- Sam Smith
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Now that the antics in Los Angeles are over for awhile -- no, not the All-Star game, the annual Shaq, Kobe and Phil whodonewhattowho thing -- we can concentrate on the first day of the rest of your NBA season.
For those racing enthusiasts, yes, here they come thundering down the stretch! Well, actually, limping and aching in a lot of places with Chris Webber and Wally Szczerbiak set to return from season-long injuries, Allan Houston stepping back into it and Shaquille O'Neal hoping not to have any more of those Walter Brennan moments. After all, he is supposed to be the true McCoy.
This is supposed to be the get-serious time in the NBA. No more midseason break to look toward, no more All-Star snubs to consider, no more walls to hit. It's all about statement games and playoff previews. Not in our house, and all that Jazz. And even the Orlando Magic are saying, "Well, we're just 10 games out of the last playoff spot, and if ..." Yes, there still are a lot of big ifs.
So as we consider the last two months of the regular season, there are some questions to ponder and story lines to consider, like the:
Lakers. Yes, them again. Why not start there, which is where we started the season with the Lakers stopping to pick up their championship trophies on the way to their Hall of Fame inductions. But a funny thing happened on the way to immortality. And it had less to do with immorality, or accusations of such. Kobe Bryant's legal issues are simmering on that back burner while the heat is turned up again on the Big Three. Kobe says he wants to stay, but he is going to opt out of his contract. Understand? Shaq has also been out of the lineup quite a bit with a pain in his foot and his negotiations for a contract extension. Phil Jackson's negotiations are off and everyone is wondering what this all means. You figure Karl Malone is thinking about that as well wherever he is. Yes, the grass only looks greener on the other side of the fence. And Gary Payton is talking to everyone and not much of it makes sense, as always. Can they put it together? Can they get together? Can they all just get along? If Malone comes back healthy in March, they can make a run. If he doesn't, there could be a run on Kings, Timberwolves and Spurs championship predictions.
Kings. Yes, those bridesmaids again. And, no, that's not a crack about being soft and feminine, but they could take it that way. They've been the best team in the league this season without their best player, Webber. He's due back from injury and will be suspended eight games by the NBA for lying. If it weren't in court, they might have to suspend the whole NBA. It's an amazing question, but can the Kings adjust to having their best player back? Webber becomes the focus of the offense again, but he is a great passer and figures to take some time to get in shape and get his timing back. But they still have to prove one thing. Can they win the big game? It's haunted them all this time.
Timberwolves. Again, can they survive talent being added to their team? It once was the Kevin and Wally Show, at least after Stephon left. Now it's the latest Big Three of KG, Sam and Spree. They're due to get shooter Szczerbiak back this week to join a threesome that seems to play off one another well, share the ball and defend. These are not generally known to be traits in Wally's world. But he can shoot it with anyone. Would Spree go back to the three where he didn't like playing in New York? They've had the perfect role players in Trenton Hassell and Fred Hoiberg, guys who don't need many shots and will set those screens. And it's not like KG pines for Wally. Who they really want back is center Michael Olowokandi, or someone to stand in front of Shaq. But the Kandi man often can't. He doesn't seem to like to play much and you get the feeling their perimeter-oriented game may not quite be suited for the playoffs.
Spurs. Kevin Garnett's team is ahead this time, but Tim Duncan is coming on with a heck of a lot less help. The guy is the true rock of the NBA. We just wish he didn't have the personality of one. He just needs that one more star to become a dynasty. Maybe Kobe after the season. Too bad they couldn't get Jason Kidd. Rasho Nesterovic is never going to be that second pillar as David Robinson was, and you never know what you're going to get from Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. They lost a lot of veteran experience from last season, and it may show in the playoffs.
Rockets. It's Shaq-Kobe-Phil lite there with Yao, Steve and Jeff. Actually, there's no problem with Yao and he may be one of the best things to hit the NBA since Christopher and his dancing Motown puppets. It's those smurfs, Francis and Van Gundy. Coach Van Gundy wants Steve Francis to be Charlie Ward. Francis is one of the great individual talents in the NBA. He's not going for the Heisman. It's one of the great tests of will and strength, Van Gundy trying to turn Francis into a feeder point guard and Francis trying to do so with the talent of Allen Iverson. If they ever get it together and could pick up a rebounding four, they could crack the Fab Four in the West.
Mavericks. Who isn't tired of Mark Cuban by now? No, we don't see the hands of many Mavericks. Cuban's one-man egofest is beginning to wear thin on even his organization. Coach Don Nelson would look exasperated if he didn't always, and it's pretty clear to the players now that it's not worth the fluffy towels and extra video games. Mad scientist Cuban keeps playing fantasy ball with the Mavs and who knows who'll be gone by the end of this week. Antawn Jamison? Antoine Walker? Michael Finley? They've got a bunch of talent and are entertaining, but it's hard to see where that goes in the playoffs. Would they even have been out of the second round last season if Webber weren't hurt?
Little Conference That Can't. Yes, the East. They think they can, they think they can, especially the Pacers. Now if they can just get by that first round. The Pacers look like easily the best team in the conference. They're more solid on defense and more structured and disciplined under Rick Carlisle. But you get the feeling there are cracks there waiting to spread. Will Al Harrington be happy coming off the bench? Can Jermaine O'Neal continue to carry the load without a supporting center to draw defensive attention. Can they shoot well enough when everyone collapses on them in the playoffs? Do they think of themselves as losers after the eliminations the last two seasons? Their test will be if they get behind in a playoff series.
Nets. They're back! And standing tall. Yes, coach Lawrence Frank is standing. They were the hottest team in the league coming into the All-Star break with Kidd re-energized after his, err, the team's, firing of Byron Scott. But there's still that hole in the middle. Alonzo Mourning left for a new kidney, although no one will be surprised if he tries to return. Dikembe Mutombo was cut loose. They were supposed to compete with the big guys from the West. What, so Aaron Williams is supposed to? Maybe winning the East is enough. They could still use some size.
Knicks. No, they haven't requested a name change to the New York Isiahs yet. But Thomas is changing just about everything. It's a new team, but how much better is the question. Houston's knees are worse than they're letting on and Tim Thomas never has been much of a player for the big stage. Stephon Marbury has been just good enough to lose everywhere else. Can he change that back home again? Their owner has been talking championship, and why not? They're only four games under .500.
Pistons. You knew Larry Brown wasn't going to like that 3-point shooting point guard. He's been griping some of late about Chauncey Billups, who, as their best player last season, was the only one who could make a layup. (Sorry, Ben.) Billups hit big shots all season to save them. But they came stumbling into the break with five straight losses and Brown questioning just who they were after 50 games. They're not about to make any major personnel changes. Yes, it's another Eastern team without a road map.
Hornets. With Jamaal Magloire's impressive All-Star performance, it does appear they have three legitimate All-Stars. In the Eastern Conference, that should mean a dynasty. So what are they doing fighting Milwaukee for fourth? Same old Hornets. There always seems to be something missing there, and no one can seem to find it again. With a healthy Baron Davis this season, Jamal Mashburn returning and Magloire, they should stake a claim to the top of the East. They better do it now because this is their last season there.
Coaches. Who's next? Teams are starting to go around again with Randy Ayers not even making it through one season. Terry Stotts is always a candidate, though he's now coaching in the NBDL. What, that's an NBA roster in Atlanta? Nate McMillan could be a candidate with Seattle sinking. Maybe even Mike D'Antoni with last-place Phoenix. No, both those notions sound ridiculous, but this coaching guillotine is equally absurd.
LeBron's World (and we're just playing in it). So what now? Let's see what he's got. The Cavaliers have no business making the playoffs, but it's not impossible in the East where they are less than three games out of the last spot. The first half was spent settling in and figuring out what to do about Ricky Davis. Now it's LeBron James' team. Is he the real deal?
Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.