Roundtable: LeBron top defender?

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lebron-james.p1.jpg NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All records are through Monday.)

1. There's been talk that LeBron James deserves consideration for the Defensive Player of the Year award. Are you buying it?

Ian Thomsen: He will be in that talk because he is driven to win titles and defense will get him there. No one -- not even Dwight Howard -- has yet to surpass Kevin Garnett defensively, but James should be recognized for his leadership of one of the league's dominant defenses.

Jack McCallum: I'm not. James is an excellent off-the-ball defender. His intelligence, instincts and athleticism enable him to swoop in and create chaos at every spot on the floor. But there are more disruptive forces both in the interior (Howard and Garnett) and on the perimeter (Ron Artest and Shane Battier). And you know what? I'm not sure the other MVP candidates -- Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant -- aren't as good as LeBron. That's no knock on James, but rather an acknowledgement that we live in an era of four spectacular all-around players. Bless us.

Chris Mannix: Come on. Let's not get carried away. Is LeBron a better defender? Yes. Everyone who played on the U.S. Olympic team improved their defense this season. But I can rattle off a handful of better defensive players. Garnett. Howard. Artest. Battier. Bryant. To me, James ranks well behind them. Now, does he have the tools to become a great defender? Absolutely. His freakish athleticism makes him an almost bottomless well of potential. But one summer spent with Bryant and Jason Kidd doesn't make him a great defender. It just makes the beginning of one.

Steve Aschburner: LeBron doesn't just deserve consideration for the award, he deserves a time-share on it, at least. Howard can make a persuasive case as this season's dominant big man on the defensive end -- his rebounds and blocks speak loudly, issuing plenty of denials. But James has been an outstanding defender from the wing, and while his chasing down of opponents' shots seems a little like grandstanding, it sure has been effective. Enough that penetrators better be looking over their shoulders, which is a tough way to finish any field-goal attempt, even layups. And in what might seem a rich-get-richer thing, I give James extra credit because, let's face it, he could have coasted at his previous defensive level rather than boosting that area of his game.


2. Detroit's Allen Iverson, who is close to returning from a back injury, will become a free agent after the season. What kind of team do you expect him to play for next season -- a contender or a lottery team looking for a box-office draw?

Ian Thomsen: I have no idea. The market will be tough to forecast for a peaking big man like Carlos Boozer. So where will Iverson fit in and at what price? I'm guessing he'll be attractive on a short-term deal to a lottery team. But there's really no way to guess until it becomes clear how many teams are willing to spend.

Jack McCallum: There's a difference between "expect" and "should." Iverson should play for a contending team that will give him a mid-level contract, well below the $21.9 million salary that wraps up his old contract at the end of this season. But I expect that, given the history of the NBA, one of the teams near the bottom of the payroll scale (such as Memphis, the Clippers and Minnesota) will buy into that old seduction that a superstar -- even a faded one near the end of his career -- shall make you whole and fill your seats.

Chris Mannix: It's an interesting question. Iverson has told me several times that he's not interested in a career as a role player. If he feels that he's no longer capable of being a significant contributor, he will hang 'em up. But I don't get the feeling that Iverson is interested in putting up big numbers for a lottery club. Losing with that kind of regularity just isn't in his DNA. So I think he'll split the difference. I think Iverson will look for a contending team that needs a scoring combo guard. The Spurs, who have never shied away from adding a veteran they thought could add something to the mix, are one possibility. The Lakers, who have no need for a traditional point guard, are another. I don't believe money will be an issue; Iverson has made plenty in his career. I think he will look for the best possible situation, grab something around the mid-level exception and try to close his Hall of Fame career with a championship.

Steve Aschburner: I'll go with the latter, only because it's harder for me to imagine the former. Iverson has been one of the NBA's best all-time, self-contained superstars ever, particularly among guys less than 6-foot-10. He is a constant, requiring all around him to adjust -- his best seasons with the 76ers, especially 2000-01, came when their roster was full of guys adapting to AI. Doing that for Iverson in his prime, at the peak of his powers, was one thing; finding a contender willing to do it now would be tougher. That's why he seems like he's most fit for the sideshow circuit now (if a club can earn back his salary), with the best teams unlikely to risk their winning formulas at this stage of AI's career.


3. What team has been the biggest disappointment this season?

Ian Thomsen: The Wizards' collapse was alarming though explainable by injuries to starters Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood, who have yet to play this season. But how to explain what has become of the Clippers? They've been hurting too, of course, but there is no way they should be this bad with that roster.

