Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Upon further study of the NBA's remaining schedule, I have safely concluded a few things.
First, the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets have the most games left with 31.
The Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers have the fewest with 27.
That research affords me the following: two teams have played 55 of 82 games and five teams have played 51 of 82.
That means every team has played well over half its schedule.
The point? That would be to illustrate a small mental problem in my brain that refuses me to type anything remotely like "second-half story lines," or "things to watch in the second half."
Instead, here is the inaugural, "Final 3/8 of the season story lines."
1. The trade deadline looms.
On Thursday, a half dozen minor trades will take place, and if we're lucky, Evan Turner of the Sixers will be the biggest name moved. We spoke more about it here (http://tinyurl.com/pljw76u), but this deadline day will come and pass without incident because of the newer luxury tax rules.
2. The MVP race.
It's Kevin Durant's to lose and even he knows it at this point. Granted, team success helps and the OKC Thunder could actually improve once Russell Westbrook returns, which could be Thursday. LeBron James has won four of the last five MVP awards, but voters are keen to type another name on the ballot.
Durant has certainly earned his award. His all-around game has leaped to another level this season and the fact that Westbrook has missed so much time and Durant has propelled the Thunder to the best record in the West speaks volumes about Durant's value.
3. Can the Pacers do it?
If the Indiana Pacers aren't able to get by the Miami Heat in the playoffs, this season is a total disaster for Frank Vogel's squad. The Pacers took Miami to seven games in the East Finals last season and have led the conference standings from wire-to-5/8 point. Indiana has the Defensive Player of the Year in Roy Hibbert, the Most Improved Player in Lance Stephenson and the first guy on the second tier of MVP candidates in Paul George.
All of this will make it even more difficult to swallow if the Pacers don't make the NBA Finals. They've come too far to still lose to the Heat when it matters the most. Every ingredient is in place for Indiana this season. With Stephenson's looming free agency, it's not exactly a now-or-never scenario, but the window may shrink a tad in the offseason (the Pacers will lose some depth, that's a certainty).
4. Will we see Kobe Bryant?
The Mamba admitted at All-Star weekend "it's coming slowly." He also acknowledged that he's still planning on playing this season, but why bother at this point? The Los Angeles Lakers have experienced more injuries than a blimp accident at the town fair and they have a zero percent chance of making the playoffs.
Bryant won't change that, nor will his God-like status be able to heal the wounds of Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Nick Young, Jodie Meeks or Xavier Henry. Wait until the offseason, recruit a big-time free agent to replace Gasol, enjoy the rigged lottery win and save up for 2014-15.
5. Can the Knicks or Nets salvage their seasons?
The Nets - yes.
The Knicks - no.
Brooklyn is in the postseason as of the All-Star break, and should stay there in the pathetic Eastern Conference.
The Knicks are only 2 1/2 games out of the eighth seed, but they play eight of their next nine on the road and 19 of their remaining 30 outside of Madison Square Garden. That means the Denver Nuggets, who own the Knicks' first-round pick, will be excited on lottery night.
6. Who makes the playoffs in the Eastern Conference?
Let's use pen to put in the Pacers, Heat, Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks. We will use pencil for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets.
That leaves the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons, Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bobcats have the fewest games left against teams with winning records - nine. The Knicks have 12, but, as we learned earlier, 19 of 30 games on the road. The Cavs have 13 versus successful teams, but have a six-game stretch against Phoenix, the Golden State Warriors, Clippers, Heat, Thunder and Houston Rockets. That's high-noon on the Cleveland season. Finally, the Pistons have 14 tilts with over .500 teams.
That makes the Bobcats the favorites to get swept by the Pacers in round one.
7. Who makes the playoff in the Western Conference?
This one is far trickier, yet also much more optimistic.
Permanent ink for the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Portland Trail Blazers, Houston and the Clippers. That leaves three spots for the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix, Golden State and Memphis Grizzlies, teams separated by two games in the standings.
In examining the schedules, the Mavs have 14 games against over .500 teams, but are in the lead in terms of the standings at this moment. The Mavs also have a championship-winning coach in Rick Carlisle and a championship-winning star in Dirk Nowitzki.
The other three postseason contenders all have 13 games left against winners.
The Grizzlies are the most battle-tested of the group, advancing to the West Finals last year. They are two back of the Mavs for sixth and 1 1/2 behind the Suns and Warriors. The Grizz will get their starting backcourt back shortly, but still have two left with the Heat and close the season in Phoenix, then home against Dallas.
The Warriors are the most vulnerable in this man's opinion. Everyone but Steph Curry and David Lee struggles offensively and the bench is still trying to find an identity. However, Golden State plays one team with a winning record in its last seven.
The Suns would make the most sense to miss the playoffs, considering most teams thought they were a bottom-five team before the season and at some point, they have to realize we all couldn't be that wrong about them.
However, Jeff Hornacek is cruising to a unanimous Coach of the Year award and Goran Dragic is emerging as a top-10 point guard. Seven of their 13 matchups with quality opponents are at home, including two versus the Clippers and two versus the Thunder.
It comes down to Memphis and Phoenix for the final spot. There are a lot of things to like about both sides, but the Suns will get the eighth seed.
Apparently Mike Conley and Tony Allen will return very soon, but Marc Gasol's knee injury just before the break is a potential catastrophe for Memphis. Since his return from a two-month absence, the Grizzlies are 12-4 with Gasol in the lineup. They are 19-10 on the season with Gasol, and 10-13 without him. If Gasol misses any time, Memphis' 1 1/2 game deficit is too large a hurdle.
8. Adam Silver
What, if anything, will the new commish do to put his stamp on the league? Nothing, unless we get a wild brawl over the final 3/8 of the season. Silver sounds tough, so the offseason is where he might flex his intellectual and leadership might.
9. Free agency
This, like Silver's reign of tyranny, or plain-old reign, won't be as large an issue until the summer, but it will be brought up over these last two months. It won't be so much an issue with James and the Miami Three, but it will be an issue for Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks as the losses mount. Free agency will loom large as teams face potential deadline deals in the next few days and rebuilding plans in the offseason.
The race for the No. 1 pick in the draft looks to be between the Milwaukee Bucks, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, L.A. Lakers and Sacramento Kings.
Who is willing to go that extra step for the top pick? Trading a Turner or an Ersan Ilyasova or a Jameer Nelson could ice it for that team.
Will tanking be worth it? Who knows, but at the start of the tanking debate, the jewel was Andrew Wiggins, but now, his Kansas teammate Joel Embiid is the consensus top choice. Jabari Parker has fluctuated more than Oprah's weight and Julius Randle is going through the motions.
That race for ineptitude, however ensuring the most ping-pong balls, was a story before the season started, it's been a story through 50 games and it will remain a story over the final 3/8 of the season.