1. The Lakers lead the West by eight games, and they are 16-5 against the other seven teams in playoff position in the conference. How many of those teams would have a legitimate shot to beat the Lakers in a seven-game series?
Ian Thomsen: I suppose Utah, Houston, Denver and New Orleans could threaten L.A., but only the Spurs (my preseason pick to win the title) could knock off a healthy Lakers team. If Andrew Bynum comes back healthy and is reintegrated defensively, then the Lakers will be harder than ever to beat. They may not realize that dividend, but the Lakers are already the West's dominant team and they have a chance to upgrade at center for the playoffs.
Jack McCallum: I'm not proclaiming the Lakers an all-time super team that will absolutely roll through the competition without so much as a sideward glance. But the key word here is "legitimate." So, barring an injury to Mr. Bryant, I'm going to say "zero." The Spurs are no better than last year and couldn't get by L.A. then. The Lakers will frustrate Ron Artest, and there goes Houston. Carmelo Anthony getting the best of Kobe in a one-on-one duel? Puh-leeze, so down go the Nuggets. Portland is too young. New Orleans' mojo was better last year. While I might give a healthy Utah a shot, the Jazz have gone back into a mini-slump. And as far as the Mavericks (the presumed eighth seed) pulling an upset, get back to me if a 16 beats a 1 in the tournament.
Chris Mannix: San Antonio's injury problems concern me, particularly Manu Ginobili's ankle. It's difficult to see how the Spurs' go-to player in the fourth quarter is going to be able to stay healthy throughout what could be a grueling postseason. After watching the Lakers trounce the Spurs with a hobbled Ginobili last season, I have no confidence that San Antonio can be any more successful this year. The only real threat I see for the Lakers is New Orleans. Yes, L.A. went 3-1 against the Hornets this season, but one victory came in overtime and another was decided late in the fourth quarter. The Hornets have been rejuvenated since the Tyson Chandler trade was rescinded, and in talking to a few of their players last week, I got the feeling that they have a sense of urgency knowing this team could be broken apart after the season.
Steve Aschburner: It all depends on your definition of "legitimate shot.'' I think four of those seven teams -- San Antonio, Denver, New Orleans and Utah -- have the personnel and experience to cause the Lakers problems, if the right guy gets hot, the wrong guy gets cold or some key guy gets hurt. The postseason is to the Spurs what sunset is to the Prince of Darkness -- time to get the blood pumping. Denver has the firepower to push L.A., Utah and New Orleans have point guards who dictate tempo and apply offensive pressure. I don't see Gregg Popovich, George Karl, Jerry Sloan or Byron Scott flinching, either. Houston, Portland and Dallas? Short on savvy, flawed in personnel or both.
2. How do you see the race for the final three playoff spots in the East playing out?
Ian Thomsen: The 76ers and Pistons will cover the sixth and seventh spots. It's asking too much of the Bucks to overcome their injuries, I don't think the Knicks have enough to make a run and the absences of Devin Harris with New Jersey and Mike Dunleavy with Indiana are decisive down the stretch. Can Charlotte overtake Chicago for the final place in the playoffs? In April, the Bobcats play six of eight on the road, where they are 10-22. The Bulls, on the other hand, will be home for five of their last six while benefiting from midseason acquisitions Brad Miller and John Salmons. It's going to be Chicago.
Jack McCallum: I think it's a race for one spot. Philadelphia (fresh off a road win against the Lakers) and Detroit have too much of a cushion not to hold on to sixth and seventh. Milwaukee and New Jersey are too injured to close the deal. So for that final spot, I see a three-way race among Charlotte, Chicago and New York. The Bulls seem to have an advantageous schedule, as opposed to the Bobcats, who finish up with four on the road, one of those with Chicago. The Knicks have three games left with Orlando and an upcoming road trip with visits to Charlotte, Denver and Utah. So while I give New York a shot, I put them as the third-most-likely team to be playing at the end of April. Whatever advantage the Bulls might have in schedule is more than overcome by the steady hand of Bobcats coach Larry Brown and two veterans of Suns-Spurs playoff wars, Raja Bell and Boris Diaw. So I'm penciling in the Bobcats in a close one.
