We asked our experts seven big questions on the two West giants.
1. Will the Mavs win 70 games? Should they try to?
Greg Anthony, ESPN: They will win 70, and it will come in the flow of doing what they normally do. They're not in a position to change the way they play. They have depth and they're not going to go away from the mind-set of trying to win.
Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: I don't think the Mavs will win 70. But they'll come close, probably 67 or 68. I don't think they should focus on 70, but they should avoid letting the foot off the gas by resting guys. If a guy (say, Josh Howard) is banged up with nagging injuries, then let him rest and get healthy, but don't just rest guys to rest them.
Ric Bucher, ESPN The Magazine: They won't and they shouldn't try. In the final weeks of the season, making sure key players with nagging injuries -- and everyone has them at this point -- get enough treatment and rest to be refreshed for the postseason is more important than anything other than securing home-court advantage.
John Hollinger, ESPN Insider: No, they won't. First, to win 70 you normally need an average victory margin of +10 or better, and the Mavs don't have that. Second, they'll stop playing their starters so much once they've clinched home court. I say they end with 67. They shouldn't try for 70 either -- the ring's the thing.
Chris Sheridan, ESPN Insider: The number 70 meant something only when it had never been done before, and the '96 Bulls got there first. The new number to shoot for is 73, not 70, because that would set the new standard.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: No and no. No team should ever try to win 70. Putting that much emphasis on a regular-season goal is ridiculous. That said, Dallas has the depth to do so without burning up its top players, unlike last season's Pistons. I simply can't see the Mavs winning 70 because finishing 18-2 isn't realistic with their remaining schedule.
2. Who is the leader of the Mavericks?
Broussard: I'll go with Avery. His fire and intensity have gone a long way in transforming the Mavs from a soft and tender pretender into a legitimate contender. The fact that he's taken them from being one of the league's worst defensive teams to one of the best shows the power of his coaching and personality. Neither of their best players, Dirk and Josh Howard, has a superstrong personality in the locker room.
Bucher: On the floor, it's Josh Howard. Dirk is their best player, but Josh sets the dial for their energy and is their most aggressive player at both ends of the floor. Off it? Mark Cuban, because his fingerprints are on everything they are -- and aren't.
Hollinger: Dirk is their best player and go-to guy, but emotionally I think Avery Johnson sets the tone as much as anybody. This is similar to the San Antonio model that he's trying to emulate, where Tim Duncan is the cool on-court presence but Gregg Popovich provides the fire from the sidelines.
Sheridan: The leader is Avery Johnson. Mark Cuban is the face of the franchise, Dirk Nowitzki is the go-to guy, Josh Howard and Jason Terry are a big part of the heart and soul, but the man who leads them is Avery.
Stein: It's Nowitzki. Avery Johnson and Mark Cuban have a H-U-G-E impact in terms of the Mavs' personality and culture but the whole thing works because of Dirk -- his one-of-a-kind skill set, work ethic, coachability, etc. NBA teams keep scouring Europe in search of The Next Nowitzki. But there's only one.
3. Who is your pick (so far) for NBA MVP?
Anthony: Dirk Nowitzki. Sometimes people have different MVP philosophies. To me, it doesn't mean most valuable to his team, but most valuable in the entire league. This game is a business of being the best. MVP represents who's the best, and that's Dirk this season.
Broussard: Dirk Nowitzki. He's the best player on the best team, and a great example of a superstar who continues to add to -- and even change -- his game. Dirk is shooting fewer 3s than ever (but hitting a higher percentage than ever), his assists are up, he's grabbing more offensive rebounds than ever and his FG shooting is a career-high .501.
Bucher: Steve Nash. Just because the voters screwed up and didn't recognize Kobe Bryant last year doesn't mean Nash should pay the price this year, when he deserves it more than ever before. The arguments I hear for Dirk is that he's the best player on the best team and that "he's due," as if he's accrued brownie points over the years.
