In Phoenix, the NBA season is now about rooting against the Lakers - so as to land a second lottery pick - and looking for morsels of improvement like the franchise saw nine years ago with Joe Johnson and Leandro Barbosa at the close of a 29-53 season.

The rest of the league still has a good product. With eight weeks to go, races are tightening for playoff spots and award slots.

Beast leads the East

Miami had a bit of a post-championship coast on the defensive side in the fall but was so dominant offensively that it never showed vulnerability. New York and Indiana are nice success stories while Brooklyn was dangerous only on paper. The Heat have no challenger, save for Derrick Rose returning to Most Valuable Player form when - and if - he returns to Chicago this season.

The race in the East should have been Boston holding onto playoff position without Rajon Rondo, but the Celtics have gone 8-1 without him and beaten Miami, Denver, Chicago and both Los Angeles teams to do so. That leaves eighth-place Milwaukee to stave off Philadelphia, which is not nearly the threat it appears. The 76ers are 10-20 in their past 30 games and might never see Andrew Bynum play a game there.

Quest to join West's best

As wonderfully top-heavy as the West is with San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers, no story line demands more attention than the Lakers. Like the Showtime network, this supposed reincarnation of Showtime Lakers merits the "Brace Yourself" slogan.

The Suns have a vested interest, with the Suns getting a lottery pick from the 25-29 Lakers if L.A. misses the playoffs or Miami's pick if L.A. makes the playoffs. Dwight Howard's healthy and maturity are lacking. Pau Gasol is out. Kobe Bryant is a stubborn 34. Steve Nash might as well be Steve Blake for what he is minimized to doing. The Lakers are 3 1/2 games out with two teams to jump and Dallas to hold off, but they have a helpful closing schedule.

Meanwhile, you really thought San Antonio was going away? Again? Even after the warnings about Tim Duncan looking healthier and the reminder that they were No. 1 last year?

Most Valuable Player

Kevin Durant and Chris Paul are MVP-quality players who fill the urge to award someone new, but LeBron James is the ridiculously improving MVP.

Durant improved across the board, too, and will win a fourth consecutive scoring title. Paul is second in assists, first in steals and first in team need. But James is on another plane.

James would join Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan as four-time MVPs. For a sixth consecutive season, James improved his field-goal percentage. He is at 56.5 percent, astounding for a perimeter player taking 18.4 shots per game. He is a better shooter, post player, playmaker and defender than ever.

Coach of the Year

This is tight between what Tom Thibodeau has done in Chicago without Derrick Rose, and what Frank Vogel has done in Indiana without Danny Granger. Both do it with defense, but the Pacers' defense and record is better, so the pick is Vogel, whose work last season was award-worthy, too.

Rookie of the Year

If you want hope for the Suns' draft position to land a star, look at how Portland point guard Damian Lillard went No. 6 and has separated himself with the rare polish of a four-year player and a well-rounded offense.

Sixth Man Award

Veteran sentimentality and Los Angeles hype is pushing the Clippers' Jamal Crawford for this award, but Golden State point guard Jarrett Jack is deserving. Crawford is inefficient and erratic, while Jack averages 13.0 points and 5.8 assists, shoots 47 percent and finishes games with the ball.

Most Improved Player

It would be fantastic to see New Orleans point guard Greivis Vasquez win, going from the 28th pick to Memphis backup to third-ranked assists man. Only Indiana's Paul George can deny that because he became a two-way star for a top team that lost its star.

Defensive Player of Year

Chicago's Joakim Noah even brought it in the All-Star Game. He only knows how to play one way, and the Bulls' defense revolves around his versatility to cover the post and the perimeter.


• Who: Suns at Trail Blazers

• When: 8 p.m.


• Radio: 1490-AM