1. We're about one-third of the way through the regular season. How would you assess the MVP race?
Ian Thomsen:LeBron James is the front-runner. He has never played better or been more valuable. His Cavaliers have the second-best record in the league and look for the first time like true championship contenders. Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Kevin Garnett are going to be in consideration, but this is shaping up to be LeBron's year.
Jack McCallum: There isn't much assessing to be done -- it's LeBron. Team is improved. He's improved. Kobe isn't having an MVP year. The Celtics' Big Three has too much balance. The main comp comes from Wade, and the Heat aren't good enough to make him a viable candidate.
Chris Mannix: Very tough race to call. LeBron, Kobe, Wade, and Paul have been filling stat sheets, and you can take your pick between Garnett and Paul Pierce in Boston. But let me ask this: Who among us expected Denver to be only 4½ games out of first place in the Western Conference two days before Christmas? Anyone? I know I didn't. The lion's share of the credit goes to Chauncey Billups, who has reenergized the franchise with his toughness and leadership. Billups will rarely put up gaudy numbers, but the way he has single-handedly turned Denver into a cohesive unit has been nothing short of remarkable.
Steve Aschburner: Got to go with LeBron here. He organizes and orchestrates Cleveland's offense. He is asserting himself defensively like never before. Pluck him off that team and Cleveland would plummet more in the standings than the Lakers without Bryant, the Magic without Dwight Howard or the Hornets without Paul. James is ready for his MVP close-up.
2. What is the NBA's best current rivalry?
Ian Thomsen: There's no doubt it's the renewal of the Celtics against the Lakers. Their Christmas Day game will be the biggest event of the pre-All-Star schedule, especially with the Celtics coming into Los Angeles as one of the hottest teams in ages.
In truth, it's not yet much of a rivalry, is it? Each roster is only beginning its second year of contention, so there isn't a lot of personal history between the players. But if we're looking back to the 1980s or '60s -- or (more important) ahead to their potential rematch in the NBA Finals -- then this game carries a lot of weight, as will the trio of 2009 meetings between Boston and Cleveland, which will be seeking to overtake the Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the East.
Jack McCallum: Look, anybody can say Celtics-Lakers, right? But give me Thunder-Timberwolves, baby. A combined record of 7-47. Both franchises have already fired coaches. The natives are getting restless -- well, they haven't had much time to get restless in Oklahoma City, but they expected more than this, and the shivering Twin Cities loyalists have been losing patience for a long while. Never mind Boston-L.A. on Christmas Day; it's O.C.-Minny on Jan. 7. Will their combined win total reach double figures by that time? Stay tuned.
Chris Mannix: "Current" is the operative word here, which is why I'm going with Cavs-Celtics. The Western Conference is filled with several heated rivalries like Lakers-Suns, Spurs-Suns and Spurs-Mavericks, but right now Celtics-Cavs has more electricity. The teams are just so evenly matched. It took a superior performance from Pierce and Boston in Game 7 of last season's conference semifinals to hold off an equally impressive performance from LeBron and the Cavs. I don't doubt that when the two meet this season -- likely in the Eastern Conference finals -- it will be a seven-game series won by a razor-thin margin.
Steve Aschburner: This depends on who's answering the question. David Stern would say it's Lakers vs. Lakers. Most casual NBA fans would go with Celtics vs. Lakers, which was why the Finals in June were such a hit -- and why they might be again next June. If you reside in or follow the Texas Triangle, you might name two of those three teams. Individuals add a whole 'nother layer to this, from Kobe vs. LeBron (Kobe vs. Shaq has about flickered out now) to Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni vs. Suns owner Robert Sarver. But my choice for at least the next season and a half -- or until James' current team gets his signature on a contract extension -- is Cavs-Knicks. There's something primal about this, like one guy (Cavs) fighting to keep his girlfriend away from a richer, more seductive suitor (Knicks). Yeah, that's it, it's Jimmy Stewart and CaryGrant vying for Katherine Hepburn -- except that title, The Philadelphia Story, is all wrong.
3. Which of the six interim coaches -- Toronto's Jay Triano, Minnesota's Kevin McHale, Philadelphia's Tony DiLeo, Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, Sacramento's Scott Brooks and Washington's Ed Tapscott -- has the best chance to keep his job beyond this season?
Ian Thomsen: The only way any of them can stay put is by winning games and changing the course of their franchises, and in all cases that's probably asking too much. Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Sacramento lack the talent to compete regardless of their coach. Toronto should be performing better, but the Raptors are 3-8 for Triano after starting 8-9 with Sam Mitchell. DiLeo is definitely an interim coach for the 76ers, who recently lost Elton Brand for at least the next month -- so how are they going to rally now? Maybe the return of Gilbert Arenas in January or February could produce a new winning dynamic in Washington for Tapscott, but if the 4-21 Wizards remain the worst team in the East, then they may turn even more conservative in deciding whether to bring back Arenas this season.
Jack McCallum: I'm going with Natt, mainly because the Kings have to get better. Don't they?
Chris Mannix: Can we answer none? I believed Triano had a chance to stick in Toronto, but the Raptors' recent slide makes me think general manager Bryan Colangelo will be shopping for a new coach in the offseason. The Thunder might get a boost if the Nets don't match the offer sheet for center Nenad Krstic, but Brooks is still a long shot to last beyond the season. No, I think there will be a big market for recycled coaches this summer, with Flip Saunders and Avery Johnson drawing the most interest.
Steve Aschburner: Brooks is someone who aspired to a head-coaching job. He is a guy with the perfect background and temperament, an NBA journeyman who learned the game from the inside out, with the sort of commitment, curiosity and limited natural ability that -- in baseball, for instance -- turns utility infielders into Hall of Fame managers (Sparky Anderson, Earl Weaver). Certainly, in his many stops as a player, Brooks got exposed to, and presumably borrowed from, a vast array of NBA bench bosses. Finally, he is the best fit with the roster he has and with the expectations of management and fans. The Thunder are a young team hoping to walk first, run later.
DiLeo in Philadelphia and Triano in Toronto seem like they're keeping the seat warm for bigger names of their general managers' choosing. Neither Tapscott nor McHale expressed much interest in coaching at this level prior to their steps down from the glass offices. That leaves Natt in Sacramento, where folks might crave a more experienced coach after the Reggie Theus era.