FOX Sports North's Joan Niesen looks ahead to the NBA's post-All-Star break story lines.
By JOAN NIESEN FS North
All-Star weekend has come to a close, and with it the pomp, circumstance, fashion critique and stale MJ vs. LeBron debate. It was fun while it lasted, but goodbye and good riddance; what's to come will be far more enjoyable.
That's the thing about the All-Star break: it's viewed as a midseason pause, and a pause it is, but the thing hardly comes in the middle. The halfway point of the NBA's regular season passed weeks ago, and most teams have about 30 games remaining of the 82-game schedule. This is the stretch when playoff teams are made and standings are solidified, when games matter more and the flimsy teams collapse.
And so instead of looking back at Sunday's high-scoring, celebrity-studded game, or at the Lakers' rollercoaster, or LeBron's transcendent stretch, or any of the first-half storylines, for that matter, let's look forward. Two months remain to watch your team, three if you're lucky, four if you're from Oklahoma City,
Los Angeles, most likely, and so it's time to talk trades, comebacks, the playoffs and how teams are going to get themselves there.
Toughest second halves ahead
Toronto: I think the
Raptors have a decent, if small, chance of making the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference now that they've added
Rudy Gay, but getting there is going to be a stretch. It's not that they haven't been playing well, just that there really is a fair amount of ground to make up. The 21-32 team has logged a 5-2 record since acquiring Gay, but you can hardly expect them to play better than .700 ball for their remaining 29 games; realistically, they'll need to finish right around .500 to make the cut, thus needing a 20-9 or so finish. That's a .689 winning percentage over these next two months, and so their fate may be decided by a few other teams' potential collapses.
Boston: The Celtics have played out of their minds since losing
Jared Sullinger and now
Leandro Barbosa to injury, and I'd bet on them making the playoff despite their age and shorthanded roster. Part of that is a result of the relative weakness of the East, part due to the resolve of
Paul Pierce and Doc Rivers, but those factors will only go so far, and the Celtics have a lot to keep together and a decent chance of implosion if they fail.
Portland: Just a few weeks ago, the
Trail Blazers were in the heat of the playoff race in the West, but after losing five straight and 13 of 18, their name is fading in the postseason discussion. That said, they're in ninth place in the West, and it wouldn't take much to get back into the race. This is not a team that seems poised to make major changes, nor is it able to rely much on its supporting cast, so it'll come down to those five starters and whether
LaMarcus Aldridge and company can up their level of play to the point that it makes a considerable difference.
Trades that should happen
Dwight Howard for someone: His name has been floated as a potential trade piece, for Josh Smith, for Rondo, for plenty more, I'm sure, in the next few days. Howard will have to go to a contender if he's dealt, because he'll essentially be a rented player for the next two months, and it's hard even to see a team like Dallas, with the cache and money to sign him, taking the risk that he walks after a few meaningless months. I'm not saying the Lakers will deal him, but I'm in the camp that this will be a lost season for them, and with their core aging and a desperate need for someone new to build around, the Lakers have a unique opportunity to acquire said someone for a relatively meager cost.
Paul Millsap or Al Jefferson dealt by Utah: Both frontcourt players are free agents at the end of the season, and it will likely be too expensive for the team to retain both and extend
Gordon Hayward, who likely figures into their long-term plans.
Ben Gordon to the Nets, or any who wants a decently prolific scorer: What do the Bobcats have to lose? Gordon is clashing with coach Mike Dunlap and has seen his playing time reduced, and Charlotte isn't going anywhere this postseason. There have been rumors about dealing him to
Kris Humphries, which doesn't sound half-bad, but any team who needs a scoring punch might be interested. Gordon's numbers this year – 12.6 points per game on 42.8 percent shooting – aren't great, but on a halfway decent team they'd be much improved. A deal would be great for Charlotte, which has nothing to lose, and Gordon could come in handy for a team on the bubble or in the hunt.
