Akshay Manwani Freelance writer based in Mumbai

In an attempt to rid himself of the perils of performance appraisals, Akshay ventured into the world of freelance writing where he combined his twin interests of sports and cinema. He has since contributed to The Caravan, BCCI.tv, Business Standard and Man's World, among other publications. He has followed the fortunes of the NBA since the early ’90s, an experience that has given him extraordinary moments of joy in an otherwise mundane existence.

All season long, Akshay will cover the League from the point of view of a basketball expert living in India. Follow him every week on NBA.com/india!

Fan Mailbag: Lakers, Heat and MJ on Kobe v LBJ

As the clock winds down on the NBA 2012-13 regular season, the focus is definitely on the 2013 postseason. Every fan wants to know how his or her favourite team is likely to fare come playoff time or whether their team is in contention to make the playoffs at all. Our latest edition of fan mailbag, answered by our resident NBA expert, Akshay Manwani, is a reflection of this. This week, Akshay takes the opportunity to weigh in on this as well as Michael Jordan’s recent comments on Kobe Bryant being better than LeBron James.

Sean Yueh and Nihit Sharma: Will the Lakers make the playoffs?

Sean, Nihit, isn’t that the biggest question everyone’s asking around the league? The Lakers, currently in ninth spot in the Western Conference standings, are 2.5 games adrift of Utah and two games behind Houston. Of these three teams, Houston has the fewest games on the road, while both the Lakers and Utah each still have to play 12 games on the road before the end of the regular season. Also, of these three teams, Utah seems to be on a downward spiral, having lost three straight and having gone 6-6 in the 12 games they played in February. So, if I have to pick, I will go ahead and pick the Rockets and Lakers to edge out Utah for the two final spots in the West.

Siddarth Sharma: Are the Heat a lock to come out of the East? Who poses a threat to them in the East?

Siddarth, I would like to say yes, given the Heat’s dominant position at the top of the Eastern Conference standings, but I will say, no. No matter what the 6.5-game edge that Miami holds against both New York and Indiana may tell you, it will be a totally different picture come playoffs. Both New York and Indiana have talented big men and point-guards, who are primed to exploit Miami’s two biggest weaknesses. The Pacers appear better placed because in Roy Hibbert (needs to scale up, though), David West, Paul George and Danny Granger they have the men who can somewhat match the Heat in terms of superstar firepower, but New York, equally, with its deep roster, also poses the Heat a serious threat. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, Miami are 0-4 against both teams so far this season. Remember, this is not to say that the Heat won’t eventually come through, but that their path to the finals may be a lot more treacherous this time around.

Kaushik Lakshman: Are the San Antonio Spurs legit contenders for the title this season?

Yes. Anyone who thinks differently about this team from Alamo country, think again. Not only is San Antonio looking like it might secure home court advantage right through to the NBA Finals, but their path to the finals may have also been made easier by James Harden’s exit from OKC. Remember, Harden had hurt the Spurs, going for 18.5 PPG while shooting 49.31 percent from the floor against them in the 2012 Western Conference Finals. As good as Kevin Martin has been for OKC, he is no Harden. Also, with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker having lifted their respective games this season, I really feel the Spurs have a legit chance to win their fifth title in 15 years.

Sachin Panda: Is Michael Jordan right in saying that Kobe is better than LeBron because Kobe has five titles and James has one? If that be the case, wouldn't Bill Russell be the greatest basketball player of all times since he had 11 titles?

Sachin, small mercy that Jordan is known for his playing skills than his oratory skills. And yes, as sacrilegious as it sounds, I, too disagree with Jordan’s views on this. The thing about qualifiers, like the championship rings that Jordan uses in his argument against James, is they can as easily be replaced with another qualifier. So suppose Jordan had used regular season MVP awards as his criteria, James would have been ahead of Bryant. As would Steve Nash, while Shaquille O’Neal would never be included in any conversation on most dominant big men ever because he one only one MVP award to the multiple titles won by Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The thing, while passing such judgments, is you have to look at a player’s achievements in totality. You have to count his rings, his regular season MVP awards, his finals’ MVP awards and measure his numbers on the whole. Jordan himself spoke of also looking at the quality of a player’s opponents while determining how good he is in this brilliant piece by ESPN’s Wright Thompson. Only such a complete view will tell you that Robert Horry, with seven NBA titles, cannot be compared to Jordan, who won six. And that Shaq can be compared to Chamberlain or Jabbar.

Coming to this specific comparison, I completely agree with TNT’s Kenny ‘The Jet’ Smith on this. LeBron has always been the main player on his team, the player who opposing teams throw double teams at. Bryant, in the early part of his career, had Shaq, whom opponent players double teamed. Bryant was not ‘the guy’ on those teams. Shaq’s three finals MVP awards, between 2000-2002, are testimony to this. Also, if LeBron keeps playing the way he is now or builds on his game even more, like he has this season, I have no doubt that he will finish his career with a far bigger legacy than Bryant’s.

Rohit Coelho: The Houston Rockets are looking good to make the playoffs. Who do you think could they give a good run for their money if they clinch a playoff spot?

I said as much in response to one of the earlier questions in this piece that I am predicting Houston to grab a playoff spot. Having said that, I don’t think the Rockets are likely to pull off any surprises in the first round of the 2013 postseason. Whether they finish sixth, seventh or eighth, I don’t think the Rockets, even with Harden playing the way he is, will upstage any of the top three teams in the West - the Spurs, the Thunder or the Clippers. Even then, with a young team, this one experience of the 2013 playoffs could be invaluable for the Rockets who are primed for a bright future.

Also from Rohit Coelho: George Karl has got the Denver Nuggets running for a top spot. We saw them play excellently in last year’s playoffs. How different are they as a team going into this year’s playoffs? Also, when it comes down to crunch time, are Danilo Gallinari, Ty Lawson or Andre Iguadola good enough to carry the burden of the clutch shots?

Rohit, good question. I have been impressed with these Nuggets since last year’s playoffs when they almost upset the Lakers in a seven-game series. Things are already a little better for them this year, since they’ve managed to build a 3.5-game buffer over Golden State for fifth position and are only 2.5 games behind fourth-placed Memphis in the West. Also, with the Nuggets having to play only nine more games on the road compared to Memphis’ 16 in the remainder of the regular season, I expect a swapping of places to happen. And then with home-court advantage, I expect the Nuggets to get to the Western Conference semis after which they could give a good fight to any of the other remaining three teams. Unfortunately, in what will answer the second part of your question, because Denver doesn’t have an All-Star player in their ranks or someone proven to consistently close out close games, I don’t see them doing better than the second round of the 2013 postseason.

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