Dale Hansen Sports anchor, WFAA-TV, Dallas
Buck Harvey Sports columnist, San Antonio Express-News

Sweany: The San Antonio Spurs are the defending champs and have had the best record in the Western Conference for most of the season. But the Dallas Mavericks have stayed right on their heels. How do you see the playoffs shaping up?

Hansen: I like the Mavericks. I’m not concerned that they haven’t been playing well lately, because they’ve been shorthanded. If they can get healthy, I think they are headed to a showdown with San Antonio.

Harvey: Nationally, I think most people like the Spurs, but the reality of that has always been a little off-kilter. I agree with Dale: I think the Mavericks do a lot of things that bother the Spurs, and I think this is a different team from the past. When the Spurs won their three championships, they were never physically imposing. The Spurs have to rely on experience and their system, so they’re a team that can be beaten, without a doubt.

Sweany: What about coaching? Gregg Popovich has been with the Spurs since 1995, but Avery Johnson is finishing up his first full season as the head coach of the Mavericks. Is he up to the task?

Hansen: I think Johnson is, though I’ve always thought coaching is a little over rated. If I have the choice between a good coach and a really good player, I’ll take the player every time. But Johnson has the team thinking about defense; they’re still a long way from being a great defensive team, but he’s managed to push some buttons, and that’s a big difference. They used to be a team that relied on hitting those jump shots and scoring 109, 110 points. Now they can get some stops, and they’ve won a couple of games when the offense wasn’t very good. I give Johnson great credit for that.

Sweany: Are you missing Steve Nash in the Mavericks’ backcourt?

Hansen: No, I don’t think so. Nash is a better player and a different player in Phoenix than he was in Dallas. It’s funny that so many fans in Dallas were screaming that Steve Nash couldn’t guard anybody when the Mavs were getting knocked out of the playoffs. Then he goes to Phoenix, where he still can’t guard anybody, but no one seems to notice because the Suns score so many points. It doesn’t look like a great decision now, but I’m one of the few people who agreed with Mark Cuban. Based on the money Nash was asking and the length of the contract, I would have let him go too.

Sweany: Another hot topic is the MVP. Does Tim Duncan make the list?

Harvey: This will be the second year in a row that Duncan has gone to the playoffs without being 100 percent. He really hasn’t been close to what he’s been the past two years. I think Dirk Nowitzki is probably my MVP pick; I don’t even put Duncan in the top five.

Sweany: Dale, what do you think about that? A San Antonio guy is picking Dirk.

Hansen: I think it’s a short list to find an MVP other than Nowitzki, but now I’m sounding like I’m contradicting myself: I think you have to give Steve Nash a lot of credit for holding Phoenix together. Dirk is one, two, three—somewhere in there. If he gets it, he deserves it. But if someone else wins it, I’ll understand that too.

Sweany: I remember when I first heard that then—Dallas coach Don Nelson was interested in this German kid who had never been to America. And I thought to myself, “Here we go again.”

Hansen: And I remember back in the eighties when they passed on Karl Malone and drafted three foreign white guys. But Nowitzki turned out to be a great move by Don Nelson, one of many that he made. I still miss Don Nelson, and I love his brand of basketball. But you could make the argument that Johnson has a little more going for him to take the Mavericks to another level. I’m not as concerned about where they’ve been when you consider that they have to go through San Antonio each year. The Spurs have been outstanding, and there’s no shame in losing to them.

Sweany: Are the Spurs ready to defend the title?

Harvey: It’s hard to tell. They’ve been an awful team when they’ve had to play back-to-back games. But if you give them an extra day to rest, they show they have a shot at it. One thing to remember is that they’ve needed a sensational game in each of their title runs, from Sean Elliott to Steve Kerr to Robert Horry last year. That’s how close they are to not having championships.

Hansen: That’s a problem that both teams have. As Buck points out, the Spurs are struggling with back-to-back games, and the playoffs can be a ridiculous grind. The same goes for the Mavs; I don’t know if they can stay healthy to get through a playoff run.

Sweany: Let’s talk about Houston, which is sitting in last place in the division. Is head coach Jeff Van Gundy on the hot seat?

Harvey: If I’m Houston, I don’t put Van Gundy in trouble. When you lose a player like Tracy McGrady for the season, it’s just impossible to judge. But I know that Van Gundy has a way of getting so depressed that he talks himself out of jobs.

Sweany: And Yao Ming?

Harvey: I think Yao Ming is outrageously good this year.

Hansen: Yao Ming is one of those players who are almost burdened by expectations. He can be a very good basketball player, but in the minds of some people, even that won’t be enough. I don’t think it’s fair that he’s going to be the starting center on the All-Star team for the next twelve years because everyone in China gets on the Internet and votes. But he can certainly play on my basketball team anytime he wants to move to Dallas.

Sweany: At least the Rockets fans can now turn their attention to the Astros.

Hansen: I’m not sure how excited you even can be about that right now.

Sweany: Let’s look ahead to the finals.

Harvey: I think it’s clearly the Detroit Pistons from the Eastern Conference, and I predict they’ll play against the Spurs. But I’ll take Detroit in five games.

Hansen: I think Buck’s probably right, though the New Jersey Nets are on a legitimate roll. I think they’d be my fun pick just so someone could pick up the magazine and ask, “How did he know that?”

Harvey: Or, “Is that guy crazy?”

Hansen: That’s right—or “Is that guy crazy?” In fact, all of my money is going to be on Detroit. And I think Buck is right: Can  San Antonio play a lot of games and still get there? I give the Mavericks a shot, but I think San Antonio is the pick to get to the finals.