Midseason Roundtable (cont.)
3. Which player or team do you think will have a breakout second half?
Thomsen: I can imagine Dallas and/or San Antonio distancing themselves from the pack of Lakers challengers. Though they're currently No. 2 in the West with a variety of weapons, the Mavs have yet to strike a rhythm around Dirk Nowitzki. The Spurs are improving defensively, but they've yet to fully integrate Richard Jefferson; they've always been a second-half team, and no one should be surprised if they make an extended run.
McCallum: "Breakout" seems to imply that a player or team underachieved or was unfairly ignored. So I'm going with Tony Parker and, by extension, the Spurs. Parker has become something of a point-guard version of Tim Duncan, consistently good, relatively ignored. He's certainly more of a combo guard and is consequently never among the leaders in assists. But there's nothing wrong with a slashing scorer who once -- not long ago -- was a Finals MVP.
Mannix: Memphis. The Grizz have surged into the playoff race after their Allen Iverson-fueled 1-8 start, but they can get even better. When a team is capable of scoring on the inside on every possession -- and with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol controlling the paint, Memphis is equipped to do just that -- it staves off long droughts. Lionel Hollins has been preaching defense recently, and if the Grizzlies play a little more of it (and maybe add another scorer for their bench via trade), they will become a contender for first-round home-court advantage.
Forrester: The Hawks, Raptors, Cavs (twice), Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs and Suns already have fallen victim to the quickly improving Bobcats. With Stephen Jackson providing the flexible offensive option this team sorely lacked, and with a league-best scoring defense and a 9-1 January record, the Bobcats are on a tear. Though they still carry the doubts inherent with a 3-15 road record, no East contender will want to see them in the first round.
4. What storyline interests you the most the rest of the season?
Thomsen: I want to see how many players are traded by the incendiary Wizards by the Feb. 18 deadline, and how those moves change the playoff races in each conference. Will Antawn Jamison wind up with the Cavaliers? He would space the floor and bring out the best in Shaq, suddenly surrounding LeBron James with three stars in Jamison, Shaq and Mo Williams -- a combination that would make Cleveland a presumptive NBA finalist. If the Wizards decide to unload their deep roster, then Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood, Mike Miller, Randy Foye and -- yes -- Gilbert Arenas could make a huge impact with contenders in both conferences.
McCallum: The playoff hopes of Oklahoma City and Memphis. We knew those teams would be better, but did we think that we'd be talking about them as playoff teams so soon? And in the West? In fact, besides that experienced top four of the Lakers, Mavs, Nuggets and Spurs, all Western playoff berths are wide open. Don't be surprised if, say, the Thunder challenge the Trail Blazers and the Grizzlies set their sighs on the Suns. At this point, I would eliminate only the bottom four of the Clippers, Kings, Warriors and Timberwolves.
Mannix: There could be a lot of teams blowing things up before the end of the season. Philadelphia has been making a lot of calls (Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert can be had), Washington might nuke its entire roster and Toronto still has to figure out what to do with Chris Bosh. Couple those clubs with the ones looking to improve (Cavaliers, Lakers, Magic), and we could see one of the busiest trade seasons in a long time -- one that could make the field look vastly different come playoff time.
Forrester: Financial considerations hang over almost every aspect of this season. The free-agent sweepstakes this summer and the desperation many teams feel to avoid the luxury tax will likely combine to put a number of big-name and big-salaried players on the trade market. How the contenders incorporate those pending acquisitions will tell the ultimate tale of this season, and possibly seasons to come.
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