SI.com's NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Feb. 22.)
1. How many teams look capable of winning an NBA championship?
Ian Thomsen: The obvious favorites are the Cavs and Lakers by far, with potential challenges in the East from Orlando and Boston (if the Celtics achieve a level of health and defensive proficiency they haven't shown for most of this year). The Nuggets have a chance -- through Carmelo Anthony's terrific play -- to threaten the Lakers in the West, while Utah and Dallas could yet position themselves to take advantage if the Lakers suffer a major injury or two.
Frank Hughes: Five. I see Cleveland, obviously, and Orlando in the East. I hate to count out Boston, but I just have not seen enough from the Celtics in the past several weeks to make me think they are going to turn it around -- or, of course, get any younger. In the West, you've got the Lakers and the Nuggets, and I want to throw Dallas in there now that it has made the deal with Washington. Utah is playing very well, but its bench is not deep enough and it does not have enough size to compete with the others. I know it's not realistic, but I wish the Jazz had gotten Marcus Camby instead of Portland to make things really interesting.
Jack McCallum: See, almost every week I'm forced into either continuing my preseason position that the Spurs are going to win the NBA championship, or jumping off the bus. It's not March yet, so I'm going to stick with the seventh-place Spurs as having a chance. That would bring my number to five -- Cavs and Magic in the East, Lakers, Nuggets and Spurs in the West.
Chris Mannix: I suppose Boston, Orlando and Denver (and, to a lesser degree, Atlanta) are capable of winning the title, but at this point it's a two-horse race. Cleveland's upgrades -- and as we will see in the next week or two, Antawn Jamison is an upgrade -- give the Cavaliers a clear edge in talent, and I have a hard time envisioning any team shooting LeBron James out of the playoffs this year. The same thing can be said for Kobe Bryant, who has more talent around him this year (Ron Artest, a healthy Andrew Bynum) than he had last year in a conference that, to me, isn't as strong as it was a year ago. Lakers-Cavs? The NBA should finally get its wish.
2. Is there a better rivalry in the league right now than Cavaliers-Magic?
Thomsen: Probably not. I've got to say it isn't much of a rivalry either. I mean, they've been at it for less than a calendar year. The Nuggets are hoping to create a similar rivalry with the Lakers this spring. I still think the tightest of all rivalries is between the Cavs and Celtics because -- when Boston is healthy -- the matchups dictate a likely Game 7 should they meet in the playoffs. But the Celtics have a long way to go before proving themselves physically capable to make that challenge.
Hughes: How about Cavaliers-Lakers? All the same dynamics are there. Only Shaq hates Kobe instead of hating Dwight Howard. Actually, there are better matchups in that rivalry because of the LeBron-Kobe face-off. Could there be a more intriguing seven-game series? Having said that, I haven't seen Shaq dunk with as much power as he did over Howard the other night in a very long time.
McCallum: It depends on what you mean by "better." The networks would say the Lakers and anybody else because L.A. remains such a big draw. And if the Lakers meet the Nuggets deep into the Western playoffs ... look out. But the Cleveland-Orlando thing is getting real good, particularly if the I'm-the-real-Superman argument between Shaq and Howard continues.
Mannix: It's good and Shaq-Howard has added another layer to it, but I'll still take Celtics-Cavaliers. They don't like LeBron much in Boston and you can tell James tries to ratchet up his game a notch when he plays the likes of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Those games are always spirited and physical. And what do you know? We get another look at that rivalry in Boston on Thursday.
3. What is the most intriguing awards race at this point in the season?
Thomsen: The MVP looks like it's going to LeBron, with Tyreke Evans as the top rookie and Dwight Howard likely to defend his Defensive Player of the Year award. That leaves us to argue over Coach of the Year candidates like Scott Brooks, Lionel Hollins, Scott Skiles, Rick Adelman, Nate McMillan, Mike Woodson, Jerry Sloan and George Karl, who continues to oversee a championship contender while being treated for cancer.
Hughes: I want to say Rookie of the Year, because while I was once in Evans' camp, I am starting to sway back toward Brandon Jennings, especially if the Bucks make the playoffs. (Stephen Curry has been impressive lately, too.) Having said that, I'm going with Coach of the Year. I always think Sloan is deserving. Larry Brown has done some interesting things in Charlotte. Given what Karl is going through personally, he'd be a sentimental favorite. But the unheralded Brooks has to be right there, doesn't he? The guy is likely to double the Thunder's win total from last season and maybe get home-court advantage in the playoffs. Oklahoma City's success may make it impossible to ignore Brooks, who lacks the reputation of those other coaches I mentioned.
McCallum: You know what? That's a hard question. Barring injury, LeBron has MVP wrapped up because Kobe has been injured. Evans is a solid favorite for top rookie, and Kevin Durant is an absolute lock for Most Improved Player. Coach of the Year isn't terribly sexy -- and has a plethora of candidates -- so I'm going to home in on a couple of positions on the first-team All-NBA awards. To wit: Steve Nash or Dwayne Wade for the other guard spot next to Kobe, and Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan, Durant, Chris Bosh or Carmelo Anthony for the other forward spot next to LeBron? (I'm penciling in Dwight Howard for center.)
Mannix: Coach of the Year, because if Utah keeps rolling, I'd like to hear a voter's excuse for not picking Sloan this time. Sloan has never won the award despite 1,173 regular-season victories (.603 winning percentage) in a career that started during the Jimmy Carter administration. The Jazz have bullied their way into the upper echelon of the West and are a legitimate conference finals contender. Sloan, finally, deserves credit for that.
4. Players who are traded during the season and then waived by their new team cannot re-sign with the team that traded them for 30 days. We've seen this come up in recent seasons with the likes of Brent Barry and Antonio McDyess rejoining playoff teams, and now the rule could affect Zydrunas Ilgauskas and the Cavaliers. Should this rule be up for debate in the next CBA? If so, what change would you propose?
Thomsen: This is another symptom of why the current model needs to be overhauled. If you need to include Ilgauskas just to make a trade possible -- or bring Keith Van Horn out of retirement to balance out the Jason Kidd trade two years ago -- it's a bad sign that the value of the contract has grown more important than the talent of the player. And yet, fans should be grateful for these loopholes, because it's so difficult to complete a big move and these buyout deals have helped loosen the trade market. Under this current system, I can't think of a way to change the buyout rules without making it harder than ever for teams to work out a trade. This issue needs to be fixed as part of a larger renovation.
Hughes: I like the idea Hawks general manager Rick Sund had when we were speaking a while back on this topic. You don't want to restrict somebody from making a living. If a player is waived, it is against the very nature of capitalism and a free market to tell him he can't go play for somebody else. However, to prevent any hanky-panky, the one restriction should be that the player can't compete in the playoffs if he re-signs with the team from which he was just traded.
McCallum: How about this for a rule change -- you can't do it. It's a sham rule. You shouldn't be able to trade a guy and get him back. On the only occasion that I can remember when the league stepped in, it was only because the Mavs' Jerry Stackhouse revealed that a plan was in place to get him back. In other words, he was punished for honesty. (Stackhouse ended up being left out of the Kidd trade.)
Mannix:Al Harrington, the Knicks' player rep, told me that he didn't care if Ilgauskas was allowed to return. That sentiment was echoed by Mike D'Antoni and Scott Skiles. Still, it's a rule worth tweaking. The solution is to allow players to return to their original teams, but make them ineligible for the playoffs. That way, if they really want to come back, they can still get paid (and, presumably, get a playoff share), but the integrity of the game is protected.
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