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Posted: Tuesday January 13, 2009 12:52PM; Updated: Tuesday January 13, 2009 12:59PM

Roundtable: Who can win it all?

Story Highlights

Our writers share different views of how many teams are in the championship mix

The Cavs are one contending team to watch as the trade deadline approaches

More topics: Carlos Boozer/Paul Millsap dilemma for Jazz; Darius Miles saga

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LeBron James and his Cavaliers may face a very familiar foe from Detroit on their road to the NBA Finals this season.
AP 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. We're about five weeks away from the Feb. 19 trading deadline. As things stand now, how many teams look capable of winning an NBA championship?

Ian Thomsen: The obvious contenders are Boston, Cleveland, the Lakers and San Antonio -- the most likely final four we'll see this May. With the exception of Detroit, those four are the only teams whose core has NBA Finals experience.

As strong and balanced as the Magic are looking, they probably need another year or two of playoff success before beating the Celtics or LeBrons in a seven-game series. Those two teams play a much more physical style than Orlando ... which is why I'm not ready to give up on the Pistons yet. If they continue to recast their new style over the next three months, they have the size and strength to deal with either of the Eastern favorites.

There are a lot of outsiders in the West that could make a run at the Lakers. I still think New Orleans needs another big man to back up David West and Tyson Chandler, but the Suns and Rockets are two teams that could challenge if they're healthy and rolling into the playoffs. I'm expecting the Nuggets to attempt a move at the trading deadline, and the right short-term addition to Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups could upgrade them from an interesting regular-season team to a provocative postseason contender.

Jack McCallum: Six. And I never thought I'd be saying this, but just as many of them are in the East -- Boston, Cleveland and Orlando (notice the alphabetical order because I'm not sure who's best right now). My picks in the West would be the Lakers, obviously, San Antonio and my preseason selection, New Orleans. The Hornets don't look like a championship team (and not just because they lost at home Monday to the Knicks), but they could still make a run.

Chris Mannix: I'm going to say eight. Right now, Boston, Cleveland, the Lakers and San Antonio are right there. Orlando, New Orleans and Denver are intriguing possibilities. And on the fringe sits Houston, which, if it can get its act together in the next two months, has as much talent as any of them.

The favorite, however, has to be Cleveland. The Cavs' complete dismantling of Boston last Friday established them as the class of the East. With Zydrunas Ilgauskas (once he returns from an ankle injury), Anderson Varejao, Ben Wallace and improving-by-the-day rookie J.J. Hickson, the Cavs have enough size to compete with any team that comes out of the West. And this doesn't even take into account what GM Danny Ferry might do with the valuable expiring contract of Wally Szczerbiak.

Steve Aschburner: Our next NBA champion is going to come from a pool of four teams. Boston and the Lakers are obvious choices, for their continued success from last season and their obvious repeat or one-step-further mindsets, respectively. Cleveland can draw on its 2007 Finals experience, its roster upgrades and all of LeBron James' ascendancy since. San Antonio, because playoff basketball is as natural for the Spurs as endorsing checks, seemingly can grab a title every year. And that's it. Orlando would be in for a too-heady experience to get it done this spring, same as New Orleans if the Hornets pushed deep into the postseason. Every other top team lacks one or more key ingredients.


The Kings likely will find a robust market for Brad Miller's services, providing a contender is willing to absorb his hefty salary.

2. Last season, Pau Gasol, Shaquille O'Neal, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and Mike Bibby were among the big names traded in February. Do you anticipate another busy trading season beyond what we've seen already?

Ian Thomsen: There may be a lot of salary dumps. Take Brad Miller, for example. The rebuilding Kings may be willing to yield him for expiring contracts, saving them from having to pay his $12.3 million salary next season. It's not like they're going to be in contention next year, so why not unload his salary sooner than later?

People around the league think there might be a lot of that kind of talk over the next month. The have-nots will be looking to move long-term commitments to the more ambitious haves. In terms of the championship picture, the teams most likely to exploit this trend are the Cavaliers (provided they are willing to pay a big luxury tax next season in exchange for trading their expiring contracts over the next month) and the Nuggets (who can package the future first-round pick they received last June from Charlotte, which loses its protections over the next few years and will have value to teams looking to rebuild in the long term).

Jack McCallum: I don't see it as busy and it depends on what you mean by a "big name." Is Jerry Stackhouse one? I can't believe he won't be dealt by Dallas. The title contenders I mentioned above would not want to mess with their mojo, so I can't see any of them making a major deal. The Steve-Nash-to-Toronto possibility keeps being brought up, but I don't think there's a chance in hell that the Suns would do that this season.

Chris Mannix: I think you will see one Gasol-type trade before the deadline, perhaps involving Cleveland (which many people assume) or another team no one is talking about (a scenario that is equally as likely). But I think this deadline will be dominated by smaller trades involving role players. In question No. 1, we talked about contenders for the title; well, each of those contenders could use help in some form. Those types of deals, while significantly smaller on the NBA scale, are no less significant because the right one could be enough to put a team over the top.

Steve Aschburner: I can't imagine this year's deadline deals topping last year's. There were more heavyweight names in play as the cutoff approached -- and then a few surprises on top of that. Contracts that expire this summer might not be as valued, since it's 2010 when so many ambitious (or dreaming) teams want their cap room. And based on Question No. 1, it's not like there are a lot of teams that are just one tweak away from a title. Oh, and the economy plays a role, too: It will be more important for franchises to impress their potential ticket-buyers in the offseason when it's time to renew, rather than for whatever is left of an already-sold '08-09.

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