The 2012-13 NBA season was billed as one that would be full of drama and story lines, and as we approach the mid-way point of the 82-game marathon it has not disappointed, not by a long shot. If 10 people made individual lists of five compelling story lines about the NBA season thus far the result may be 50 different choices (just kidding, everyone would have "what's wrong with the Lakers?" on their list).
Lets hope the second half is as entertaining and exciting as the first half was. Here are five things to look forward to for the NBA's stretch run.
Here's a fun trivia question; which NBA team that has six former All-Stars, three MVP awards and four Defensive Player of the Year awards is also under .500? You guessed it! It's your 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers!
Clearly this team has underachieved and clearly this storyline has been beaten to death by everyone with a platform to do so for the past three months, but here's an angle that I have yet to hear broached by an NBA pundit yet: the Lakers should try to trade Dwight Howard.
Don't get me wrong, no one would be more annoyed to have to deal with more Dwight rumors than I would, but there is a case to be made that it would be in LA's best interest.
It is pretty clear that Dwight and Pau cannot coexist within Mike D'Antoni's system which thrives on pick-and-roll with the point guard and center, surrounded by three shooters to space the floor.
Dwight and Pau need to occupy the same space to be effective which makes their presence on the court at the same time redundant and ultimately hazardous to offensive execution. If Steve Nash is unable to get both of these guys playing at a high level together then it can just about be deemed impossible.
The consensus for the better part of the season since this conclusion was reached was that LA should ship Gasol out of town. I'm not so sure.
Kobe Bryant has said that when his contract expires at the end of the 2013-14 season that he plans to retire. Pau's contract is up that same year.
Roughly $50 million will come off of LA's books in one fell swoop and if Dwight is not around the Lakers will have the most salary cap flexibility of any team in an off season in which LeBron James has a player option to become an unrestricted free agent.
Obviously it would be a long shot but if I were Mitch Kupchak I would keep that option open rather than building around Howard and becoming the Orland Magic West with an aging Dwight who may never regain the athleticism he had prior to his back surgery.
Factor in the immaturity, indecision, and overall sour attitude that Dwight has shown a propensity to display and the choice seems obvious. Stay tuned on this one.
2. Do not pour dirt on the Boston Celtics yet.
The Boston Celtics are 20 and 20. That's a forgettable introduction to a segment about a forgettable team thus far in 2012-13. The good news for Celtics fans is that Boston is only one game behind where they were after 40 games last season.
That team came together to finish 18 and eight after that 21 and 19 start (66 game season), peak at the right time and play the eventual champion Miami Heat to within an inch of their lives that was staved off only buy an otherworldly performance by LeBron James.
The bad news is that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are a year older. Boston has struggled on the defensive end which is surprising since their D has been a staple during the Rondo-Garnett-Pierce era.
They are allowing five more points per 100 possessions as compared to last year which hasn't helped (via 82games.com). If you factor in lots of moving parts (Jason Terry replacing Ray Allen, Jeff Green and Avery Bradley's return, Jared Sullinger), Rajon Rondo having a similar season to 2011-12 and failing to take the "leap" that many speculated he would be ready for and you have the recipe for a Molotov cocktail of Boston panic.
The Celtics need two things to get themselves back on track to make another deep playoff run that we've become accustomed to in recent years.
First, they need to make a move for a big man who can take some of Kevin Garnett's minutes and keep him fresh for the remainder of the season. Greg Steimsma played well in that roll last season and in his absence this year Boston is seven points worse per 100 possessions with KG on the bench (82games.com).
Second, Boston needs Rajon Rondo to up his field goal attempts from about 12 a game to somewhere in the range of 15. Boston becomes a better team and far more difficult to guard when Rajon Rondo is a threat to score 20 points and create open shots for his teammates.
It is time for Rondo to hop into the "top ten players in the league" discussion rather than lingering around the 15 to 20 range. If not now I'm not sure if we'll ever see it.
Miami is obviously still the odds on favorite to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, but it is not the lock that everyone assumed it would be following their title run last season.
On the surface, the easiest case to be made for one of those teams to upend Miami is that they have combined to win all four match-ups this season against the defending champs by an average of over 14 points per game! Read that last sentence again.
If you look deeper the case for Indiana is easy because they are strong in almost every area that has been a weakness for the champs. Indiana leads the league in rebounding differential (the Heat are 26th) and opponents' field goal percentage.
Also the emergence of Paul George as a legitimate All-Star and lock-down perimeter defender, and Roy Hibbert's presence in the paint are a nightmare match-up for Miami as they learned in the playoffs last year.
The Pacers have struggled offensively but are still waiting on their best scorer Danny Granger to return from a preseason knee injury in the next few weeks which can only help their offense.
As for New York, they have come back to earth after their absurdly good start to the season both defensively and from the three point line. They are still leading the league in three point attempts while shooting nearly 39 percent as a team which is an X-factor that makes them dangerous.
