I get by with a little help from my friends

For this latest Opinion Corner I had to enlist the help of a good friend of mine, as he simply knows more about the NBA than I do. Take a read and leave comments if you see fit.

It’s roughly the halfway point in the NBA season and I figured I’d call in a great NBA mind to help me out here as we chat about the league so far.

NBA guru and my fantasy basketball commissioner Derek Warrington from Madison, Wis., is chatting live with me as I write this. The first question is who is the NBA’s most surprising team at this point in the season?

This writer is going to go with this year’s fountain of youth, The New York Knicks. The Knicks are boasting a 23-11 record and atop the Atlantic division in the Eastern Conference. Veterans like Rasheed Wallace and Jason Kidd are giving life to a team that will only be burdened with Amare Stoudemire’s return. Never thought I’d type that.

As for Derek: “Hands down, Mark Jackson’s Golden State Warriors. For a team long considered to be jockeying for lottery ball position rather than playoff position, Jackson has found a unit of solid, unselfish players to mold into his defense-first coaching scheme.”

The Los Angeles Clippers are another surprise, much to the dismay of the worst owner in professional sports, Donald Sterling. The Clippers are ahead of the Warriors and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers. Can this team prevail, or will the Clips crash and burn?

“If by prevail you mean make it to the conference finals, then yes. I think you need a marked improvement from Blake Griffin on the defensive end before the Clippers can expect to take Oklahoma City down. His plus/minus numbers simply aren’t conducive to NBA titles, they’re Amar’e-esque.”

Speaking of the Thunder, Kevin Durant is one of the top three players in the league and nothing seems to be slowing them down, even with James “Beardzilla” Harden lighting it up in Houston. OKC seems to be a lock to make it to the conference finals, are the Clips the only squad that can beat them?

“You can’t forget about the ageless San Antonio Spurs and the quintessential dark horse Memphis Grizzlies. I think the only four contenders in the West will all finish in the top four and square off for the ultimate prize — taking down LeBron.”

Back to the East, are the Knicks for real? Standings-wise the Bulls seem like the only other contender and Derrick Rose hasn’t even returned yet. Brooklyn and Boston have the goods, but I don’t think they can make it to Miami without squeaking by in a seven-game series before the conference finals.

“It looks like it’s Miami’s conference to lose. The biggest question mark in the East this year is how long will it take Derrick Rose to return to his MVP form? There may not be enough time this season.”

Let’s make a prediction for the finals. We both agree Miami will be playing for back-to-back championships. But the West is clearly up for grabs. I’m taking the Thunder to prevail in six this time. Dare I bet against King James?

“I’m with you. (Serge) Ibaka’s improvements will prove to be the difference.”

However, not all teams are contenders. Some like the Milwaukee Bucks and Minnesota Timberwolves just hope to make it to the playoffs. Milwaukee skipper Scott Skiles, left in a mutual agreement with the team on Tuesday. Can the Bucks still grab a low seed?

“Yes, but they’ll never contend.”

Minnesota is also playing .500 ball, but the team has been ravaged by injuries. Can we stick a fork in the Wolves? Or will they still surprise the talking heads and grab a 7- or 8-seed?

‘They need Kevin Love healthy. His upcoming MRI will reveal the team’s destiny. If he’s out, they’re out.”

Finally Damian Lillard is turning heads on a youthful Portland team. He was my pick for NBA Rookie of the Year. Can we lock that up for the young man if he stays healthy?

“I wouldn’t count Anthony Davis out yet, but if Lillard can drag his team into the playoffs, count on it.”

Ben Rodgers is a frequent contributor to the Opinion Corner