As the glitz and glamour surrounding the 2012 NBA All-Star weekend settles down, it is time to brace ourselves for the second half of the regular season and, of course, the playoffs. The Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder have definitely been the most outstanding teams in their respective conferences so far, but can they go the distance? Will Dwight Howard stay in Orlando? Will Jeremy Lin continue to build on his dramatic rise in the league? Here then is a quick look at some of the pressing questions as fans get ready to follow their favourite teams for the remainder of the 2011-12 season:
Scoring champ at 33? - At age 33, Kobe Bryant is leading the league and its many younger superstars in scoring. Although his 28.4 PPG after 34 games of the 2011-12 regular season campaign is lower than the 35.4 PPG and 31.6 PPG he clocked when he was the scoring champion in 2006 and 2007 respectively, Bryant’s numbers have proved beyond any doubt that his desire to win remains insatiable. The only question then is whether this all-time great Laker can add another ring to the five he already has while maintaining his position at the helm of the scoring charts?
Popovich – COY or NBA ring? - Without a doubt, head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs would prefer an NBA ring rather than winning Coach of the Year. With the Spurs having won 12 of their last 13 games, including 11 on the trot, most NBA.com writers think that Popovich is a worthy recipient of the COY award at the halfway mark. However, despite San Antonio’s impressive run, which currently has them in second in the Western Conference, the thing that would interest most people is that San Antonio had similarly turned heads with their 2010-11 regular season campaign. Last year, the Spurs went 61-21 in 82 games before being stunned and upset by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Any need, therefore, to judge Popovich as coach this season must factor in the veteran’s ability to get the Spurs to sidestep such pitfalls in the 2012 Playoffs.
No stopping Linsanity? - After a meteoric rise from nowhere, Jeremy Lin was the flavor of the basketball world in the month of February 2012. Ever since he scored 25 points and dished out seven assists against the New Jersey Nets on February 4, Lin averaged a remarkable 22.4 PPG and 8.8 APG in 11 starts for the Knicks. Is he for real? Yes. Is he good? Yes. Is he great? Not just yet. If anything, Lin has the capabilities of being one of the best point guards in the league, provided he shows the willingness to develop and overcome his limitations. We saw Lin, in the Knicks’ last regular season game before All-Star weekend against Miami, being held to just eight points while committing as many turnovers against a superb Heat defense (credit particularly to Mario Chalmers). As the second half of the season begins, Lin will have many more such nights when opposing teams will look to stifle him so that he does not further build his reputation at their expense. In a nutshell, it will be Lin-teresting to see where the Harvard graduate goes from here.
Sunny Orlando or glitzy LA? Having kept the rumour mills buzzing right from the time the labour negotiations were settled in early November 2011, Dwight ‘Superman’ Howard now has until March 15 to decide whether he wants to stay with the Orlando Magic or move away to another team. Just yesterday, Sam Smith of bulls.com, put Howard’s chances of being traded by the Magic at “25 percent”. While Smith is certainly optimistic of Howard staying with Orlando, I doubt if Magic General Manager Otis Smith will let Howard go at the end of the season for nothing. The Lakers have the pieces (read Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum) to offer for Howard, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the Bulls manage to bag Howard given that they, too, can make a substantial offer in the form of Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer to Orlando.
Will Thunder strike at the 2012 NBA finals? – Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and head coach Scott Brooks deservedly represented the Western Conference leaders, Oklahoma City Thunder, at the 2012 All-Star game. And although James Harden, unfortunately, missed out on a spot in the All-Star reserves, the OKC guard is almost a certainty to win the Sixth Man of the Year award, thereby providing another vindication of OKC’s excellent form this year. But with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka manning OKC’s frontcourt, anything less than an appearance in the NBA Finals will not justify the excitement over OKC’s heady run this season.
Is this the beginning or the beginning of the end for Miami? - It wasn’t that far back when LeBron James famously (or infamously) told fans at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, “Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven… We believe we can multiple championships if we take care of business.” The Miami Heat overcame a 9-8 start to their 2010-11 regular season campaign to eventually book a place in the 2011 NBA finals only to lose to the Dallas Mavericks in six. This season, the Heat have also captivated the NBA fraternity (even if they have many detractors) by going 27-7 to start the season. Make no mistake, as impressive as this start has been, if the Heat, powered by LeBron, don’t go the distance in the 2012 Playoffs, a few things will change in Pat Riley territory at the end of this season.
All stats and regular season standings are after games played on February 28, 2012 (IST)