1. In the previous two seasons, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups and Gilbert Arenas are the only three point guards to make the All-Star team in the Eastern Conference. Kidd and Billups are no longer in the conference and Arenas has been sidelined all season with a knee injury. Who is the best active point guard in the East right now?
Ian Thomsen: New Jersey's Devin Harris. Not only is he putting up All-Star numbers far beyond expectations, but also his leadership has turned the Nets into an early 11-8 playoff contender. This is a team that was expected (by me, at least) to finish last in the conference. Right now, I'd list the three All-Star point guards in the East as Harris, Chicago's Derrick Rose and Boston's Rajon Rondo, with Toronto's Jose Calderon marginalized (despite his excellent numbers) because his team is underperforming.
Jack McCallum: Let me get all the grizzled vets mad at me right away: The Bulls' Rose is the best point guard in the East. Right now! Next comes the only guy with a ring, Rondo. Wrestling for third and fourth places are the improving Harris and Calderon. The greatest player among them, of course, is Detroit's Allen Iverson, a future Hall of Famer. But I've never been able to honestly says the phrase point guard Allen Iverson. It just isn't his position even though he plays it.
Chris Mannix: The competition is stiff, but my vote goes to Harris, who has been close to unstoppable since Nets coach Lawrence Frank revamped the offense to take advantage of the point guard's penetrating abilities. He has six 30-plus point scoring games (after having none in the previous four years) and joins with Vince Carter to form the NBA's highest-scoring backcourt. And it's not as though his numbers are coming at the expense of his team: The Nets, picked by everyone with a pulse to finish at the bottom of the conference, are one of the league's biggest surprise stories.
Steve Aschburner: I've been an Andre Miller man from way back, dating to his All-America playmaking days at Utah under Rick Majerus. That's why I'm baffled by his lagging assists average and inaccurate shooting -- adding Elton Brand to the Sixers should free Miller more than ever to pass more and get better scoring opportunities. I'll attribute it for now to a long learning curve and count on seeing, at age 32, some vintage Miller over the season's next three quarters.
2. True or false: At the season's quarter pole the Western Conference playoff race is already down to nine teams, with no hope for Memphis, Golden State, Sacramento, Minnesota, the Clippers and Oklahoma City.
Thomsen: True. Those six teams are already at least six games behind Nos. 7 and 8 Dallas and San Antonio (who are tied at 11-8), and -- even worse -- nine games below .500. I can't imagine any of these teams executing the kind of blockbuster trade needed to turn their season right side up. The Clippers were the one team geared to win now, and they've already reacted to their bad start by trading for Zach Randolph. But they'll have to go 37-24 just to get back to .500, and even that will probably leave them short of the playoffs. The season-long race is going to be far more interesting in the East, where the No. 14 Bobcats are only 2½ games out of the No. 8 spot.
McCallum: Oh, so true! You know, with all the talk about how good the best teams in the West are, what we've suddenly overlooked is how absolutely execrable the bottom teams are. Certainly, based on past performance, logic would say the Warriors can go on a tear. But I don't see it.
Mannix: True. A very good team in the West will be left out of the playoff picture, but it will be only one. All six of the aforementioned teams are in full rebuilding mode and have no hope of competing for a playoff berth. The Warriors may get a bounce after Monta Ellis comes back, but coach Don Nelson has been telling reporters that he doesn't believe Golden State is a playoff team this year.
Aschburner: True. Sad, too. Golden State is by far the biggest disappointment, some of it -- but not all of it -- attributable to losing Baron Davis (permanently) and Ellis (temporarily). The Clippers are a close second in underachieving. And those two are the "bridge'' teams, the only ones that were really capable at the season's start of breaking through. The others can have their own little lottery competition, but pardon us if we don't check back until May.
3. The 76ers and Raptors both entered the season with expectations of contending for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Instead, each team is languishing below .500. Which club is more likely to turn it around?
