How high can Kristaps Porzingis climb? Should the Nets and Pelicans be looking toward the trade market? What's the Cavaliers' kryptonite?
The 5-on-5 panel addresses the biggest storylines heading into ESPN's Friday doubleheader (Knicks at Nets, 7 p.m. ET; Cavs-Pelicans, 9:30 p.m. ET).
1. What is Kristaps Porzingis' ceiling with the Knicks?
J.A. Adande: Der Himmel. That's German for "the sky," which is the limitation Dirk Nowitzki established for Porzingis last month. I think Porzingis can blend some (not all) of Nowitzki's skill set with some (not all) of Yao Ming's height. That's a heck of a hybrid.
Dave McMenamin: Going to have to pull a "Napoleon Dynamite" and "liger" this answer: Dark Durantlee. A combination of Nowitzki's shooting, with Mark Eaton's shot-blocking, combined with Kevin Durant's body control and the putback dunk ability of a young David Lee? Or, in other words, his ceiling is unlike any player's we've ever seen.
Marc Stein: Even though I'm the guy who said it's totally OK to indulge in Porzingis fever, I do want to interject a little caution now. No less an authority than Nowitzki himself calls Porzingis "the real deal," but if you insist on making this a "next Dirk" debate, as so many are, you can't ignore the durability factor, which is one of the undercover keys to Mr. Nowitzki's success. The ability to not only be great but stay great for so long should be as much a part of his legacy as his revolutionary shooting gifts as a stretch-4. Porzingis is most definitely a budding star -- who possesses athleticism and defensive ability Nowitzki didn't have back then and certainly doesn't now -- but it's OK if he doesn't have a career that ultimately matches Nowitzki's. We're talking about a guy, after all, who's inching toward the top five in all-time scoring.
Justin Verrier: Best Knick since Patrick Ewing. Sacrilegious, right? Well, Porzingis' PER (19.8) is currently better than a rookie Ewing (17.4), who entered the league at 23 and after four years in college. And the Zinger hasn't even found his deep stroke yet -- his surefire elite skill heading into the draft. But more surprising than the putbacks and high defensive IQ is how his whole persona has catalyzed the Knicks' fan base. Even Carmelo Anthony seems to like him, and Melo often greets in-house threats with the warmth of a "Game of Thrones" character.
Brian Windhorst: He's the most exciting European big-man prospect since Dirk. I do not closely follow the Euroleague. I've become skeptical following year after year of lottery picks ranging from 6-foot-9 to 7-2 coming over with "the next Dirk Nowitzki" attached to them. So he's blown me away. More than his skills, it's been his willingness to compete, to battle for rebounds and to want the big shot. Those are the attributes, I believe, that are going to set him apart from so many Euros who have failed.
2. Where will Joe Johnson be playing in 2016-17?
Adande: Sacramento comes to mind because the Kings have turned into a halfway house for players who want to rehab their careers. But what about Memphis? Because even though Johnson currently has a career-low 3-point shooting percentage (27.0), his 20 made 3s are still more than all but two players have on the Memphis roster.
McMenamin: It's obvious the $24.9 million man will take a massive pay cut wherever he goes. The question is, just how massive? Will he pull a David West to try for a ring? Cleveland, for instance, already considered trading for him, and his former Atlanta coach, Larry Drew, is on the staff. Will he reunite with Alvin Gentry, an assistant when he was in Phoenix, with New Orleans and try to shed his "Iso Joe" label in order to bow to the Brow? The only thing that's pretty safe to say is it won't be in Brooklyn.
Stein: Not. Brooklyn. That's about as definitive as we can get this far away from free agency. But the more interesting question might be: Will Johnson finish this season in Brooklyn? There are some folks around the league who wonder if the Nets would consent to buying out Johnson after the Feb. 18 trade deadline if they can't move him. The Nets would naturally dismiss any such suggestions, given that they have no other choice but to try to win as many games as they can before sending their unprotected 2016 top pick to Boston. But they also frequently insisted that they wouldn't buy out Deron Williams before ultimately doing so.
Verrier: Tough to say this far out, especially as his shooting this season (career-low 35.1 percent) suggests his next stop should be Del Boca Vista. But if he downshifts into ring-chasing mode, Johnson, like most players, could be a lot of fun on the Warriors. A broken face robbed him and the Mike D'Antoni-era Suns of their best shot at a title. It'd only be right if Johnson finished his career with the team carrying that torch.
Windhorst: Well, where's he going to be playing at the end of this season? He's a buyout candidate in late February to me. He has made more than $170 million in his career. So I see him signing with the best team who wants him and maybe looking to the West for whatever they can pay him. As a role player, shooter off the bench and/or floor-stretcher who has hit clutch shots, Johnson would be the type of veteran for which contenders would compete.
3. Fact or fiction: Small-ball lineups are the Cavaliers' kryptonite.
Adande: Fact . . . although we don't know if it will remain fact once Kyrie Irving returns. But the way the Wizards ran past them this week and the way the Warriors small-balled them in the NBA Finals indicates that's the way to go against the Cavs.