Hollinger: Dirk Nowitzki. Mavs have the best record and he's been the best player (now that Dwyane Wade is hurt), so it seems pretty clear-cut. I don't think anybody is particularly close and there should be an investigation if he doesn't win.
Sheridan: It's Dirk right now because of the Mavs' record, but one little slide would bring Steve Nash right into the forefront again. He hasn't exactly slipped over the past three weeks, it's just that his team has been overshadowed by Dallas.
Stein: Nothing is more valuable than team success and the Mavs have been the team of the season. So their driving force will be the player of the season on this scorecard, barring a late standings shake-up. Nowitzki doesn't get the credit Steve Nash does for making other players better, but I can assure you that the players and coaches who have to go against Dirk -- who call him the game's toughest individual matchup -- would testify that he makes everyone around him better.
4. Are the Mavs better because of the departure of Steve Nash?
Anthony: They are. As great as Nash was, he was doing in Dallas the same things he's doing in Phoenix. A perimeter-oriented, high-flying offense is not going to win you a title. They're better off being apart. In sports, sometimes you get addition by subtraction. Dirk learned to have more of an impact this year by playing like the 7-footer he is.
Broussard: It's very hard to say the Mavericks are better without Steve Nash, but that seems to be the case. With Nash, they almost certainly would not be the defensive powerhouse they have become, and that's the very reason the Mavericks are legit contenders. We probably saw the best the Mavs could do with Nash during his stint there. Nash is without question the best point guard in the league, but he's not the most versatile (in terms of defense and style of play), and that lack of versatility would hinder the Mavs' move to the type of hard-nosed, defensive-minded team they've become.
Bucher: No. They're better because they've created a better fit between their coach and their personnel and they've stopped making major changes every year, which was the case when Nash was there. The argument that they couldn't play their current brand of D with Nash is superfluous; they never tried while he was there, so we'll never know. This we do know: No one tries harder than Nash to be a good team defender and team D is what the Mavs play so well.
Hollinger: Of course not. But they did enough good things once they lost Nash -- trading Antoine Walker for Jason Terry, signing Erick Dampier and DeSagana Diop, trading Antawn Jamison for Jerry Stackhouse and Devin Harris -- that they're a better team now than when Nash played there.
Sheridan: They're better because the rest of the team has matured, and the pieces brought in around Nowitzki have fit. But if they had kept Nash instead of giving that money to Dampier, we might be talking about a 73-to-75-win team.
Stein: No. They're better than they were because they've made a string of home run roster decisions since Nash's departure to reload around Nowitzki and because Avery Johnson has forced the new Mavs -- starting with Dirk -- to be more accountable defensively than they've ever been before. I will always believe that if Nash had stayed and played for Avery, helped along by the new rules curtailing defensive contact on the perimeter and the presence of Josh Howard as their starry wingman, that the Mavs would have at least one championship and be feared every year. I reject the notion that Nowitzki and Nash had to separate to get this good, as they're two guys who get better every year and who would have been challenged like never before by the Lil' General.
5. The Spurs lead the Hollinger Power Rankings. Are we overlooking the best team?
Anthony: The Spurs are the team that's best equipped to beat the Mavs in the West. They are motivated by losing last year. But while the Spurs are a team with a legit chance, I think the Mavs have more of the depth needed to beat them.
Broussard: We're not overlooking the best team, but we're overlooking a strong contender. San Antonio has as good a chance of winning the title as Phoenix does. Dallas is a slight favorite, but a Spurs victory over the Mavs would surprise no one. If the Spurs and Suns meet in the playoffs, it will be the definitive last word on which is better -- the sexy up-tempo, small-ball trend, or defense, defense, defense.
Bucher: There is no team more disciplined than the Spurs, which is why they'll always look good when measured by straight regular-season stats. Now that the Suns and Mavs have closed the gap in execution, their more versatile talent puts them both ahead of the Spurs. If you want to talk numbers, start with free-throw shooting, since its value rises exponentially in the postseason and the Spurs are terrible at it.
