By Dan Shanoff
Page 2

The NBA All-Star Weekend in Houston should have you thinking about the rocket-boosted expectations of teams like Detroit and Dallas (or the fizzle of teams like the Knicks and Bulls).

But as you follow the celebrities, dunks, 3s, rookies vs. sophs, and the main event -- the game -- over the weekend, remember that no All-Star Weekend is complete without a Beyonce sighting.

Check out the Hot/Not list for talking points to make you the barstool All-Star.

Topic Hot Not Hot
MVP of the (Mid)Year

LeBron James. In most other seasons, 31 ppg would lead the league, not be third. But James' value is enhanced by his 7 rpg and 6.5 apg. This should be the year he finally leads the Cavs to the playoffs.

Kobe Bryant. I gaped at his January as much as the next fan, but it's hard to argue that he makes his teammates around him better, like LeBron or Steve Nash does.

Coach of the (Mid)Year Avery Johnson. The proof is in the playoffs, but Johnson has created such an improvement in the Mavs' defense (seventh in the league in points allowed), which is the real reason they are atop the West. Larry Brown. Brown, along with Doc Rivers and Nate McMillan, is trying to apply playoff-team tactics to lottery-fresh talent. At least the other two are interested in nurturing young players.
Division Southwest. Four out of five teams are above .500, including the two best teams in the conference (Dallas, San Antonio), its biggest surprise (Okla. City/New Orleans) and underrated Memphis. Atlantic. I'm tempted to say "Whichever division the Knicks are in," but the Atlantic features two other teams under .400 and a second-place team (Philly) clinging to playoff eligibility.
Dunk contest favorite

Nate Robinson. Height (or lack thereof) is a factor here. Listed at only 5-foot-9, Nate will look like he's skying higher than his closest comp, defending champ Josh Smith.

Hakim Warrick. There's always an obligatory big man in the field, and though Warrick can sky, he'll make it look too easy to get that excited about it.

3-point contest favorite Chauncey Billups. Earned his big shot bona fides during last year's Finals run. If it's a clock counting down, Billups comes up big. Quentin Richardson. Defending 3-point champ is shooting only 31 percent this season from 3, the lowest (by far) of the field.
Skills comp favorite Steve Nash. Despite the toughest field ever, including LeBron and Dwyane, give the edge to the defending skills comp champ. Chris Paul. How would you like to be a rookie (injured no less) competing against Nash, LeBron and Dwyane Wade?
3-on-3 shooting stars favorite Steve Kerr. Will show he's still got his shot, teaming with Tony Parker and Kendra Wecker. Kobe Bryant. Think there will be any shots left over for teammates Magic Johnson and Lisa Leslie?
Rookie/Soph player to watch

Dwight Howard. Soph arguably could have been a reserve on the big kids' all-star roster (if not for the Pistons). Leads the NBA in rebounding. No more questions about who should have been the first pick of the 2004 NBA draft, either.

Marvin Williams. Rookie, taken second overall by the Hawks (ahead of Chris Paul, among others) couldn't even crack the Rookie All-Star roster, despite playing for the lowly Hawks.

2006 NBA draft prospect Adam Morrison. Scouts love his size and intensity; fans love his moustache. We'll see how far he can take Gonzaga this March. Meanwhile, it helps that the Pacific Northwest NBA teams are lottery-bound. J.J. Redick. Might be player of the year and arguably the best pure shooter in college hoops history, but does that mean you'd spend a top 5, 10 or even 20 NBA draft pick on the next Trajan Langdon or Steve Kerr?
East surprise Pistons. Fans knew the Pistons would be good, but this good? Hiring Flip Saunders was the best thing to ever happen to this team of vets that was itching to lose the choke chain of Larry Brown and open up the offense. Bulls. Last year's playoff team has crumbled after suspect offseason moves and injuries. (Yet amazingly, Chicago is still only two games behind the 76ers for the final East playoff spot.)
West surprise Hornets. The surprise of the NBA season, period. Credit the arrival of Chris Paul. Credit the support of the "hometown" Oklahoma City fans. Credit the steady play of David West. Whatever it is, a year ago they were 11-42 at the All-Star break. Sonics. A year ago, Seattle was the toast of the NBA for their 3-point flinging, up-and-down style that resulted in a 35-15 All-Star break record. Now, at 20-31, their scoring is actually up three points over a year ago, but their opponents are scoring nearly 10 ppg more, too.
Best acquisition Boris Diaw. Rescued from the basketball exile of Atlanta, Diaw has been the most improved player in the league in Mike D'Antoni's innovative offense in Phoenix. Diaw plays a little bit of everything, with stats to show for it: 11.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg and 5.8 apg. The Heat's fantasy roster. Miami stocked up on "name" players like Jason Williams and Antoine Walker, but despite J-Will's improved play, it doesn't seem to have helped the chemistry that got the Heat to the NBA Finals last year. Miami finally beat a contender-quality team for the first time this season on Sunday.
Trade bait Steve Francis. Will he ever be happy anywhere? He's ready to leave Orlando and the Magic are more than happy to shop him. Denver has been the rumored destination for weeks. But will he actually make the Nuggets better? Allen Iverson. You can argue that the 76ers have gone as far as they can with A.I. as their centerpiece, while still acknowledging that there isn't a more electrifying player in the league the team could trade him for to trot out night after night.
Contract-year All-Star

Mike James. In a 2006 free-agent pool thin with guards, the Raptors' James has picked a good time to score 17.8 ppg (8 above his career average), including a season-best 23.4 in February.

Latrell Sprewell. Still out there trying to find a deal to feed his family. Rumor has it he's waiting until March to sign with a contender, but honestly, what contender would want him?

Rivalry Mark Cuban vs. Phil Jackson. "I own Phil Jackson" has become one of the funniest catchphrases of the NBA season. Cuban's blog postings show that you don't need to be a mainstream media manipulator like Jackson to be effective. Kobe vs. Shaq. Like formerly feuding rappers Jay-Z and Nas, they seem to have put their bad feelings aside. Frankly, I liked them better when they were gutting each other in the media.
Feel-good story Oklahoma City fans. Foreshadowed by a 26-point opening-night win over the Kings in front of a raucous crowd, the Hornets' 18-8 record at home is a 10-game turnaround over last season. Maybe they should stay. Knicks front office. Isiah Thomas and Larry Brown contradict each other (and themselves) nearly daily. Players are confused. Employees are litigious. Fans are ready to revolt. (However, fans across the rest of the NBA do find this "feel-good.")
Biggest second-half stories LeBron vs. Kobe vs. Nash for MVP; LeBron vs. Kobe vs. A.I. for scoring title; can the Pistons hold off the Mavs and Spurs for NBA Finals home-court advantage; fantasy-league trading deadlines; high school players jumping to the NBDL; will Larry Brown quit before Isiah is fired? NBA dress code (remember that?); East playoff seeding between No. 2 and No. 8; NBDL call-ups; will any team win 72 games (72?! We'll be lucky to see a team hit 62.)
Bold second-half picks A.I. edges Kobe for scoring title; Mavs edge Spurs for West title; Celtics trade Paul Pierce; Hornets make the playoffs, win both their first-round home games; lottery teams (if not David Stern) wish high school senior center Greg Oden was draft eligible. Not (-so-bold): Pistons win NBA title; Chris Paul wins Rookie of the Year; Kobe wins scoring title; trading deadline is a dud; Ron Artest does something to tick off his teammates; Larry Brown sticks it out.

Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "Daily Quickie" commentary appears every weekday morning.