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NBA stories to fill the sports void

FOX Sports MITCH LAWRENCE
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NEW YORK

Now that the Packers have held their Super Bowl XLV celebration and Titletown is officially back on the map, we could use a little drama and excitement in the pro sports world for the next few months.

There’s a ready and willing audience, as the NFL just put up record TV ratings, culminating in the Ice Bowl in Dallas. What are the choices? It’s way too early to talk baseball. Rumor has it that there’s an NHL season, but that has yet to be confirmed.

If you’re jonesin' for some major drama and entertainment, the NBA has got you covered. It’s the only sport where tracking the moves of the league’s superstars is a sport unto its own, as we’re seeing now with the Carmelo Anthony soap opera. The action on the floor isn’t too bad either, as the strong TV ratings indicate. Oh, and not to be outdone by the NFL, the NBA also has the prospect of having a lockout, too. Can’t win 'em all, right?

Here are some of the major story lines fans can expect over the next four or five months in the NBA:

Watching the Lakers

There’s no guarantee a deal is coming, but when general manager Mitch Kupchak starts talking publicly about the need to do one, then you know the heat is on the two-time defending champs to shake it up.

Are they worthy?

The fans got most of their All-Star picks right. But they missed a few.

The argument for making a trade: As currently constructed, they’re not going to get Phil Jackson his fourth three-peat as he closes out a legendary coaching career. They’re old, slow and a low-energy team with a 1-6 mark against the top teams in the league (Boston, Miami, Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio). Ron Artest needs to see his shrink to help him come back to earth.

The argument against a deal: They’re the champs and they just need to get the regular season over with. One thing to remember: Barring a radical shift in thinking from people like VP Jim Buss, son of owner Jerry Buss, they’re not moving Andrew Bynum.

All-Star highs . . . and lows

All-Star weekend will showcase the league’s top stars, but there’s a new kid on the block who promises to steal the spotlight in Los Angeles. Blake Griffin of the Clippers is the first rookie since Yao Ming in 2003 to make the All-Star team. But it’s not the game where Griffin is going to make his greatest impact. In just half a season, he’s been a one-man airshow with his array of entertaining dunks. He’s entered in the dunk competition, giving that contest the most juice it’s had in years.

Unfortunately, Griffin’s dunks won’t totally overshadow the labor situation. Owners and players will meet in L.A. to try to make some substantial progress on a new collective bargaining agreement. Because the two sides are so far apart, a lockout seems likely and would come down on July 1.

Battle for MVP

LeBron didn’t have much competition last season when he won his second straight award. But this season, he’s got a big-time challenger in Derrick Rose of the Bulls, with Dirk Nowitzki also in contention. James has been his usual brilliant self in his first season for the Heat. If he becomes only the fourth player to win three straight MVP awards (with Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Larry Bird), no one will argue.

But Rose is part of the discussion for the first time in his career and is making a strong case to give the Bulls their first MVP since Michael Jordan. The Bulls have yet to be whole, with injuries to Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, but Rose has directed them to one of the top records in the NBA. The biggest change in his game: Now he’s become a better 3-point shooter.

"I don't think there's any doubt that he deserves to be up there in that group and deserves to be considered a very, very, very strong MVP candidate," Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy said.

Worst of the worst

The Cavs seem destined to join this club of truly awful NBA teams.

Nowitzki has shown his value in leading the Mavs to one of the league’s best marks. With him, Dallas is 34-8. Without him, they’re 2-7.

The Howard saga

The Orlando Magic broke up their team in December with two mega-deals and it looks like they’re going to have to do something else before the Feb. 24 trade deadline. Entering the season, they were seen as a top-tier team in the East, along with Boston and Miami. Chicago has replaced the Magic, even after Orlando acquired Hedo Turkoglu, Gilbert Arenas and Jason Richardson in December. With Turkoglu complaining about a sore knee and Arenas looking old, slow and chunky, the Magic have slipped to the second tier in the East. And that’s not good news because the clock is ticking on Dwight Howard’s career in Orlando.

