1. In a recent Sports Illustrated Players Poll, Joe Johnson was selected as the league's most underrated player. Who would get your vote?
Ian Thomsen: I don't think Johnson is underrated after playing in the last three All-Star Games and leading Atlanta from the bottom to No. 3 in the East -- everyone understands his talent and importance.
I'd vote for the Gasol brothers. Pau was the No. 2 player on the Lakers' championship team and his defense against Dwight Howard was central to that victory in the Finals, but his body language appears to work against him and maintain his reputation as a soft player. But as the Lakers keep winning, that reputation will recede.
His brother, Marc Gasol, has become one of the best centers in the league. Faint praise, I know, but he has helped lead the Grizzlies into playoff contention. Their chances of reaching the playoffs grew with the recent knee injury to Hornets point guard Chris Paul, so maybe Gasol will receive more notice.
Frank Hughes: Given his contract and his reputation around the league, I would not say Johnson is the most underrated. Given his recent accomplishments, and that crosstown rival Pau Gasol was given an All-Star spot ahead of him, I probably have to say that Chris Kaman's game is underappreciated right now. Yes, he is on a losing team. But I don't think it's his fault. The guy is playing consistently terrific basketball but gets stuck with the Clippers' rep. He's nearly a 20-and-10 guy while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Jack McCallum: Johnson's an excellent choice, but over the years he's been mentioned as being underrated so much that he's become overrated as being underrated. To be truly underrated, it helps to play in a city that gets overlooked, which leaves out the Knicks' David Lee. So I'm going with Utah's Deron Williams. It's not like he's unknown, but amid the other great point guards -- veterans Paul, Steve Nash and Tony Parker, and even youngsters like Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings -- I don't think pundits and fans realize what a great player he is.
Chris Mannix: Johnson, no question. LeBron James is, of course, the No. 1 name among this summer's deep free-agent class, but you can make the argument that Johnson should be No. 2. He's just a year older than Dwyane Wade and has enjoyed a relatively injury-free career, while Wade's body has been ravaged by his kamikaze playing style. Johnson has size, skill and strength -- everything you want in a franchise shooting guard.
Thomsen: Yes and yes. He's a good player and he could be part of a winning program amid a better blend of talent. So, in that sense, Iguodala could be involved in the solution. The problem he creates is financial: His current salary of $12.2 million (with three additional years guaranteed) looks more and more onerous as the NBA economy recedes and payrolls tighten. Looking ahead to the new world of 2011-12 -- when budgets will shrink dramatically -- a player making that much money will be expected to be a franchise leader, but Iguodala has yet to prove himself as a difference-maker on the level of Joe Johnson. He doesn't have the worst contract in Philadelphia -- Elton Brand and SamDalembert are more of a drag on resources -- but Iguodala's high salary makes him central to the 76ers' core problem: They need to make changes, but they have too many overpaid players who are difficult to move in this market.
Hughes: I like Iguodala's game. I like the way he gets up and down the court and finishes. Clearly there are issues in Philly, and the Sixers need a makeover. But I'm not sure getting rid of one of their best players is going to solve the problem. Seems like a Band-Aid on a broken leg to me.
McCallum: AI -- no, not that A.I. -- is, as the saying goes, just good enough to get a coach fired. He's a versatile player with good numbers, but at the end of the day, he doesn't do enough good things consistently. He'll make clutch shots ... sometimes. He'll get his own shot ... sometimes. He'll get his teammates involved ... sometimes. He'll become a defensive stopper ... sometimes. Iguodala is not good enough to be the Alpha Guy (they were expecting Brand to play that role with Iguodala as Sundance) and that's partly why the Sixers are struggling. On the other hand, he is probably Philly's most tradable commodity, and the rumors that he could be traded to Cleveland (do we need to add that he won't be the best player there?) make a lot of sense.
