What’s Next For Season’s Stretch Run?

Do either of these star-less teams have a chance to win big? (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE)

Do either of these star-less teams have a chance to win big? (Photo by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

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?

Derrick Rose, by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE

Derrick Rose, by Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE

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.

27 Comments

  1. And now the heat get their ring illegitimately w/ help from outside the team w/ the way all their playoff games were called by refs last year-then lbj wants to say they started a trend in the east-LMAO-that’s very laughable! Pipe it down son, things achieved the wrong way are short lived & will always come back to bite you in the A!! for sure!!! Glad my Celts do things the right way!!!

  2. @ And1-you mean learn from the Celts as celts did that back in “07 before both mavs & heat-now everybody is copying the Celtics. Nothing new, it’s been going on since the “60′s. People need to stop saying do what the heat did like they created some trend & give credit where credit is due. Also everybody’s trying to name their big 3 on their teams-
    THERE WAS ONLY ONE-IS ONLY ONE & ALWAYS WILL BE ONLY ONE TRUE ORIGINAL BIG3 IN BOSTON FOR YEARS DOWN THE ROAD!!!
    All that overhyping is just to detract attention away from Celts being a contender by the haters-it started season after Celts “08 ring.
    CELTICS-HORAAH-UBUNTU!!!

  3. And1 says:

    The Spurs will likely crash and burn in the play-offs. When that happens then it will be a wake-up call for them to trade for a nba star. Tim’s got two more years, tops. It’s sad to see Pop is wasting it away by not making a major deal. Sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to learn from the Heat and Mavs, previous years’ champs.

  4. Melomvp says:

    Chandler or noah as dpoy… Woodson or popovich coach ofnthe year… Smith or kevin 6th man of the year.. George on most improve player.. Lilard for rookie then for mvp… It can be Melo after knicks improve compare last seaon.. Plus how he make his game on another level… The guy improve evry single game

  5. Kilroy says:

    Long time spurs fan..still waiting for that elusive 5th ring.
    And i like our chances this year.

  6. GO GET IT CELTICS-GREENALLDAY ALL THE WAY!!!

  7. STEELO says:

    lebron gets MVP and DPOY

  8. joey boy says:

    trade HOWARD & JAMISON for CHANDLER & AMARE….. plus KENYON MARTIN can sign with KNICKS…. ARENAS to LAKERS….

  9. Duke says:

    The difference last year for the Spurs was that Green and Neil went cold during the OKC series… Had they played like the regular season, the Spurs would have won against OKC. This year Ginobli has not been as healthy and it shows. That said, I still wouldn’t bet against them.

  10. Matt says:

    Ray Allen always came off the bench for the heat, so shouldn’t he be in contention for the sixth man award?

    • Arky says:

      Eligible but hasn’t been as good or made as big an impact as Jarrett Jack, JR Smith etc. To win 6th man of the year these days you basically have to play starter’s minutes off the bench (like Harden in OKC, Terry in Dallas, Ginobili until recently in SA etc). I always thought that to be eligible you should have to play the 6th most minutes a game (or less) for your team because Harden, Terry etc off the bench was just a matter of the coach’s rotation style rather than being real bench players. But the way it goes, if you aren’t playing 30+ minutes a night off the bench you aren’t winning 6th man of the year and Allen doesn’t play that kind of time.

    • Willie Beamen says:

      Allen has struggled to hit double figures most of the season and is far behind someone like Jamal Crawford who has given top ten production at his position off the bench .

  11. Franz says:

    The difference between the Spurs this year and previous years is the improvement in defence and the maturation of young guys such as Splitter, Green and Leonard. Hopefully that’s enough to take them to the top

  12. Raging Bulls says:

    You’re wrong, the MVP race can change in 30 games, the MVP isn’t awarded to the best player in the league unless their team is winning, the Thunder are in the tougher conference and are winning better than the Heat. It’s LBJ’s award to lose but if the Heat finish with 50-55 wins and the Thunder 60-65 then KD deserves it

    • Arky says:

      And if the Spurs have the best record again, does that mean we should give the MVP to Parker? Please. it’s an individual award. If Miami ends with the best record in the East, saying that LeBron’s team somehow hasn’t won enough games forhim to be MVP is ludicrous. By the way Miami beat the Thunder both home and away, if we’re going to think that way.

