1. Which teams have the best shot at winning the championship?
The Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, Timberwolves and Pacers, in that order. Count out the slumping Kings, because lousy defenders don't win rings, and the Nets, who can't expect their hobbled stars, Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, to excel through four best-of-seven rounds.
2. Who's the dark horse?
It's relentless Memphis, whose 10-deep rotation defies the NBA custom of demanding extra minutes from starters in the postseason. At week's end Hubie Brown's energetic attack had the Grizzlies second in the league in opponents' turnovers (17.0 per game), first in steals (9.6) and second in blocked shots (6.99). A team without an All-Star, Memphis had won 35 of its last 46 games and enters the playoffs with the same hungry look that the young Kings and Mavericks teams had in years past.
3. Are these shaping up to be the lamest playoffs in recent memory?
Considering that Kobe Bryant's shoulder, Baron Davis's ankle, T.J. Ford's neck and the lingering knee injuries of Kidd, Martin, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Chris Webber, Jermaine O'Neal, Jamal Mashburn and Karl Malone could all be factors in determining which teams reach the Finals, the answer is yes.
4. What will it take to beat the favored Lakers?
Their vulnerabilities are age and health, so opponents are likely to push the tempo and try to wear them down. Because their bench is thin and opposing point guards can blow past 35-year-old Gary Payton, Shaq will have a huge load to carry at both ends of the floor; he'll need a lot of help from Karl Malone, especially if L.A. faces San Antonio. Whoever wins the Eastern Conference should pray that O'Neal will be exhausted by the Finals.