With the season winding down, our 5-on-5 crew weighs in on the players and teams who have been turning the most heads recently.
1. What's your takeaway from Sunday's Bulls-Knicks game?
Jim Cavan, KnickerBlogger: We learned that the Bulls want nothing to do with a first-round series against the Knicks. Not that Chicago wouldn't survive -- it likely would -- but a six- or seven-game series would only mean more wear and tear on a hobbled Derrick Rose and a much tougher row to hoe thereon forward.
Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: The Knicks really play defense. I love seeing Carmelo Anthony at the 4, where his lack of defensive range is less of a burden, and Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert are the kind of interchangeable, tenacious wing defenders who, along with Tyson Chandler (the Knicks' most important player), are the kind of elements around which a great defense is built.
Ian Levy, The Two-Man Game:
That Carmelo Anthony is still a transcendent offensive talent who can go supernova at any moment. I don't think this game told us much about what a playoff series between the Knicks and Bulls might look like, but it sure was fun to watch.
Timothy Varner, 48 Minutes Of Hell: The Knicks' victory over the Bulls is a headline grabber, but I'm not convinced it portends anything for the postseason. The Bulls are the best team in the conference, even as Rose works to recover his rhythm.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: There were a few and nothing we all shouldn't already know: (1) If you miss 12 games, you'll be rusty. (2) It's important to make free throws at the end of close games. (3) For certain players, hero ball can be effective every now and then. (4) Neither of these teams is great offensively. (5) It would be a fun series, but it would take outrageous performances for the Knicks to win a game or two.
2. The Heat are 10-1 without Wade. What does this mean?
Cavan: It means LeBron could turn most Division III schools into NBA contenders. Bear in mind that the past two Wade-less wins have come against the woeful Pistons and the sliding Sixers, so there probably isn't a deeper meaning to be mined here. The fact remains the Heat are a better, more dangerous team on both ends of the floor when both of their star wings are suited up.
Mason: Don't get it twisted. These are the facts: LeBron James is a better player without Dwyane Wade. Wade is a better player without James. The Heat are their best with both on the court.
Levy: It means that LeBron is playing at an incredible level and that Miami has accumulated enough depth to compensate for an injury to anyone besides him. The Heat are better with Wade, no doubt about it, but they can be successful without him.
The Heat's record without Wade probably says more about the team's surplus of elite talent than it does about Miami's All-Star shooting guard. It wasn't so long ago that LeBron James was powering talent-poor Cavaliers teams to 60-win seasons.
The Heat have been battling various stages of boredom all season. They proved to themselves that they can beat anyone when they are on, so they have decided they'll just wait around until they feel like being on. This drives the coach crazy, but Erik Spoelstra's attempts to shake that habit have been unsuccessful. When Wade is out, however, it forces the team to get a little more up for the opponent and summon more energy. When those things happen, the Heat are great.
3. The Spurs are first in the West; OKC is second. Can you explain this?
Cavan: When you have a once-in-a-generation coach and a core with multiple rings to its credit, anything's possible. Coach Pop's ability to manage minutes has been nothing short of masterful. Because the Spurs also have the most efficient offense in basketball and a 2-1 record against said Thunder, there's no reason to believe this team can't make a run. I still like the Thunder to take the West, but they'll meet the Spurs in the conference finals.
Mason: San Antonio might well be the best team in the NBA. I don't see how you shut it down, with Tony Parker's ability to get into the paint at will, a team that moves the ball beautifully and a bevy of shooters to capitalize on those two factors. If the Spurs maintain home-court advantage, they should be favored against OKC in the Western Conference finals. With Manu Ginobili healthy, San Antonio's rotation boasts six above-average 3-point shooters. Six!
Levy: As usual, the Spurs are much, much more than the sum of their parts. I would guess Oklahoma City will finish the regular season on top, especially with Gregg Popovich's willingness to rest Tim Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. But in the playoffs, with those rested legs, the Spurs have the potential to beat anyone in the West, including the Thunder.
