The All-Star break's conclusion doesn't just signify the end of the first half of the season (or the first three-fifths if you want to get technical). It also means the unofficial end of "the dog days."
Throughout January and the early part of February, players begin to wear down in the face of the 82-game marathon they're involved in. Legs get heavy, concentration wanes and fatigue sets in. But with a weekend spent on a beach somewhere (or in a hotel casino in Las Vegas) and a schedule that shows just 30 games or so remaining, NBA players will regain their energy this week as the stretch run begins.
Here's a list of five races to watch as the push for the playoffs begins.
1. The race to the trade deadline.
Thursday at 3 p.m. Eastern time is the last possible moment to make a deal, and there are plenty of interesting possibilities.
Will the Chicago Bulls make a push for Pau Gasol? Maybe, but they're not sure they want to break up what they have since they're looking long-term. With the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons aging, John Paxson feels his roster is well-positioned to eventually rule the East. A move for Gasol might expedite that process, but if the 7-foot Spaniard doesn't work out, everything could backfire. That's why the Bulls are reluctant to pull the trigger.
The names of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter have come up, with Kidd the object of several teams' desires. But can the Los Angeles Lakers or Cleveland Cavaliers – Kidd's two biggest suitors – put together an attractive enough package? I doubt it. I expect Kidd to stay put.
Carter, to me, is more likely to be traded because of his contract. There is one year remaining after this one on Carter's deal, but he has an opt-out clause this summer. New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn may not want to risk losing Carter for nothing, and if he's not planning to sign him to a long-term deal eventually, he knows he has to deal Carter now.
The names to keep an eye on this week? How about P.J. Brown, Joe Smith, Scot Pollard, David Wesley and Jamaal Magloire. Why? They all have expiring contracts, which make them desirable. Teams that are trying to unload salary for the future may make plays for those guys, with draft picks attached possibly. Look for the Cavaliers to try to move Wesley and Pollard in an attempt to get into this June's draft. As of now, Cleveland has no picks.
2. The race for the Southeast Division title.
The Washington Wizards have had control of the division for a while, but with Miami making a late push, the Heat could overcome both the Wizards and the Orlando Magic. Why is this so important? Because Miami's seeding in the playoffs is of interest to everyone.
If the Heat don't capture the division, they'll most likely fall to a low seed – somewhere between five and eight – and it's not inconceivable that they could face Detroit in the first or second round. Miami plays the Wizards three more times this season, and the Heat have dominated Washington the last few years. I think it is imperative for Miami to have a high seed if the defending champs want to get back to the NBA finals.
3. The race for MVP.
With the Lakers slumping – they've lost 11 of 15 – Kobe Bryant has most likely fallen out of the race. Also, LeBron James is not having an MVP year. That leaves only three leading candidates in my mind: Dwyane Wade, Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash.
Nash's bid for a third straight MVP award may have been helped, ironically, by his own injury last week. Without him, the Phoenix Suns lost three in a row, proving how important Nash is to the equation. Wade can make a good push if his Heat streak home and win the Southeast Division. But it's Nowitzki who is the favorite.
His play has been the key in the Dallas Mavericks' utter domination of the NBA 53 games into the season. If the Mavs continue their winning ways and run away with the best record, Dirk will win his first MVP.
4. The race for Greg Oden. Or Kevin Durant. (Or Joakim Noah).
No one knows if Oden and Durant are leaving for the pros or staying in school, but both appear to be future NBA superstars. This year's draft is the deepest in a long time, but with those two, it becomes spectacular.
The worst teams in the league – Boston Celtics, Memphis Grizzlies, Philadelphia 76ers, etc. – will have the best odds of winning the lottery. Winning the No. 1 pick doesn't guarantee anything, but in certain years, it has altered the course of a franchise's future. (Think San Antonio Spurs with Tim Duncan and David Robinson).
This would appear to be a franchise-changing lottery, so if you're a fan of the Sixers, Grizzlies, Celtics, Charlotte Bobcats or other lottery-bound club, root hard for your team to lose. (Just kidding – kind of).
5. The Western Conference playoff race.
If the playoffs started today – and they don't – these would be the West's first-round matchups: Mavericks vs. Timberwolves, Suns vs. Nuggets, Jazz vs. Lakers and Spurs vs. Rockets. Other than the Mavs-Wolves series, those are some scary matchups.
Regardless of what happens in the last two months of the season, the West playoffs will be unbelievably deep and entertaining. But every team has certain matchups they like and others they don't like. Look for plenty of jockeying for position down the stretch.