QUESTION 1: Was James Harden the second best player on the Oklahoma City roster all along and we just didn't know it?
MICHAEL TILLERY: James Harden is very talented, and his versatility puts him in the two-spot. He's doing what every athlete should do when slighted...ball out. He's Randy Moss playing the Cowboys...every game. I can't imagine what will go down on Nov. 28 when Harden returns to OKC.
MAURICE BOBB: Everyone, right down to Coach Scott Brooks, knew Harden was Phife Diggy to KD’s Q-Tip. Why else would he lean on the Beard to steer the ship in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter? Everyone knows how erratic Russell Westbrook can be. Harden was the steadying force with the rock. Now that he’s gone, the lack of chemistry is evident. Harden had to leave to realize his full potential. I’m with Tillery, Nov. 28 is must-see-TV.
D.J. DUNSON: In the Thunder equation, Harden is the modestly attractive Effie White to Russell Westbrook's Deena Jones and Sam Presti is Curtis Taylor. However, before we jump on the Harden bandwagon let’s see how he holds up during the course of an 82-game regular season playing 40 plus minutes a night. Against Portland, signs of fatigue were evident in his 8-for-24 shooting performance. It's worth noting that Harden is averaging the second most turnovers in the league to Durant. Not Russell.
VINNIE GOODWILL: Gotta disagree. Yeah he's slighted, which is putting him on a season-long revenge tour unseen since Bean's streak of nine straight 40-point games in 2003. But let's not slight Russ, who takes turns being the best player on the Thunder when KD disappears at times. Russ may be more up and down but he's unquestionably the second best player on OKC.
SANDY DOVER: Of course, James Harden was the second-best player on the Thunder roster, but you had to look hard at how he affected his team. Harden was the de facto point guard when he and Russell Westbrook played – that’s how Russ got off. But notice that Harden always made the right play, always made the right pass, always took the right shot. He was as smooth as buttercream frosting with those guys.
QUESTION 2: Does Mike Brown make it to All-Star break?
D.J.: Not to get too geopolitical in this corner but the Lakers coach-player hierarchy resembles the Russian government. Brown is the figurehead Medvedev to Black Mamba’s shadow king Putin where he allows Kobe to run the locker room much like he did LeBron in Cleveland.
VINNIE: Count me in the minority but I like what Mike Brown is doing right now. His job will be won or lost in May and June, not in the first week of the season. Saving an old Steve Nash, easing D-12 into the year, smart move. Miami had bumps in the road with their new acquisitions, and even if I'm not sure Mike is the guy, who is? PJax is OLD, y'all, and D'Antoni ain't walking through that door.
TILLERY: If Brown is fired, the Lakers front office caved to fan and media pressure prematurely. D12 isn't 100 percent no matter how many points and rebounds he accumulates. Neither is Nash. Two points separate L.A. from the opposition. Eddie Jordan is on the clock, but like Miami in '10, L.A. needs time to jell.
SANDY: Mike Brown lasts the year, however, this is his last full year in L.A. We all know what happens when a super team is created that’s greater than the mind of its coach – the coach goes. It’s historical, from Paul Westhead in 1980, Kurt Rambis in 1999 and Stan Van Gundy in 2006. It’s the way of the world and there’s little that the man with the clipboard can do about it.
MAURICE: Normally, I’d agree with Sandy, but Jim Buss is as petulant as they come. Stakes is high on the guy he chose for head coach, so he’s ridin’ out Mike Brown ‘til the wheels fall off and, from the looks of the woeful Princeton offense and the team’s struggles with it, the Michelin’s are coming off the Lake Show Fun-Vee before the All-Star break.
QUESTION 3: Secretly, is Carmelo Anthony enjoying this "no-Amar'e/no-Lin" version of the Knicks?
MAURICE: Nothing’s a secret in New York. Jeremy Lin stole Carmelo’s shine like a stick up kid. Melo tried to say all the right things, but he couldn’t play his brand of iso-ball with Lin doing Linsanity things. No way, no how. LaLa’s hubby didn’t drive Lin out of town, but he didn’t exactly cast his vote for him to stay, either. And Amar’e? I still can’t get past him going all Office Space on the fire extinguisher.
