1. The Bulls are giving the Celtics a much tougher fight than many expected in the first round. Are we witnessing the rise of a new Eastern Conference power or merely a young team taking advantage of an injured one?
Jack McCallum: Why does this question sound familiar? Ah, yes, because we were asking the same thing a couple of years ago when it seemed like the Deng-Hinrich-Gordon-Nocioni combo was going to produce a power along the lines of, say, the balanced Detroit Pistons of the early 2000s. It didn't happen.
But though I'm not fully on the Chicago bandwagon yet, I think it could happen. For two reasons: The East is still weak, and Derrick Rose is the real deal, a transformative player. The Bulls should be disappointed if they do not leapfrog into the top four of the conference next season.
Chris Mannix: I'm going to straddle the fence on this one and say both. No question Chicago is better than everyone thought. Brad Miller and John Salmons have given the Bulls toughness and scoring, respectively. Meanwhile, Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas have become one of the most active frontcourts in the league. But Boston's locker room looks like a medical ward. Its front line has been decimated by injuries -- consider that the return of reserve forward Brian Scalabrine is a heavily discussed topic in Boston -- and the defense just doesn't function without Kevin Garnett. Depending on how they play their cards in the offseason, the Bulls could be a team to watch in 2009-10, but we shouldn't read too much into this series against a Boston team that, if healthy, would probably win this series in five games.
Steve Aschburner: Chicago has a real future with this group, assuming Luol Deng returns to his '06-07 form and it finds someone willing to specialize as a defensive stopper. Andres Nocioni, especially the before-he-got-paid version, would be perfect in this mix. I'm convinced that Rose can blossom as a floor leader, and his heart pumps Prestone in terms of his ability to stay cool and calm under pressure. Noah has shown me more than I expected, and Thomas, if he can consistently hit a 15-foot shot and defend on the ball (he's fine as a dunker and a weakside shot blocker), sounds ready to grow up as a player, too. They still fill the stands at United Center, so I'm assuming the financial commitment to win exists. So I'm buying this stock.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Rising star -- Rose -- yes. Rising power, no. It's impossible to rely on one starter, Ben Gordon, as part of the future because he's about to become a free agent. It's impossible to rely on two other starters, Noah and Thomas, because they're Noah and Thomas. The Bulls are pulling together a nice series, but let's hope this isn't what qualifies as a rising power.
2. Put on your GM cap for a moment. Ron Artest is a free agent this summer. Considering how well, and quietly, he has helped the Rockets keep winning without Tracy McGrady, would you have any reservations about signing him to a lucrative deal?
Jack McCallum: Of course I'd have reservations. There are maybe three players in the league -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant -- about whom you don't have some reservations about signing or re-signing, be they reservations based on injury, chemistry or aging. Artest's history is that he's beloved when he arrives at a franchise, and all kinds of "Wow, Ronnie is such a great guy, we can't believe some of the stuff that was written about him" stories come out before he starts screwing up. It happened in both Indiana and Sacramento.
But, ultimately, the Rockets should (and will) re-sign him. I do believe he's a good guy at heart, perhaps he's matured, and without McGrady (whom they should get rid of), Artest is an absolutely necessary cog in their machine.
Chris Mannix: You always have some reservations when you are talking about hitching your wagon to Artest, but in this situation, they are minimal. Artest has been a solid citizen this season and arguably the Rockets' most valuable player. He's scored when he has needed to, and when paired with Shane Battier, he gives Houston the toughest 1-2 defensive tandem in the league. When you factor in that Yao Ming loves him, it's a slam dunk. There will be a market for the 29-year-old Artest this summer, but with the fractured economy and with teams clearing cap space for '10, I think Artest will be back.
Steve Aschburner: Despite his quirks and past distractions, as well as what I find to be his frequently aggravating shot selection, I've been convinced that he plays hard, he plays defense and he wants to win, which puts him ahead of many more user-friendly players in one, two or all three of those categories.
Scott Howard-Cooper: It's Artest. Of course I have reservations. My reservations have reservations. Artest is only worth the risk if he's the potential difference between winning a championship and falling just short, and even then I'm thinking three guaranteed years, max. There's no reason for a pretty good team or a lottery team to make a deal. No way I'm blowing Executive of the Year for a long tour of the Ron-Ron funhouse.
