SI.com's NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week.
1. The Nuggets have rolled through the playoffs, losing only one game, by two points. Are the Nuggets taking advantage of overmatched opponents or are they a real threat to win the NBA title?
Ian Thomsen: As a team, the Nuggets haven't been out of the first round before last week, so it's too big a leap to think they could blow past the Lakers to the Finals. Of course, everything would change if Houston were to upset Los Angeles -- but the Rockets also have no deep-playoff understanding, and they're probably going to realize the importance of that experience as the Western semifinal with the Lakers progresses.
A big reason L.A. and Cleveland are prohibitive favorites to reach the Finals is because each has been that far already over the past couple of seasons. They know what to expect, while the Nuggets (apart from Chauncey Billups and Kenyon Martin) still have to learn the hard way.
Chris Mannix: Denver is the real deal. The Nuggets are explosive offensively (they can turn a two-point lead into a 20-point edge faster than any team still in the playoffs) and, thanks to a commitment to defense that began in training camp and was accelerated by the acquisition of Billups, they are a terrific defensive team. The questions about the Nuggets -- specifically, how their front line would hold up against a more physical team -- are still there, but thus far they have been very impressive.
Steve Aschburner: I'll admit I did a double-take when I heard Charles Barkley pick Denver as his favorite now to win the NBA championship. Then I started to warm up to the idea, and now I have just one big reservation different from what might apply to any team (that is, a star getting hurt changes everything). The Nuggets have in Billups a veteran point guard playing great, with the ability to hurt you in the half court or in transition, and the size to get physical with your playmaker. They have a big and active front line, a deep bench growing in identity and impact by the game and a potentially deadly scorer in Carmelo Anthony. My caveat? How they'll handle adversity.
If Denver falls behind in a series or if it reaches the West finals and has to navigate without home-court advantage, I wonder how its players, and even coach George Karl, will react. From what reservoirs will it draw? Still, no offense to the Lakers (and I have no idea what the TV ratings would be), but the prospects of Billups dueling Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin banging into LeBron James, Nenê battling Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Chris Andersen hooking up with Anderson Varejao -- with Karl back where he got his NBA head coaching start 15 years ago -- all are intriguing.
Scott Howard-Cooper: They are taking advantage of overmatched opponents because they are making the opponents appear overmatched. Dismiss the Nuggets at your own risk. These are earned accomplishments, not fluke advances, even with the understanding that it has been beneficial to get the Hornets and Mavericks as opposed to the Lakers, Rockets or healthy Spurs. But if you go from a regular season of tying for the second-best record in the conference, put the needle for defensive pressure into the red, and get impressive game after impressive game in the playoffs, you're a real threat. Not the favorite -- Cleveland is -- but a real threat.
2. What has surprised you most in the playoffs thus far?
Ian Thomsen: I still can't get over how well the Bulls played against Boston in the first round and how competitive the games were. When people ask whether that was the "greatest" series of them all, I think it's the wrong question because no first-round series can be ranked ahead of some of the most exciting NBA Finals (including several Lakers-Celtics meetings over the years). But that had to be the most entertaining series I've ever seen.
Chris Mannix: We knew Cleveland was good ... but this good? I didn't expect Detroit to compete with the Cavaliers in the first round, but I didn't expect the Pistons to get blown out by an average of 15.5 points per game, either. And then a 27-point blowout of the Hawks after a nine-day layoff? Allowing a solid Atlanta team to score 28 points on 30 percent shooting in the second half? That's impressive. After watching the Cavs through five games, I'm not sure any team can stop them. Not even the Lakers.
Steve Aschburner: Houston's success. I didn't even think the Rockets would beat the Trail Blazers, much less swipe Game 1 from the Lakers. Yao Ming helped himself and his teammates tremendously that night by showing resiliency after banging his knee. Ron Artest has been such a good soldier that even I'm thinking of offering him a multimillion package in free agency. And while it's a little cruel to think about Tracy McGrady's team advancing to the second round the first chance it gets in the playoffs without him, it sure is an interesting wrinkle.
Scott Howard-Cooper: I'm going Nuggets again. I was a non-believer much of the season. I thought Denver was pretty good, but also picked its first-round opponent, the Hornets, as the sleeper heading into the playoffs. I thought Denver was pretty good, but also untested in the postseason, and therefore undependable. I thought Denver was pretty good, but also a risk to become unhinged. So to be this commanding has to be a surprise.
