The New Year begins with two months of evidence to help us separate the contenders from the disappointing. Here is a primer of what has happened so far, with the goal of trying to imagine the six months to come.
There are five teams capable of winning the final game.
Contenders To Reach The Second Round (Or Beyond)
Potential Names To Be Dangled At The Feb. 21 Trade Deadline
These injured players promise to either return to the court or regain their conditioning over the next four months. Each will provide their team with a huge boost.
Point Guards To Watch
These quarterbacks will play important roles down the stretch.
These players serve important roles without pursuing stats or credit.
Potential Lottery Winners
The fall from five straight seasons of 50 wins or more has been staggering. If the Kings were more stable, with an environment that demanded excellence and accountability from top to bottom -- an environment that doesn't exist, as proved by the results of these last seven seasons -- then they might not be experiencing so many difficulties with Cousins. His issues are a symptom of the larger problem that has eaten away at the franchise.
We've seen this kind of thing before with unhappy players, and now it's going to play itself out again. The Kings are going to claim that Cousins isn't available. When teams call with trade proposals, the Kings will demand more than they can possibly get for Cousins. They'll be bargaining from a position of weakness that has been building for seven years. Rivals will believe they can salvage Cousins' career by establishing him in a more disciplined environment; they won't have to offer equal value for him because the Kings have little bargaining power. On their watch Cousins' value has hit bottom. All he has to do to force a trade out of Sacramento is to behave badly a few more times and shame them into dealing him. It's how these things go.
The biggest mistake the Kings can make is to blame all of this on Cousins. They knew who he was when they drafted him. The Kings will never return to prosperity under the ownership of the Maloof family unless they recognize where they've gone wrong and learn from their mistakes. It's too late to save their relationship with Cousins, or to salvage an equitable trade. The best they can do is to either (1) sell the team or else (2) hold themselves accountable in order to rebuild the franchise properly, so that one day the Kings can be the solidly managed organization that is positioned to steal a talent like Cousins in a trade, rather than be the team that is forced to give him away.
The Nets would be crazy to not reach out to Jackson. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov should try to hire him. For his part, Jackson should be expected to demand total control of the franchise with final say over personnel. It would be fascinating to see if his expertise for coaching would transfer to management. I don't know whether he would succeed, but no one is more worthy of the opportunity to find out than the league's greatest modern coach.
The hiring of Jackson would amount to a long-term investment. He would be likely to make changes in team management in addition to moving players to fit his views. This is why it makes sense for the Nets' current management team to give Carlesimo a chance to turn the current team around. They invested big money in these players and they need to find out whether they can win. If they fail over the weeks ahead, and control of the team is handed over to Jackson, then the Nets are likely to embark on an entirely new course that will involve taking a couple of steps backward in order to rebuild to Jackson's specifications. In the meantime everyone employed by the Nets should be trying to win around Carlesimo -- as they did in their impressive 110-93 win at Oklahoma City Wednesday -- because no one knows how many of them will be retained if Jackson is hired.
This is actually a constructive dialog between the player and his team. To his credit, White has refused to be ashamed of his condition. He has demanded that the team deal with his illness according to standards that have never been addressed by professional sports; the Rockets, in turn, are also trying to work things out rather than abandon their investment in him. I don't know whether White or his employer is right or wrong on this issue. But I do believe that years from now, this will be viewed as a negotiation during which mental health of athletes came out of the closet.
Carlisle later backed off his threat of suspensions. The bottom line is that the Mavericks are trying to maintain standards around Dirk Nowitzki. They hope to squeeze a few more years of title contention around him, and they want to sell a promising future to prospective free agents (including Dwight Howard) this summer.
Get To Know: Tyler Zeller
The 7-footer is averaging 8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a rookie for the Cavaliers. Zeller, 22, joined them as the No. 17 pick after four years at North Carolina.
? He and his brothers grew up playing in Washington, a small town in southwest Indiana. "Southern Indiana is crazy about basketball. My gym [at Washington High School] seats 7,000 people and we sold it out a couple of games my senior year. We averaged like 4,500 people at every game, and our own cheering section and the away cheering section would be going at each other, and it was fun. We always had battles there, but at the same time we always enjoyed it.''
The values of Indiana basketball defined him. "You've got to be able to play team basketball in order to have a chance to win a state championship in Indiana. Every night you've got to be ready to play, and it's not like some other states where you don't have that quality of basketball every night. Sure, we did have games we won by 40, but there were a lot of battles with our rivals -- I think the most we ever won by was like eight or 10 points. They were always tough games.''
His Indiana background prepared him to play for North Carolina. "Indiana was kind of in disarray when I came out, so that put them out of the picture. Being able to play at North Carolina -- I loved it ever since I [visited] there, and it's something I never regretted. I wish it could have been closer to home, but at the same time you don't really get to go home a lot anyway.''
Zeller is glad his background led him to the Cavaliers. "I'm from a town of 12,000 people, so going to New York [in the draft] would have driven me crazy just for how big it is and how much is going on. I think over time I would have been fine there, but for a first city, Cleveland is perfect. There's not a lot to do, so you stay focused on what you need to do; but there is enough to do that you can find something to do.''