Carmelo Anthony is also playing like one of the five best players in the world, and truly believes he is on the level of LeBron and Dwyane Wade. Throw in the experience of guys like Jason Kidd and Tyson Chandler, and the athleticism of their wing guys JR Smith and Iman Shumpert and there is a conceivable blueprint for an epic Knicks shocker over Miami in the playoffs.
4. The Chicago Bulls will be better in the long run because of Derrick Rose's injury.
It would be tough to convince Bulls fans during last year's postseason as Derrick Rose writhed on the court in pain that they had just witnessed a blessing in disguise, but their future outlook is now brighter because of it.
At full health last season I don't believe Chicago would have beaten the Heat anyway. It was inevitable. Miami was on a war path.
There was nothing on earth that was going to prevent LeBron James from getting his first ring. Anyone who watched the playoffs would agree with that assessment.
By removing Derrick Rose from the Bulls last season and for the first 40 plus games of this season, Chicago has been forced to correct its mistakes that held them back from beating Miami two seasons ago.
Their fatal flaw was the inability to score late in games when their opponents double teamed Derrick Rose and forced someone else to beat them. Rose was superhuman in 2010-11 but in the end it wasn't enough because they were an incomplete team.
In Rose's absence, Luol Deng has become a legitimate go-to-guy late in games upping his field goal attempts per 48 minutes of clutch time (last five minutes of close games; 82games.com) by four, while Joakim Noah's have increased by over six.
Obviously removing their best player has caused Noah and Deng to take more shots late in games, but there is something to be said for being forced run before you walk.
With Carlos Boozer also having his best season in about three years and Tom Thibodeau's relentless defensive pedigree that his players bought into the Bulls could be even better than their 60 plus win teams from the past two seasons when Rose returns. Maybe one or two of those things would have developed with Rose still around, but it's unlikely that all three would have.
There have also been rumblings that Rose has developed different parts of his game like his jump shot and his post game in case his athleticism doesn't return as quickly as he would like.
Sitting as the number five seed in the Eastern Conference right now, the Bulls are like a predator waiting in the weeds. Their time to strike is coming and it will be extremely interesting to see if the rest of the East is up to the task.
5. The Oklahoma City Thunder are the favorites to win the NBA Title, but LeBron is still the MVP.
Oklahoma City and Miami will be linked for the duration of their best players careers. As long as LeBron remains on South Beach and Kevin Durant is in OKC, the league, fans, and probably the players of both teams will constantly have an eye on what the other is doing.
The Thunder are firing on all cylinders right now. They look like Miami did last year, motivated by their defeat in last years finals, and the public perception that they were worse off for dealing away bench man James Harden for future financial reasons.
They're playing with a massive chip on their shoulders that should be frightening to Miami, who appears to be stuck in about third gear at the moment. It's hard to say whether that is by choice because they know the importance of peaking at the right time, or because of personnel.
Miami is one of the worst rebounding teams in the league and have come down back to earth a bit defensively. It's possible that Miami has an on/off switch and any concerns about them will be put to rest when the lights get brightest, but the doubt is there.
OKC's switch is stuck in fifth gear. Kevin Durant is Oklahoma City's best player, but that chip is a characteristic that seems like it comes from Russell Westbrook, who has been phenomenal this season, just as the critics had gotten the loudest.
Westbrook's assist to turnover ratio has gone through the roof, without a dip in his aggressiveness which is his greatest asset, and possibly the dimension that makes the Thunder the scariest.
It would be very tough to come up with a list of guys longer then about three that wouldn't be embarrassed trying to guard Westbrook one on one.
The individual battle for the league's poster boy, which is probably the most compelling such battle since the Magic-Bird days, is getting closer. Kevin Durant came back from his Finals loss and Olympic summer with improvements to every part of his game that experts asked for.
He's tightened up his shooting percentages (50 percent FG, 40 percent 3FG, 90 percent FT are all on the table), improved his on-ball defense, become a more willing passer out of double teams, and embraced his role as a leader at an early age.
Having said that, LeBron James is a flat out monster. What he does for the Miami Heat goes far beyond statistics, and the statistics in themselves are ridiculous!
He's scoring (26.3 points per game), passing (seven assists per game) and rebounding (eight rebounds per game) at absurd levels, all of which lead the defending champions.
He guards five positions, sometimes all in one night. He's carrying Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh through down seasons.
At this point Miami can't afford to have him off of the court. When LeBron is playing Miami outscores their opponents by over seven points per 100 possessions. When he's off of the court the Heat are outscored per 100 possessions by three points (82games.com).
Durant is great. He is the best player on the best team in the league. But no one is more valuable to their team then LeBron James right now, and maybe ever.
Honorable mentions go to Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Durant for the league MVP, but barring something called "voter fatigue" that was invented because of Michael Jordan, LeBron will have his fourth MVP after this season. Although, the ring is still up for grabs.