NBA News: Storylines to watch for the rest of the season

Feb 17, 2013; Houston, TX, USA; Eastern Conference forward LeBron James (6) of the Miami Heat reacts with Western Conference guard Kobe Bryant (left) of the Los Angeles Lakers in the fourth quarter of the 2013 NBA all star game at the Toyota Center. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With the All-Star break over, games restart tonight, as the NBA heads into its final stretch of the season. The first half of the season provided a lot of excitement and intrigue, with hot starts by the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies, great play by the San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers; LeBron James playing some of the best basketball of his career, and the season-long struggles of the Los Angeles Lakers. With about 30 games left for each team until the end of the season, here are some of the storylines to watch for the second half.

Trades: Who Will Be Moved?

The trade deadline is this Thursday, and there is sure to be a good amount of player movement. The most popular name in discussions is Atlanta Hawks forward Josh Smith, who, as ESPN NBA insider Marc Stein says, will definitely be traded. Many teams, including the Phoenix Suns, the Washington Wizards, the Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks, have been strongly pursuing the mercurial Smith, who is currently submitting the worst shooting season of his career and will become an unrestricted free agent after the season. Other teams that seem likely to make deals include the Clippers, who might go all-in on this season, the Boston Celtics, who may be looking to shore up their roster behind Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce following injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger, and Leandro Barbosa; and the Utah Jazz, who might move either Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap to clear room for younger big men on their roster, such as Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter.

Can LeBron and the Miami Heat Keep it Up?

In the last two weeks, LeBron has played arguably the best stretch of basketball in his career, posting at least 30 points in the last seven games and shooting 60% or better in six of those games. There’s two ways to view this: either this is just a fantastic stretch of basketball from LeBron that will end, or this is part of his ascendance this season to another level of play. If he continues to play in such a dominant fashion, along with good play from Dwyane Wade and the solid and completely underrated play of Chris Bosh, the Heat should have no problem dispatching an opponent on any given night. One thing of note about the Heat this season is that while their team offense has been the best in the league, their defense, which was their real strength in the first two years of the Big Three, has not been quite as good as in past years. While there’s no reason to believe that they can’t repeat as champions with an unstoppable offense and a merely above-average defense, improved play on the defensive side could bolster their chances at a repeat even more.

How Will the Lakers’ Season End Up?

After a summer full of hype following the trades for Steve Nash and Dwight Howard, the currently dismal Lakers season has been one of the biggest disappointments in NBA history. The Lakers sit four games under .500 and 3.5 games out of the eighth seed in the West with 28 games to go. Their defense, which Howard was expected to anchor, even when the team hired notably offense-focused coach Mike D’Antoni, has been below average all season. They have suffered from a slew of injuries to Howard, Nash, Pau Gasol, and many reserve contributors, which made their thin bench even thinner. They have struggled to play solid basketball as a team all season, with numerous conflicts in the locker room. Moving forward, Dwight will have to return to his pre-injury form and anchor an improved defense. Kobe Bryant will need to continue to play superbly on offense and improve his defense, which has been lackluster, to say the least, this season. If Pau returns from injury this season, he will have to drastically improve his game, which has been terrible under D’Antoni. If they cannot turn it around and pass the Portland Trail Blazers and Houston Rockets in the standings, the All-Star cast’s season in Hollywood could have an explosive ending.

On top of these storylines, there are many more intriguing things to watch for the rest of the season: How will the Clippers play now that they have their entire roster healthy? How will the Knicks play if/when they are healthy (they had their full roster on court for a practice for the first time today)? How will the Indiana Pacers reintegrate small forward Danny Granger, who will be playing for the first time all season tomorrow night? When will Derrick Rose and Andrew Bynum return to their teams, and how will they impact the Eastern Conference playoff race? Will either of them return at all? How will the middle three teams in the Western Conference- the Grizzlies, the Denver Nuggets, and the Golden State Warriors- finish the season, and which of them will get home-court advantage in the playoffs? Can the Pacers, Knicks, or any other team in the East pose a threat to the Heat? Will the Sacramento Kings be sold to the Seattle group led by Chris Hansen and relocate, or will the team remain in Sacramento? Without a doubt, there is an abundance of things to watch for in the last two months of the season.

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