1. Who will be the odd team out among the four squads fighting for the West's final few playoff spots?
Gutierrez: I still think Memphis ends up being the odd team out. They're a team that is still relatively stuck in identity limbo. They've been known for their defense, but they're no longer a top-10 team in terms of defensive efficiency. Earlier in the season Memphis flirted with the idea of pushing the tempo on offense, but they don't have the personnel to function in that style. That leads to them being in the bottom half of offensive efficiency. The Mavericks also hold the tiebreaker over the Grizzlies, putting Memphis farther behind the eight ball. The Mavericks have a brutal stretch ahead of them to finish out the season, but they at least have a top-level offense to hang their hat on. They'll struggle but find a way to hold on. If for some reason they fall flat on their face to finish the season, that will open the door for Memphis to sneak in.
Taylor: It's going to be a tight race all the way until the final game or two, but I don't believe in Phoenix. They're fading, having lost seven of 13, and they don't have a true star that can carry a team late in the season. The Suns weren't supposed to be a playoff team this year, and they may be coming back to the pack after a fantastic start.
MacMahon: The schedule isn’t doing any favors for any of these teams, but at least the Mavs play the majority of their games at home the rest of the way. The Grizzlies (14 of 23) and Suns (14 of 22) will be road warriors the rest of the way. Given the Grizzlies’ significant advantage in experience, I’ll also pick the Suns to slide out of the playoff picture and into the lottery.
2. Is Mark Cuban correct that elite prospects would be better served by playing in the D-League instead of a one-and-done college career?
Gutierrez: Cuban is on the right track. If the goal is the NBA, a teenager's best interest isn't by being a part of an NCAA team. The NBA ecosystem, which includes the D-League, and allows players to get proper practice, further understanding of the game, access to state of the art training facilities and steady, consistent time for playing. Players get to compete against others who are pursuing the same goal. These players would be competing against professionals or semi-professionals, thus playing against better talent and giving them a better chance to improve. There are things that the D-League needs to improve on, but I think it's headed in the right direction. There would be complete transparency with Cuban's idea, something that is clearly lacking in the NCAA.
Taylor: That's a complicated question because the NCAA doesn't care about the kids and neither does the NBA. Each entity sees players only as currency that will make its product better. There's something to be said for going to school – even if it's for a year or a semester. Then again, there's something to be said for immersing yourself in your chosen field and seeing how good you can be. I wouldn't mind kids who have no interest in school going to a developmental league.
MacMahon: It’s a fascinating idea that would need a lot of follow-up work. If the NBA wants elite prospects to go straight to the D-League – and maybe the league office doesn’t – then it needs to take major steps to enhance the D-League. This can’t be a situation that some teams take seriously and some don’t. It has to be a league-wide effort. Cuban is on point about the NCAA being a bunch of hypocrites, but it’s hard to argue that D-League coaches are superior than the coaches at college basketball powerhouses.
Gutierrez: I make of it that they're doing what they're supposed to do. They're players that know what it takes to perform at an NBA level, so they should be able to thrive at a level below that. Cuban said it best -- if they lollygag or don't perform as expected, they'll find themselves making more trips to Frisco. James is project center who still needs to learn the fundamentals on offense, but he's on the older side of the spectrum as a project. Crowder still needs to find his way in becoming an all-around threat. He can defend, but he's not overly great at anything else. The Mavericks are likely pumping a dry well when it comes to James. The question then becomes, can Crowder evolve to become a consistent option as a rotational player? Dominance in Frisco likely won't help answer that question, but it will allow him to get more time to play and work on his game.
Taylor: Nothing. They're still basically end-of-the-bench NBA guys. It would be like me getting impressed if a bench warmer or role player at Duke went to Division II and average 25 points a game. No different than guys who hammer Triple-A pitching but can't get it done in the big leagues.
MacMahon: If guys flunk the J.J. Barea test, they won’t ever amount to anything in the NBA. In other words, if you’ve got a chance to be a quality NBA role player, you better dominate in the D-League. It’d have been disappointing if Crowder (two triple-doubles) and James (38 points, 18 rebounds in his one game) didn’t tear it up for the Texas Legends. (It’s a red flag that Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo haven’t had bigger impacts in the D-League.) It’s evidence that Crowder and James have some potential, not proof that they should be in the Mavs’ rotation right now.