might want to give one of the best pure scorers of the last 20 years a couple more weeks adjusting to TWO new point guards without any real practice time before deciding this situation can't be redeemed (especially when those two point guards are a de facto rookie and someone coming off back surgery who hasn't been relevant in three years).
C. Ask Portland fans what they think of Ray Felton. Ask Denver fans what they think of Timofey Mozgov. You basically acquired Carmelo and the cap space to sign Tyson Chandler for Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler.4 I'm pretty sure ANYONE ON THE F-ING PLANET would make that trade again.
D. You're focusing your frustrations on 'Melo because it allows you to avoid the elephant in the room you know, Amar'e's uninsured/un-amnesty-able/cap-killing contract ($83 million through 2015), his general doughiness, his egregiously awful defense and the fact that he seems a half-step slow permanently. None of this is Carmelo's fault.
E. I went to Sunday's nationally televised Knicks-Celtics game in Boston. Carmelo made what seemed to be the clinching basket; Pierce made a 3 to tie; then Carmelo had a chance to win the game in regulation. As 'Melo was getting off the shot, everyone in the building had a collective slow-motion heart attack. Noooooooooooooooooo! We all thought that shot was going in. In my opinion, seven 2012 players make opposing fans crap their pants in a big moment: Kobe, Wade, Durant, Rose, Dirk, Carmelo and just on reputation alone, Ray Allen. If you employ one of those players, you have a better chance of winning the title than everyone else. That's the way basketball works. Everything slows down, the pressure turns suffocating, games swing on one or two possessions, and playoff series hinge on two questions: "Can you get a stop when it matters?" and "Can you get two points when it matters?" You have the second question covered thanks to Carmelo. You need to work on the first question. In short, I think you should give this a few more weeks. You go 10-deep. Your team is scary. Take a deep breath and enjoy the ride and remember, five years ago, the most riveting Knicks-related story you were following was a sexual-harrassment suit.
President of the "I Still Think Carmelo Can Work in New York" Club5
GROUP E: "You Realize We Could Make the Finals With Him, Right?"
18. Chris Bosh
Someone Who Knows Things told me that — dating back to last summer — Miami's Micky Arison wouldn't even discuss a Howard/Bosh trade with Orlando, which is why you never hear Miami's name mentioned as a possible Dwight destination (and why Dwight conspicuously left them off his trade list). I thought that was interesting. Of course, Chris Bosh isn't THAT good and you know how much I love conspiracies and you know I'll always believe to my dying day that LeBron/Wade/Bosh to Miami was decided weeks and maybe even months before The Decision happened (which certainly explains why the 2010 Heat threw away their season for cap space under the "wishful" thinking that Wade would "hopefully" come back and "maybe" recruit some help) and if that's true, and Bosh was in on it all along and knew where the bodies were buried, wouldn't you be afraid to trade that guy?
(Just nod "yes" so we can move on. Thanks.)6
17. Pau Gasol
This is weird, so bear with me. Somehow, Pau's trade value has become underrated. After the Lakers nearly flipped him for Chris Paul in December, the "they'd never trade Pau" seal was broken and Pau became fair game for any and every trade rumor. Just because they tried to swap him for one of the league's 10 best players — smartly, by the way — doesn't mean they stuck him on Craigslist for the rest of the season. He's still the most skilled offensive big man in basketball and he's only 31. You know you can win a title if he's your second-best player. You know he's one of the few elite guys who can coexist with Kobe. Why trade someone like that? And also, why do I keep giving the Lakers advice? The more I'm thinking about it, trade Pau and keep Bynum — he's made of solid oak!
16. Tony Parker
That whole week of talking heads saying, "I'll tell you who the MVP is right now, it's Tony Parker!" was patently absurd and I'm not dignifying it. If you don't think LeBron is the league's MVP and best regular-season player, I don't know what to tell you — apparently your League Pass is broken. A more interesting angle: Do the Spurs have a Hall of Fame backcourt right now?
You could make a solid case that — factoring in rings (six total for Ginobili and Parker), winning percentage (in the .600s every year), playoff moments (plentiful), All-Star Games (six combined), the international thing (Parker is the best European guard ever; Ginobili is the best South American guard ever),7 styles (each has a couldn't-possibly-be-replicated offensive game), and the fact that both guys aren't close to being done yet (especially Parker) — both guys are headed for Springfield someday. Current backcourts in the Hall of Fame: Cousy/Sharman, Wanzer/Davies, the Jones boys, West/Goodrich, Monroe/Frazier, Isiah/Dumars and we're done.
