5-on-5: Celtics, Lakers Finals favorites?
ESPN's Friday doubleheader (ESPN/ESPN3, 8 p.m. ET) features four teams going in very different directions lately.
To get a better handle on the Celtics, Hawks, Jazz and Lakers, we turned to writers from around the country in the latest edition of 5-on-5.
1. When healthy, are the C's still the proverbial "best team in the NBA"?
Spencer Hall, Salt City Hoops: There's no such thing as "when healthy" in the NBA. The C's are fantastic when they're rolling, but the Lakers have convinced me they're for real. I'm not even sure the Celtics are better than the other teams ahead in the standings: the Bulls and Spurs.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Not even close. I would have said this even if Kendrick Perkins were around. The Lakers and Bulls are just playing better right now, and it's very difficult to pin Boston's offensive woes on the trade of a low-scoring center.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Lakers have looked so good lately that the answer has to be no. Without their full roster for virtually the entire season, the Celtics have looked dominant at times, but also very beatable. Heathy or not, Boston will not be labeled "best" at anything unless it is the last team left standing.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: No. I know Kendrick Perkins hardly played this season but he is, when healthy, a lot better than the healthy guys replacing him, even considering how surprisingly (unsustainably?) well Jeff Green has shot the ball so far in Boston.
Jeff Skibiski, Forum Blue & Gold: No. They arguably have more unknowns than any other title contender right now. How does Jeff Green fit in? Has Rondo healed? Does Shaq return in game shape? As we saw last season, there's still time for them to figure it out, but it's too close to the playoffs to consider the Celtics the best of the bunch.
2. More vital for Boston: return of Shaq or rejuvenation of Rajon Rondo?
Spencer Hall, Salt City Hoops: The return of Rajon Rondo to usual form, by a long shot. When Rondo is wreaking havoc, everything opens up for the Celtics. Even after the loss of Perkins, everything Shaq brings is gravy.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Both are essential, but I'd say the return of Shaq is more necessary because the entire game plan behind the Perkins trade involved Boston having at least one healthy O'Neal for the playoff run. Since I'm not banking on Jermaine, Shaq's gotta be the guy. And remember, Boston played extremely well early in the season when the Big Leprechaun was healthy.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: With the way their big men have played recently, you have to wonder if the Celtics can even get to Eastern Conference finals without at least one of the O'Neals. For the most part, the Celtics have also been able to rely on Rajon Rondo for everything short of a jump shot. If they give him the benefit of the doubt, so must we.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: Rondo. He figures to play so much more and have so many more touches than Shaq that he'd be more vital even if he wasn't so much better, when playing his best, than Shaq can be at his age.
Jeff Skibiski, Forum Blue & Gold: For as much talk as there's been about the Big Three the past four seasons, Rondo is the engine that makes the Celtics go. When he struggles, Boston's offense slows. Shaq, on the other hand, wasn't a key contributor even when the C's were playing dominant ball in the first half of the season.
3. Why has Atlanta's Highlight Factory become the Blowout Factory?
Spencer Hall, Salt City Hoops: I'm just curious why anyone thought the season would end differently after last season devolved into near-complete acrimony between the team and its fans? The roster hasn't changed enough to expect a change of culture.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: The Hawks can't outscore teams anymore, having been exposed for their mediocrity on defense. Al Horford looks like he's running on fumes, Joe Johnson is struggling with a hand injury, Jamal Crawford is mired in a nasty slump and the coach doesn't trust Jeff Teague. When the Hawks defend, they have a chance. When they don't? Blowout Factory.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Hawks traded offense for defense when they swapped Mike Bibby for Kirk Hinrich at the trade deadline. Problem is, it proved to be a lateral move. Couple that with the fact that their key young guys have not gotten any better and you have a Hawks teams still mired in mediocrity. C'est la vie.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: The Hawks lack both depth and a variety of talent, so it's difficult for them to make effective adjustments when their initial plan fails. On some level, the players know this and it appears a demoralizing influence on them.
Jeff Skibiski, Forum Blue & Gold: The problems the Hawks are facing are hardly new, as they've run with a flawed roster for several seasons now. They got away with it against a weaker Eastern Conference in the past, but their size issues and lack of defensive commitment are being exposed for what they are this season against a deeper East.
4. When will the Utah Jazz become a factor on the national scene again?
Spencer Hall, Salt City Hoops: It's hard to believe that less than six weeks ago Jerry Sloan and Deron Williams were still integral parts of the Jazz. As bad as things are now, I believe the Jazz will contend for the No. 8 spot in the West next season.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: When they move to Seattle. (Calm down, Utah people, I'm kidding). Seriously, it may be a while. There's not a ton of young talent in the cupboard, and while the current team is certainly capable of being decent if everything breaks right, it's tough to see how or when a 50-win season might materialize.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Jazz won't be relevant again until they get another player like Deron Williams. Whether it's Derrick Favors or one of their four first-round picks remains to be seen. Either way, the Jazz shipped out their most valuable player and will need another one to be recognized again.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: If they draft (and/or trade) well this summer and Derrick Favors (19 years old!) fulfills his potential, they could again be a playoff team as early as the 2012-13 season. To be a factor on the national scene, which I presume to mean contending for an NBA championship, lots of things -- as they must for most teams -- would have to go spectacularly right.
Jeff Skibiski, Forum Blue & Gold: Utah needs Favors to develop quickly and, at some point, move some of the pieces it acquired in the Williams trade to make a move for a bona-fide All-Star. Like the post-Melo Nuggets, the Jazz roster has some nice players; in their case, though, the whole is not greater than the sum of their parts.
5. What is the main worry for the Lakers as they roll toward a three-peat?
Spencer Hall, Salt City Hoops: The Lakers can't ignore the Spurs and get caught thinking about potential opponents from the East. The emergence of the Bulls has provided another chance for people to overlook pesky San Antonio this year.
John Hollinger, ESPN.com: It has to be Andrew Bynum's health, because he's always been the wild card for this team. When he's healthy their size up front is something virtually no team can match; without him, the Lakers become a very beatable offense-first outfit.
Brendan Jackson, Celtics Hub: The Lakers' biggest worry is the same as the Celtics', it just has not been as apparent. The Lakers will need all of their key guys healthy in order to have the clear advantage in the playoffs, with the biggest red flag being Andrew Bynum.
Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: The biggest worry is that their defensive effectiveness is highly reliant on Andrew Bynum's good health. Which says something given that Derek Fisher and Steve Blake combine for 48 unproductive minutes a night at the point.
Jeff Skibiski, Forum Blue & Gold: Aside from injuries, the Lakers' biggest worry at this point has to be the prospect of facing an athletic team like Miami in the NBA Finals. L.A. matches up well with Chicago and Boston, but the tandem of LeBron James and Dwayne Wade has given the Lakers fits in their two meetings this season.
John Hollinger is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
Spencer Hall, Brendan Jackson, Bret LaGree and Jeff Skibiski are writers for the TrueHoop Network.