      At the moment if you’re inventing reasons to not give LeBron the MVP trophy you just need to admit you’re doing it because you don’t like the guy. Stuff can change over 30 games, Durant could find another level and LeBron could take his foot off the accelerator as they cruise towards the end of the regular reason and there could be a legit argument for Durant as MVP. But at the moment there is not.

  13. Patty says:

    INSTEAD OF TRADING KEVIN GARNETT AND PAUL PIERCE…THE BOSTON CELTICS SHOULD HAVE AND STILL HAVE A CHANCE TO BRING VERY GOOD PLAYERS TO HELP KG AND PAUL PIERCE.

    BOSTON CELTICS NEED ANOTHER GENERAL MANAGER. THIS GUY DOES NOT KNOW WHAT HE IS DOING.

    TRADE KG AND PAUL PIERCE AND YOU END UP WITH NOTHING. THEY NEED TO TRADE RONDO.

  14. Patty says:

    MIKE WOODSON SHOULD BE THE COACH OF THE YEAR. THIS ALL DEPENDS ON WHO IS DOING THE PICKING FOR COACH OF THE YEAR.

    KEVIN DURANT CAN BE A GREAT PLAYER IF HE WANTS TO. THIS ALL DEPENDS ON KEVIN DURANT .

    KEVIN DURANT NEEDS TO STOP LETTING LEBRON JAMES PRETEND TO BE HIS VERY GOOD FRIEND.K
    kEVIN MAY FEEL HE CANNOT BE THE PLAYER THAT HE WANTS TO BE WHEN OKC IS PLAYING THE MIAMI HEAT BECAUSE LEBRON AMES IS PRETENDING TO BE SUCH A GOOD FRIEND..

    WHEN KEVIN DURANT FINALLY FINES OUT THAT LEBRON JAMES IS LEADING HIM ON…HE WILL BREAK THROUGH AND BECOME THIS GREAT PLAYER WE ALL KNOW HE CAN BE.

  15. roy arias says:

    The San Antonio Spurs are not built to your typical NBA mold and their “Stars” are not your typical NBA show boaters, with flashy dunks and constant ally oops. The Spurs are not as entertaining to most big market beat reporters and NBA fans because of that and always overlooked by most as old and slow, with aging stars, and they are. However, the Spurs don’t rely on stars to win but rather a system that has not gotten old and works with the right personalities in place (which is why you won’t see many Dwight Howard types in a Spur’s Uniform). Yes they are older, but the majority of their team make-up is getting younger and faster, with another year of playing together under the Pop system. True, the Spurs have not won a Championship since 2007, but they are always winning and sometimes either a shot or a foul away from another title shot. Most of the teams in the NBA have never won one title and a few have only won one or two, so Four NBA titles in 14 years is quite an achievement and of all the other title holders since then (Dallas, Boston, Detroit…..) San Antonio has been the one constant, even LA and Miami had to bring in more Super stars to help them get back in the mix.. So keep waiting Sport writers, keep waiting NBA, in the meantime, the San Antonio Spurs and their fans just keep winning and winning, watching how silly you all look look tripping over each other, to capture another star, or create another “Star”. The Spurs will be waiting!!!!

    • Arky says:

      Parker and Ginobili are not showboaters? Heh.

      The Spurs got their boring reputations back when they were defined by the defence of Bruce Bowen and Duncan, these days they are a high scoring team and entertaining to watch (but Pop seems to delight in pushing the idea of the boring unfashionable Spurs in the media, maybe so they keep flying under the radar or maybe just because he thinks its funny).

      The Spurs are a system team who have their system perfect. And look, when they were 2-0 up on the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals last year on the back of a 20 game winning streak, no-one was saying they were washed up and couldn’t compete for the title. If anything they’re better this year. Definitely a real threat, especially as we don’t know how OKC without Harden will perform in the playoffs. Martin is not a proven playoffs guy and despite his failure in the Finals Harden was absolutely critical for OKC against the Spurs and in the playoffs generally.

  16. I’ve done some simulations to look at what the second half of the season might look like (Playoff probabilities and final standings): http://statisticator.blogspot.com/2013/02/who-will-make-playoffs.html
    Spoiler: Lakers have a small window of opportunity but must first pray that Houston stumbles badly!

  17. Skeletor says:

    You left one more question that voters must get right:..

    Namely, will the league owners do the right thing by fans and vote AGAINST the proposed sale and relocation of the Sacramento Kings?

    That’s kind of an important one.