Thirty games to go, 13 things to know

Updated: February 21, 2006, 7:15 PM ET
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Your favorite Monday tradition will have to wait. Until Tuesday.

The next unveiling of the Power Rankings has been pushed back 24 hours because NBA arenas are dark on the day after the All-Star Weekend.

And because ...

To properly transport ourselves back to the regular season, these are just as important: Our second annual 30 Games To Go, 13 Things To Know package.

1. Dallas and San Antonio haven't played since Dec. 1 and have to play twice more before the playoffs: March 2 and April 7.

It's a two-part playoff preview for the Texas rivals . . . but with the Spurs, who host both games, already bracing for the strong possibility that the Mavs will have home-court advantage in their unavoidable second-round collision.

"We have to understand that Dallas is for real," Spurs guard Tony Parker said, leaving his maiden weekend of All-Star glory behind. "Avery [Johnson] is a good coach and he knows our playbook by heart."

2. Miami and Detroit play twice more before the playoffs, too, which gives us two more chances (March 22 and April 6) to gauge whether Dwyane Wade's fourth-quarter flurry on Blizzard Weekend snowballs into a full-fledged turning point in the Heat's season.

Can Miami come together with sufficient effort and sacrifice to become an actual team? Is Shaq sufficiently healthy to uncork the postbreak surge he's been promising all weekend?

"It's going to be us and somebody," Detroit's Rasheed Wallace said of the Eastern Conference finals, refusing to pencil the Heat in. "That's all I know for sure."

3. The biggest X-factor in the title race is not Amare Stoudemire.

It's Tim Duncan's health, even though Duncan refused to agree with me when I hit him with that theory here. His official response: "I don't know about all that."

But it's true. Duncan has been plagued by plantar fasciitis all season and is averaging just 15 points per game in February. He doesn't sound too confident about getting to full health before the playoffs, either. "I hope so" is as far as he'll go. Factor in Manu Ginobili's off-and-on health woes and it's no mystery why Dallas and Phoenix (even without Amare Stoudemire) each believes it can prevent a Spurs-Pistons rematch.

(Yet you'd also be wise to take note of the fact that the Spurs, for all their supposed vulnerability, are still on a 63-win pace.)

4. Don't get me wrong: Stoudemire remains, at worst, X-factor 1A.

It remains to be seen whether he can make his comeback from knee surgery in March or whether he'll have to wait until April -- "It'll probably be at least a month," one Suns source said -- and I'd still vote to keep Amare seated for the entire season if it were my franchise.

But I'm betting on a way-too-underrated Mike D'Antoni (with an assist from Steve Nash) to make sure their one-of-a-kind inside force is a playoff plus ... after the inevitable early struggles to work him back into a revamped group that has learned how to win without him.

5. Unlike his coach and Shawn Marion, Nash is moving as far away from underrated as you can get.

He's not quite as big a lock as Chris Paul for Rookie of the Year, but the player who makes more players better than anyone else enters the stretch run as a clear-cut favorite to repeat as league MVP.

If you don't want to believe a longtime Nash devotee like me, listen to his peers. A slew of fellow All-Stars are all picking Nash at the 50-game pole, including Duncan, Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Jermaine O'Neal and Elton Brand.

6. I believe that, yes, we'll finally see LeBron James in the playoffs this spring, but you won't see him higher than No. 4 on my MVP ballot unless the Cavs surge to the finish line for once after two collapses.

LBJ has bumped Kobe Bryant down a spot with the Lakers slipping, but I'd like to see James do better when it comes to lifting those around him. The Cavs are without Larry Hughes for the rest of the regular season, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden and Donyell Marshall ain't slouches.

7. Relax. Haven't forgotten about Thursday's trade deadline. That's all you're going to hear about for the rest of the week anyway.

I'll simply go out on a limb and predict that the Nuggets, after weathering more trade speculation than any other team on the map, finally deal Earl Watson or Nene (or both) this week. I'm far more skeptical that they can find a new home for Kenyon Martin before the trade buzzer, as much as K-Mart undoubtedly wants one after hearing his name in so many scenarios. And I'd like to believe that the Nuggets (even Furious George) can see the absurdity of uniting two guys from the same part of the world (Carmelo Anthony and Steve Francis) who don't care for each other and will thus cease their pursuit of Francis.

8. Kobe and Kevin Garnett missing the playoffs for a second straight season? It's a legit possibility, although the Lakers' home-heavy schedule should help Kobe's cause.

Either way, while it's safe to say that the mighty West is definitely down -- thanks to the many injuries that have weakened Phoenix, Houston and Denver -- maybe I need to tone down my West-bashing if those two guys are playoff maybes. That "new" East has been far more disappointing.

9. This is the first time in four decades (yes, four) that we reached the All-Star break with three go-to gents averaging at least 30 points per game: Bryant (35.0 ppg), Iverson (33.2) and LeBron (31.2).

Of course, given how shaky the Lakers and Philly have looked lately, Kobe and A.I. might have to get closer to the 40 range to ensure reaching the postseason. Chicago and (gasp) Toronto refuse to acknowledge to my recent claim that the East's eight playoff teams won't change between now and the end of the season ... and Ron Artest seems intent (if you're gullible enough to make such judgments after 11 games) on getting through his first half-season in Sacramento without incident or a trip to the lottery.

10. Latrell Sprewell remains in hibernation.

Just want to make sure you haven't forgotten about Spree in the unlikely event some team out there comes up with the millions (yes, plural) needed to lure him back to NBA civilization.

11. March will be big and emotional for the Hornets, with three games back in New Orleans.

April will be even bigger and more emotional when this Cinderella team and all of its award candidates -- Paul (ROY), Byron Scott (Coach of the Year), David West (Most Improved) and Speedy Claxton (Sixth Man) -- host a playoff game in Oklahoma City. A team most experts figured wouldn't win 25 games.

Yet as stated in the last batch of Power Rankings, we're all-in believers in the Hornets' ability to maintain their top-eight slot, no matter how ripe for a collapse they might seem.

12. Admit it. Even if you're a West Coaster who thinks the Knicks get more media spotlight than they deserve, even you're curious to see just how low these Knicks can go.

Even you are wondering whether they can win seven more games to make sure they're not remembered as Larry Brown's worst pro team ever.

Even you want to see whether Isiah Thomas can survive his off-court troubles.

Or his front-office troubles. Not only is there no Patrick Ewing on the horizon to come rescue them in the draft, as when they last plummeted to these depths, don't forget that the Isiah Knicks have already dealt away their potential No. 1 pick to Chicago and agreed to swap picks with Chicago next year, too, if the Bulls want to -- even if the Knicks win the 2007 draft lottery. Not that there's any pressure on Eddy Curry.

13. As curious as I am to see what kind of Heat we get in the playoffs, Detroit has to be watched more closely than 'Sheed thinks.

These Pistons, as everyone knows, love to be dissed. They fuel themselves with disrespect. Problem is, they're darlings now.

In rainy Houston, they were drenched with respect. All of the 70-win talk has stopped, but All-Star Weekend was a celebration of Detroit's first half and its four starters.

'Sheed doesn't deny it that he "liked it a whole lot better before." Which makes you wonder: Is flattery the key to messing with the Pistons' mind-set?

"It's going to be new for us," Chauncey Billups said, "because we've always kind of flown under the radar a little bit. . . . The perception of us has definitely changed."

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics