We've reached the halfway point of the season. What have been the best stories so far? The worst? And what can we expect for the remainder of the season? Our NBA analysts chime in.
1. The season so far in 100 words?
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: It's the hot and cold year. Most teams, most seasons, play at some kind of lukewarm level: OK, not bad, pretty good on certain nights, etc.
But the Lakers and Warriors have both been pretty bad at times and really great at others. The Celtics used to suck, and now they're fantastico! (Chicago is making up a lot of the difference.) Portland was locked in the cellar until it became, for a while, the best team in the league!
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: We thought the dominant story line would be character, after we saw the ethics and decision-making of officials and front-office types come into question in the offseason.
In reality, the story has been sports-related. Unfortunately, injuries are a part of sports, too. In the NBA's case this season, a big part. Shaq, Dwyane Wade, Tracy McGrady, Gilbert Arenas, Mike Bibby, Elton Brand and Shaun Livingston all have missed significant time, enough to make their fans wonder, "What if?"
And just when the Lakers' season looked promising, down went Andrew Bynum.
This season might come down to the last man standing.
Chris Broussard, ESPN Mag: Great season so far.
Refreshing parity as top dogs (San Antonio, Dallas, Phoenix) slow a bit and young upstarts (Portland, New Orleans, Lakers, Magic, Cleveland) begin coming of age. Add in Boston's star-studded dominance, and there are lots of new and exciting story lines.
MVP's a four-man race: KG, LeBron, Kobe and Chris Paul.
Nate McMillan's the runaway Coach of the Year, but Reggie Theus, Stan Van Gundy, Doc Rivers, Eddie Jordan, Byron Scott and Phil Jackson all have been terrific.
Biggest busts have been New York, Miami and Houston.
Ric Bucher, ESPN Mag: For an offseason that couldn't have been more ominous, it's hard to imagine competition more entertaining or unpredictable.
Not just the obvious developments, as in the Celtics rocketing out of the gates, the Heat falling down the garbage chute or Andrew Bynum blooming into a double-double machine. But how about neophyte Reggie Theus making headway in Sacramento, while Rick Adelman can't pick the lock on the Rockets' talent? Brandon Roy and Chris Paul inserting themselves in MVP talk? Chris Kaman doubling his averages from a year ago while averaging only 10 more minutes?
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: There are some years when things go pretty much to form. This isn't one of them.
The two best teams so far have been in the East, the three presumed powers in the West are dealing with insurgents like the Lakers, Hornets and Blazers, alleged contenders like the Bulls and Cavs are floundering, and the champs of two seasons ago (Heat) are already dead and buried.
The only thing we can still count on is that two deserving teams won't make the playoffs in the West, and two undeserving teams will make it in the East.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN.com: Out here in the East it's all about Boston, Boston, Boston, unless it's about the incessant "Fire Isiah" watch. Things sure would have been different if that Kobe-to-Chicago deal had gone down at the end of camp.
Looks like KG may have locked up the MVP race over the first half of the season, and when is the last time that happened? Still have my doubts about the Celtics, but I have a problem with the Pistons' continued nonchalance, too. The hungrier of those two teams will come out of the East.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: The focus has actually stayed on the floor. Never thought it was possible after the Tim Donaghy scandal and the frenzy created by the uncertainty about Kobe's future in October. But now look. It's mostly been about the games so far. No huge controversies -- New York's Isiah Watch aside -- and even the early season wave of unhappiness from the likes of Kobe, J-Kidd, Andrei Kirilenko and Shawn Marion has faded.
It's mostly been about KG, Pierce and Ray Allen clicking right away and the surprise teams in Portland and Washington and New Orleans ... and the high-profile teams (like Chicago, New York and Miami) letting us down.
2. Best thing about the season so far?
Abbott: Even if I wasn't a total homer, I'd like to think I might say "the premature emergence of the Portland Trail Blazers."
Adande: My new DirecTV receiver that lets me watch more games in HD. Best thing since ... my first HD receiver. Most importantly, it ups the odds that I can catch the Warriors in HD. Most entertaining squad in the league. They're on the verge of attaining cult status, like the Pittsburgh Pisces.
