Five things to watch, and five things not to watch as the NBA season begins its final two months

Ball Don't Lie

The NBA season has been half-over for about a month now, most teams have played over 50 games and have less than 30 to go before the league’s season ends in two months. That doesn’t mean we’re done with the storylines and intrigue that dots the NBA landscape, though, especially just a few days before Thursday’s trade deadline and with so many unanswered questions to work through even if all 30 teams stay pat between now and Feb. 21.

With that in place, there’s also just as much to ignore between now and April 17, when the regular season ends. Some of these stories just aren’t worth your eyes.

Let’s chat about both ends of that see/saw, shall we?

What to look out for … the Los Angeles Clippers, out of timeouts

Thanks to a recent stretch of frustrating road performances, the Clippers have dropped to third in the West. Even with just a game and a half separating the Clippers and second place Oklahoma City, the Clips will have a tough time catching the Thunder, and earning the right to skip the upstart Golden State Warriors in the first round in favor of the less-frightening Utah Jazz.

Still, thanks to that road-heavy schedule in January and February, the Clippers will play four more home than road games from here until the end, and as Chris Paul mentioned to any media member with an open recorder last night, the team is looking forward to finally going to work with a full slate of players on hand. Chauncey Billups has emerged off of the injured list and hit 56 percent of his shots from the floor since the return, Lamar Odom has worked his way back into shape, Paul appears healthy in the wake of his All-Star game MVP turn, and who knows what a savvy Grant Hill can provide down the season’s key stretch?

That sort of intrigue is tempered somewhat by the site of oft-beleaguered coach Vinny Del Negro stomping the sidelines. Del Negro has done a fine job leading this team to impressive marks on both sides of the ball, but the pressure will be on VDN to lead his Clippers to at the very least a more respectable showing than the team’s 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Spurs from 2011-12.

The Clips have two months to establish trust between the team’s coaching staff and a viewing public that has been dismissive of Del Negro for the last two seasons. A simple scouting trick could go a long way toward believing in one of the NBA’s most exciting teams, or dismissing them as a first round struggle against Golden State and eventual second round fodder for Oklahoma City this spring. Assuming the national TV graphics will let you, we need to watch how well the team executes out of timeouts.

[Related: Chris Paul wins MVP; West beats East in All-Star Game | Photos]

For years, Del Negro’s sets have been criticized as too rudimentary. Dating back to his time in Chicago, his stylistic maneuvers, lineup choices and use of timeouts (both in terms of overuse, and what to do within those timeouts) has not done much for the players he’s been charged with leading. Since Paul came into town 14 months ago, Del Negro has also been dismissed with both a coach on the floor in CP3 running things, and a coach-to-be in Billups at his side.

It will be interesting to see how this now fully-fleshed out roster, barring trade, responds to an attempt to make a charge at OKC from the confines of home. There’s no shame in letting Chris Paul call an entire game, but Del Negro’s rotation work and patience will be closely scrutinized well before the playoff decals go down on the Staples center floor.

One not to watch out for … the Los Angeles Lakers

Nothing is certain – the Lakers are dribbling proof of that – but all signs point to only one set of playoff decals being affixed to two potential Staples Center courts this spring.

The Los Angeles Lakers are stuck at 25 and 29. The team is coming off an embarrassing loss to the Clippers from last Thursday, and the squad is going to start its fake second half of a season at home against Boston, a team that recently downed the Lakers in just as embarrassing fashion by 21 points earlier this month. Following a rematch with the C’s, Los Angeles takes on a spate of hungry and frustrated teams in Portland, Dallas, Denver and Minnesota.

Following that? A March that will see the team play 10 out of 15 on the road. A home-heavy April schedule won’t help a team that might be out of playoff contention by the time the month hits.

