Top second-half storylines to watch
Break's over. What's in store for the second half of the season? Our 5-on-5 crew is keeping an eye on the Lakers, playoff races, Derrick Rose and much more:
1. What's the most intriguing storyline of the NBA's second half?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Can the Lakers sneak in through the side door to the NBA postseason? With fewer than 30 games remaining, the Lakers will have to catapult over Portland, then either Houston, Utah or Golden State. If they don't, will Dwight Howard emerge as the scapegoat? Will that affect either his motivation to stay with the Lakers or the Lakers' desire to keep him?
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Danny Chau, Hardwood Paroxysm: The Lakers' ongoing "will they or won't they?" arc gets top billing. At this point, it's safe to say the Lakers will probably not make the playoffs, yet it's such a foreign concept to consider them underdogs. We'll watch their final 28 games to find out what this team is capable of: beating the odds or absolute zero.
Bo Churney, Hawks Hoop: After Jerry Buss' death, the focus on whether the Lakers can make the playoffs has only been amplified. Maybe the guys wearing forum blue and gold can use this as motivation, but with the way Kobe and Dwight continue to clash, you have to question if the team has the mental makeup to do that.
James Herbert, Hardwood Paroxysm: Derrick Rose's return. The Bulls have been surprisingly steady in his absence, and if he comes back and looks anything like his MVP-winning self, then they will be dangerous in the playoffs. For now, though, it's still about if and when he'll come back.
Sean Highkin, Hardwood Paroxysm: Derrick Rose's status. After weeks of uncertainty and conflicting reports, it appears Rose has finally participated in unrestricted 5-on-5, full-contact workouts. Whether he appears in a Bulls uniform this season remains to be seen, but if he does, it could be a game-changer for the Eastern Conference playoff picture.
2. What's the second-most-intriguing storyline of the NBA's second half?
Arnovitz: There are nights when the Knicks look like the most efficient outfit in the NBA -- and a couple of those outings have come against the Miami Heat. It's a glorious, dizzying, near-perfect execution of the NBA's spread offense. Unfortunately, the defense hasn't turned in a solid outing against a good offensive team in weeks, so can Tyson Chandler & The Matadors survive the hardscrabble road to the Finals?
Chau: Derrick Rose participated in 5-on-5 drills Monday. This is a 5-on-5 roundtable. Do you believe in omens? Rose's possible return to action should definitely be on the minds of the playoff-bound teams in the East. It would be great to see Rose play at 100 percent, but even a slightly substandard Rose would dramatically boost Chicago's potency in the postseason.
Churney: The conversation of the LeBron James/Kevin Durant MVP race is only going to grow as the season comes to a close. LeBron has built a pretty sizable lead, but Durant still has the narrative working for him. Plus, there's no way LeBron can keep playing this well, right?
Herbert: The Lakers' fortunes. Though this storyline could lose all its luster with another stretch of uninspired efforts, they still have the talent to turn this thing around. If they're within reach of the No. 8 spot, late-season Lakers games will be appointment viewing, albeit for different reasons than anyone expected.
Highkin: How the Kings' ownership situation resolves itself. David Stern indicated at his All-Star Weekend news conference that Kevin Johnson and the city of Sacramento still have a shot to keep the team from moving to Seattle. But time is running out for Johnson's group to make an offer, and it will be fascinating to see how the Board of Governors votes.
3. What's the third-most-intriguing storyline of the NBA's second half?
Arnovitz: Can LeBron James keep this up? Is his combination of production, efficiency and grace a hot streak during a cold winter, or is what we're witnessing merely the beginning of LeBron's ascent to peak performance? Also worth mentioning: he just turned 28.
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Chau: The Celtics' season could go in a million different directions by the end of this month. The team is overachieving out of absolute necessity, but how long can that possibly last? Will they be making a significant trade this week? Was it too hasty and presumptuous to deem this the end of an era? What's next?
