1. Which team has helped itself the most so far in the offseason?
Ian Thomsen: It has to be the Lakers with their addition of Ron Artest, which enables the champion to improve -- the hardest of all moves to make. (I'm assuming Lamar Odom will re-sign with L.A.) Artest allows the Lakers to match up on the wing against Boston's Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (ditto Richard Jefferson and Manu Ginobili of the Spurs) while adding toughness and defense, which were the big needs for Los Angeles in its recent series against Houston and Denver. This move gives Kobe Bryant the potential to win two more rings and match the six of Michael Jordan.
Jack McCallum: The Lakers. They win the championship and pick up Artest? Are you kidding? Perhaps these are famous last words, but I can't see any problems developing between Kobe and Artest. And coaching Artest is bound to galvanize Phil Jackson on the bench. I think they will re-sign Odom and should be as strong as last year.
Chris Mannix: San Antonio. If you had peeked at Gregg Popovich's Christmas list the last few years, at the top it would have read ATHLETIC SMALL FORWARD WHO CAN SCORE. Well, Christmas came in June this year for Popovich. Jefferson is a solid half-court player (he shot a career high 39.5 percent from three-point range last season) and one of the top up-tempo forwards in the league. San Antonio also bolstered its frontcourt with Antonio McDyess and picked up what many NBA types believe is a steal in the second round in Pitt's DeJuan Blair.
Steve Aschburner: I like what San Antonio has done. The acquisition of Jefferson is almost like adding Michael Finley in his prime, and with the three key guys -- Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili -- to free up Jefferson for what he does best. McDyess is less nasty but more skilled than Kurt Thomas, and rookie Blair already might pick up any slack in toughness. I'm expecting to see the Spurs around for much of May next spring.
Scott Howard-Cooper: The Spurs. While there is no question Washington has put itself in position for the biggest increase in wins with the positive moves of adding Flip Saunders as coach and Mike Miller and Randy Foye in a trade, San Antonio made two moves to remain a title contender. Jefferson is a perfect fit in playing style and personality. Left shorthanded inside by that trade, the Spurs answered by signing McDyess. Two veterans with extensive playoff experience, two players to address needs, two potential critical acquisitions.
2. Which team has taken the biggest step back?
Ian Thomsen: Houston will go into next season without Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady or Artest. The Rockets are facing a horrid season while Yao and McGrady recover from their injuries, but next summer provides an opportunity to reinvent their team with gobs of cap space (even if Yao doesn't opt out of the final year of his deal).
Jack McCallum: Obviously it's the Rockets. They lost Artest. Yao could miss the entire season. And McGrady is coming back to take every single shot and be injured half the time. Do the math. There will be no lifting off for the Rockets.
Chris Mannix: Milwaukee. Poor Michael Redd. Every time the Bucks look like they are taking one step forward they take two big steps back, and Redd is the one left to deal with the mess. By dumping Jefferson in a cost-cutting deal and by allowing Charlie Villanueva to leave via free agency, the Bucks have ensured themselves another season near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings.
Steve Aschburner: It is hard for me to take Orlando as seriously as I did through three rounds, and into a fourth, of this year's playoffs. Hedo Turkoglu was a terrific fit in the Magic's system, a playmaker who hid some of the small-backcourt problems. Vince Carter? Too little, too late, and in my eyes he's not the shooter or ball-handler that Turkoglu is. Giving up Courtney Lee also is a loss for the Magic, based on his growth from unheralded rookie to valuable postseason piece.
Scott Howard-Cooper: It's too early to say for sure, without knowing what will happen with Andre Miller in Philadelphia, Paul Millsap/Carlos Boozer in Utah, Marvin Williams/Josh Childress in Atlanta, David Lee in New York and other free-agent and trade scenarios that could become tipping points. But for now, the Rockets are the clear front-runner. Not all by their doing, but setting a torrid pace nonetheless. Seemingly in an instant, Houston went from the emotional high of a gutsy second-round loss against the Lakers to having the bottom drop out.
