NEW ORLEANS &
Only a few days left in the NBA's version of "Let's Make a Deal."
The Lakers were already winners, and the Suns and Mavericks could start playing with their new toys Wednesday. Now it's up to teams like San Antonio and New Orleans to see if they want to make a trade to help put them over the top in the loaded Western Conference.
They have until Thursday afternoon to decide, and with nine teams separated by fewer than five games in the standings, standing pat could mean standing still.
"We've never had a race that close at this point in the season," commissioner David Stern said. "The trades seem to have piqued interest."
So who's next? And who's left?
The big deals involving Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol and the expected trade of Jason Kidd have swung the attention to Phoenix, Los Angeles and Dallas.
Largely forgotten is that the Hornets came out of the All-Star break with the best winning percentage in the West.
New Orleans finally got some attention by hosting a successful All-Star weekend, which ended with MVP LeBron James leading the Eastern Conference to a 134-128 victory over the West on Sunday night. The Hornets have been largely overlooked, but there is some thought the NBA be right back here in the same building in mid-June.
"I think we feel pretty good about the way we played so far," Hornets coach ron Scott said. "Obviously, we haven't made any move like a few teams around us have. But we feel we have a very good basketball team. When it's all said and done, we feel we're going to have something to do with it."
The unofficial second half starts with 10 games Tuesday. Much of the attention, however, will be saved for the next night, when O'Neal could make his Phoenix debut &
against Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, no less &
Kidd might suit up for Dallas, and Mike Bibby makes an immediate return to his old home when Atlanta visits Sacramento.
The trade deadline comes the following afternoon, but it's clear many teams aren't interested in waiting until the last minute.
The Lakers kicked off shopping season by acquiring former All-Star Pau Gasol from Memphis. Phoenix went even bigger by bringing O'Neal from South Beach to the Southwest, and the Mavs were hoping their deal to bring Kidd back to his original team would go through Monday.
Any one of those moves could make the difference in a conference where Houston has won eight straight games and was 32-20, and that was still only good enough for a tie with Golden State and Denver for the final two playoff spots. They would be tied for fourth place and home-court advantage in the first round if they resided in the East.
Yet, the West being powerful is nothing new, which is why the defending champion Spurs don't think they have to react to the moves made around them.
"It's going to be tough and people are going to have be playing well at the right time," All-Star forward Tim Duncan said. "It doesn't matter what moves you make, if they're not playing well for you, if you're not jelling, if you don't find the right rhythm or the right people to put on the court at the same time, it's not going to work for you."
The Gasol deal has worked so far for the Lakers, who won the final four games of their road trip leading into the break despite a torn ligament in Bryant's right pinkie finger. If center Andrew num's knee injury heals and he returns at full strength, Los Angeles could be the favorite to reach the NBA finals.
Or, they could be gone in the first round for the third consecutive year. To reach the finals, the Lakers would likely have to survive a field that looks every bit as tough as the one they navigated in 2001, when they swept Portland, Sacramento and San Antonio &
all 50-game winners &
in the West playoffs to give Bryant his second of three straight championship rings.
He thinks things could be just as difficult this time around.
"Even the bottom tier teams, if you can call them bottom tier teams, the eighth seed, ninth seed, they're tough," said Bryant &
who ignored the recommendation of surgery on his finger because he knows the Lakers need him on the floor.
"When we made our run, we obviously had Portland to deal with, we had San Antonio to deal with, Sacramento was just starting to come into its own, and then a couple of years later they were the team to beat. But there were a handful of teams there that were really tough. Now, you have nine, 10 teams that could really do some damage in the playoffs."
Things seem more settled in the East, where Boston and Detroit, which has won 10 in a row, have been head and shoulders above the rest of the field. But as James proved last year in the playoffs and reminded everyone during the All-Star game, he can still take over when it counts, so don't write off the defending conference champs.
"We know we're still not going to get the respect we should get. That's never been a problem for us," James said. "We don't care. We just go out and play. We're always going to be the third or fourth or fifth best team in the Eastern Conference.
"We still go out there and win ballgames and we know when the postseason happens, you've got to come get it from us, because we're very good."
Who's next, who's left to make deals?
NEW ORLEANS &