McMenamin: Fact, until the Cavs prove otherwise. Cleveland looked exposed by Washington's five-guard lineup the other night, much the way it looked lost in Games 4-6 of the Finals when Steve Kerr pulled a Rick Moranis on the Warriors' rotation. However, a healthy Cavs team going small with Irving, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova/J.R. Smith, LeBron James and either Tristan Thompson or Kevin Love at the 5 should be able to handle -- and even thrive in -- that style of play, especially in the playoffs, when James embraces pounding in the post more.
Stein: Fiction. I'd like to see their whole team on the floor together for, say, a whole month before we decide what these Cavs simply can't handle. Also: Golden State's small-ball lineup might indeed be the Cavs' kryptonite, but that goes for 28 other teams these days. I'm still inclined to say ill health is the greater scourge in Cleveland until we have more data on the full-strength Cavs.
Verrier: Fiction, for now. It's not a great sign when you can't keep up with the firepower of the Wizards' 25th-ranked offense, especially when said Wiz lose to the three-win Lakers the day after, but let's see how this goes when they have Irving and Shumpert and don't have to play 35-year-old Richard Jefferson or Jared Cunningham.
Windhorst: Fiction. It's not kryptonite, it's more like . . . a clever superhero reference not as severe. It's an issue, but the Cavs have multiple All-Stars and are deep at every position. They are equipped to handle any style of play, but they have not addressed the strategic issues that bothered them in the Finals. That is a preparation and an execution problem, not a personnel problem. The Wizards, who played Jared Dudley at center much of the game Tuesday, couldn't believe they were getting away with it with potential small-ball killers LeBron and Love out there. But if there was a strategy in the playbook, it was not employed.
4. Fact or fiction: The Pelicans should be playing for the '16 draft.
Adande: Fact. If only because I had similar thoughts just yesterday. While the New Orleans brain trust probably doesn't need as much time to warm up their thoughts as someone with my small mind does, they would be wise to start laying the groundwork for possible trades around the deadline. They need players who . . . play. This roster has too much difficulty staying healthy enough to be on the court together.
McMenamin: Fiction. Even with their injuries, there's plenty of time to turn things around -- they're only 4½ games out of the eighth seed. And if Anthony Davis is as special as everyone says he is, he should take it as a personal mandate to get back to the postseason. The West has been the superior conference for years, but that didn't stop Kevin Garnett in Minnesota, Pau Gasol in Memphis, Carmelo Anthony in Denver or even Kobe Bryant in bizarro L.A., when he had Smush Parker and Chris Mihm suiting up beside him. Why should Davis be any different?
Stein: Fiction. Can't say I'm there yet. There's just too much uncertainty in the West at the minute, too many teams underperforming, for the Pels to start chasing pingpong balls. If the injuries don't let up, New Orleans' strategy will be chosen by factors beyond its control anyway. I understand the sentiment, because another high draftee added to Davis & Co. wouldn't be the worst idea, but this is too early for any sort of surrender.
Verrier: Fiction. They're already in position for a top-three pick, so it's not like they need to help the cause. Adding a blue-chip prospect next to Davis, '97 Spurs style, is tantalizing, but the Pels are finally creeping toward full strength, with Tyreke Evans and Norris Cole participating in their past two games. Play this one out, at least until the trade deadline.
Windhorst: Fiction. They're 4½ games out of the final playoff spot with more than 75 percent of the season left. There's always time in the NBA, and patience is often rewarded, especially because they haven't seen their full team yet. There's lots of troubling signs and if you ask this question again on Jan. 15, I may have a different answer. If Davis is as good as everyone says he is, why would you give up on a season in December?
5. Which of these teams is most likely to make noise at the trade deadline?
Adande: The Pelicans, for the reasons given above. The Nets need to start acquiring young players and draft picks, but do not have the payroll flexibility to do so. The Cavs made their big moves last season, and they're still waiting to see what it looks like when everyone plays. The Knicks need to see how well this group can play together.
McMenamin: Brooklyn. With Mikhail Prokhorov acquiring sole ownership of the franchise, a step many observers believe was done in order to eventually facilitate a sale, the Nets very well could be in salary-dump mode by February to make themselves look more attractive to potential bidders.
Stein: The Knicks have the capability to do so if they unexpectedly reversed course and decided to make Anthony available. But I don't expect that . . . and Melo, don't forget, possesses a no-trade clause. Throwing in the Nets' limited trade assets and the Cavs' whopping luxury-tax bill, I'll go with New Orleans. The Pels also have a pretty aggressive nature that makes them active on such fronts.
Verrier: The Nets make the most sense if they can swallow the shame of gift-wrapping Ben Simmons for Boston and start playing for the long, long, long haul. You can also see the Pelicans being active, either to get value out of free agents-to-be like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, or, less probably, trading a future pick to bolster a playoff push.
Windhorst: I don't think any is set up to make a blockbuster. The Knicks and Nets are short on assets. The Cavs have a $10 million trade exception, but they have a very limited supply of draft picks to use to make such a deal and they already have a $170 million payroll with taxes. How much more can they spend? If the Pelicans wave the white flag they could look to sell off some pieces, perhaps Gordon for a team looking to rent him.