The All-Star break is less than a month away. That means it's time for our experts to weigh in on the first half of the season -- from teams to beat to midseason MVP and ROY picks.
1. Which team looks like the best bet to win the East?
Greg Anthony, ESPN.com:The longer the season goes on, the more you would think that Miami would and should be the team to beat. Problem is, the more the Heat play, the more they lose!
Yes, the Big Fella is back, but it's going to be awhile before he can even be on the floor for 30 minutes a night. Because of that, the only team that's defeated the Heat in the postseason since Shaq migrated east looks to be fine-tuning for another run to the Finals. So I won't be surprised to see the Pistons back in familiar territory, the NBA Finals.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Honestly, I have to say the Miami Heat.
The only EC team playing up to its potential and showing a champion's heart right now is Washington, and I don't think it has enough punch inside to reach the Finals.
Miami is beginning to play better after getting a break from Pat Riley's boot camp, and by playoff time, Shaq will be in shape, D-Wade will be well-rested and Riley will return charged up and with better perspective (which means lighter practices) for another run to the Finals.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: Cavs. By default. LeBron has flatlined so far (Team USA hangover?), yet they have the conference's second-best record and a downhill schedule the second half.
Home-court advantage, an improved defense and lessons learned from last year's postseason march could be enough to get them there.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Cleveland was my preseason pick, but Chicago has the best scoring margin by far, which is a better predictor of future success, so I'll take the Bulls. Plus, they have the pieces to get Pau.
Miami? Not till I see the old Shaq … and I'm not sure we ever will.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Best bet, eh? Getting in the spirit for All-Star Weekend in Vegas, are we?
Well, the Chicago Bulls -- despite their record -- are pretty close to being able to beat any other team in the East in a seven-game series.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: My position hasn't changed. If Wade and Shaq are reasonably healthy when the playoffs start, as I've been saying for months, I don't see anyone in the East beating Miami four times in a seven-game series. No one in the Leastern Conference has shown us an indication yet that we need to revise this thinking.
Example: If the Heat finish eighth in the East and Washington wins it, you know that the top-seeded team in the whole conference will be a first-round underdog. Who's going to pick the Wiz to win that series?
2. Which team looks like the best bet to win the West?
Anthony: I still like Dallas. I know that Phoenix has played amazing basketball since that horrific start. Problem is, Dallas has been even better. Dallas is gifted offensively and overall they're quicker and defend the perimeter and the paint better.
Statistically Phoenix blows you away until you look at the Suns' games against Dallas and San Antonio, which are the teams they'll have to beat to get to the Finals.
Broussard: Dallas. This team has no weaknesses. It can run, score in the half court, go inside, outside and most important, defend -- it's what will separate Dallas from the Suns this year.
Dallas is still capable of scoring with the Suns, and in the fourth quarter of playoff games, the Mavs will be able to slow them down defensively.
The Mavs are on a mission, but the Suns are the more desperate team, knowing that cap issues and Nash's iffy back could make this their last shot. It worked for Miami last year.
Hollinger: Phoenix. I went with the Spurs before the season, and they still might be there, but the Suns have been head and shoulders above the league since the second week and it seems only an injury can derail them, even in a loaded West. Some nights you think they'll never lose again.
Sheridan: At this point, I'd hold my breath and take the Suns over the Mavericks by the slimmest of margins, only because Phoenix has not taken a single night off since starting the season 1-5, whereas Dallas has three lopsided losses in its 34-4 record since opening 0-4.
Stein: The Mavs have the edge because, much like San Antonio in 2005, they have the versatility to play any style. No one else in the league can make that claim.
My disclaimer: Phoenix has more room to improve than any other contender between now and the end of the season because, well, who knows what Amare Stoudemire is capable of?
The most amazing thing about the Suns' ridiculous 31-2 stretch is that they're still figuring things out as a group, with Amare operating at about 80 to 90 percent of his pre-microfracture capacity. Imagine if he rises another notch (or three) between now and April.
3. Which team looks like the best bet to win the NBA title?
Anthony: Dallas is my pick -- the Mavs are the most consistent, most versatile and deepest team in the league. Not to mention they have the experience, after imploding in the Finals last year.