If things continue apace, and we see no reason why the Lakers shouldn’t be out of the picture, with 44 wins needed to out-shoot the eighth-seeded Houston Rockets and grab that final playoff spot in the West. At “just” 3.5 games behind the Rockets currently, the Lakers would seem to have a puncher’s chance at squeezing something out of this miserable season, but there’s been absolutely nothing in this team that tells us that a 19-9 run is possible to finish off the season. And that’s assuming the Rockets, who are still improving and finding chemistry after upending their roster following training camp in the deal for James Harden, merely continue with the team’s current winning percentage.

[Related: Lakers owner Jerry Buss dead at 80 | Watch: Remembering Buss]

The Lakers have much more to overcome, of course. Dwight Howard’s three-point chucks and insipid interviews during the All-Star weekend gave nobody any indication that he plans to ever take anything seriously in the time between his 2011 playoff ouster and his July of 2013 free agent dalliance. Kobe Bryant came through with a brilliant start to the season, but his shooting percentages have declined in each month since October. Kobe has missed 15 of 16 three-pointers in February, and his defense still ranks amongst the NBA’s worst. Steve Nash is no better on that end, and lost in an offense he should be in charge of. And Pau Gasol will be out until at least the first week of April, returning to a team that grossly misused him during his first half of the season.

Worst of all is the passing of the team’s popular owner Jerry Buss. Though Buss apparently had been in ill health for a while, this will still be hard to overcome to say the absolute least. And the upcoming fight for control of the Lakers, between various Buss factions, will likely serve as more of a distraction than a call to arms.

What to watch out for … the Chicago Bulls

Straddling the same line between the watchable Clippers and unwatachable Lakers are the Chicago Bulls, a team that may have played itself to the point of exhaustion before blowing up parts of the roster to save the ownership group money at the trade deadline, all while star guard Derrick Rose decides to wait out the season before returning from a crippling ACL tear.

Or, the team could stand pat, and pay the luxury tax, one it has long been able to afford, this summer. Coach Tom Thibodeau could learn to not push his players into fatigue-based injuries, the ones Joakim Noah and Luol Deng are currently working through, and Rose could come back in time enough to work himself into shape and confidence by the time the postseason rolls around.

It truly could go either way. Well-sourced rumors from both the Chicago Tribune and ESPN indicate that a deal sending Carlos Boozer and Nate Robinson to Toronto for Andrea Bargnani and John Lucas III is all Toronto’s if they wanted it, a move that would be miserable for Chicago in basketball terms but important to the team’s ownership as they count every penny while playing the “we weren’t winning the championship anyway, doodz”-card.

Rose likely knows what’s going on with team owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who would pay three sports’ worth of luxury taxes to see his Chicago White Sox grab a wild card this October, and he’s wondering why exactly he would come back to a team that has been (and could continue to be even further) dismantled since his April 28, 2012 knee injury.

[Related: Derrick Rose won’t return until he’s ’110 percent’]

Hanging over it all is the play of Deng and Noah. Noah appeared to be the hardest working man in show business during Sunday’s All-Star game, but anyone who has seen a fair bit of Bulls basketball this year will tell you that he still isn’t running or jumping the same way (even after three All-Star days off) as he works through his arch issues. Deng has shot just 34 percent in nine games since rushing back from a series of injuries, and yet Thibodeau has still played him over 39 minutes a game despite his obvious need for rest and/or a limited role.

This is a team that’s either about to fall all apart, like the Blues Brothers’ car at the end of their titular film, or put it all together for one more surprising run. As it is with ‘Blues Brothers’ reruns on basic cable, it’s always worth watching.

What not to look out for … the Miami Heat

The Miami Heat have plenty to figure out between now and April. The team still disappoints on the defensive and especially offensive glass. The Heat are just above average this season defensively, at least in terms of production thus far, and coach Erik Spoelstra will still have to juggle as always -- working against certain matchups and attempting to figure out how players like LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, Joel Anthony and the newly-signed Chris Andersen figure into the frontcourt rotation.

Nobody’s catching this team out East, though. And though the Heat is still behind both the San Antonio Spurs and OKC Thunder in the race for the league’s best record, you get the feeling that this doesn’t bother Miami that much. The Heat aren’t nearly as deep as those two squads, and they genuinely need to coast a bit in preparation for a four-round attack in spring and summer that will have to feature James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh playing major minutes while covering up for more than one position at a time.

