With the NBA playoffs about two months away, what better time than now to start asking questions about what is to come in the immediate future as well as a little bit further down the road?
1. Is Atlanta a legitimate threat to Orlando and Cleveland in the East?
GR: The short answer to the first is yes. The Hawks are a young, athletic team that has the ability to beat anyone in the league. The real question is: Can the Hawks keep it together for a seven game series? The answer to that question may be no. The true veteran leader of the Hawks is Joe Johnson, who has enjoyed minimal playoff success thoughout his career and may not be able to handle the pressure of a game seven in a hostile environment. The Hawks have the ability but may lack the leadership to beat the Magic or Cavs.
TS: No, I don’t think so. They’re certainly capable of making some noise and causing some problems, but I don’t think they’ll ultimately have enough to actually dethrone either of them. Their roster is extremely talented, but I think their lack of much depth off the bench will hurt them in the playoffs if they’re matched up with Cleveland or Orlando. Each of those teams is more deep and more versatile, and I don’t think the Hawks would have enough to beat either of them in a long series.
2. Does anybody not named LeBron James have a chance to win MVP ?
GR: Kevin Durant certainly has a chance to make a last stab at winning the MVP trophy, but it will take nothing short of a miracle. For KD to have a chance to win, the Thunder will have to put together a nice run to close out the season and position themselves as a legit threat in the Western Conference playoffs. Along with the Thunder success, the Cavs will almost certainly have to stumble to the finish line for LeBron to fall out of favor with MVP voters. Is it possible? Yes. Will it happen? Doubtful.
TS: No, not really. Kevin Durant is making a nice push, but this is LeBron’s to lose, and there’s no way he loses it. He’s got his Cavs at the top of the East, and it doesn’t look as though they’ll be relinquishing that in the regular season. KD has been amazing in helping get the Thunder to where they are now, but LeBron’s numbers are completely staggering. I could see him one day becoming just the second player in league history to lead the league in both scoring and assists. LeBron is the MVP this season.
3. Will the possible re-emergence of teams like the Bulls and Knicks (through free agency) help shift the power of the league back East?
GR: The upcoming free agent class certainly has the potential to shift the power structure of the NBA. It seems the daily rumors with regards to the top free agents all seem to have these players going to Eastern Conference teams. The reasoning for this is simple: The eastern conference teams are currently inferior, and therefore more willing to shed salary and players, sinking them further into mediocrity and allowing themselves more money for free agent spending. If LeBron, Bosh, Amar’e, Boozer, Wade, and Joe Johnson all end up in the Eastern Conference, the power will certainly begin to shift in that direction. While the west will remain strong, the addition of two or three more All-Stars could change the east's fortune.
TS: It definitely could, it just depends on who goes where and how everything eventually fits together. If you look at it, the only real notable free agents from the West are Carlos Boozer and Amar’e Stoudemire. If they join the other top-tier guys out East, it clearly could change the landscape of the league. However, the way it is today, the top four teams in the East might stack up better than the top four teams in the West. The real discrepancy is at the bottom of the conferences. Teams like Chicago and New York adding top free- agent talent would certainly help even things out a bit.
4. If they don’t make the Finals, will this summer bring on major change in Boston?
GR: If Boston again falls short of the Finals there is no doubt some changes are coming. First off, Ray Allen will not be returning unless it is at a very steep discount. Rasheed Wallace has largely been a disappointment and will be traded or perhaps released. Garnett and Pierce are beginning to show their age, and the Celtics may try and make a last-ditch effort to move one or both of them in order to recoup any value possible. In other words, yes, it is very likely the Celtics will be a shell of their current team next season.
TS: I don’t know how much flexibility they have with their contracts, but their only major free agent is Ray Allen. While he started off the season poorly, he’s really coming on strong, and the Celtics look like a much better team with him playing like we’re used to seeing him. I don’t know what better option they would have, so I’m not sure that they wouldn’t just re-sign him for a lesser contract this summer. Either way, I can’t imagine the Celtics having enough flexibility with their salaries to be able to shake things up too much.
5. Will signing LeBron and Wade/Bosh actually make the Knicks elite? Or will there be too little money left to assemble a good enough supporting cast?
GR: This is the big question for the Knicks in the offseason. The Knicks have about $18 million committed for next year, mostly to players who have little impact on the team. Their current best player, David Lee, will be a free agent and given his outstanding season, could command too high a salary to re-sign. With the predicted cap being around $51 million, that simply does not leave enough room after giving LeBron a max deal, then giving Wade/Bosh close to max deals to sign anyone real worthwhile. This massive salary/talent dump could end costing the Knicks more than they asked for, given that LeBron and Bosh probably can’t play all five positions on the floor.
