January 21, 2010

SI.com's NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Jan. 20.)

1. How do you see the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playing out?

Ian Thomsen: Cleveland is the likely No. 1 team in the East going into the playoffs, given the Celtics' focus on rehabbing KevinGarnett and the hard work faced by the Magic to integrate Vince Carter down the stretch. The Cavs have already shown they can win without big minutes from Shaquille O'Neal, and they'll spend the rest of the year pacing him for a potential series against the front lines of Orlando, Boston and the Lakers.

Jack McCallum: I don't get a chance to say this much, but I like what I predicted in the preseason -- Cavs over Celtics. And not just because the Celtics are in this mini-losing streak. Garnett can't stay healthy, and, consequently, their defense is not as tough as it was during the title season of 2007-08. The Cavs, eager and frisky, look like the Celtics of two seasons ago. I was never an Orlando advocate -- I didn't like the Carter acquisition -- and I think the Magic will remain behind Atlanta.

Chris Mannix: Cleveland. Orlando is out -- I see the seemingly interminable adjustment period with Carter pushing the Magic back toward the middle of the pack. The Hawks won't be in the mix, either, since they've already played 22 home games -- most of any team in the top four -- and they are mediocre (10-9) on the road. That leaves the Celtics and Cavaliers jockeying for the top spot, but I don't see Boston, which is (rightfully) handling Garnett with kid gloves and may need to give Paul Pierce some more rest in the second half, laying it on the line to grab the top seed -- not when they already hold road wins over Cleveland and Orlando this season.

Paul Forrester: This is Cleveland's to lose, barring any injures. Of their final 39 games, 23 are at home. And unlike the Celtics, Cleveland doesn't need to conserve minutes for anyone but Shaq and, unlike the Magic, the Cavs seem to have figured out how their pieces fit together. Having the best player in the game helps in overcoming a few flaws, too. One thing to note: Should GM Danny Ferry be able to acquire a Troy Murphy or Antawn Jamison before the trade deadline, the adjustment period could cost the Cavs a few games. That may hurt in the regular season, but it's a cost Cleveland will happily pay if it brings a title.

2. Is there a sleeper team, one that could unexpectedly make a run for the title?

Thomsen: Given the Lakers' length, depth and talent, along with the fact that they're now as strong defensively as they've always been at the other end of the floor, I don't see them (assuming they stay healthy) losing to anyone in the West. Should Kobe Bryant break one more finger, then the Mavericks, Spurs or Nuggets may be able to sneak by Los Angeles to the Finals.

In the East, the Hawks' 3-0 record against Boston is creating hope that they may be that sleeper team. But those kinds of upsets are rare in the NBA: Each of the last 14 champions has been a No. 1 or 2 seed in its conference tournament. The Hawks are limiting themselves to 13 players while maintaining a $65 million payroll -- $20 million less than the Celtics and about $15 million cheaper than the Cavs or Magic. In these disparities the Hawks find themselves in the role of the Minnesota Twins trying to match up against the Yankees -- meaning they won't have the manpower to deal with Cleveland, Boston and Orlando if all of those expensive contenders are healthy.

McCallum: I think it's the Hawks. They're nutty enough to think they could win; before they were just nutty. Do I think it will happen? No, because I like the Cavs. But I think it could happen because they have talent and things have broken extremely well for them. The "starting six" (off-the-bench ace Jamal Crawford gets 30 minutes a game) have all remained healthy, after all, and not many teams can say that. For the record, I don't like the Nets' chances of making a serious run.

Mannix: The Hawks have a couple of things going for them: One, they are fearless. They hate Boston, and their 3-0 record in the season series shows they have unlocked the secret to beating the Celtics. Plus, they don't believe Cleveland, which beat them in back-to-back games to end 2009, is better than them, either. And two, the Hawks have a sense of urgency, considering that Joe Johnson and coach Mike Woodson can both walk at the end of the season. If they can avoid the Magic -- the one player the Hawks have yet to figure out is Dwight Howard -- Atlanta is a legit threat.