Group D: "Jeez, I Don't Know We Have Him at Such a Good Price Right Now "
15. Rajon Rondo
Hold on, I have to climb to the highest building in Los Angeles so I can scream this as loudly as I can in all caps: "THE CELTICS AREN'T PANIC-TRADING RAJON RONDO!!!!!!! IT'S NOT HAPPENING!!!! THEY HAVE ONLY TRIED TO TRADE HIM ONE TIME — FOR CHRIS PAUL, ONE OF THE BEST 10 PLAYERS IN THE LEAGUE!!!!! THEY HAVE NO INTEREST IN TRADING A DOLLAR FOR TWO 50-CENT PIECES!!! STOP SAYING OTHERWISE, PEOPLE WHO WRITE/SAY THINGS ABOUT BASKETBALL FOR A LIVING! IF THEY CAN'T GET A BLUE-CHIPPER FOR HIM, THEY ARE KEEPING HIM! MARK MY WORDS!!!!"
The biggest reason why Boston won't trade Rondo: his contract. Four years remaining, $45 million? That's highway robbery.
The second-biggest reason: On TV a few weeks ago, Chris Webber said something that made me say, "I wish I had thought of that first."8 They were talking about trades, and C-Webb pointed out that championship teams are always stubborn. In other words, instead of caving to the whims of their fans, the pressure of the media, the ebbs and flows of a season (or even someone's career) or especially conventional wisdom, they say to themselves, "Screw this, I know what I have, I'm sticking with it."
That's an awesome point. MJ's Bulls always resisted the urge to trade Pippen. Same for the Mavericks (Dirk), Lakers (Kobe), the Celtics (Pierce), Rockets (Hakeem), Lakers (Kareem)9 and even some lesser examples (the Spurs and Tony Parker circa 2010, the Sixers and Allen Iverson circa 2000, etc.). On the flip side, think of the teams who caved and dealt a signature player: Wilt Chamberlain (twice), Charles Barkley, Elvin Hayes, Jason Kidd, Pau Gasol, Dennis Johnson, Moses Malone, Alonzo Mourning, even C-Webb for every Stephon Marbury or Bob McAdoo who doesn't haunt their old team, there are many more Barkley-like examples when the team wasn't stubborn enough to say, "No!!!!!" If we've learned anything from NBA history, it's that you should always be extremely wary about trading a blue-chipper without getting a blue-chipper back.
In Rondo's case, he's been playing in Boston just long enough that every Celtics fan can't help but pick apart his game and yes, I include myself. I have flip-flopped on Rondo more than any sports issue maybe ever. Shit, I might change my mind again before the end of this paragraph. He can't shoot. He's terrified to get fouled — repeat: terrified — which changes how he plays in crunch time (he contorts his body as he's shooting layups to avoid contact). He's been described as "mercurial," "moody," and "an outright dick" behind the scenes. He's also been described as incredibly smart/astute, to the point that nobody would be surprised if he ran his own NBA team someday. He's also mired in a fairly thankless situation, playing on an aging contender with veterans who can't keep up with him; if they kept a statistic for "one-man fast breaks," he'd lead the league.
Don't underestimate the whole Theo Epstein/Larry Lucchino dynamic here; for years and years, Rondo was the "kid," the little brother, the one Pierce, Allen and Garnett teased and bossed around. Remember in Goodfellas when Tommy (Joe Pesci's character) snapped because his former boss kept telling him to go get his shinebox? It wasn't just the comment, it was the lack of respect festering behind it. Tommy knew that, to his old boss, he'd always be the loser who shined his shoes. It bugged him. That's why he flipped out. That's also why Theo left the Red Sox in 2005, and that's the biggest reason why Rondo has such a prickly relationship with Pierce, Allen and Garnett. They knew him when he was 20 years old, when he was holding that shinebox for them. You don't just flip a switch and stop thinking about someone that way.
