The All-Star break signifies more than just a chance for the best players in the world to show off for the fans. It gives fans, coaches and general managers a chance to assess their team’s performance over the first section of the season and focus on the run home to the playoffs. Despite only roughly 30 games remaining in each team’s schedule after the break, the landscape of the league can change dramatically. Here are five second-half story lines to watch for in the 2012-13 NBA season.
Can Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to the playoffs? Photo Credit:(Flickr.com)
Can the Los Angeles Lakers make the playoffs?
For a season that started with such hype and promise in Los Angeles, it has been nothing but a nightmare thus far for the Lakers. The team has struggled through injuries, coaching changes, trade rumors and, most recently, the passing of their legendary owner Jerry Buss.
The Lakers are currently ninth in the Western Conference with a record of 26-29. They are 3.5 games behind the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets and are just a game separates them from the 11th-place Dallas Mavericks. While they have shown signs of their immense potential this season, it has rarely lasted more than a few games at a time before the team has suffered another setback.
With just 27 games left for the Lakers in the regular season, the team is going to have to hit the ground running post-All-Star break. There is no doubt that the talent they have assembled on the roster is more than capable of stringing significant win streaks together, but as we have seen thus far, the lack of cohesiveness, chemistry and defense will need to be ironed out before the team can even think about the playoffs.
If the Lakers fail to make the playoffs, having amassed the talent they did prior to the season they would almost certainly go down as the most disappointing team in NBA history. If they do, however, manage to scrape into a low seed on the back of an outstanding finish to the season, they would be a dangerous opponent for any top seed to line up against in the first round.
Derrick Rose Returns
The Chicago Bulls have once again been among the best and most consistent performers in the Eastern Conference this season. With a 31-22 record and sitting just half-game behind the Brooklyn Nets for the fourth seed, the Bulls are positioned perfectly for a strong run home into the playoffs. The difference is that the Bulls have managed to have such a successful season without their best player and the former league MVP, Derrick Rose.
Rose has been out since tearing his ACL in Game 1 of last season’s playoffs against the Philadelphia 76ers. There has been no set date identified for Rose’s return; however, ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported that he has completed a full five-on-five workout and looks ready to take part in live action:
If Rose is able to return with enough time to get back into game shape before the playoffs, it could prove to be a huge shakeup in the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
Without Rose, the Bulls are a well-coached, hard-nosed team that is exceptional defensively and among the best in the league on the boards. With Rose, they combine that defensive intensity with an elite superstar capable of taking over games and being a go-to scorer. With playoff experience, elite defense and the league’s youngest-ever MVP in the ranks, the Bulls will be a team that no one else in the Eastern Conference wants to match up against.
Once Rose returns, the question will be: Does he have enough time left in the regular season to return to his level of play prior to the playoffs? If he has no setbacks from now until then, the Bulls could become the biggest X-factor in the fight to the Finals in the Eastern Conference.
Zach Randolph and the Memphis Grizzlies aim to keep the fourth seed in the West. Photo Credit: Mark Runyon, Basketball Schedule, Flickr.com
The Playoff Race In The West
After the San Antonio Spurs blasted the Los Angeles Clippers Thursday, Feb. 21, here are the standings in the Western Conference:
Team Games Behind 1. San Antonio Spurs — 2. Oklahoma City Thunder 4.0 3. Los Angeles Clippers 5.5 4. Memphis Grizzlies 7.5 5. Denver Nuggets 9.5 6. Golden State Warriors 12.0 7. Utah Jazz 12.5 8. Houston Rockets 14.0 9. Los Angeles Lakers 17.5 10. Portland Trail Blazers 18.0 11. Dallas Mavericks 18.5
It is not unusual for the Western Conference playoff race to come down to a final few games to determine who makes the cut and who spends the playoffs praying for a lottery miracle. This season will seemingly be no different, where outside of the top three, the standings could change drastically between now and round one of the playoffs
The Spurs, Thunder and Clippers have all but guaranteed themselves a top seed with their impressive seasons up to this point. It would take a major collapse from one of these three teams for them not to be the highest seeds entering the playoffs. From there down, however, anything could happen.
The Grizzlies currently hold fourth position, but have struggled since trading Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors. They are the likely favorite for the final home-court position, but have yet to prove they can be a dominant team without a go-to wing scorer.
The Nuggets and Warriors currently sit in fifth and sixth, respectively. The Nuggets have been a dominant presence on their home court and have been consistent for much of the season, while the Warriors seem to be in a slump after a hot start. Any of these three teams could wind up in the fourth seed, with Denver just two games behind the Grizzlies and with no player movement to adjust for, the Nuggets could make a push for what would be a huge home court advantage in round one.
