Sunday Shootaround's NBA midseason report: MVP race, big questions, playoff outlook and more

USA TODAY Sports

Paul Flannery winds through the major questions facing us as the NBA moves to its second half, and looks at the award races up to this point.

Each NBA season carries two essential questions that ultimately define the league: Who will meet in the Finals and who will win the MVP?

By that standard, the 2012-13 season has offered few surprises. At the midway point, the two leading contenders to meet in the Finals are the Thunder and Heat and the two leading candidates for the MVP are LeBron James and Kevin Durant. If we were to expand that just a bit we would undoubtedly include the Clippers and Chris Paul into the equation, which is also not unexpected.

And yet, bubbling below the surface a number of intriguing developments have kept our attention. Among them:

  • The rise and fall and rise of the Nets.
  • The Knicks' overhaul and Carmelo Anthony's emergence as a legitimate superstar.
  • The Spurs doing Spurs things with an unheralded great season from Tim Duncan.
  • The continuing saga of the Grizzlies' roster that's too expensive to keep and too good to destroy.
  • The Warriors emerging from League Pass guilty pleasure to actual good team.
  • James Harden's transition to franchise player.
  • The Pacers and Bulls grimly overcoming key injuries and remaining dangerously relevant.
  • Everything about the Nuggets.
  • The sublime weirdness of the Bucks.
  • The joy of a fully-formed rookie point guard in Damian Lillard and the overwhelming potential of Andre Drummond.
  • The batshit crazy sixth-man race, which has remade the high-volume shooting guard into a valuable weapon.
  • The hell happened to the Lakers and Celtics?

It's time to take stock of what we've seen and look ahead to the second half.

ARE THE HEAT VULNERABLE?

Interesting question, that. By all available metrics, the Heat remain the class of the Eastern Conference, but they are nowhere near as dominant as last season.

Their offense is still a frightening machine of efficient jump shooters and all the LeBron you could want, yet their defense has hovered around league average all season, which leads to the inescapable conclusion that they are suffering a bit from regular season championship hangover.

It's a common affliction made more noticeable by their awful rebounding numbers. Still, is there anyone in the East who can beat them in the playoffs?

The Knicks offer an intriguing possibility. Their size, spacing and shooting is the right mix to give Miami problems, as long as everyone is healthy and that's the rub. The Bulls and Pacers -- again, if healthy -- are capable of beating the hell out of them for six games or so, but neither has been able to break through in a seven-game series. The Celtics, well, the Celtics have issues. Brooklyn?

The expectation is that a team with Miami's talent and experience will rise to the challenge in the postseason. Still, the Heat's window isn't as wide open as it appeared two years ago. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh can all opt out after the 2014-15 season and several essential role players are only signed through next year. This is still their time, but they can't afford to squander any more opportunities if they are going to leave their mark on the league.

THE TEAMS NO ONE WANTS TO PLAY IN THE PLAYOFFS

At some point, Derrick Rose is going to come back and when he does he'll be joining a team with two All-Star teammates and a supporting cast that has solidified in his absence. Rose is the single biggest X-factor in the league and if he can return at 85 percent of his past glory, the Bulls will be a f-ing nightmare in the postseason.

Their doppelgangers in the West are the Grizzlies, who will wreck your offense and force you to matchup with their imposing front line. Their thin depth will be less of an issue in the playoffs, but unless they can find more perimeter shooting it's hard to envision a scenario where they emerge against the likes of the Thunder, Clippers and Spurs. Still, anyone want to take them on in the first round?

Honorable mention in this category goes to the Golden State Warriors who play in one of the best homecourt atmospheres in the league and could -- could -- get Andrew Bogut back before the playoffs.

THE POSTSEASON MATCHUPS WE WANT TO SEE

First Round

Miami vs. Boston, because we deserve at least one series where Rajon Rondo plays at his best every spring. (Call it a hunch, but the Celtics will eventually get their act together enough to reach the sixth seed.)

The Warriors against anyone but Memphis (see above). If there's a god in League Pass Heaven, please grant us Denver vs. Golden State in the first round. Amen.

Second Round

Brooklyn vs. New York, because obviously.

Memphis vs. Oklahoma City, because Kevin Durant pushed to the brink is the best thing in basketball.

Conference Finals

Miami vs. New York, because I still think the Knicks would have a chance.

OKC vs. Clippers, because the only thing missing from Chris Paul's resume is an epic playoff run.

ARE WE GUILTY OF OVERLOOKING THE SPURS?

Yes.

CAN THE LAKERS AND CELTICS BE SAVED?