Broussard: Dallas. Two things kept Dallas from winning it last year: a lack of experience and a lack of maturity on the big stage. Those won't be issues this year.
Bucher: Suns, or whoever wins the West. For the reasons stated above. No two teams are as motivated as the Suns and Mavs.
Hollinger: Is this a trick question? I thought the Western Conference finals were the championship.
OK, the East has had a strong run the past few Finals, but the Western champion will be an overwhelming favorite. So I'll go with Phoenix on this one, too.
Sheridan: If I'm going to pick Phoenix in Question No. 2, I gotta stick with the Suns in No. 3.
As great as Nash has been with career highs in points and assists, Stoudemire makes the difference for the Suns in terms of being capable of winning a title.
Stein: Mavs. Add hunger to the versatility and they're the favorites, if only slight favorites over Phoenix.
4. Which dark horse has a legitimate shot at surprising us and winning it all?
Anthony: Several teams fall into this category -- Houston, Denver, even the struggling Cavs.
But the team I think is the most dangerous is the Lakers. (By the way, I spoke to at least a half dozen GMs and head coaches in the West, and they agreed.) Best player + best coach = a legit chance to win it all.
Broussard: I'm torn on this one between Houston, Denver and the Los Angeles Lakers. I would say Houston if I had confidence in its health. Denver can upset anyone, but I'm not sure it can win three WC series just yet.
So I'll go with the Lakers because of Kobe and Phil Jackson.
Bucher: Lakers. They have the league's best player in the clutch not named Steve Nash, and they believe in their system and their coach.
Hollinger: Denver is a popular answer, and a good one, but I think folks are sleeping on Houston. Even with Tracy and Yao missing long stretches, the Rocks are 26-16 and ranked No. 1 in defensive efficiency. If both are healthy come April, Houston has the pieces to make a run.
Sheridan: The Houston Rockets because despite the absence of Yao Ming and the never-ending problems with Tracy McGrady's back, Jeff Van Gundy has them playing sustained winning basketball -- 10 games over .500, including a winning road record. Watch out when Yao gets back.
Stein: Don't see one. I'm quite sure the champion is coming from the power trio of Dallas, Phoenix and San Antonio -- not ready here to write the Spurs off just yet -- but I'd pick Miami to repeat before I'd start trying to dream up dark horses.
5. Who's been the best rookie this season?
Anthony: Brandon Roy is the most complete rookie I've seen this season. He plays with tremendous poise and a wonderful feel for the game. He can play the 1, 2 or 3 and was ready to contribute from day one.
Andrea Bargnani has proved to be every bit as good as advertised.
So far, those two and Randy Foye are at the head of the list.
Broussard: Brandon Roy, hands down. No telling how well he'd be playing if he hadn't been hurt earlier this season. He's getting better by the week, averaging 16.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in January.
Bucher: Brandon Roy, and it's not really close. His maturity has inspired Zach Randolph to clean up his act, and his poise under pressure has galvanized the rest of the team.
Hollinger: Portland has the three best rookies in Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge and Sergio Rodriguez. Roy has been the best this season and should win the trophy fairly easily, though the others may prove better in the long term.
Adam Morrison? Please. If Bobcats games were nationally televised, his awfulness would be more well-known.
Sheridan: The flavor of the moment is Brandon Roy, and with good reason, but this is still a very wide-open race that Andrea Bargnani can win.
Would like to see my preseason pick, Jorge Garbajosa, do a little more to make it at least a three-man debate down the stretch.
Stein: Minnesota's Randy Foye. He doesn't yet have a role as big as Brandon Roy's in Portland or even Andrea Bargnani's in Toronto, but Foye has made the big shots in crunch time more than once for the Wolves.
Even though he obviously has to play more in the second half to actually win Rookie of the Year -- and ignoring the fact that this might be the sorriest rookie class ever -- Foye has capitalized on Roy's injury to lead this "race" at the halfway.
6. Who's the MVP so far?
Anthony: No one is the MVP so far!
Steve Nash is doing what he does as the best point guard in the game. Dirk and Kobe -- both by doing less this season -- have meant every bit as much to their teams.
Let's enjoy the ride and see what happens.