Churney: Derrick Rose. The will he/won't he return game is reaching new heights of inconsistency. One week, he looks great while working out before a game, the next he supposedly can't dunk. Now, he's participating in 5-on-5 drills in practice. You know he'll be helping the Bulls make a run in the postseason if he can.
Herbert: Just how good are the Los Angeles Clippers? With Chauncey Billups back, the Clippers are at full strength for the first time. Regardless of whether they make a move before the trade deadline, it'll be intriguing to see if they can make a run at the West's top spot.
Highkin: How the rest of LeBron's season plays out. He went into the All-Star break on a historic tear, shattering even the loftiest expectations of what his ceiling could be as a player. If he keeps his current level of play up, it will be very hard to picture anyone from either conference winning a seven-game series against Miami.
4. What's the fourth-most-intriguing storyline of the NBA's second half?
Arnovitz: When will Derrick Rose return to the court, if at all, and how does that shake up the top of the Eastern Conference? With or without Rose, the Bulls are already a defensive nightmare that knows how to tighten the vise on any opponent in the league. Let's say Rose returns, then finds his stride right around April 20. If that scenario plays out, isn't it fair to call Chicago a top-5 team?
Chau: Which Western squad will be the last team to secure home-court advantage? The Spurs, Thunder and Clippers have been atop the West standings for most of the season, and barring catastrophe, that doesn't look to be in jeopardy. But the fight for the fourth seed could be a riveting battle to the end between Memphis, Denver and Golden State.
Churney: Whether the emergence of perennial losers Golden State and the Clippers can continue into the playoffs (or even to the end of the regular season). The Clips flatlined against the Spurs last year in the postseason, which you know Chris Paul won't let happen again.
Herbert: The race for fourth in the West. The post-Rudy Gay Grizzlies still have home court, but the League Pass darlings in Denver are right there. The Warriors will be, too, if they play the type of defense they displayed earlier in the season. You shouldn't need an excuse to watch these teams, but this race will do.
Highkin: Whether the Clippers can stay healthy down the stretch. They just got everyone healthy for the first time, including Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups, who are making a positive impact. After a recent knee scare, Chris Paul's health is of the utmost importance. If the Clippers can keep everyone on the floor, they'll be dangerous in April and beyond.
5. What's the fifth-most-intriguing storyline of the NBA's second half?
Arnovitz: The top of the Western Conference is a curious scrum, ain't it? You've got the Spurs because ... well ... you've always got the Spurs. The Thunder have grown from giddy upstart to incumbent power. Then there are the Clippers, who, when Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are healthy, have demonstrated they can play with anyone. All three teams feature a top-10 offense and a top-10 defense, and all three can rightfully claim they're best situated for a long run into June.
Chau: This isn't relevant to the playoff race, but if we're looking at intriguing, the Washington Wizards are precisely that. Since the start of 2013, only two teams boast a better team defensive rating. They have been a laughingstock, but their youngsters are improving. With an easy schedule ahead, this is the perfect time to carve out some respectability.
Churney: Where does Josh Smith end up? Atlanta's enigmatic star has been in trade rumors for several seasons now, but sources appear to suggest that GM Danny Ferry is committed to moving Smith before the deadline. Of course, the Hawks may hesitate to pull the trigger once again and hope Smith can lure Dwight Howard to the ATL (which is unlikely).
Herbert: The Eastern Conference playoff picture. With LeBron James making just about every shot he attempts lately, Miami looks like a lock for the first seed. Beyond that, it's jumbled -- 3½ games separate New York, Indiana, Brooklyn, Chicago and Atlanta. Potential trades and the returns of Danny Granger and Derrick Rose make this extra interesting.
Highkin: What happens with the Lakers? As tiring as their struggles have become, their never-ending quest back to .500 will stay in the spotlight as they duke it out with Portland and Utah to avoid missing the playoffs for just the third time since the late Jerry Buss bought the team in 1979.
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