There's just a lot going on. It's complicated. That's why "Should we trade Rondo?" dominated 70 percent of my conversations in Orlando (All-Star) and Boston (Sloan); I couldn't hash out my own feelings until stumbling across that C-Webb comment. Who knew Chris Webber (traded three times) would emerge as the Yoda of this situation? He's right. It's in Boston's best interests to be stubborn here and I think Danny Ainge knows that better than anyone. With trade rumors swirling before a nationally televised game last Sunday, Rondo unleashed the "full car wash" package: an 18-17-20 box score that only J-Kidd and Oscar in their primes could have replicated, along with just enough contorting-his-body-to-avoid-contact missed layups to make us shake our heads and say, "Damn, he could have had a 30-20-20." Just know that everyone walked out of that building saying, "We are NOT trading Rondo." Which is exactly where we should have been all along.
(Well, unless you could get one of these next 14 guys.)
14. LaMarcus Aldridge
Here's what you're getting: 21 points and eight rebounds a night, decent defense, and someone who needs to be double-teamed (when he's feeling it) at an extremely fair price. You argue he's the most properly paid player in the league: $12.87 million this year; then $14 million, $15.1 million and $16.26 million. And on that note, I'm mailing in the rest of this paragraph just like the Blazers mailed in the 2011-12 season.
13. Marc Gasol
The reason why I stuck him higher than Aldridge, Gasol and Bosh: defense. He's the best all-around player of the four. Always in the right spot, fun to play with, doesn't need the ball too much I mean, Memphis just rolled off a 22-12 stretch in a brutal conference with Gasol as their only reliable rebounder/defender. And he's only 27. And he's properly paid with a contract that seems semi-preposterous on paper (four years, $57 million) unless you're watching what he does every night. I am a fan.10
That reminds me: We'll remember 2012 as the year Eli Manning became the best QB in football, two Clippers started in the NBA All-Star Game, Jeremy Lin saved the Knicks, Tim Tebow won an NFL playoff game with an 80-yard touchdown pass, Marc Gasol passed Pau Gasol in the Trade Value column, and David Kahn got a contract extension and it's not even April yet. The Mayans are having the best "Nobody believed in us!" season ever.
GROUP C: "Lemme Save You Some Time: N-O."
12. Russell Westbrook
11. Kyrie Irving11
A pure financial decision: I'd rather pay Irving $16.1 million from 2012 through 2014 than Westbrook twice as much. Also, if you're scoring at home, I moved past the "deeply regretting ever writing that Cleveland would regret passing on Derrick Williams for Irving" stage and entered the "Maybe I didn't go far enough when I said Kyrie was Kevin Johnson 2.0" stage about three weeks ago. What a gem. Could Cleveland really end up with Kyrie Irving AND Robert Griffin III?
(Add this to the list of kooky things happening in 2012: God no longer hates Cleveland.)
GROUP B: "Only If They Asked to Leave"
10. Dirk Nowitzki
When we taped the B.S. Report with him in Orlando, a beaming Dirk showed up and — as my Grantland colleague Dave Jacoby described it — sat down and basically threw his dick on the table. That "I'm the Finals MVP, we won the title, I came through, I don't have to spend the rest of my life wondering about what-ifs and having everyone pick my career apart" mind-set was practically oozing from his pores.
I can't remember another NBA superstar having his personality transformed by an NBA title; if it happened with, say, Hakeem Olajuwon, I don't remember reading about it. Dirk's next few years will be interesting for historical purposes: In my basketball book, I ranked Bird, Duncan, Havlicek, Baylor, Erving, Pettit, Malone and Barkley as the greatest forwards of all time (in that order). Dirk already leapfrogged the last three; he's about to jump the next three; and if that happens, suddenly he's one of the best 12 or 13 players of all time by any calculation. He's also the greatest international basketball player ever — and actually, you could argue that the distance between Dirk and the next best foreign guy (Gasol, Ginobili) is more like a chasm.12
(Well, unless you count Steve Nash. And I don't. In my opinion, Canada is no less of a foreign country than Texas is. Seriously, who do you have more in common with — Canadians or Texans? I'd trade Texas for Canada in a heartbeat even if the Intercontinental Trade Machine keeps rejecting it.)
9. Kobe Bryant
Pretty interesting career transformation going on here: Kobe slowly morphing into the anti-LeBron, an end-of-the-game killer and basketball-only machine, a man's man who has no problem baiting LeBron during the All-Star Game and derisively telling him, "Shoot the ball" (and threatening LeBron's manhood to some degree). He's done such a savvy job of positioning himself as "The Guy Who Is SO Not Afraid of Big Moments" that it's easy to forget that he's been lousy in big moments (at least this season, as 82games.com tells us). Beyond that, his durability is starting to feel superhuman — you could almost throw "Kobe Bryant injuries" into the Tyson Zone.
