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We are just a couple of weeks away from NBA's all-star weekend, meaning the heart of the season is lying before us. Around this time, the best of the best usually starts to stand out and we are able to recognize the contenders and pretenders. One thing different about this season is that four of the six league divisions have one team clearly standing out and the rest are, well, just kinda there.
The Celtics started off the season with the best start in franchise history, led by 6 foot 11 PF Kevin Garnett, but have dropped five of their last 12 games. The Cavaliers are eight games ahead of the second-place Detroit Pistons (22-15) in the East's Central division and are, in my opinion, the hottest team in the league right now. Most valuable player candidate, LeBron James--who became the youngest player to reach 11,000 career points not too long ago--is the second-highest scorer in the NBA. With 27.7 points per game (in 37 games this season), King James is behind just Dwyane Wade in that specific category. He has added 6.9 rebounds, 6.7 assists and 2.0 steals per game, helping his Cavs to 30 wins before the halfway mark.
Dwight Howard. Six foot 11, 265 pound center for the 31-8 Orlando Magic will give LeBron, KG, and Kobe Bryant a run for their money as the league's MVP this season. Howard, in 37 games so far, has put up averages of 20.2 PPG, 13.8 RPG and 3.2 blocks per game. All three of those numbers leads the team. I don't think even a healthy and consistent Atlanta Hawks or Miami Heat team will be able to catch Howard and the Magic in the Southeast division.
Out West, the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers will come out on top of their divisions, but I believe either of the top four (of five) teams in the Southwest division has a legitimate shot at a division crown. Denver leads the Portland Trail Blazers by 2.5 games in the Northwest division, but the inexperienced 'Blazers don't have enough depth from the bench to hang with 'Melo and the Nuggets for all 82 games of the season. As for the Lakers, Kobe Bryant's 27.2 points per game is enough to give the Lakers an 8-game lead over the Phoenix Suns. Big-man Amare Stoudemire leads the team in scoring with 21.7 PPG, and have kept the Suns in the hunt, for now. If Phoenix plans on hanging with LA, veteran point guard Steve Nash is going to have to step his game up. The one thing Phoenix does have over the competition is experience. Nash's numbers have been on the decline for several years now, and in 32 games this season, Nash's field goal percentage--.485--is the lowest it's been since the '03-'04 his final season with the Dallas Mavericks.
So, if Nash doesn't step it up, LA will roll into the playoffs with the division title.
The Southwest division is the biggest question in the NBA right now, and it will make for one great finish this season. The San Antonio Spurs (25-12) are the current leaders. But, the Tim Duncan and Tony Parker-led team holds the first place position by just one game over the New Orleans Hornets (23-12). Closely followed are the Houston Rockets (24-16) and Dallas Mavericks (22-17). All four of these teams home and road records are nearly identical at this point, and they all have pretty close numbers in the point differential. The factor in deciding the division winner will be depth and health; which is two of the top ways to play consistent basketball in the NBA, anyway. The Spurs are probably the best all-around team of these four teams with the Rockets falling in second. But, Houston has had injury troubles with their two stars, Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. My best bet, for now, would be New Orleans, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston (in that order).
Currently on a five-game win streak, Orlando is, without a doubt, the hottest team in the league right now. Twenty-two times this season the Magic have put 100+ points on the scoreboard, including four straight times now, and are looking for their sixth straight win against LA later this evening (10:30 PM ET). On Tuesday, Orlando put up 139 against the Sacramento Kings as "Superman" posted his 27th double-double this season (most in NBA) with 25 points and 15 rebounds.
Overall, I think Cleveland is the best team right now, but Boston comes in a close second. LeBron's Cavs have surprised many. Not too many people believed he could lead this team with the semi-weak supporting cast he has at his fingertips.