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The road ahead

A look ahead at the midway point from the uncertain seer who in the preseason predicted a hot start by the Celtics (excellent vision there!) and a playoff spot for the Knicks (not so excellent) ...

1. Will the Spurs defend their championship, or is this the year for Phoenix or Dallas to win the NBA Finals?

Most sane people would insist that the Spurs will peak in May and June, as is their custom. They have 10 players who are at least 30, which makes wisdom their ally and old age their enemy. They naturally are more vulnerable than ever to injury as well as to younger, livelier opponents. Since I've been picking Dallas all along, I'll stick with the Mavericks (based on their blend of young legs, depth and painful learning experiences over the last two years) to upset San Antonio in the conference finals ... while admitting that I don't feel good about picking against the Spurs, who were an old team last year but didn't look it in the playoffs.

2. Will the Celtics cash in their 33-7 start to reach the NBA Finals?

Many reasonable people believe they will. I again am going to stick with my preseason pick that the Pistons will overtake Boston in the conference finals. How often do you see a newly assembled team like the Celtics running the table? I'm not referring to the fringe alterations the Heat made by acquiring the likes of Antoine Walker and Jason Williams before their 2005-06 title season; I'm talking about bringing in two of your three best players less than a calendar year before winning a championship.

A midseason trade helped the 2003-04 Pistons and the 1994-95 Rockets win championships, but the arrivals of Rasheed Wallace and Clyde Drexler, respectively, complemented the established personalities of those teams. In the last quarter century, the only championship team that bears any resemblance to the new-look Celtics is the 1982-83 Philadelphia 76ers with their free-agent signing of Moses Malone. Though Malone dominated the league that year, he was joining a 76ers team that already had Julius Erving, Andrew Toney and Maurice Cheeks.

Boston's makeover is far more radical. Not only have the Celtics rewritten their own DNA, but they're also asking Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and (to a lesser extent) Kevin Garnett to play an entirely different style at both ends of the floor. I still believe that this is a year for the Celtics to push as deep into the playoffs as they can while learning who they are -- and which areas need improvement -- before targeting 2008-09 as their title year.

The key here is to watch the Pistons, who have run low on energy over the last two postseasons. They have the lineup to exploit the Celtics' weaknesses, but matchups will mean little unless Detroit follows the example of the Spurs by peaking in the spring.

3. Which of the underdog contenders in the West could make a deep playoff run?

There are 10 teams in the West with 23 wins or more, as opposed to the six winning franchises in the (much) weaker conference. New Orleans, Denver, the Lakers, Portland, Golden State, Utah and Houston all have reason to believe that they can challenge the establishment (San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas), but in the end only one or two of those outsiders will make an impact.

Let's assume that the amazing Trail Blazers are too young to survive in the playoffs, that the Rockets lack the necessary cohesion, and that the eccentric Warriors can't go far while yielding a catastrophic 107.1 points per game as they've done through 43 games.

It's hard to choose between the remaining candidates. The bench-thin Hornets are asking a lot of Chris Paul and his fellow starters, but they'll be more than a tough out if they remain fit down the stretch. The Lakers are playing defense, and Kobe Bryant will be the hungriest star heading into the playoffs wherever his team is seeded. As for the Nuggets, Kenyon Martin has been looking more than fine (36 points and 21 rebounds over his last two games), Nenê could return over the second half, and they'll probably acquire a point guard to fit in with Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby. Imagine if the Nuggets heat up in April? They would be more frightening than last year's Warriors.

But the most likely outsider has to be the Jazz, who reached the conference finals last season and have improved by picking up Kyle Korver, who provides the deep shooting they've long needed. They remain a bottom-10 team defensively, but their controlled offense should be better than ever.

Knicks:Isiah Thomas is operating from a position of such grave weakness that it would be hard to make a deal short of giving someone away.

Heat: They appear willing to absorb three more miserable months in hope of providing Dwyane Wade with Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley or another star from the draft lottery.

Hornets: While their bench could use another reliable contributor, they don't have a lot to offer without disrupting their core.

Celtics: They won't admit to needing a backup point guard -- maybe because they have so little to trade in exchange.

Bulls: This is a hard one to predict. Damned if they do, damned if they don't, they won't make a trade to salvage this season unless it makes long-term sense.

Cavaliers: The right move for a point guard, a shooter or both (i.e. Mike Bibby) could boost Cleveland up there with Boston and Detroit.

Nuggets: They need a point guard badly. Damon Stoudamire would provide three-point shooting as well as leadership. (Stoudamire could be obtained in a trade or signed as a free agent if he completes a buyout with Memphis).

Grizzlies: Stoudamire, Pau Gasol, Darko Milicic, Hakim Warrick -- leaguewide rumor has it that all are available for the right price.

Nets: Something has to change in New Jersey. They're more than willing to make Jason Kidd happy by unloading him to a contender, but it's a tough trade to make work. Vince Carter or Richard Jefferson could be moved instead.

