Four SI.com writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the NBA each week. (All stats and records are through Monday.)
1. Ron Artest has struggled in his first few games with the Lakers while Trevor Ariza has thrived in Houston. Is Artest experiencing some adjustment pains, or are the Lakers destined to regret choosing Artest over Ariza?
Ian Thomsen: In early July, the Lakers felt they would have a hard time driving the price of Ariza's contract down to the mid-level exception (which he ultimately accepted from Houston). Artest's mid-level contract with L.A. was actually smaller than the salary Ariza was seeking. Based on the speed of their decision to forego Ariza, the Lakers viewed it as a no-brainer to quickly sign Artest while leaving enough money in reserve to also retain Lamar Odom and Shannon Brown. Ariza is a versatile complementary forward, and Rockets coach Rick Adelman is bringing out the best in him. But no one should think Ariza would be scoring 33 points for the Lakers, as he did for Houston against the Blazers the other day. Artest will prove to be an upgrade over Ariza, and there hasn't been any meaningful evidence yet to change my opinion. Is Artest going to be high maintenance? Of course. But we won't know until later in the season whether the daily issues he creates are wearing out his teammates and Phil Jackson.
Jack McCallum: Is there any player in the league more prone to emotional volatility, more likely to have high highs and low lows, than Artest? (OK, maybe Stephen Jackson, the subject of the next question.) Artest was so gung-ho about making a name in a new city with a new team that his nervousness and inconsistency could've been predicted. I love Ariza -- he was my nominated breakout player in last year's postseason -- but Artest will figure it out soon ... or Kobe Bryant or Phil Jackson will figure it out for him.
Chris Mannix: The triangle is the most complicated offense in the league, so it was predictable that someone like Artest -- a motion-based or low-post player for most of his career -- would struggle picking it up right away. Likewise, Ariza's numbers were supposed to spike playing on a Houston team without a lot of offensive options. Still, my original prediction stands: The Lakers will rue going for the proverbial jugular by adding a combustible star like Artest and letting a smooth fit like Ariza walk away.
Arash Markazi: You can't just go off statistics when comparing the two, because Ariza is getting a chance to put up big numbers as a go-to guy while Artest is the Lakers' third or fourth option. That said, Ariza has played better early, but Artest is starting to find his role. He isn't being asked to put up 15-20 shots, but instead be a shutdown defender and score when he's open. Against the Hawks on Sunday, Artest had his best night as a Laker -- but not because he had 12 points, seven rebounds and four assists. It was because of his defense. Joe Johnson scored 18 points on Kobe in the first quarter before Artest switched on to him. Johnson scored only nine points the rest of the game as the Lakers won.
2. Stephen Jackson wants out of Golden State. If you were a general manager, would you take a chance on him? What team would be the best fit for his talents and mercurial personality?
Thomsen: I doubt he'll be traded because he has four years at almost $36 million on the books (including this season). He could help contenders like the Cavaliers, Nuggets or Hornets, but they would have to give up a little talent in the exchange -- and even then the weight of Jackson's contract might be too much for them to bear. The Bobcats, Knicks and Timberwolves all have needs on the wing, but Charlotte isn't likely to spend the money, New York is saving for 2010 and Minnesota may prefer to wait and see if its cap space can be applied for a more established star.
McCallum: I've always had a soft spot for Jackson, who, like Artest, is a good guy at heart. So, yes, I would take a chance on him. The normal answer here is that he has to go to a team with a clearly defined "culture," a place where he can be kept in line, like San Antonio. But he's already been there, so that's out. He needs a strong coaching figure on at least a decent team. Here are three suggestions: Washington, New Orleans and Utah.
Mannix: It depends on what your situation is. If you are a team on the brink of a championship -- say, Cleveland -- you might be willing to take a chance on a hard-nosed swingman with a history of making big shots in the playoffs. But if you're a middling team -- say, Chicago -- there is no reason to add Jackson's questionable attitude and big contract. Still, the most logical destination remains Cleveland. The Cavs have not been shy about taking on massive egos (see O'Neal, Shaquille) if they think it will help them win a title. And Jackson is still a dangerous shooter who would get plenty of open looks in that offense.
