Question marks for clubs at crossroads

Our panel of five debates the biggest questions heading into Friday night's doubleheader featuring the Mavericks and 76ers (8 p.m. ET), and the Suns and Lakers (10:30 p.m. ET).

1. Mark Cuban has said the Mavs are better this year. You buy it?

Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: No. They've lost a few pieces who were instrumental in last year's title run. Tyson Chandler really cleaned up a lot of defensive lapses and DeShawn Stevenson was huge for them off the bench. Additionally, Dirk isn't lighting up box scores like he did last season, as he's scoring just 18 points per game this season.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: I do, actually. The Mavs' defense and depth have made a believer out of me, and the offense is quickly getting up to speed behind the efforts of a rejuvenated Dirk Nowitzki. But simply being improved may not matter, if only because the rest of the contenders are on their own upward trajectory.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: It's tough to be better than a team that wins the jewelry, so I don't buy it. Dallas' offense has slipped to the middle of the pack in efficiency, and Tyson Chandler's defense will be sorely missed in the playoffs. The Mavs are a year older, but not a year better.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Maybe. A salient fact about last season's champs that time seems to have obscured is that they weren't really that great. Despite the gaudy win total, they finished just eighth in the Association in scoring differential, eighth in Hollinger's efficiency rankings and were picked by exactly zero ESPN experts to top the Lakers in the conference semis. So as far as title defenses go, the bar isn't that high. That said, while they've clearly taken a step back this season, the bet here is for Nowitzki and Lamar Odom to right themselves and Cube's remarks to look marginally less deranged come June.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: No. Cuban has done a wonderful job of starting a rebuild and staying competitive. Rick Carlisle is doing a great job adjusting to all the curves he's been thrown. Their defense is much better than I thought it would be. But they don't have the proven depth and haven't yet showed the same hunger. Cuban is right to think big because the West is wide open, but this is not a team that inspires fear like last year.

2. Are the Sixers contenders or pretenders in the East?

Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: Pretenders. The 76ers have established themselves as the third-best team out East, but it's hard to imagine any East club other than the Heat or Bulls actually contending for a title this season. Philly has played extremely well against Chicago (winning three of the last four), but it hasn't beaten Miami in the past two years.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Contenders. Miami and Chicago may have a better shot at the Eastern Conference crown, but Philadelphia is right in the thick of things. Having the league's top defense and a well-balanced top-10 offense goes an awfully long way.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Philly's defense has stifled opponents all season long and its depth is remarkable, so it can certainly win a playoff round. However, without a star on offense to take over a game when the Sixers face a defense as good as theirs, they are pretenders.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Another cop-out here: both. The Sixers, with their youth and depth, are well positioned to escape this unprecedentedly condensed regular season with the conference's 3-seed -- especially if Spencer Hawes comes back and plays like 2012 Hawes and not any of the other versions. Once the playoffs roll around, though, and the schedule spreads and rotations tighten, they'll be hard-pressed to hang with the more top-heavy Heat or Bulls.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Pretenders. The new ownership and an unexpected jump in victories has brought optimism. Doug Collins has got them disciplined and playing to their strengths most nights. Reality is they're still a piece or two short of legitimately competing with the top dogs.

3. Should the Suns trade Steve Nash?

Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: If they can find the right deal, but that's a huge if. Among the teams looking to contend this season, only the Lakers really need a point guard now that the Knicks have Jeremy Lin running the show. But the likes of Metta World Peace or Luke Walton aren't worth parting with Nash.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Absolutely. The Suns have been jogging in place ever since Amare Stoudemire left in 2010, and it's baffling that the Suns haven't scrapped Nash for parts and cap space already. This isn't a #FreeSteveNash effort; at this point, the Suns just need to save themselves.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: Yes. The Suns aren't even contenders for the final playoff spot in the West anymore, so it's time for rebuilding to commence. Nash is still a mesmerizing offensive talent and a joy to watch, but this franchise desperately needs an injection of young talented players. That process can only start with a Nash trade.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Nash has been a good soldier for Robert Sarver, and the penny-pincher owes him better than this. Nash still plays at an incredibly high level (56 percent from the floor and 42 percent from 3?!) and deserves another title shot before his legs fall off.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: Probably, but there's so much to consider. Not the least of which is finding a trade partner that is OK with bringing Nash on as a rental. The Suns are going to have to start over when Nash leaves, but with him playing so brilliantly it's hard to move on.

4. Should the Lakers use amnesty this summer on Metta World Peace?

Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: Only if Devin Ebanks makes a huge leap on both sides of the ball. Touted as a good perimeter defender coming out of West Virginia, Ebanks hasn't really found his defensive stride in the NBA, so Peace is still the Lakers' best perimeter defender despite his poor shooting.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: They should certainly think long and hard about it. The decision ultimately comes down to what the Lakers hope to gain with the move (If the move would only generate cash savings for a flush franchise, what's the point?), but MWP certainly isn't doing himself any favors with his play.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: The amnesty clause was invented for players like Metta, who hardly resembles Ron Artest, one the great defender of the past decade. The Lakers are on the hook for two years at close to $15 million after this season, and that's way too heavy a price for World Peace.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Yup. The Lakers have ample cash, much less flexibility and could do a lot better with $15 million than a fast-fading 32-year-old head case. The 2010 Finals seem like a pretty long time ago, huh, Metta?

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: If I was an owner, I'd hate paying a player not to play for me, especially for multiple years. But he doesn't seem willing to accept a role as a situational player and he's already sniping with his coach because he's in denial about it. And we know how he can screw with a team. So maybe you have to.

5. Which two teams win in tonight's ESPN doubleheader?

Phillip Barnett, Forum Blue & Gold: Philadelphia and Los Angeles. The 76ers have the league's best defense and have been great in the Wells Fargo Center. The Suns just haven't been very good this season and Kobe Bryant went off for 48 the last time these two teams met.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: I'll keep it easy and go with the Sixers and Lakers.

Michael Schwartz, Valley of the Suns: The Mavs are rolling, having won five in a row, but Philly's vaunted defense will shut them down in a low-scoring affair. The Suns' dismal week will continue with their fourth loss in five days tonight at Staples Center.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: With Jason Terry and Delonte West both out, and Roddy Beaubois a question mark, the Sixers will break out of their mini-funk by handling the surging Mavs at home, while on the other coast, Kobe & Co. will be too much for the punchless Suns at Staples.

Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: In general, Philly is a great home team. But they've lost their last three games against top opponents and Dallas has been playing great. I'll go for a bounce-back win for the Sixers in front of a good crowd.

As long as Kobe and Nash are playing, Lakers-Suns is a rivalry. So you can expect a good game, for sure. Again, I'll go with home team, the Lakers, at Staples.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Brian Windhorst covers the NBA and the Miami Heat for ESPN.com. Phillip Barnett, Rob Mahoney, Michael Schwartz and Tom Sunnergren contribute to the TrueHoop Network.

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