Thomsen: The Raptors have more players who are ready to win sooner than later, while the Sixers are younger and lack the shooting of Toronto. Each franchise has tried to upgrade its perimeter-based roster by adding a low-post star -- whether it's Brand in Philly or Jermaine O'Neal in Toronto -- to provide the half-court scoring that ultimately will be needed to get past the first round of the playoffs. Both are going to make the playoffs, health permitting, but there has to be more pressure on the Raptors to turn it around quickly with so many rivals hoping to recruit Chris Bosh as a free agent in 2010.
McCallum: Now that is a good question. I'm going to say Toronto for two reasons. Their superstar, Bosh, is more at the top of his game than Philly's superstar, Brand. And the Raptors' top point guard, Calderon, is more likely to get a lot better than the Sixers', Miller.
Mannix: Philadelphia. The Sixers can't be this bad for this long. Not with a high-octane running game and one of the best low-post players in the game in Brand. Maybe a coaching change is needed: General manager Ed Stefanski didn't hire Mo Cheeks and his willingness to only give him one-year extensions shows that he isn't ready to commit in the long term quite yet. But the Sixers need to dump the ball into Brand on virtually every half-court possession. Let him operate down there. If they do, they have the type of talent to make a strong run in the second half of the season.
Aschburner: Beyond my respect for Miller's game and his room for improvement, there's always urgency for a Philadelphia team to pick up the pace. Andre Iguodala has been below the radar and Brand, while coping with a nagging hamstring injury, needs to assert some of the leadership for which the Sixers hired him. As for the Raptors, I was skeptical from the start about how much O'Neal had left, and the disconnect between general manager Bryan Colangelo's and former coach Sam Mitchell's preferred style was certain to prolong Toronto's development.
4. What do you make of the fact that four coaches -- Oklahoma City's P.J. Carlesimo, Washington's Eddie Jordan, Toronto's Mitchell and Minnesota's Randy Wittman -- have been fired in the first six weeks of the season?
Thomsen: The circumstances are different. The Raptors and Wizards viewed themselves as underperforming playoff teams that needed a change in leadership in order to remain in contention. In both Oklahoma City and Minnesota, the fear was that their wealth of young players were going to waste this year developing bad habits while tuning out their coach.
In all cases, the dynamic is the same: The players are hardware, and the coach is software. Do you want to overhaul the infrastructure at enormous effort and expense? Of course not. The easier path is to uninstall Windows XP (known in Oklahoma as Carlesimo) and replace it with Linux (i.e. Scott Brooks) in hopes of getting the network back up to speed. Not that it's inexpensive to change out the NBA coaching software. The old OS cost a fortune that can't be recouped, while the new product key is an eight-figure number preceded by a "$."
McCallum: I make it business as usual. And were they not veteran coaches with a lot of power, certainly the Warriors' Nelson and the Clippers' Mike Dunleavy would be on somebody's chopping block.
Mannix: Carlesimo was barely coaching the Thunder. Mitchell wasn't getting enough out of the Raptors. Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld was looking for an excuse to make a change after coming to the realization that Jordan can't/won't coach defense. Wittman, after tanking as a head coach Cleveland, showed no ability to properly develop Minnesota's core of young players. That's it, really. Though you can make the argument that Jordan should not have been blamed for Washington's injury woes, all of these coaches were on the hot seat because of a lack of performance. And that lack of performance got them fired. Reggie Theus, you could be next.
Aschburner: Business as usual. Of the four coaches fired, you could say that two -- Carlesimo and Wittman -- began the season on borrowed time anyway. There were questions about whether Carlesimo would return after last season's 20-62 finish in Seattle, and Wittman already had lost heavily in 1½ seasons in Minnesota (where much of the blame belonged higher up with team builder Kevin McHale and owner Glen Taylor). Mitchell wasn't Colangelo's choice in Toronto and their difference of opinion on, say, Andrea Bargnani was a constant reminder of that. Only Jordan's ouster caught me by surprise.