Calling these “second-half storylines” would be both misleading and bad math, because All-Star Weekend didn’t exactly split the 2012-13 with Solomon-like equanimity. So we’ll go with “home-stretch storylines,” situations and people that NBA fans should keep their eyes on over the final two months of regular-season play. By dealing with trade-deadline drama separately on this site, we can limit this list to the five most compelling things to watch between now and the best-of-sevens:
1. Can the Lakers avoid making the wrong kind of franchise history?
It happened once in the “aught’s,” once in the 1990s, twice in the ’70s and then, continuing backwards, you’ve got to go back to their Minneapolis roots to find an NBA season that wasn’t followed immediately by a postseason for the Lakers. But math is beginning to loom large as a course this team will not pass in 2012-13.
Four games under .500 and 3.5 games out of the final playoff berth in the West wouldn’t ordinarily seem like a failing grade. But there is another team, Portland, wedged between L.A. and Houston that doubles the leap-frog challenge — and no suggestion that any of the clubs above them are headed downward in the conference standings. Then there’s the schedule: More intra-conference games for everyone means that one or more of the Lakers’ chief competition will be winning on many nights. And given their 9-18 road schedule, March looks tortuous with 10 of 15 away from Staples Center.
Stir in all the issues – coach-talent disconnect, miserable defense, fractious locker room – that have been part of the league’s No. 1 storyline to this point and it doesn’t look fixable. The passing of Jerry Buss as Lakers owner seems, sadly, like a clear sign this is not their year.
2. Can the Spurs’ regular-season success translate for a change?
OK, the “for a change” part is a bit snarky, given San Antonio’s four NBA championships since 1999. Yet it’s going on six years since the last one and even in 2007, there was a sense that the club’s window of contention was closing, based on its marvelously constant but aging core.
Coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have retooled in both precise and daring ways, shifting from the team’s old grinding defensive style to something sleeker, more offensive-minded and more democratic. Still, the Spurs’ three most important players are the same as a decade ago: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
All the controversial “resting” that Popovich practices and all the supposed advantages to old legs and big reputations that we see in the playoffs – no back-to-backs, slower pace, star whistles – haven’t paid off for San Antonio since before the Sonics left Seattle and Gilbert Arenas was a big NBA deal (for good reasons, that is).
3. Can the Nuggets and the Pacers win by committee? As in, really win?
Folks who subscribe to NBA League Pass love Denver and Indiana. The depth of their rosters, the coaching that’s so evident in their performances, the offensive attack of the former and the defensive lockdown of the latter, and the kumbaya approach of their ensemble casts are so much of what high-quality basketball is about.
But neither George Karl‘s nor Frank Vogel‘s crews have the superstar guy who can take over the final three minutes of a pivotal game by his lonesome. That also means neither has a player who can reliably draw fouls and put up points when clocks are stopped. Paul George is getting there in Indianapolis but may still seem like a wannabe should the Pacers get locked into another East death match against Miami’s supernovas. Denver truly is a sum of parts, too, without that “climb on my back, boys” talent-slash-leader.
That’s not likely to change for either team via the trade deadline and, because of it, the suits at NBA HQ probably won’t have to sweat the TV ratings of a thinking-fan’s-only Finals.
4. Can the weak get strong, the hurt get healthy and the missing be found?
So far, 2012-13 has been defined almost as much by which players haven’t thrived as by those who have. Derrick Rose in Chicago is the most obvious example, and there really hasn’t been any change in the uncertainty surrounding the Bulls. What was possible six months ago — that Rose might not play at all this season, in his long recovery from ACL knee surgery — still is near the top of the list of possible outcomes. The Bulls’ ability to stay solidly among the East’s likely playoff qualifiers without the 2011 NBA MVP is laudable, but even with Rose at 80-90 percent, they don’t seem to have the firepower to climb past Miami or even Indiana. Rose’s people know it, too, and reportedly have been in his ear not to rush back for any such disappointment.
The NBA landscape is littered with others who have had or flirted with lost seasons. Some, such as Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill at one end of Staples Center and Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard at the other, still have chances to heal and make a difference. Others, like Philadelphia’s Andrew Bynum, Minnesota’s Kevin Love and Boston’s Rajon Rondo, either have or sure feel as if they’ve run out of time.
5. Can the voters get it right, not just with the easy hardware but the tougher stuff?
Picture a classic Olympic medal-ceremony platform. If that’s how the NBA handed out its MVP trophy and made it proportional to achievement, the gold level would be about 20 feet above the floor and Miami’s LeBron James would stand head, shoulders and knees above everyone else. That’s how much better he is than even the second-place finisher. The silver platform would be formidable too, though, maybe 10 feet high, because Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant would be an easy pick for the Maurice Podoloff Award if, say, James ever were abducted by aliens.
Then there would be a wider platform for bronze, a foot from the floor, for the likes of Tony Parker, Chris Paul or Carmelo Anthony. Nothing against the fine work they’ve done but the step from No. 2 to No. 3 (tie) is as pronounced as the step from James to Durant.
So MVP voting should shake out rather predictably. Some of the other hardware remains very much in play, with 25-30 games for most competitors to assert themselves.
Who do you like for Coach of the Year? Mark Jackson has Golden State competing in rare air, relative to expectations and recent history. But the Nuggets’ Karl appropriately has been the thin-air master in Denver, making good on his shrug-and-hard work response to Anthony’s forced exit two years ago this week. The Knicks’ Mike Woodson, the Bulls’ Tom Thibodeau and, again, Popovich will demand consideration too.
Portland point guard Damian Lillard‘s grip on Rookie of the Year votes could see a late challenge from No. 1 pick Anthony Davis, finally healthy. Cleveland’s Dion Waiters and Washington’s Bradley Beal have justified their high draft positions, while Detroit’s Andre Drummond has shown flashes of the talent and little of the immaturity that landed him at No. 9. Only Lillard has a legit shot at the postseason, so chasing him down for the ROY honor will have to suffice for the others.
We could probably move the top Sixth Man candidates around in a game of musical chairs, mixing and matching Jamal Crawford, J.R. Smith, Jarret Jack and Kevin Martin with the Clippers, Knicks, Warriors and Thunder randomly, and wind up pretty much with the results. James Harden hasn’t just gone the way of good Sixth Man winners, graduating to starter-dom — he’s exploded into stardom with Houston. Two veteran past-winners, Ginobili and Boston’s Jason Terry, have had down seasons.
It would be hard to make a case for Most Improved Player stronger than the one George has made with the Pacers, going from inconsistent third or fourth fiddle to All-Star. But Philadelphia’s Jrue Holiday, another first-time All-Star down in Houston, has shouldered a lot for the 76ers with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand gone, and Bynum yet to arrive. Serge Ibaka‘s improved offense has helped OKC thrive in spite of Harden’s departure. Then there are some 2011-12 fringe guys such as Chicago’s Jimmy Butler and the Lakers’ Earl Clark who have earned solid rotation spots and eventual pay hikes.
Candidates for Defensive Player of the Year can attract late-season votes down the stretch, too. The 2012 winner, Tyson Chandler, might win again (this is an award that features lots of multiple winners by big men). Joakim Noah has been so defensive minded this season that the Bulls center even played some defense in the All-Star Game. Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders might amass votes here as well as in the MIP category. As tremendous as Memphis’ Tony Allen is on the ball, his lack of offense at shooting guard might be seen more as part of the problem rather than the solution for the Grizzlies. And let’s not neglect our MVP favorite, who can guard five spots and is worthy of DPOY one of these seasons.