1. With Allen Iverson's future in limbo, what is the best possible outcome for him? What do you think will happen?
Ian Thomsen: By bringing Iverson off the bench, coach Lionel Hollins is obviously trying to act in the best interests of the Grizzlies' franchise (as opposed to what is best for Iverson). It will be interesting to see if Hollins' sense of virtue is rewarded -- or condemned -- by management. I don't understand why Iverson would want to play for the Grizzlies. They're a losing team with no hope of reaching the playoffs, and his $3.1 million salary is 15 percent of what he was making last year. Iverson believes he deserves a level of respect and commitment that the league is unwilling to give him. If he isn't willing to play with a second unit and no team in the league is willing to start him, then he should retire. (And under no circumstances should he try to play in Europe. He would not be happy there at all.)
Jack McCallum: The best possible future for him is that he climbs into a time machine and sets the dial for 2001 when he lifted an otherwise junior varsity team called the Philadelphia 76ers to the NBA Finals, and even led the Sixers to a Game 1 win in Los Angeles. Except that's not exactly a future. (Unless it involves Michael J. Fox.) Iverson's actual future? That's a tough one. If there's a team out there able to persuade him he should come off the bench, he's worth signing. The coolest scenario would be for him to join Larry Brown in Charlotte, but I don't think that's going to happen. I do believe that Iverson and the Grizzlies will part ways, but the man does not really want to retire and will not do so until every option is explored.
Chris Mannix: If this really is it for Iverson in Memphis, then this really is it for Iverson. Let's remember, the line for Iverson's services in the offseason began on Beale Street and ended at the FedEx Forum. Memphis wasn't his best option; it was his only option. And if Iverson walks away after just three games, there won't be a team in the league willing to touch him. That includes the Knicks, who, despite an anemic offense and no real point guard to speak of, won't add the Iverson Show to an already circus-like season.
Arash Markazi: The best possible scenario for Iverson would be to stay out of Memphis, because that situation isn't going to change anytime soon. Just being around that team for two days in Los Angeles last week, I could tell that Iverson wouldn't last with the Grizzlies. I figured something would happen before the All-Star break, but I couldn't have imagined he would bolt before the end of their road trip. Iverson and Hollins will never see eye-to-eye -- that is if they ever took the time to actually have a heart-to-heart talk about Iverson's role. I still think he can play and contribute, but if you're a contending team, would you really take a chance on him after you saw what happened to the Nuggets and Pistons after Denver traded him to Detroit, not to mention his most recent stint in Memphis? We may have seen the last of Iverson in the NBA.
Thomsen: It has to be the Spurs. Though it is indeed early, they've nonetheless been a big disappointment at the defensive end while enabling opponents to shoot 48.6 percent. Only five teams rate worse than San Antonio in that crucial indicator, and the Spurs will have no hope of overtaking the Lakers unless they ratchet up their defense to the championship level of previous seasons.
McCallum: Clearly it's the Cavs, with the Trail Blazers a distant second. The Spurs know how to jump-start themselves after midseason, and hopes weren't that high for the Jazz (who won a big game in New York on Monday night if there is such a thing as a big game in New York) even at the beginning of the season. They are just trying to be a playoff team. The best guess right now is that Cavs coach Mike Brown is losing sleep over how to best blend the talent of LeBron James and the experience of Shaquille O'Neal, especially with the Celtics playing like world-beaters.
Mannix: If I'm working in the Cleveland front office, I'm squirming a little in my seat. Shaq has been a disaster (a career-low 11.1 points and a regular seat on the bench in the fourth quarter) and it may get worse. I spoke to an executive from one of O'Neal's former teams last week and he warned that if things stay status quo in Cleveland, Shaq will start to divide the locker room. "It happened to us," the executive said. "It will happen to them." In the most important season in franchise history, the Cavs can't afford that.
Markazi: The Jazz have the most cause for concern mainly because they were a question mark to begin with. Carlos Boozer may not be a distraction anymore, but his presence limits the opportunities for Paul Millsap, who is averaging only 8.3 points and 5.6 rebounds off the bench after signing a four-year, $32-million contract last summer. The biggest cause for concern, however, is that the Jazz are struggling defensively.
