1 - The Cavaliers have not gotten off to a good start. Is it a signal that they might not be a contender or just Heat-like early growing pains they will move past soon?
Micheal Erler: They're a contender almost by default. Besides Chicago and maybe Toronto and Atlanta a rung below that, who else is there in the East? I think offensively they'll hit their stride pretty quickly -- if they haven't found it already. Defensively I don't know how they'll ever be even average with that personnel. They can play Shawn Marion, but he's pretty much done and can't offer you any offense, similar to Shane Battier last year. I don't think their fate has much to do with them, honestly. It's all about Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol staying healthy for the Bulls. If Chicago is whole in the playoffs, they'll run through the East, including Cleveland, fairly easily I think. I don't imagine the series lasting more than 5, maybe 6 games at most. If the Bulls aren't healthy then the Cavs will be challenged to hold off the Raptors and Hawks.
Jesus Gomez: They are a contender, that's for sure. That offense is going to be explosive once they begin to start their sets earlier and move the ball with purpose. Sure, they can't stop anyone but that doesn't matter if they score at the rate they are capable of. I think the Cavs will come out of the East.
Chris Itz: They still have LeBron James, who brought it against the Pelicans on Monday night, and they play in the East so they'll be playing in late May. I'm not going to overreact to a handful of games. Their defense has been bad, but their offense will be great. They'll get it together and we'll see if a great offense can win big with a not-so-great defense.
Bruno Passos: The Heat had the defensive credentials, postseason experience and longer-term cohesive outlook (contract-wise) that signaled they could ride out early struggles. For those reasons, I'm not convinced by the Cavs. Still, in the East, at least at this stage, they have to be seen as contenders to make the Finals.
J.R. Wilco: It's not a signal that they might not be a contender, because LeBrom + Eastern Conference = contending team. But their lack of cohesion on defense will be their biggest issue. They're not making it past the Bulls giving up points like they are right now. And I'm not sure how they improve with their current roster, outside of slow incremental development -- which takes years, not months.
2 - With OKC decimated by injuries and the Clippers not living up to expectations, which Western team appears to be the Spurs' biggest threat?
Erler: Once the Thunder are whole, they'll still be the biggest threat, regardless of what seed they finish. They have two top-7 players and a few other threatening guys like Serge Ibaka, Reggie Jackson, Perry Jones and even Anthony Morrow. They'd be a terrifying 7 or 8 seed. Outside of them, the top team for me is the Warriors, who seem to have everything. They don't have any real weakness you can exploit except maybe fragility issues with Andrew Bogut and Stephen Curry, but the Spurs have similar concerns. I mean, there are specific holes different guys have in their games that maybe over a 7-game series you can focus on, but as a whole they're very good, with different guys making up for each other's shortcomings.
Gomez: Dare I say...the Grizzlies? I know the Spurs have a winning record against Memphis over the last couple of years, including a sweep on the conference finals two seasons ago. But this version has the shooters to prevent San Antonio from helping on Z-Bo. I think a series against them is going to be a grind in which every game goes down to the wire.
Passos: Golden State. We know what Curry can do, but they're strong at every position in ways that can give the Spurs fits and have been, overall, playing great D. Relying on outside shooting has its obvious long-term issues in the playoffs, but all it takes is four hot nights for the Warriors to cool SA's repeat hopes.
Wilco: I still say it's the Thunder. None of their injuries are bad enough to question how the players will do once they're healthy. And the only issue upon their return is how to integrate all of their pieces ... when maximizing all that talent was their issue already. The only downside for all of this is that we could be seeing OKC vs. SA in the 1st or 2nd round instead of the Western Conference Finals.
3 - Anthony Davis breakout year is happening as predicted. Can he become the league's best player this season or are LeBron and Durant a step above him?
Erler: James is still the best because he can pass and shoot threes, but besides him Davis is right there with anyone. I'll take him over Durant because he's an impact player in his own end. If the Pelicans contend for a playoff spot he should get strong MVP consideration because besides him they really don't have another top-40 player. Maybe top-50.
Gomez: I love Davis so much that I have probably watched every single Pelicans game so far. But he's not at that level yet in my eyes. Both LeBron and a healthy Durant are more dominant. But he's going to end the season as the clear-cut third best player on the league. And he's just 21 years old. He has time on his side.
Itz: AD broke out last season, but not very many people watched the Pelicans. His 20-10 and 2.8 blocks last season put him in territory that only 10 other guys have occupied, and all ten of them are hall-of-famers. None of them accomplished that feat at his age. He's going to be one of the all-timers, but right now, with no big game experience, he's just not at LeBron's level. He'll get there, but not this season.
Passos: Because he's not an elite go-to force like LeBron and KD are, I have to say no. His energy is incredible, his length is superhuman and his potential is not-yet-known, but let's give him one more year.
Wilco: The fact that we're even discussing this question about a 21-year-old is just insane. I have to say he's not there this year, but that's as far as I'll go.
4 - Kawhi Leonard's breakout year, on the other hand, is not going as expected. Are you worried about him plateauing or do you think it's just a matter of time until he builds on what he did in the finals?
Erler: Not worried about him plateauing at all. He is getting better, year-by-year, game-by-game. He's the best post-player of any SF outside of LeBron right now. He's the second-best mid-range shooter on the Spurs besides Tony Parker. He can create his own shots. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but the game against the Clippers might have been the best passing game of his career. His passing has improved tremendously. There is a ceiling there because of his good-not-great athleticism, but even Leonard with his ridiculous wingspan, hasn't come close to reaching it yet. I think he can be a 19-9-5-3-2 guy. That, to me, is his ceiling.
Gomez: I'm a worrier. So yes, for sure I'm worried about his potential as either a go-to scorer or a playmaker. I loved the Clippers game but I will need to see him do things like that more consistently. He's still such a fantastic defender and a great fit with the team that I want him in to be a Spur forever. But while he's arguably a top 20 player already, I'm not yet convinced he can make the leap to top ten player in the league.
Passos: I don't see a plateau, but it's hard to imagine what geological formation his career trajectory is on. Whether it's because he's so conventional a human being or so unconventional an NBA personality, I really can't foresee how Kawhi will progress. I'm definitely not worried about him peaking, but we may not see him truly push his own boundaries until some of the old fellas depart.
Wilco: I blame his eye issues for any not-going-as-expected so far. Also, it's just 7 games into the season and Kawhi's only played in 6. He's still recovering from the conjunctivitis and he shot so well against the Warriors. The biggest thing holding him back from breaking out is the same thing that will extend his career: The System. I'm fine with what we've seen from Kawhi so far.
5 - If you could miraculously cure only one of the Spurs' injured players, who would you pick?
Passos: Tiago. He could have a bigger role to play this year with this season's new NBA landscape, but things are quite nebulous right now and that's scary. His presence not only keeps the defense in great shape, but whatever minutes/games it spares for Duncan are also important. As someone who's suffered with his own back issues, I'm really rooting for him.
Wilco: Splitter, no contest. His defense is (at the risk of starting another huge argument) All World, and he more than holds the fort when Duncan sits. But when Tim and Tiago play together, it's nearly as bad for the other team as it was in the days of Robinson and Duncan.
... Hey, I said nearly.