The first half of the season flew by for everyone (except for the teams negotiating the stalemate of Carmelo Anthony's future). What will the next three months bring? Here are some stories to watch:
• The old legs of San Antonio and Boston. No, the on-and-off rumors of Carmelo's departure from Denver are not the most important narrative of the season. Of much deeper substance are the enduring efforts of the Spurs and Celtics to win one more before the lockout changes everything. Both rotations depend heavily on players in the final stages of their careers, whether it's Shaquille O'Neal, Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce for Boston, or Antonio McDyess, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for San Antonio. Duncan and Garnett are indispensable to their teams, and they've been running NBA courts for 90,003 minutes between them.
The sexy story is of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh teaming together in Miami, and of Anthony following their example to get out of Denver. But their elders -- don't forget Kobe Bryant -- are maintaining a tight hold on the only plot that ever matters.
At 38, Shaquille O'Neal is the NBA's oldest player, and Wednesday night in Boston he created steals, ran the floor and dunked as if he were as young as the Miami threesome. It was the most fun night of basketball I've seen this year, in part because every time I don't take for granted the title-worthy performances of stars like Shaq, Garnett, Duncan, Ray Allen and Manu Ginobili. I watch them as if I may never see them again.
"When you get old, there are days the legs work and days they don't,'' Celtics coach Doc Rivers said after crediting O'Neal with winning that game Wednesday against the Pistons. "You can't [predict] them. In my last year, there was no rhyme or reason. You can play a back-to-back game, the second day you felt great and the first -- it made no sense. I think that's who he will be."
The same uncertainty will follow San Antonio and Boston for the remainder of the season. The Celtics have survived numerous injuries to lead the East at 32-9, while the Spurs -- broken down for much of the last several years -- have been rejuvenated by newfound health to lead the West at 36-6. They look like the teams to beat today. But how will they look and feel three long months from now? There is no predicting it. Their depth of experience makes the Spurs and Celtics difficult for younger teams to knock out. But that same experience and mileage may also be their undoing. Their strength could become their weakness, and no one can say how it will play out.
• The Lakers' second-half push. They've earned the third-best record in the league at 31-13, and yet the two-time defending champs have been so-so by their standards. After winning seven in a row they've lost two of three, including a 109-100 defeat to the struggling Mavericks. Bryant continues to post MVP-type numbers (25.1 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.7 assists) and yet he rarely participates in a full practice while resting his sore knee.
The Lakers may not catch San Antonio for the No. 1 seed in the West, but they can envision winning on the Spurs' home floor. A reachable and more important goal will be to regain the home-court edge in the NBA Finals against Boston or Miami, as that advantage was crucial to their Game 6-7 victories over the Celtics last year.
Here are their issues: manage the knees of Bryant and center Andrew Bynum, who has yet to be healthy during their last two postseason runs but could make the difference in the playoffs this year; reincorporate Matt Barnes after he returns in the final weeks of the regular season from meniscus surgery; and squeeze more production from Ron Artest and Steve Blake. In the big-picture view, the Lakers are pulling themselves together to become the team to beat once again.
• Carmelo's landing spot. Anthony continues to believe Denver will move him by the Feb. 24 trade deadline. In the meantime, his 24-17 Nuggets look like a solid playoff team with a 4½-game advantage over the No. 9 Suns. If he isn't going to be moved to the Nets, then the Nuggets will have to make the best of lesser offers from the Knicks and other potential suitors including the Bulls, Rockets and a number of teams that reached out to Denver as soon as New Jersey pulled out of the negotiations Wednesday.
It's looking more and more as though Anthony will indeed land with the Knicks, which his been his ambition all along. But that decision will be made by the Nuggets, and they might not feel comfortable making it until the Feb. 24 deadline, after all possibilities have been exhausted. Or they may yet choose to hold on to him until the draft, and sign-and-trade him then. In any case, this tiresome story has elevated Anthony's public profile more than any of the All-Star or playoff games in which he has played.
