1 - The Spurs have a larger margin of victory than the Warriors. Are they the best team in the league right now?
Michael Erler: No, I don't think so. Their bench is far superior, but their starting lineup is still too inconsistent and I need to see them beat better competition, especially on the road. How they play small-ball against small ball lineups is a concern. Are they really gonna bench Duncan?
Bruno Passos: I know point differential is a big determinant for the analytically inclined, but I think this is a case where the Barkley eye-ball test still holds more sway -- at least with me. Until I see how the Spurs hold up against Golden State (and beat OKC), I won't be able to declare them best in the league.
Jesus Gomez: Right now, yes, they are. Over the past 10 games or so the Spurs have been even better than earlier in the season while the Warriors have taken a step back as Curry battles that shin injury. When fully healthy, Golden State might have the edge but, again, right now the Spurs are better.
Chris Itz: There was a point where the Spurs were technically two-and-a-half games back in the standings from the Warriors, which inflated some Spurs fans opinion of the team and deflated their view of the Warriors. Here's the thing - the Spurs have three times as many losses as the Warriors do and the reason that they do is that the Spurs have struggled in close games. The Warriors have been unstoppable in clutch situations, winning all 13 of their close games. Until the Spurs prove that they know what they are doing late in tight games (8-5 this season), I'll give the nod to the Warriors.
J.R. Wilco: I hate to sidestep the first question you ask, Mr. Gomez, but during the regular season I shy away from naming a "best team in the league." I think that the Spurs are playing better basketball than the Warriors are, but I blame that on Golden State's lack of health. We'll know a bit more once they start playing each other -- January 25 can't get here fast enough for me.
2 - Kawhi Leonard keeps performing at a superlative level. Where does he rank in the MVP race?
Erler: Second, and his main competition might be Stephen Curry's teammate. I can't really make an argument for anyone else. Durant and Westbrook cancel each other out. LeBron can't shoot anymore and doesn't defend much either.
Passos: Second. Westbrook's the only other player I'd consider, but he's too far behind him defensively. Leonard's having a special year -- it's just too bad Curry's is a bit more special.
Gomez: I have him third behind Curry and Kevin Durant. Kawhi's defense is better but Durant has been incredibly efficient while carrying a bigger offensive load on a worse team. It's extremely close, though, which is crazy to me. I did not see Leonard turning into a viable MVP candidate this soon.
Itz: At this point I think it would be pretty hard to make an argument that he isn't number two in the race, and that's as much a result of his superlative play all season as it is a result of some other teams and players underachieving.
Wilco: Curry's so far ahead that everybody else might as well be tied for second. But Kawhi plays the best defense of anyone in the conversation, while putting up efficient production on offense. In the unlikely case of Curry going into an extended slump, I'd put Kawhi on top. (How long a slump would be necessary for this to be an open question?)
3 - What's more likely, Manu Ginobili winning Sixth Man of the Year or Tim Duncan winning Defensive Player of the year?
Erler: Neither play enough minutes to seriously contend for it, but by default it has to be Manu because he's not directly being blocked for the award by Leonard.
Passos: I'd go with Timmy, mostly because it's what's missing from his resume. There's too much buzz around guys like Will Barton (who won't be sitting games like Manu) for him to get serious consideration. While I think Kawhi is more deserving, it wouldn't be the most surprising thing in the world for a 40-year-old Tim Duncan to be presented with the award.
Gomez: Call me crazy but I think Manu has a real shot. Isaiah Thomas and Lou Williams are starting now and Jamal Crawford is a disaster. Those three finished with the most votes last season. Will Barton is probably the most deserving candidate but he plays for a bad team and that might have an impact on voters. Z-Bo is the one who could sweep in and get the narrative-based vote but Manu's per minute numbers are better. It would be an upset if he gets it but I think he's not out of the race. Tim, on the other hand, has no shot. If a Spur gets DPoY it's going to be Kawhi.
Itz: The fact that Tim Duncan has not won Defensive Player of the Year is a complete travesty and has sullied the value of that award for me for life. Here are the guys who won multiple DPoYs during Duncan's career: Mourning (2), Mutombo (2), Wallace (4), Howard (3). And here are the single year winners: Artest, Camby, Garnett, Chandler, M. Gasol, Noah, Leonard. It's so absurd that the guy who has the second lowest defensive rating of all time (according to basketball-reference.com) did not receive a single DPoY award. Tim finished with the best defensive rating in the league in four seasons, a feat accomplished only by David Robinson (4) and Hakeem (5). He led the league in defensive win shares five times in his career, you have to go back to Bill Russell to find someone who can say the same thing. For what it's worth Tim is leading the league in Defensive Box Plus/Minus right now. At 39 years old. And the GDOAT won't win DPoY this season either... So Manu, I guess.
Wilco: Curry won MVP last year and is playing better this year, so he's a cinch to be this year's MVP. And Kawhi won DPOY last year and you can make the case he's playing better defense this year, so he'll likely get the DPOY again -- and be the front-runner for the award until he becomes the leader for the MVP. Which leaves Manu and the unbelievably terrific year he's having. After last season, people were calling for him to retire. And he's breaking the odds to be not just productive, but elite in the per-minute way in which he's excelled for years, at 38 years old. Manu for 6MOTY!
4 - The Spurs are on pace to win 69 games. Would you take the over or the under on that number?
Erler: /Pop stare
Passos: Can we include playoff wins with that?
Gomez: If -- and this is obviously a huge if -- they don't suffer any major injuries, I think they can continue to win at this pace. I doubt they will get to 70 but they will get close to that number.
Itz: I like season over/unders and they've served me well over the years -- 31 or more wins from the Knicks this year would put a smile on my face. I'd obviously take the under on 69, but maybe a more interesting question would be, "Will the Spurs set a new franchise-record single season win total (63-19 in 2005-06) this season?" You give me even money on 63 1/2 and I'd think about it.
Wilco: The Spurs remaining schedule gets tougher, Pop will keep resting guys, and might even rest them more frequently. Sure, the team is still improving, but unless there's a reason to win that many games, I see Pop tightening the reins and keeping the guys fresh. If the Warriors fall off in the second half of the season and are just a game ahead of San Antonio, I reserve the right to revisit this response.
5 - The Spurs have faced the top five rookies selected in last year's draft. If you had to start a team with one of them, who would you choose?
Erler: As impressive as Porzingis was the other night -- and he's already way better than Dirk was as a rookie-- I'm still going to lean toward Karl-Anthony Towns because at my core I think bigs need to be able to defend well and he has the potential to do that.
So I'll go Towns, Porzingis, Russell, Okafor and Hezonja, though objectively I'd put Mudiay ahead of Hezonja since he's on the wrong team.
Passos: Towns. He's the perfect foundation piece, with a versatile skill set and and the ability to change the game with the ball in his hands or not.
Gomez: I'm going with Towns because he's the safer choice. Porzingis is 7'3" and guys that tall don't tend to have long careers. But his potential is off the charts. If he fills out his frame and moves to center we are talking about a completely new type of player that could destroy defenses. Alas, it's more likely that Towns lives up to his full potential than Kristaps, so that's who I'd go with to start a team.
Itz: Give me the tall guy who can shoot.
Wilco: I'd love to take Porzingis, but Gomez is right about his body. When the human body gets that big, the 82 game season is too much. It's unfortunate, but everyone at least 7'3 has broken down early. So I'm going with Towns since you can build around him for years to come.