Roundtable: West race a dogfight
Nine winning teams are fighting for eight playoff spots in the Western Conference
The Mavs appear vulnerable, but their remaining schedule is full of home games
More topics: All-Star voting system; O'Neal-Marion thoughts; best pure shooter?
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 Lakers lead the Western Conference by six games. The next eight teams -- San Antonio, Denver, New Orleans, Portland, Houston, Phoenix, Dallas and Utah -- are separated by five games. The trade deadline could change some fortunes, but as of now, which team is most likely to miss the playoffs?
Ian Thomsen: Dallas (24 road games played) and Houston (26) have the most accommodating schedules over the latter half of the season. At the other end are the Spurs, who play 10 of their next 11 games on the road, including the annual eight-game trip (which starts next Monday and stretches past the All-Star break) they use to bond and define their team in a boot-camp kind of way. They're used to that rhythm, so don't worry about their schedule.
We can talk all we want about all of the different reasons one or another team will fail, but injuries and trades will define the race. Utah has been hurting all season, and for the moment I'm thinking the Jazz without Carlos Boozer are the most likely outsiders among the contenders.
Jack McCallum: The Spurs, Hornets and Rockets are too good not to make it. In the old days, meaning last season, the Nuggets would've been a mortal lock for the "out" spot, but Chauncey Billups has solidified that team. The Jazz will get going when they get healthy. Brandon Roy won't let the Trail Blazers just miss this time. And the Suns' old pros -- Steve Nash, Shaquille O'Neal and Grant Hill -- won't allow them to slide to the dreaded ninth spot. That leaves the Mavs to lose out to the Suns or Jazz by a narrow margin.
Chris Mannix: I'm going with the Mavericks. If blowout losses like the ones to Milwaukee and Boston last week begin to add up, look for owner Mark Cuban to pull the trigger on a deal (perhaps for Josh Howard) and begin the process of retooling the Mavs for next season.
Steve Aschburner: Dallas. This team's expectations have been so lowered over the past two years that scraping into the postseason won't provide much in the way of inspiration down the stretch. Phoenix could be in trouble, too, but the Suns seem more stubborn about making things work, while the inconsistent Mavs look more ready for a thorough overhaul.
2. Yi Jianlian, the Nets' fourth-leading scorer, finished third among Eastern Conference forwards in the fans' vote for All-Star Game starters. Bruce Bowen, who is averaging 20 minutes off the bench for the Spurs, came even closer to winning a spot as a starting forward in the West. Should the NBA change the system by which starters are picked?
Ian Thomsen: Keep it the way it is. If an "undeserving'' starter is elected, then maybe that will create new (and badly needed) interest in the All-Star Game. If enough fans are unhappy with the voting -- the NBA provides periodic updates throughout the election -- then they can vote in someone more deserving. It's like that saying about Americans and their presidents: The fans will get the All-Star starters they deserve.
Jack McCallum: Of course they should change it. (Though it will never happen; it's like complaining about the season being too long.) Fans shouldn't vote. They let home-team and home-nation sentiment get in the way. That's why they're fans. I'm sure no one wants to hear that sportswriters actually do a good job with voting -- I happen to think it's one of the few things we do well -- so turn all the voting over to the coaches.
Chris Mannix: Of course the system should change. The fans should always have a voice; it's what draws interest to the game in the first place. But the selection of the starters should be divided three ways, with the fans, coaches and media given an equal say. Forget Yi -- he didn't make it despite all the support from his native China. How about the Eastern Conference player who is going to get squeezed out of a reserve spot because Allen Iverson was voted onto the team as a starter?
Steve Aschburner: Mouse clicks in a popularity contest shouldn't carry so much weight. The NBA needs to weight the fan balloting in a system that includes input from coaches, players and media reps. As it is, the 15 conference coaches sometimes have to fix mistakes caused by the fans -- and don't think they don't have their personal biases and grudges, too. While we're at it, let's either impose a rule that All-Stars come only from teams with winning records or let's drop that artificial threshold. I'm with Chris Webber on this one: Playoffs reward team play, All-Star Games reward individual excellence.
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