• The MVP race. The early leader was New York's Amar'e Stoudemire, instantly the most important Knick since Patrick Ewing. But the favorite is going to be LeBron James, whose versatile stat line remains without peer. Not only does the offense run through him, but he is also crucial to one of the league's top defensive teams while helping to overcome the flaws of Miami's hastily gathered rotation. Other contenders include Bryant, Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard in a tightly bunched race, but I'm figuring LeBron for a third straight MVP.
• The Dallas trinity. Dirk Nowitzki's sprained knee sidelined him for nine games. Rodrigue Beaubois has yet to play this season because of a broken foot suffered last summer, though he is expected to return after the All-Star break. Caron Butler (knee) is out for the season, but his expiring $10.6 million salary could be applied to bolster a trade at the Feb. 24 deadline. The Mavs looked like title contenders earlier in the year thanks to their depth and improved defense, and the resolution of these three moving parts -- Nowitzki, Beaubois and Butler -- will decide how far they go over the months ahead. If the first two are healthy and producing by March, maybe they wouldn't need to make a major deadline deal. But how will they be able to predict Beaubois' impact?
• Will the Magic make do? They lack size around Dwight Howard, but how do they acquire it without breaking up their strength of playmakers around the three-point line? Can their quickness and scoring on the perimeter upend the size of the Celtics? Can Howard so dominate the paint as to beat Miami? Longshots both, but then no one was picking Orlando to reach the NBA Finals two years ago, either. Orlando is seeking its version of P.J. Brown, who arrived as a midseason free agent to help Boston reach the 2007-08 championship.
• The CBA talks. Too many teams are playing out this year aimlessly while waiting for the new set of rules that will limit how much they can spend while adding to their profits. Commissioner David Stern and union chief Billy Hunter will meet next month during All-Star weekend in Los Angeles, but don't expect their talks to accomplish much of anything. They are too far apart in their demands and there is too much time before next season, when the pressure of missing games will finally begin to affect the negotiations.
• Yao Ming and other February moves. Will the Rockets leverage Yao's expiring $17.7 million salary at the trade deadline in an effort to reinvent themselves sooner than later? If the Nuggets move Anthony, will they make additional trades to unload more money? Will the Blazers begin to make moves to repair their injured roster? Which veterans will be bought out with the midseason goal of re-signing with a title contender?
• Chris Paul's future. After an 11-1 start, his Hornets have gone 16-15. They could use a strong finish and a promising playoff run as they try to dissuade Paul from becoming the next star to seek a move elsewhere. But then this franchise is overwhelmed with questions, between the league taking ownership and the ensuing possibility of a move to a larger market.
• Brandon Roy's comeback. The Blazers' 26-year-old star guard underwent surgery on both knees this week in hopes of regaining his athleticism for the second half of the season. But those procedures are viewed as a temporary remedy, and Roy is owed $64 million over the next four years. There will be no simple resolution to this unfortunate turn.
• The pursuits of Rajon Rondo and Kevin Love. If the season ended today, Rondo (13.2 per game) would be the league's most prolific assist-maker since John Stockton had 13.7 in 1991-92, and Love (15.6) would be the top rebounder since Dennis Rodman averaged 16.1 in 1996-97. Each was considered by some teams as too small to excel in the NBA, and yet within five years Rondo has emerged as the league's best passer and Love -- drafted in 2008 -- has no peer on the boards.
The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.
How do you say "buffoonery'' in Russian?-- R.H., Detroit
Richard Hamilton, this is what happens when you find yourself depending on the kindness of a Russian oligarch. So you aren't going to be boondoggled into the Carmelo Anthony trade to New Jersey. Who is going to feel sorry for you? You're so well off with a contract guaranteeing you $21.5 million over the next two years that other teams can't afford to trade for you. It doesn't help that you're averaging an 11-year low of 13.2 points, or that the Pistons have turned into Eastern playoff contenders since benching you last week.
