1. Which free-agent signing from last offseason stands out as paying early dividends, and which one might be causing a team to have buyer's remorse?
Ian Thomsen: The best free agent has to be Ron Artest. Not only have the Lakers earned the best record, but Artest has also helped them become the league's top defensive field-goal team (yielding 42.3 percent). He is second on the Lakers in assists with 4.0 (Kobe Bryant has 4.2) and Artest's assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.1 to 1 is second among starters to Derek Fisher. Many in the league still predict that Artest will eventually combust, but, for now, he has improved the defending champs defensively while accepting his deferential role as the No. 4 scoring option behind Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. The Lakers now have everything -- defense, offense, coaching, depth, youth/experience and the league's best player in Bryant -- and no other contender is in their class.
The worst free-agent signing was Memphis' cynical move to sign Allen Iverson; just look how well the Grizzlies have played since he left. (Imagine the crowds they might be drawing had they picked former Memphis Tigers guard TyrekeEvans in the draft.)
Elsewhere, I thought Hedo Turkoglu would have a better impact on the Raptors, though in fairness he arrived worn out after a full summer with the Turkish national team. While Andre Miller is now coming off the bench in Portland, he remains a valuable trade asset, even though the obvious cause of the Blazers' difficulties has been injuries. So in both of those cases it's too early to write them off as failures.
Jack McCallum: It seems unfair to pick Artest or Rasheed Wallace (Celtics), both of whom have only ratcheted up the effectiveness of very good teams. So I'm going out on a limb to pick Jason Kidd, who was re-signed to a three-year, $25 million deal by the Mavericks. He's still playing almost 36 minutes a game, guards his position, grabs every rebound he can get his hands on (5.6) and has reached that curious point when he gets more assists (9.2) than points (8.4). You don't think the other starters -- primarily Dirk Nowitzki -- love playing with this guy? With Kidd's leadership as a major reason, the Mavs are much higher in the standings than many (including me) thought they would be.
For the other side of the coin, I'm going with the Raptors and Turkoglu. He admitted he left Orlando for the North Country just for the money, and it never seemed like the right fit to me. He's still a good player, but doesn't look nearly as comfortable as he did with the Magic.
Chris Mannix: I'm going to declare co-winners in the "best" category: Artest and Trevor Ariza (Rockets). We have all dissected the Artest acquisition from every angle, but with the calendar about to turn to 2010, the Lakers have a solid offense, the top-ranked defense and, oh yeah, the best record in basketball. You can't argue with that. Likewise, the Rockets have found their man in Ariza, an "Artest Lite" who is six years younger and a much better offensive player (17.4 points) than anyone gave him credit for.
Buyer's remorse? You have to think Toronto is feeling a little bit of it. Turkoglu is a nice player, but his game just doesn't blend well next to ChrisBosh, and a sub-.500 record is not what the Raptors envisioned when they shelled out $53 million for him in the offseason.
2. Tracy McGrady, who is making $22.5 million in the last year of his deal, has been easing back into action for the Rockets over the last week. Do you expect him to finish out the season in Houston?
Thomsen: I'm thinking he'll be dealt by the February deadline, but then again, the Rockets won't fire-sale him. If they can't negotiate good value in return, then they can keep him all year in order to sign-and-trade him over the summer. The easiest way to rate McGrady's chances of moving is to see how well he plays over the next two months. For now, I'm guessing they'll be able to deal him.
McCallum: Did we ever think we'd reach the point when McGrady might get more playing time because of an injury to Chase Budinger? It's a curious thing going on in Houston, putting a (supposed) superstar on limited minutes for a kind of semi-showcase. All things considered, there is no way that T-Mac stays in Houston. The clock has run out. Somebody will make an offer (my guess would be Chicago), and the Rockets will be eager to make the deal if they get good replacement parts.
Mannix: It's somewhat of a misconception that the Rockets don't want McGrady in the lineup. A healthy and motivated T-Mac is an ideal fit for RickAdelman's offense. The problem is McGrady is rarely healthy and only occasionally motivated. With teams willing to do just about anything to clear cap space for this summer, and with the Rockets preferring to be active in the trade market rather than get into a bidding war for free agents this offseason, I'm having a hard time envisioning McGrady in a Houston jersey in March.
3. The Lakers and Cavs are set to face off on Christmas Day in one of five intriguing matchups on the holiday. But how much weight does the LeBron-Kobe rivalry hold anymore?
Thomsen: It never has amounted to much; that Christmas Day game will be interesting mainly because of the "love triangle" formed by Kobe's former partner, Shaquille O'Neal. LeBron and Kobe will become a rivalry only if they meet in the Finals and generate heat between them. As it stands now, they haven't quite intersected because LeBron's Cavaliers haven't been good enough to challenge the Lakers.
McCallum:Anymore? Was it ever a great rivalry? Great rivalries (Magic vs. Bird, Jordan vs. the Pistons) are forged when the heat is on, deep into the postseason. This won't be a classic rivalry until they meet in the Finals. Right now, it's the two best players in the league -- and there are no other nominations -- teeing it up for a game that will be forgotten in two weeks.
Mannix: You can't have a rivalry when your teams play twice a year, no matter how many puppets Nike rolls out. Magic Johnson was Larry Bird's rival (and vice versa) because of their meetings in three Finals series. You could make the case that Paul Pierce is a bigger rival to Kobe than LeBron is right now. The individual talents in both players are transcendent, but until they square off in a classic seven-game war, this "rivalry" lacks any real cache.
4. Pat Riley publicly questioned Dwyane Wade's conditioning as his numbers have dropped off a bit over last season. (He averaged 30.2 points, 7.5 assists and 5.0 rebounds a game while shooting 49.1 percent last season. Now he's averaging 26.6 points, 6.2 assists and 5.0 rebounds while shooting 43.2 percent.) Is Riley's concern legit?
Thomsen: There is nothing wrong with it. As a matter of fact, it is terrific. Wade wants to win (at least) one more championship, and the only way to get that done is to play at the highest level. How many team presidents or GMs would have the presence to criticize the best player months before he becomes a free agent? This is a signal to Wade that he is playing for one of the most ambitious executives in the league. If Wade signs with another team this summer, will he be held to the same high standard by his new boss?
This is why so few NBA teams ever have any hope of winning a championship: Few team leaders hold the best player to such high standards. Riley's constructive criticism provides Wade with another example of why he should re-sign with Miami.
McCallum: We are all-seeing and all-knowing, but I'm not nearly smart enough to know if Wade is badly out of shape. However, there is little doubt that he's not as sharp as he was when he came off of the Olympic season of last summer, and I'm going to give Riley, a longtime master of what he should and should not do to motivate, the benefit of the doubt. However, if the Heat continue to be a mediocre team, Wade -- out of shape or not -- will run, not walk, into free agency in the summer of 2010.
Mannix: Riley's comments are fair -- Wade has been campaigning for more help all season, and Riley was gently reminding him that there are ways he can help himself -- but I don't think they were as inflammatory as they might have sounded. Even Riley acknowledged that Wade's participation in the Olympics caused him to come to camp last year in unbelievable shape and that conditioning carried into arguably his best season to date. With no USA Basketball last summer -- and a well-deserved break for Wade -- it's not surprising that his conditioning is a little behind. But I think Riley's real motivation here is to remind everyone (Wade included) that the 2009-10 season is not just an 82-game exhibition slate before Wade -- and presumably another top-tier free agent -- tries to restore the Heat's championship swagger next season. There is still a lot of talent on Miami's roster, and Riley wants to make sure the Heat don't forget that there are still high expectations for this season.