Broussard: I've been saying Kobe for the longest, but I can no longer ignore what Dallas is doing, so I'm going with Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk's the ultimate team player, showing he's willing to give up shots (only 16.7 FGA per game, 25.1 ppg) for the betterment of the team. His field goal percentage is a career-high 50.5, and his assists are a career-high 3.3 per game. He's the best player on the league's best team.
Bucher: Steve Nash. As tough and magnanimous as Kobe Bryant has been, especially without Lamar Odom, Nash's balance of setting up his teammates and delivering the tough buckets -- see the double-OT win over the Nets for Exhibit A -- has been nearly perfect.
Hollinger: Dwyane Wade has been the best player, but Miami's 19-23 record hurts his cause.
That narrows the field to Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash. I'll take Dirk since he's compiled a better record with less help and tops everyone but Wade in player efficiency rating.
Apologies to Kobe Bryant and Gilbert Arenas.
Sheridan: Gonna let my East Coast bias show here while also incurring the wrath of Stein in choosing Washington's Gilbert Arenas for going 40-plus seven times, including two 50s and a 60 -- not to mention his knack for dramatic buzzer beaters.
Bonus points from a charcoal guy for his personal slogan: "Hibachi!"
Stein: Nowitzki by a shade over Nash. He doesn't get nearly enough credit for making players around him better. But he's the difference-maker for the team that has won twice at San Antonio … and beaten Phoenix twice … and countered the Suns' run by winning 21 of 23 games.
7. Fact or fiction -- the Phoenix Suns are the greatest offense you've ever seen.
Anthony: Fiction. No, science fiction!
Phoenix has been very good offensively, but unless you just started following the game of basketball, you must be kidding, right?
The Lakers and Celtics of the mid-'80s were far better. How about the Denver Nuggets during that same era? Those teams averaged more points. Not to mention that both the Lakers and C's won multiple championships.
Go back to the '71-72 Lakers team when Wilt Chamberlain was the fourth-leading scorer! They averaged only 121 ppg (before the 3-point field goal).
Let's enjoy what Phoenix is doing but keep it in perspective.
Bucher: Fiction. You want numbers? The '84-85 Lakers had the highest team field goal percentage (54.5) and assists average (31.4) in league history.
You want legends? Kareem, Worthy, Magic, Coop, McAdoo, Wilkes, Byron Scott. Six guys averaging double-figure points, 11 contributing five or more.
Oh, and their O was title-worthy.
Hollinger: Right point guard, wrong year.
Relative to the league, both the 2003-04 Mavericks and the 2004-05 Suns were better in terms of offensive efficiency.
But neither team defended like this one does, which is why this season is much more likely to have a happy ending.
Broussard: Complete fiction. With all due respect to the Suns, whom I love, you'd have to have amnesia to answer "fact."
Have we forgotten about the "Showtime" Lakers, who had the prettiest running game in history with Mr. No-Look (Magic) leading a break full of alley-oops (Michael Cooper) and statue-of-liberty dunks (James Worthy)?
In the half court, they featured the greatest, most unstoppable shot of all time (Kareem's skyhook), and Byron Scott could drain jumpers with anyone.
They didn't lead the league in scoring in those days because wild-style Denver was racking up 123 a game, but the Lakers were far more efficient. They shot better than 50 percent in each of the 10 years Magic and Kareem played together, led the league in FG% six times, and set the league record for FG% three times, topping out at an incredible .545 in 1984-85.
Sheridan: Fiction. I grew up on Dr. J and the ABA Nets, and I loved watching the Denver Nuggets play this way in the late 80s.
It's certainly the freshest and most eye-pleasing offense we've seen in the Association in a long, long time.
Stein: Fact. The Showtime Lakers and Doug Moe's Nuggets and other offensive juggernauts in the modern game did their thing in an era of widespread free scoring. These Suns revived a lost art at a time when offense in the NBA was dying.
The rules changes curtailing defensive contact on the perimeter undoubtedly helped, but let's face it: The Suns' great outside shooting, killer ball movement and total commitment to running teams off the floor stands out more today because no one else can do what they do.
8. Fact or fiction -- the Toronto Raptors will hold on to their lead and win the Atlantic.
Anthony: Fact. I can't believe I'm saying this, but New Jersey continues to underachieve and do what bad teams do, which is find a way to lose.
