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Halftime thoughts and Magic moments // Assessing NBA's best at the midway point

The second half of the NBA season begins tonight, with 20 of 27 teams dusting off the rust that settled in from the All-Star break. While awaiting the next tipoff, I'll clean out another notebook from the first half of my first NBA season: Best player: If personable Karl Malone of Utah played in New York, he would probably host a talk show to rival Geraldo, much less be considered the best player in the game. If Patrick Ewing played in Utah, would anybody care? Mailman Malone is playing better than anybody, including people named Ewing, Magic, Jordan and Bird.

Best of everything: If Michael Jordan isn't the best player in the NBA this year, it's only because he has been asked to do less by Chicago coach Phil Jackson. Jordan is the NBA's most exciting player, its most popular player, its best draw (Chicago plays to 100 percent capacity on the road) and he may be the game's greatest scorer who's not a center. He again leads the league in scoring, ahead of Karl Malone.

Best team: The Lakers have the best record, but defending champion Detroit still could have the best squad, at least at the defensive end.

The Lakers and Pistons have split their two games, and are on a collision course to meet in the finals for the third consecutive year.

Since the Lakers have the best record, make them the best team. For now.

Worst team: The New Jersey Nets, with two talented 7-footers in the lineup, have won just 12 games.

Best coaching job: Rookie coach Stu Jackson has done a wonderful job under pressure in New York. Sure, he has Patrick Ewing. But unlike Rick Pitino, the coach before him, Jackson smartly inserted Ewing as the focal point of the offense.

Worst coaching job: New Jersey's Bill Fitch. See above note.

Best rookie: San Antonio center David Robinson. Sure, the guy has been out of college for two years. But he sat out both of those years, remember?

Best shot: Even under protest, Trent Tucker's three-point bomb lifting New York over Chicago, although tainted, was a work of art. The league has since ruled that it's physically impossible to catch a pass, turn and shoot in one-tenth of a second, as Tucker did, but there's no denying it was a clutch hoop. Besides, commissioner David Stern upheld the basket and the New York victory.

Best dunk: The best dunk didn't even count. It happened last Saturday in the slam-dunk competition at Miami Arena. Sacramento guard Kenny Smith, competing in the final round against Dominique Wilkins, bounced the ball between his legs off the backboard, then turned, caught the ball and jammed it down with his back to the basket. The judges gave it 49.7 out of a possible 50. I dare Kenny to try that in a game. Then they'd have to give him a perfect score.

Best Magic moment: That's easy. The Orlando Magic beating New York in the new franchise's second game ever. But what about the Magic's coming back from 25 points to beat Cleveland two days later? Or beating powerful Utah 119-97 at Utah?

And how about the Magic beating the Lakers and Chicago Bulls within a 10-day period in December? And don't forget that win over San Antonio. Or the one just last week against Philadelphia. Come to think of it, scratch that first thought.

Best Magic month: That's easy. The Magic went 7-7 in November, including four wins over playoff teams and two against expansion clubs.

Worst Magic month: That's even easier. The Magic went 2-13 in December, but who can remember with victories over the Lakers and Bulls?

Best Magic player: Strictly by the numbers, it's either forward Terry Catledge or guard Reggie Theus. Catledge leads the Magic in scoring (20.0), Theus is No. 2 (19.7).

Both players, however, are limited - Catledge by the lack of a true center; Theus by age (32). Two years from now, if the Magic still doesn't have a big-time center, the team's best player could be rookie Nick Anderson. Or the next No. 1 draft pick.

Best game by a Magic player: Catledge scored a club-record 49 points against Golden State. But the Magic lost the game. With that in mind, point guard Sam Vincent's 21 points, 11 rebounds and 17 assists in a 129-111 win over Indiana ranks as the most outstanding performance.

Who said Central Florida sports fans only know football? Of the Magic's 24 games at Orlando Arena this season, 23 have been sellouts (15,077).

Nobody's perfect: The one non-sellout crowd at Orlando Arena? The game with the Portland Trail Blazers, who have the second-best record in the NBA (33-13) and two of the game's best players (Clyde Drexler and Buck Williams). Magic fans have some catching up to do.

I can understand their fascination with hustling guard Scott Skiles every time he comes into a game. But cheering madly when he commits silly fouls? Surely, they can put their vocal cords and hand claps to better use.

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