One of the most impressive traits of Johnson's rise from a solid all-around player into a franchise talent has been his ability to keep up his increasingly-brilliant production while still playing big minutes every night. The 25-year-old hasn't missed a game since his rookie season, has averaged 40 minutes a game for each of the the last three seasons and is averaging 41.8 minutes as Atlanta's go-to scorer this year.
We like Milwaukee guard Maurice Williams, who has developed from a second-round draft pick (like Redd) into a rock solid scoring point guard. Still, it was a little unnerving to watch the Bucks run their offense last week. Though Milwaukee won two of three games, Williams took 45 shots (making just 11, a 24 percent clip), while Redd shot but 46 times (making twice as many from the floor). Redd's still averaging a shade under 30 points per game, but Williams needs to know when to call it a night, and work on moving the ball toward his All-Star teammate.
Like Carmelo Anthony, Howard is racking up the turnovers (3.2 per game), but relative to the amount of possessions he takes part in, Howard's cough-ups are hurting the Magic more than Anthony's bobbles cost the Nuggets. The Orlando center is turning it over on 18.1 percent of the possessions he uses up, 11th-worst in the NBA, and he's the only potential All-Star among the 25 worst-by-percentage offenders. Nevertheless, he's leading the Eastern Conference's best team in scoring (17.3), rebounds (13.2) and blocks (2.1), and Friday marks his 21st birthday.
Our biggest complaint in years past with Kobe's dogged ways had little to do with the amount he was scoring, or the fact that he wasn't racking up Magic Johnson-level assists. It had more to do with his dominance of the ball, forcing himself onto every possession and not making himself more of a threat away from the rock. Kobe is averaging nearly 10 fewer shot attempts per game this season (17.6 to 27.2), in comparison with his legendary '05-06 run, but his assists totals are about the same. And yet he's never been more helpful to L.A.'s triangle offense. Force the defense to pay attention to you, Kobe, even if you stay on the weak side for 24 seconds, and watch the wins (12 by the Lakers, in 18 games) pile up. His game has grown up.
More than ever, AI is starting to remind us of Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, whose reams of brilliant work was surrounded by a (mis)cast of no-names and never-weres. For every Mr. Robinson's Neighborhood (31.2 points), James Brown impression (7.3 assists) or Buckwheat sighting (2.2 steals), you have to sit through the stylings of Tony Rosato (Kevin Ollie), Charles Rocket (Chris Webber, still convinced of his stardom). All the while the beleaguered boss upstairs (with SNL's Jean Doumanian as Sixesr GM Billy King) fritters away with the franchise.
It was touch-and-go for a while as to whether or not Bosh's hot rebounding start was a fluke or the natural progression of a talented 22-year-old in his fourth NBA season. Though Bosh has always had the tools to post high rebounding numbers earlier in his career, he had averaged just 8.5 caroms in 36.6 minutes heading into '06-07. Bosh has obliterated that mark so far this season, averaging 12.2 a game. And it appears as if he'll stay consistent with his newfound glass acumen, as the Raptors All-Star has pulled at least 10 boards in all but four games this season. Even accounting for Toronto's increased pace; Bosh has done a fantastic job holding the fort down low for the Raptors.
Paul re-joins the Top 20 this week after a strong three games that saw him working the hardest to get the punchless Hornets offense on track. The pro sophomore is averaging 22.3 points, 13.3 assists, seven rebounds and four steals over his last three games, while making monsters out of Jannero Pargo (22 points against the Lakers on Wednesday) and Rasual Butler (22.7 points over his last three contests). Even with Bobby Jackson and Peja Stojakovic on the injured list (huge shockers, there), Paul has the Hornets above .500.
Arenas' Wizards finally won their first road game of the season on Wednesday night, a pitiful reality for a team that should have had enough to win its division this year. Even worse, the W came in Madison Square Garden, against a Knicks squad that has won just two of 10 games at home this year -- the worst mark in the NBA. Arenas scored 38 in that game, two days after dropping 38 in a win over the Dallas Mavericks. Washington has won four of five and needs to build off that Pyrrhic (at best) road victory.
Carter's had a strong December, averaging 30.7 points, 5.3 boards and five assists for a Nets team that is obviously (as evidenced by the 157-point explosion on Thursday night) moving away from its defensive roots in order to stand a chance even in the pitiful Atlantic. He's also gotten in the ear of headstrong and shot-happy rookie Marcus Williams, imploring the youngster to act more as a playmaker off the bench. Williams responded Thursday night with his second-best night (18 points, five assists) as a pro.
Boston's All-Star has had a pitiful December thus far, reminding us of his absolute low as a player: the mopefest that was the '03-04 season. Pierce sleep-walked through games that year, and though his recent play in losing efforts doesn't resemble that season's dregs, Pierce looks ready to throw his hands up in frustration every time downcourt. As the C's have lost four straight, Pierce was a no-show down the stretch in a loss to the Raptors last Friday (though he dished nine assists), he was completely dominated by Luol Deng in a loss to Chicago on Tuesday (scoring single digits for the first time all year) and was forced into nine turnovers by the dogged Dahntay Jones against Memphis on Wednesday night.
On the cusp: Elton Brand, Emeka Okafor, Baron Davis