Broussard: Best thing for me is the re-emergence of the big man. Centers are back, with Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum leading the young crop. Can't wait until Greg Oden joins them and probably turns Portland into an immediate contender. And that's not to mention the still young Yao, Amare, Tyson Chandler and Chris Kaman.
We've heard for so long that the center position is dead. Well, we heard wrong.
Bucher: The West is shaping up to be one of the all-time postseason battle royales, thanks to a slate of young teams running the quality 10 teams deep. If the playoffs started Monday, the Rockets and Jazz would be at home. Meanwhile, we'd have a Suns-Warriors track meet, Brandon Roy versus Chris Paul, another chapter in the Lakers-Spurs saga and Nuggets-Mavs. No cakewalks anywhere, high drama everywhere.
No one, not even the players and teams in question, saw themselves doing what they've done so far. Surprises like these make a sport worth covering.
Hollinger: It's gotta be the Hornets.
What kind of odds could you have received on Byron Scott coaching the West in the All-Star Game in New Orleans? How about on this team being ahead of the Mavs and Spurs at midseason? Chris Paul has been the MVP of the Western Conference so far; one wishes only that they'd get on the tube more often so his season would get the attention it deserves.
Sheridan: The best thing was covering each of the first two Celtics-Pistons games, the visiting team winning in each instance amid playoff-type atmosphere. Circle March 5 on your calendars, because that's the third and final time the teams will meet in the regular season.
Stein: As a lover of point guards, I'm a happy kid. Nash is still and always will be my favorite, but the variety and quality out West is sensational. We've got Chris Paul and Deron Williams passing bragging rights back and forth, Brandon Roy gliding around, Tony Parker zooming around and Baron Davis bulldozing people. So many good ones and all kinds of styles.
3. Worst thing about the season so far?
Abbott: Remember how the NBA was going to be totally transparent in telling us what went wrong with the referees?
Adande: The Knicks. Nothing has changed about them -- still bad, still have a bloated payroll, still run by Isiah Thomas -- and yet they take a disproportionate share of the news for a team that really doesn't matter. They're not even historically bad.
Remember when a few news outlets imposed a Britney blackout? Can we do the same for the Knicks until they do something radically different?
Broussard: Very sad to see Andrew Bynum go down for two months with a knee injury. The Lakers looked to be headed for a special season; now they may have to wait until next year.
Knicks' drama has become sordid and sad, turning that hallowed franchise not into a laughingstock but a nightmare.
I'm also disappointed in the play of Toronto's Andrea Bargnani. I expected him to emerge into a star (or near star) this season.
Bucher: Watching the Heat free-falling and the wind sheer diminishing the reputations of Shaq and Pat Riley, if not Dwyane Wade too, is depressing.
As is the excessive attention given the Knicks, since there's no mystery as to why they're so bad, nor any hope they'll be better soon.
Biggest PPG Increase
*Games through Jan. 21 (min. 40 games last season, 20 games this season)
-- Elias Sports Bureau
Tyrus Thomas and Andrea Bargnani are struggling, Randy Foye and Adam Morrison haven't played, and the others (Shelden Williams, Patrick O'Bryant, Mouhamad Sene, Hilton Armstrong and Thabo Sefolosha) might be joining my man Sheridan in Boise before long.
Sheridan: Bearing personal witness to some two dozen Knicks games and watching the nearly decade-long slide of one of the league's charter franchises get worse and worse. On most nights, it's unbelievably depressing inside Madison Square Garden.
Stein: The ongoing suckitude of the East is highly annoying and something I can't let go of just because there are two elite teams at the top. But what's happened to Miami is just sad. The collapse from champion to punching bag has been too swift and steep for even Heat Haters to enjoy. Shaq can't be going out like this.
4. Will the battle for the NBA title play out predictably or be wide open?
Abbott: Before the season I confidently picked Phoenix to win it all. I'm sure I'll be right. Unless Dallas wins. Or San Antonio. Or the Lakers, Hornets, Rockets, Blazers or Jazz. Or just about anyone from the West. The Celtics and Pistons are factors, but I'd put money on the West winning the title, for what it's worth.
