Friday February 24th, 2012

In this season of the resolved lockout, the All-Star weekend that was threatened with cancellation is now upon us. It has arrived suddenly, a little more than two months after the opening of training camp, and it will be defined by a variety of strange circumstances as Orlando opens its relatively new arena to this sprawling event. Here is a look at what lies ahead.

Dwight Howard as ambivalent host. During the preseason, Howard requested that the Magic trade him to the Nets, Lakers or Mavericks. It is a desire that the Magic have refused to consummate and that he has yet to rescind. The Magic already had a superior franchise center in Shaquille O'Neal, who left Orlando as a young free agent in 1996, and at the moment, owner Rich DeVos is acting as if he is inclined to call Howard's bluff. There may be some posturing involved, of course, but DeVos sounds as if he is unwilling to deal the second-biggest star his team has ever had, with the hope that Howard may yet be persuaded to commit long-term to remaining in Orlando.

Despite Howard's antagonizing hints of wanting to play elsewhere, the impact has not been as horrible as some had expected. Magic fans have remained supportive of Howard, and his finely coached 22-13 team is second in the Southeast Division, behind LeBron James' Heat.

Will a successful All-Star weekend help get Howard to re-sign with Orlando? It's probably naïve to think he can be swayed by a one-off event. But Magic fans will try anyway.

At the same time, Howard should be further warned: If he embraces their cheers but follows through on his insistence on being moved, then the fans who appear to love him now will hate him for years afterward. They may not hate him as much as Cleveland hates LeBron, but they're going to hate him all the same. That kind of underlying truth creates an odd environment for Howard to serve as unofficial host of the weekend's events.

LeBron James as MVP? James has been the best player of the shortened season and is on his way to a third MVP award in four years. And he may also go into Sunday's game pursuing his third All-Star MVP. Protocol would suggest that players may defer to Howard, but it will be interesting to see if James plays with an edge. After all, Orlando is a divisional rival to Miami, and the Magic organization -- Howard included -- took joy in taunting LeBron after his move to Miami last season.

The pairing of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. These two young stars are combining for 51.4 points per game to give the Thunder the best record in the league at 27-7 (tied with Miami). Will they combine for as many points on Sunday, or will they be outscored by the rival pairings of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin of the Clippers, or by Andrew Bynum and four-time All-Star MVP Kobe Bryant of the Lakers?

Jeremy Lin. Perhaps you've heard of him. Never before has the Rising Stars Challenge held more meaning. Or, to be more accurate: Never before has this pointless game held any meaning. But the presence of Lin will create one-time-only interest (along with the coaching of Charles Barkley and Shaq, who chose the two teams). Apart from the half-dozen biggest household names (Bryant, James, et al.), Lin will be one of the weekend's biggest attractions. If he maintains a level of play that's anything close to what he has done over the last few weeks for New York, then in one year he could be voted by the fans to start in the real All-Star Game.

The last-minute invitation of Rajon Rondo. The Celtics' point guard was bypassed by the Eastern Conference coaches even though he ranks second in the league with 9.5 assists, but he was named as an injury replacement for Hawks shooting guard Joe Johnson. Rondo's appearance in Orlando comes at a potentially awkward time: He was suspended from Boston's previous two games -- ugly losses at Dallas and Oklahoma City -- after throwing the ball at a referee in anger over an uncalled foul. With his struggling team in a free-fall amid his promises to emerge as a leader, it was an inexplicable act of dereliction.

His failure also served to heighten well-founded speculation that the Celtics will investigate potential trades for Rondo leading up to the March 15 deadline. He is by far their most valuable trade asset as team president Danny Ainge seeks to end the Big Four era in search of a new dynamic with a more promising future. But no meaningful moves are expected before March 1, when players who were acquired after the lockout will become eligible for trades.

Lockout hangover. Remember the many anonymously sourced threats during the lockout negotiations that players would be unwilling to cooperate with the NBA's community service work and marketing endeavors? As yet there has been few obvious signs that the players have held on to grudges left over from the contentious negotiations. If bad feelings remain, they are likely to emerge this weekend as players congregate with commissioner David Stern and are reminded of how they felt a few months ago.

Saturday's contests. Here is how it's going to go down: Somebody is going to win the Taco Bell Skills Challenge, and somebody else is going to win the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest, and then a third player will win the Sprite Slam Dunk Contest. It is all going to take place and there is nothing anybody can do to stop it. And, no, there will be no Blake Griffin jumping over a Kia this time around.

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