1 - Tony Parker is averaging over 16 points and six assists in the past five games. Is he "back"?
Michael Erler: Depends what your definition of "back" is. I don't think the 2013 Parker is ever coming back, but the 2014 version (and the 2014 Ginobili it needs to be mentioned) were plenty good enough to win with. I'm pretty pleased overall with Parker so far, both he and Ginobili are playing under control and sticking to their strengths and not trying to do things they no longer can. My only concerns with Tony is that he's as vulnerable defensively as ever and that his scoring bursts have been streaky of late, but overall it's hard not to be encouraged by his play.
Bruno Passos: He's not 'back' back, because he'll never again be the focal point of the Spurs offense or feast in the paint, but he's definitely not T.J. Ford out there. He can still put pressure on defenses and has been really efficient on the pick and roll thus far. I think we should all be pleasantly surprised and optimistic that he can keep it up.
Jesus Gomez: I think he's back at being an above average starter, which is what the Spurs need him to be. As long as he can be an efficient third option and draw attention from the defense, he will be a plus on the starting unit. Considering there was some chatter about him being done in the offseason, that's huge.
Chris Itz: Bruno and Erler are right, he'll never reach his peak again, but he's fine. I'll add one more stat to the conversation, Tony is 16th in the league in number of drives per game with a healthy 8.3 per. Impressively, among players that drive five or more times per game, he's second in field goal percentage (57.9%) to Stephen Curry (58.5).
J.R. Wilco: I'll say what I've been saying all along: if he's healthy, this is what we can expect. If he's hurting, then he'll look like he did late last season.
2 - The Spurs have the best defense in the West because their schedule has been easy. True or false?
Erler: Absolutely true, but it's not like they'd be chopped liver against tougher opponents. Duncan, Leonard and Green are elite defenders. Ginobili and Diaw are very smart team defenders. Aldridge offers both length and athleticism. He and Duncan working in conjunction make the paint an almost impossible proposition for people. There is no reason why the Spurs shouldn't be good against everyone, but some opponents shoot better from outside than others and I'm still wary of that Diaw-West pairing.
Passos: It definitely helps, but they've also faced a number of the league's top scoring teams (OKC, Phoenix, Charlotte, Sacramento, Washington and Boston are all in the top 10) in holding up that staunch 91 ppg average. Greater tests are to come, but this is a top-five defense regardless.
Gomez: False. They have the best defense in the West because the Warriors are cruising. I do think they can have the second best defense in the league. Tim Duncan is still elite on that end, LaMarcus Aldridge is doing well next to him, for the most part, and Kawhi Leonard's defense has only gotten slightly worse with a much bigger offensive role, which is amazing, when you think about it. The defense is elite.
Itz: Fun facts: The Spurs are holding teams to the fewest points in the league (91). No team has been better at defending the rim than San Antonio, SA gives up the fewest free throws, Tim Duncan is still unquestionably an elite defender and Kawhi Leonard is Kawhi Leonard (third in defensive win shares and defensive rating, by basketball-reference.). A top-3 defense is their floor.
Wilco: False. Their schedule hasn't hurt them, but it hasn't helped them too much, either. I'll admit that I was completely wrong in what I expected at the beginning of the season. I thought the offense would kill right out of the gate, and their defense would take time to come together. It's been the exact opposite of that and I couldn't be happier. I expect their current level of defense to continue throughout the season.
3 - The Southwest division is looking weaker than it has in a long time. After sending all five teams to the playoffs last season, how many will make it this year?
Erler: I think four is the safe answer. The Spurs and Grizzlies will make it in. The Rockets should, too. Between the Mavs and Pelicans one will sneak in, but I'm not sure which. Obviously the Mavs have a pretty good head start. I don't know if the Jazz have enough offense or the Suns have enough defense to challenge for a spot.
Passos: I'll go with three. The Mavs were the popular pick to drop out at the start of the year, but Rick Carlisle might be too great a coach to let that happen, and I think the Grizzlies are a safe bet, as well. If the injury bug strikes Dallas, the Rockets may be able to slide in, while the Pelicans' slow start may already be their undoing. We saw what a 3-12 start did to a better Oklahoma City team last year, and not even a superhuman effort by Russell Westbrook was enough to overcome it in the end.
Gomez: I'm going to go with three: The Spurs and Grizzlies for sure and one of the Mavericks and Rockets. The league will figure out Dallas at some point, so I expect them to decline a bit but still fight for a playoff spot. The Rockets can't possibly be this bad, so they might sneak in, possibly taking the Mavericks' spot. I do think there's a good chance only one Southwest division team will advance past the first round.
