The Knicks and Sixers (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) and Lakers and Mavs (ESPN, 9:30) square off in big conference bouts tonight. What to make of the streaking Knicks? Are the Sixers legit contenders? Where do the Lakers stand in the West? And can the Mavs get back to the Finals? Let's debate.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Knicks are a new team under Mike Woodson.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. Carmelo Anthony saying he's more into it tells you all you need to know. Sometimes who is coaching means more than what he's doing. The Knicks needed someone fresh. Woodson fits that.
Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: Fact-ish. Mike Woodson's offensive philosophy isn't exactly on the "seven seconds or less" family tree; Woodson's playoff teams in Atlanta finished 18th, 24th and 27th in pace before he was let go. However, New York has problems that cannot be fixed in 20 games.
Jim Cavan, KnickerBlogger: Fact. Same team, same quirky personalities, yes, but now with a skipper who intends to use them differently. The biggest difference has been Woodson's ability to get the most out of his guys where it matters most: on defense and on the glass. The Knicks have out-bounded their last four foes. Of course, playing four in a row against sub-elite teams certainly helps.
Ian Levy, The Two-Man Game: Fiction. All the problems the Knicks had two weeks ago are still there, although Woodson has seemed able to push some different buttons on the energy/effort/intensity apparatus. If nothing else, the players seem to perceive themselves as a new team, which will go a long way toward making them competitive over the rest of the season.
Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Fiction. I'm reading "new team" here to mean "good one," and as impressive as their last four games have been -- and yeah, a 90-point margin is really impressive -- the Knicks are still just a collection of plus role players who are weighed down by the (large) salaries and (larger) egos of two superstars in name only. In New York, albatross is spelled S-T-O-U-D-E-M-I-R-E.
2. Fact or Fiction: Philly isn't a contender as currently constructed.
Adande: Fact. As well as they've played as a team, the playoffs require elite individuals. They don't have that one guy who can single-handedly win them a road game. They'd also better hope they can hang on to that top-four seed in the Eastern Conference or it's an early out for them; lately they haven't been able to beat the elite playoff teams.
Barnett: Fact. Philadelphia is a fantastic young team that is fun to watch. The Sixers play ball the right way; they keep everyone involved, and Doug Collins has them working hard on the defensive end. However, they're missing a legit superstar to put them over the top.
Cavan: Fact. The last team to win a title without a super-duper-star leading the way was the '04 Pistons, and even they had more reliable scoring options (Chauncey, Rip and Sheed) than the Sixers have right now. They're a very good team which plays a very intelligent, unselfish brand of basketball, but I still think they're a piece away from serious contender status.
Levy: Fiction. The Sixers have some holes, but I don't buy at all that the nature of their construction precludes them from contention. They are as deep as any team in the league, they take care of the ball and they defend as hard as anyone. They have as good a chance of knocking off Miami and Chicago as any team in the West.
Sunnergren: Fact, but they won't be constructed this way for long. As cap maven Larry Coon pointed out the other day, the Sixers are a season away from shaking Elton Brand's onerous deal and having a cool $20 million to spend filling the 7-foot hole in their frontcourt. Jrue Holiday, Evan Turner, Andre Iguodala, Spencer Hawes, Big Free Agent X and a loaded bench? Now that team might contend.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers are the second-best team in the West.
Adande: Fiction. San Antonio deserves that title, at least for now. The Spurs have been more consistent than the Lakers. The fact that they haven't played each other yet so we can get a better idea is one of the many quirks in this season's schedule.
Barnett: Fiction. The Lakers have improved at the point guard position, but they still haven't figured out how to win on the road. Both Oklahoma City and San Antonio have played better and more consistent away from their respective home arenas.
Cavan: Fiction. In the wake of Kobe's most recent failed launch in Houston, the Lakers enter the home stretch as something of a fractured team. Right now, the Thunder remain head of the Western Conference class, while San Antonio -- a team eerily in tune with one another's talents and tendencies -- lurks not far behind, ready to make one more run at recapturing the Duncan Dynasty.