Jack McCallum: "Disappointment" implies a fall from a relatively high place, and after much consideration for both Phoenix and Golden State, I'm going with Toronto. The Raptors were a .500 team last season and seemed on the move in an Eastern Conference where upward mobility is a distinct possibility. After getting his gold medal, forward Chris Bosh was ready to move into the ranks of the truly elite. With the T.J. Ford-to-Indiana deal, the decks were cleared for point guard Jose Calderon to quarterback an up-and-coming team that was ready to challenge for at least home-court advantage in the first round. And to top it all off, there was Jermaine O'Neal, the prize of the Ford deal, to team up with Bosh and give the Raptors a boffo frontcourt. (I think they say "boffo" in Canada; I'll check on it.)

But none of it came out very boffo, especially the acquisition of O'Neal, who was traded last month to Miami for Shawn Marion. Coach Sam Mitchell was the casualty -- not that he was ever a bench genius -- and Canadian-born Jay Triano, still a favorite of management, has not yet proved he can turn things around. Bosh is having a fine statistical season but seems to lack fire. The team is soft on the boards and struggles on defence. (They do sometimes write "defence" that way in Canada.) Bosh is a big part of that already famous 2010 free-agent class, and the 25-45 Raptors might just be ready to blow it all up by then.

Chris Mannix: The Pistons are the easy answer -- a seventh straight conference finals appearance probably isn't in their future -- but I was in the camp that said they were effectively sacrificing this season for future cap flexibility by trading Chauncey Billups for Allen Iverson in November. So I'm going with Philadelphia. The Sixers had a strong second half last season, and the addition of Elton Brand was supposed to complement their prolific running game and make them an East contender. Instead, Brand struggled adapting to the up-tempo style before a shoulder injury ended his season. The Sixers will still make the playoffs but they probably won't be the factor many experts expected them to be.

Steve Aschburner: Philadelphia. My first instinct is to look below the cutoff for playoff spots, ninth and lower in each conference. Hmm ... Phoenix, big disappointment. But then, it wasn't clear what the Suns were trying to pull off from the start. OK, Golden State; yeah, I expected better. But Monta Ellis' injury required an adjustment to the expectations for these guys. Beyond that, I didn't anticipate much from the other lottery-bound clubs, so my answer can't be found there. New Orleans trading away Tyson Chandler, to me, was a serious breach of trust with Hornets and NBA fans, who had high hopes for that club and figured extreme winning -- besides just being a lot of fun -- would fix a lot of the market concerns there. Still, Chandler got returned to them, so the Hornets still have a chance to make things right. That's why I'm going with Philadelphia. The 76ers were supposed to be some sort of Celtics revisited, a proud Eastern Conference franchise revived by importing a world-class power forward (Elton Brand) to team with two other stars (Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller). And y'know, it's been just like the '07-08 Celtics -- except for the losing and the injuries and the clash of styles and the coaching change and the uncertain future.


4. What also-ran has the best chance to contend for a playoff spot next season?

Ian Thomsen: I'm going with the Wizards as next season's version of this year's Heat, based on the healthy returns of Arenas and Haywood, a high draft pick (which could be dealt) and a new coach. Before this season, the Wizards had made the playoffs four consecutive years.

Jack McCallum: I don't see an obvious candidate. Perhaps the return of Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut next season could get Milwaukee to, oh, seventh place. If the Thunder could reach about 30 wins, I'm sure they would feel good about their season, but is there reason to believe they could get near 45 the following season? I don't think so. But since I have to pick someone, I'll go with Phoenix. The return of a healthy Amar'e Stoudemire should make the Suns (who trail the eighth-place Mavericks by three games with 12 to play) a viable sixth-place team, provided management doesn't blow things up. And it might.

Chris Mannix: There are six teams in the East with sub-.500 records contending for the final playoff spot, so for the purposes of answering this question I'm going to ignore that conference ... and say Oklahoma City. Yes, Oklahoma City. I'd be far more confident in this prediction if the Tyson Chandler trade had gone through (talk about a team that needs a defensive-minded center), but GM Sam Presti has assembled a young, versatile roster headlined by a franchise-player-in-the-making in Kevin Durant. Presti also has two first-round picks in the June draft and about $15 million in cap space to use this summer. Some things have to break their way -- Durant has to develop into a complete player, at least one first-round pick has to contribute and dynamic rookie Russell Westbrook has to stop handling basketballs like Clifford Franklin caught footballs in The Replacements -- but the Thunder could make some noise next season.

Steve Aschburner: Milwaukee. The Bucks already have done themselves proud by how well they've held up since Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut and Luke Ridnour have gone down. The other players have picked up major slack and will benefit from experiencing more responsibility, and coach Scott Skiles has Milwaukee playing hard. Now that is something worth tweeting about, Charlie V!