1. Will the Pistons be a better team with Allen Iverson than they were with Chauncey Billups?
Thomsen: I think I'm in the minority on this one, but I believe they could be better. The Pistons need energy in the playoffs and I can see Iverson providing that. This is his best, and maybe last, shot at a championship. Plus, he's playing for a new contract. It is the perfect circumstance in which to employ him, and he'll do anything he can manage to adapt to the larger goals of the team.
Burns: While Iverson will provide a needed spark, and the trade has great long-term benefits, I don't think it's going to get Detroit past the Celtics or Cavs in the Eastern Conference this season. Iverson is a scoring machine and a future Hall of Famer. But he's not a true point guard (as Larry Brown learned in Philly before he moved him off the ball, a move that resulted in the team's trip to the Finals). The Pistons are going to miss Billups' ability to distribute the ball and his bigger body on defense.
McCallum: The 32-year-old Billups has no doubt lost a step or two, while the 33-year-old Iverson has lost only half a step, an odds-defying reality considering how much he gets banged around. Then, too, Billups has not been able to really deliver in the postseason since 2004, the year Detroit won the championship and he was MVP of the Finals, and he has three guaranteed years remaining on a big contract. That suggests this was a business decision, perhaps even a wise one. But the question is about wins and losses, not business, and even with Billups' decline, I don't see how the acquisition of Iverson makes the Pistons better. When they did make an official point-guard switch, I figured they would just hand the ball to Rodney Stuckey, who is more than ready to lead. However, I add this coda: If Joe Dumars thinks it will work, maybe it will.
Mannix: In a word, no. The Pistons probably weren't title contenders with Billups anyway; Boston is still head and shoulders above them and Cleveland looks poised to vault past them this year. But at the core of the Pistons' success the last six seasons has been their defense, and as one Eastern coach told me Monday night, "Iverson is a defensive liability." The addition of Iverson certainly makes Detroit an interesting offensive bunch, and if Antonio McDyess pulls a Brent Barry and returns to Detroit after the Nuggets waive him, the deal becomes more palatable. But at the end of the day, the Pistons won't leapfrog the Celtics (yet) with an inexperienced Stuckey playing more minutes at the point and an aging Iverson filling in at both guard positions. It's just not enough.
2. What do you make of how Mike D'Antoni has benched two longtime NBA starters in Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry?
Thomsen: It instant-messages the team that D'Antoni is going to be a firm leader. Marbury is unpopular in the locker room, and the move to bench him will be appreciated by the same players who didn't like seeing Marbury welcomed back early last season after he briefly left the team. Curry hasn't been in shape despite knowing the demands of D'Antoni's rapid style of play, so the team moves on without him while Zach Randolph exploits scoring opportunities by sprinting up the floor.
Burns: As they say at La Scala, "Bravo!" for D'Antoni. D'Antoni's mandate in New York is to rebuild for long-term success. If it means angering a couple of players, or even losing a few more games in the short term, so be it.
McCallum: The benching of Curry and Marbury was absolutely not a surprise. Curry showed up like a blimp, and Marbury was never in the Knicks' plans. Too much baggage from the previous administration. However, the scenarios will play out differently. Marbury will be gone, one way or another, but Curry will be in the rotation eventually. They have to play Curry, even with all his excess avoirdupois, because they are too small and too bereft of points inside without him.
Mannix: Over the last two seasons, no team has personified the "inmates running the asylum" cliché more than the Knicks. Marbury abandons his teammates in Phoenix and Isiah Thomas plays him 34 minutes the next night. Curry can't defend a lamppost and averages fewer rebounds than Quentin Richardson, and Thomas starts him in 58 of the 59 games he played last season. D'Antoni is finally holding them accountable for what they are: underachieving, overpaid malcontents.
3. What are reasonable expectations for Greg Oden when he returns from a foot injury?
Thomsen: Expect very little. The Trail Blazers should demand as much. He has been out a long time and he's very young. The Blazers are a young franchise from their front office all the way down to the backcourt. All of them have a lot to learn and prove before they'll contend for a championship, so it's not like Oden's development is holding them back from realizing their potential. Give him time.
Burns: At this point, Blazers fans would probably settle for Oden just making it through a single game. But assuming the oft-injured 7-footer avoids the Martin/Walton/Bowie curse and makes it back on the court this season, 10 points and 10 rebounds per game would not be unreasonable. Oden's biggest contributions were never going to be about big numbers anyway. His role for this current Portland team was to be a dominating interior presence, a huge body to defend the post, block shots and control the backboards. If he can provide that dimension right away, Blazers fans should be more than happy.
