The 2008-09 NBA season passed its midpoint last week. That makes it an ideal time to gather Basketball Prospectus' team of NBA experts--Bradford Doolittle, Anthony Macri and Kevin Pelton--via e-mail to debate 10 of the season's biggest questions as they stand.
Is there an acceptable answer to "Who is MVP?" besides LeBron James?
BD: No. It's not close, even though Chris Paul might be having the best season ever by a player 6'0" or under. When you factor in Cleveland's record and James' even better performance on defense, I don't see any way he doesn't win.
AM: I think James is in the lead, but Kobe Bryant isn't too far behind. By the end of the year, I think Los Angeles will have the league's best record, and being the best player on the best team is traditionally a good way to win MVP. However, James' efficiency and the fact that he is carrying Cleveland well beyond where most thought they would be really puts him in the driver's seat. The Cavs could falter now, though--especially with the injuries to both Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Delonte West and no room in the Eastern Conference for error.
KP: Absolutely not. Despite--or perhaps because of--an improved supporting cast, James is putting up unthinkable numbers. At the current pace, he'd finish with the fourth-highest WARP total in modern NBA history. James is the best player on what is at the moment the best team in the NBA. If things continue like this, the MVP vote ought to be unanimous.
Who wins the Eastern Conference?
BD: Who gets the home-court advantage? I still think it's going to Boston, but the race for the No. 1 seed is vital in the East. Neither the Celtics nor the Cavs are going to lose many more games, so every slip-up matters. That should make for a great finish to the regular season. I still think Orlando is a half-step behind Boston and Cleveland.
AM: Has it been this tough picking the East in a while? I think Orlando will win the No. 1 seed with Boston fading a little down the stretch and Cleveland hitting a bump here with West's injury. I have Cleveland beating Boston in the conference semifinals (I think Boston has the big three, especially Paul Pierce, playing too many minutes right now) and Orlando cruising into the Eastern Conference semifinals--but then Cleveland is healthy and playing well at the right time. The Cavs go to the Finals.
KP: Earning the top seed in the East is going to be critical because there is such a giant drop-off between the top three and the conference's fourth-best team (Atlanta). The 2-3 semifinal is going to be an absolute slugfest, while the No. 1 seed figures to have a chance to rest entering the Eastern Conference Finals. The only team I think is capable of winning the conference without home-court all the way is Cleveland. Yet I also like Boston's chances of stealing the top seed with Ilgauskas and West sidelined. So today I say Boston. Ask me again tomorrow and I might say the Cavaliers or the Magic.
Who wins the Western Conference?
BD: The Lakers are the clear favorites. My preseason pick, Houston, has a chance to make up some ground with a soft schedule coming up, but L.A. probably has too much of a lead. I think L.A. will win the West, possibly in a runaway. But if there is one team that can challenge them, I still believe that it's going to be a healthy Rockets team.
AM: The Lakers win it with a stronger than expected challenge from the Denver Nuggets. The Lakers are too good to lose to any Western Conference teams in a seven-game series, but I like this Nuggets team to give them a good run for six games. I know my good friend David Thorpe said he likes the Spurs to challenge Kobe & company but I think their window has passed--of course, folks have had that said about them before.
KP: This question is much easier to answer. For the first time in recent memory, the West has a single dominant team, and that team is the Lakers.
Who do you see winning the championship?
BD: If it's Boston and L.A. again, I'm going with Boston. Danny Ainge needs to add a big man for the bench, though.
AM: I'm going Lakers this year because of home-court advantage. I think Los Angeles will have the league's best record, and that could make all the different. If Cleveland can get everyone healthy, though, and gets back to playing the way they were early on in the year, they can definitely make it a seven-game series. What fun--LeBron vs. Kobe for all the marbles and maybe the title of best player on the planet… couldn't script that any better.
KP: I favor the Lakers for two reasons. First, the trio of the championship contenders works in their favor. The early rounds may be more challenging for the Lakers, but they don't figure to get the same kind of test in the conference finals. Second, while the Lakers have a worse point differential than Boston and Cleveland, they seem to have an extra gear those other teams cannot match. While not quite "Team Lightswitch" like the 2000-01 Lakers, who waited to turn things on in the playoffs, this group gets up for the big games.
What one prediction would you take back if you could?
BD: Take back one of my well-reasoned predictions? Seriously? Well, OK. I wish my system had picked the Lakers, not the Rockets, in the West.
AM: In general, I try to avoid too many predictions for fear of having to take one back. However, I was one of the folks who thought the 76ers would improve pretty significantly with the addition of Elton Brand. I did not think it was a 2 + 2 = 4 kind of proposition, but I do think there are things they could have done to improve pretty significantly right from the start. Of course, improvement is not a word you would really use with the 76ers this year.
KP: Just one? I would say the Philadelphia 76ers being one of the East's elite teams, if only because in this case the reasons it proved wrong were fairly self-evident--primarily a lack of outside shooting. With Philly having won eight of its last nine games, there may still be time for me to not look like a complete moron here.
Which player and team has most pleasantly surprised you?