Kobe has a concussion and a broken nose? Just give him a mask and some Advil. Kobe broke his left arm in three places? He's listed as "probable" for tonight. Kobe's left leg was severed in a car accident and reattached in a nine-hour surgery? I guess that means he can only play 35 minutes a game instead of 40.
Look, he will never be Jordan. I was there for both. It's not close. But the way Kobe carries himself — at least this season — is starting to feel a little Jordan-esque, especially when you remember that Jordan's greatest feat ever was playing 310 out of 310 games (including playoffs) in a 31-month stretch from November '95 through June '98 (an insanely durable accomplishment that only Kobe could consider pulling off). You know what really impressed me after Kobe's buzzer-beater in Detroit this week? He didn't react even a little. Just walked back to his bench like he knew it was going in. That's the final stage of playing basketball: We watched Bird and Magic get there, and Jordan, and now Kobe. Shaking off a made buzzer-beater? That's when you know you're great. We're watching one of the best basketball careers of all time. Maybe you wouldn't have wanted to play with Kobe Bryant, but you'll always remember him.
8. Chris Paul
7. Dwyane Wade
The dumbest part of the Trade Value column every year: ranking the trade value of guys who will never, ever be traded. By the way, these guys are coming off the bench for the 2012 Olympic basketball team.
6. Dwight Howard
Am I the only one watching Orlando these last few weeks thinking, Wait, with the shooters they have surrounding Dwight right now, couldn't they do a pretty good impersonation of that 2009 Magic team that snuck into the finals? This goes back to the whole "stubborn" point from earlier: Since Orlando doesn't have a killer offer for the league's only overpowering center (and by all accounts, they don't), why not get a little stubborn here, hope you catch fire in the playoffs, then hope your significant financial advantages (thanks to the new lockout agreement) will be enough to sway Dwight to stay? Or does that make too much sense?
Before we get to the Untouchable Five, as promised (from Part 1) here's a link to our blog post of Joakim Noah's hair Photoshopped onto other NBA players. Thanks to Friend of Grantland Neil for the help.
Without further ado
GROUP A: "Completely and Utterly Untouchable"
5. Blake Griffin
4. Kevin Love
One of the best random Trade Value battles I can remember. Let's break it down:
SALARIES: Blake is still playing under his rookie deal (two years, $12.95 million); Love just signed a lucrative extension (four years, $65 million with an out after Year 3). ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
NUMBERS: Blake is averaging 21-11 with 53/20/56 shooting splits and a 23.5 PER; Love is averaging 25.5-14 with 45-37-83 shooting splits and a 25.02 PER on pace to surpass Duncan's best statistical season ever, by the way.13 ADVANTAGE: LOVE
BIGGEST WEAKNESS: For Griffin, his piss-poor free throw shooting (a real issue that's starting to affect his career). For Love, gravity. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
MEDIA SAVVY: Nobody works Twitter/blogs/ESPN/radio shows better than Love, but Blake's marketing plays (especially his Kia campaign) might be the shrewdest in years. Did anyone even know what the hell Kia was 18 months ago? ADVANTAGE: TIE
"SEEING THEM IN PERSON" FACTOR: This hurts because I love watching Love chase down boards with the sonar rebound chip that's implanted in his head. But this is 100 percent true there's a rule at Clippers games (at least in my section) that goes, "Don't leave your seat to pee, eat or drink when Blake is on the court." ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
DEFENSE: Both guys try their hardest; both guys will never be McHale in his prime (or anywhere close). Love is a little further along only because he always seems to be in the right place; you can't say that about Blake. At least not yet. In Blake's defense, his coach is Vinny Del Negro. If I were Blake, I'd use that defense for anything and everything. Even speeding tickets. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
DURABILITY: Not a problem for either but man, Griffin needs to start picking his spots better. When you're trying to win a title, you don't need to go for the Greatest YouTube Highlight Ever every time (especially in blowouts, and especially in traffic). Against Miami, Blake made the mistake of trying to dunk over Joel Anthony from eight feet away — just foolish for about 10 different reasons — and nearly ended up breaking his hip. Law of averages says he's going to get hurt one of these times. (Frantically knocking on wood.) Unless he slows down. Then again, that's my favorite thing about Blake: He goes 110 percent every play. He can't help himself.14 ADVANTAGE: LOVE