3. What offseason move will have the greatest impact on the season?
Ian Thomsen: I expect the Lakers to be the team to beat as Artest is incorporated into their system. Think about adding him and a healthy Andrew Bynum to the reigning champs for a full year. All of the contenders have improved, from Orlando (Carter, Brandon Bass) to Cleveland (Shaquille O'Neal and Anthony Parker) to Boston (Rasheed Wallace) to San Antonio (Jefferson and McDyess) to Dallas (Shawn Marion) and even Denver (which added Ty Lawson as a dynamic backup to Chauncey Billups). It should be a terrific season.
Jack McCallum: Leaving aside Artest, I'll go with Wallace in Boston. First of all, the Celtics get a lot more interesting, if only to watch 'Sheed's screeds in Beantown. They also get a lot more theatrical, with Wallace now vying with Kevin Garnett to see who can draw the most pregame attention to his own bad self. Having said that, the 'Sheed signing also makes Boston the team to beat in the East, provided Garnett is healthy.
Chris Mannix: San Antonio can probably tack on three more years as a title contender with the addition of Jefferson, who replaces the aging (and increasingly less ineffective) Michael Finley and Bruce Bowen. Jefferson's ability to score in a variety of ways will take pressure off the Spurs' Big Three and allow Popovich to keep the minutes down for his aging and aching players (Duncan, Ginobili). Jefferson's ability to get out in the open floor will help San Antonio (which has two quick point guards in Parker and George Hill) become a decent running team.
Steve Aschburner: Wallace is the perfect player going to, for him, the perfect team. He needs to and wants to defer to Boston's Big Three, enjoying himself without an overload of responsibility. He addresses a real need, too, with his size, shooting, defense and, to be fair, championship experience, which makes this addition a lot more helpful than the Stephon Marbury, bad-penny pickup last winter.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Millsap, no matter how it turns out. If the Jazz don't match Portland's offer sheet, Utah takes a big hit that could put it on the brink of missing the playoffs. If the Jazz do match, Utah faces money concerns that will probably force a Boozer trade. That not only affects the season ahead in Salt Lake City but also the landscape of the entire league.
4. Which offseason move is destined to disappoint?
Ian Thomsen: If Millsap's offer sheet goes unmatched and he goes to the Trail Blazers, that would be a very solid move to deepen their frontcourt. But what happens if Utah retains him? The Blazers were positioned uncomfortably this summer as a team with specific needs, in terms of the position, style and age of the free agent they were seeking. They wanted to improve their team without upsetting the chemistry and balance established by their young players. That's why available talents like Carter (too old?) and Artest (too risky?) didn't quite make sense. But they need to do something with the cap space -- although they can wait to see if a trade into their space will develop by the February deadline. It makes no sense for the Blazers to jump into a big free-agent move that doesn't fit within their narrow parameters, but at the same time it must be difficult for them to watch other teams improving while Portland patiently seeks the right opportunity.
Jack McCallum: I'll say Turkoglu in Toronto. I like Hedo and think he'll have a productive season, but it won't lift the Raptors into the top four in the East, which was the general idea after last season's disappointing 33-49 campaign.
Chris Mannix: Shaq in Cleveland. Is the Big Twitterer an upgrade over Ben Wallace? Sure, but I can name 50 players who fit that description. Shaq certainly gives the Cavs a low-post presence and, provided he can stay healthy, will help Cleveland's push for a 70-win season. But Shaq will have difficulty against Cleveland's two most formidable East opponents, Boston and Orlando. For all the talk about Shaq's ability to defend Dwight Howard in the low post, the Magic aren't going to put him there. They are going to be utilizing his speed and athleticism outside on the pick-and-roll, where Shaq is an enormous liability. Same against Boston, which can play Wallace and Garnett in tandem and dare O'Neal to defend them on the perimeter. As good as O'Neal still is, he isn't what the Cavs really needed.
