Great expectations in NBA's second half
2011-12 season set to pick up steam as stakes start to rise following All-Star Weekend
It wasn't a midseason break, All-Star Weekend, as much as a pit stop, a chance to refuel, change tires and go. It's been a breakneck pace the NBA has been on since Christmas Day, and it ain't about to change now. In fact, the second half of the season should be even more desperate, even more exhausting, and probably more frustrating than usual, given the insane schedule, the lack of practice time, the injuries already incurred and the number of teams that think they have a serious shot.
As a result, I expect a lot of players-only team meetings like the ones we started to see before the All-Star break.
I expect the second half of the season, beginning Tuesday night, to be exacting. I expect it to be more dramatic than well-played, which is bad for the art of basketball but good for the bottom line: interest.
I expect the Los Angeles Lakers to do better than Rasheed Wallace. Really, a guy who hasn't played in the NBA in nearly two years, who was overweight and nearly done when we last saw him, is supposed to help the Lakers in some tangible way? If the Lakers want a forward who colors outside the lines but at least can be a volume scorer, how about, say, Michael Beasley? How can Sheed possibly be worth the trouble at this stage?
As long as we're talking about the Lakers, I expect Kobe Bryant to realize, even if nobody else on that team does, that his team will be a much bigger threat if he rides Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum like a jockey at Santa Anita between now and whenever the Lakers' season ends. If Kobe wants to merely be great, he can be a prolific scorer and watch the last three rounds of the playoffs on TV. But the only way to wring every last drop out of the Lakers as currently constructed is to exploit the team's size advantage down low.
I expect Dwight Howard to stay in Orlando the rest of the season and then leave over the summer. OK, the Magic aren't a threat to beat Miami or Chicago, and in what must be a troubling development now, cannot beat Atlanta. So it's next-to-impossible to make a case for Orlando being a real threat in the Eastern Conference. Still, Howard is averaging 20.1 points and a career-high 15.3 rebounds per game and the Magic have at least shown fight most of the time.
I expect Jeremy Lin to settle into being a 18-point, 8.5-assist per night player and lead the Knicks, comfortably, to a playoff spot. Point guard will no longer be the Knicks' big problem. But expectations will be. It's not often a barely .500 team gets every opponent's A-game, but that's the situation the Knicks are in, which could help them by the time the postseason rolls around.
I expect Philly to benefit big-time from the "break" and narrowly hold off the Knicks to win the Atlantic Division.
I expect Rip Hamilton, beginning in mid-March, to do exactly for the Bulls what they thought he'd do when they signed him.
I expect the Heat and Bulls to run away with the top two spots in the Eastern Conference and for everybody lined up on one side or the other to offer up reasons why one is better, none of which will mean a damn thing until we see them play each other in the Eastern Conference finals.
I expect (OK, hope) people to get off LeBron James, who is only having the kind of season that puts him in the company of Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. James, to his undying credit, didn't try to run from the legit criticism that he had to add a post-up game. He did. He also cut out the unnecessary 3-point shooting. And it worked. Yes, the only thing LeBron can do is play this way in June. Still, how many players as good as he is, after eight full seasons, get this much better? None.
I expect the San Antonio Spurs to keep it up, all the way through the end of the regular season. Gregg Popovich, not that he cares a lick, should be Coach of the Year for figuring out how to blend the old (Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Tony Parker) with the new (DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal, Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter) so effectively.
I expect the Mavericks and Spurs to battle for the "other" spot in the conference finals now that Dirk Nowitzki has found his motivation. He said himself during the All-Star break to reporters, "I know my motivation was gone a little bit. And I really had to fight to get it back and to get the fun back."
I expect the Clippers to win the Pacific Division but ultimately miss Chauncey Billups, who could be the difference between losing in the second round and reaching the conference finals.
I expect the Minnesota Timberwolves to make the playoffs, and for Rick Adelman to get his share of votes for Coach of the Year.
I expect the bottom feeders, once they really start examining Kentucky's Anthony Davis, to really think about what winning this year's lottery will do for a team. The Kentucky center is the most polished true big man, even with only one season under his belt, to come out of college since Tim Duncan. Maybe since David Robinson. Shaq, powerful as he was coming out of LSU, wasn't as polished offensively as Davis is. This kid isn't just a game-changer, he's a franchise-changer.
So, while the likes of the Hornets, Wizards, Pistons and Nets will undoubtedly keep an eye on Davis, there will be at least a half-dozen teams looking ambitiously toward spring, toward contention. It's not a bad scenario, all in all, for a league that as recently as Thanksgiving didn't know whether it would have an All-Star break or even a season. But it does, and as a result, the expectations have been ratcheted up. The season that almost wasn't has an identifiable tension to it, a sense that it's time for a trot to break into a sprint.
Gentlemen, on your marks, get set
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Over the course of three decades with The Washington Post, Wilbon earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists. You can follow him on Twitter, @RealMikeWilbon.
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