Second-half storylines to watch
The trading deadline could have a big impact in shaping the NBA title chase
The East race for No. 1 seed and nine-team West playoff race will be intriguing
Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are battling for the scoring title
As entertaining as the first half of the 2008-09 season was for those of us who work in and watch the NBA, the second half is going to be better. It always is.
That's when playoff berths get clinched, annual awards get won and lottery positions get determined. The trading deadline looms in the second half, sparking so many of the league's biggest deals. When do the game's most exciting scoring titles get won? That's right, in the second half: Denver's David Thompson (27.15 ppg) scored 73 points on April 9, 1978, only to have San Antonio's George Gervin (27.22) get 63 that night in his team's finale. Sixteen years later, on April 24, David Robinson got 71 to edge out Shaquille O'Neal. Had those all been December games? Meh.
Surveys show that, without the second half of the NBA season, people would lose interest waiting three months for the playoffs to begin. Look, 10 years ago, the NBA basically canceled the first half of its season but roared back with a slightly extended second half, leading not only to an intense, tightly packed, 50-game, post-lockout schedule but also to Phil Jackson's snarky comment about the Spurs' 1999 championship needing an "asterisk.'' Where would this league be without such rich, colorful, second-half-inspired traditions?
Here are some storylines to watch the rest of the way, if April 15 means more to you as an NBA fan than an IRS devotee:
The trade market. Count on this to be more entertaining than the stock market through Feb. 19. Already, several big names are said to be in play: Shawn Marion, Jermaine O'Neal, Gerald Wallace, Larry Hughes, Brad Miller. Some of the very best teams don't feel they're quite good enough yet, fueling what could be a frenetic arms race -- and fruitful half-season moves for some underachieving franchises -- as the deadline approaches.
Boston needs more size. In Wally Szczerbiak's perfect world, the Cavaliers would use his expiring contract to get more Finals-focused help, then re-sign him in an Antonio McDyess switcheroo. Lots of critics think San Antonio needs to add a little something-something to its bench. A crowded backcourt suggests a Chicago maneuver, a crowded roster could enable a Portland move.
Playoff positioning. So what if only nine teams have a shot in the West? Think of it as musical chairs: As long as there always is one more contestant than places to park, there's drama. While someone out West with a winning record will go home after 82, two sub-.500 teams in the East might be able to puff up their chests as playoff qualifiers. Maybe that's reverse-drama. But the East does have a great race developing among Boston, Cleveland and Orlando for the No. 1 seed.
The MVP chase. LeBron James was the consensus choice for the first 41 games, but the Maurice Podoloff Trophy requires a second half, thank you. Now is the time for Orlando's Dwight Howard to catch and pass the Cavs' star, or for Kobe Bryant to defend his title and become only the 10th player in NBA history to repeat as MVP. Long shot? Dwyane Wade might be having the best season of all of them, but his team's results haven't thrust the Miami guard into serious contention.
The Rookie of the Year race. After the MVP, this is the second-sexiest annual award, triggering the most scrutiny and debate. (Sorry, but Most Improved Player always has felt like a Mr. Congeniality category.) Chicago's Derrick Rose is the leader at the turn, in my view, and the runaway winner, according to Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. But Memphis' O.J. Mayo has scored the most, Kevin Love, under the radar in Minnesota, is the best rebounder and New Jersey's Brook Lopez has impressed in both of those categories. Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook is improving by the day. Michael Beasley, the No. 2 pick, was a lot of people's pick and, in theory, still has a shot. So, too, for that matter does Greg Oden. Come on, if Oden were to start putting up consistent 18-and-12 numbers after the All-Star break, his spotty first-half showing would be forgotten. That's part of the beauty of second halves: reinvention.
The scoring race. If Wade, James and Bryant stay bunched this tightly (separated by 2.4 points), what might otherwise be postseason tune-up games in April for their teams could pack some individual intrigue. Bryant leads in the scoring-title competition with two, James won last season and Wade is chasing his first.
Speaking of individual intrigue, we will get a resolution in the season's second half, one way or the other, to the Stephon Marbury soap opera. Buyout? Trade? Greece? Rotting on the Knicks' inactive list? It probably doesn't matter much, as long as we get to this series' finale.
The Pistons' churning. Fretting over Richard Hamilton's "demotion'' to Detroit's bench -- never mind that his salary won't change and his minutes probably won't dip much, either -- doesn't rank high on my hobby list. But it does speak to some classic NBA team dynamics, and the careerlong coddling of Allen Iverson. The Answer is the perfect guy to be a sixth-man scorer but fear for how he might react keeps him in the starting five.
Houston's encore. The Rockets, we should remember, had the best second-half record in the NBA last season, their 33-8 edging out the Celtics' 32-9. That sort of finish would be nice in '09 as well, suggesting that they'd found a way to get and stay healthy and finally had earned the lofty talk about their championship caliber.
The Suns' rise. Or not. Phoenix has played this season like it's a triathlon. They're running, then they're biking, then they're swimming. The Suns have been shifting gears for almost a full year now, but it is time to lock in and come with their A game for however long they're involved.
Jose Calderon's free-throw streak. The Toronto guard had made 79-consecutive free throws heading into his team's game at Chicago on Friday, and it will be interesting to see if his aching hamstring is healed enough for him not so much to play but to successfully make shots from the line. He needs to go 19-of-19 to catch and pass Micheal Williams' all-time record, set in 1993 with Minnesota. Static as free throws are, it would be nice for Calderon, too, to be remembered for something this season other than Kevin Garnett's mock-clapping in his face.
Coaching carousel, Part I. Only two more coaches to be fired for NBA general managers to match the league's single-season record of nine (2004-05). As it is, with Memphis' dropping the hammer on Marc Iavaroni on Thursday, half of the league's 30 teams have either changed coaches last summer or since this season began. Jerry Sloan's longevity mark in Utah gets more impressive by the day. Oops, in this league, we'd better make that by the hour.
Coaching carousel, Part II. Sometime late in, or soon after, the season's second half, we can expect to hear a bunch of familiar names back in the rotation. Jeff Van Gundy, Avery Johnson, Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell. The absence of a real market for their services during the season and the lack of appeal in taking over someone else's spot in mid-mess soon won't be factors. And in this economy, a multiyear deal even in the middle of the NBA's head-coaching wage scale looks awfully good.
Farewells. Alonzo Mourning's retirement announcement Thursday was a reminder that, by the time we realize most of our favorite athletes are done, it's already too late. Rare are the guys like Julius Erving or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar who give us notice when they're done. So over what's left of this season, X number of NBA players will make their final appearances on courts throughout the league and we might not even know it. Savoring them now, while we can, might be the best reason of all to pay attention, hard, over this season's second half.
Steve Aschburner covered the Minnesota Timberwolves and the NBA for 13 seasons for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He has served as president or vice president of the Professional Basketball Writers Association since 2005.