4 Questions forthe Next 4 Months
1 WHO WILL CHANGETHE BALANCE OF POWER IN THE WEST? The easy bet is to say that the Mavericks andthe Suns are the favorites to end the Spurs' choke hold on the conference. Themore intriguing, dark-horse candidates are the Clippers and the Nuggets. Bothhave good shots at winning their divisions, which would enable them to avoidthe Spurs or the Mavs in the first and second rounds. Keep an eye, inparticular, on the health of Tim Duncan, who has been slowed all year byplantar fasciitis of the right foot. If Duncan limps into the conferencefinals, the door opens much wider for one of those two underdogs.
2 WILL KOBEBRYANT BE THE MVP? Since 1984 the MVP's team has averaged 62 wins; the last MVPon a team with fewer than 50 victories in a nonlockout year was Moses Malone,whose 1981-82 Rockets won 46. This has been an excellent comeback performanceby Bryant, and there's little doubt that the .500 Lakers would be .300 withouthim. But unlike '81-82, when Malone was the clear-cut choice, Bryant faces aformidable field of candidates, all of whom play for teams likely to win 50.The MVP favorite remains Steve Nash, whose Suns are on pace to win 54 gamesdespite the absence of Amaré Stoudemire.
3 WILL THE HEATGET ITS ACT TOGETHER? It's clear that the off-season overhaul by Pat Riley thepresident has created chemistry problems not even Pat Riley the coach cansolve. Under Riley, Miami has surrendered 47 points in a quarter to Phoenix;watched Shaquille O'Neal get shut down by the Suns' Kurt Thomas and the Nets'Jason Collins over a nine-day span; and gone 1-9 against division leaders. Ifthe Heat hasn't stumbled on to a formula that can compete with the Pistons' bynow, it isn't going to find one in June. As for Miami's win over Detroit onSunday, it must be considered an aberration until the Heat sustains successagainst elite teams.
4 WHO WILL BE THEFIRST TO GO: ISIAH THOMAS OR LARRY BROWN? The Knicks owe Brown a reported $10million a year through 2009-10, making them the rare franchise he might be inno hurry to leave. Last spring he flirted with joining the Cavs as their topexec, so don't be surprised if Brown helps engineer, in the next two years, theremoval of Thomas in favor of a low-profile G.M. of Brown's choosing (such asWizards player personnel director Milt Newton). That would enable Brown toeventually take over as Knicks president.
5 Potential Summer Moves
•The Bulls sendKirk Hinrich and the Knicks' unprotected lottery pick (received in the EddyCurry trade) to the Pacers for Jermaine O'Neal. Imagine that.
•The Jazz tradesCarlos Boozer to the Warriors for Mike Dunleavy and Adonal Foyle.
•Rick Adelmanresigns as coach of the Kings to take over the Sonics.
•Hawks free-agentforward Al Harrington signs with the Hornets.
•Sam Cassellmoves to the neighboring locker room at Staples Center, signing a two-year dealwith the Lakers.
A scout ratesSI's roster of second-half breakthrough players:
Robert Swift, C,Sonics "He has a feel for the game; he moves the ball. He's got some BillWalton in him."
Sasha Pavlovic,F, Cavaliers "He's a good shooter with excellent range, a poor man's PejaStojakovic."
Danny Granger, F,Pacers "He can eventually replace Ron Artest as their physical, grittydefender who's versatile at the offensive end. He'll guard the opponent's bestscorer up front, whether it's a power or small forward."
Kevin Martin, G,Kings "Along with Francisco Garcia, another example of Sacramento'sdiscovering young guys who know how to play."
Raymond Felton,G, Bobcats "He has good size and toughness and can really push the tempo,though he doesn't move the ball as well as he should because he sees himself asa scorer."
Rarely does alopsided payroll pay off. Just look at this season's sevenmost-richly-compensated players:
1. ShaquilleO'Neal, Heat ($20 million). Rallying his team to a title is a long shot
T2. AllanHouston, Knicks ($19.1m). Retired this season, he remains on New York's bloatedcap
T2. Chris Webber,76ers ($19.1m). Limited by knee injuries, having trouble coexisting with AI
4. MichaelFinley, Spurs ($18.6m). Waived by Mavs (who pay most of his salary), he'saveraging 9.4 ppg
5. Kevin Garnett,Timberwolves ($18m). MVP of 2003-04 has won two playoff series in 11-yearcareer
T6. StephonMarbury, Knicks ($16.5m). Virtually untradeable guard has yet to win a playoffseries
T6. AllenIverson, 76ers ($16.5m). Franchise has gone steadily downhill since 2001 Finalsappearance