[Watch: Who can beat the Heat?]

The team’s shellacking of Oklahoma City in the Thunder’s building last week buttresses that confidence. The Heat are three wins in back of the Thunder currently, and could still make a run at the league’s second best record (the Spurs, barring injury or collapse, figure to have things locked up for the top spot – something that didn’t bother Miami in both 2011 and 2012). If the group decides to pull back, slightly, it shouldn’t serve as a shock.

The Heat need LeBron James and especially Dwyane Wade with healthy wheels some – get ready for this – 16 weeks from now. And for Miami, pinning shots to the backboard in February doesn’t seem nearly as important once you’ve uncorked a few bottles in June.

What to look out for … the San Antonio Spurs

As it was last year, the Spurs are well on their way to the NBA’s best record. The team tied for the top spot last year with the just-as-focused Chicago Bulls, but no amount of Bull focus can overcome the loss of Derrick Rose in Chicago’s lineup, and the Spurs (currently on pace to win 64 games) seem to be a full step ahead of both the Thunder and Heat right now on several levels.

Several regular season levels, we should add. The Spurs looked like world beaters for last season’s 66-game regular season turn and the first 10 games of the postseason -- when Gregg Popovich’s bunch went undefeated during that term. It was a combined 60-16 march that San Antonio could well match during this regular season, even with older players like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili moving in and out of the lineup. Of course, it all fell apart in the Western conference finals after San Antonio went up 2-0, as the Oklahoma City Thunder came out of nowhere to keep the Spurs at arm’s length for four consecutive wins.

[Also: Cool new detail on NBA All-Star gear]

That outcome, not unlike a 60-16 start to this year, could also very well happen again. The Spurs are brilliant and have answers for every team in the league, but that doesn’t mean about a half-dozen playoff teams from each side of the bracket could down them in the playoffs. We’re stopping just short of calling the Spurs regular season wonders, and don’t expect the currently eighth-seeded Rockets to have their way with San Antonio in the first round as Memphis did two seasons ago, but the Spurs are worth cherishing now as they traipse across a distracted NBA landscape.

As we’ve mentioned every year since, oh, 2008 or so – this may be your last time to enjoy this team at its finest.

What not to look out for … the mess in Sacramento

Lame duck NBA commissioner David Stern seems just fine with making current NBA ownership happy while welcoming in more well-heeled potential Seattle SuperSonics owners in Chris Hansen and co. Sactown Royalty’s Tom Ziller was right to point out that Stern “isn’t screwing Sacramento” by refusing to go all out to give potential local owners a chance at the right of first refusal and keeping the team in town, but Stern’s continued adherence to all things owner’ish in his final months is as disappointing as it is expected.

As Ziller goes on to point out, the Maloof family has completely worked Sacramento over. The group has flat out refused to work with local leaders to come up with a viable plan to sell the team and keep it in Sacramento, they’ve outright lied to both those leaders and media (and, most importantly, FANS) while trying to cover what should be mortifying personal losses in their other daddy-given gigs as casino owners, and they’ve generally acted the role of the prat all along – a role that Stern has never seemed to mind amongst what has at times been an embarrassing crew of NBA owners for his staff to represent.

[Slideshow: Ridiculous NBA All-Star fashion statements]

Don’t busy yourself with details, unless you count the Kings as your top team. The fans will lose out, as is always the case, even if Seattle is given a new team (and new stadium to pay for), or the Kings are given new owners (and a new stadium to pay for). The Maloofs’ loyalties are to their failing businesses, David Stern’s loyalties are to whatever 30 owners he has in each particular year, and neither side seems to be giving the fans’ case a second thought on their way to more, more, more.

