Roundtable: Midseason musings
Even without big minutes from Shaquille O'Neal, LeBron and Co. lead the East
Don't expect the Lakers to lose in the West, but watch out for Atlanta in the East
Major trades before the Feb. 18 deadline could shake up the playoff picture
SI.com's NBA writers analyze the latest news and address hot topics from around the league each week. (All stats and records are through Jan. 20.)
1. How do you see the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playing out?
Ian Thomsen: Cleveland is the likely No. 1 team in the East going into the playoffs, given the Celtics' focus on rehabbing Kevin Garnett and the hard work faced by the Magic to integrate Vince Carter down the stretch. The Cavs have already shown they can win without big minutes from Shaquille O'Neal, and they'll spend the rest of the year pacing him for a potential series against the front lines of Orlando, Boston and the Lakers.
Jack McCallum: I don't get a chance to say this much, but I like what I predicted in the preseason -- Cavs over Celtics. And not just because the Celtics are in this mini-losing streak. Garnett can't stay healthy, and, consequently, their defense is not as tough as it was during the title season of 2007-08. The Cavs, eager and frisky, look like the Celtics of two seasons ago. I was never an Orlando advocate -- I didn't like the Carter acquisition -- and I think the Magic will remain behind Atlanta.
Chris Mannix: Cleveland. Orlando is out -- I see the seemingly interminable adjustment period with Carter pushing the Magic back toward the middle of the pack. The Hawks won't be in the mix, either, since they've already played 22 home games -- most of any team in the top four -- and they are mediocre (10-9) on the road. That leaves the Celtics and Cavaliers jockeying for the top spot, but I don't see Boston, which is (rightfully) handling Garnett with kid gloves and may need to give Paul Pierce some more rest in the second half, laying it on the line to grab the top seed -- not when they already hold road wins over Cleveland and Orlando this season.
Paul Forrester: This is Cleveland's to lose, barring any injures. Of their final 39 games, 23 are at home. And unlike the Celtics, Cleveland doesn't need to conserve minutes for anyone but Shaq and, unlike the Magic, the Cavs seem to have figured out how their pieces fit together. Having the best player in the game helps in overcoming a few flaws, too. One thing to note: Should GM Danny Ferry be able to acquire a Troy Murphy or Antawn Jamison before the trade deadline, the adjustment period could cost the Cavs a few games. That may hurt in the regular season, but it's a cost Cleveland will happily pay if it brings a title.
2. Is there a sleeper team, one that could unexpectedly make a run for the title?
Thomsen: Given the Lakers' length, depth and talent, along with the fact that they're now as strong defensively as they've always been at the other end of the floor, I don't see them (assuming they stay healthy) losing to anyone in the West. Should Kobe Bryant break one more finger, then the Mavericks, Spurs or Nuggets may be able to sneak by Los Angeles to the Finals.
In the East, the Hawks' 3-0 record against Boston is creating hope that they may be that sleeper team. But those kinds of upsets are rare in the NBA: Each of the last 14 champions has been a No. 1 or 2 seed in its conference tournament. The Hawks are limiting themselves to 13 players while maintaining a $65 million payroll -- $20 million less than the Celtics and about $15 million cheaper than the Cavs or Magic. In these disparities the Hawks find themselves in the role of the Minnesota Twins trying to match up against the Yankees -- meaning they won't have the manpower to deal with Cleveland, Boston and Orlando if all of those expensive contenders are healthy.
McCallum: I think it's the Hawks. They're nutty enough to think they could win; before they were just nutty. Do I think it will happen? No, because I like the Cavs. But I think it could happen because they have talent and things have broken extremely well for them. The "starting six" (off-the-bench ace Jamal Crawford gets 30 minutes a game) have all remained healthy, after all, and not many teams can say that. For the record, I don't like the Nets' chances of making a serious run.
Mannix: The Hawks have a couple of things going for them: One, they are fearless. They hate Boston, and their 3-0 record in the season series shows they have unlocked the secret to beating the Celtics. Plus, they don't believe Cleveland, which beat them in back-to-back games to end 2009, is better than them, either. And two, the Hawks have a sense of urgency, considering that Joe Johnson and coach Mike Woodson can both walk at the end of the season. If they can avoid the Magic -- the one player the Hawks have yet to figure out is Dwight Howard -- Atlanta is a legit threat.
Forrester: Not really. The tragedy of the seven-game series is that it almost always ensures that the favored team will win. Any upsets to be had aren't really upsets, but more mild surprises, such as when the Pistons topped the Lakers in the 2004 Finals or when the Magic dropped the Cavs in last season's East finals. Should the Hawks find themselves matched up against the Celtics in the conference finals, then Atlanta will be Finals-bound. But as long as experience and talent remain king in the postseason, the NBA title is reserved for those teams that have planned and built for it, and this season those teams are the Lakers, Celtics, Cavs, Magic, Spurs or Nuggets.
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