If you really want to leave Detroit, you're going to have to play your way out. No one is going to take on your contract if you're viewed as inflexible or uncooperative. How are you going to audition yourself if you keep getting yourself kicked out of games by complaining to the refs? Miserable is not a good look for someone looking for a new job -- and especially not for you, who not so long ago played with so much joy. There is no way you can be washed up at age 32, but if you don't play your way into a trade by next month and the lockout eats up all of next season, then all of a sudden you're going to find yourself seeking a new contract as a 34-year-old shooting guard -- and how many of those not named Ray Allen are excelling in the NBA these days?
I have a rookie forward who is doing pretty well, but from my courtside seat I've learned to pick out little sayings of wisdom I enjoy sharing with my players, and I think they appreciate them too. Next game I was thinking of yelling, "Hey, ballhog, stop scoring so much!'' Or maybe I'll remind him, "Hey, showoff, they don't give extra points for dunking hard!'' I take pride in motivating my players, it's my favorite part of owning the team.-- D.T.S., Los Angeles
Donald T. Sterling, there has been much talk recently that rookie forward Blake Griffin may be the savior who changes the Clippers' culture. Which reminds me, you've won one playoff series in three decades. Griffin has a better chance of teaching Bostonians to say "park the car'' properly than he does of changing the culture maintained by you.
It would be a terrific story for everyone if the Clippers could be transformed into champions -- believe me that I would love writing it -- but the record has demonstrated for the worst part of 29 years that you do not preside over winning teams. From everything I've been able to gather, the force of your personality has exerted greater influence over the Clippers than the will of any executive, coach or player who has ever worked for (and sued) you.
Will Griffin change the Clippers, or will the Clippers change Griffin? I wish I didn't have to ask these questions.
People are always asking how long I can last before I get fired. Me, I'm asking how long I can take coaching these guys until I can't take it anymore. When did it become illegal for a coach to yell at his players? It's like having 15 wives, and every time I lose my temper we have to talk it out, and I have to see it from their point of view and admit how difficult I can be -- no, really, it's my fault -- when all I'm asking the guy to do is follow his man over the screen. Not under! Over! Is it that hard? Get over the screen. Would you do that for me, please? Am I allowed to ask you to do that?-- S.V.G., Orlando
Stan Van Gundy, this week you reacted to Gilbert Arenas' struggles by saying, "The biggest thing he is struggling with now is me. ... He's not enjoying playing and I'm a big reason.''
You said this before Arenas had issued a public complaint. To Arenas' credit, when asked about his struggles, he didn't blame you.
I understand why you take the hits, and I credit your intelligence for taking them. But I find myself asking: Has Bill Belichick or Rex Ryan ever taken the blame for being insistent? Were Bobby Knight or Casey Stengel ever concerned their players didn't appear to enjoy playing the game? Even Connie Mack in his straw hat was not so conciliatory after the fact as you are.
This is how difficult it has become to coach in the NBA: A demanding coach with a .653 career winning percentage has to negotiate a preventive truce on a daily basis in order to maintain control of his team. Coaching in the NBA is the hardest job in pro sports. There is nothing else in the same ballpark because NBA players wield so much power, not only because of their guaranteed contracts but also because basketball provides them with so much more freedom than players are given in baseball or football.
I suspect the relationship between NBA coach and player may begin to change with the next collective bargaining agreement, if it eventually becomes feasible to waive contracted NBA players as Belichick and Ryan are able to do in the NFL.
NBA coaches will always need to relate to their teams in a personal way, because basketball is such a fluid game and the NBA is so reliant on stars. A special blend of trust will always be necessary. But I am certain that coaches in other pro sports were discussing -- no doubt with sympathy -- your need to show concern for the enjoyment of a player who is being paid $17.7 million to come off the bench.
