Jeremy Lin, LeBron James and the NBA's Top 10 Upcoming Storylines
The NBA All-Star Game gave us an incredible performance by LeBron James followed shortly after by plenty more ammunition against him. It gave Kevin Durant another milestone, Blake Griffin a chance to throw down some impressive dunks (Chris Bosh has never moved faster on the court than when Griffin came his way in air) and showed us all that Kobe Bryant is still the alpha dog of the NBA.
Let's admit, the first half of the NBA season was just kind of weird. The shortened schedule led to some sloppy play, a lot of mediocre records and a confusion on which teams are actually good.
It also gave us Jeremy Lin. Oh sweet Lord, did it give us Jeremy Lin.
Now that we have reached the halfway point, there are plenty of exciting storylines ahead to enjoy. Here's a look at my top 10.
10. Brooklyn Uh-Oh Nets
So you know that awkward moment when you build a multibillion-dollar stadium, create a lot of controversy in the community by doing it, make a bold challenge to the New York Knicks organization right in their backyard only to move into your new home with MarShon Brooks and Kim Kardashian's ex-husband as your two main attractions?
The New Jersey Nets are currently the No. 13 team in the Eastern Conference. The good news, Dwight Howard might be on his way. The bad news, Dwight Howard might not be on his way.
The difference between those two outcomes is enormous. If they land Howard, then Deron Williams is staying. Not sure who they would have to trade to obtain Howard, but who cares? They would immediately be a playoff team and have a tremendous amount of momentum going into Brooklyn.
But let's imagine Howard goes somewhere else. Say it's a long-term contract with the Los Angeles Lakers or Dallas Mavericks. Well, that means this summer it's goodbye Deron Williams and a panic to try and market this team.
The Nets need Williams to stay and the only way I see that happening is if they land Howard.
9. Boston Celtics: End of an Era?
The Boston Celtics are interesting on two levels.
The Trade Angle
Will there be a trade in the next couple of weeks?
Danny Ainge has not opposed the idea in recent interviews and, while the Celtics would probably take an initial step backwards, the addition of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett or any combination of those three would greatly boost any contender.
The Spoiler Angle
What if the Celtics come in as the No. 6 seed and are matched up against the Philadelphia 76ers or Indiana Pacers? The Celtics' "Big Four" would have a legitimate shot in that seven-game series.
What if the Celtics come in as the No. 7 or No. 8 seed matched up against either the Miami Heat or Chicago Bulls? I really doubt the Celtics could win either of these matchups, but I guarantee they will give a tough, five- or six-game series.
A physical first-round series with the Celtics could greatly hinder the Bulls' or Heat's chances at making the NBA Finals.
8. The Eighth Seed in Western Conference
Here are the teams, in no particular order, that I think have established themselves as locks to make the Western Conference playoffs.
The Locks: Oklahoma City Thunder, Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks
The Bubble: Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, Minnesota Timberwolves
Even the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns could be in the mix.
This means we are headed for some great competition for the final playoff spot. Great competition usually leads to a No. 8 seed with a lot of momentum. Watch for the young and exciting Minnesota Timberwolves to become a fan favorite and grab the No. 8 seed.
7. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and the Winning Clippers
Who wouldn't want to see Blake Griffin's highlights for a few extra weeks?
The Clippers will be an interesting team to watch in the second half. I wish Chauncey Billups could be around for it. Still though, remember that last year Chris Paul took a mediocre New Orleans team to the playoffs and gave Kobe Bryant's Los Angeles Lakers everything they could handle in a surprising first-round series.
Arm Paul with Griffin and we could be headed for an exciting playoffs.
I see the Clippers having the type of playoffs the Oklahoma City Thunder had two years ago when they challenged the Los Angeles Lakers to a difficult first-round series. I think the Clippers are going to have a slump or two in the second half and come in as the No. 6 seed (the difference between No. 3 and No. 6 right now is only 1.5 games).
NBA fans should hope to see either a Clippers vs. Lakers "Battle for LA" matchup, a high-flying, high-scoring affair with the Denver Nuggets or a battle of the NBA's young stars in Clippers vs. Thunder.
6. Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls
Derrick Rose missed 10 games, Richard Hamilton missed 24 games, but yet the Chicago Bulls are only 0.5 games back of the Miami Heat.
I am convinced the Bulls are just as good as the surging Miami Heat. I also believe they are better built for the compacted playoff schedule. C.J. Watson has developed filling in for Rose and this experience will be crucial come playoff time when Rose needs a rest.
The power forward/center options of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson is better and deeper than the Heat's offering.
As you saw in last year's series, the Bulls vs. Heat was a brutal, defensive battle. These are games that are won in the 80s. A healthy Richard Hamilton could be the difference the Bulls need.
It will be interesting to see how Rose's back injury plays out the rest of the year.
And, as reported by Vaughn McClure of the Chicago Tribune, there are always the Dwight Howard rumors...
5. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder franchise is making its steady climb to the top of the Western Conference.
Two years ago, it was the great regular season and impressive first-round showing against the Los Angeles Lakers (remember, as a No. 8 seed, the Thunder still had 50 wins). Last year, it was the trip to the Western Conference finals.
Do they stay on pace and finally make it to the NBA Finals?
Long-term, I think the Thunder are scarier than the Miami Heat. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both 23 years old, Serge Ibaka is only 22.
Durant and Westbrook are No. 2 and No. 5 in scoring this season. Ibaka is proving to be one of the best defenders in the game (how many times do we ever see a triple-double with points, rebounds and blocks?). They have a defensive stopper in Kendrick Perkins, a streaky third scorer in James Harden and a quality batch of role players like Nick Collison and Eric Maynor.
Now remember, historically, teams that win the NBA Finals have stars in that 27 to 33 age group. This bodes well for the Miami Heat (LeBron James and Chris Bosh are 27, while Dwyane Wade is 30) and also the veteran teams like the San Antonio Spurs, Lakers and Dallas Mavericks.
The question then becomes do the Thunder take another big step forward, or is this the year Durant and Westbrook experience a setback, a little bit of adversity?
4. Kobe Bryant's Incredible Run
Kobe Bryant continues to solidify his place as one of the greatest players to ever play the game of basketball.
At 33 years old, Kobe is leading the NBA in scoring. He has played in every single game despite fighting through injuries. Do we really think this broken nose will stop him?
The first note of interest with the Los Angeles Lakers surrounds the trade deadline. The big move would be Dwight Howard, but if that fails, who will the Lakers bring in, ship out or trade for, and how will that effect team chemistry?
Bryant is having one of the best seasons of his career. Will he be able to carry the Lakers through the playoffs, grab his sixth ring and do so without Shaquille O'Neal or Phil Jackson?
3. Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks
Honestly, I think the second half for Jeremy Lin will be a drop in points, a slight rise in assists and a drop in turnovers.
The story is awesome, but I do not see him becoming an NBA superstar on the level of Chris Paul, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook or Deron Williams. He's a really good player, but let's not clear out the Olympic team point guard slot for him just yet.
The bigger story is how good the New York Knicks could potentially be. The starting lineup consists of Lin, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler. On paper, that is a top-five lineup in the league.
On the court? Well, they are still getting used to each other.
Factor in J.R. Smith off the bench and Steve Novak's hot hand from behind the arc, and it's easy to see why fans in New York are building their hopes up.
Anthony needs to still be the man on this team. Stoudemire needs to get his game back up to his All-Star level of last year (pre-Carmelo trade) and the Knicks organization should try to bring in another big man.
Also, keep an eye on Baron Davis. He could be a very important backup piece. There will be games when Lin is a little out of control (revisit the Miami Heat tape) and will need a veteran to come in and steady the ship. Davis brings a different game than Lin. Lin is quick, and Davis is—well, not so quick. He's a more physical, back-down-smaller-guards type.
The combination of guarding a lightning-quick point guard then onto a bulldozer is a tiring task. Lin needs a quality Davis backing him up.
2. Dwight Howard's Final Destination
If Dwight Howard stays in Orlando, then it's not much of a story.
However, if he heads off to the Lakers or Mavericks, then we suddenly have a new NBA favorite, or at least a seismic shift of power.
If he ends up with Deron Williams and the Nets, then we have a very intriguing team that could stir up some noise this year in the Eastern Conference. Moving forward, a Williams and Howard Nets team in Brooklyn would be able to challenge the top dogs in Chicago and Miami.
Howard is by far the best center in the league and wherever he chooses to play will be in good position for the next 10 years.
1. LeBron James Saga Continues
The NBA All-Star Game represented so much of LeBron James's entire career.
He was incredible. He did things that made you jump out of your seat. He put a team on his back and put them in position to win (no small feat considering his teammates looked like the Olympic roster).
But then came the final 10 seconds and the bizarre cross-court pass resulting in a turnover, along with the decision to take the ball out of bounds. He had a chance to hit a game-winner over Kobe Bryant and he chose not to go for it.
James should be the MVP this season. His first half was amazing with 27.4 points, 8.1 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.8 steals per game. He is shooting just a hair under 55 percent and 41 percent from behind the arc.
But hardly anyone is willing to accept these phenomenal numbers. He still has the choke label and the NBA All-Star Game, albeit an exhibition, certainly didn't help him shed the mark. Like Wilt Chamberlain before him, it's championship or bust, and even if he wins one, I'm sure there will be plenty of voices saying, "Eh, it's only one!"
What I find fascinating is LeBron seems to be on the threshold of gaining fans back. He's taken the abuse, he's taken the choke label like Dirk Nowitzki had for so many years and he has definitely experienced adversity.
The storyline continues with LeBron and I have no idea what will happen next in the plot. Can't wait to find out!