3. In a week in which Cleveland's Mike Brown won the Coach of the Year award in part because of his willingness to relax his control on his team, Orlando's Stan Van Gundy has received some criticism because he exerts too much control. How can an NBA coach best maintain the ear of his team and who excels at it?
Jack McCallum: After this, we'll go on to something easy ... like the answer to the financial crisis. There are many possible responses to this, but let's try one: You get the ear, the heart and the mind of your best player ... or at least two out of three. A coach's relationship with the superstar -- think Gregg Popovich with Tim Duncan, Doc Rivers last season with his Big Three, Mike D'Antoni with Steve Nash when the Suns were rolling -- is the most important aspect of a coach's job, and maybe James and Brown just needed a few years to get to the place where they clicked. A coach sells his program to the superstar and the star sells it to everybody else. Over the years, be it with Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson has proved to be clearly the best at it.
As for Van Gundy, well, let's see how far he gets before busting on the job he's done.
Chris Mannix: Much of a coach's style depends on his personnel. NBA coaches need to be chameleons. For teams that need discipline, they crack the whip; for teams that need a softer touch, they give it to them. I don't think any coach has mastered it. Jackson is the most successful active coach, but his teams have been laden with stars. Popovich has earned the respect of all his San Antonio teams by treating the 12th man like he treats his best player. But coaching is a lot easier when you have an unselfish linchpin like Duncan. Personally, I like what Brown did this season. Brown delegated a lot of the coaching responsibilities to assistant coaches John Kuester (offense) and Mike Malone (defense). Players can get tired of hearing one voice over and over again; in Cleveland, there are three.
Steve Aschburner: The best way to keep your players' ears as an NBA coach is to be unassailable in status, job security and achievement. That makes Jackson No. 1 in my view. The next-best way to do it is to have ultimate control over their job security, to determine in advance who gets in the door and to decide how long they stay. That makes Popovich a very close No. 2. Beyond that, it's all dependent on contracts, egos and ownership's philosophy, so you might as well say the other 28 are tied for third place.
Scott Howard-Cooper: One key: Don't wear out those ears. Don't filibuster. Say what needs to be said and get out of the way. Popovich is great at it, but that's an uneven playing field compared to the rest of the league. The Spurs through the years have had players with unmatched maturity and professionalism. Pop gets loud, but he doesn't have to rail day after day. Jackson is great at it, too. You know, the guys who have won a lot. Some coincidence.
4. With Erick Dampier's recent comments about the need to foul Tony Parker hard and the Hornets accusing the Nuggets of dirty play, the issue of physicality has again surfaced in the playoffs. Does a team need to be a little dirty to win in the postseason? What teams do it best?
Jack McCallum: Yes, when I want playoff advice, I always go to that noted master of discipline Erick Dampier, a real master of mayhem. No, you do not need to be a little dirty. What you need to do is play the kind of pugnacious, relentless defense that makes opponents think you're capable of playing dirty. That's how the Celtics did it last year, and the Spurs have done it for a while. The last truly dirty team was the Bad Boy Pistons of the late '80s.
Chris Mannix: I think you need to be dirty and physical. They can't be mutually exclusive. Watch tapes of the '90s Pistons. No question, Bill Laimbeer and Dennis Rodman were dirty players. Just ask Larry Bird. But they were also very physical ones who didn't give any quarter underneath. I don't have any problem with hard fouls, as long as they are in the context of physical play. Last year's Boston team was like that. Those Celtics took some gratuitous shots at people but they also bumped and grinded as well as any team in the league. I don't see any team that has that perfect blend right now. But I bet you the team that wins the title this year comes close to it.
Steve Aschburner: A "little dirty?" I think every team in the league is a little dirty and, certainly, those who qualified among the top 16 for the postseason. For years, the standard for this was the Utah Jazz and it worked awfully well, since that team's stars -- Karl Malone and John Stockton -- set the standard for, shall we say, this sort of gamesmanship the way they did for durability, performance and proper priorities. It didn't deliver a Larry O'Brien trophy to Salt Lake City, but it got them close for a long, long time. Since Jerry Sloan seems as unchanged through time as, I dunno, an anvil, I'm going to assume that he still preaches and teaches the little niceties that -- ouch! -- tend to bend the rules.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Teams do not need to be dirty. Teams do need to be aggressive. There's a difference. The Celtics do it best with Garnett in the lineup.