How to become an NBA player.This comes from 6-9 Pistons center Ben Wallace, who last month became the second undrafted player to play 1,000 NBA games. On his way up he received help from former NBA player Charles Oakley, who steered him to Oakley's former school, Division II Virginia Union; Wallace would also run across his current Pistons coach, John Kuester.
"I grew up in between Salem and Montgomery, in a small town called White Hall, Ala. I fantasized about being a football player, a tight end and a D-end. But then I grew into basketball. At the end of my sophomore year of high school, I hit a growth spurt and went from 6 feet to about 6-5 over the summer.
"We were playing pickup in a park back home called the Holy Ground. I picked up a basketball and dunked it. It was crazy. I'm pretty sure it was an accident. I went up and I had no intention of dunking a basketball, I was just going to try to get to the basket. Boom! Everybody was all excited -- 'Do it again!' I did it again and I was like, 'I can do this.'
"I went to Charles Oakley's basketball camp in Alabama, and that's where I met the junior college coach from [Cuyahoga Community College in] Cleveland. This was my junior year going into my senior year, and I was telling him then I was a football player. But he was telling me, 'If you ever decide you want to play basketball and you need a school to go to, give me a call.' So the next year I called him and he came down to the camp again. I worked out, I did my thing and he was like, 'I can definitely give you a scholarship -- watching you from last summer to now, it was like a night and day change.'
"When I was coming out of high school, everybody assumed I was going to play football. So I really didn't have a whole lot of offers for basketball, and the schools that were offering me were too close to home. My family wanted me to get away from home -- 'Get away from here, go do something. We'll always be here, you'll always be able to come back, but go do something.'
"Going up there from Alabama -- never seeing snow before, I didn't even have a winter coat -- it was a culture shock. I realized I wanted to be in the NBA, but nobody was talking about professional basketball for me at that time. Failure was not an option for me. I wasn't going to be that one that went to school for two years and came back home, working those dead-end jobs that everybody else in the community was doing. One way or the other, I was going to have to make it. That's why I put all of the energy into basketball, and every year I could feel some part of my game was changing, some part of my game was growing, and I was just trying to keep it moving.
"Coming out of junior college, I averaged 26 [points], 18 [rebounds] and six [blocks]. I could have went anywhere I wanted, pending if I graduated from junior college. But something happened around the team. The coach got fired, some other people came in, and it just messed up our team. The coach was suing the team and my name was in the lawsuit. They said that I was getting paid, so that made me ineligible. But I'm still waiting on that payday. I never saw none of that money.
"I knew I was getting better, but I didn't think my game was that good where I could sit out one year and still make it to the NBA like I was planning on doing. So I called Charles Oakley's number, and he said give [Virginia] Union a call and see what's up before it gets too late. I called coach [Dave Robbins] and he had one scholarship left but he had offered it to some other guy. I went home for the summer and called him back and I said, 'I'll pay my way first semester.' He was like, 'You don't need to do that. The other guy decided to go somewhere else. If you want to come, we have got a scholarship for you.'
"He'll tell you I was the first player he ever took sight unseen -- all because Oakley called. Oakley said, 'He's a grown man out there.' Oakley never said anything good about anybody as a basketball player. You had to be able to play a little bit to make him talk about you.
"When it came time for the  draft, I had a couple teams call me and say, 'If you're available late second round, we're going to take you.' But that never happened. As soon as the draft was over, I got a call from Boston. So I came and worked out. They had me playing the 2 and 3, man. It was M.L. Carr and John Kuester. Yeah, Kuester. Every day I remind him of that. He just laughs.
"After that workout, I was feeling down about myself, because I realized I could play on this level. But people were telling me that I'm too small to play the 4 and the 5. I left and went to Italy. I was over there playing for about a month and I ended up getting a call from Washington. They wanted me to come work out. I'm like, 'No, I've got a job here and I'm not leaving to come back there for a workout and y'all are going to put me at the 2 and 3.' Then [Wizards GM] Wes Unseld called me personally, and he said, 'We need a big guy that can defend and rebound.' And then I came back and went to Washington.