Markazi: I would have no problem taking a chance on Jackson. At this point in his career, Jackson doesn't want to be on a rebuilding team. Despite his trade demands, I don't see him as a cancer. He won a championship with the Spurs in 2003 and helped the Warriors pull off the biggest upset in playoff history in 2007. Last season, he was one of four players (along with LeBron James, Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade) to average at least 20 points, six assists and five rebounds. This isn't some head case at the end of his career; Jackson is one of the best players in the league when he's motivated and in the right situation. I would think Cleveland would be the best fit for him.
3. Do you see a team capable of challenging the Bulls' record-breaking 72-win season in 1995-96?
Thomsen: The Celtics, for instance, would be out of their minds to pursue this. Their No. 1 goal will be to enter the playoffs on fresh legs, so why would they run their veterans to exhaustion in pursuit of a regular-season record they're unlikely to achieve anyway? For, say, Orlando to challenge that record, Dwight Howard must blossom offensively into the league MVP while commanding double teams and then defeating them with low-post moves, passing and free-throw shooting. All of that is entirely within his potential, but it's too early to say whether he'll become that player this season. The bottom line is that the Bulls were the league's dominant team in '95-96. That the five contenders appear tightly bunched this year precludes any of them from chasing Michael Jordan -- the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs, Spurs and Magic will be fully occupied trying to beat one another over the six months ahead.
McCallum: Can we give one-word answers? No? OK, how about three-word answers: No freakin' way. I see the Celtics fighting to get to 60 wins, and only if Kevin Garnett stays healthy. These are not super teams.
Mannix: Scottie Pippen told me last week that he thought the Lakers were best equipped to topple the Bulls' mark (though that was factoring in a healthy Pau Gasol). But I think that number is safe for this season. There is not much margin for error when you are going for 72 wins, and the Lakers have shown early that they will have some ups and downs. Boston is clearly the best team right now, but Doc Rivers is going to make sure the minutes for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Rasheed Wallace stay down -- even if it costs the Celtics a couple of victories. And I don't think the Magic are equipped to take a run at 70.
Markazi: My answer to this question is always the same no matter the team or the year -- no, no, no. Since the '96-97 Bulls won 69 games, the only teams to threaten the 72-win mark have been the 1999-2000 Lakers, who won 67 games and then the championship, and the 2006-07 Mavericks, who also won 67 before losing in the first round. A few teams may have a shot at 67 victories, but the five wins that separate them from the 72-win Bulls is like making up five seconds in a race to catch Usain Bolt. There's a reason only one team has won more than 69 games in NBA history.
4. A handful of players (Andray Blatche, Danilo Gallinari, Jermaine O'Neal, Brandon Jennings, Aaron Brooks) have surprised with their play thus far. Who has the best chance of sustaining the early success?
Thomsen: The answer is Gallinari, who will put up numbers all year in Mike D'Antoni's spread offense. His main rival in this little category will be O'Neal, who insists he is healthy and is likely to have a strong year in pursuit of a new contract. It's only fair to Jennings to predict that he'll be up and down as a rookie, and that he'll have a harder time as the league focuses on game-planning against him. Brooks is a four-year collegian entering his third NBA season, so he is sure to have a better year than Jennings, but he'll also face problems in the weeks ahead as opponents focus on stopping him in the absence of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Artest. Blatche's minutes will shrink when Antawn Jamison returns in a few weeks.
McCallum: Definitely Brooks. He's now in his third year, there's no reason (except for injury) that his 35-minute average will be going down, the Rockets need him to engineer the offense, and he's a talent.
Mannix: Gallinari. A back injury all but washed out his rookie year, but if we learned anything about the Knicks in the first week of this season, it's that Gallinari is a player. The 6-10, 225-pound small forward is a deadly shooter (19-of-42 form three-point range through four games) and is a much better defender than many expected. More scary for opponents is that Gallinari is still working himself into game shape after spending most of the offseason recovering from back surgery.
Markazi: After watching Brooks run circles around the Lakers for seven games in last season's playoffs, he would be the least surprising of the players out to hot starts, and he also has the greatest chance of keeping it up. Houston is relying a lot on Brooks to score and create plays for his teammates.