Chris Mannix: Philadelphia is a lock. And as bad as Detroit has been, I have a hard time seeing the Pistons falling completely out of the playoffs. That leaves only the eighth spot. Chicago is the trendy pick because of the Miller/Salmons trade, but Luol Deng's mysterious shin injury will sideline him for at least another week and I don't have confidence in the ability of coach Vinny Del Negro to guide a young team in a playoff race. So I'm picking New York. The Knicks are coming off a solid 3-2 road trip (I bet they wish they had that clunker in New Jersey back) and are clicking offensively. They'll win just enough to squeeze into the playoffs.
Steve Aschburner: To me, it's a race for the eighth and last spot. Philadelphia and Detroit at least have kept themselves at or above .500, separating them from Milwaukee, Chicago and the rest. The Bulls need this spot the most, based on November expectations. New York would appreciate it the most. Milwaukee should have sunk out of contention by now, so in a sense the Bucks already have achieved something. New Jersey, if it gets in, could fan LeBron-in-2010 flames for a week in a Cavs-Nets matchup.
3. Barring a late-season rally, the Suns will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2004. What should be their priorities in the offseason?
Ian Thomsen: They need to launch a wholesale turnover of the roster. They've tried to enhance Mike D'Antoni's style over the last year but they've only served to weaken the team as a whole. Owner Robert Sarver and GM Steve Kerr want a different style, so they need to make it happen sooner than later. Everyone should be available in exchange for draft picks and younger talent. But here's the problem: Shaquille O'Neal, Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire will be free agents in 2010, so the Suns need to send them where they want to go (in which case they may agree to contract extensions) or else accept less value in return, given the fact they'll merely be rented by their new teams next season.
Jack McCallum: This is the 50-point bonus question, right? Because it is not an easy one. The general assumption is that the Suns have to do something. Trade Nash! Trade Shaq! Trade Leandro Barbosa, perhaps their most tradable commodity, considering the salaries of the first two stars. So the conservative thing to do -- which is to do nothing -- is, in fact, the radical thing. Put me down for conservative. Re-up steady hand Alvin Gentry as coach. (Which is probably going to happen.) Hope that the star-crossed Stoudemire comes back strong; remember that the Suns, for all their issues, were in decent shape in the playoff race before he had eye surgery. And coax one more good year out of Shaq and Nash, who still perform at close to an all-pro level. That means that the summer of 2010, when Shaq comes off the books and Nash is also a free agent, becomes the franchise's real decision time.
Chris Mannix: How about finding an identity? Are they a running team (as they've been since Gentry took over) or a half-court team (as they tried to be under Terry Porter in the first half of the season)? Do they keep Gentry (and D'Antoni's up-tempo system) or do they again go out and try to find a coach who can create a more balanced attack? The Suns are in a very precarious position right now. Nash is nearing the end of his deal. Stoudemire, who was dangled like a worm on a hook for more than a week last month, has to be thinking about jumping ship as a free agent next year. That is, if the Suns don't trade him first. If the front office doesn't act wisely, the Suns could quickly find themselves buried at the bottom of the Western Conference.
Steve Aschburner: The Suns need to pursue rebuilding, en masse and immediately. O'Neal's resurgence is a nice story, fun to watch (on offense, anyway) and eliciting nice quotes from the big fella. But he'd be gone by now if Phoenix could have gotten what it sought for him at the trading deadline. Nash is long in the tooth and Grant Hill, despite astounding durability for him, is a supporting player only. Gentry should get a full shot at head coach, but there's no sense in trying to tweak what's here. Stoudemire, Barbosa, Robin Lopez, the No. 14 pick in the June draft and free agency are the way out for these guys now.