No joke. Neither is this: The most influential player in the NBA over the last six weeks might well be perimeter sharpshooter Kyle Korver. As soon as the 6'7" Ashton Kutcher look-alike went to Utah from Philadelphia in a Dec. 29 trade, the Jazz took off; through Sunday it had won 17 of its 20 games with Korver in uniform to establish itself as a solid contender. Yet it's easy to overlook coach Jerry Sloan's team in the fully loaded West. Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, the third- and fourth-leading scorers in the NBA, respectively, have the 31--19 Denver Nuggets in the hunt. Yao Ming has been Wow Ming over the last month, reenergizing a Houston Rockets team (30--20) that was in free fall entering the new year. "You put Houston in the East," says Miami Heat center Mark Blount, "and they'd be a two or three seed." Too much has been made of Golden State's free-agent signing of Chris Webber, who turns 35 on March 1, but the Warriors (30--20) were a dangerous team even before they landed veteran insurance for their frontcourt.
Although the Celtics and the Detroit Pistons might demur, any of those second-tier Western teams would be a threat to win the East, never mind the powers at the top of the conference. Whether or not you like the Shaq deal, only a fool would count out Phoenix. The thought that Bryant will cede some of the offensive responsibility to Gasol in L.A. and come into the postseason rested is frightening—in their four games together through Sunday, Bryant has averaged 21.5 points and Gasol 19.5.
The Dallas Mavericks (34--16) are good and trying to upgrade; they were identified by several sources as bridesmaids in the Shaq deal and were still actively pursuing New Jersey Nets point guard Jason Kidd at week's end (page 39). Even Kidd-less, the Mavs, who had the best record in the league last season, are formidable. "Dallas has really gotten better," says Philadelphia 76ers guard Willie Green, "even though it doesn't seem like it."
One team that hasn't improved is the San Antonio Spurs, but then, they are the defending champs. The Spurs were 32--17 at week's end and looking up at the Suns, Hornets, Mavs and Lakers. San Antonio can't seem to keep its Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili on the floor together—collectively, they've missed 19 games—and its acquisition of backup point guard Damon Stoudamire off the waiver wire paled in comparison with the moves made by L.A. and Phoenix. But if Parker comes back after the All-Star Game recovered from a left-heel injury, the Spurs will be dangerous in the spring. As Sixers forward Reggie Evans puts it, "The Spurs are one of a kind."
The Portland Trail Blazers were the fave flavor of the first half of the season; despite going 6--9 in their last 15 games, they will still battle for the eighth playoff spot if All-Star guard Brandon Roy stays healthy. Even if Portland doesn't make the postseason, the transformation from Jail Blazers to Hail Blazers—the Rose Garden is once again filled almost to capacity nightly—has been one of the feel-good stories of the year. And next season Greg Oden takes the court.
IN TERMS of revival, though, no one can match the story in New Orleans, where the vibe seems even more upbeat in comparison with the stagnant atmosphere in San Antonio, Dallas and, until the arrival of the Big Standup, Phoenix. The elite teams in those cities have labored under something unfamiliar to the Hornets' franchise: the weight of expectations. "Everybody keeps telling me how unhappy we are, so we keep telling ourselves the same thing," says Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, whose club was four games off last year's pace through 50 games. "Truthfully, we're not that unhappy. But we're not as happy as New Orleans."
Part of the challenge for the Hornets, who finished 39--43 and out of the playoffs last season, is to believe that they truly belong. New Orleans has adopted a we're-not-all-that-surprised attitude about its rise, but really, the players are a little surprised. "CP [Chris Paul] and I always talked about closing the gap with the best teams in the West," says West. "We knew if we could stay healthy and stay together, we could do it, and it looks like we've done it. Just maybe a little quicker than we thought."
Quicker because they were a team of question marks at the beginning of the season. West and center Tyson Chandler, both still developing, still learning, were never considered surefire stars. No one knew if small forward Stojakovic could recover his elite-player status after missing 96 games in the past three seasons, including all but 13 last year after back surgery. And was Scott—who never received much credit for leading the Nets to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and '03, getting fired for his efforts after feuding with Kidd—the one to mastermind this daunting job in the wild West? "Patched together" is the way Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams describes the Hornets.
In one area, though, there was no question mark—point guard. Paul, the 2006 Rookie of the Year, gets into the lane almost at will with a herky-jerky change-of-pace dribble and confounds defenders by darting in front of them once he gets a step. He's no Nash as a pure shooter (he was hitting 34.0% of his threes through Sunday compared with Nash's 47.0%), but he's better on the run and has a deadly teardrop bank shot, particularly from the right side. "It all begins with CP," says Stojakovic, "and everybody on our team knows it."
Paul's numbers (20.4 points, 10.9 assists, 2.57 steals) only begin to suggest his importance. What he's doing in New Orleans is analogous to what Nash did in Phoenix in 2004--05, when he won the first of two straight MVPs: lift a downtrodden team to elite status. New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas paid Paul, 22, the ultimate compliment earlier this season, telling Hornets assistant Darrell Walker, an old Pistons teammate, "I don't know whether I was that good when I was his age."