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 March 22.)
1. There have been a number of upsets thus far in the NCAA tournament. How will it affect the positions of potential draft prospects? Have new names emerged?
Ian Thomsen: I can't imagine that an early loss is going to hurt the prospects of Greg Monroe of Georgetown or Cole Aldrich of Kansas, as scouts will look at the whole body of work while trying to assess their potential. The better DeMarcus Cousins plays in the tournament for Kentucky, the more he'll help overcome questions about his attitude and approach. Wesley Johnson has an opportunity to show leadership for Syracuse.
A lot of seniors are helping themselves -- guys like Da'Sean Butler of West Virginia, Quincy Pondexter of Washington, Omar Samhan of Saint Mary's and Ryan Wittman, who increases his chances of being drafted with each big shot he makes for Cornell. If he can drill those threes in the Sweet 16 against Kentucky, then he'll become an easy second-round pick for a team in need of shooting.
Jack McCallum: The most obvious name is that of Samhan, who made 13 of his 16 shots in the upset over Villanova. He's a 6-foot-11 senior center who has been a double-double demon all season, and he wasn't on anyone's first-round radar before the NCAAs. You have to be careful about overreacting to one tournament, of course, but it was apparent to me that Kansas freshman Xavier Henry should stick around for another year. In my book, though, the top players have remained the same: Kentucky's John Wall, Ohio State's EvanTurner, Syracuse's Johnson, Georgia Tech's DerrickFavors, Kentucky's Cousins, Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu and Georgetown's Monroe. And two well-known guards, ScottieReynolds of Villanova and Sherron Collins of Kansas, certified themselves as second-, not first-rounders.
Frank Hughes: I have to say, I don't get to watch that much college basketball during the NBA season -- though last weekend was certainly fun to witness. I don't think too many scouts are going to elevate a player's draft status based solely on an NCAA tournament performance. They try to take the whole picture into account. The perfect example is the year George Mason went to the Final Four (ah, such fond memories.) It was an incredible run, but none of those players on that incredibly fantastic team ended up in the NBA. If that were the case, Northern Iowa's Ali Farokhmanesh would be a first-round pick.
Chris Mannix: I remember Jordan Crawford as "the guy who dunked on LeBron in the video LeBron tried to bury," but he has shown me he is much more than that this tournament. His 55 points against Minnesota and Pitt are a big reason Xavier is in the Sweet 16, and NBA scouts have to be impressed with his athleticism and relentlessness going to the rim. I'd like to see him shoot a little more before I declare the sophomore guard a first-round lock (provided he declares for this year's draft), but it will only take one or two clean jumpers against Kansas State to convince me he's for real.
2. Who is the Lakers' most formidable challenger in the West?
Thomsen: I'm going to say Dallas, because the Mavs are the West's best road team (22-13) and they'll need to win at least once in Los Angeles to threaten the Lakers. Caron Butler and Brendan Haywood have given them more length and depth since the preseason trade.
The latest injury to Lakers center Andrew Bynum -- a strained left Achilles tendon -- will create faith among the chasers if Bynum is slow to return or can't strike a rhythm in the playoffs. All the potential challengers have trouble matching up with the Lakers' size up front, but those matchups will be less oppressive if Bynum is struggling.
The chasers are all so closely packed that it's hard to choose between Denver and Dallas and Utah and Phoenix. One thing they all have in common is that none are close to the Lakers in field-goal defense (L.A.'s 44.4 percent is fifth best in the league), so any team that hopes to knock off the champs will have to raise its play at that end of the floor. The Nuggets feel they can make a run based on last year's six-game loss in the conference finals, and Utah draws strength from its tight six-game loss to L.A. two years ago. Oklahoma City defends and has a star in Kevin Durant, but the Thunder are too young to execute in the playoffs against the Lakers.
McCallum: It's taken me a long time to get here, but I'm going to say the Nuggets, who are only a game ahead of Dallas in the West. Plagued by a collective inconsistency in the past, Denver now has a set rotation with a certified superstar in Carmelo Anthony, a certified playoff quarterback in Chauncey Billups and a couple of certifiable (and I mean that in the positive sense ... sort of) off-the-bench contributors in J.R. Smith and Chris Andersen.
