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Fran Blinebury

Dwight Howard is still a Magic, and the biggest question of his future status still looms.
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

As NBA season zooms along, plotlines thicken

Posted Feb 3 2012 10:21PM

Five-plus weeks into a fast and furious season that barely leaves room to catch your breath between slam dunks and games, it's a good time to look at five answers we already have in hand and five questions that remain.

Let's start with the answers.

Russell Westbrook isn't going anywhere:

All it took was the Thunder stepping up to give their mercurial point guard his five-year, $80 million contract extension to put an end to all of the speculation that Westbrook and Kevin Durant weren't going to be attached at the hip on this drive to bring an NBA championship to Oklahoma City. So many nit-picks and criticisms of Westbrook's game, so many lame rumors about where he was headed and who would make a better fit as his replacement and in the end GM Sam Presti did just what he said he was going to do all along -- stand by his man.

The Knicks aren't going anywhere:

OK, we've still got to give Baron Davis' back time to fully heal and get him into the lineup before writing off all thoughts of New York as an Eastern Conference contender -- or maybe even a playoff team -- but you've got to admit even that is going way out on a limb to give the Knicks the benefit of every doubt. The Amar'e Stoudemire-Carmelo Anthony pairing has had all the smooth subtlety of an auto-train wreck, producing a ball-stopping, disjointed offense that finds coach Mike D'Antoni at wit's end and fans at Madison Square Garden wondering why they didn't simply give their season ticket bucks to a three-card monte dealer on Seventh Avenue as a safer bet.

Dwight Howard is headed for the door:

After one of the worst weeks of basketball by a supposed-contending team in memory with their All-Star Game starting center first calling out his teammates, then saying all will be fine again and yet continuing to give the impression he's done everything except fill in the house number on his change-of-address cards, there is no way that Howard can remain in Orlando past the March 15 trade deadline. After co-opting Shaquille O'Neal's Superman identity, now it's clear he intends to fly out of the Magic Kingdom just like his predecessor did back in 1996. All that's left is for GM Otis Smith to surrender to the reality staring him in the face and make the deal. Lakers? Mavericks? Anywhere? It's inevitable.

The Clippers are here to stay:

You have to admit that one-third of the way into the season, the only thing that puts the slightest bit of doubt about the Clippers in your mind is the name on the front of the jerseys: Clippers. However, with Chris Paul surrounded by a roster worthy of his splendid talents for the first time since Beijing in 2008 and Blake Griffin devouring every pass that is thrown his way, Lob City is not only a sure-thing playoff destination, but night-to-night the most entertaining team to watch in the entire league. Forget all of those missteps, blatant screw-ups and teases of the past. As long as they can keep DeAndre Jordan's head and rebounding in the games, L.A.'s little brothers will rule the Staples Center, set the pace in the Pacific Division and go into the playoffs as perhaps the most dangerous team in the West. With Paul and Chauncey Billups holding the reins, the Clippers have what Oklahoma City is missing -- knack and knowledge for coming through in the clutch.

The Timberwolves will be arriving soon:

If it was a Star Trek movie sequel, it would be titled: The Laugh of Kahn. He endured the criticism and the outright ridicule while waiting two years on Ricky Rubio. But Timberwolves GM David Kahn definitely got that one right and now he has a backcourt star who is the equal of Kevin Love on the frontline. Combine them with the potential of a Michael Beasley redemption or Derrick Williams' growth and then get-the-most-out-of-them coaching style from Rick Adelman and there's little doubt that Minnesota is on the rise in the West as a playoff contender. Maybe sooner than you think.

Then there are the questions.

How far can one man take the Lakers?

Yes, we acknowledge that a 24-year-old Andrew Bynum in his seventh professional season seems to have finally grown into the consistent low post force they've needed. Yes, we give credit to Pau Gasol for shaking off the aborted trade to Houston and continuing to perform quite close to the level of the seasons that ended with rings. But we all know that unless they pull off the deal and land Howard, the Lakers in the Mike Brown Era are all about riding Kobe Bryant like a rented mule. He's leading the league in scoring while playing 38 minutes a night with a torn tendon in his wrist and the creaky knees of a guy who shuffles off to the early bird special at a retirement home. Sixteen seasons into a career that already has five championships, it's hard to envision Kobe being able to carry the Lakers all the way again. But really, would you bet against him?

Is there anything left in the Celtics?

Just when a four-game winning streak had the Celtics believing that everything could be alright, they coughed up a fourth quarter at home to the Cavs and then nearly gave away a 22-point lead in Cleveland two nights later that had Ray Allen saying of his team's play: "I hate it." Danny Ainge and Doc Rivers had hoped the core four of Allen, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo had one more championship run in them. Boston's struggling offense is putting on far too much pressure to stop everything at the defensive end and that would seem too much to ask of an aging lineup over an unusually-grueling regular schedule and then the playoffs. But in any one playoff series, aren't they still a tough out?

Can Dirk and Dallas defend?

Is it really going to come down to whether Lamar Odom can snap out of whatever funk he packed into his luggage and carried from L.A.? Will it depend on whether Brendan Haywood and Ian Mahinmi can unite to form a hybrid version of Tyson Chandler in the middle? Does it require the ageless Jason Kidd to sign away a few more years of his soul for one more playoff run? Yes, yes and yes. But in the bigger picture, it doesn't seem that owner Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson are too concerned about it as long as they can set themselves to make a play for Dwight Howard or Deron Williams or both. If they hit the jackpot, they figure it extends Dirk Nowitzki's championship window for at least another three years. Funny thing is, if Odom could find his rhythm and Kidd could be healthy in the springtime, the West is wide open enough for the reigning champs to try for two in a row.

Is Miami ready this time?

The swagger is still there, just not so much of the overbearing preening and cockiness from last season. The Heat seem to have gotten the message that they brought a lot of the grief down upon their own heads in 2010-11 and have set out to change some of that. What haven't changed are all the questions about what will happen to them at crunch time in the playoffs. Despite the fact that LeBron James is having a positively fabulous season -- 29.7 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 7 apg -- he's still having problems finishing and that's where it's going to be necessary to have an achy Dwayne Wade available every night in the playoffs. Chris Bosh has kicked it up a notch and they've got more depth from a healthy bench of Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Miller. Yet they continue to often look like round pegs trying to pound their way into square holes compared to a Bulls team that knows how everything fits around Derrick Rose.

What next in New Orleans?

The league's pet project is keeping the Hornets franchise alive and making the NBA a viable long term entity in New Orleans. Yet since the time that commissioner David Stern rejected the three-way trade of Chris Paul that involved the Lakers and Rockets, this has been a messier scene than the gutters of Bourbon St. on the morning after Mardi Gras. Eric Gordon, one centerpiece in the Stern-engineered deal with the Clippers, has played in just two games and recently could not come to terms with the team on a contract extension. Meanwhile the first-round draft pick from Minnesota, the other centerpiece in the deal, is becoming less valuable with each passing day as the Timberwolves with Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio battle their way up in the Western Conference standings. And center Chris Kaman, who came from L.A., is on the sidelines until he can be traded. After selling more than 10,000 season tickets and drumming up interest in the team last summer, now the Hornets are in a backwards race with Charlotte for the worst record in the league. It's not the dark clouds from losing now that matter. It's finding that ray of sunshine for the future.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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