- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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Ten weeks left in the regular season.
Ten things on our radar as we count those 10 weeks down:
West playoff seedings. Of particular interest, of course, is where the Lakers land, but also the Trail Blazers. Portland contends that its back-to-back first-round exits look worse than they really are because it had to play L.A. both times. With Scottie Pippen at the point, and Mo Cheeks being heeded in the locker room, Portland looks more together now than any time since it took that 15-point lead over the Lakers in Game 7 of the 2000 conference finals. Yet there's a good chance these teams will meet in the first round again. If the Blazers finish third in the West and the Lakers wind up sixth, they're matched up again. Or if Portland is fourth and L.A. fifth. San Antonio is the other team to monitor here, going on the assumption that the Lakers will rise higher than No. 7. Chances are the Blazers or Spurs are going to have to open up with the three-time champs. With the winner getting the Mavs or Kings. Killer stuff.
East playoff seedings. The focus figures to be on the lower reaches of the top eight, with Michael Jordan's Washington Wiz clinging to the last spot and Tracy McGrady's one-man Orlando Magic down to ninth and Allen Iverson's Sixers still trying to reverse a 10-20 slide. The preference here is to track the jockeying at the top, where three teams tussle for No. 1 and the two clubs that miss out fated to meet in Round 2 of the playoffs. New Jersey faces the most road-heavy finishing kick, with eight more away games after a tough Dallas-San Antonio-Houston-New Orleans swing in early March. Indiana visits Lakers-Blazers-Kings consecutively in early March and plays hosts to New Jersey in what looms as a very meaningful regular-season finale on April 16. Detroit plays only seven of its last 22 games on the road, after a five-game trip starting Feb. 24 that also includes stops at Sacramento, Lakers and Portland.
Trading deadline. It's just over a week away, so the window for a blockbuster is gradually narrowing. Coming out of the All-Star break, the names in the news are the same names we've heard for weeks: Stromile Swift, Derrick Coleman, Steve Smith, Danny Fortson, Austin Croshere and Theo Ratliff. In this new NBA economy, where players in the final year of their contracts are valued more than players who might actually make a difference to a team chasing the playoffs, the really big deals likely have to wait until summer. That's when sign-and-trades make things easier, if only marginally easier.
Coaching futures. The hot seat isn't shared solely by Toronto's Lenny Wilkens and the Clippers' Alvin Gentry, both of whom rank as prime candidates for dismissal as soon as the season ends. The list of coaches with uncertain futures includes at least five more guys: New Orleans' Paul Silas in the last year of his contract; Atlanta's Terry Stotts and Cleveland's Keith Smart from the interim ranks; and new additions Larry Brown (by his own admission) of Philadelphia and Chicago's Bill Cartwright (given the Bulls' constant state of unrest).
MVP race. What's so tasty is that there isn't a clear-cut favorite. McGrady and Minnesota's Kevin Garnett have to be rated highly given their individual brilliance. Kobe Bryant, no matter how many people say he's not even the MVP of his own team, has to get votes if he continues to put the Lakers on his back. Sacramento's Chris Webber had arguably nosed past San Antonio's Tim Duncan and just about everyone else before injuring his ankle, but lately the Spurs have surged. Dallas should have at least one nominee, given its 65-win pace, so add Dirk Nowitzki to the rest. Our leader continues to be New Jersey's Jason Kidd, as a dominating force on an elite team ravaged by injuries, and maybe even that Shaquille O'Neal fellow can barge his way back into contention.
Rookie of the Year race. Just the opposite. It's a two-man game, with apologies to the improving Caron Butler in Miami. It's the Rockets' Yao Ming vs. the Suns' Amare Stoudemire, with he who fades least standing as the favorite. Our slight edge, coming out of the break, goes to Yao.
Injury-tortured souls. Vince Carter's All-Star firestorm has passed, but he still has to get his knees through the rest of the season in Toronto. New York's Antonio McDyess will be tempted to test his bad knee before the season is over but definitely shouldn't. Marcus Camby is scarcely farther along than Dice, having appeared in only one game for Denver because of hip and ankle trouble. Grant Hill's future is the most dire, amid increasingly loud suspicions in Orlando that he'll be forced to retire … but don't forget Miami's Alonzo Mourning, who would undoubtedly like to make one last comeback attempt if his kidney disease will allow it.
New playoff format. Doesn't seem right to be changing things in the middle of the season. However ... if the switch to best-of-sevens all the way through the playoffs means that the first round alone won't last a month, how can anyone complain?
Summertime. That's when we get to see who winds up with LeBron James (and Darko Milicic), whether Gary Payton will really (finally) leave Seattle, and what the Spurs (Duncan, specifically) do to try to convince Kidd to leave Jersey.
Theories. If the Lakers continue to rise toward the top half of the West and make their usual playoff march, you will undoubtedly hear the theory -- not ours, so believe at your own peril -- that Shaq's toe surgery was delayed to put the team in such a hole that the climb out couldn't be boring. If the Kings can get healthy, which hasn't happened yet this season, the theory we claim as our own is that Sacramento is the only team in the league no longer psyched-out by L.A. Reason being: Sacto tasted defeat in the most deflating possible manner last spring, blowing a 3-2 series lead and losing Game 7 on its own floor amid a flurry of missed free throws … and survived it. If the teams meet in the playoffs for the fourth successive year, the Kings might not win but they won't be afraid.
3dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann