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?
THE POSTSEASON MATCHUPS WE WANT TO SEE
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.
Brooklyn vs. New York, because obviously.
Memphis vs. Oklahoma City, because Kevin Durant pushed to the brink is the best thing in basketball.
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?
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
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.
Guards: Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook
Forwards: LeBron James, Kevin Durant
Center: Tim Duncan
Guards: James Harden, Tony Parker
Forwards: Carmelo Anthony, Blake Griffin
Center: Marc Gasol
Guards: Kobe Bryant, Kyrie Irving
Forwards: Chris Bosh, David Lee
Center: Tyson Chandler
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
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
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.