"Since my freshman year of college, I always prided myself on taking care of my body and being stronger and outlasting anybody I played against. My conditioning and strength -- that's always been my gift, because when the game starts, everybody's fresh and the talent is equal. Then when the game ends, I'm still going strong and everybody else starts fading. But I had people tell me almost every other day that I was too small, too slow, couldn't do this, couldn't do that. If I truly listened to those people, I wouldn't be here. I'd be a doctor or dentist or something.''
Wallace, 36, has won an NBA championship with the Pistons, and he is a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Star. He needs to play 47 games to surpass Avery Johnson (1,054) as the undrafted player with the most NBA appearances in league history.
• With Nuggets forward Carmelo Anthony.On accusations that his wife, LaLa Vasquez, has been urging him to leave Denver: "It's upsetting because I know the conversations that me and her have on a daily basis, and never once -- and I'm not just saying it because she's my wife -- [did] she come out and say, 'Let's get out of Denver, I don't want to live here.'
"I commend her because it's tough for her too. She is somebody who has her own thing going on, and she has to deal with [the trade rumors] too when she's out and about. People ask her about it wherever she goes.
"But it gets misconstrued -- she never once said where she wanted me to go or her wanting me to leave Denver. She respects me enough for me to make that decision on my own for my own career. But at the same time, I do consult with her on everything.''
• With Cavaliers coach Byron Scott.On how he thinks the AAU culture of fraternization among rival NBA players has hurt the league: "I think the fans don't respect these players like they did back in the '80s, for a number of reasons. I think they think they're spoiled, No. 1, and they always say it's AAU that ruined them. That's the first thing -- they think they make all this money and guys are spoiled. Going back to our era [in the '80s], that just wasn't the case. You got traded, and you played for that team.
"The closest I've seen to those days was Magic [Johnson of the Lakers] and Isiah [Thomas] and Mark [Aguirre of the Pistons] back in our day, and when they were on the court they still weren't very friendly to each other. But I don't think they ever sat down with each other and said, 'Man, it would be nice to play together.' I think their sitdowns were more like, 'Man, next year when we play each other we're going to beat y'all's ...' You know? More than, 'I'd love to play with you and lets make sure we all ...' It just wouldn't happen. And I think those guys have made that clear -- Michael [Jordan] has come out, [Charles] Barkley has come out, Magic -- that it just wouldn't happen back in the day. So it's just a different time and era, and we've got to get used to it. This is how it is right now.''
• With Pistons 6-8 guard Tracy McGrady. On how his shift to point guard at age 31 compares to a pitcher winning without an explosive fastball: "It's just like Greg Maddux, he never was a 95 mph fastball pitcher, but he knew how to maneuver that thing. That's what I got to do, absolutely. Late in my career I have to modify my game a little bit because I'm not the young, athletic guy I once was. It's great to have that skill set.
"I'm comfortable with the position, and I think having me there puts everybody at their natural position, because I think Rodney [Stuckey] is a 2-guard more than he is a point guard.''
With Nuggets coach George Karl.For two seasons, Karl was coach of the Spanish club Real Madrid. On Dec. 3, 1989, Real center Fernando Martin died at age 27 in a car accident. He had been the first Spaniard to play in the NBA (for a brief time with the Trail Blazers) and had helped lead Spain to the silver medal in the 1984 Olympics.
"I coached a team that throughout the world is more well-known than any sport team in America,'' Karl said. "Real Madrid is known for its soccer more than for its basketball, but it's still the No. 1 team in terms of European championships in basketball. Two summers ago, I went back to Madrid and had a reunion with a lot of my players and my coaches and it was a wonderful experience. I wish I would have filmed it. Spanish players are so passionate, and we had the experience of Fernando Martin being killed while I was there, and so the fiber of that experience is always going to be with four or five of those guys.
