Roundtable: Sizing up the best
The Celtics are off to a historic start, but the Lakers and Cavs are right there too
The Spurs, healthy again, may be the West's second-best team, behind the Lakers
General manager Steve Kerr's Suns makeover has been met with skepticism
SI.com NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Monday's games.)
1. The Celtics (23-2), Lakers (20-3) and Cavaliers (20-4) have winning percentages of .833 or better, with the Magic (19-6) next at .760. How do you evaluate the pecking order at the top of the league?
Ian Thomsen: Those first three are the class of the league at this early moment, and the winning percentages reflect the relative strengths. The Celtics are No. 1, and they're playing defensively as well as they did last season in the NBA Finals. It's a positive sign for the Lakers that they've gone 20-3 while incorporating their new defensive style around Bynum and Pau Gasol up front. Cleveland is a frightening No. 3 contender that has improved since its Game 7 loss to Boston in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season. The Cavs are excellent at both ends of the floor, and LeBron James is playing like a bigger version of Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. Which is frightening.
Jack McCallum: I consider the Celtics a clear No. 1. The phrase "in a class by themselves" is a bit strong, but they are clearly better than the Lakers, if only considering the result of last June's Finals. At this point, I put the Lakers 2 and the Cavs 2A, because there's not too much separating them. The Magic aren't as good as any of the top three.
Chris Mannix: A lot of NBA types I've talked to believe the Celtics and Lakers are on a collision course for the Finals. I agree. L.A. is head and shoulders above anyone in the West right now. Boston is healthy (Ray Allen, in particular), hungry (a championship has only further fueled Paul Pierce) and clicking on all cylinders. But Cleveland is playing frighteningly well. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck told me recently that he considered LeBron "the scariest player in the league" and is nervously anticipating a Celtics-Cavs rematch in the playoffs.
Cleveland is especially dangerous this season because of its defense. Scouts and coaches say the Olympics have changed LeBron -- "He's defending the best player on the opposing team every game," an Eastern assistant coach said -- while Mo Williams, a half-hearted defender in Milwaukee, has provided solid, game-to-game defense (in addition to scoring 16 points a game).
Steve Aschburner: I like those teams in the order listed -- Celtics, Lakers, Cavs, Magic -- but that's right now. By the time the playoffs start, the Lakers could improve, the Cavs could improve a lot and the Magic could improve a whole lot, closing any gap between themselves and the defending champs. I suppose it's the age of the Celtics' three key guys that makes them seem a little more fragile -- that, and the more difficult task of maintaining their excellence rather than scaling a new height. Calling out the second unit, as the team's veterans have been doing, might be the ace up their figurative sleeves those guys need. Also, I keep reminding myself that if Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen or Paul Pierce gets hurt, Boston still has two left. L.A., Cleveland or Orlando wouldn't be able to say that should its franchise guy go down.
2. Assuming you believe that the Lakers are a clear-cut No. 1 in the West right now, who is the second-best team in that conference?
Thomsen: They trail the second-place Nuggets by 1½ games in the West, but the Spurs are L.A.'s main challenger. Since its 1-4 start, San Antonio has gone 14-4 while working Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker back into the rotation. Roger Mason, George Hill, Matt Bonner and Ime Udoka all have the look of traditional Spurs role players. The Spurs will enjoy being the underdog all season to the Lakers, and -- health permitting -- a playoff series between the teams would be far more interesting than last year's, when San Antonio's bench was older and Ginobili was injured.
McCallum: It might be stubbornness talking since I picked New Orleans to win the whole shebang before the season started, but I'm going to say the Hornets. They seem to have righted themselves after a slow start and they've already got two three-game road trips behind them, though a four-gamer looms in early January.
Mannix: I'm sticking with New Orleans. The Hornets learned valuable lessons in last season's second-round loss to San Antonio, lessons that will carry over in the 2009 postseason. The core of the team -- Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic, David West and Tyson Chandler -- is now battle-tested.
Aschburner: "Second best'" seems like a label that suits San Antonio at this point, now that the Spurs have their guys back and can find a groove that will work when "second best'' no longer matters. Early injuries to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker allowed coach Gregg Popovich to put more responsibility on Roger Mason, George Hill and even Matt Bonner, and their firmed-up roles off the bench will allow Popovich to manage the main guys' minutes, with occasional heroics from the reserves. My curiosity about the Spurs, frankly, is how well golden oldies Bruce Bowen and Michael Finley play even in their much more limited capacities.
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