NBA Roundtable (cont.)
3. The Nuggets are 2-0 against the Lakers this season. Has Denver narrowed the gap since losing in six games to L.A. in last year's Western Conference finals? Are the Nuggets the only legitimate challenger to the Lakers in the West?
Thomsen: The Nuggets look like they have a better shot of upsetting the Lakers than anyone in the East has of knocking off the Cavs. The experiences of last year's run have helped Denver this year, while the Lakers have been disappointing lately. But we haven't seen the Lakers play even close to their best, and it's only fair to assume that as champs they'll raise their game down the stretch.
I also think the Mavericks can still emerge as a challenger to L.A. if they make a trade at the deadline. But I really don't see anybody getting past the Lakers in the Western tournament.
McCallum: Having gone with the Spurs in the beginning of the year, I'm loathe to back off now (obviously, San Antonio needs to start playing much better against the conference elite). But the Nuggets seem to have more of the ingredients to beat the Lakers than any other Western team. Consider: a scorer (Carmelo Anthony) to match Kobe Bryant; an experienced leader (Chauncey Billups); size (Nene, Kenyon Martin and Chris Andersen) to go against the tree-like Lakers inside; and a playoff-savvy coach (George Karl). There's no question they have narrowed the gap, but I still seem them falling short.
Hughes: During an 82-game season, teams go through hot and cold spells. I'd hate to read too much into the outcome of two games, particularly against the defending champions. (That said, I do think the Hawks are in the heads of the Celtics.) Plus, things change during a seven-game series that may not be taken into account during the regular season, namely injuries and schedule. However, I do see the Nuggets and Lakers meeting in the conference finals again. Two months ago, I may have said Portland was a contender, but the Trail Blazers' injury situation is just too overwhelming.
Mannix: After watching San Antonio fold to the Kobe-less, Bynum-less Lakers on Monday, yes. But I'm not sure the Nuggets present much of a challenge. Remember, Denver lost two key role players last summer in Linas Kleiza and, more important, Kobe-stopper Dahntay Jones. Aaron Afflalo (and his 44.7 three-point percentage) has been a nice addition, but when push comes to shove (and with Kobe, it always does), Bryant is going to dominate a series against the Nuggets. To me, right now, the Lakers' challenge won't come until they play a team from the East.
4. The NCAA is mulling the idea of expanding the Big Dance. If you could change one thing about the NBA playoff format, what would it be?
Thomsen: I've long wondered if the NBA would be better served by a best-of-five playoff series, which would create more upsets and make each game more important. It's not feasible to think the league would shorten the regular season, but tightening up the playoffs would create more drama without sacrificing a large number of games. I bring this up because the popularity of the NCAA tournament is based on its one-and-done format, which creates drama that the NBA cannot match. Shrinking the pro playoffs would at least heighten the tension for each game.
McCallum: We've talked about this before and it should be done: Select the 16 postseason teams regardless of conference. It's such a good idea, particularly since the preponderance of Western playoff-caliber teams has only increased since it was first suggested, that I wish I had thought of it. (That said, it's also logistically difficult given the impact on scheduling and travel.) Eleven teams in the West are over .500 compared to just five in the East. That's not "cyclical"; that's ridiculous.
Hughes: Send the first round back to a best-of-five series. It adds an element of uncertainty and electricity that is present in the one-and-done style of the college tourney. I know, I know, the Warriors upset Dallas in a best-of-seven and it was one of the best series I have ever watched. But I think it's true that the best team usually comes out ahead over the span of seven games. Five games provide some sense of panic and hysteria that should be there for all postseason series.
Mannix: Reseeding, rank 1-16 regardless of conference, blah, blah, blah. Look, the NBA playoff system isn't perfect, but show me one that is. Changing the format to let the top 16 teams is OK, but if the NBA did that, it would remove a lot of intrigue in the last month of the regular season. Miami and Milwaukee (and maybe Philly and New York) are poised for an April dogfight for the final playoff spot in the East. Tinkering with the playoff format would mean those teams would be playing out the string by March. No, keep the status quo. There will always be complaints. It doesn't mean the league has to listen to them.