As the NBA season hits its midway point, the San Antonio Spurs, Boston Celtics, Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers have established themselves as championship contenders, each having won more than 70 per cent of their games.
But anyone who watched rookie phenom Blake Griffin and his woebegone Los Angeles Clippers slay the Lakers last Sunday knows nothing's decided just yet.
Here are some stories worth watching as the second half gets under way:
1. Trades: One for the dreamers, and another that needs to go away
The NBA trade deadline is fast approaching (Feb. 24), accompanied by the usual glut of rumours. The dominant ones so far have fixated on the never-ending drama surrounding Carmelo Anthony's desire to play somewhere in New York State. Bottom line: 'Melo is unlikely to be with the Denver Nuggets much longer.
On the flip side is Steve Nash: the guy everyone except Phoenix Suns fans wishes would wind up on a team with championship potential but probably won't.
NBA commentator Chris Webber recently tapped into that sentiment with his on-air chant: "Free Steve Nash."
With the Suns drifting further behind in the Western Conference standings, the desert is no place for the 36-year-old Victoria native to play out the final chapter of his award-wining career.
Nash joining the New York Knicks is a fun fantasy, since he'd join his old head coach, Mike D'Antoni, and scoring partner Amar'e Stoudemire. But with 26-year-old Raymond Felton emerging as point guard to be reckoned with, it's increasingly unlikely the Knicks would bench him for a star entering the twilight of his career. Suns general manager Lon Babby has also indicated the door is pretty much closed on this rumour.
2. Stampeding Spurs
After a preseason fixated on the three kings of Miami - LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh - it's deliciously ironic that the surprise championship front-runner at the halfway mark is a team that proves that importance of the collective outweighs the dominance of the chosen ones.
The Spurs are on track for a 70-win season, even though their biggest star - Tim Duncan - is averaging a career-low 13.7 points per game. Instead, the team has five players averaging double digits in scoring, but no one averaging more than 19 points. No glitz, no glam, just a veteran squad getting down to basics.
3. Raptors roller coaster
Bosh was gone, but early in the 2010-11 season, the Toronto Raptors looked like a group of fighters capable of slaying giants (think the Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Orlando Magic), not to mention a fun young team to watch. Then, their top rebounder, Reggie Evans, broke his foot in late November, followed by a cartload of other injuries that have sent the squad careening off-course.
Nevertheless, the slumping Raptors (13-28) are still in the Eastern Conference playoff race. There are other reasons to hope: Andrea Bargnani is averaging a career-high 21.7 points per game, while the recent breakthroughs for sophomore shooting guard DeMar DeRozan suggests the team might just have a steady tandem threat on offense. Meanwhile, GM Bryan Colangelo has some chips he may cash in before the trade deadline.
4. Banged-up stars
A slew of serious injuries to key players have proven problematic for strong teams: From the Chicago Bulls (Joakim Noah) to the Portland Trail Blazers (Greg Oden and Brandon Roy) to the Dallas Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki, whose recent nine-game absence threw the Mavs into a tailspin). But what of the Celtics? It's only halfway through the season and Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Shaquille O'Neal and Jermaine O'Neal have all suffered at least one injury that has kept them out for a significant chunk of time. The team remains the toast of the Eastern Conference and has proven they can win without key parts, but the question remains be whether this vintage bunch can stay healthy enough come playoffs.
5. The anti-Spurs
After a disastrous start, James, Wade and Bosh have found a way to capitalize on each other's formidable talents and gel as a team. So far, however, the Heat have been unable to beat the venerable Celtics - and the playoffs will put new strain on fragile new bonds.
The NBA honchos would love to see a showdown between individual gladiators - James versus Kobe Bryant (Lakers) comes to mind - but will the Heat's individual talents hold up under the pressure of a drawn-out playoff run?