Burning Q's: Heat-Nets, Lakers-Clips
Familiar foes face off on national TV -- Heat vs. Nets (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) and Lakers vs. Clips (ESPN, 10:30 ET). Our 5-on-5 crew assesses each team heading into tonight's matchups.
1. What moves, if any, does Miami need to make before the deadline?
Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Ration the minutes of LeBron James, much the way the Heat have managed Dwyane Wade's. The Heat have most of what they need and there's little on the free-agent market that would make the roster measurably better. Their success or failure in the postseason will rest on the capacity of their superstars to do superstar things -- something that's made easier with significant time to recover during the regular season.
Israel Gutierrez, ESPN.com: None. The key word there being "need." The Heat don't need to add anything to win another championship. Not that it's an automatic, but if this group plays to its full potential, it's still the best in the league. The Heat's midseason gamble this season is already on the roster in Greg Oden. Any other move would be a luxury -- but you know Pat Riley shops for luxuries on the regular.
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN Insider: Find a time machine. Not to travel back in time, but to fast-forward to the Eastern Conference finals. Aside from Greg Oden's possible return, the Heat don't really have to figure out anything until the playoffs come around. Just stay healthy, leave enough gas in the tank and keep the eyes on the prize. Or just find a time machine.
Mike Mazzeo, ESPN New York: The Heat haven't really been able to replace Mike Miller, though they've tried. But a 3-point shooter like Miller who can play tough defense would be a nice get. Rebounding has obviously been a problem, but they'd need a big who fits into their unique system. If they stand pat, well, at least they still have the Big Three.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, TrueHoop: The Heat don't "need" to make any moves in particular. Though they could use more size, Miami's the favorite to win a title as is. The Heat compensate for a lack of shot-blocking with a furious, aggressive style of defense that forces turnovers and gets them easy baskets on the other end. Someone such as, say, Andrew Bynum, doesn't really fit into that approach.
2. How high is Brooklyn's ceiling in the East playoff race?
Arnovitz: The 7½th floor -- functional on a very basic level but not a place where meaningful work can get done. The Nets will snag a playoff spot, for their sake hopefully one between No. 3 and No. 6, but it's difficult to imagine an aging team getting more healthy as the season progresses.
Gutierrez: The highest of ceilings would be the No. 3 seed, because all you might need to secure that spot is a .500 record. But this team hasn't turned the corner just yet. It still needs a consistently healthy Deron Williams to play .600 basketball the rest of the way, which is basically what the Nets would need to be a winning team.
Haberstroh: Fourth seed. I don't see them catching the Toronto Raptors without Brook Lopez, even if Deron Williams magically finds new ankles. And I'm not even sure if the Nets want to reach their ceiling in the regular season. With the graybeards on the roster, better to pace themselves for the long haul.
Mazzeo: The No. 3 seed is up for grabs. After all, no one seems to want it. If this latest round of shots rejuvenates Deron Williams like it did last season, there's no reason why the Nets can't grab it. Plus, they've started to come together recently -- especially on the defensive end.
Strauss: Dollhouses have higher ceilings. Brook Lopez is out for the season and Deron Williams is in a walking boot. You could talk yourself into Andrei Kirilenko giving them a boost and Kevin Garnett returning to form, but all of that would still add up to something far less than Finals contention.
3. What should the Lakers do with Pau Gasol?
Arnovitz: Depends on the Lakers' primary goal. If it's to wiggle below the luxury-tax line and they can ship Gasol out to accomplish that, then finding him an agreeable landing spot makes sense. But taking back salary that isn't attached to a quality, long-term asset doesn't make a lot of sense.
Gutierrez: Trade him, with an eye toward the future. Whether it be draft picks, young talent or significant salary-cap/luxury-tax freedom, any of it can benefit a team with this obvious two-year window/deadline (Kobe Bryant's career) facing it. We've been through this Gasol-D'Antoni feud before, but unlike last season, the upside to keeping him isn't nearly worth the trouble.
Haberstroh: Trade him. Why keep him around while the season spirals down the toilet? Better to move him for something, anything, that could help build The Next Great Lakers Team. Because this ain't it.
Mazzeo: Trade him. See if you can acquire assets and clear money off your books, but make sure the team gets worse in the short term. The Lakers' goal should be tanking, improving their lottery odds and eventually drafting an impact player who is on a cap-friendly, rookie-scale contract. It'll be important both with Kobe and after Kobe.
Strauss: They should trade him to a team that actually needs to win. The Lakers must rebuild and Pau will probably be too old to contribute by the time L.A. is done rebuilding. For that reason, the best option is to trade Pau for either cap room or younger assets.
4. Kobe or CP3: Which star's absence hurts his team more?
Arnovitz: Paul is the more valuable player, but the vacuum in Bryant's absence is a whole lot larger because the Lakers' supporting cast -- those with a clean bill of health, at least -- consists of marginal NBA rotation players, whereas Darren Collison can play 35 minutes of NBA basketball on a given night while Blake Griffin can pressure a defense in a way Gasol no longer can.
Gutierrez: Paul. It's not because of how much any one of these players means to his respective team. It's simply because the Clippers' season has far more potential, and that can't be reached without Paul. Even with a completely healthy Kobe, the Lakers are, at best, looking at a first-round playoff exit. The Clippers with Paul have several playoff rounds in mind. And dropping in the West playoff seeding can largely damage that possibility.
Haberstroh: Chris Paul. The Lakers weren't going anywhere with that roster anyway. With Paul, the Clippers have a chance to hang a shiny new championship banner up in the crowded rafters in the Staples Center. Without him, they're just another Clippers team.
Mazzeo: CP3 is the best point guard in the NBA and a top-five player in the entire league, so he gets the nod. With Kobe, you wonder: Can he impact the game the way he once did on a consistent basis, and, if he is healthy, are the Lakers even a playoff team anyway?
Strauss: Chris Paul's, if we admit that Kobe probably isn't Kobe anymore. Here's where it gets complicated: While post-Achilles Kobe is the lesser player by a large margin, he can only "hurt" the Lakers by helping them win. So though his absence hinders his team's ability to compete, it helps the Lakers' drafting future. Kobe's new contract actually hurts the Lakers more than his missed games.
5. Who wins each matchup and why?
Arnovitz: Miami, because the Heat won't tolerate losing in two boroughs on consecutive nights, and the Clippers because the Lakers aren't equipped to be a quality NBA team (and haven't beaten one with a winning record since Nov. 22 when they beat the Warriors without Steph Curry).
Gutierrez: The Heat, because they're just coming off a humbling experience losing in Madison Square Garden to the Knicks. And the Lakers, because this just seems like the type of game they can pull out. Take advantage of poor defense from Jamal Crawford and force Blake Griffin to defend the perimeter, and the Lakers could have a second win over the Clippers this season.
Haberstroh: Heat and Clippers. Because they're the better teams.
Mazzeo: Heat and Clippers. Miami is coming off a loss to the Knicks and lost to the Nets earlier in the season, so the Heat are going to be motivated to get back on track. As for the Clippers, well, they're playing well, and the Lakers aren't. That said, it wouldn't really surprise me if the Nets or Lakers won.
Strauss: I'll predict the Heat beat the Nets because I'm betting against a Nets win streak and Heat losing streak happening simultaneously. The Clippers beat the Lakers because the former team actually has a strong incentive to win NBA basketball games.