Mannix: Iguodala's not the problem; his contract is. The Sixers have been doing their best New York Knicks circa 2004 impression over the last few years, handing $80 million contracts to Iguodala and Brand, and getting a fraction of the return on their investment. I don't blame Iguodala -- if someone handed me the winning lottery ticket, I'm going to take it. But his contract, along with Brand's, has hamstrung the Sixers with two players making superstar salaries. As a result, one (or both) has to go.
Thomsen: I referred to this Sunday: Their team doesn't make sense unless they find a way to generate production inside while Kevin Garnett is regaining his agility. They're a perimeter team at both ends of the court, which prevents them from clamping off the paint defensively while forcing them to rely too much on three-point shooting to stay in games.
Hughes: Some of what you are seeing has been inconsistency based on injuries; shuttling players in and out, and redefining roles, has never been easy. But another part of me wonders if they are just bored. We are in the middle of the season. They know they are good. They know they can ramp it up in the postseason. And in the East, it's not like they are going to miss the playoffs. If they are going to win, they have to go through Cleveland and Orlando regardless. Perhaps this is part of a bigger plan. Rest now and get busy later.
McCallum: The signs are bad because they're doing something that strong veteran teams usually don't do: blow leads and play inconsistently. They will improve when Garnett gets fully re-integrated, but they've lost a large measure of their confidence. Consider: Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will never be as good as they were two years ago in the championship season. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers have stolen Boston's mojo, and the C's have noticed. It's absurd to think that Boston still won't be a force in the postseason, but as I see it, the brilliant front-office moves that brought them Garnett and Allen will, when it's all over, have netted only one title.
Mannix: Pin the blame on injuries all you want, but the Celtics just look old. Garnett is a shell of his former self and there are no guarantees he will improve anytime soon. Allen is slipping (his 15.7 scoring average is his lowest since his rookie year). Rasheed Wallace was overrated and there is only so much a 32-year-old Pierce can do to carry the team. The Celtics need an infusion of youth in the worst way, and it will be incumbent on DannyAinge to find it before the Feb. 18 trade deadline.
4. The Bulls are riding a five-game winning streak and have won nine out of their last 11 games. What do you make of their resurgence?
Thomsen: It's a good thing they didn't fire Vinny Del Negro. They're receiving production from Luol Deng, enabling them to go into this summer hoping to add a star or two to Derrick Rose, Deng and Joakim Noah. This recent turnaround is going to make it more difficult to decide whether to unload KirkHinrich before the trade deadline -- dumping his salary will create more space to make moves this summer, but his absence may also prevent them from making the playoffs. While the Bulls are within 1½ games of the No. 5 spot in the East, they're also just three games away from drifting down into the lottery.
Hughes: Rose seems to have found his sweet spot. And I've always liked the defense Hinrich plays. Talk about underrated; I recently watched Hinrich completely shut down Steve Nash and Rose got all the pub for dropping 32 points on the Suns. I'm telling you, Hinrich made the difference in that game. I'd take him on my team anytime. The Bulls are not badly constructed -- they have a nice core -- but they are just young and need to learn how to play together. Noah seems to have discovered his strengths and Deng is talented everywhere. I think patience with the Bulls' maturity is key.
McCallum: Here's what Shakespeare would say: A Rose by any other name ... I was worried early in the season when Rose's game had seemingly declined; nobody had talked up his potential more than yours truly because I considered him one of those special players, up there in the Paul-Nash category but with more hops. Rose seems to have finally turned it around and has been the catalyst in Chicago's resurgence. Beyond that, the solid Deng is still there, the unpredictable Noah seems more comfortable under Del Negro and John Salmons has been more effective since moving to the bench. But I don't want to go overboard on the Bulls' prospects: They play in the East and will still be a bottom-tier playoff team.
Mannix: Great coaching. Del Negro is ... nah, I can't finish that sentence. The Bulls' inconsistencies puzzle me because if you look at the roster, they should be pretty good. Granted, losing Ben Gordon took a crunch-time scorer out of the lineup, but Noah, Deng and Rose are all quality starters. Tyrus Thomas' regression (who would have thought before the season that TajGibson would be the starter?) has hurt, but this Bulls team has too much talent to not be a factor in the playoff race.