1. The trade deadline is Thursday, and we've already seen a couple of deals. Who is under the most pressure to make something happen?
Ian Thomsen: The Cavs have been pursuing Amar'e Stoudemire, which will take pressure off them both this season and next summer. Miami would like to acquire Stoudemire, not only for his help this season but also to persuade DwyaneWade to stay. The Rockets very much want to move Tracy McGrady for talent in return, with the Knicks emerging as a likely partner. Pressure is also felt by the Knicks and Bulls to create cap space, and by the Celtics to acquire a No. 3 guard to back up Rajon Rondo at the point. All that said, no team is under more pressure than the Cavs.
Frank Hughes: Phoenix. With Robert Sarver the most vocal owner at the labor negotiating session last Friday, it is pretty obvious that the Suns are not going to pay Stoudemire the type of money he is anticipating. The Suns need to get something in return for him since they are not bringing him back. And don't let Stoudemire fool you; he is not going to exercise his one-year option next season -- not after seeing the proceedings with the owners at All-Star weekend.
Jack McCallum: I would've said Dallas before it made a move. And I don't put Cleveland in the "under pressure" category (see question No. 3) even if the Cavs (who seem to be the most active top team) do end up pulling off a big deal. So that leaves us with teams that thought they had a chance to win the championship but are clearly falling short. Most clearly in that category are the Celtics and Spurs. The latter has never popped up much in trade rumors, and Celtics president Danny Ainge has trashed rumors about the possibility of making a major move involving Ray Allen. But I still think the Celtics might do something, and I think their fans expect them to do something.
Chris Mannix: Boston, easily. The Celtics are looking around at a conference with two teams (Cleveland, once it swings a deal for either Stoudemire or Antawn Jamison, and Atlanta) that will beat them in the playoffs and another (Orlando) that already has. As painful as it might be to deal Allen (and for Ainge, it would be), if Sacramento frees up Kevin Martin and tosses in AndresNocioni, Ainge would be foolish not to take it. The Celtics' lack of real assets makes acquiring Chicago guard Kirk Hinrich more of a pipe dream each passing day, so moving Allen is Boston's best chance of keeping the championship window open a little while longer.
Thomsen: Why move him now? Bosh hasn't asked to be traded and he hasn't told the Raptors he'll be leaving this summer, so there is no reason (yet) for Toronto to deal its best player. The Raptors have a better chance of retaining Bosh than advertised because they can offer him more money than any other team, and their franchise is clearly built around him as the top player. They give themselves a chance at reaching the second round if they're able to hold on to the No. 5 seed in the East, which could further their hopes of retaining Bosh.
Hughes: It would seem that the Bosh situation is the same as the Stoudemire situation. But for some reason I view them differently, and I think Raptors president Bryan Colangelo should try to hang on to Bosh for now and see how it plays out. Toronto has a favorable second-half schedule, and maybe continuing its winning ways and finding some success in the postseason would be enough to persuade Bosh to stick around. Perhaps that is naive and taking a Pollyanna view.
McCallum: To trade Bosh now would send the worst possible message: OK, we've finally figured out how to play together, so let's trade away our best player! I don't think Bosh has made up his mind about whether he wants to leave or stay (obligatory LeBron James mention: I don't think he has either), but Bosh's Raptors have apparently finally figured out how to become a factor in the East. Colangelo has to roll the dice on Bosh, let these guys play together and try to become a top-four team in the East and hope he stays.
Mannix: It's a risk -- a big risk -- because Bosh isn't about to give his current employers any assurances he is going to re-sign before he tests the free-agent market. But the fact that Toronto rebounded from a putrid start to shove itself into the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff mix effectively tied Colangelo's hands. Still, no exec I have talked to believes Colangelo -- a two-time Executive of the Year -- will allow Bosh to leave for nothing after the season. Should Bosh tell him he's not coming back, the Raptors will work out some kind of sign-and-trade that will give them as much, if not more, than they would get for Bosh at the trade deadline.
3. What is the Cavs' best course of action at the deadline -- make a major splash (like Amar'e Stoudemire), a smaller move (like Troy Murphy) or stand pat with a team that has the best record in the NBA, a seven-game lead in the East and two regular-season victories against the defending champion Lakers?