76ers: In search of cap space, Andre Miller and/or others could be dealt at the deadline.

Larry Hughes, Cavaliers: He's far too good to continue shooting a career-low 33.5 percent.

Tracy McGrady, Rockets: In and out of the lineup with injuries amid rumors that he isn't happy in Houston, McGrady needs to provide playmaking to lead the talented Rockets through their coaching transition and into the playoffs.

Andrea Bargnani, Raptors: His numbers have dipped as a sophomore, but look for him to elevate Toronto by playing with more confidence over the second half.

Kirk Hinrich, Bulls: His play has suffered for a variety of reasons, but a midseason trade for a frontcourt scorer could yet restore balance to Chicago's offense and help make Hinrich and Ben Wallace (and Ben Gordon) look a lot better than they have over the first half.

Dirk Nowitzki, Mavericks: After his slow start, Dallas' title hopes depend on him playing like an MVP over the second half.

Gilbert Arenas, Wizards: A big IF here. Should Arenas makes his anticipated March 1 return from microfracture knee surgery, then imagine adding him to a team that has surged in his absence with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison putting up All-Star numbers.

Andrew Bynum, Lakers: If the Lakers can survive their horrid February schedule, his return could enable them to be the league's most feared underdog.

Nenê, Nuggets: Should he be available, he'll provide Denver with a wealth of frontcourt options.

Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston, Clippers: Los Angeles probably will be out of playoff range, but the return of these two injured starters could give the Clippers hope for making a comeback to postseason contention next season.

Nenad Krstic, Nets: Who knows what the Nets will look like when Krstic returns from his knee injury. But his absence has hurt New Jersey.

Isiah Thomas, Knicks: No duh.

Lawrence Frank, Nets: They're losing for all sorts of reasons, and in those situations the coach usually takes the hit.

Mike Dunleavy, Clippers: Owner Donald T. Sterling is not happy, but that might improve if Brand and Livingston return in March.

Mike Woodson, Hawks: His contract expires this summer, and only a second-half run above .500 will create demand for an extension -- if he wants it.

Pat Riley, Heat: How does he spend the next three months while his hopeless team waits for the results of the lottery? What can possibly be accomplished? It's a torture of his own making.

Larry Krystowiak, Bucks: The enigmatic Bucks must begin to show a pulse for their coach.

Nate McMillan, Blazers: He is having the same dramatic impact on his Blazers that Scott Skiles had on the young Bulls a few years ago. But that hard-driving comparison begs an obvious question: Will McMillan extend his relationship with the players into the long term? It appears as if he can.

Byron Scott, Hornets: Can there be any further questions? The man knows how to coach.

Eddie Jordan, Wizards: His job status appears to change every month or two, but no one can deny that the Wizards are playing hard for Jordan. Arenas' unpredictable status for March and April will provide another challenge.

Stan Van Gundy, Magic: His arrival has been good for Dwight Howard and Hedo Turkoglu, and the more the Magic take on Van Gundy's aggressive style, the farther they'll go.

Phil Jackson, Lakers: Was he losing interest last year? Many thought so then ... but not anymore. He helped defuse the Kobe situation while fast-tracking Bynum's education, but the hardest work is ahead: to keep the Lakers afloat for the next two months despite their injuries.

Reggie Theus, Kings: His best players have been in and out and yet -- despite rumors that any or all could be traded -- this rookie coach has turned the Kings into a respectable outfit. But there is no predicting which players he'll be managing after the trade deadline.

Nuggets: It can't be emphasized enough: If they get hot ...

Cavaliers: They're 2½ games out of third place in the East. Detroit won't look forward to seeing them in the second round.

Spurs: In hibernation now, but when they emerge from the cave rested and hungry ...

Rockets: They've undergone a major transition with the coaching change. But they're too talented and experienced to not make a move -- plus they're still defending.

Bulls: Are the Bulls as bad as they've looked? They can't be.

MVP -- Kevin Garnett, Celtics: The comprehensive force behind the league's best team. But if he or the Celtics wane over the second half, LeBron James, Chris Paul and Kobe are positioned to make a run at him.

Rookie -- Kevin Durant, Sonics: A sure thing so long as he remains healthy. He leads everyone else like Secretariat at the Belmont.

Defensive Player -- Kevin Garnett, Celtics: He transformed one of the worst defensive teams into the league leader in opponents' scoring and shooting. But a second-half push could be made by Bruce Bowen (who should have won the award by now), as well as last season's winner, Marcus Camby (whose Nuggets are a surprising 12th in field goal defense), Kobe and Tayshaun Prince.

Most Improved --Dwight Howard, Magic: I continue to argue that this award should go to a good player who becomes great, because that's the hardest NBA improvement to make. Brandon Roy is close behind.

Coach -- Doc Rivers, Celtics: Only a major swoon can change this outcome; if so, votes should go to McMillan, Scott and Van Gundy.

Executive -- Danny Ainge, Celtics:George McGovern had a better chance in 1972 than anyone else has of winning this award.

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