Everything that GM Otis Smith has to do now is with the idea of re-signing Howard, first and foremost. It’s no secret he likes the idea of playing for the Lakers and thinks that making the move to L.A. in 2012, when he become a free agent, will give him a bigger endorsement portfolio. Playing with Kobe Bryant wouldn’t hurt his chances of winning a ring, either. But for now, Howard will have to do the best lifting of his career to carry a suspect supporting cast back to the East Finals.

New Western kings

There’s a shake-up going on in the West, where the Lakers’ three-year regular-season reign is fast coming to a close. Here’s the surprise. It’s the Spurs who are returning to the top. Here’s the bigger surprise: They’ve still got a shot to win 70 games. Believed to be on their last legs in the Tim Duncan Era, the Spurs lead the Mavs by seven games and the Lakers by 7.5.

As of now, they’re winning at a pace that will get them 69 victories and the No. 1 overall seed. Not only would that top any win total from their four championship seasons in the Duncan Era. But it would surpass their franchise record for wins, 63, set in 2006.

Midseason awards

The NBA doesn't hand out any honors at the halfway point of the season. That doesn't stop us.

“It didn’t look like they were a championship contender coming in,’’ said Steve Kerr, the former Phoenix GM. “But they’ve revamped themselves and reenergized that franchise. ‘Pop’ (head coach Gregg Popovich) has done an amazing job. They’ve added all that youth and energy the last couple of years and it’s paying off big time. The Spurs are back in a position where they can win a title.’’

East showdown

We’ve got one of the tightest races in years in the East, where the Celtics and Heat are only separated by half a game. Miami’s Big Three and Boston’s Big Three play each other two more times, including Sunday in Boston and in the final week of the regular season, April 10 in Miami. Sunday’s meeting is the first in more than three months, with the teams last playing on Nov. 11. The Celtics won the first two games, putting all the pressure on the Heat to sweep the last two games. With one more win, the Celtics will earn the tie-breaker in the battle for the No. 1 seed.

‘Melo on the clock

Just as James dominated the conversation last summer heading into “The Decision,’’ Carmelo Anthony has been the big story with the trading deadline approaching. Sometimes, it seems as if he’s been the only story, even if he’s not in the same class of James as a player. He’s on the next tier down, if not two tiers.

But when the Knicks are heavily involved and when Anthony’s name has been linked to the Lakers, he’s sure to continue to dominate the back pages and highlight shows until the deadline expires. Then who knows after that, because he’s a free agent this summer. New York is his preferred destination, although Chicago is seen as a team that could end up with Anthony, who would likely agree to sign long-term to play with the Bulls. Dark horses: Dallas, Houston and the Nets.

New York, New York

The league has more buzz this season and one of the reasons is that the Knicks are back, meaning New York is back, and, for some fans, that means the NBA is back. It’s huge for the NBA that the Knicks are relevant and no longer laughingstocks. They’re are on a path to finish sixth in the East and make their first playoff appearance since 2004, as Amar’e Stoudemire has taken the Big Apple by storm in his first season in the Garden.

As always, there’s an on-going soap opera off the court, with team president Donnie Walsh’s future still up in the air. Garden chairman Jim Dolan still has a soft spot in his heart for Isiah Thomas, who did his best to ruin the Knicks during his five years as team president. By wheeling and dealing his way out from under Thomas’ bad deals, and thereby getting under the salary cap, Walsh has put the Knicks in position to get Anthony now and possibly Chris Paul in the summer of 2012. Either of those stars, with Stoudemire, should make the Knicks contenders in the East.

Thanks to Walsh, rebuilding is no longer an uphill climb. So how come Dolan won’t announce he’s coming back for a fourth season? Only he knows, er, along with Isiah.

Tagged: Bulls, Clippers, Lakers, Magic, Spurs, Metta World Peace, Tim Duncan, Dwight Howard, Derrick Rose

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