Usual favorites fall in NBA

While the NBA season is well past the halfway point (most teams have played over 52 games out of the 82-game schedule), this is still a good moment to reflect upon the season to date.

This season has seen the fall of two traditional powers — from title contenders to fighting for their playoff lives — and the rise of two young teams that are exceeding all expectations. These standings mix-ups have made the first half of the season a joy to watch while setting up some fantastic playoff battles in the future.

The Los Angeles Lakers entered the season with championship aspirations, much like every season.

This off-season, they picked up all-star center Dwight Howard and two-time MVP point guard Steve Nash to complement legendary guard Kobe Bryant and all-star power forward Pau Gasol.

On paper this team seemed unstoppable, but reality proved to be very different. After a 1–4 start, the Lakers fired head coach Mike Brown and eventually hired Mike D’Antoni, who was the coach in Phoenix when Nash won his two MVPs.

The Lakers are still four games under .500 for the season and several games back from the Houston Rockets for the final playoff spot, but they have recently changed their playing style to try and recapture some wins, with Kobe passing more than at any point in his long career and Nash turning into more of a spot-up jump shooter.

The Boston Celtics are another storied franchise currently experiencing a fall from grace. Last season’s run to the Conference Finals appeared to be the last hurrah for the big three — guard Ray Allen, small forward Paul Pierce, and power forward/center Kevin Garnett — who started the super-team era when they joined forces in 2007, winning a title in 2008.

In the off-season, Allen jumped ship and signed with Celtics rival Miami Heat. Rumors of the team breaking up spread after Garnett was said to be a free agent. Garnett resigned, but the writing on the wall is that the current Celtics are not going to be around much longer.

Leader of the future, point guard Rajon Rondo appears to be the piece the team will build around eventually, but his season-ending ACL tear and the team’s subsequent winning streak have raised doubts about even that future.

Currently the Celtics occupy the eighth playoff spot with a sizable lead after their winning streak, but the effects of losing two starters — Rondo and rookie forward Jared Sullinger — for the season will eventually take its toll.

For all the struggles the Lakers have endured, the Los Angeles Clippers have surpassed almost all expectations.

The strangely assembled team comprised of both very young talent and older veterans is led by forward Blake Griffin, center DeAndre Jordan, and point guard Chris Paul.

The Clippers took the NBA by storm, leading the top-heavy Western Conference after posting a 17-game winning streak and a perfect 16–0 December.

They have since slipped to third after injuries to Griffin, Paul, and key bench player Jordan Crawford. But with Paul in the lineup, the Clippers look to pick up right where they left off and make some serious noise in the playoffs.

The Houston Rockets have been lacking star power since their great but injury-prone center Yao Ming retired in 2011, but the team was finally able to change that this off-season.

After signing point guard phenom Jeremy Lin from the New York Knicks, the Rockets took everyone by surprise and traded for shooting guard James Harden, sending veteran guard Kevin Martin, two first-round draft picks, and other considerations to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Harden, who came off the bench in his time with the Thunder, made an immediate impact with the Rockets, scoring 37 and a career-high 45 points in his first two games with the team.

The Thunder was willing to trade Harden because it did not believe he was worth a max-level contract, but so far Houston appears more than happy with their decision to give the 23-year-old Harden an all-star-level salary, given his stellar performance, attitude, and leadership thus far.

All-Star Game weekend gives us the chance to reflect upon the NBA, where stars can single-handedly carry a team through the playoffs, but a bad apple or two in the locker room can quickly spoil title hopes.

The Lakers and Celtics came into the break with multiple all-stars but are struggling to make the playoffs, while the Clippers and Rockets are lauding their big acquisitions and watching their teams’ futures take a turn from hopeful playoff team to perennial title contenders in the next two to three years.

So sit back, relax, and watch the last third of the season unfold, before the playoffs show us once and for all which teams are pretenders and which teams will end up fighting for the ultimate prize.