1. Western Conference All-Star coach George Karl wants the NBA to expand All-Star rosters from 12 to 15 players. Good idea?
Ian Thomsen: I don't like it. What's so wrong with keeping high standards? If a few qualified players have to be left off the West's 12-man roster, then that gives more credibility to those who did make the All-Star team. The other conference hasn't produced enough star performances this year to produce a 15-man team. The All-Star Game isn't as important as it was a decade or two ago, and a plan like this would further diminish the achievement of those who earn the invitation.
Jack McCallum: Why not? If fans continue to make ridiculous choices, such as voting in Allen Iverson as a starter, the NBA might as well allow in three more worthy players. Plus, it would furnish some nice grist for reporters' NBA notebooks in the days following the All-Star Game: more players complaining about a lack of playing time.
Frank Hughes: While we're in the process of giving every kid in America a trophy for participating, why don't we add three head coaches to the All-Star team, as well? That way, each coach can be in charge of one quarter and everyone can sing Kumbaya in the locker room afterward. C'mon, there has to be some semblance of exclusivity to the All-Star team. One, maybe two, deserving players get left off each year, but they're usually included because of injuries to those voted in. Let's not dilute something that is meant to be a sign of excellence for the sake of somebody who is on the bubble. Frankly, most players would rather go on vacation anyway.
Chris Mannix: Sure. Come to think of it, let's expand the rosters to 17. No, 20. Really, no matter how deep you make the teams, there are always going to be snubs. Expanding the rosters isn't the answer. I prefer the system floated by Ray Allen recently: Let the coaches, players, media and fans have a say in the All-Star starters. There should also be a safeguard in place that prevents a player from being chosen if he doesn't meet a minimum-games-played requirement. It's not perfect, but it's a decent fix.
2. The Feb. 18 trade deadline is fast approaching. What do you see as the biggest storyline in this year's trading season?
Thomsen: Will Cleveland make a major trade? The Cavaliers are obvious favorites to win the East, and one more move could improve their chances in an anticipated Finals against the Lakers. At the same time, the wrong move could also set them back. So their actions over the next nine days will make all the difference to the title race, while possibly affecting LeBronJames' decision in free agency this summer. There can be no bigger storyline than that.
McCallum: It has to be whether or not the Celtics will break up their Big Three and trade Ray Allen. Yes, Kevin Garnett has been injured and maybe he'll be healthy come playoff time, but the numbers don't lie: The Celtics look like they're dead meat against both Atlanta and Orlando, never mind what they might do in their final three regular-season games against Cleveland. The Garnett/PaulPierce/Allen trio won one championship, but it won't win another. Allen, who has a $19.7 million expiring contract, is the likely one to go.
Hughes: I'm interested to see which team aligns itself for a championship and which team looks to the future (and thus plans to suffer losses the remainder of the season). There are a lot of difficult decisions to be made in the next 10 days and a lot of GMs have to go into them blindly. Does Steve Kerr deal Amar'e Stoudemire? Does Bryan Colangelo trade Chris Bosh? Do the Bulls break up what seems to be a pretty good thing based on the uncertainty of free agency? The true colors of a lot of organizations will be exposed as we head into an intriguing, scintillating offseason.
Mannix: This trade deadline is eerily similar to the one the Cavs experienced a year ago. Back then, the rolling Cavs elected to keep Wally Szczerbiak (and his expiring $13.8 million contract) so as not to disrupt team chemistry. Then Wally went out and shot 16.7 percent from three-point range in the playoffs. Cleveland is once again sitting pretty, riding an 11-game winning streak with a bevy of trade assets at its disposal. The difference is, with LeBron set to become a free agent, can the Cavs afford to let another deadline pass without making an upgrade?
3. The Nuggets are 2-0 against the Lakers this season. Has Denver narrowed the gap since losing in six games to L.A. in last year's Western Conference finals? Are the Nuggets the only legitimate challenger to the Lakers in the West?
Thomsen: The Nuggets look like they have a better shot of upsetting the Lakers than anyone in the East has of knocking off the Cavs. The experiences of last year's run have helped Denver this year, while the Lakers have been disappointing lately. But we haven't seen the Lakers play even close to their best, and it's only fair to assume that as champs they'll raise their game down the stretch.
I also think the Mavericks can still emerge as a challenger to L.A. if they make a trade at the deadline. But I really don't see anybody getting past the Lakers in the Western tournament.
McCallum: Having gone with the Spurs in the beginning of the year, I'm loathe to back off now (obviously, San Antonio needs to start playing much better against the conference elite). But the Nuggets seem to have more of the ingredients to beat the Lakers than any other Western team. Consider: a scorer (Carmelo Anthony) to match Kobe Bryant; an experienced leader (Chauncey Billups); size (Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen) to go against the tree-like Lakers inside; and a playoff-savvy coach (George Karl). There's no question they have narrowed the gap, but I still seem them falling short.
Hughes: During an 82-game season, teams go through hot and cold spells. I'd hate to read too much into the outcome of two games, particularly against the defending champions. (That said, I do think the Hawks are in the heads of the Celtics.) Plus, things change during a seven-game series that may not be taken into account during the regular season, namely injuries and schedule. However, I do see the Nuggets and Lakers meeting in the conference finals again. Two months ago, I may have said Portland was a contender, but the Trail Blazers' injury situation is just too overwhelming.
Mannix: After watching San Antonio fold to the Kobe-less, Bynum-less Lakers on Monday, yes. But I'm not sure the Nuggets present much of a challenge. Remember, Denver lost two key role players last summer in Linas Kleiza and, more important, Kobe-stopper Dahntay Jones. Aaron Afflalo (and his 44.7 three-point percentage) has been a nice addition, but when push comes to shove (and with Kobe, it always does), Bryant is going to dominate a series against the Nuggets. To me, right now, the Lakers' challenge won't come until they play a team from the East.
4. The NCAA is mulling the idea of expanding the Big Dance. If you could change one thing about the NBA playoff format, what would it be?
Thomsen: I've long wondered if the NBA would be better served by a best-of-five playoff series, which would create more upsets and make each game more important. It's not feasible to think the league would shorten the regular season, but tightening up the playoffs would create more drama without sacrificing a large number of games. I bring this up because the popularity of the NCAA tournament is based on its one-and-done format, which creates drama that the NBA cannot match. Shrinking the pro playoffs would at least heighten the tension for each game.
McCallum: We've talked about this before and it should be done: Select the 16 postseason teams regardless of conference. It's such a good idea, particularly since the preponderance of Western playoff-caliber teams has only increased since it was first suggested, that I wish I had thought of it. (That said, it's also logistically difficult given the impact on scheduling and travel.) Eleven teams in the West are over .500 compared to just five in the East. That's not "cyclical"; that's ridiculous.
Hughes: Send the first round back to a best-of-five series. It adds an element of uncertainty and electricity that is present in the one-and-done style of the college tourney. I know, I know, the Warriors upset Dallas in a best-of-seven and it was one of the best series I have ever watched. But I think it's true that the best team usually comes out ahead over the span of seven games. Five games provide some sense of panic and hysteria that should be there for all postseason series.
Mannix: Reseeding, rank 1-16 regardless of conference, blah, blah, blah. Look, the NBA playoff system isn't perfect, but show me one that is. Changing the format to let the top 16 teams is OK, but if the NBA did that, it would remove a lot of intrigue in the last month of the regular season. Miami and Milwaukee (and maybe Philly and New York) are poised for an April dogfight for the final playoff spot in the East. Tinkering with the playoff format would mean those teams would be playing out the string by March. No, keep the status quo. There will always be complaints. It doesn't mean the league has to listen to them.