TS: As LeBron has shown in the past, he’s capable of making a team solid despite a dearth of talent. Just look at the 2007 Cavs team he was able to get all the way to the Finals. Larry Hughes was the second-best player on that team, and he was somewhat of a disappointment for them (Larry Hughes? A disappointment? What??). Now, James is even better than he was back then, and pairing him with another superstar should make for a good enough team. Plus, if the Knicks are able to pair LeBron with another star, I think more players are going to want to join the team for less money. Why wouldn’t you want to? I think it’ll be plenty to make them into contenders.
6. Do the Clippers have a legitimate chance to land LeBron or another big name free agent?
GR: If the Clippers are willing, they have a chance to add a big name over the summer. They are in the nation’s second largest media market and offer the allure of the Hollywood lifestyle. The Clippers can also offer the chance to the egotistical superstar of trying to make the Clippers LA’s team. Although accomplishing this task may be next to impossible, it may not be above LeBron to try. The Clippers do also have a solid supporting cast with Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, and 2009 first-overall pick Blake Griffin. The Clippers do have a shot to sign a top free agent, but in the end they probably will not.
TS: I really think they do, despite the whole “worst franchise in pro sports” thing. Los Angeles is an attractive location, and the Clips have a solid core of young talent in place with Kaman, Griffin (hopefully), Gordon, and Davis. I can definitely see why somebody would want to play there. Will they? I’m not so sure, but I think they definitely at least have a chance.
8. Are the Spurs done contending for championships with their current core?
GR: The Spurs certainly do seem like they might be ready to ride off into the sunset. Tim Duncan is showing signs of aging and Parker has not been his usual self due to an array of injuries this season. The acquisition of Richard Jefferson did not put them over the top like some thought. The Spurs are missing the tough defensive play of Bruce Bowen and the crazy come-out-of-nowhere threes in the playoffs of Big Shot Robert Horry. There is little to no chance the Spurs will be able to win another title with their current make up.
TS: It’s hard to believe, but it appears as though they are. While Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili continue to play at high levels, it appears as though their supporting cast has fallen apart. DeJuan Blair and George Hill are solid, but they’re both also very inexperienced. Roger Mason Jr.‘s production has taken a hit, Michael Finley and Antonio McDyess are shells of their former selves, and they’re getting nothing from Richard Jefferson or Matt Bonner. This season has been a major disappointment so far in San Antonio, and their goose looks cooked.
9. If Phil Jackson leaves, who will the Lakers get to coach?
GR: If the Zen Master decides to call it quits after this season, the Lakers will have a difficult decision. My best guess is that they would pursue an experienced coach with Finals experience like an Avery Johnson; however, everyone knows the coach will be subject to Kobe’s approval and he may lean more towards trying to lure Kurt Rambis back from the T-Wolves.
TS: It seemed as though Kurt Rambis was supposed to be that guy, but since he bolted, the door appears to be reopened. I do think Lakers assistant Brian Shaw is certainly a candidate, and to me would appear to be the frontrunner should the position become vacant. I’m sure they could basically lure whomever they wanted to become their next coach, but I’m not sure they won’t keep it in house.
10. How (if possible) can the Golden State Warriors be fixed?
GR: Golden State can only be fixed if Don Nelson learns how to coach defense. It is impossible to truly compete in the NBA if the only goal is to try and score, score, score, and play no defense. Most likely, the Warriors will have to move on without Nelson if they ever plan on competing.
TS: First off, they need a new owner. Secondly, they need to get rid of Don Nelson. Thirdly, they need to find a way to exile guys like Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette. While those two are solid players, they’re not helping any situations being stuck out in Oakland. Before the deadline, the Warriors reportedly turned down an offer from Memphis that would’ve brought OJ Mayo and Hasheem Thabeet to G-State for Ellis. If they really did reject it, then it’s just a sign of how awful the management out there really is. They need to be giving the floor time to guys like Ronny Turiaf, Stephen Curry, Kelenna Azubuike, and Anthony Randolph. I know these guys have spent lots of time injured this season, but even when healthy they weren’t logging enough minutes. They have a decent core of talent, they’re just not utilizing it well. They need to re-do everything that has to do with their front office. Easy enough, right?