Forrester: Not really. The tragedy of the seven-game series is that it almost always ensures that the favored team will win. Any upsets to be had aren't really upsets, but more mild surprises, such as when the Pistons topped the Lakers in the 2004 Finals or when the Magic dropped the Cavs in last season's East finals. Should the Hawks find themselves matched up against the Celtics in the conference finals, then Atlanta will be Finals-bound. But as long as experience and talent remain king in the postseason, the NBA title is reserved for those teams that have planned and built for it, and this season those teams are the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs, Magic, Spurs or Nuggets.

3. Which player or team do you think will have a breakout second half?

Thomsen: I can imagine Dallas and/or San Antonio distancing themselves from the pack of Lakers challengers. Though they're currently No. 2 in the West with a variety of weapons, the Mavs have yet to strike a rhythm around Dirk Nowitzki. The Spurs are improving defensively, but they've yet to fully integrate RichardJefferson; they've always been a second-half team, and no one should be surprised if they make an extended run.

McCallum: "Breakout" seems to imply that a player or team underachieved or was unfairly ignored. So I'm going with Tony Parker and, by extension, the Spurs. Parker has become something of a point-guard version of Tim Duncan, consistently good, relatively ignored. He's certainly more of a combo guard and is consequently never among the leaders in assists. But there's nothing wrong with a slashing scorer who once -- not long ago -- was a Finals MVP.

Mannix: Memphis. The Grizz have surged into the playoff race after their Allen Iverson-fueled 1-8 start, but they can get even better. When a team is capable of scoring on the inside on every possession -- and with Zach Randolph and MarcGasol controlling the paint, Memphis is equipped to do just that -- it staves off long droughts. Lionel Hollins has been preaching defense recently, and if the Grizzlies play a little more of it (and maybe add another scorer for their bench via trade), they will become a contender for first-round home-court advantage.

Forrester: The Hawks, Raptors, Cavs (twice), Nuggets, Rockets, Spurs and Suns already have fallen victim to the quickly improving Bobcats. With Stephen Jackson providing the flexible offensive option this team sorely lacked, and with a league-best scoring defense and a 9-1 January record, the Bobcats are on a tear. Though they still carry the doubts inherent with a 3-15 road record, no East contender will want to see them in the first round.

4. What storyline interests you the most the rest of the season?

Thomsen: I want to see how many players are traded by the incendiary Wizards by the Feb. 18 deadline, and how those moves change the playoff races in each conference. Will Antawn Jamison wind up with the Cavaliers? He would space the floor and bring out the best in Shaq, suddenly surrounding LeBron James with three stars in Jamison, Shaq and Mo Williams -- a combination that would make Cleveland a presumptive NBA finalist. If the Wizards decide to unload their deep roster, then Caron Butler, BrendanHaywood, Mike Miller, Randy Foye and -- yes -- Gilbert Arenas could make a huge impact with contenders in both conferences.

McCallum: The playoff hopes of Oklahoma City and Memphis. We knew those teams would be better, but did we think that we'd be talking about them as playoff teams so soon? And in the West? In fact, besides that experienced top four of the Lakers, Mavs, Nuggets and Spurs, all Western playoff berths are wide open. Don't be surprised if, say, the Thunder challenge the Trail Blazers and the Grizzlies set their sighs on the Suns. At this point, I would eliminate only the bottom four of the Clippers, Kings, Warriors and Timberwolves.

Mannix: There could be a lot of teams blowing things up before the end of the season. Philadelphia has been making a lot of calls (Andre Iguodala and Samuel Dalembert can be had), Washington might nuke its entire roster and Toronto still has to figure out what to do with Chris Bosh. Couple those clubs with the ones looking to improve (Cavaliers, Lakers, Magic), and we could see one of the busiest trade seasons in a long time -- one that could make the field look vastly different come playoff time.

Forrester: Financial considerations hang over almost every aspect of this season. The free-agent sweepstakes this summer and the desperation many teams feel to avoid the luxury tax will likely combine to put a number of big-name and big-salaried players on the trade market. How the contenders incorporate those pending acquisitions will tell the ultimate tale of this season, and possibly seasons to come.

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