Second Half of NBA Season Begins with Merciful End of ASW

ORLANDO, FL - Nicki Minaj performs during the NBA All-Star Game at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida.

Last night was not a restful one for me. I kept waking up intermittently throughout my sleep cycle soaked in sweat as visions of Pitbull and Nicki Minaj torturing an imprisoned contingent of the American public ran circles through my mind. Seriously, it was like some twisted interrogator replaced water torture with horrible, over-produced American pop music. (I'd prefer water torture, by the way.) But at a certain point I was able to fall asleep soundly as I realized and reassured myself the All-Star weekend was indeed over, and there would be meaningful basketball in my near future.

Of course, I kid, as things can always be worse. Like, what if Kim Kardashian emceed the entire event and Carrot Top performed his routine at halftime? Then you would be pleading to hear Pitbull sing about Kodak cameras while yelling things like, "Dale." I wouldn't be able to sleep for a week.

But as I type all this, I realize in today's hyper-critical society, where Twitter timelines are filled with the snarky zingers of cynical sports writers/bloggers (not excluding myself; see above paragraphs as evidence), we are quicker than ever to offer criticism instead of just enjoying it for what it is. I mean, in hindsight I can see the dunk competition was pretty much awful, but while I was watching I was waiting in anticipation we might see something special. Did we? Meh, I guess that depends on who you talk to. But the point is we were at least mildly entertained, regardless of quality ... at least I was.

It's like going to a really, really bad movie (I know, I've used the movie analogy before in this article that now seems way, way off-base). I remember when ‘Cabin Fever' came out in theaters and a group of my buddies and I went to go see it after a few drinks. In case you haven't seen it, it's (supposed to be) a horror flick starring Shawn from ‘Boy Meets World' and the blonde stoner dude from ‘Super Troopers' about some kind of flesh-eating virus that just ruins their entire vacation (thanks IMDB). Anyway, you could tell it was terrible within the first 10 minutes, and roughly halfway through the cinematic experience the entire theater was laughing at unintentionally funny parts that were supposed to be scary, so much so that it actually became entertaining. (Apparently they made a sequel. For viewing I recommend a 12-pack and a group of your most cynical friends.)

I guess the point is, don't look at the dunk contest as some horrible waste of time. You planned on spending at least a portion of your Saturday watching what these guys had to offer, and while it wasn't much you might as well have made the most out of it. And in all seriousness, you've got to feel for those participants. Nobody cared about them, but they did it anyway. Did you see the smile on Jeremy Evans' face while 16 people in Utah Jazz jerseys cheered in Orlando? He won the same NBA dunk contest MJ, Vince and Spud had won before him. That was perhaps the biggest moment of his life. Evans averages like a point and a rebound per game, it doesn't get much bigger than this for him. (By the way, Paul George will be a star in this league. That guy can play.)

And for all those trying to fix the dunk contest, it doesn't seem that complicated. An event with this kind of glitz and glamour requires star-power. The day this league can bribe convince LeBron James to participate is the day the problem is solved. Quit hating on this year's participants. At least they actually competed. It's not their fault some of the league's biggest divas superstars refuse to put themselves out there in the limelight when it actually matters. Then again, if LeBron entered the competition, just before he was about to make his final dunk to win the contest he'd probably just sling a cross-court pass to Dwyane Wade, who would be wearing red leather pants in the front row while not paying attention at all. And as the basketball hit Wade in the face, smashing his clearly necessary Steve Urkel glasses, we'd all be thinking to ourselves, "Ugh... Where's Jeremy Evans?"

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Red leather pants, check. Urkel glasses, check.

via www.gq.com

Anyway, on to what I set out to write about when I began this post: the second half of the season and the contenders for Larry O'Brien's trophy. And in an interest of time, I'm only talking ‘real' contenders in order from least to most likely to win the NBA title. There are some great stories out there like Indiana, Philadelphia and the reality of the Cavs being right on the playoff bubble. (Didn't Dan Gilbert predict Cleveland would win the NBA Finals before LeBron and the Heat did?) But for now this is about the best of the best.

8. New York Knicks

OK, so much for really narrowing it down. I'll admit, sometimes my ability to decide convincingly on an issue isn't always the best. Seriously, don't ask me to decide which restaurant we should hit up on a Saturday night. We'll end up sticking a pizza in the oven. Anyway...

Isn't it funny that I'm labeling a 17-18 team as a contender? Funny, stupid, omniscient, whichever adjective you prefer. But with the emergence of Jeremy Lin (perhaps you've heard of him) and the addition of J.R. Smith, this team is legitimately deep. And while it is comprised of some potentially volatile personalities, it would be ill-advised to overlook a team and a system that features so many offensive weapons. Obviously, the biggest story in the basketball universe right now is Lin and what he has meant to a team with such glaring needs at point guard. His numbers are staggering - minus the game against the Heat - and he seems to be a perfect fit for Mike D'Antoni and his bat-out-of-hell scheme. His per-game averages won't stay orbiting the planet's atmosphere like they currently are, but this Harvard grad isn't just a flash in the pan by any stretch. "Linsanity" (UUUGGGGGHHHHH! The first time I've ever used this awful, awful pun) will surely temper itself, at least slightly, and New York's main components will begin playing with more and more fluidity. While they might lack the presence of another defensive big man to help spell/complement Tyson Chandler, they have dangerous potential. Still, the chances seem slim to none that will manifest itself this year.

7. Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul is amazing. I think at times he got so lost in the scrum as a Hornet we forgot how unreal he was as a playoff performer. I mean, I remember. I watched every play of his exploits against the Spurs and Mavericks in 2008, and it was terrifying spectacular at times. The guy makes his team scary good, and he's never had this kind of talent around him. The Chauncey Billups injury and the lack of an ideal fit at shooting guard are both downsides for this team, but the Clippers can do some damage. We musn't forget with either of the last two teams, the trade deadline is still in play. While it's unlikely either will make a big-time play on a game-changing type of player, the right kind of move to fill a void could make a ton of difference. Regardless, I don't think winning a first-round series is out of the question at all. In fact, I'd say that's what will happen at the very least (Going out on a really thin limb there, I know).

6. Los Angeles Lakers

Right now this is the second best team in LA, but in the playoffs, when things slow down, having two 7-footers is invaluable. But Kobe Bryant leads the league in minutes played and shots chucked, and one wonders what he will look like once the playoffs come around. On top of that, there is no bench on this team, which makes the giveaway trade of Lamar Odom that much more difficult to comprehend. I know the Lakers had their reasons, but to get nothing but cash for a guy with Odom's ability within the second unit is far too detrimental to a team with title aspirations. Without a trade, this team's fate seems quite similar to last year's ... if not worse.

5. Dallas Mavericks

Man, this team is old. Yet it continues to plug away even without so many key components from last year's title team. Still, it's nice when someone like Vince Carter can come off your bench while being compensated fairly in regard to his role. Really it's about continuity of key parts and holdovers from last year, as well as Rick Carlisle. The guy has gotten the most out of players throughout his career, and prior to last year didn't get the deserved respect. It's really pretty impressive considering this was a team that seemed on its way to just piecing together an entertaining squad to simply bridge the gap to the summer of 2012 where they are presumed to be major players in free agency. Unless they figure out a way to bring Dwight Howard to Dallas by the trade deadline, it's unlikely we'll see a repeat. But remember last year, when nobody had the Mavs to win it all?

4. San Antonio Spurs

Right now I just can't move the Spurs higher than this. I know we called them the favorite in the Western Conference on a recent "Fifth of Spurs" podcast, but that was prior to Manu Ginobili's second injury. I know it's only an oblique strain and Manu will be back soon, but I'm worried. Look, I do think Ginobili will be in the lineup and will have jelled with his teammates by the time the playoffs begin, but there's just an element of doubt I can't shake. The improvement of this team overall has been well-documented on this website, and it's been the depth in San Antonio that has built this team into a stronger contender than it was at any time last year. But, in a way, last year's result still lingers. I know a lot of the issues from 2011 have been dealt with and this is clearly a younger, more dangerous team, but the playoffs are won with the NBA's best players. Tony Parker might be playing at the highest level of his career, but it's not enough without Manu. Even with Manu, can San Antonio beat Oklahoma City in the West? The answer is yes, but only if the Spurs are at their best. And who really knows if that will be the case?

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A sight no Spurs fan wants to see again...

via cdn.bleacherreport.net

3. Chicago Bulls

I don't think there's much question the Bulls are a top-2 team in the Eastern Conference. I've used the word ‘continuity' on several occasions here, but it really is the most applicable term. The defense is strong once again, but that's no surprise, and they've actually had to go through an extended stretch of games without Derrick Rose. Chicago is 7-3 without their MVP, a sign of a team that knows itself and how it operates in different situations with personnel in unfamiliar roles. Bottom line, though: no Derrick Rose, first-round exit. The Bulls, like the Spurs except to a much higher degree, need their superstar. But that's not news.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

We talked on our podcast about the fact the Thunder's scoring depth stops with their big 3, but those guys are really, REALLY good at scoring. And while the points don't extend much past Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden, the other guys know their roles. It's a fluid system and OKC's ancillary players have no problem being secondary. As they continue to play at the highest level they've seen in Oklahoma City, most NBA pundits don't see a team that can overcome this group. But the Spurs can do it. Right now I just can't predict San Antonio to win in a series given what Ginobili has shown this season. But if the Spurs and Thunder meet with both squads at least near full strength, San Antonio will present major problems for OKC.

1. Miami Heat

It's just ridiculous how well this team is playing. I don't think we need a huge explanation here, but the Heat have won 10 straight games by double figures and are flying around the court in a way unlike anything we've perhaps ever seen. We all know about the offensive capabilities of LeBron, D-Wade and Chris Bosh, but the defense being played in South Beach is most menacing. With the athleticism Miami possesses, a turnover is instant offense that almost always results in an easy basket. According to www.hoopdata.com, the Heat own the league's most efficient offense on top of the fifth most efficient defense. So you'd certainly have to pick nits to find a weakness. Well, until the fourth quarter, that is...

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Bob Donnan-US PRESSWIRE

... Right?

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