Adande: I started off thinking we were heading for another Spurs-Pistons finals (of course, the last time I thought that we got the Heat and Mavs). But I believe it's opening up.
We didn't think Boston, New Orleans, the Lakers and Portland would be this good. We didn't think Miami and Houston would be this disappointing. I like that Boston won in Detroit, just to make you think, hmmm.
And that San Antonio has a losing road record -- and would be on the road to start the playoffs if the postseason began right now. Again with the hmmm.
Broussard: I know San Antonio turns it up in the playoffs, but I'm not convinced they'll be able to this season. Phoenix and Dallas aren't unbeatable either, so while one of those three will probably win the West, I wouldn't be surprised to see any of them get upset in the first or second round.
East appears to be a two-horse race (Boston, Detroit), but King James and Co. will have something major to say about who reps the EC.
Bucher: It's never been more wide open. There is such a disparity of styles among the best teams that the seeding will have a greater impact than ever on who actually makes it to the Finals. Every title contender has the potential to be knocked out in the first round, including those runaway Celtics.
Hollinger: Both. Predictably in the East, and wide open in the West.
With 10 teams in such close proximity to each other in the standings, it seems perfectly reasonably that a lower seed could end up winning the conference. That scenario seems all but impossible in the East, where Boston and Detroit will be prohibitive favorites.
Sheridan: Wide open in the West, but predictable in the East, where I don't see anyone seriously challenging Detroit or Boston in the first two playoff rounds. If I'm the Spurs, I'm a little scared of the Nuggets in a playoff matchup.
Stein: W-I-D-E open, thankfully. The playoffs have serious potential because, really, we can't be sure of anything in either conference.
There are 10 teams in the West trying to squeeze into eight playoff spots and suddenly no clear-cut favorite among them. The East, meanwhile, can't even spell depth, but at least we've got the resurrected Boston-Detroit rivalry to send us a worthy Finals foe for the West champs.
5. The one thing you anticipate seeing that most of us don't expect?
Abbott: There are 10 teams in the West that look, at this moment, to have a shot at winning a playoff series or two. They're all bunched pretty closely in the standings. That means that our old ideas of two or three really dominant West teams may be antiquated, and low seeds beating high seeds (think Golden State) could be the new norm for a while.
Adande: The New Jersey Nets make some noise in the playoffs. That assumes they actually make the playoffs, which would be surprising enough for a team that has seemed so disenchanted much of the season. But the Nets have won at least a series in five of the previous six seasons. Maybe that experience will kick in.
Broussard: I'll say a surprisingly deep playoff run by New Orleans. They're great on the road, they've got arguably the top point guard in the game, and they've got size. Look for them to make some playoff noise in the Big Easy.
Bucher: I have no idea what anyone else expects, but I would not be surprised to see the old standbys -- San Antonio and Detroit -- bounced out of this year's playoffs early if the regular-season trends carry over to the postseason. Granted, that's always a big if since there's no telling how the league is going to interpret its rules and who might be suspended as a result.
Hollinger: New Jersey in the lottery. No team has a greater divide between reputation and reality. Even their record (18-22) overstates the Nets' quality -- despite a ton of home games, only five teams have a worse scoring margin. Triple-doubles or not, Jason Kidd has fallen off substantially on offense, as his wayward shot (36.8 percent) and ballooning turnover total (3.9 a game) attest.
Sheridan: I believe the Celtics will have two players making significant playoff contributions who are not even on the roster now. One will probably be Damon Stoudamire or another point guard, while the other will be a veteran big man (Dale Davis? Theo Ratliff?).
Stein: Big problems for the team in the aforementioned Boston-Detroit rivalry that has to deal with Cleveland in the second round. They've looked ordinary again in the regular season, but the Cavs already know they can play with Detroit and have the offensive wrecking ball in LeBron and the team D to give the Celtics big trouble, too.
Don't be surprised if we don't get Celtics-Pistons in the East finals.