3. Do you think rookie Brandon Jennings' early success will prompt other highly touted high school stars to follow his path of forgoing college to play overseas?
Thomsen: Maybe a few more will try, but most of them will fail in the attempt. As difficult as it used to be for high school graduates to jump straight to the NBA, it's even harder for American players of that young age to spend a full year playing in Europe. Most American teenagers lack the fundamentals to compete in the European system, and I think it's fair to say that the European model of practicing twice daily while playing one or two games per week won't be embraced or respected by most American teenagers. The young U.S. players grow up in an AAU system that emphasizes playing in games with minimal practice time. The entire approach will be foreign and forbidding, and no coach in Europe is going to indulge an American teenager just because he scored 30 per game in high school. Only the hardest-working and most disciplined Americans should attempt to spend an entry-level year overseas.
McCallum: I don't think there's any doubt about it. As time marches on, the next generation gets further and further away from the notion that it's an honor to play for Coach K or Coach Pitino or Coach Boeheim. Those seduced by that prospect, however, should pay attention not just to Jennings but also to a high schooler named Jeremy Tyler, who is currently going through major adjustment struggles in Israel. And Jennings' hot start notwithstanding, let's see how he's playing in the dog days of February and March.
Mannix: This sounds familiar. Wasn't Josh Childress' signing with Olympiakos two summers ago supposed to lead to the mass exodus of NBA free agents overseas? That didn't happen, and I don't expect top high school talent to elect to go abroad either. A few who -- like Jennings -- struggle to meet academic requirements might go, but for the most part I think kids want to go to college. They grew up dreaming of playing in Final Fours, and I can't see how the best players (read: the ones who are going to go pro anyway) will pass up a chance to do that.
Markazi: No question about it, and I don't blame them. If I'm a highly touted high school senior who could be making millions of dollars in the NBA, what's the incentive of going to college for a year and playing for free when I can be making millions overseas? The notion that a player would gain more from one year in college is a joke. If anything, there is more of a chance they can sully their name by pretending to be a student-athlete and being open to the temptation of breaking NCAA rules. Jennings not only grew as a person overseas (much like students who go abroad), but he also developed as a player, competing against grown men and learning the intricacies of the pro game. Jennings was already a lottery pick before he went abroad, so I'm not sure how much he improved his stock over there, but the idea that he made a mistake has thus far been disproved by the way he's been playing.
4. Nancy Lieberman became the first woman to be hired to coach in the D-League last week. Can a woman grab the ear of male athletes? Do you think this move could be made on the NBA level in the future?
Thomsen: It can work if the woman commands respect by proving she knows what she is talking about, and if she has the backing of management -- which is true for male coaches as well. We now have women reporting on games and women refereeing the games, so I don't see why we won't someday see women coaching the games, too.
McCallum: A hesitant "yes" to the first -- she might be able to grab male ears in the D-League -- but an emphatic "no" to the second. Before you call me a sexist pig, consider: There first has to be a female general manager to hire a female coach. No GM I know has the guts to be a pioneer that way. Remember, too, that in the NBA, about only, oh, 40 percent of the male coaches are grabbing the ear of their male players right now.
Mannix: Lieberman will do well in the D-League. Remember, D-League players are hungry. They listen to their coach because the coach reports to scouts and scouts report to executives who make the decision on whether to call up someone. So I don't expect D-Leaguers to be too caught up with a female boss. NBA players are a different story. Certainly a woman is capable of succeeding on the NBA level, but she would have to do it the right way. She would have to become an assistant, work her way up through the ranks and earn enough respect from players and executives for someone to give her a chance. It could happen, absolutely. But it is a long way off.
Markazi: I certainly hope so. That being said, I can't see it happening anytime soon considering there are no female assistant coaches in the NBA. It is hard enough for coaches who have played and coached in the NBA to grab the ear of players. I would hope an NBA team would at least give a woman a chance to be an assistant coach, because I don't see a woman who may have won in the WNBA or women's college basketball transferring her coaching style to the NBA. She would first need some NBA experience before taking over a team.