We're halfway to the NBA's second season, so let's take a second to look at who might make their mark in the second half of the regular season. You know where we're going with this, right?
Second in command. By hiring George Karl to replace interim coach Michael Cooper, who took over for Jeff Bzdelik but let a 13-15 team regress into a 17-25 disaster, Denver Nuggets general manager Kiki Vandeweghe hopes to make good on this front-office mulligan.
Vandeweghe finally has a veteran coach to try and fulfill the team's lofty expectations. Problem is, Karl only has 40 games to save the season – and maybe Vandeweghe's job – with a roster not as talented as originally thought.
Second chances. Unlike Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson has the opportunity to salvage a season marred by a suspension from the Nov. 19 brawl in Detroit. Artest's absence left a gaping hole in the Indiana Pacers' lineup, but Jackson can supply most of the three-point shooting and perimeter defending that has been missing at the small-forward spot.
Limited to just 11 first-half games due to his 30-game suspension, Jackson has less than three months to start showing he was worth $44 million in a sign-and-trade for Al Harrington. The Pacers' plan to make another run at the Finals hinges on Jackson's two-way play.
Second City. They suffered through the Tim Floyd flop and the growing pains of Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry. It didn't matter. Fans in Chicago filled the United Center. Rebuild the team and they would come anyway.
Seven years after Jerry Krause blew up the Jordan dynasty, the Chicago Bulls are giving the faithful their money's worth again. Despite an 0-9 start, the Bulls have emerged as a bona fide playoff team – at least in the East – and they're doing it with defense (a league-low 41.1 field-goal percentage).
Sure the Bulls have padded their record against sub-.500 teams, but they've also won twice on the Pistons' home court. Should Chicago reach the postseason, Scott Skiles – with apologies to Nate McMillan and Eddie Jordan – deserves to be Coach of the Year. John Paxson deserves props as well for the astute decisions to draft Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, and sign Andres Nocioni.
Second string. Steve Kerr is right about the San Antonio Spurs' bench. It isn't fair for the Spurs to have a second unit as good as theirs. The really scary thing is that it can only get better.
Beno Udrih doesn't run an offense like a rookie point guard, and Brent Barry has rediscovered his 3-point shooting touch. Factor in the instant offense of Devin Brown and the veteran know-how of Robert Horry and Malik Rose, and you have the NBA's best bunch of backups.
If Gregg Popovich can continue to give crunch-time minutes to Udrih, Brown and Barry – as he did in San Antonio's overtime win over Phoenix last weekend – the Western Conference playoffs will be a formality.
Second thoughts. Kobe Bryant's sprained ankle could take three more weeks to heal. Perhaps the time off has allowed Bryant to sit back and see how cohesive the Los Angeles Lakers are without him and how Lamar Odom shines when he has the ball in his hands.
Maybe the bright idea of getting his teammates involved, especially in the fourth quarter, will enter Bryant's head. Lakers fans can only hope Kobe is re-thinking his approach. With the Rockets, Timberwolves, Grizzlies and Clippers getting their acts together, Bryant's selfishness could leave the Lakers in the lottery for the first time since 1994.
Two guards. The Seattle SuperSonics have reached an impasse (reportedly a $20 million gap) on a new contract with Ray Allen, and the free-agent-to-be's frustration is starting to show. Could the stalled negotiations have a negative effect on the surprising Sonics, who already have to be wary of Danny Fortson's mood swings? The resolution to Allen's situation, either by a new deal or deadline trade, might determine whether Seattle can stay on top in the Northwest Division.
The change of sceneries for Cuttino Mobley and Doug Christie bears watching, mostly for Mobley and his new team, the Sacramento Kings. The Kings felt compelled to add a scorer to make up for the loss of Bobby Jackson, but had to part with their defensive conscience in Christie to do so.
A second to say goodbye. Karl Malone is expected to call it a career real soon, but The Mailman can't go out like this. He should hitch his 18-wheeler to Shaquille O'Neal or Tim Duncan for one last playoff ride before he drives off into the sunset.