We are talking about arguably the worst division in the history of the league. Having said that, Toronto should play better in the second half of the season. Let's give Bryan Colangelo and Sam Mitchell a lot of love.
Broussard: I'll say "fact" with some hesitancy. Raptors and their No. 1 pick, Andrea Bargnani, are getting better and better. They're 8-4 in January.
Nets' injuries could do them in, and Knicks aren't consistent enough.
Bucher: Fact. Much as I hate to count out a rejuvenated Jason Kidd, the Nets have simply had too many injuries to overcome.
There's nobody else in the division capable of challenging Toronto.
Hollinger: Sure. They have a favorable schedule and enough depth to withstand the second-half grind.
Besides, the Nets are running out of players and might be looking to break out the dynamite before the trade deadline.
Sheridan: Fiction, because the New Jersey Nets -- despite giving away back-to-back games against the Kings and Warriors to open their current West Coast swing -- will catch them, assuming Richard Jefferson returns in early March.
Stein: I could pinpoint Toronto's favorable schedule or the ongoing progress of franchise player Chris Bosh or the possibility that Bryan Colangelo makes an underrated move before the February trade deadline to enhance the Raps' chances. But I'm going with karma. Beating out Vince Carter's Nets to be the only Atlantic Division team in the postseason will be their deserved revenge after the ill-fated Carter trade with New Jersey in 2004.
9. Which will happen first -- the Knicks will win 50 games in a season, the Celtics will win 50 games in a season or the Lakers will win an NBA title?
Anthony: Lakers will win an NBA title. I haven't seen one single, solitary reason why we should expect two of the most storied franchises in professional sports history to be vastly improved in the next two or three years -- ugh!
Broussard: Lakers will win a title. Kobe and the Bryantaires are beginning to figure things out, Andrew Bynum is going to be fantastic and Phil Jackson's the greatest coach in NBA history. That claim will become official after he wins his 10th ring.
Bucher: The Lakers win an NBA title. Because they're not that far away now and their young players look more promising than anything in Boston or New York.
Hollinger: Looking into my crystal ball … the Celtics will win 50 games in a season before either of the other two events happens because the front line of Paul Pierce, Kevin Durant and Al Jefferson will be among the best in basketball.
Sheridan: Gotta go with the Lakers here 'cause they're in the mix for the title this year. At full strength in a seven-game series, they can play with anybody in the West.
Stein: Common sense says Lakers, Lakers, Lakers. Then you remember that winning 50 games in today's East is a heck of a lot easier than getting out of the West and into the Finals. So I'll go with the Celtics, based on the premise that they hit a home run in the draft or trade for Pau Gasol to partner with Paul Pierce.
10. As we sit at the midpoint of the regular season, which story line or situation interests you most?
Broussard: The Iverson trade because we will finally get an answer to the question we've all wondered about for years -- can AI be a team player and play with another superstar?
If AI meshes with Carmelo and makes the Nuggets a conference contender within the next few years, we'll know AI was just gunning in Philly because he had to. If not, AI's legacy will be that of a tremendous individual talent who couldn't play team ball.
I believe AI can do the team thing, but we'll find out for sure now.
Bucher: The ball. The league will eventually come back with another composite ball, but it's going to be interesting to see if -- and how -- they get it right.
Story II: Team USA. There's no doubt playing in the summer is preventing the league's best stars from being at their best for the teams that pay them millions. When and how does the league address the conflict of interest?
Hollinger: The disparity between conferences is truly breathtaking. It's not so bad in the middle, but at the top and the bottom, the gulf is enormous.
It's really unfair that a team like the Lakers or Utah would easily win the East but will lose in the first round out West.
Sheridan: I want to see how the balance of power changes among the top teams because of trades over the next month. In particular, I want to see what the Bulls, Lakers, Heat and Jazz -- all one good trade away from being second-half powerhouses -- can pull off.
Stein: That's easy. I can't wait to see who winds up with the No. 1 seed in the West: Dallas or Phoenix. It's absolutely critical this season because (A) it spares that team a likely second-round matchup with San Antonio and (B) it probably enables that team to avoid a first-round matchup against the Jazz, Lakers, Rockets or Nuggets.
None of those teams will be fun to play early, so the regular season does matter.