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The road ahead (cont.)

Posted: Thursday January 24, 2008 4:47PM; Updated: Thursday January 24, 2008 6:21PM
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Players who need to step up over the second half

Kirk Hinrich was a big part of the Bulls' struggles during the first half of the season.
Kirk Hinrich was a big part of the Bulls' struggles during the first half of the season.
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Larry Hughes, Cavaliers: He's far too good to continue shooting a career-low 33.5 percent.

Tracy McGrady, Rockets: In and out of the lineup with injuries amid rumors that he isn't happy in Houston, McGrady needs to provide playmaking to lead the talented Rockets through their coaching transition and into the playoffs.

Andrea Bargnani, Raptors: His numbers have dipped as a sophomore, but look for him to elevate Toronto by playing with more confidence over the second half.

Kirk Hinrich, Bulls: His play has suffered for a variety of reasons, but a midseason trade for a frontcourt scorer could yet restore balance to Chicago's offense and help make Hinrich and Ben Wallace (and Ben Gordon) look a lot better than they have over the first half.

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks: After his slow start, Dallas' title hopes depend on him playing like an MVP over the second half.

Returnees who could provide a lift

Gilbert Arenas, Wizards: A big IF here. Should Arenas makes his anticipated March 1 return from microfracture knee surgery, then imagine adding him to a team that has surged in his absence with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison putting up All-Star numbers.

Andrew Bynum, Lakers: If the Lakers can survive their horrid February schedule, his return could enable them to be the league's most feared underdog.

Nenê, Nuggets: Should he be available, he'll provide Denver with a wealth of frontcourt options.

Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston, Clippers: Los Angeles probably will be out of playoff range, but the return of these two injured starters could give the Clippers hope for making a comeback to postseason contention next season.

Nenad Krstic, Nets: Who knows what the Nets will look like when Krstic returns from his knee injury. But his absence has hurt New Jersey.

Coaches under pressure

Isiah Thomas, Knicks: No duh.

Lawrence Frank, Nets: They're losing for all sorts of reasons, and in those situations the coach usually takes the hit.

Mike Dunleavy, Clippers: Owner Donald T. Sterling is not happy, but that might improve if Brand and Livingston return in March.

Mike Woodson, Hawks: His contract expires this summer, and only a second-half run above .500 will create demand for an extension -- if he wants it.

Pat Riley, Heat: How does he spend the next three months while his hopeless team waits for the results of the lottery? What can possibly be accomplished? It's a torture of his own making.

Larry Krystowiak, Bucks: The enigmatic Bucks must begin to show a pulse for their coach.

Feel-good coaches

Nate McMillan, Blazers: He is having the same dramatic impact on his Blazers that Scott Skiles had on the young Bulls a few years ago. But that hard-driving comparison begs an obvious question: Will McMillan extend his relationship with the players into the long term? It appears as if he can.

Byron Scott, Hornets: Can there be any further questions? The man knows how to coach.

Eddie Jordan, Wizards: His job status appears to change every month or two, but no one can deny that the Wizards are playing hard for Jordan. Arenas' unpredictable status for March and April will provide another challenge.

Stan Van Gundy, Magic: His arrival has been good for Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, and the more the Magic take on Van Gundy's aggressive style, the farther they'll go.

Phil Jackson, Lakers: Was he losing interest last year? Many thought so then ... but not anymore. He helped defuse the Kobe situation while fast-tracking Bynum's education, but the hardest work is ahead: to keep the Lakers afloat for the next two months despite their injuries.

Reggie Theus, Kings: His best players have been in and out and yet -- despite rumors that any or all could be traded -- this rookie coach has turned the Kings into a respectable outfit. But there is no predicting which players he'll be managing after the trade deadline.

Dangerous second-half teams

Nuggets: It can't be emphasized enough: If they get hot ...

Cavaliers: They're 2½ games out of third place in the East. Detroit won't look forward to seeing them in the second round.

Spurs: In hibernation now, but when they emerge from the cave rested and hungry ...

Rockets: They've undergone a major transition with the coaching change. But they're too talented and experienced to not make a move -- plus they're still defending.

Bulls: Are the Bulls as bad as they've looked? They can't be.

Award winners to come

MVP -- Kevin Garnett, Celtics: The comprehensive force behind the league's best team. But if he or the Celtics wane over the second half, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe are positioned to make a run at him.

Rookie -- Kevin Durant, Sonics: A sure thing so long as he remains healthy. He leads everyone else like Secretariat at the Belmont.

Defensive Player -- Kevin Garnett, Celtics: He transformed one of the worst defensive teams into the league leader in opponents' scoring and shooting. But a second-half push could be made by Bruce Bowen (who should have won the award by now), as well as last season's winner, Marcus Camby (whose Nuggets are a surprising 12th in field goal defense), Kobe and Tayshaun Prince.

Most Improved -- Dwight Howard, Magic: I continue to argue that this award should go to a good player who becomes great, because that's the hardest NBA improvement to make. Brandon Roy is close behind.

Coach -- Doc Rivers, Celtics: Only a major swoon can change this outcome; if so, votes should go to McMillan, Scott and Van Gundy.

Executive -- Danny Ainge, Celtics: George McGovern had a better chance in 1972 than anyone else has of winning this award.

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