Most at stake
Lakers: I mean, I kind of feel like there's not much more damage they can do, but this year has proven that just when you think Mike D'Antoni's tilt-a-whirl of a team has reached its tipping point, it gets even weirder. As someone who can't really see the Lakers pulling out a playoff berth but who understands that they will be good again, and good soon, here's hoping they don't do too much more damage to players, coaches and their reputation in the coming months.
Grizzlies: Memphis bet big when it traded Rudy Gay to Toronto, and
as I recently wrote , I don't think the trade changes the Grizzlies' expectations drastically, assuming they were never more than fringe title contenders. That remains to be seen, though, and the next two months will go a long way in revealing whether the team's new owners blew up their best shot at success.
Golden State is now a full seven games behind the
Clippers in the Pacific Division after losing five straight heading into the break. Mark Jackson's squad is 9-12 in 2013 after starting the season 21-10, and if there's any team to wonder whether a precipitous fall is coming, it's looking more and more like the Warriors. As the best feel-good story in the West and a team full of fun guys to watch, you have to hope they right the course in the remainder of the season.
Injured players returning to make an impact
Kevin Love, Timberwolves: His return, likely in mid-March, will have no impact on the playoff race in the West, but Minnesota needs it, badly. The team that won just one game last April and was predicted to have a postseason chance this year needs to finish strong, if only for the sake of psyche and keeping coach Rick Adelman interested in sticking around.
Derrick Rose, Bulls: As of last week, we now have no idea if Rose will return this season, much less when. It's hard to say whether that news will motivate or deflate the Bulls, who somewhat surprisingly are among the best teams in the East, but if he does come back, it's likely his return will be more a thing of morale than boosting the team to the next level. It's taken
Ricky Rubio two months in Minnesota to return to form after coming back from the same injury, and Rose won't have two months at his disposal.
Andrew Bogut, Golden State: Bogut has been playing since Jan. 28, but still not in back-to-backs, and his team has been trending downward of late despite so highly anticipating his comeback. The big man isn't Golden State's problem, but he might be able to help it, especially on defense if the team learns to integrate him properly.
This is hardly a precise science, and I won't even venture to seed the postseason-bound teams, but here are the teams I think will make the cut:
Makes it out of the first round: Heat, Pacers, Nets, Bulls, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers, Grizzlies
And, as boring as it sounds, it's hard to imagine there's any Finals prediction with more of a chance of transpiring than a rematch of Heat-Thunder.
What we heard
Despite our forward-looking focus this week, there were simply too many good quotes this week not to take a quick peek back at All-Star weekend:
"If it's up to me, I'm going to live and die green."
Celtics big man Kevin Garnett, talking at All-Star weekend about how he does not want to be traded and will not rescind his no-trade clause.
"I've been in about 1,000 dunk contests. I got LeBron stats in dunk contests."
Knicks swingman James White, who at age 30 has bounced back and forth between the D-League, overseas and the NBA and was one contestant in Saturday's dunk contest in Houston. White was creative in his dunks, but ultimately could not finish them.
"(Jordan) said he would take Kobe over me because ... five rings are better than one, and the last time he checked, five is better than one," James said. "At the end of the day, rings don't always define someone's career. If that's the case, then I'd sit up here and say I would take (Bill) Russell over Jordan. But I wouldn't. I wouldn't take Russell over Jordan. Russell has 11 rings, Jordan has six. I wouldn't do that."
Miami's LeBron James, addressing the firestorm of comparisons between himself and Michael Jordan. The conversation, generated by Jordan's 50th birthday on Feb. 17, was fed by LeBron's recent play and the forced gathering of athletes and media in Houston for All-Star weekend.
Knicks at Pacers, 7 p.m. ET Wednesday: With Miami the consensus best team in the East by a healthy stride, the Knicks have taken the bulk of the remaining spotlight thus far this season. However, despite a slow start, the Pacers have played .688 basketball since Dec. 12, amassing a 22-10 record over that time, and now they're just 1.5 games behind the Knicks. I'd argue that by the end of the season, Indiana will surpass
New York, and this game will go a long way in testing that theory.