FACIAL HAIR: Huge win for Love here. A runaway. I don't think Blake can even grow one of those wispy 20-hair Larry Bird mustaches. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
CRUNCH-TIME CHOPS: A work in progress for Griffin, who can be handled by smarter teams who either swarm him with doubles or dare him to shoot 20-footers (and if he gets into the paint, they just foul him). But here's where Love has been a revelation — he's turned himself into a late-game assassin with his ability to shoot 3s, run high screens with Rubio and even post up with his back to the basket (he killed Kenyon Martin late on Wednesday night). ADVANTAGE: LOVE
NICKNAMES: Blake doesn't really need one; he's just "Blake." (Although "The Blake Show" isn't terrible.) Kevin Love's nickname is his full name said together — he's never called "Kevin" or "Love," just "Kevinlove." Boring category. ADVANTAGE: NEITHER
INTANGIBLES: Has there ever been a better in-game dunker than Blake? I saw MJ, 'Nique, Vince and Kemp in their primes — they never dunked on people as relentlessly and violently as Blake does. Meanwhile, Love has locked up the Mokeski Award15 (see the trophy below) for the second straight year. And, probably, for the rest of the decade. I love this category as much as I hated the last category. ADVANTAGE: GRIFFIN
FINAL VERDICT: Blake is going to keep getting better and better if only because he wants to get better. But Love transformed himself into the league's best power forward and (in my opinion, anyway) the no. 2 MVP candidate behind LeBron. Nobody does more for his team night after night after night. It's true. ADVANTAGE: LOVE
3. Derrick Rose
2. Kevin Durant
Damn, if we weren't edging toward 10,000 words for Parts 1 and 2, I would have broken this one down, too. Allow me a couple of quick thoughts
• Over the next few years, we're going to make a big fuss about Kobe becoming the first player to pass 40,000 career points. Just remember, Kevin Durant is closing in on 10,000 points (he'll get there by mid-April) and he's only 23 years old.
• This is a weird comment that can't be backed up but I'm making it anyway: I don't think any NBA fan base loves a player more than Bulls fans love Derrick Rose. If you went into a Chicago sports bar and started trashing Rose during a Bulls game, you'd get beaten up and left for dead in an alley.
• You'd never think of these guys as our next Bird-Magic rivalry but when you remember their ages (23), mind-sets (basketball-only, all the time, nothing else matters), positions (one's a guard, the other's a forward), conferences (one East, one West), situations (contenders for each), characters (everything they do is about their team), styles (balls-to-the-wall all the time), crunch-time chops (significant) and humility (you never hear either of these guys talk about himself as a brand, just a basketball player), suddenly that Bird-Magic tag isn't so farfetched. Kobe mentioned recently that he never had a "rival," which was technically true (although I blame Vince and T-Mac for not holding up their ends of the bargain). Rose and Durant have each other. Maybe. Regardless, whenever I think to myself, I love this season, I love the league and I love where we're headed, I think of these two guys first. A good sign for the future.
1. LeBron James16
Stick a fork in the 2012 MVP race. A 28-8-7 with 55/39/79 splits, world-class defense and a staggering 33 PER? Child, please. We spend so much time picking the Regular-Season King apart that it's easy to lose sight of the bigger picture — only Bird, Magic, Kareem, Russell and Wilt ever won three MVP awards in four years. I find it interesting that
A. If you're starting a "Which Players Peaked With the Best Four-Year Runs?" discussion, you'd have to include 1984-87 Bird (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1987-90 Magic (3 MVPs, 2 titles); 1990-93 Jordan (2 MVPs, 3 titles);17 1961-64 Russell (3 straight MVPs, 4 titles); 1965-1968 Wilt (3 straight MVPs, 1 title); and 1971-74 Kareem (3 MVPs, 1 title).
B. LeBron would have a chance for four straight MVPs if The Decision didn't unleash last spring's "I just don't feel right about voting for him, I'm picking Derrick Rose" backlash that eventually corrupted too many voters and media people. Including me. Nobody has ever won four straight MVP awards. 2009-12 LeBron and 1990-93 Jordan probably came the closest. And Russell was the only one who won four MVPs in five years.
C. You may have noticed that everyone else on that "three MVPs in four years" list won at least one title. So if Miami blows the title this spring, LeBron really will be making history. No pressure or anything.