"I still remember the dinner after his funeral, when we had to play a game that night. In Europe, they have wine on the table [at team pregame meals]. And some of the guys drink it, but normally they don't drink it. Well, we drank it that day. This is like 3 p.m. for an 8 p.m. game. I mean, the emotion at the table -- guys were tearing up, crying, and a couple of the guys almost got in a fight with each other.
"That night was the greatest game I ever coached. We were down 14 [points] to PAOK [a Greek club] at halftime. You have to understand, Antonio Martin was one of my better players -- Fernando's brother was on the team. Antonio was one of the best Spanish players, and he played that game but he was all messed up.
"Down 14 at halftime, there wasn't much said. Basically the only thing I said was, 'Fernando thinks you're a bunch of [wussies]. I said that because Fernando was a tough S.O.B. Fernando wasn't a very good player, but he was a totally S.O.B. guy.
"At the 14-minute mark of the second half, we were up 21 points. We were down 14 at the half, and we're up 21 in six minutes.
"The game was in Madrid, and the emotion afterward -- I still think it should be a movie. After the games in Europe you can chant the team back onto the court; sometimes the team will go off, and then the crowd will start chanting something to bring them back out. Well, for this game the mom [of Martin] is in the presidential box. And the chant is, Fernando esta aqui, Fernando esta aqui -- Fernando is here. And his mother is leading it. It gives me goose bumps today.
"So the players come back onto the court. And Fernando's mother is up there. And they all take different routes through the crowd to get to the mother. And they're running through the crowd up through and in the background, and it takes about two or three minutes until they finally get to the mother, and they all are now in the presidential box chanting with the crowd, Fernando esta aqui, Fernando esta aqui. It was very incredible.''
Last month following the death of Carmelo Anthony's sister, Karl was drawn back to the mourning of his Spanish player.
"I sent 'Melo some texts,'' Karl said. "I'm not very good with death, and I said that to him. I said, 'All I know is somewhere along the way, celebrate [her life]. The first time I ever realized a spirit toward death was with Fernando. Fernando died, and there was a Russian tradition, an Orthodox tradition, about going and having a picnic at the grave site six months later. And I was invited to that. You bring 10 people, and you just get smashed and you tell Fernando stories. The guy who introduced me to this told me the tradition is you've got to celebrate. You've got to let it go and let the celebration begin.''
My All-Star ballot. Wireless voting concludes Jan. 23 and the starters will be announced Jan. 27. The reserves (to be selected by coaches) will be revealed Feb. 3.
C Dwight Howard, MagicF Amar'e Stoudemire, KnicksF LeBron James, HeatG Dwyane Wade, HeatG Derrick Rose, Bulls
C Al Horford, HawksF Carlos Boozer, BullsF Kevin Garnett, CelticsF Paul Pierce, Celtics (need a small forward)G Rajon Rondo, CelticsG Raymond Felton, KnicksG Ray Allen, Celtics
STAND-INS (in case of injury)
C Andrew Bogut, BucksF Chris Bosh, Heat; Josh Smith, HawksG Joe Johnson, Hawks
C Nene, NuggetsF Pau Gasol, LakersF Kevin Durant, ThunderG Kobe Bryant, LakersG Deron Williams, Jazz
F Kevin Love, TimberwolvesF Blake Griffin, ClippersF Dirk Nowitzki, MavericksF Carmelo Anthony, NuggetsG Chris Paul, HornetsG Russell Westbrook, ThunderG Manu Ginobili, Spurs
STAND-INS (in case of injury)
C NoneF Tim Duncan, Spurs (if Duncan were listed on the ballot at center, he'd start for the West); Zach Randolph, GrizzliesG Tony Parker, Spurs; Steve Nash, Suns; Monta Ellis, Warriors