Feel like this NBA season is flying by? You're not alone: Midseason has arrived a mere 11 weeks after the opening of training camp in this strange, lockout-shortened year. But as we reach the All-Star break, a few things have been dependable, such as the play of the Heat and the Thunder. Two months ago I picked those two teams to reach the NBA Finals, with Miami winning, and nothing has happened to change that assessment. Oklahoma City has thrived in the condensed season with its youth (86% of the Thunder's minutes go to players 27 or younger), improved defense and the leadership of Kevin Durant (right) and Russell Westbrook to establish itself as the top contender in the wide-open West.
The East has been dominated by last year's conference finalists, and the Bulls' resilience in the absence of so many pillars—MVP Derrick Rose, All-Star Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton have missed extended stretches—gives Chicago hope that it will better meet the challenge in its anticipated postseason rematch with Miami. But playoff games are won by stars who elevate their play, and no team has more upside in that crucial area than the Heat trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. As well as they're performing now, expect them to be even better come May and June.
Following an atrocious 1--4 start and the four-game convalescence of 33-year-old Dirk Nowitzki, the defending champion Mavericks are renewing themselves as title contenders. Nowitzki is back on his feet with just enough spring in his step. He's averaging 19.1 points per game, his worst in 13 years, but that number is 23.6 in February. The loss of free agent Tyson Chandler was supposed to hamper the D, but the Mavs are actually holding opponents to a lower field goal percentage (an NBA-best 41.6%) than last year (45.0%).
As many as five teams in the West—including the younger Spurs, the explosive Clippers, the Lakers and the lurking Grizzlies—have reason to believe they can overcome OKC and reach the Finals. But none is quite so dangerous or confident as Dallas, which is deep and experienced—and has the NBA's best closer in Nowitzki.
As for a dark horse in the East, there is none. Unless the elderly Celtics are miraculously reborn or the ever-changing pieces of the Knicks suddenly click like fruit on a slot machine, it is inconceivable that anyone will beat both the Heat and the Bulls.
MVP Another preseason pick that hasn't changed. James is having his best season at both ends of the floor (his player efficiency rating is 32.8, which would be the highest single-season mark in NBA history), and he's been Miami's mainstay in the absences of Wade, who has missed nine games. His main challenges will come from Durant, Paul and, more surprisingly, San Antonio's Tony Parker, but expect James to win his third MVP in four years.
COACH OF THE YEAR
I was off base predicting a big impact by first-year coach Mike Brown, who has improved the Lakers' defense but can do nothing to hide his dearth of three-point shooting (29.7% from behind the arc) and dribble-drivers. So the favorite is now Chicago's Tom Thibodeau (right), whose team plays well no matter who is watching in street clothes.
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving remains my favorite, with Ricky Rubio in pursuit.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
New York's Chandler was the pick in December, but the pre-Lin Knicks were spotty, so I'm hedging back to Magic center Dwight Howard, the likely winner for the fourth straight year.
SIXTH MAN OF THE YEAR
Lou Williams hasn't started a game for the Atlantic-leading 76ers, but he's the team's leading scorer.
MOST IMPROVED PLAYER
The Knicks' Jeremy Lin. Duh.
As the March 15 trade deadline approaches, the Magic will have to either fold or call on Howard's trade demand: Either send him to the Nets or the Lakers for assets Orlando doesn't desire, or else hang onto him and hope he'll re-sign when he becomes a free agent. (He can opt out this summer.) Don't be surprised if the Magic rolls the dice and keeps him.
If the Lakers can't acquire Howard, then they'll look for a shooter-slasher like the Bucks' disgruntled Stephen Jackson. And the Celtics could preemptively launch their overhaul by trading Rajon Rondo: Remove the glue that holds their old parts together, and suddenly it becomes much less painful to trade everyone from Kevin Garnett to Ray Allen to (gulp) Paul Pierce.
Each of these players has exceeded expectations—though not quite so dramatically as Lin, of course.
C ROY HIBBERT,Pacers The first-time All-Star keeps reinventing himself; he's now a scoring threat on either block.
F PAUL MILLSAP,Jazz The former second-rounder has carried Utah, which is .500 with only two players averaging double figures in scoring.
F RYAN ANDERSON,Magic Once a three-point specialist, he's evolved into a well-rounded offensive threat and solid rebounder.
G KYLE LOWRY,Rockets Small (6 feet, 175 pounds) but aggressive, he is averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals while growing as a team leader for the surprising Rockets.
G LOU WILLIAMS,76ers Another second-round pick, he embraces his role (go-to scorer) off the bench.
ULTIMATE WILD CARD
In December the big question was whether the lack of a full preseason and less recovery time between games would result in more players getting hurt or struggling to get in shape. Well, the list of players who have suffered from injuries or poor conditioning includes Dirk Nowitzki, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Manu Ginóbili, Zach Randolph, Luol Deng, Stephen Curry, Spencer Hawes, Al Horford, Eric Gordon, Andrea Bargnani, Andrew Bogut, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton, Jason Kidd, George Hill, Thabo Sefolosha and Eric Maynor. Will a major injury emerge to change the title race? The only certainty of this lockout season is that there will be more surprises in the weeks ahead.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
TWO OUT OF THREE AIN'T BAD Wade (3) and James (6) might be enough to make the Heat the title favorites, but add Bosh and Miami is clearly the class of the NBA.
GREG NELSON (DURANT)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (NOWITZKI)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (THIBODEAU)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (HOWARD)
ADAM HUNGER/REUTERS (RONDO)
OUCH, BABE! In a year in which conditioning is crucial, injuries have hit a host of key players, including (clockwise from top left) Rondo, Maynor, and Horford.
ERIC KAYNE/AP (MAYNOR)
[See caption above]
MICHAEL CONROY/AP (HORFORD)
[See caption above]