More than 11 weeks since the launch of training camps and already the NBA has celebrated midseason with the All-Star break. In any other year, the 11th week would find most teams having played 25 games of an 82-game schedule -- and 30 percent of the season is usually too early to draw conclusions.
But this is an odd year and we do the best we can. Here are the questions that need answering as the NBA launches its breakneck second half.
Who is going to win the championship? Three contenders have separated themselves -- the Bulls, Heat and Thunder -- and Miami is the favorite, not so much for what the Heat have done but for how much they can improve.
This is not to denigrate a contender like the Bulls, who have been the class of the NBA so far. The extended absences of MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star Luol Deng and starting guard Richard Hamilton -- three of their four leading per-game scorers -- haven't knocked the Bulls off stride. They play to a high level and usually win regardless of injuries or schedule. Clearly they've been the toughest team in what has been an extremely demanding season.
In the later rounds of the playoffs, will they be able to raise their level of play? That's the issue they'll have to prove, because we know Miami's stars can and will play to a higher standard as the playoffs move along. It's entirely fair to recall LeBron James' fourth-quarter collapses during the last NBA Finals, but it's also unfair to forget that in the previous rounds he was the best player in the NBA and performing across all phases to the highest level of his career.
At the same time, opponents must account for Dwyane Wade, an NBA champion who has earned his reputation as a big-game performer, and All-Star Chris Bosh, who is capable of big games despite serving as the No. 3 option. Put them together and the Heat become a well-performing stock with high upside. As well as they're playing today, they figure to be much better during the playoffs.
Oklahoma City has two stars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but can Westbrook be counted on to play at the highest level during the playoffs? And even if he does, will it be enough to offset the Heat?
Will youth ultimately beat experience? The first half of the season favored the younger rotations. The teams that have met or exceeded expectations have all done so on young legs -- including the eternally contending Spurs, who have limited Tim Duncan's role while blending in fresh talent around 29-year-old MVP candidate Tony Parker (who took on leadership in the temporary absence of 34-year-old Manu Ginobili.)
The 76ers, Pacers and Clippers are examples of young teams that have played harder and more efficiently than the Mavericks, Lakers and Celtics, all of whom have relied on older players who in many cases have struggled with their conditioning or health. The question going forward is whether the older stars have caught their breath and are ready to make a run over the second half of the season, at the expense of the younger teams. The most promising of these contenders is Dallas, which has been able to renew Dirk Nowitzki's health while re-establishing itself as one of the NBA's best defensive teams despite the departure of Tyson Chandler.
What comes next for the Knicks? Roster stability is beyond the reach of coach Mike D'Antoni, and yet his team's prospects have never been more promising. Jeremy Lin performed amazingly while reinventing the Knicks against a weak schedule, but they can't hope to succeed against the best opponents while he dominates the ball. That's why it's a good thing for them to have Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith, who will space the floor and make the Knicks extremely difficult to guard so long as the ball moves enough to take advantage of their weapons and keep defenses off-balance. The Knicks' goal is to spend the next two months galvanizing their talent and investing in a style of play that could make them an extremely tough out in the playoffs. Few teams will be more intriguing.
Are the Spurs young enough? To put it another way, can they contend without demanding too much of Duncan and Ginobili? Their 10-man rotation includes a half-dozen contributors in their 20s. Role players like Tiago Splitter, DeJuan Blair and rookie Kawhi Leonard need to do the heavy lifting to enable Ginobili and Duncan to make the big plays when needed. But of course the duties are never split as cleanly as that.
What is Dwight Howard's future? If you're a fan of the Magic, who are hoping to keep their disgruntled franchise center, or the Nets, Lakers or Mavericks, who are hoping to either trade for him or acquire him as a free agent this summer, then the story of Howard's future is important to you. For everyone else, it is tiresome. The only question of relevance is whether the Magic would be viewed as title contenders if not for Howard's destabilizing trade demand. As difficult as the last few months have been for the Magic, the warning of Howard's departure has given the franchise an opportunity to realize something more valuable from this miss than, say, the Cavs or Raptors did in their lost summer of 2010. If it should come to that.
Do the Lakers make a deal? They have an $8.9 million trade exception (via Lamar Odom's move to Dallas) which, in a roundabout way, could help them deal for Howard. But let's say the ambivalence of Howard and the Magic combine to prevent the Lakers from dealing for a franchise center. Then L.A. should look at using the exception to acquire a wing player who can fill their desperate needs for three-point range and slashing penetration. The Lakers need someone who can drive to the basket. Stephen Jackson, who is unhappy in Milwaukee, is an obvious candidate -- but potentially too old at 33.
Do the Celtics make a trade? If so, they'll be most likely to seek improvement for the long-term rather than to win now. In that case, a likely scenario (whether it's over the next month or in the summer) involves moving point guard Rajon Rondo, who is the glue filling in the cracks and holding the old Big Three together. Remove Rondo and suddenly it makes less sense to try to hold onto Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and even Paul Pierce.
Who is MVP? Right now it has to be LeBron James, who is not only superior statistically but has been the mainstay of the Heat. Durant, Parker, Chris Paul and Howard are his main challengers, but no one is doing more important work across the board than LeBron.
What happens when Zach Randolph returns? If Randolph is able to help the Grizzlies, then their productivity upfront could turn them into another contender in the wide-open West. The Nuggets are also hoping for a second-half comeback by injured forward Danilo Gallinari, though his impact will be less powerful: He could help push Denver into the playoffs, but no further.
Who will fill out the Western lottery? Right now it's easy to pick the eight playoff teams in the East, because there's a big dropoff from the No. 8 Celtics to the No. 9 Cavaliers and beyond. In the West, however, at least three strong teams are going to miss the playoffs from a deep pool that includes Memphis, Houston, Denver, Utah, Portland and Minnesota.
What is the biggest wildcard? It's the threat of injury in a shortened and tightened season that has sidelined a lot of stars already. Will the title race be upset by one or more highly unfortunate surprises? Will a lower-seeded dark horse reach the Finals? This is the year to be asking such questions.