3. Which player is doing the most to help his team win in the playoffs while receiving the least attention?
Ian Thomsen: In the West, it might be Rockets power forward Luis Scola, who has been relentlessly aggressive in the playoffs and averaged a team-best 16.2 points in their breakthrough series win against Portland. On the other side of the bracket, Celtics center Kendrick Perkins is producing 12.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks in the postseason, and he outplayed Orlando's Dwight Howard in Boston's Game 2 victory Wednesday.
Chris Mannix: To me, it's Perkins. Take a look at Boston's front line: Kevin Garnett and Leon Powe are in suits, Brian Scalabrine is one concussion away from Billy Bob territory and Mikki Moore serves Boston better from the bench than in the lineup. That leaves Boston's frontcourt, once an unquestioned strength of the team, with Perkins and the undersized (vertically) Glen Davis. Perkins quietly averaged a double-double (13.3 points, 11.6 rebounds) in the first round while contending with Chicago's active big men. Against Orlando, Perkins is being asked to defend Howard one-on-one, a job he did admirably for 31 minutes Wednesday. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo will get most of the credit if the Celtics advance, but there is no way any of it could happen without Perkins' physical play.
Steve Aschburner: Carmelo Anthony has been way under the radar. First of all, hardly anyone saw the Nuggets' first-round series against New Orleans, banished as often as it was to NBA TV. He's still busy in a welterweight series, with little attention paid to either the Mavericks or the Nuggets. Denver hasn't needed individual heroics from Anthony, but he has been giving some nonetheless -- through Tuesday, he was scoring (24.0 ppg) more than Pierce (23.1), Dirk Nowitzki (22.7), Howard (22.7), Allen (21.6) or Billups (19.6). He's shooting more accurately than Kobe Bryant, Josh Howard or Rashard Lewis. Best of all, he's playing within the Nuggets' framework, with no apparent straining at the leash to shine as Denver's star. A few other guys are prompting more gushing, but I've been impressed with 'Melo.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Perkins. Most all the talk regarding the Celtics' big men is about who is not playing, Garnett and Powe, leaving the defending champions susceptible against the springy Bulls of Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas and the Magic of Howard. Perkins has released a statement, though: 12.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 60.2 percent shooting in 37 minutes a game. This from the guy who is, what, the fifth-most-recognizable active Celtic, behind Rondo, Pierce, Allen and probably even Davis in some order. But take away Perkins, and especially the 11.8 boards, and see if the Celtics are 1-1 in the second round, or even in the second round.
4. LeBron James won the first of what is expected to be many MVP awards. Who poses the greatest challenge to him for the honor in the seasons ahead?
Ian Thomsen: That's a good question, because it points out the Jordan-esque landscape ahead for LeBron. Kobe will be a rival for several years, but at age 30 he is six years older than LeBron. As Dwight Howard's offensive game improves, he surely could put up a challenge. Miami could be back in title contention in a couple of years around Dwyane Wade, and with the right team Chris Paul could become his era's Isiah Thomas. But I don't see anybody challenging LeBron as the dominant individual of the league because of his size, age and mentality. He thinks like Magic but scores like Michael.
Chris Mannix: That's easy, it's ... OK, maybe it's not so easy. The truth is, LeBron is poised to break new ground. Bryant is the only star who could conceivably compete with James, but at age 30, his numbers are likely to slip over the next few years; LeBron's should get better. James' selection to the All-Defensive first team this year solidified his place as a dominant two-way player and his offensive skills are still not completely developed. You can make the case that Paul, Howard and Wade can give James a run over the next few years, but it would be a weak one. Barring injury, James has to be considered the MVP favorite for at least the next five seasons.
Steve Aschburner: LeBron James. That is, James himself figures to get in the way of future MVP awards for James, just as Michael Jordan got in the way of at least two and possibly three Maurice Podoloff trophies for Jordan. Look, voters get bored writing in the same guy's name year after year. There's a tendency to want to spread the wealth and acknowledge others whose only failing was to have been born at the wrong time. People in the news media also like, y'know, news, and there isn't much news if the same guy is MVP every year. Problem is, James just won his first at age 24 and conceivably could be the NBA's best player for another seven or eight years. Does anyone really believe he's going to win the next seven or eight MVP awards? Folks with ballots will look hard for a reason to vote for Paul one year or Howard another.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Wade is back, and Kobe never went away. A lot of people are going to be in the Carmelo Anthony camp heading into next season. 'Melo is an exciting player and a popular player, and now that the Nuggets have arrived, it's impossible to overlook that combination of factors. Howard will be a serious contender for years. As for Paul, his Hornets are heading in a bad direction that, if it continues, will ruin his candidacy. Brandon Roy has pushed into the conversation. All the usual suspects, in other words.