Varner: The Spurs are No. 1 ... for now. San Antonio's lockout-condensed schedule is especially condensed over its final 12 games. Look for Popovich to toss a few games and for OKC to regain the top seed before the postseason. But then, it's a different story. The Spurs are the best team in the conference and should come out of the West on the strength of their potent offense and Popovich's season-long, keep-their-legs-fresh strategy.
Windhorst: Yes: Gregg Popovich. He is a master at defining players' roles, then holding them accountable in those roles no matter the circumstance. He also seems to like adding new elements to the team like Stephen Jackson and Patty Mills because it forces everyone to focus more.
Pop uses the regular season more effectively than any other coach in the league and should absolutely be the coach of the year. That said, the Thunder have more talent and much younger legs, and I would probably pick them in the conference finals.
4. Dallas and Lamar Odom part ways: What'd we learn from this episode?
BREAKING: Los Angeles is a more desirable place to live than Dallas! A lot of players would've understandably found a trade to the defending champion to be a good thing. Not Odom, whose Kardashian ties and occasionally fragile psyche added up to a melodrama the Mavs -- having given up basically nothing to get him -- would just as soon forget.
Mason: Because we often discuss their on-the-court attributes as fixed values, it's hard not to think of NBA players as preprogrammed robo-ballers. There's an assumption that Odom's on-the-court struggles are a function of tough times off the court. But we don't really know that, either. All we know for sure is that Odom never fit in with Dallas. The rest is personal and, to me, mysterious.
Levy: I'm not sure there is a hard-and-fast lesson to be learned. On paper, everything about Odom's game seemed like a perfect fit for the Rube Goldberg contraption that is the Mavericks' rotation. If anything, I guess it's a reminder that when it comes to the human element, there simply are no guarantees.
Varner: Odom's behavior since joining the Mavs -- or, should we say, since he forced his way out of L.A. -- is inexplicable. It's hard to know what is going on in his mind. But the Mavericks are making the smart play by sharpening their focus and removing any unnecessary postseason distractions from their locker room. Cuban & Co. are as clear-headed as ever.
Windhorst: We learned that some players are better at being professionals than others.
5. Who gets the No. 3 seed in the West?
Cavan: Both L.A. teams are staring down the barrel of tough stretches, with the Clippers facing the Thunder (twice) and the Grizzlies, and the poor Lakers slated to tangle with the Spurs not once, not twice, but three times! Don't be surprised if current fifth seed Memphis -- finally healthy and with the easiest slate of the three -- winds up with that third seed.
Mason: I'm sticking with Memphis. I think they are the best, deepest team of the three. Also, that would likely create a 4-5 matchup between the two L.A. teams, which is without a doubt the best first-round matchup conceivable this season.
I'll go with a dark horse and say the Memphis Grizzlies. They've been playing really strong basketball of late and have a very favorable schedule the rest of the way. They trail the Lakers by two games, but of their 11 remaining, only three come against playoff teams, while five come against Portland, Charlotte, Cleveland and New Orleans.
The Grizzlies are surging at the right time. Despite four back-to-backs remaining, I like their schedule better to make up ground in the standings and emerge as the No. 3 seed. And besides, that sets things up nicely for an opening-round hallway series of Lakers versus Clippers. Who doesn't want that?
Windhorst: I love the way the Grizzlies are playing, and I think their schedule is quite favorable the rest of the way. I'm not sure the Lakers will have the urgency to win every game the rest of the way. I know there's no chance of this happening, but I also think they should rest Kobe as much as possible over the last two weeks, even if it costs them a playoff position or two.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Tom Haberstroh covers the NBA for ESPN Insider and Heat Index. Beckley Mason is an editor for ESPN.com. Jim Cavan, Timothy Varner and Ian Levy write for the TrueHoop Network.