Just a half-game back of the Warriors are the Utah Jazz, who have retained their playoff position despite being without starting point guard Mo Williams since Dec.22. Their strong frontcourt depth seems to be carrying them through the season well, but they will need Williams to return soon, as they will need every win possible down the stretch to maintain their position.
The Houston Rockets currently hold the eighth seed and after spending the early parts of the season getting to know their new teammates, the Rockets should be in position to come home strong and will likely be aiming as high as the sixth seed come playoff time.
Currently out of the playoffs but close enough to make the lower seeds sweat are the Los Angeles Lakers. There is no shortage of talent or experience on the roster, but turmoil and chemistry issues have resulted in a poor record thus far for LA. More than capable of going on extended win streaks over the last section of the season, teams above them will be wary of the former champions and will raise their game each time they play to try and avoid the Lakers stealing a playoff position.
Currently in the 10th and 11th seeds are the Portland Trail Blazers and the Dallas Mavericks. Both teams have the talent to make the playoffs but will need strong finishes to challenge not just the current top eight but overtake the Lakers as well. For the Blazers, adding Eric Maynor at the deadline will help their lack of bench production and for Dallas it will all be about how well Dirk Nowitzki can play down the home stretch after returning from injury.
With so many inter-conference games to be played between these teams, the standings could change drastically between now and day one of the playoffs. Outside of the top three, who may have the opportunity to rest players down the stretch, these teams will be fighting up until the last day of the season to try and secure home-court advantage or that all-important eighth seed.
The Race for MVP
Whether people choose to admit it or not, we are currently witnessing two of the greatest basketball players of all time battling it out for the championship and of course, the MVP. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are having historically great seasons while leading their teams to impressive win totals through the All-Star break.
While Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul have been exceptional, the race to the 2012-13 MVP rests solely on these two individuals. In any other season, the success that Paul and Anthony both have had could potentially warrant winning the award, but both will be an afterthought when compared to what these two players are doing.
The reigning MVP James is having his most efficient season to date. Per game he has astonishing averages of 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 7.0 assists on better than 56 percent shooting. The Miami Heat sit atop the Eastern Conference with a 37-14 record and they look to come home strong to hold off a challenge from New York for the top seed.
James has been outstanding, recently having a stretch of six games where he scored more than 30 points and shot better than 60 percent, a feat that had not been completed by any other player in NBA history. He leads the league in PER with an outstanding 31.4 and the Heat are again championship favorites.
Meanwhile, Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have a record of 39-15, good for second in the Western Conference behind the Spurs, who have been unstoppable up to this point in the season. He currently leads the league in scoring with 29 points per game, while doing so on ridiculous shooting efficiency. He shoots better than 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from 3-point range and 90 percent on free throws, a feat which is a rarity for any player, let alone one leading the league in points. He has the second best PER rating behind James with 28.8 and leads the league in Win Shares.
It will be nearly impossible to separate the two if there is no significant change in their records. Both players are having historically good seasons and would be deserving of the award. James is aiming for his fourth MVP award in five years, while for Durant it would be his first at just 24 years old. We will see if either player is able to separate himself between now and the end of the season; otherwise it will be up to the voters to try and choose one from the other when both are more than deserving of the award.
Josh Smith is among many high-profile free agents this offseason (Photo by Keith Allison/Flickr.com)
Upcoming Free Agents and How The Rest Of The Season May Affect Their Decision
The 2013 offseason is going to be a big one for the NBA. There is a mass of talent coming off contracts, including multi-time All-Stars and numerous potential max-contract players. As the season winds down, the success (or lack thereof) of their current teams could have a huge impact on where these players decide to sign in the offseason.
The two most pivotal names here are Dwight Howard and Chris Paul, both currently in Los Angeles on teams stacked with talent. The Lakers, however, are currently out of the playoffs and have had trouble keeping Howard happy this season. Clashes with teammates, coaches and a losing record have put extreme pressure on Howard and he has not responded well to questions about his future. It is no secret that the Rockets and Mavericks have the money to offer a maximum contract in the offseason and have long coveted Howard. It may all depend on whether the Lakers are able to make the playoffs and experience any success as to whether Howard sticks around or bolts for a better situation.
Paul is seemingly less likely to move with the collection of young talent and the success the Clippers have had thus far. If they do, however, falter in the playoffs the pressure will be on to convince Paul that LA is indeed his best chance for a championship.
The list of high profile free agents is extensive. It includes Josh Smith, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Brandon Jennings, Tyreke Evans, Kevin Martin, Manu Ginobili, David West, Andrew Bynum and Nikola Pekovic, among many others. Teams will be trying to negotiate extensions with players while trying not to distract them from their push to the playoffs.
Their role, the team’s success and the locker-room chemistry for all of these players over the coming months will all factor in to their decisions to either re-sign or go elsewhere. Teams have been clearing cap space for this outstanding group of free agents and will be ready to poach away any unhappy superstar if they are given half a chance.