Levy: Fact-ish. It's probably them or the Spurs. The Spurs are much, much deeper, but the Lakers have those three guys who can score with their backs to the basket when the game is getting tight. In my mind, there is so little separation in talent between the top six teams in the West that this could change on a daily basis.
Sunnergren: Fact, though this says more about the conference than it does my confidence in Bynum's continued ability to stay healthy or Kobe's ability not to shoot, say, 6-for-24 in important games. But the Clippers have played bad basketball for a month, the Spurs and Mavericks are geriatric, and Memphis just signed Gilbert Arenas. Who else is there?
4. Fact or Fiction: Dallas has a legitimate shot at reaching the Finals.
Adande: Fact. Lately Dirk's looking like the guy who was the best player in the 2011 postseason, averaging 28.5 points per game in the past four games. If he's going to play like that, Dallas has a legit shot, particularly since its defense is still one of the best in the league, even post-Tyson Chandler.
Barnett: Fact. In the past half-decade, size and defense have been the main force driving championship teams. While Dallas lost both size and a defender in Tyson Chandler, it still has the league's fourth-best defensive rating (the Mavs finished eighth last season) and Dirk has been getting better by the month.
Cavan: Fiction. If the season ended today, the Mavs, who've righted the ship somewhat of late, would be matched against the upstart Clippers in the first round. While that series is certainly winnable, the Thunder -- a team they've beaten but once in four games -- would likely await them next. The West is a jumbled mess, but this seems like the most likely scenario for the aging Mavs, who won't catch lightning twice against OKC.
Levy: Fact. They have as good a shot as anyone out West. Their level of coherence at both ends of the floor is much less than it was last year. But Nowitzki can carry the team and I still feel pretty comfortable with Rick Carlisle's ability to manipulate rotations and get the most out of their pieces.
Sunnergren: Fiction. Nobody believed in them last year. I don't believe in them this year, either. While the Mavs have enviable depth, a savvy X's and O's guy in Carlisle, and a cold-blooded killer in Dirk, as long as Lamar Odom is logging 21 minutes a night, I'm comfortable taking the field.
5. Fact or Fiction: Derek Fisher would make a difference for OKC.
Adande: Fact. The difference? No. But he can make a difference, even if he just walks into the locker room, displays his five rings and says, "Any questions?" And if there's only 0.4 left on the clock, the Thunder would have just the guy.
Barnett: Fact. Fisher may not make a huge difference on the floor, but what he lacks in athletic prowess, he makes up for in leadership and resolve. Fish could prove to be an excellent mentor for young Russell Westbrook and even Kevin Durant. He's done it before and he can provide insight on how the Thunder might get over the proverbial hump.
Cavan: Fact. Not much of a statistical difference, mind you, but his locker-room presence alone would do wonders for a team that will need veteran voices to guide them through the ever-increasing expectation of a title. He wouldn't see nearly the minutes he's enjoyed on the Lakers, but his poise in crunch time could easily translate into one or two playoff wins.
Levy: Fiction. It seems unlikely. He has next to nothing left to offer defensively, is shooting really poorly and thus won't help with floor spacing, and the Thunder don't seem in dire need of another player to initiate the offense. Acquiring Fisher seems like a play for veteran experience. I'm skeptical that extra savvy is a game-changer for a team as confident and aggressive as the Thunder.
Sunnergren: Fact. If he only poaches floor time from Reggie Jackson and Royal Ivey -- OKC's first two point guards off the bench -- Fisher's an upgrade. But if Scott Brooks comes down with a bad case of "it's the playoffs, we need to play battle-tested veterans" syndrome come June and gives the five-time champ even a couple of James Harden's -- or even Thabo Sefolosha's or Daequan Cook's -- minutes, the Thunder will be worse for it.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande is a senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. Phillip Barnett, Jim Cavan, Ian Levy and Tom Sunnergren contribute to the TrueHoop Network.