SANDY: Melo probably is enjoying doing him right now, but he should understand, he’ll never win without changing his game. Yes, having two less stars can unfetter his game. Yes, he’ll be able to score on isolations more frequently and do whatever he wants. Yes, he’ll get a few more positive words, but unless he becomes more than a volume scorer, he’ll always lose in New York. On and off the court.
VINNIE: Of course he's happy and I'd bet it ain't a secret. He’s one of the best iso-scorers and clutch shooters in the league but can he win like that? No, not at an elite level, unless the perfect type of team is constructed around him, which I doubt. Who was the last super-iso scorer that flourished in Melo's mold? The Truth..but everything around him (KG, Rondo, Perk, Doc) was perfect.
D.J.: This is easy. Do women hate Mitt Romney? Melo’s greatest kryptonite offensively last season was Amar’e Stoudemire. Amar’e was also a lazy post defender and although Jeremy Lin was an exciting revelation, he's a streaky shooter and a turnover-prone distributor.
TILLERY: Melo is a “sickdiculous” talent. He reminds me more of George Gervin than Durant because he finds more ways to score. Of course he will feel freer to do his thing without Amar'e or any other star for that matter. His challenge is to show us all he's not one-dimensional.
QUESTION 4: Kyle Lowry can do it all. Is he the most underrated player in the NBA?
D.J.: Lowry is nice in every facet of the game but until he’s filling the stat sheet on a team that’s playing over 82 games a year, that honor goes to his former Memphis teammate Marc Gasol. The league is knee-deep in guards. Gasol's the forgotten trade chip that led to the Lakers two-peat but Kid Gasol has developed into an efficient (and nearly extinct) below the rim, low-post scorer in a league that is sorely lacking them. But if Lowry's Raptors don't pick up the slack, they may earn Houston a high lottery pick.
SANDY: Yes, Kyle Lowry can do it all. He can cook, cut, dice, chef, whatever you want to call it, but he’s not the most underrated player in the league. That distinction would go to the dearly departed Thunderer, James Harden. The man is leading the league in scoring, breaking records just a handful of games into this season, and still, no one knows just how good he is yet.
VINNIE: I like Lowry but the most underrated player is in the Midwest. Paul George in Indiana, he's going to blow up in the next three months with Granger out with injury. He's versatile, tough as a defender and wants to be great. Now, they need him to step up and score.
TILLERY: Kyle Lowry isn't underrated. Those of us in Philly have known how good he was going to be for years. When covering the Battle for 1-95 barnstorming game during the lockout, I saw he turned the corner. He will be as great as his work ethic allows him to be.
MAURICE: Kyle Lowry quietly turned a corner last year running the show in Houston as a top point guard in the NBA. If not for Daryl Morey’s want of Linsanity, he’d still be dropping three-point bombs on cat’s heads in the Toyota Center. As it stands, he has to tool in virtual anonymity in T Dot. He’ll get some burn, but not nearly enough.
QUESTION 5: If Deron Williams is your best player, can the squad really be a championship contender?
VINNIE: It's less about if D-Will can be a No. 1 guy and more about how close is the so-called No. 2 guy to him? The last time PG's were No.1 guys on a ring-winning team? Magic and Isiah. And I don't think Deron, while a top-tier point, will be the next. They've got to bring in a high-level 4-man to complement him, someone who could be better than him.
D.J.: The issue for Brooklyn isn’t Deron Williams as the best player. It's his No. 2. Williams plays his role directing the offense to perfection but his supporting cast needs an upgrade. Joe Johnson as a complementary piece can only do so much. He's a scorer that requires the ball in his hands and is on the downside of his career.
SANDY: It remains to be seen and what we’ve seen is that Deron Williams hasn’t led a team anywhere deep since his sophomore campaign in 2006-2007. The Western Conference Finals with a breakout Utah Jazz team is really good. I’m not sold on him as a championship-tier point guard yet. But I’m not ruling it out, either.
TILLERY: D-Will is great. Bigger and stronger than most, he's a true team player. His will to win, gives Brooklyn all they need. Combined with Joe Johnson's last chance to show he's better than what most think, a new arena and young bangers down low, the Nets will shine.
MAURICE: Deron Williams is a beast, no question. But he can’t deliver the O’Brien on his own. He’s the kind of player that’s supposed to draw other major players to the team to play with him. But Joe Johnson is not enough. The Nets failed miserably in landing Dwight Howard and decided to stand pat with Brook Lopez. Currently constructed, Brooklyn won’t keep on taking it.