Hollinger: Well, obviously I'm a little biased on this one. But focusing on the standings rather than other qualitative measures can be misleading, and this is a perfect example. Should Dallas and San Antonio meet in the conference finals, I'd expect a seven-game barn burner just like last year.
Sheridan: I realize you can't have a three-way tie for No. 1 in the Power Rankings, but it really is a toss-up right now as to which of the three -- Phoenix, Dallas and San Antonio -- is best. I picked the Spurs to go to the Finals, and I'm not backing off.
Stein: Who's overlooking the Spurs? Professor Hollinger's Power Rankings have kept them in the spotlight for weeks, even when the Mavs were at their hottest. And I can assure you that the players and coaches in Dallas and Phoenix continue to hold San Antonio in the highest regard.
6. Will the Suns win it all?
Anthony: I don't think so. They don't have enough "effort" players -- that's what separates the Spurs and Mavs from the Suns. San Antonio showed this two years ago when it eliminated Phoenix in five games in part because of the Spurs' ability to make effort plays.
Broussard: Suns will not win it all. Not enough D, baby!
Bucher: Yes. Because Steve Nash looks like a man on a mission. Because, had they stayed healthy, they were good enough to win it last year without Amare Stoudemire. Because this is as close to the Bulls' last dance as any team in recent memory has been. Because everyone says you can't win without defense, ignoring that Phoenix's has improved mightily. And because injuries, not the opposition, put the brakes on last year's offense in the postseason.
Hollinger: Phoenix has a much tougher road because of two things: (1) the Suns aren't as deep as Dallas and thus are more susceptible to injury problems, and (2) they have to beat San Antonio and Dallas in succession. I wouldn't be shocked if they won, but right now they're the league's third-best team and have to beat Nos. 1 and 2 to win it all.
Sheridan: Again, if I'm going with the Spurs, I have to count these guys out somewhere along the way. I'd like to see San Antonio get an opportunity to beat both Dallas and Phoenix to prove my point.
Stein: Having to beat San Antonio and Dallas just to get to the Finals is the biggest issue Phoenix faces, not that well-worn hogwash about the Suns' style of play not working in the playoffs. They've reached the conference finals two years running in spite of major injuries both years (Joe Johnson in 2005; Amare Stoudemire and Raja Bell in 2006). I won't be surprised in the least if they go all the way this time. As the Suns' coaches like to say, they've got "seven starters." The best top-seven players in the league, in other words. With good health in the 2007 playoffs, why not?
7. Will the Mavs win it all?
Anthony: I picked them to win early. I still think they're the one. That said, Detroit and Miami have both won championships, and both have the capability of taking away what you do best. They both match up well with Dallas. Not to mention the challenges the Spurs and Suns pose.
Broussard: Yes, though I say it with some hesitation. San Antonio's going to give them problems, but I think they'll prevail. And the Finals, where the Mavs will meet either Detroit or dare I say it, Miami, will be tougher than expected. But Dallas will take the crown because the one thing that cost them last year -- lack of experience on the big stage -- will not be a factor.
Bucher: No. I wouldn't be shocked if they did, but dominating the regular season means nothing. How will they handle the postseason pressure of being expected to win, based on their regular-season record? If you have two athletic bigs, which means Dirk has to guard one of them, you can upset the Mavs -- and I can think of at least one team that has that.
Hollinger: They have a great shot. I think it's basically a 50-50 series between them and San Antonio or Phoenix in the conference finals, but if they get past that they won't give away the Finals a second time.
Sheridan: Too tough to make that statement now. The West playoffs are going to be as competitive as they were a year ago, and I wouldn't expect the Spurs to lose two straight years to Dallas. I also think Phoenix can beat the Mavs in a seven-game series.
Stein: I picked them to beat the Heat in a Finals rematch before the season began and still have a funny feeling that we're headed for that rematch. The Mavs' edge is their versatility. They can play any style, which is something no one else in the league can claim. One of Dallas' biggest failures in the Finals, once things started slipping away, was its reluctance to break out its Phoenix imitation and turn the game into a scramble. If the Mavs get a second opportunity, I don't expect them to make the same mistake.