Roundtable: Early rookie returns, East improvements and more
Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has looked every bit like the No. 1 pick in the draft
Kings forward Jason Thompson has made an impression in his first several games
More topics: East getting better, best all-time Lakers duo, Clippers struggles
SI.com NBA writers will analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week.
1. Which rookie has impressed you the most so far?
Ian Thomsen: The Bulls' Derrick Rose (18.9 ppg, 5.6 apg, 5.0 rpg, 46.8 FG%) looks like a No. 1 pick. I was expecting him to need a year to develop because he had only the one season at college, but he's establishing his speed and playmaking instincts as NBA strengths already. The two Memphis rookies have been strong; O.J. Mayo is the ready-made star he was supposed to be, and Marc Gasol looks like a true center. If the Blazers live up to their ultimate potential, then Rudy Fernandez is going to be one of their stars. You can see it in him already.
Marty Burns: Rose is not only putting up good numbers but he's also doing it while leading his team. The Bulls basically have turned over the reins to their rookie point guard, and he has responded like a 10-year pro. Mayo has had some dazzling scoring nights, Miami's Michael Beasley has been doing his thing, and Portland's Greg Oden might end up playing a key role for a top-tier team. One of them might even deserve to be Rookie of the Year when it's all said and done. But no one has impressed me as much as a 19-year-old kid playing the QB position in his home city for a team with no superstar (but four shooting guards who all think they should be starting) and a rookie coach.
Jack McCallum: Rose is near the top in every category he should be near the top in. I've been gushing about him for months and will continue throughout the Gushing Season. Not sure when that ends.
Chris Mannix: Several rookies have been impressive (Mayo, Rose, Beasley, Gasol), but the one I have been most impressed with is Jason Thompson. When the Kings took Thompson with the 12th pick, I was ready to engrave his name on the 2008 Draft Bust Award right then and there. But Thompson has been solid and, at times, spectacular. He is averaging 11.5 points and 6.5 rebounds in 25.6 minutes, and has shown the ability to swing between both forward positions. He may not turn out to be a star like Rose or Beasley, but the Kings may have found themselves a starting forward for the next decade.
Steve Aschburner: It's hard to quibble with Rose's early production while shouldering the pressure of being the No. 1 pick. Mayo is getting every opportunity to succeed in Memphis and mostly seizing them. But the guy who caught my eye on opening night was Sacramento's Thompson. He had 18 and 10 against Minnesota, and totaled 31 points and 20 boards in back-to-back games last week against the Pistons and Clippers. He hasn't blocked a shot in more than two weeks, but he's got a long, lively build and a swell future.
2. Through Monday, the much-maligned East held a 31-15 advantage in games against the West, which has long been viewed as the dominant conference. How would you assess the balance of power between the two conferences right now?
Thomsen: From top to bottom, the East is better. Right now, every team in the East could challenge for the playoffs (including the young Nets around Vince Carter), while 10 at most in the West could contend (the Lakers, Phoenix, Utah, New Orleans, Houston, San Antonio, Portland, Denver, Dallas and Golden State).
Another way of looking at it is to ask whether the West's top five or six teams will be superior to the East's elite; in that sense, I think the West may be better, after the Jazz's Deron Williams and the Spurs' Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are fully recovered, and the Rockets and Mavericks have grown more comfortable in their new systems.
Burns: The East has definitely closed the gap. I'd probably still take any of the top four West teams to win the title over, say, the Cavs or the Pistons. But the Celtics are the defending champs, and the East is actually now the tougher conference from top to bottom. In recent years, the West has seen the Kings, Timberwolves, Grizzlies and Sonics (now Thunder) go into serious rebuilding mode. Throw in the reeling Clippers and Mavs, and there are a lot of easy Ws against the West these days.
McCallum: I break down conferences into three categories: Would Love To Play Them; Don't Mind Playing 'Em Although I'm Not Crazy About It; Don't Want To Play 'Em, Period. The East has one team in category No. 3, Boston, and one of the second variety, Cleveland. The West also has only one Don't Want to Play 'Em, the Lakers, but a whole bunch of No. 2s (Utah, Houston and Phoenix right now, New Orleans and San Antonio when they get straightened out and maybe Portland by the end of the year). The West still has a lot more quality.
Mannix: Is the balance of power starting to shift? Yes, slowly. But injury issues (Williams, and Parker and Ginobili) and slow starts (Dallas, New Orleans) have had more of an impact on that lopsided record than a significant shift in power. If you were to rank the top 10 teams in the league (assuming full strength), they are, arguably, in some variation of this order: Lakers, Celtics, Rockets, Hornets, Cavs, Pistons, Jazz, Suns, Spurs and Nuggets. That's seven of 10 residing in the West.
The East has a plethora of nice stories, including the Knicks' early success under Mike D'Antoni and Atlanta's strong start. But when healthy, the West is still significantly superior to the East.
Aschburner: The commissioner has always trusted the pendulum effect, relying on the draft and free agency to shift power back and forth, and he's looking smart again. Ups and downs in the West are sort of canceling each other out; Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix are or will be in decline while New Orleans, Portland and Houston ascend. In the East, though, with the exception of Boston, Detroit and Cleveland, there was nowhere to go but up. Now New York, Atlanta, Orlando, Toronto, Philadelphia and Miami offer entertainment, potential or both.
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