Itz: Rick Carlisle is incredible. You could randomly select 13 dudes in the league and he'd figure out a way to make them competitive -- Raymond Felton has played the fifth most minutes on their roster and they're currently fourth in the West. That said, I think the Mavs and the Pelicans end up on the outside looking in.
Wilco: Three, maybe four. The Pelicans are absolutely a playoff team when they're healthy, but they are so far behind that it'll take a Herculean effort by Anthony Davis (or a massive collapse from a couple of teams) to get New Orleans back into the top eight. So that leaves San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis. I can't get behind Houston the way they're playing right now -- especially given Harden's inability to shoot or get to the line like he used to.
4 - Which rookie has impressed you the most so far?
Erler: Do I have to pick just one? It's looking like a terrific rookie class, after some recent disappointing ones. Karl Anthony-Towns has been as good as advertised, Jahlil Okafor already looks like a monster in the paint, Kristaps Porzingis seems like a Dirk in the making and Justise Winslow might be the East's answer to Kawhi Leonard for all we know. I'm also looking wrong about Emmanuel Mudiay. About the only rookies that have been somewhat underwhelming so far are Mario Hezonja and D'Angelo Russell, and both are hamstrung by "old school" coaches not playing them enough minutes. Actually Frank Kaminsky is in a similar situation in Charlotte. Opportunity matters.
Passos: I enjoy watching Karl Anthony-Towns the most. There's always something new to appreciate in his game, whether it's his passing or defensive positioning, and it looks like Kevin Garnett being in his ear can only help him develop as the year goes along.
Gomez: Myles Turner was a joy to watch before his injury. He could block shots and shoot Dirk-esque fadeaways. He could be a star. Now, I think Porzingis is the most fun to watch, just because he's so unique. A 7'3" guy with those hops and that shooting touch? I don't think I've seen that before.
Itz: A 7' 2" skilled guy who can shoot is the most intriguing player to me. Porzingis can also hit the boards and he looks to be a pretty good defender. I'm not saying he's been the best rookie, I think I'd give that nod to Towns at the moment, but I will willingly watch the Knicks play basketball, which is saying a lot.
Wilco: Enjoy Porzingis while you can, people. Good news: He's putting up Anthony Davis-type rookie numbers. Bad news: NBA players over 7'2 have a horrible history of injuries. It seems the human body can only get so big before the rigors of an 82 game season take their tool all to early. I'd love to see Kristaps have a long and healthy career, but the deck is stacked against him.
5 - The 76ers are on pace for the worst start in NBA history. Do you agree with The Process?
Erler: I agree with their philosophy, generally, but holy cow I've never a combination of this much bad injury luck and poor drafting. After all these drafts they should be much further along than this and it's alarming even with two productive bigs they can't win a single game in the East. I know you've had injuries on the perimeter, but how bad can your backcourt be to be this inept? I think it's time for a new GM, if for no other reason than the previous one just has lousy luck.
Passos: I agree with a few principles but not the execution, nor the extremes to which it's been taken. And since it's the unwavering extremes that really define 'The Process', my answer would have to be no. The chatter is increasingly about how the NBA is a players' league, and that's an awareness that needs to grow alongside analytics and assigning values to guys. 'The Process' ignores team context, undermines any hope for continuity, and fails to furnish player development. And when you pair that attitude with a losing culture and no identity, what advantage does this team have, even after it cashes out on one of its bets?
Gomez: I'm all in on it. Yes, adding a veteran point guard and a shooter would have made the team at least watchable. Yes, keeping Jason Thompson instead of flipping him for a marginal asset would have given Okafor, Nerlens Noel and Richaun Holmes a veteran mentor. But the goal continues to be to find and develop young talent and lose enough to get a high draft pick. I probably would be saying something very different if I were a fan of the team watching every night but I still trust the process, at least for another season.
Itz: What the Sixers are doing doesn't bother me at all. I'm not sure that I understand what they are doing, but the worst team in the East is just not something I care about. They're not breaking any rules, their guys give effort in games, so I'm okay with letting them do their thing.
Wilco: When innovating like Philly is, I don't think it's unreasonable to judge them pragmatically. So, since it's not working, I don't agree with it. There's a reason the league nearly changed their rules to keep anyone else from doing what they're trying. The fans have gone through hell, and it's nowhere near over yet. In extreme cases like this, so much needs to go right because they risked so much. I'd love to see someone make a guess at what would have happened if they'd just made steady (and sane) moves instead of embarking on The Process. Bet they'd have a nice core and a ton of good, though perhaps not great, talent. What a shame.