Roundtable: NBA's early returns

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1. We're a month into the season and a good deal of the attention has been on ... 2010. Because of that, some worthy stories have been overlooked. What under-the-radar plot line has caught your attention?

Ian Thomsen: The parity of the league. Every team in the East but Washington is within 2½ games of the playoffs. In the West, there are only five sure lottery teams -- and among them the Grizzlies, Timberwolves and Kings have commanded respect with extended stretches of play that exceeded their lowly expectations.

The Lakers, Celtics and Cavaliers are the only teams playing at .800 or better. The story of the season thus far has had the usual contenders in Detroit, New Orleans, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Utah and San Antonio (the latter two because of injuries) playing closer to the middle of the pack than anticipated.

Marty Burns: All the unoccupied seats. Just check out some of the wide patches of empty chairs in the crowd next time you tune into an NBA game. It's not just in small markets like Memphis and Indiana either. Even big cities like Philadelphia and Miami seem to be taking a hit.

I have spoken to several general managers, coaches and players about the situation over the past month. They are concerned. Nobody wants to talk about it publicly, but the general feeling is that the economic meltdown is going to have an impact on revenues and salaries over the next few years.

Jack McCallum: The degree to which the major stars on the two super teams have been able to step back, accept help from the cavalry and make their clubs even stronger. Scoring numbers for Kobe Bryant are way down, but the Lakers are better, largely because of the support Bryant has gotten from bench players such as Trevor Ariza and Jordan Farmar, never mind starters Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Derek Fisher. Much the same thing is happening with the Celtics. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, in particular, are scoring less but enjoying it more, primarily because five of the Shamrock lesser lights are averaging between 9.9 and 7.2 points per game -- Rajon Rondo, Tony Allen, Eddie House, Kendrick Perkins and Leon Powe.

Chris Mannix: Charlotte's continued ineptitude. My esteemed colleague Jack McCallum chronicled the Bobcats' history of failure two weeks ago in Sports Illustrated, but I feel I have to add my two cents. The Bobcats (6-11) are the most mismanaged franchise in the NBA, and it starts with Michael Jordan. As personnel boss, Jordan has systematically sabotaged the team's present (drafting Adam Morrison with the No. 3 pick in 2006 and Alexis Ajinca with the 20th pick in '08 were a couple of strokes of genius) and future (re-signing Gerald Wallace and Emeka Okafor to bloated extensions doesn't help Charlotte's chances of landing a top free agent) simultaneously.

Steve Aschburner:Dwyane Wade's return to dominance, while surpassing even his old self, is my under-the-radar story because -- at least until last Friday's game against Phoenix -- I hadn't realized how terrific his early season had been. I'm not just saying that because he's a fellow Marquette alum; fact is, it's embarrassing that I had stopped paying proper attention to Wade. Something to do, I guess, with the Heat's lousy 2007-08 record and the under-the-asphalt profile of their rookie coach, Erik Spoelstra.

Miami (9-9) didn't win its ninth game last season until Jan. 26, and Wade's play is the chief reason for this two months of fast-tracking. He is averaging career bests in scoring (28.7), assists (7.9), steals (2.3) and blocks (1.7), reminding covetous teams that someone other than LeBron James will be a free agent in 2010. Most encouraging is Wade's increased use of a jump shot, which means decreased use of liniments and Ace bandages for him. He still ranks second in the NBA in "and 1'' plays (21) but doesn't need a coach named Spatula nearly as much anymore. "It keeps you off the floor and it keeps you from getting banged up as much,'' Wade said in a "Eureka!'' moment the other day. See, they teach us good at the ol' alma mater.

2. What team has been the biggest surprise?

Thomsen: Denver. The Nuggets were already demoralized by their fifth consecutive loss in the first round (4-20 in those series) when they surrendered Marcus Camby in a salary dump to the Clippers. They were a horrible defensive team, and top-heavy with one-on-one scorers. But this training camp they committed to team defense, and then the trade for Chauncey Billups brought balance offensively while solidifying them defensively. They are momentarily tied for second place in the West at 12-6, and with good health this could be a rejuvenation year for both Carmelo Anthony and coach George Karl.

Burns: Atlanta. Few pundits (myself included) picked the Hawks to make the playoffs this season -- even after their surprising seven-game playoff showdown with the Celtics last spring. They just seemed too immature. But Joe Johnson has been an All-Star, Mike Bibby has provided leadership, Al Horford has been an anchor in the middle, and the acquisitions of Maurice Evans and Flip Murray have made them better defensively and on the three-point line. They even have a little swagger and toughness about them. They definitely look like a legit playoff team in the East now.

McCallum: Cleveland. Needless to say, LeBron James is having another great season, but he clicked with Mo Williams right away and the whole thing seems to have given new life to the other starters, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Delonte West and Ben Wallace. A telling stat for the Cavs: James, Ilgauskas, Wallace and Anderson Varejao are all averaging about seven rebounds. They are sharing the dirty work.

Mannix: New Jersey. The Nets were predicted by most pundits (this one included) to finish at the bottom of the East, but they have hovered around .500 all season. With a prolific dribble-drive offense spearheaded by Devin Harris, the Nets are one of seven teams averaging at least 100 points. If coach Lawrence Frank can persuade his players to play some defense (no small feat for a team loaded with subpar defenders), New Jersey could sneak into the playoffs.