BD: The Nuggets are the easy answer here, but I'm going with Milwaukee as the team. Scott Skiles has done a terrific job there. The playoffs may not happen now that Michael Redd is out, but the Bucks are no longer an easy win. Player-wise, I have to go with Jameer Nelson. If he's just on a hot streak, it's been a heck of a streak.
AM: I knew Devin Harris would have a great year based on the way the Nets were going to play (dribble drive attack). I never thought he would be this good. He is a real treat to see with the ball, very quick and obviously playing with a lot of confidence. The team is definitely the Orlando Magic. They have been a pleasure to see. They run great stuff, they play underrated defense and their style is fun to watch.
KP: For the player, I'm taking Shaquille O'Neal. 36 is awfully old to be rejuvenated, yet O'Neal looks like an entirely different player than he did last season. I only wish his bounceback wasn't part of the Suns making themselves into a more conventional, less successful offense. At the team level, the choice is between the Southeast's top two teams, Atlanta and Orlando. Of the two, I'll take the Hawks because I saw so little reason for hope before the season and now I wouldn't be surprised in the least to see them win a playoff series.
Which player and team has most disappointed you?
BD: The team is Chicago. I expected a rebound and then some with the addition of Derrick Rose. Some of their young players just aren't developing the way they should. Most all the players that have been really disappointing can point to injuries--Tyson Chandler, Elton Brand, Deron Williams, etc. I'll go with Michael Beasley. I thought he'd hit the floor running as a rookie.
AM: Baron Davis has been a real disappointment to me. While I think his game was a great match for Don Nelson and not such a good fit with Mike Dunleavy, he has also been mediocre in terms of his effort, production and leadership. The most disappointing team for me has been the Bulls. They simply cannot put it together. You watch them for five or six minutes and they look talented and able to do a lot of different things. Keep watching another five or six minutes and you realize they are completely dysfunctional and schizophrenic. A mismatched roster with a coach incapable of dictating roles… a match made in hell for Chicago fans.
KP: Chandler's activity on defense and alley-oop finishes were a big part of why the Hornets were special last season. What happened to that player? At the team level, I'd say the Washington Wizards. Yes, you feel for them with injuries to Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood. Still, there's too much veteran talent there for the Wizards to be threatening to finish in the league's cellar.
What storyline most interests you entering the second half of the season?
BD: I mentioned that East race and I really think it's going to be terrific. Also, the trade deadline has the potential to be really interesting. You never quite know how to read the tea leaves when it comes to anticipating trades, but I suspect a lot of personnel gurus want to clear out long-term salary, both because of the economy and because of the 2010 free-agent class.
AM: The Eastern Conference is back! Well, maybe not from top to bottom. However, the top three teams are really good, and the fight for the top seed may be a fight all the way to the finish. One or two games will probably be all that separates those three teams, and whomever finishes second and third will have to face each other prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. That will be a lot of fun.
KP: Which team misses the playoffs in the Western Conference? No matter which of the nine qualified squads it is, some fan base is going to be very disappointed. If it's Dallas or Phoenix--the two most likely candidates at this point--it might trigger a notable rebuilding effort for two of the league's top teams during this decade.
What storyline would you be happy never to hear again?
BD: I could do without those mini-tour-bus NBA ads and, for that matter, I'm about KG'd out. More pertinent to your question, I don't need to hear any more speculation on where LeBron James is going to sign in 2010. There is still a season and a half till that happens. Let's just enjoy the game.
AM: Not sure this answer is an exact fit, but I think it is appropriate. The fact that Allen Iverson was voted onto the All-Star team is a complete and total joke. It is an affront to the players who deserve it (see Harris and Jameer Nelson, among others) and if there is any one thing I'd like to see disappear as a result, it is fan voting for the starting five. Please make it go away!
KP: I'd love not to hear how the economy is affecting the NBA because the financial situation is improving, but that seems like a bit much. So I'll settle with where LeBron James is playing in 2010. Would you leave Cleveland at this point?
What is the best game you've seen this season?
BD: I wouldn't call it the best game of the season, but last week's Kevin Durant/Eric Gordon duel was really fun to see. Another one that stands out is the one in October where Brandon Roy hit a shot against the Spurs, then Michael Finley rimmed one out at the buzzer. However, I have to go with Orlando at the Lakers on Jan. 16.
AM: That Lakers-Celtics game back on Christmas Day was pretty special. In that game, Los Angeles demonstrated some of the toughness they will need if they expect to challenge whomever comes out of the east, and Boston looked frozen as Pau Gasol took over in the final moments. We'll see if Phil Jackson can get this Lakers team rounded into shape come playoff time, and if Boston's big three has enough juice to make a repeat appearance.
KP: I'm going to go with one of the handful I've seen in person (most of them classics, including the one Bradford mentioned)--Portland beating Houston in OT on national TV on Roy's 35-footer at the buzzer.
For more great NBA talk, go to Baseball Prospectus Friday afternoon and fire questions at Kevin Pelton, who will be chatting at 1 p.m. ET.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.
Anthony Macri is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Anthony by clicking here or click here to see Anthony's other articles.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.