What not to look out for … hand-checking

The NBA’s referees apparently heeded this sort of advice last fall, as it appears that using hands or forearms to impede the progress of offensive players is back in the NBA’s good graces. It makes for a less graceful game – it’s true that more free throws result, but after a while defenders learn that this is a no-no and that they shouldn’t bother running their best Derek Harper impersonation nearly a decade and a half after his last game.

The NBA has enjoyed a fantastic renaissance due mostly to an influx of entertaining players but also in large part to the league’s major crackdown on hand-checking starting in the 2004-05 season. With just under 30 games to play for most teams, scoring shouldn’t be down this far, and we truly hope the league and its referees remedy this by spring.

What to look out for … Kyrie Irving

Irving at times is no match for even the most strong-armed of hand-checkers, as the lightning-fast second-year guard is able to glide past defenses whose sole intent is to stop the 20-year old from diving into the lane. Irving’s white hot three-point stroke and effortless jaunts into the paint make for what at times is the NBA’s most exhilarating watch.

[Related: Cavaliers' Kyrie Irving crowned three-point king]

And, with the Cavaliers stuck at 16-37, that watch has only two months and (health willing) 29 games left in this season. With the Cavs taking the slow route in rebuilding, and an iffy 2013 draft approaching, it’s not likely that the Cavaliers will be vaulting into the postseason in 2014 on top of this. Which means Irving will remain a League Pass wonder for those lucky enough to be afforded the chance to keep up with his sterling play.

Take advantage, while you can.

What not to look out for … Andrew Bynum

Few thought that last May, with the Lakers fading in the second round of the playoffs, that we’d be some nine months removed from Andrew Bynum play NBA basketball in Feb. of 2013. The big center has worked through knee issues for the bulk of his career, but short of a disastrous tear during the offseason it was assumed that he’d back on the court in fall for whatever team employed his services.

The Philadelphia 76ers, via trade, are that team in 2012-13. Bynum has yet to play a minute for the franchise that is paying his $16.9 million salary this season. The 76ers’ return to the postseason with Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand on hand wasn’t always assured, despite the team’s Game 7 loss in the second round last season, but the team could hardly have expected to fall this flat after essentially dealing Dre and Brand for Bynum and the right to pay Kwame Brown way too much.

Even if Bynum made a surprise return this week, the Sixers would have to win two-thirds of their remaining games just to be in the picture for a lower rung playoff spot. There won’t be any surprise return, though, as all public indications point to Bynum waiting even longer to come back, with the possibility that he’ll miss the entire season after the Sixers call it quits.

Not what the team had in mind when they dealt for someone who was considered to be the NBA’s second-best center last summer.

What to look out for … the trade deadline

The Bynum frustration is something to keep in mind this week. There are no assurances when it comes to NBA trades.

Andrew Bynum won’t play, Dwight Howard won’t care, and Andre Iguodala won’t make a free throw – and those were the highly regarded big names behind last summer’s major four-team deal. The biggest name in this month’s trade deadline, barring surprises, is Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith. Smith is looking for a maximum contract either with the Hawks or another team via a sign-and-trade this July; a deal that would pay him over $20 million a year towards the end of his contract – hardly the sort of money teams will be falling over themselves to pay someone who still takes terrible shots amongst other poor decisions.

There very well could be several deals made between now and Thursday, and NBA teams always hold the option to talk themselves into something stupid, but the league’s new financial landscape will provide the strongest impetus. Three teams (Golden State, Chicago, Boston) are just one savvy (if not “basketball savvy”) deal away from coming in under the luxury tax, while eight other teams are just a below-average salary addition way from paying the dreaded fee. This will both inhibit and influence all sorts of movement.

Toss in all sorts of other variables – ownership changes, new front offices, disappointing veteran teams, young teams that don’t need to add veterans looking for minutes, no-trade clauses, Billy King – and you have a trade deadline that nobody can put their finger on.

And, certainly, one that nobody can reasonably judge in its wake. Lest we haven’t learned our lesson from last summer.

Whatever takes place, though, we’ll be watching. Welcome to the home stretch, NBA fans. Keep your eyes on the ball.

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