Here's the dream scenario for the Celtics and it's not hard to envision this actually happening: Play hard every night, make a small but necessary roster move around the deadline to add size, go 25-15 over the second half of the season and move up to the sixth seed. Draw the Nets in the first round, the Knicks in the second and then take another shot at the Heat. It might happen and it's not like there isn't a precedent.

All the available evidence from the first half of the season tells us that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett can't carry the team anymore and Rondo, as great and weird and maddening as he is, just simply isn't a franchise player. As much angst has been spilled over their mediocre supporting cast, this really comes down to their three stars.

The Lakers, on the other hand, not only have to get themselves right with a thin roster ill-suited to the style the coach wants to play, they also have to deal with the loaded Western Conference. Short of Dwight Howard's back miraculously healing it's hard to see how they make a run and even harder to see how they could beat the teams that are way ahead of them in the standings.

The key question for both franchises is what comes next and neither has an obvious long-term answer.

TEAMS TO WATCH AT THE TRADE DEADLINE

Josh Smith recently suggested that he's a max player and the reality is that he's probably right, if by max player he means the type of contract he can command on the open market. If he means franchise player, then no, he's obviously not. The Hawks have a decision to make, but Smith is far from the only viable trade chip.

They have only three players signed for next season: Al Horford, Lou Williams and John Jenkins. They have two more players with non-guaranteed contracts and two potential restricted free agents in Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson. Smith is the biggest name who could be moved, but players like Zaza Pachulia, Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow are all highly useful, affordable and in the last years of their deals.

GM Danny Ferry can trade big, he can trade small or he could stand pat with a decent team and start over from scratch this summer. If Ferry is looking to deal -- or anyone else for that matter -- the Rockets have a ton of young trade assets, picks and cap space to make a deal.

FIRST HALF AWARDS

MVP

LeBron James

Kevin Durant

Chris Paul

Deserving of mention: Carmelo Anthony, James Harden, Tony Parker, Kobe Bryant.

I'm sticking with LeBron for now, but there's not much to separate him from Durant and Paul. Get ready for narrative upon narrative in the second half of the season. There will be so much MVP narrative that we will be sick of the whole thing come April.

ALL-NBA

First Team

Guards: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook

Forwards: LeBron James, Kevin Durant

Center: Tim Duncan

Second Team

Guards: James Harden, Tony Parker

Forwards: Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin

Center: Marc Gasol

Third Team

Guards: Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving

Forwards: Chris Bosh, David Lee

Center: Tyson Chandler

SIXTH MAN

Jamal Crawford

Jarrett Jack

Manu Ginobli

Also considered: J.R. Smith, Kevin Martin, Ray Allen.

This feels like Crawford's award by acclimation but the competition is just as fierce as the MVP.

MOST IMPROVED PLAYER

Who cares? This award is so nebulous that we're better off dumping it entirely.

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

Damian Lillard

Anthony Davis

Andre Drummond

Deserving of mention: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal.

Lillard was unquestionably the best rookie in the first half of the season, but watch out for Davis who is starting to put up numbers and become more acclimated to the NBA game.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Mike Woodson

Mark Jackson

Gregg Popovich

Woodson gets the first-half nod for remaking the Knicks' offense and utilizing a host of role players effectively. Jackson is close behind for transforming the Warriors into a team that takes defense seriously and Pop is Pop. Quite simply he's the best coach in the league.

FINALS PREDICTION: Thunder over the Heat in seven epic games.

X
Log In Sign Up

forgot?
Log In Sign Up

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior users will need to choose a permanent username, along with a new password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

I already have a Vox Media account!

Verify Vox Media account

Please login to your Vox Media account. This account will be linked to your previously existing Eater account.

Please choose a new SB Nation username and password

As part of the new SB Nation launch, prior MT authors will need to choose a new username and password.

Your username will be used to login to SB Nation going forward.

Forgot password?

We'll email you a reset link.

If you signed up using a 3rd party account like Facebook or Twitter, please login with it instead.

Forgot password?

Try another email?

Almost done,

By becoming a registered user, you are also agreeing to our Terms and confirming that you have read our Privacy Policy.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Join SBNation.com

You must be a member of SBNation.com to participate.

We have our own Community Guidelines at SBNation.com. You should read them.

Spinner.vc97ec6e

Authenticating

Great!

Choose an available username to complete sign up.

In order to provide our users with a better overall experience, we ask for more information from Facebook when using it to login so that we can learn more about our audience and provide you with the best possible experience. We do not store specific user data and the sharing of it is not required to login with Facebook.