Aschburner: Denver. The Nuggets were mocked and ridiculed heading into the season for salary dumping -- trading Camby, letting Eduardo Najera walk -- and not wanting to win. Then they sent Allen Iverson to Detroit, allegedly getting the lesser end of that deal by taking back a past-his-prime Billups and a fat contract commitment. But the insertion of a Grade A point guard into that lineup has worked wonders, and Nenê and Kenyon Martin up front have been versatile and productive at both ends (besides, Nenê is a great story). Karl has kept his boat unrocked so far.

3. What team has been the biggest disappointment?

Thomsen: Toronto. The Raptors have Chris Bosh playing at his best, an All-Star-worthy point guard in Jose Calderon and (before suffering an ankle injury last week) a rim protector in former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal. It's a surprise to find them at .500 in the neighborhood of the remarkable Nets and Knicks along with the Bulls and Heat. It won't be a surprise when they find their rhythm and go on an extended run.

Burns: New Orleans. It's early yet, but so far the Hornets have not looked much like the squad that finished a game behind the Lakers for the No. 1 seed in the West last season. And unlike the Spurs, Jazz or Rockets, they can't blame it on injuries. Chris Paul has done his part, but David West, Peja Stojakovic and some other key players have just not been as good as they were a year ago. At least the Sixers (still trying to work in Elton Brand), Wizards (injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood) and Clippers (general mayhem) have good excuses.

McCallum: Toronto. There are so many candidates, but I'm going with the .500 Raptors. Bosh is having a predictably monster season, but wasn't the addition of O'Neal and the maturation of Calderon supposed to turn the Raps into an Eastern contender? It hasn't. It's time for Andrea Bargnani to start playing like the No. 1 pick he was and for Anthony Parker and Jamario Moon to pick up their games. More from O'Neal when he returns would help, too.

Mannix: Philadelphia. It seemed so simple. A vaunted up-tempo offense lacking a dominant inside threat adds one of the best low-post players in the game in Brand. Instant success, right? Not really. Brand has had trouble adjusting to playing next to center/human pogo stick Samuel Dalembert. Coach Maurice Cheeks has thus far failed to successfully incorporate Brand into the offense. Team officials have privately grumbled that Brand doesn't get enough touches in the low post.

Aschburner: Chicago. Philadelphia is the quick answer, but I'm more bothered by the Bulls. With personnel that is essentially the same or better than the 2006-07 squad (which won 49 games and reached the conference semifinals), the Bulls have excused themselves from serious conversations for no good reasons. Kirk Hinrich's absence is a legit setback, but that doesn't account for Luol Deng's regression or Tyrus Thomas' failure to develop or Joakim Noah's lack of assertion. This team feels like it is paying a price for having no natural pecking order or easily defined roles for its players to slip into. Now, in Derrick Rose, Chicago has a clear No. 1 guy to run things, but doing that with a rookie necessarily requires hitting a reset button. The Bulls have wasted time and opportunity.

4. Which player stands out as needing to step up his performance?

Thomsen: Detroit's Iverson. I say this as one of the few who believes he can adapt to and embolden the Pistons' winning style. But he needs to understand that less is more, that he needs to contribute within the larger goals of the offense. He wants to transform his career much as the Celtics' All-Stars did last season, but those guys never would have skipped practice on Thanksgiving Day while the rest of their teammates were on the court working.

Burns: Houston's Tracy McGrady. Yes, he's battling a sore knee caused by offseason surgery (and will shut it down for three more weeks). But the seven-time All-Star is averaging just 15.6 points and 4.1 rebounds, the lowest numbers since his early days in Toronto.

Andre Iguodala, Luol Deng, DeShawn Stevenson and the aforementioned West/Stojakovic tandem also need to get it in gear. But given the high stakes, both for his team and for his own status in the game, McGrady has to be No. 1 on the list. The Rockets need him to regain his superstar form if they are going to finally break through in the West.

McCallum: New Orleans' Stojakovic. He's below 40 percent on both his field-goal and three-point shooting and that's a major reason that the Hornets, though starting to play better, are only 9-6. Paul's penetration/kickout game won't mean much if the Hornets don't convert their perimeter shots. I concede that I'm a tad sensitive about the Hornets since I picked them to win the championship.

Mannix: Toronto's O'Neal. I know he's hurt and that a lot of miles have been logged on those 30-year-old tires, but Toronto had to be expecting more from O'Neal than 12.4 points on 41.6 percent shooting. Bosh is playing like an MVP candidate, but if Toronto's playoff history is any indication, he can't do it alone. First and foremost, O'Neal needs to find a way to stay on the floor; when he's out there, he has to be the complementary star Toronto thought it was acquiring last summer.

Aschburner: Philadelphia's Iguodala. He was supposed to be better than 13.0 ppg and 39.8 percent shooting. It said so, I believe, right there in his six-year, $80 million contract extension. Getting Brand was supposed to help Iguodala by making him the 76ers' second or third scoring option. But he is ill-suited to play shooting guard -- weak perimeter shot -- and his ability to get to the rim has been blunted by Brand's spot and need for touches in the low post. Some even wonder if his dobber is down from slipping in stature. Tough. Brand is going nowhere, so it's on I guodala to reinvent himself.