Second-half storylines to watch
Veteran-laden Spurs and Celts look great, but will they hold up over long season?
Carmelo, MVP race, contenders' moves and CBA talks will shape second half
More topics: Undrafted Ben Wallace recounts NBA journey; All-Star picks
The first half of the season flew by for everyone (except for the teams negotiating the stalemate of Carmelo Anthony's future). What will the next three months bring? Here are some stories to watch:
The old legs of San Antonio and Boston. No, the on-and-off rumors of Carmelo's departure from Denver are not the most important narrative of the season. Of much deeper substance are the enduring efforts of the Spurs and Celtics to win one more before the lockout changes everything. Both rotations depend heavily on players in the final stages of their careers, whether it's Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for Boston, or Antonio McDyess, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for San Antonio. Duncan and Garnett are indispensable to their teams, and they've been running NBA courts for 90,003 minutes between them.
The sexy story is of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teaming together in Miami, and of Anthony following their example to get out of Denver. But their elders -- don't forget Kobe Bryant -- are maintaining a tight hold on the only plot that ever matters.
At 38, Shaquille O'Neal is the NBA's oldest player, and Wednesday night in Boston he created steals, ran the floor and dunked as if he were as young as the Miami threesome. It was the most fun night of basketball I've seen this year, in part because every time I don't take for granted the title-worthy performances of stars like Shaq, Garnett, Duncan, Ray Allen and Manu Ginobili. I watch them as if I may never see them again.
"When you get old, there are days the legs work and days they don't,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after crediting O'Neal with winning that game Wednesday against the Pistons. "You can't [predict] them. In my last year, there was no rhyme or reason. You can play a back-to-back game, the second day you felt great and the first -- it made no sense. I think that's who he will be."
The same uncertainty will follow San Antonio and Boston for the remainder of the season. The Celtics have survived numerous injuries to lead the East at 32-9, while the Spurs -- broken down for much of the last several years -- have been rejuvenated by newfound health to lead the West at 36-6. They look like the teams to beat today. But how will they look and feel three long months from now? There is no predicting it. Their depth of experience makes the Spurs and Celtics difficult for younger teams to knock out. But that same experience and mileage may also be their undoing. Their strength could become their weakness, and no one can say how it will play out.
The Lakers' second-half push. They've earned the third-best record in the league at 31-13, and yet the two-time defending champs have been so-so by their standards. After winning seven in a row they've lost two of three, including a 109-100 defeat to the struggling Mavericks. Bryant continues to post MVP-type numbers (25.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists) and yet he rarely participates in a full practice while resting his sore knee.
The Lakers may not catch San Antonio for the No. 1 seed in the West, but they can envision winning on the Spurs' home floor. A reachable and more important goal will be to regain the home-court edge in the NBA Finals against Boston or Miami, as that advantage was crucial to their Game 6-7 victories over the Celtics last year.
Here are their issues: manage the knees of Bryant and center Andrew Bynum, who has yet to be healthy during their last two postseason runs but could make the difference in the playoffs this year; reincorporate Matt Barnes after he returns in the final weeks of the regular season from meniscus surgery; and squeeze more production from Ron Artest and Steve Blake. In the big-picture view, the Lakers are pulling themselves together to become the team to beat once again.
Carmelo's landing spot. Anthony continues to believe Denver will move him by the Feb. 24 trade deadline. In the meantime, his 24-17 Nuggets look like a solid playoff team with a 4½-game advantage over the No. 9 Suns. If he isn't going to be moved to the Nets, then the Nuggets will have to make the best of lesser offers from the Knicks and other potential suitors including the Bulls, Rockets and a number of teams that reached out to Denver as soon as New Jersey pulled out of the negotiations Wednesday.
It's looking more and more as though Anthony will indeed land with the Knicks, which his been his ambition all along. But that decision will be made by the Nuggets, and they might not feel comfortable making it until the Feb. 24 deadline, after all possibilities have been exhausted. Or they may yet choose to hold on to him until the draft, and sign-and-trade him then. In any case, this tiresome story has elevated Anthony's public profile more than any of the All-Star or playoff games in which he has played.
The MVP race. The early leader was New York's Amar'e Stoudemire, instantly the most important Knick since Patrick Ewing. But the favorite is going to be LeBron James, whose versatile stat line remains without peer. Not only does the offense run through him, but he is also crucial to one of the league's top defensive teams while helping to overcome the flaws of Miami's hastily gathered rotation. Other contenders include Bryant, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in a tightly bunched race, but I'm figuring LeBron for a third straight MVP.
The Dallas trinity. Dirk Nowitzki's sprained knee sidelined him for nine games. Rodrigue Beaubois has yet to play this season because of a broken foot suffered last summer, though he is expected to return after the All-Star break. Caron Butler (knee) is out for the season, but his expiring $10.6 million salary could be applied to bolster a trade at the Feb. 24 deadline. The Mavs looked like title contenders earlier in the year thanks to their depth and improved defense, and the resolution of these three moving parts -- Nowitzki, Beaubois and Butler -- will decide how far they go over the months ahead. If the first two are healthy and producing by March, maybe they wouldn't need to make a major deadline deal. But how will they be able to predict Beaubois' impact?
Will the Magic make do? They lack size around Dwight Howard, but how do they acquire it without breaking up their strength of playmakers around the three-point line? Can their quickness and scoring on the perimeter upend the size of the Celtics? Can Howard so dominate the paint as to beat Miami? Longshots both, but then no one was picking Orlando to reach the NBA Finals two years ago, either. Orlando is seeking its version of P.J. Brown, who arrived as a midseason free agent to help Boston reach the 2007-08 championship.
The CBA talks. Too many teams are playing out this year aimlessly while waiting for the new set of rules that will limit how much they can spend while adding to their profits. Commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter will meet next month during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, but don't expect their talks to accomplish much of anything. They are too far apart in their demands and there is too much time before next season, when the pressure of missing games will finally begin to affect the negotiations.
Yao Ming and other February moves. Will the Rockets leverage Yao's expiring $17.7 million salary at the trade deadline in an effort to reinvent themselves sooner than later? If the Nuggets move Anthony, will they make additional trades to unload more money? Will the Blazers begin to make moves to repair their injured roster? Which veterans will be bought out with the midseason goal of re-signing with a title contender?
Chris Paul's future. After an 11-1 start, his Hornets have gone 16-15. They could use a strong finish and a promising playoff run as they try to dissuade Paul from becoming the next star to seek a move elsewhere. But then this franchise is overwhelmed with questions, between the league taking ownership and the ensuing possibility of a move to a larger market.
Brandon Roy's comeback. The Blazers' 26-year-old star guard underwent surgery on both knees this week in hopes of regaining his athleticism for the second half of the season. But those procedures are viewed as a temporary remedy, and Roy is owed $64 million over the next four years. There will be no simple resolution to this unfortunate turn.
The pursuits of Rajon Rondo and Kevin Love. If the season ended today, Rondo (13.2 per game) would be the league's most prolific assist-maker since John Stockton had 13.7 in 1991-92, and Love (15.6) would be the top rebounder since Dennis Rodman averaged 16.1 in 1996-97. Each was considered by some teams as too small to excel in the NBA, and yet within five years Rondo has emerged as the league's best passer and Love -- drafted in 2008 -- has no peer on the boards.
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