McCallum: To be a guy who stays healthy and gives them 28 minutes a game of solid shot-blocking, lane-clogging defense. I honestly believe the Blazers would settle for that at this point.
Mannix: Oden should be expected to defend like Russell and score like Wilt. Kidding, of course, but the expectations for him have been pretty ridiculous recently. The truth is, the player Oden should strive to be like as a rookie is the man everyone dreads comparing him to: Sam Bowie. He was a solid, capable starting center as a rookie in 1984-85, averaging 10.0 points and 8.6 rebounds. Oden has the tools to be great. But he's 20 years old. Let's give him some time to get there.
4. Don Nelson just signed a two-year extension with the Warriors. Through Monday, he needed 52 victories to pass Lenny Wilkens as the NBA's all-time wins leader. He's been denied a few times already in Hall of Fame voting. Would the record clinch his spot in the Hall? Should he already be in without the record? Would the record still not be enough?
Thomsen: I've never understood this strange idea of electing coaches while they're still active. There's no hurry to install Nellie in the Hall of Fame while he's still working on his record (having recently signed an extension, no less). He is absolutely a Hall of Fame coach, much as a player with 3,000 hits or a pitcher with 300 wins is automatically invited to Cooperstown. Not only has Nellie won an astonishing number of games, but he also has been one of the most innovative coaches in NBA history. He improved basketball at the highest level, and he also won a FIBA World Championship for the United States in 1994. He hasn't -- and won't -- win a championship as an NBA coach, but that shouldn't be a deal-breaker.
Burns: Forget the all-time wins record. Nelson should be in the Hall anyway. Like him or not, the man has left a rather large impact over his 30 years on the NBA sideline. And we're not just talking about that hair that could withstand a raging hurricane. Nellie has all those victories, three Coach of the Year awards (tying Pat Riley for most all time) and a résumé with two impressive franchise turnarounds (Golden State and Dallas). He's also been one of the league's true characters for a long time. The Mad Scientist helped popularize small ball, the point forward, Run TMC, fish ties and countless oddball matchups. It's hard to imagine visiting the coaches' wing of the Hall of Fame in 20 years and not seeing Nelson's weathered mug in there.
McCallum: I never drank the Nellie Kool-Aid as some have. He's helped many teams overachieve, but I think he's messed up some good ones because he can't stop tinkering and he tends to create storylines that surround himself. Players hate that. However, for innovation alone, for a guy who has won with several teams and in several different ways, he has to be a Hall of Famer. You don't name five contemporary coaches without naming Nellie. He should already be in, so he will most assuredly be in after he gets the record.
Mannix: Sure, he hasn't won a championship as a coach and his playoff record is a less-than-stellar 75-91, but 30 years in coaching and a .573 winning percentage make Nelson a Hall of Famer in my book. The record is just icing on the cake.
5. Danny Granger just signed a five-year extension with the Pacers worth up to $65 million. Do you view him as franchise-player material?
Thomsen: He is not a franchise or elite player, and the contract reflects that -- he didn't get max money. Granger is the Pacers' best player, and they can't afford to lose him. A lot has gone wrong in that franchise and he is one of the promising assets. This contract should confirm that he has the backing of his organization, so if he does have greatness in him, there are no excuses to prevent him from achieving it. He needs to improve his ball handling, post play and defense. That's asking a lot -- remember that he was a mid-first-round pick with low expectations -- but even if he doesn't become one of the top players in the game, he is still well worth keeping.
Burns: Granger reminds me of Andre Iguodala and Luol Deng. They are all good, young small forwards who could be highly valuable supporting players on a championship team. But none has really shown himself to be a "franchise player" -- at least not yet. Granger showed last year that he can shoot the ball (40 percent from three-point range), slash to the basket and hold his own on defense (at least against smaller forwards). He has improved in each of his first four seasons, and at age 25 is headed into his prime. But Granger doesn't create a lot of scoring chances for others, so at this point he looks more like a really good second banana.
McCallum: By "franchise player" I'm going to take it to mean a player who a) is the rock upon which the franchise will build, and b) has the skills and talent to lift that franchise to a winning situation. I believe he's A, but not B. So I'm going to say no.
Mannix:Kevin Garnett is a franchise player. Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwight Howard -- these are franchise players. Granger has the makings of a strong No. 2 player, a Scottie Pippen type who can carry a team when he has to ... but one who needs a more potent sidekick to take a team to the next level. I don't blame Pacers boss Larry Bird for giving Granger $64 million; it's very possible he would have had to pay even more to keep Granger once he hit the open market. But Bird now has to be shrewd with his draft picks, because he will need a superior supporting cast if he is planning to build a team around Granger.