\^By tom jones | =@ Technically, we are well past the halfway point of the NBA season. But because the All-Star Game is tonight in Phoenix, it's a good time to look back at what has happened and look ahead to what's left. ? Can the Celtics repeat as champs? Who has been the league's MVP? What were the biggest surprises and disappointments of the first half? ? Here's our Two Cents midseason NBA report. Five biggest stories of the first half
1. The balance of power in the league was altered by huge injuries: Orlando's Jameer Nelson, the Lakers' Andrew Bynum, the Rockets' Tracy McGrady, the Wizards' Gilbert Arenas.
2. The return of Shaq-Daddy. The desert air must be doing the big man good because he is averaging 17 points and nine rebounds, and landed a spot in the All-Star Game at age 36.
3. The Celtics and Lakers continue to dominate. They are currently the top seeds in the Eastern and Western conferences.
4. Pink slips are being handed out like water. Seven teams - Memphis, Washington, Toronto, Sacramento, Philadelphia, Oklahoma City and Minnesota - have fired coaches. The record for one season is nine, set in 2004-05.
5. Stephon Marbury is being paid $20-million to not play for the Knicks.
Five questions and answers for the second half
1. Will the Knicks trade Stephon Marbury?
How can they not? Sooner or later, the Knicks have to get past this mess. New York needs a major contender to sustain an injury at guard and require Marbury to save its season.
2. Who will win the scoring title?
It's down to LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Our pick is Wade because LeBron and Kobe will share the ball down the stretch as their teams need victories for playoff positioning. Wade's Heat will make the postseason, but it won't go deep into it. Wade won't be playing for much more than a scoring title.
3. Which eight teams will make the playoffs in the East?
Boston, Orlando and Cleveland are locks. Atlanta looks solid, and so does Miami now that it has acquired Jermaine O'Neal. Philadelphia and Detroit should make it. That leaves New Jersey, New York, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Chicago fighting for one spot. Any one of them would get crushed in the first round, but we'll go with Chicago.
4. Which eight teams will make the playoffs in the West?
The locks are Los Angeles, San Antonio, Denver and Portland. The other four should be Houston, Utah, New Orleans and Phoenix. Man, that's one tough conference, isn't it? Any one of those teams could take out another in a best-of-seven series.
5. Who will make the NBA Finals?
The NBA would love a rematch between the Celtics and Lakers. It would be the 12th time those teams met in the Finals. But the injury to Lakers big man Andrew Bynum could cost them homecourt advantage in a possible Western Conference showdown with the Spurs. And something says the Spurs, who have won four titles since 1999, are going to get back and play the Celtics in an epic seven-game series. Houston Rockets
True, the Rockets are well above .500. But even with Yao Ming, Ron Artest and always-hurt Tracy McGrady, they are not only a couple of levels below the Lakers and Spurs, they're a notch below the Nuggets, Blazers and Mavs.
We thought getting Allen Iverson would push the Pistons to within eyeshot of the Celtics and Cavs. But they are hovering just above .500, and their streak of six consecutive conference final appearances seems to be in serious trouble.
Wasn't this team supposed to challenge in the Eastern Conference? Instead, it is last in the Atlantic Division, fired its coach (Sam Vincent) and traded its best player (Jermaine O'Neal). Yep, the Raptors are even worse than the Knicks.
Three biggest disappointments Orlando Magic
We knew it would be good, but did anyone believe the Magic would be good enough to challenge for best record in the NBA at this point in the season?
Another team that is good but better than expected. The Hawks are headed for a top-four seed in the Eastern Conference.
The Allen Iverson-for-Chauncey Billups trade has turned the Nuggets into major players in the West. Three biggest surprises Dwight Howard leads the NBA averaging nearly three blocks a game. New Orleans' Chris Paul leads with three steals. Meantime, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant are elite defenders. But Boston's Kevin Garnett, right, remains the most physically dominating and intimidating defensive presence. In addition, his attention to defense rubs off on his teammates.
The pick: Kevin Garnett, Celtics
The Celtics haven't become complacent, and part of the reason for maintaining their hunger is coach Doc Rivers. Phil Jackson continues to do a splendid job with the Lakers, and ageless Jerry Sloan (Jazz), George Karl (Nuggets) and Mike Brown (Cavs) are worthy candidates. Oh, and while we are at it, is there a better and more underappreciated coach than San Antonio's Gregg Popovich? But Stan Van Gundy has turned the Magic into a legitimate contender. Take that, Pat Riley.
The pick: Stan Van Gundy, Magic Defensive player
Best coach Most valuable player It has become an annual argument: Who is the most valuable player, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant? This year again it's a debate about two men - but not LeBron and Kobe. Even with fewer pieces around him, LeBron (28.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, seven assists) has outplayed Kobe (27.7, 5.6, five). The debate is about LeBron and Orlando's Dwight Howard, who has been a monster with 20.5 points and 14.1 rebounds per game. And you know what? Miami's Dwyane Wade might be having the best season of his career, not that anyone is noticing with the Heat being 28-24. But still, if you were starting a team right now, how could you not take LeBron with the first pick?
The pick: LeBron James, Cavaliers Two first-year players have become big-time stars. Chicago's Derrick Rose, last year's first overall draft pick, is second among rookies averaging 16.3 points per game, and he leads all rookies with 6.3 assists. Memphis' O.J. Mayo, the third pick, leads all rookies with 19.1 points. Flip a coin; you wouldn't go wrong with either.
The pick: Derrick Rose, Bulls
Dallas' Jason Terry has found his niche, averaging right around 20 points to complement Dirk Nowitzki. But San Antonio's Manu Ginobili continues to set the standard for sixth men. He knocks in an average of 16 points a game while dishing three assists and pulling down about five rebounds. And here's something that sets him apart from the rest: When the game is on the line, he will take the big shot.
The pick: Manu Ginobili, Spurs Best rookie Best sixth man