Every year, this time marks the beginning of the best and worst of the NBA. The playoffs -- over two months -- expose everything we need to know about every player and team, answer every question asked and thought.
And although there are literally dozens of questions that will be answered, hundreds of beliefs that will be confirmed, there are at least 10 "things" that we know for sure will be learned (or exposed) as the 16 teams left standing chase a ring.
1. Whether Russell Westbrook is really the problem in OKC
The voices will only get louder this year. The venom, the hate, the almost all-out verbal assault that followed Russell Westbrook throughout the playoffs and into the Finals last season will sound like a tabernacle choir this season with every OKC loss. At some point the cry (screams!) for him to become the point guard everyone feels he should be has to begin to take its toll. If OKC doesn't win the title this season (especially with no James Harden there to share blame and responsibility), all things will point directly to Westbrook as to what went wrong, where it all went wrong and why it's been wrong in the first place.
If Melo does not find a way to (at least!) get the Knicks out of the first round he's going to have a label put on him that is almost going to be impossible for him to remove -- regardless of injury or help from any other Knicks player. Being considered "overpaid" and "overrated" while hearing "MVP" chants at home games is one thing, but being labeled "overpaid, overrated, scoring champ who is incapable of generating four victories in the playoffs" and no longer hearing those "MVP" chants would turn him into the NBA's version of Tony Romo. Just the thought is enough to almost make people feel bad for Melo. Bernard King's Hall of Fame selection will only add to the pressure as people recall his epic and legendary 1984 playoff performance against the Pistons. King will be a constant reminder during every Knicks game of what a true Knicks superstar/icon does. Anything short of the conference semis for Melo will be an experience that you wouldn't wish on your worst, worst, worst ex.
3. Whether Dwight Howard is who he thinks he is
The beauty in Kobe Bryant's injury is that the Lakers get an honest, unfiltered look at what their team could look like with Howard and no Bryant. Can he handle the weight? Can he carry the responsibility? Is he serious -- Laker serious -- about winning? Now (yeah, now) he claims he wants it. His exact words: "Kobe is watching us at home. Dr. [Jerry] Buss is watching us up high. Let's let it out tonight! Everything we got! Everything! Leave it out on the floor!" Really, dude? Now you came to play? Now you are in "300" mode? Six months too late? These next four to seven games will finally and officially show, tell, prove it and expose whether the Lakers made one of the worst decisions in franchise history by going after him.
4. Whether the James Harden trade was worth it
From Harden's and Houston's vantage point that has already been determined. Cue Whitney Houston: "Hell to the Yes!" But it's from OKC's POV that the jury is still sequestered. Last season's Finals -- when Harden was erratic and disappointing -- made trading him in the offseason an almost no-brainer for the Thunder. They could not risk getting back to the Finals and having that same performance (or anything close). But Kevin Martin hasn't been the replacement killer that they'd hoped he'd be. And quiet as kept, that has everyone associated with the front office shaking in their KD V high-tops. If the Thunder fail to get to the Finals or lose again to the East representative, the blame (and reasoning) will in part be in letting Harden go.
4.1 Whether the Rudy Gay trade was worth it
The fact the Grizzlies didn't fall apart after Gay was unexpectedly and abruptly traded should be enough to earn Lionel Hollins Coach of the Year honors. Somehow he found a way -- even when he was against/not happy with the trade -- to convince his team that without Gay they are not corn flakes without the milk. At some point, in some game, Memphis is going to wish it had Rudy Gay -- his scoring, his ability to hit big shots at the end of close games -- back. But will that moment be crucial enough for GM Chris Wallace to realize that trying to save money doesn't work in the NBA if you are trying to win a championship? Ask Mark Cuban.
