January 26, 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. 25.)

1. What do you take away from the Cavaliers' two-game regular-season sweep of the Lakers?

Ian Thomsen: With its length up front and strong team defense, Cleveland matches up well with the Lakers. Plus, the Cavs undoubtedly are, as Kobe Bryant suggested, hungrier than the Lakers right now. But the lesson of this highly fluid season is that it's too early to reach conclusions. It started with the Celtics looking like the team to beat, then the Lakers, and now there is reason to believe Los Angeles will have trouble defending its championship should Cleveland reach the Finals -- all of this with the second half of the season still to come.

Frank Hughes: If the Cavaliers and Lakers met in a seven-game series, I'm not sure Cleveland would beat them. I still think L.A. is the best team in the league when healthy. But at the very least, it puts LeBron James on a Kobe level, if he wasn't already there. He will not be his complete equal until he wins a title and removes any doubts, but LeBron has effectively established himself as the best player in the league.

Jack McCallum: Besides the fact that LeBron is pretty good? Mainly this: The Cavaliers believe they can beat anybody. Their confidence is as high as any team, and no matter what they've said in the past, they never felt like this before. That hauteur, along with James and the experience of Shaquille O'Neal, will get them to the Finals.

Chris Mannix: If I'm the Lakers, I'm most disappointed in the play of RonArtest. Much has been made about Artest's decision to play for the Lakers on the cheap. But he has to, you know, still play. Artest has offered little resistance for James, who averaged 31.5 points (on 50 percent shooting) and 9.0 assists in the two meetings against L.A. Artest is not playing like the championship-caliber defender the Lakers thought they were getting.

2. Do you see Western Conference upstarts Memphis and Oklahoma City staying in the playoff race all season?

Thomsen: These being the league's two youngest teams, I never thought either of them would be in this position. So I'm not going to count them out now. But I give the edge to the Thunder based on their superior team defense, which can keep them in games and create easy baskets if they go through a scoring slump.

Hughes: I don't see why not. There is an unusually large grouping of teams from 7-12 in the Western Conference, and realistically, any of them can pick up the final two postseason slots. The biggest thing I see is Phoenix losing confidence and the Thunder and Grizzlies picking up confidence. That may be enough to offset the inexperience.

McCallum: They will stay in the race, but I don't think both will make it. Neither will be able to get by experienced San Antonio or Utah, but I can see the Thunder supplanting either Phoenix or Houston for the eighth spot.

Mannix: Memphis has a chance to rocket up the standings. Look at some of the teams around the Grizzlies. Houston is overachieving, Phoenix is fielding offers for its second-best player (Amar'e Stoudemire) and the Blazers' injury woes have to catch up to them eventually. The Grizzlies' phenomenal interior strength -- Who would have thought before the season that Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol would have formed perhaps the best 1-2 inside punch? -- will prevent any sustained droughts and long losing streaks. Remember, throw out the 1-8 start and Memphis has won nearly 68 percent of its games. That's a better winning percentage than all but two teams (the Lakers and Nuggets) in the conference. My prediction: The Grizz lock up the No. 6 seed by April.

3. Gregg Popovich has been resting the 33-year-old Tim Duncan at times instead of playing him in both games of back-to-backs. What do you think of this? Do teams owe it to fans, especially ticket buyers, to play their stars when healthy?

Thomsen: He's benching Duncan in hopes of keeping him fresh for the most important games yet to come. Who wouldn't make that trade? Teams limit the minutes of older players during the regular season, and they routinely sideline starters in the final days before the playoffs. So this move with Duncan is nothing more than an extreme version of that accepted trend.

Hughes: Not at all. Popovich's job is not to entertain; it is to win games, and more specifically championships. Spurs fans will be far more entertained the further their team advances into the playoffs. Knowing Popovich, he would be apoplectic about this question.

McCallum: This isn't a new issue, by the way; Pat Riley used to infuriate fans and the league office by resting his stars. But my answer now is the same as it was then: Yes, fans pay a lot of money for tickets, and, yes, they are owed some amount of loyalty by a team, but it is far too slippery of a slope to allow entertainment to affect the way a coach runs the team. Here's what fans should want: the best teams at full strength at playoff time.

Mannix: I don't despise the play-the-guy-people-are-paying-for argument as much as most do, but Popovich owes it to his fans to win in April, May and June more than he owes it to them to win in December or January. Duncan's knees are banged up, thanks to 34,443 regular-season minutes and nearly two full seasons of postseason games. The simple truth is that if Popovich were to push Duncan any more than he does, the Spurs would likely fizzle early in the playoffs. And what San Antonio fan wants to see that?

4. With Chris Duhon slumping (more so with each game it seems), Larry Hughes sitting in the doghouse and Nate Robinson providing a spark only every now and then, do you foresee the Knicks acquiring a point guard before the trade deadline?

Thomsen: They'll only do it if it makes sense long-term. The Knicks have devoted the last year and a half to developing cap space and they're not going to flinch now and sacrifice that space in order to bring in a point guard. If somehow they could land a star, then of course they'd do it. But they don't have much to trade. A bigger priority would be to make a move to open up more space for free agents this summer, even if it hurts their playoff chances this spring.

Hughes: The Knicks have far more problems than with their point guards. Their entire team structure is goofy. Acquiring a point guard is not going to help that, even in the weak East. The Knicks need to determine who their core players are and build around them. Adding small pieces here and there is hardly a remedy for what ails that organization.

McCallum: My guess is that reality set in for New York after its historic 50-point loss to the Mavs on Sunday at the Garden. Combined with the recent rise of the Bulls, the Knicks now know that they will probably not make the playoffs, whether they make a deal for a point guard or not. So I can't see them making any kind of trade unless it helps the bottom line, and you're not going to get a serviceable point guard at a bargain anyway. Most of their chips will on the free-agent market this summer, and they'll also have a few Ping-Pong balls bouncing for them.

Mannix: Sure, if that point guard can be acquired for Eddy Curry or JaredJeffries and has a contract that can be shredded after this season. The Knicks aren't making any moves that will jeopardize their cap space this summer. We knew that when they passed on Ramon Sessions in the offseason. As ugly as things could get in New York -- and Sunday's 50-point loss suggests it could get pretty bad -- the Knicks aren't interested in any cosmetic makeovers that might get them into the playoffs in the putrid East. Getting waxed by Boston or Cleveland in four or five games just isn't worth it.

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