First-Half Story Lines
Billups Giveth, Iverson Taketh Away
Chauncey Billups had taken the Detroit Pistons as far as he could -- to one NBA championship and two NBA Finals appearances -- but that didn't mean that he was done providing boosts to franchises. The Denver Nuggets became legitimate threats to win a playoff series for the first time since 1994 once they swapped Allen Iverson for Billups. Iverson has sent the Pistons into a state of confusion that may not clear up until he becomes a free agent this summer. The Pistons will not make a seventh consecutive trip to the Eastern Conference finals -- and will be lucky to get out of the first round.
The huge free agent signings of last summer have mostly been big duds, with the biggest winner, Gilbert Arenas, yet to play after signing a $111 million deal and having another knee surgery. But for the players who have seen the floor, Elton Brand, Baron Davis and Corey Maggette have been unable to have a positive influence on their respective teams. Brand signed with Philadelphia for $80 million but is out for the season following right shoulder surgery, yet the 76ers have become a playoff contender without him. Davis, a $65 million signing, has been in and out with injuries and the Clippers have fallen off a cliff. Maggette, who got $50 million from Golden State, is piling up points and losses in Oakland. In addition, Toronto's trade for Jermaine O'Neal, which added his $21 million contract to the payroll, was such a flop for the Raptors, they dealt him Friday to Miami.
Kobe vs. LeBron
The rivalry between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James has never been blatantly personal, but in consecutive games against the New York Knicks this month, Bryant went for 61 points and James went for 52 points, 11 assists and 9 rebounds. The separation between the best player and second-best player in the NBA has never been closer than this season. Kobe and LeBron -- or is that LeBron and Kobe? -- have been 1A and 1B and had their teams at or near the top of the NBA standings most of the season. Bryant, the reigning MVP, hasn't shown any decline at age 30. James, barely 24, has focused on being a better defensive player. The player whose team finishes with the better record will likely be the MVP.
Seven coaches -- P.J. Carlesimo, Eddie Jordan, Sam Mitchell, Maurice Cheeks, Reggie Theus, Randy Wittman and Marc Iavaroni -- got pink slips before the all-star break. This is the greatest number of midseason coaching changes since 2004-05, when seven coaches were fired and two others resigned. Few of the changes this season have resulted in much tangible improvement on the floor. Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo has led the 76ers back into the playoff race since replacing Cheeks, but Sacramento's Kenny Natt and Toronto's Jay Triano both have worse winning percentages than their predecessors.