5. Whether Paul George is ready for his close-up
Better stated: Is Indiana's new superstar ready to carry the weight and responsibility of being a superstar in the playoffs? The regular season has ebbs and flows that allow a newly minted star player to step in and develop into a franchise player. Game 83 and beyond? Totally different. It's one thing to go through the playoffs as the fourth option and another to go through the playoffs as the man. George finally lived up to the promise that had people in the basketball know speaking of him as elite. And once Danny Granger's injury prevented him from coming back and reclaiming his role as that dude who was going to take the Pacers to that Finals-or-Bust level, George did what he was supposed to do: Made management turn over the keys to him. Now we are going to find out if PG-24 can really drive or if he's just an expert in the simulator.
6. Whether George Karl belongs in the Mount Rushmore of current NBA coaches
First off, there's no way in hell Denver should be the No. 3 seed coming out of the West. Fifty-seven wins? One win away from playing .700 basketball for the season? One win away from having the same record as the No. 2-seeded Spurs? Four wins away from having the best record in the Western Conference? That's all George Karl. Best single-season coaching job of his career. Even without Danilo Gallinari, who was the team's only consistent outside scoring threat and arguably as important to the Nuggets' offense as Kobe is to the Lakers' offense, this team has a chance to do something special, if not shocking. It is as if this is the team Karl's always wanted, but never had; a team after all he's been through (cancer survivor, underachieving teams, those Seattle and Milwaukee days, etc.) that he deserves. And now that the team is in place and everyone has bought in to his philosophy that "not defense, but relentless in-the-paint offense" wins games, the only thing left to prove is that the regular season for the Nuggets was no fluke. But that will only happen if Karl personally wills this team from one round to the next.
7. Whether Rajon Rondo is as important/valuable as we've been led to believe
It seemed like once he went down, the Celtics found themselves and began winning ball games. It was either a coincidence or an indictment of Rondo. The playoffs -- especially if the C's get past the Knicks -- will prove that maybe (maybe!) Rondo is an overrated commodity in the system that Doc built. An elite NBA point guard's team is supposed to lose all hope when he goes down; the season is supposed to be over. But if the Celtics find a way (which seems to be their MO this time of year) to pull out anything more than four wins, teams are going to start looking at the value of Rondo the way NFL teams look at the value of running backs.
8. Whether J.R. Smith has officially changed
When the season began Smith seemed to be a changed man. Maturity had set in and the results were special. Then he (and the Knicks) hit a wall. The team began to turn back into its former self and Smith began to let the old Smith take over. And then, out of nowhere, the new Smith returned. Dropping buckets, making smart decisions, being one of the reasons going into the playoffs the Knicks are one of the most feared teams. Now the question is, can he keep it up? Can Smith stay in "new J.R. Smith" mode through the rest of April, May and June? Odds are that he won't. Odds are that at some point in these playoffs J.R. Smith is going to have a basketball relapse. And the outcome won't be pretty.
9. Whether the Clippers are all hype, no substance
The whole "Lob City" thing is cute. But it doesn't translate into advancement when a team gets seven games to break the Clippers down. Last season in the playoffs the Clippers were mentally taken advantage of by a team (San Antonio) that saw right through them and knew they could be punked. The Spurs frustrated them, got inside of their heads and basically showed that the flaws in the Clippers were greater than anyone could have imagined. One year later, we still don't know. One month from now, we will.
10. Whether the Heat belong in the "one of the great teams ever" conversation and whether LeBron James is really that good
Answer No. 1: If Miami establishes a level of play close to "the Streak" then the comparisons would jump past any of those Spurs teams that won any of those four championships, past that Houston team that doubled up rings in the '90s and past that 1983 Julius Erving/Moses Malone team and straight to comparisons with any of those legendary Celtics and Lakers teams and the six-ringed Jordan/Pippen Bulls that dominated a decade. Twenty wins in these playoffs and the Miami Heat will find themselves in conversations about "the greatest team of all time," not just the greatest in the here and now. We will know by June if the Heat are worthy of being in that conversation or if they are just a very good team reaping the benefits of winning championships during a time when society is hell-bent on finding an elevated place in history for any and all things slightly above great.
Answer No. 2: If he wins another chip and another Finals MVP, the conversation's over.