As All-Stars scurry back from New Orleans and everybody else from beaches near and far, we’ve reached the point when the 82-game trudge can no longer be pronounced a marathon.
The actual midpoint of the season passed weeks ago, but the annual All-Star break officially kick starts the so-called second half — or more like the stretch run. Most teams have only 30 or fewer games left to make their move. This is a sprint now.
With nine games scheduled for Tuesday night, we pull back the curtain on five second-half story lines (excluding Thursday’s trade deadline at 3 p.m. ET) to ponder:
1. Can any team in the disappointing East challenge the Heat and Pacers?
VIDEO: LeBron James and Paul George talk about the Heat-Pacers rivalry
“I don’t know,” Indiana big man Roy Hibbert said. “Toronto’s playing pretty well. Washington’s right there. Chicago’s been playing well even after trading Luol [Deng], so I’m not jumping forward to the second, third round or whatever. I’m just going to have to take care of business. We don’t want any surprises.”
It’s the Pacers’ and Heat’s world, with Indiana holding a tenuous, 2 1/2-game lead over the two-time champs. Circle March 26 and April 11 on the calendar. Those final two Heat-Pacers battles will be intense and could determine the top seed. Indiana dearly wants it for a potential East finals Game 7 against Miami in front of its home fans.
As for the rest of the bunch? Only Toronto and Chicago are above .500. Washington recently got there with some impressive wins only to slip below just before the break. Brooklyn, anyone?
It seems this will remain a two-team slugfest for the East crown.
“Right now that’s how it seems, but you never can know how the season can turn and the playoffs go,” Wizards All-Star point guard John Wall said. “If we figure out a way to play every game like we played against OKC, the Blazers and the Heat, I feel like we have a great chance to be a 3-seed or a 4-seed. But we have to do that for these last 30 games.”
2. Does Russell Westbrook’s imminent return make Oklahoma City the West (and overall) favorite?
VIDEO: Kevin Durant talks after his monster performance in the 2014 All-Star Game
Westbrook could play as soon as OKC’s first game back Thursday against the Heat. OKC was playing its best basketball of, arguably, the Thunder era in the weeks prior to Westbrook leaving the lineup in late December to undergo a third right knee surgery in less than a year.
Led by Kevin Durant, the Thunder surged in Westbrook’s absence and took over the West’s top seed, a spot they’re unlikely to surrender with Westbrook. Some suggest he’ll negatively alter the established on-court chemistry. Don’t bet on it. Some time will be needed for players, like Reggie Jackson, who stepped into larger roles and will now resume previous ones.
“I don’t think it will be too much of an adjustment,” Durant said. “He’s a dog, man, you just got to let him go out there and be him. He has great intentions, he’s a team-first guy, so it’s going to work.”
The league has been warned.
3. Will Kevin Durant win his first MVP award (and fourth scoring title)?
VIDEO: LeBron James and Kevin Durant put on a scoring show in the Thunder-Heat matchup
He’s certainly the leader starting the stretch run. But LeBron James‘ final performance before the break at Golden State reminded everybody that he’s not going to give anything away. That said, Durant’s numbers in the 26 games without Westbrook border on ridiculous: 35.0 points, 6.3 assists and 7.5 rebounds a game, with 52.7 percent shooting (including 39.9 percent beyond the arc). OKC went 19-7.
“As far as MVP, I have no control over votes,” Durant said. “I just go out there and play and I let the rest take care of itself. I always have confidence in myself. I never let anybody take that away from me. I just got to keep taking it a day at a time.”
MVP or not, it would take a near-miracle for Durant not to win a fourth scoring title in five seasons. He could have won it last year, too, but seemed to back off as Carmelo Anthony made a late charge. Durant is averaging 31.5 points a game this season; Anthony, in second place, is next at 27.3 ppg.
4. How will the rest of the season affect decisions facing Carmelo Anthony, Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett?
VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks during All-Star weekend about his long-term future in New York
Anthony said all the right things during All-Star weekend: He’s focused on making a playoff push; he can attract other top players to New York; he’ll take less money in his next deal if it will help build a title contender.
All that said, New York’s heavy contract burden next season will prevent it from making significant upgrades this summer. The books clear in 2015 when players like Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kyrie Irving (restricted) can hit the market, but that doesn’t guarantee anything. The Knicks looked to be turning a corner in early January, but it was fool’s gold. Could a frustrating end to this season sour Anthony, who turns 30 in May, enough to seriously consider a new address?
If he’s serious about contending now, he’ll have to consider options such as Chicago — even if wife LaLa prefers the Big Apple or Tinseltown over the Windy City.
As for Nash, 40, and Garnett, who turns 38 in May, this might be the end of the line. Nash has valiantly rehabbed for most of the last two seasons since joining the Lakers, and even in his recent return he’s continually dealing with pain. The Lakers aren’t likely contenders next season, and no team is likely to trade for Nash, who is still owed $9.7 million next season.
Garnett is averaging 6.8 points and 6.8 rebounds a game in a forgettable first season with Brooklyn. The Nets will likely make the playoffs in this underachieving Eastern Conference, but unless they put together an inspiring run, Garnett might not feel inspired to do it all over again.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that both players would walk away from a pile of cash. Garnett has $12 million left on his deal for next season. They won’t say it, but at this point both franchises would probably prefer these soon-to-be Hall of Famers hang ’em up.
5. Will Kobe Bryant play this season and where will the Lakers finish?
VIDEO: At the All-Star Game, Kobe Bryant talks about his rehab work and more
On Sunday at the All-Star Game, Kobe said his recovery is “coming slowly,” but he did not suggest that his season is done.
“I am,” he said when asked if he’s hopeful he’ll play. “I just need to keep my blinders on and just focus on getting better myself and going from there.”
He’s played in only six games this season and fractured his knee after coming back from Achilles surgery last April. Is it wise to play? The Lakers are an impossible 13 games out of the final playoff spot and, at 18-35, are tied for last in the West with the Sacramento Kings.
If Kobe plays, it will have zero effect on the Lakers’ ability to creep toward a playoff berth, thought it might serve to satisfy his appetite to play. A few more meaningless wins will mean fewer ping-pong balls in the lottery. If Kobe sits it out, L.A. could finish dead last in the West. It currently has more wins than only three East teams.