Thomsen: A trade for Stoudemire could help this season as well as this summer by essentially taking one of the top free agents away from rivals. As long as the Cavs are able to integrate Stoudemire -- and having a playmaker like LeBron will help -- his arrival should make Cleveland more attractive than ever when James is deciding whether to re-sign. There's a chance all the top free agents will remain at home -- James, Wade, Bosh and Joe Johnson -- which would mean that the Cavs scored the biggest free agent to change teams, and they did so preemptively, without cap space.
Yet, many in the league believe Jamison would be a better fit for Cleveland, though he wouldn't have the additional influence on the free-agent market this summer. Either player would join up front with Shaquille O'Neal to give LeBron more star power than he's ever had in Cleveland. Meanwhile, at the moment Troy Murphy looks like a backup plan for Cleveland to pursue if it can't trade for Stoudemire or Jamison.
Hughes: Cavs general manager Danny Ferry'scareer is probably going to come down to this very decision. But no pressure. I don't like messing with what they have. Now that they have Shaq fitting in nicely as their third option, it looks like they have a nice mix and are playing in a free flow. I'd be afraid that adding Stoudemire would muck up the dynamics. There obviously is more at stake here (LeBron's future), but it seems the Cavs would be forgoing a championship now in order to go for one in the future. Unless LeBron specifically agrees that acquiring Stoudemire will keep him in town, Cleveland should avoid bringing him on.
McCallum: This is a tough one. The most compelling factor for making a splashy deal (i.e. Stoudemire) is that the Cavs apparently wouldn't have to gut their roster to get him. But the chemical question is a very real one, even if Shaq and Stoudemire were to mesh, as they did with the run-and-guns Suns. (And did not under the Terry Porter Suns.) But I guess you want the question answered, so I'm going with a) doing nothing as best option, b) going for Stoudemire as next best and c) making a minor move as third best and unnecessary.
Mannix: Feels like we had this conversation last year, doesn't it? The Cavs were rolling, decided to stay the course ... and then watched Wally Szczerbiak (their prime trade bait at the deadline) shoot 3-for-14 against Orlando in a conference-finals loss. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" adage doesn't work for the Cavs this season. They need to make themselves head and shoulders better than everyone else in the East or risk the possibility of being eliminated in the second round by Orlando or Atlanta. Jamison works for now, Stoudemire fits both now and in the future. One way or another, the Cavs need to make a big splash.
4. The Mavs acquired Caron Butler, Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson and gave up Josh Howard as part of a seven-player trade with the Wizards. What's the significance of the deal for Dallas and the Western Conference as a whole?
Thomsen: There is no clear-cut No. 2 contender in the West. The Mavs hope Haywood's length and Butler's scoring and toughness will position them as a main challenger to the Lakers. It also gives them more depth going into this summer, when they could emerge as a sign-and-trade contender for Bosh or another free agent.
Hughes:Dirk Nowitzki brought this up after the All-Star Game on Sunday night: The Mavericks get one practice with their new teammates and then play four games in five nights. It's going to take longer than that to incorporate them. However, I like the deal for Dallas. I just wonder if the Mavs are going to have to take a hit in the short term while roles are redefined in order to be successful in the long term. They are only 1½ games ahead of the Nos. 5, 6 and 7 seeds, and any slippage means losing home-court advantage in the first round.
McCallum: Very significant. A few seasons ago we were talking about Butler as possibly becoming one of the league's truly elite players until he was derailed by injuries and the generally poisonous atmosphere that seems to drag almost everyone down in our nation's capital. I always liked Howard, but the mojo had obviously soured between him and the team, and Butler can be everything Howard is on the court ... and more off of it. Plus, Haywood is another big body to take fouls during the playoffs. Sure, other midseason moves by the Mavs haven't resulted in title runs before (see Jason Kidd, see Raef LaFrentz), but I see this as a good one.
Mannix: I think this deal vaults the Mavs to the No. 2 team in the conference. Butler's struggles could be largely attributed to a) trying to adjust to his role in Flip Saunders' flex offense and b) daily frustration at the circus-like atmosphere that has enveloped Washington this year. But Butler will be a valuable contributor at two, possibly three positions for the Mavs. And Haywood assures Dallas of having a 7-footer backstopping the front line at all times.