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As the NBA catches its breath after a hurried rush to the season and a whirlwind All-Star Weekend, we turn our attention to the NBA's stretch run, the second half. We're at the point with the trade deadline looming two weeks away where teams will begin to make moves to either ramp up for a playoffs run or bottom out in rebuilding projects. Will the Heat keep up their pace? Can the Bulls finally get healthy and if so, how good can they be then? Are the Thunder legitimate title contenders? Are the Spurs "back" once again?
So many questions, so little time.
A huge element in the second half of the season is going to be minutes. The best teams will rest their players while desperate teams will have to play to the bone. The Bulls are somehow a great team and a desperate team. They want every advantage including homecourt advantage, and below we'll tell you how that could impact the MVP race.
So we present the Baseline Awards second-half predictions, focused on who will be taking the various trophies for the second half of the season.
Projected Eastern Conference Player of the Second Half: Derrick Rose
LeBron James is the runaway MVP leader, the best player on the planet, and was nearly flawless in the first half, despite the end to that All-Star Game. So why isn't he here? Because the Heat will have a top-two seed locked up by early April, and then you're going to see James take more and more games off as the Heat rest him for the playoffs. What he does between now and then will determine is MVP, but in the meantime, Tom Thibodeau plays his players 35 minutes a game even when they're hurt. Assuming that the All-Star rest helped Rose recover from the back and leg injuries that hampered him this season, he'll get the minutes, he'll get the production, he'll get the win. I expect big things from the reigning MVP in the second half.
Projected Western Conference Player of the Second Half: Kevin Durant
It's terrifying that a kid, a 23-year-old kid, can lead the league in scoring two years in a row and then make the leap. But that's what Durant has done. Everything is better. His efficiency. His productivity. His team. His leadership. His clutch play. And his defense. It's a phenomenal streak the kid's on and there's zero reason to think he'll slow down in the second half. The West is just competitive enough for the Thunder to keep Durant playing nightly and yet not good enough to challenge the Thunder for the top spot in the West (though San Antonio's making a good show of it).
Most-Likely to Succeed: Miami Heat
They have it together. They have no discernible weaknesses, outside of "Can LeBron James succeed in the clutch?" and that's not a regular season concern. The offense is clicking, their chemistry is good, they've had fewer distractions, they're playing at an elite level on both sides of the ball and their injuries haven't been significant. It may be sickening, but it doesn't change the fact that this is the baddest team in the land until further notice.
Least-Likely to Succeed: Charlotte Bobcats
Here's the worst thing about the Bobcats. They don't even have anything of value to firesell. Tyrus Thomas is having a terrible season, Corey Maggette has been injured, D.J. Augustin is just good enough to be their best player and not good enough to draw huge offers on the market. Gerald Henderson may be their best asset and he's too good to move. If they keep this team, they'll be horrible. If they sell off the parts for future components, they'll be terrible. If the lottery doesn't help this team, it's going to be classified as negligible cruelty.
Best Dressed: Indiana Pacers throwbacks
These jerseys are awesome. (Getty Images)
Those blues and yellows are just sharp as all get out.
Worst Dressed: Memphis Grizzlies throwbacks
This, not so much a crime against fashion as a crime against humanity. (Getty Images)
Let us never speak of these again.
Class Clown: JaVale McGee
Runs the other direction, denies things he's said into tape recorders, goes for triple-doubles in blowouts, makes ridiculous goaltends and has somehow failed to get better with John Wall on his team. McGee is funny. But someone really needs to get into his head and straighten things out or a world of potential is going to be lost.
Projected Defensive Player of the Year: Luol Deng
Andre Iguodala deserves it, but Deng may end up winning it simply based on reputation. If Deng is healthy, he's the best perimeter defender in the league. Dwight Howard has struggled at times and hasn't been as dominant. If the coaches really vote this one right, Deng should win as long as he continues to get healthy and Tom Thibodeau doesn't run him into the ground.
Smoke and Mirrors Award for False Relevance: Atlanta Hawks
Always a top-six team in the standings, never a top-six team in the conference. The Hawks have managed to survive a drop-off from Joe Johnson and the injury to Al Horford. The team is supremely in need of a complete makeover but none seems imminent. So they will continue to drift through the season, winning games and getting no credit, losing games and getting hammered, never going up or down. Consistency in this league is often heralded as success. But with the Hawks, it's always seen as evidence of either a mediocre student over-achieving or an excellent student never living up to potential.
Most Likely to Blow It Up: Boston Celtics
The holes have not been plugged. They have not rounded into shape. They have not righted the ship. The experience has not come through. The casual approach to conditioning has not yielded the results they want. They did not coast, they stumbled. They did not cruise, they crashed. They are alive only because of Rajon Rondo and the weakness of the Eastern Conference. The time has come to end this and move on. Sentimentality is not worth wasting time, because if the big free agents get re-aligned and the Celtics have nothing to move forward with, they'll be back in the stone age they were in before the Big 3 arrived.
Carmelo Anthony Award for MeloDrama: Dwight Howard
"I want a trade! But I love it here! But I want more input on decisions in the front office! But I'm just trying to play! I'm not talking about free agency! Except to talk to you about how much I'm not talking about it! I love my teammates! But I love Deron Williams! I love New York! But I love Orlando! I love my mom! But I make my own decisions!"
It's like watching a teenage girl decide between four boys while the one she's with can't figure out what he did wrong.
Projected Rookie of the Year: Kyrie Irving
Ricky Rubio's a nice story. Neat passes. Irving should have been an All-Star and is going to be an elite player in this league over the next decade. Cleveland's rebuild is on its way, just 19 months removed from "The Decision."
Most Likely to be Traded: Stephen Jackson
Steve Nash could go. Dwight Howard might go. Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Josh Smith, Rajon Rondo, Jose Calderon. But Jackson is owed a lot of money, the Bucks don't need him, and he and Skiles hate each other. He's a bad fit in the locker room and a bad fit on the floor. It's .50 cents on the dollar time in Milwaukee for CapJack.
The 2012 Version of the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies:
The Houston Rockets. I'm starting to buy into Houston as a surprise team. Memphis used team play, star power from Zach Randolph and a unique matchup with San Antonio to get into the second round. Houston has a Should-Be-All-Star in Kyle Lowry and world of versatility in lineups they can deploy. Throw in the work that Kevin McHale has done and the fact they're 4-4 this year against division opponents (three of which are likely playoff teams) and you've got a great shot at Houston making a surprising, if ultimately futile, run. Hurray, another mid-first-round lottery pick!
Most Likely to Hit the Rookie Wall:
MarShon Brooks. Brooks is going to be a terrific scorer in this league for a long time. He's got an elite set of offensive skills and tremendous length. He can play in an offense, too. But his game is predicated on shooting percentages and that's the kind of thing that can drop off when it hits the rookie wall. I full expect to have jinxed Brooks and he will now go out and win Rookie of the Year. His play in the win over the Knicks last week was superb.
Most Likely to Make Himself a Name by Season's End: Paul George
Should have won the dunk contest. Played Rose great last year. The Pacers are better than last year and are primed for a playoff run. Getting them out of the postseason is going to be a serious job, and George is going to be a huge part of it. More versatile on offense, better on defense, athletic, explosive, with range. George isn't going to score 40. But he's going to be a part of a lot of playoff wins for Indiana and is going to be that guy in the playoffs that make sports bars of opposing teams groan "Not that guy again!" time and time over. By the way, I've started calling him Mega-Man because it seems like every game he picks up a new ability he didn't have before.