Kiki’s NBA cuts (Dec. 26)

Christmas came early for a few teams in the NBA this year.

The Dallas Mavericks got their star Dirk Nowitzki back. He is a perennial All-Star and the best-shooting seven-footer in the history of the game. Does he make them a contender? I think not, but he at least makes the rebuilding Mavericks legitimate.

Guard Ricky Rubio made an early return for the surprisingly good Minnesota Timberwolves. Rubio is one of the most exciting young playmakers in the game and ups the ante for the Timberwolves in a very tough Western Conference.

The biggest gift this year came for the Los Angeles Lakers. Imagine the D’Antoni household on Christmas morning and young D’Antoni opens up his big gift. It is a healthy Steve Nash. “I have been waiting for this since I got to Los Angeles,” D’Antoni said.

Nash makes it all work in D’Antoni’s revamp of the struggling Laker team. The Mamba’s fangs got a little bit sharper and might just last a little bit longer. Superman took off his Clark Kent outfit and his cape flew high across the Staples Center. Metta World Peace is a little sharper and even Pau Gasol came back to the party.

The Lakers have won two games in a row and beat the hot-shooting New York Knicks on Christmas Day in Los Angeles. They looked like a championship-caliber team for the first time all year. They played together as a unit from start to finish.

More importantly, they actually look like they enjoyed playing together. Although Nash did not have a spectacular game statistically, he was, as D’Antoni prophesied, the missing piece that made everything work.

The Lakers even found a cure for their anemic bench. No, they did not go out and make any trades or acquire new players. They just created a bench by putting World Peace, who has been the most consistent Laker after Kobe Bryant, on the second unit.

This is not a demotion, but a reconfiguration. The Laker’s best five is still, Nash, Bryant, World Peace, Gasol and Howard. These five will play the bulk of the minutes and finish teams, which is most important. For all his idiosyncrasies, World Peace is a great team basketball player.

Does that mean that everything is okay in Laker land? Not if you count their in-house rivals, the Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers are on a current 14-game winning streak, the longest in the NBA.

They hold the best record in the NBA, have the best bench in the NBA and have two superstars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that apparently cannot be stopped. This is shaping up to be the greatest basketball rivalry in Los Angeles history.

Game changers

Paul and Miami Heat forward LeBron James have been named NBA players of the week. Earlier this year, I spoke with Heat President Pat Riley. He stated that both of these guys were game changers.

From the moment that both of them arrived to their respective teams, each team was transformed. The Heat instantly became one of the best teams again in the NBA and won a world championship within two years. Before Paul arrived at the Clippers, they struggled.

The day he stepped on the court, their team was a contender. He has changed the dynamic of this team, given them a winning attitude and just flat made everybody around him better.

Sixth man of the year
In deference to Oklahoma City’s Kevin Martin, there really is only one place to look so far for the NBA sixth man award – the Los Angeles Clippers bench.

Earlier in the year, Jamal Crawford was the runaway candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award. He has been the leading scorer for the Clippers most of this season and has won five to six games with his hot shooting.

It is not that he has cooled off at all, it is that some of his teammates have really stepped up their game. Matt Barnes has always been a tough, scrappy competitor.

He was a valuable bench performer for the Los Angeles Lakers last year. But this year he has assumed an even bigger role. Still the chippy defender, he is now averaging over 10 points a game and has been nothing short of spectacular during the Clippers’ 14-game win streak.

Eric Bledsoe could be the best non-starting point guard in the NBA. Every time he enters the game, he changes the defensive energy of the Clippers. He is the leader in the NBA in steals per 48 minutes. It is amazing to have Paul, who leads the NBA in steals and his backup Bledsoe, on the same team.

This year, there may have to be a new award given to the overall outstanding bench of the Clippers.

Fantasy tip of the week
Rookie Alexey Shved of the Minnesota Timberwolves has quietly been making tremendous improvements. His averages for the year are modest, with 10.3 points, 2.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists and .8 steals but he has shown excellent passing ability and defense.

He has also shown that he is not afraid to compete and take big shots. With Rubio back the lineup, I look for his numbers to continue their upward swing.