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AN NBA ASSESSMENT

Tonight is the NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, meaning it's the perfect time to look at what has happened so far this season and take a guess or two as to what might happen the rest of the way.

Three most surprising teams

New Orleans Hornets

We all knew the West was loaded with championship contenders - the Mavs, Suns and, of course, the defending champion Spurs - but would you have bet and do you even realize that if the playoffs started today, the Hornets would be the No. 1 seed in the West?

Portland Trail Blazers

We all thought they would be okay when they drafted Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick. Then we thought they would be awful again when Oden went down with a season-ending injury before the first game. But, turns out, they are okay: 28-24 at the break.

Los Angeles Lakers

We were tempted to say the Magic was a surprise, and it has been, but even with Kobe Bryant, who would've thought the Lakers would be an impressive 35-17 at this point?

Three most disappointing teams

Miami Heat

Forget the whole Shaq injury mess, any team with Dwyane Wade playing and Pat Riley coaching should not be 9-42. Seriously, 9-42?

New Jersey Nets

With Jason Kidd and Vince Carter back again, the Nets were picked by some to contend with the Celtics in the Atlantic Division. It has gone so bad (23-30) that the Nets are finally giving up on the whole Kidd-Carter experiment.

Chicago Bulls

Another team some thought would contend for a conference championship. The Bulls will be lucky to get hot and even sneak into the playoffs.

Three teams to beat in the East

1. Boston Celtics. Everyone knew they would be good, but this good? They've lost nine times in 50 games and three came in a four-game span in mid January. Throw that out little hiccup and they're 40-6.

2. Detroit Pistons. Every season it looks as if they are going to fade back to the pack and every season they stay at the top. This season, they're 39-13 and no one - not even the Celtics - wants to play a team with this much postseason experience in the playoffs.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers. Any team with LeBron is a threat to reach the Finals. (See: last season.) And consider this: They are 2-1 against the Celtics this season.

Three teams to beat in the West

1. San Antonio Spurs. Until someone actually beats them when it counts (the playoffs), how can you not pick them as the team to beat in the West? Or the NBA, for that matter?

2. Phoenix Suns. Call us crazy, but we like the trade for Shaq. Hey, at least they are trying something because the old way (winning a zillion regular-season games and losing in the playoffs) wasn't working.

3. Dallas Mavericks. If this Jason Kidd deal ever goes through, then they might just be the team to knock off the Spurs.

Coach of the year

The logical pick is Doc Rivers of the Celtics. But, really, how hard is it to send Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce onto the floor and say, "Play?'' Meantime, Portland's Nate McMillan rallied a young team even after it lost Greg Oden for the season.

1. Nate McMillan, Trail Blazers

2. Byron Scott, Hornets

3. Doc Rivers, Celtics

Defensive player of the year

Bruce Bowen of the Spurs has a well-earned reputation for being the best defender in the NBA. But there are a couple of players whose defense goes unnoticed because they are so good offensively. We won't let them go unnoticed.

1. Kevin Garnett, Celtics

2. Kobe Bryant, Lakers

3. Bruce Bowen, Spurs

All-NBA Team

Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers

Chris Paul, G, Hornets

Amare Stoudemire, C, Suns

LeBron James, F, Cavaliers

Kevin Garnett, F, Celtics

Second team

Steve Nash, G, Suns

Allen Iverson, G, Nuggets

Dwight Howard, C, Magic

Tim Duncan, F, Spurs

Dirk Nowitzki, F, Mavs

Second-half preview in 60 seconds

The Cavs and Pistons will duke it out to see who plays the Celtics in the Eastern Conference final. The Pistons will win, not that it matters because the Celtics will win the East.

In the West, the battle royal will end with the Spurs surviving, even if the Mavs do eventually acquire Jason Kidd.

That sets up a Celtics-Spurs final. San Antonio will be going for its fifth title in 10 years, but it will be the Celtics winning their first NBA title since - geez, has it been this long? - 1986.

Most valuable player

Could it be that Kobe Bryant of the Lakers is so good that he is actually underrated? It's almost as if we expect him to play incredibly so when he does, we barely even notice. He's second in the league in scoring (28 per game) behind LeBron James and he has been the Lakers' leading scoring in 41 of their 52 games.

1. Kobe Bryant Lakers

2. LeBron James Cavaliers

3. Chris Paul Hornets

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