Hughes: From a sentimental standpoint, I'd like to say the Nuggets. Seeing what George Karl is going through makes any person in their right mind want a storybook ending. But from a purely basketball stance, I have to go with Dallas. Acquiring Haywood and Butler was a masterful move by MarkCuban, adding two starters to an already strong team. It'll be interesting to see how the West finishes up to see who meets the Lakers in the conference semifinals.
Mannix: The uncertain status of Kenyon Martin wipes Denver out of the race, so I'm going to go with Dallas. By adding Haywood, the Mavs can now roll out two 7-footers to anchor the defense and challenge the Lakers' big front line. They can throw multiple looks at Kobe Bryant -- Jason Kidd, Butler and Shawn Marion all defend differently -- and are explosive enough offensively to claw their way back into games. If Kidd continues to play at a high level, the Mavericks have a legitimate shot at an upset.
3. Have you been surprised by any team's performance so far this season?
Thomsen: I can't indulge myself to forget that Washington was my pick to be No. 4 in the East this year. The most inspiring surprises have come from Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Memphis -- three young teams that have established a winning style more quickly than most (myself included) expected. Most impressive among these is the Thunder, because they are building a defensive identity.
McCallum: There isn't space to detail all the surprises. Toronto, Chicago, New York, Detroit, Washington, New Jersey and San Antonio (yes, I've finally conceded that my preseason pick will not win the championship) are all worse than expected, while Oklahoma City, Memphis, Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta are all better. But I'm going with Milwaukee and Denver as the biggest surprises. Before the season, I saw the Bucks as struggling for a playoff spot, and now they have a chance to win a first-round series. I saw the Nuggets as a group ripe for implosion, but there they are -- the answer to this week's first question.
Hughes: On the positive side, everybody in the league is mesmerized by just how quickly the Thunder have developed. I certainly did not see them becoming this successful so quickly. Durant's star power has risen exponentially, and Russell Westbrook is pretty good as well. From a negative perspective, I just can't figure out what is happening in Toronto. The Raptors' roster suggests they should be far better than they are. People roll their eyes when talking about team chemistry, but the Raptors are the perfect example of a bunch of talented pieces not fitting together for whatever reason.
Mannix: How can you not be surprised by Milwaukee? The Bucks practically have a season ticket to Secaucus and were expected back this year, but shrewd drafting (Brandon Jennings) and dealing (John Salmons) coupled with superior coaching (Scott Skiles), have made Milwaukee, in the eyes of many coaches and players, one of the most feared first-round opponents. Even scarier is that come next season, the Bucks can parlay all of their expiring contracts into assets that could make them conference title contenders next spring.
4. Say the Bobcats make the playoffs for the first time in history. Which player will have the biggest impact on their postseason run?
Thomsen: It's probably going to be a short run, and right now it's impossible to guess who they may face on the road in the playoffs. But Stephen Jackson showed in Golden State's first-round upset of No. 1 Dallas in 2007 that he can raise his game and overwhelm a favorite. He doesn't have Baron Davis alongside him this time, however.
McCallum: It has to be Jackson. He is the one with postseason experience, the one with a championship ring and the one his teammates will be looking to in the playoffs. He is also the one Larry Brown will be screaming at, but you have to let this guy play his game. I still recall his performance for the Spurs in the 2003 Finals when he made turnover after turnover interspersed by big shot after big shot.
Hughes: Without question, Jackson. He has playoff experience and has won a championship. He knows what it's like to play through the playoff pressure. At the very least, he can help guide his teammates through that.
Mannix: Jackson has had the biggest impact on their regular season, and he will have the biggest impact on their postseason. With limited playoff experience on the roster, the Bobcats will look to Jackson to provide scoring and playmaking on the floor and leadership off of it. Don't forget, Jackson has been on two different types of winners. He has a ring from his days with the powerhouse Spurs and was a leading man in the Warriors' dramatic upset of the top-seeded Mavericks. If Charlotte has a competitive series, Jackson will have something to do with it.