Q: I don't have a problem thinking that the Lakers will again be a force to be reckoned with in May and June, so I started looking at a side-by-side comparison with the Boston Celtics. The Lakers have played almost all their games at home, while the Celtics have been on the road. Do you see the Celtics passing the Lakers when the Lakers head out on the road?
— Brian, Attleboro, Mass.
A: Because I think the Lakers simply are better, I think they'll hold off Boston and anyone else for the league's best record.
But I also think because Boston has a somewhat older core, that Doc Rivers won't have his foot on the pedal so deep into the season. Boston's primary concern is finishing atop the East, and therefore avoiding a meeting with the Magic or Cavaliers before the Eastern Conference finals.
Then again, the Lakers could lock up the West so early that it's possible they're the ones who ease into the postseason.
A team that has such a swagger, I don't think the Lakers will be overcome by the road-intensive nature of their upcoming schedule.
Q: Will Nuggets win their division?
— Bork, Turkey
A: Well, with Greg Oden out for the season in Portland, one prime contender already is gone.
Then there is Utah, which has struggled defensively at times and appears to have as much focus on lowering its luxury-tax bill as pushing for first place in the Northwest.
The longshot in the division is Oklahoma City, but it remains at least a year or two away from standing as a true threat.
So, yes, it appears we'll have another season of the Nuggets finishing atop the division.
As for anything beyond that, it will come down to Chauncey Billups picking up the shooting percentage a bit and Kenyon Martin finding a way to stay healthy.
While the initial thought was that San Antonio would stand as the leading competitor for a spot in the Western Conference finals opposite the Lakers, it now appears that Denver's greatest challenge in that regard could come from Dallas or even Phoenix.
How hard the Nuggets push themselves could come down to how hard they are pushed inside the division by the Jazz. At this point, Utah does not appear all that threatening.
Q: The Kings have been quite a surprise this year so far. Tyreke Evans is the real deal. Do you think they need Kevin Martin? I'm sure teams out there would love to have him.
— Chad, Modesto, Calif.
A: Actually, I'm not sold on that many teams chasing after Martin, considering his contract and the fact that he hardly has lifted the Kings to any heights of note.
While this Kings team hardly is complete, there are some intriguing pieces. Sacramento certainly has drafted well in recent years and Jason Thompson could form quite the long-term one-two punch alongside Evans.
Now the issue becomes how legit Spencer Hawes can turn out to be.
So, yes, I could see the Kings eventually moving Martin. But you might be overstating his value.
Q: If Houston manages to stay among the top eight in the Western Conference until its two star players get back, is it possible for the Rockets to have a shot in the NBA Finals?
— Jamie, Houston
A: First, its two stars aren't coming back this season. Yao Ming almost assuredly is gone until 2010-11.
And I'm just not sure, based on how they've handled the matter, that the Rockets consider Tracy McGrady a star player at this stage.
Just making the playoffs would put Rick Adelman in prime position for Coach of the Year.
But the NBA Finals? No, not this group.
While Houston has established a wonderful ensemble approach, ensemble teams don't win championships. Superstars do. And this season, Houston remains at a deficit in that respect.
Q: The NBA season starts around Nov. 1st (more or less) and ends in mid-April (more or less). Thus, why couldn't each team play three to four games per week, have no back-to-backs, and have a schedule in which the teams play the other teams in their division (home and away at least once) during the final 30 days of the season, to make the races more interesting? With this type of scheduling, there would be more practice time, less crazy traveling, and the quality should be better.
— Vince, Spain
A: The current NBA calendar has 170 days in it from the start of the regular season to the finish. To fit in 82 games without back-to-back sets would require playing every other night the entire season, when accounting for the All-Star break.
But here's why that can't/won't happen (which might take some educating for our foreign readers): The NBA mostly is loathe to compete against National Football League games on Sundays because of the difficulty to fill stands and the sizeable disparity in television ratings. It is why Toronto and the Clippers, the No. 3 pro tenant in their own building, are among the few teams to schedule games on Sunday afternoons.
Similarly, teams tend not to fare well in competition with Monday Night Football.
Beyond that, the television agreement the NBA has with the TNT network calls for almost complete exclusivity for its Thursday night package.
So what you have for the season's first three months is relatively few Sunday or Monday games and for almost the entire season rarely more than two or three games on Thursday nights.
Take away those days, and it is impossible to avoid back-to-back games.
Plus Friday and Saturday nights are too coveted to remove one from each team's schedule each week.
As for your suggestion of playing within the division during the final month, which has some merit, keep in mind that the majority of the playoff seeds are determined by placement in the conference, not the individual division. But I, too, would like to see the league avoid interconference games over the final month.
The solution, of course, is fewer games. But for every game removed from the schedule, it would require a similar giveback from the players in terms of salary, and we all know that isn't going to happen.
But there is plenty to be said about the European model. Most NBA fans prefer weekend games and no one can possibly enjoy watching a team drag through the fourth game of four-games-in-five-nights scheduling.
Q: I was outraged at the officiating in the recent Suns-Nuggets game. I am not that schooled in game rules, but even I could see fouls that were not called on the Nuggets. Does anyone hold the officials accountable? This clearly was a one-sided game, favoring the Nuggets. The Suns deserve better, and so do we as fans.
— Virginia, San Tan Valley, Ariz.
A: I generally do not answer questions about specific games, since this is a twice-a-month feature and couldn't possibly expect readers to recall each game. But I included your question to address its theme.
Having traveled with NBA referees for 22 years now, I can assure you there are no agendas. Oh, there might be differences with certain players or coaches, but that's the beauty of the three-man crew. No one official makes all the calls.
Yes, I have seen disparity in free throws and foul calls. And yes, there is not a coach who doesn't point that out over the course of a game.
But I can assure you that never, ever, ever have three referees sat in their dressing room before a game and said, "OK, it's Team A tonight, got it?"
As we can tell from the Tim Donaghy episode, it only takes one person to start talking and it all goes south.
These guys make good money, have worked years to reach this level. They're not about to jeopardize it all over one game, because of one vendetta.
Nope, they just happen to be a lot like us, and have the occasional off night.
I can guarantee you that beyond the night you cite, the Suns will have a game of their own where even Alvin Gentry will be snickering about how his team got the benefit of the doubt.
PBT: The Pacers defeated the Heat 97-93 in Game 2 to even the series at 1-1, which now shifts to Indiana.
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