? His older brother, 6-11 Luke Zeller, is a member of the Suns after four years at Notre Dame, while younger brother Cody Zeller is a 7-foot sophomore at Indiana. "All of our games are a little bit different. I always loved watching Tim Duncan play because of how fundamentally sound he is, he does everything perfect. And then you've always got to respect Dirk [Nowitzki] for what he does. But you've also got to be your own player, and you've got to take and choose what you can do and what you can't.''
He was a relatively late bloomer. "I actually didn't play a lot in middle school. I wasn't a huge fan of it. It was one of those things I played for fun with my friends. And then I grew eight inches in a year -- I was 5-10 in eighth grade, and I've grown a lot since then. Through junior high I was always Luke's little brother instead of being my own person. So it's been fun being able to go through high school and get better every year.
"It was probably my freshman year in high school when I started to play a lot. I remember one Fourth of July, we went and shot off fireworks, and then they were all going to party somewhere and I went to the gym for a couple of hours. I got kicked out of the gym a couple of times because I was in there at like 1:30 in the morning. I really do love it."
? Staying for four years at Carolina set him up for the NBA. "Being part of the tradition of that program has been excellent and I've learned a lot. We get a lot of past players that come back and play with us every summer and that makes for great pickup games.
"The summer is a big time there. They're always kind of pushing us, trying to make us better. At the same time we'll get 20 people and we'll have two courts going, and you don't want to be on that losers' court the whole time. So you've got to make sure you keep getting better and that you're working together when you start to play, because if you don't work together you're going to be in trouble.
"I got to know quite a few of [the Carolina alums]. Sean May -- he's been in and out of the league and he's overseas now -- and Marvin Williams have probably been the two biggest ones that I was around a lot, just because they were big men at Carolina and they're back every summer. Marvin will do anything for anybody. He's somebody that comes back and is always trying to help you and make you better, but he's also very competitive. As soon as he gets the chance, he's going to try to score on you.''
Zeller considered turning pro after his junior year. "It was a tough decision. I'd been there three years, and people had told me that your senior year is something you never forget. We had a chance to win a national championship. It was a fun group. I really did enjoy my junior year, so all of that went into the decision -- and then there was the lockout. Ultimately I came back and I really did enjoy my senior year. I only had two classes in my senior year, so I didn't really have to go to school. So it was very nice.
"Going through everything we do every year at North Carolina is something that has helped me now. We get up and down a lot, and practices are tough. Rebounding-wise I grew a lot that year. I think I'm more prepared than most players coming out, because I am older. But at the same time it's interesting how people develop. In the NBA the game is completely different than the college game, but you still have to have talent to be able to do it.
"I want to continue to get better every year and continue to learn more. This year is going to be a huge learning year for me. I'm really looking forward to the summer. I know where I need to be and what I need to work on, and I can really put a lot of work in in the summer.''
Quote Of The Week
"I'd probably force Shaq to do it."
He was asked whom he would ask to present his jersey when his number is retired by the Lakers. I don't think he was joking.
Game Of The Week
"There's no question Chris Paul is the best leader in the league. He really is like Magic Johnson in a 6-foot body, because he controls so much for that team. I think he's one of those guys who will be leading a team 10 years from now, like a Jason Kidd type. He's so smart and he has the talent and personality to be a leader for as long as he wants to be.
"But I have to say I'm not a fan of either team right now. I picked the Lakers to win the championship before the season, but now I don't think it's going to happen. As well as the Clippers have been playing lately, I still think they're going to have trouble in the playoffs. Their problem is that they're so thin up front.
"Lamar Odom is the key guy for the Clippers now. If he keeps getting better, if he gets back to what he was, then they'll have a better shot at it [in the playoffs]. But they're so thin up front. They have two big guys that are great -- Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan -- and their third big guy has to be Lamar, because they can't count on Ryan Hollins to give them anything.
"I would guess in the playoffs they'll have Caron Butler playing a little bit of 4. But to me they're not in the same league as San Antonio or Oklahoma City. I hear people say that San Antonio doesn't match up well, but I think in a playoff series they'd hammer the Clippers by wearing them out inside. I may be wrong about this, but I'll believe it when I see them going deep in the playoffs with Griffin and Jordan.
"Right now the Clippers are playing so well, I think they'll beat the Lakers. The Lakers aren't the kind of team that's going to say that this is a big game for us. It's not like they have to prove to themselves by beating the Clippers in January. Kobe, Steve Nash, Dwight Howard -- they don't care about beating the Clippers or being the best team in L.A. Those guys are Hall of Famers, they've been there, done that. They're not a young, up-and-coming team. They know you don't win a championship right now.
"Nash and Paul will both be effective, but the Lakers may have trouble switching Nash to defend the other guard if the Clippers put Eric Bledsoe out there with Paul.
"I always think it's important to not get too caught up by what happens this time of year. It matters for a team like the Clippers, but the Lakers are going to be worrying more about getting better every day.''
Based on what we've seen so far:
C Joakim Noah F LeBron James F Kevin Durant G Chris Paul G Kobe Bryant