Steve Aschburner: Can I say Zach Randolph, even though he wasn't a free agent? Rats. OK, then, I'll say Trevor Ariza. Even though he's younger and more stable than Artest, Ariza is the sort of role player who gets better as his team does, too. On the Lakers, who were poised to chase a championship, he was versatile and valuable; on a Rockets squad that might be taking a large step back, Ariza may seem more ordinary and replaceable. He needed more time breathing the championship air to absorb it fully.
Scott Howard-Cooper: Villanueva to the Pistons. What does it tell you when his previous team, the Bucks, doesn't even extend Villanueva a qualifying offer despite averaging 16.2 points and 6.7 rebounds? Doesn't even want the right to consider matching? He got a reported five years and $35 million from Detroit and a lot of other teams don't mind a bit.
5. How do you see the top four teams in each conference right now?
Ian Thomsen: Here's how I think it will go during the regular season. In the West: Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, Mavericks. Maybe I'm assuming too much to think that Duncan and Ginobili will be healthy next season, but if so, the Lakers and Spurs will distance themselves from the rest of the conference. In the East: Cleveland, Orlando, Boston, Atlanta. The Celtics will sacrifice a few wins in hopes of pacing their veterans for the playoffs. The Cavs will be the team to beat in the East.
Jack McCallum: In the East, Boston is the cream of the crop, with the healthy-Garnett caveat. How can you not like Cleveland teaming Shaq with LeBron? I hated what Orlando did, but then again, I've never been a Vince Carter fan. I can't see the Magic getting back to the Finals and may battle Atlanta and a rejuvenated Detroit to hang on to fourth. In the West, the Lakers are definitely still the team to beat, and the Spurs' offseason moves (landing Jefferson and McDyess) put them back in the hunt. I see Utah, Portland and Denver battling for third and fourth ahead of sinking Houston and still-trying-to-figure-it-out Dallas.
Chris Mannix: If we're predicting regular-season records, in the East it's Cleveland (should be a monster regular-season team), Boston (the Celtics still need one more wing player to win back their title), Washington (adding Miller and Foye to the backcourt and Saunders on the bench makes the Wizards a scary offensive team) and Orlando (Carter can still play pick-and-roll but he's not as complete a player as Turkoglu). Boston my pick to come out of the conference. In the West, it's the Lakers (with a small-but-growing fear in the back of my head that Artest might prove to be a distraction), Spurs (not that Popovich cares about the regular season), Nuggets (bringing back the same core) and Trail Blazers (any offseason addition will only make a talented young team stronger). I see San Antonio emerging from a bloody conference playoffs.
Steve Aschburner: In the East, Boston, Cleveland, Orlando and either Chicago or Washington are my preseason top seeds. The Wizards have the best chance of installing a completely new culture, while getting a boost from injured regulars Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood. Atlanta just seems very Peter Pan-ish, determined never to grow up. In the West, I see Lakers, San Antonio, Dallas and Utah, at least while waiting for the Millsap-to-Portland and Carlos Boozer-to-someplace speculation to sort itself out.
Scott Howard-Cooper: East: Celtics, Cavaliers, Magic, Bulls. While signing Wallace is filled with positives, the real issue in Boston isn't the move the Celtics made. It's the move they didn't make. How is Rajon Rondo feeling about being on a team that has questions about his approach, and how will he do in the face of the trade rumors that will inevitably come next season unless the C's start 19-1? West: Lakers, Spurs, Nuggets, Trail Blazers. The defending champs put themselves in position to be even better next season by signing Artest. L.A. needs to keep Odom to make that an absolute statement, but that deal should get done. The Nuggets accomplished their No. 1 summer goal by re-signing Chris Andersen and added desired depth at point guard by trading into the first round to get Lawson. Now let's see how the Linas Kleiza free agency plays out.