FINALLY, THE SECOND season, the best the NBA has to offer.

This year's postseason figures to be historic in its overall entertainment. The Western Conference is ultra competitive. The Eastern Conference boasts some engaging personalities and individual talents.

It's almost too much to digest, what with so much uncertainty, so much anticipation. Here are 10 questions that come to mind as the 2008 NBA playoffs tip off today:

1. Can Cleveland star LeBron James do it alone?

No Larry Hughes in the backcourt. No Drew Gooden in the trenches. No Sasha Pavlovic behind the arc.

James certainly doesn't have the tools he had last year, when he led the Cavaliers over Mount Detroit and into the NBA Finals. Forward-center Ben Wallace and gunner Wally Szczerbiak, both of whom arrived Feb. 21 in a three-way trade with Chicago and Seattle, don't qualify as reliable help. All James has is center Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who added 2,222 more minutes onto his aging frame.

It might be a lot to ask for James to carry a bunch of dead weight through the East. If he can, it would add yet another chapter to his legend.

2. Will Houston guard Tracy McGrady finally break through?

Not looking good.

Having center Yao Ming sitting on the bench in an expensive suit will certainly hurt McGrady's chances of getting past the first round for the first time in his career. Not to mention that Utah is playing elite basketball right now.

McGrady is 0-for-6 so far, making him the league's biggest underachiever in the eyes of many. If he falls to 0-for-7, you'll start hearing McGrady and Milton Bradley in the same sentence.

If McGrady does pull this off against the stout defense of lanky Jazz swingmen Andrei Kirilenko and Ronnie Brewer, without the low-post scoring presence of Yao and with starting point guard Rafer Alston limited by a hamstring injury, it certainly will make up for all those first-round failures.

3. Is it Kobe Bryant's turn to be loved?

Just about every postseason lately, the country falls in love with a player. Last season, it was San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who played his way into fan favorite status as well as pop culture tabloids. The year before, Miami guard Dwyane Wade's face was everywhere after the Heat won the 2006 NBA Finals. Before that, it was Spurs forward Tim Duncan.

After years of being a polarizing star, the antagonist in the NBA's grand drama, it seems the stars are aligning for Bryant to get his turn. He'll probably be named league MVP for the first time in his career.

His Lakers are the trendy pick to emerge from the Western Conference, and he's managed to avoid drama all season. All he needs now is to play amazing basketball and win. Then Charles Barkley will spend all summer trying to get in Bryant's Fave Five.

4. Are Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson a winning pair?

These two Denver Nuggets superstars don't have many more chances to prove their worth as a tandem. Last year's first-round exit was excused by their losing to eventual champion San Antonio. But Denver followed that with a disappointing regular season, squeaking into the playoffs.

'Melo and A.I. were supposed to be dominant together. It's not enough to blame the supporting cast. On paper, Denver has more talent than New Orleans and Utah, maybe even Dallas.

It's going to take a tremendous showing from Anthony and Iverson to validate their standing. Time is running out on this experiment.

5. Why not just skip to the East finals?

The only series in the Eastern Conference playoffs people want to see is the Boston-Detroit showdown (apologies to the Cavaliers-Wizards series, which is somewhat interesting). Everything else is just stage prep.

The Celtics need to just go through the motions to beat the Atlanta Hawks, then wait a few days to mow through the survivor of the Cleveland-Washington grudge match. Ditto for Detroit, which gets to end the Philadelphia 76ers' surprisingly successful season before conquering the speed bump of Orlando and Toronto.

Obviously, upsets happen. But in this case, that wouldn't be the best thing.

6. Did the Phoenix Suns make the right move getting Shaquille O'Neal?

General manager Steve Kerr is going to find out right away. The Suns traded away a major thoroughbred in their up-tempo attack (Shawn Marion) to get O'Neal with the hope of improving defensively and in the half court. They get to test their new approach on the reigning champion Spurs, the premier franchise when it comes to defense and half-court offense.

It's worked in the regular season, especially for power forward Amare Stoudemire, who has averaged 29.1 points since O'Neal was inserted into the lineup. But will it work in the playoffs?

7. Who will be this year's Warriors?

American sports fans love Cinderella stories, as evidenced by the way the Warriors captured the nation last season in their first-round upset of Dallas.

But with the Warriors watching the postseason on television, there's a void to be filled. Casual fans, and fans of the lottery-bound, need a team to get behind.

It could be the Nuggets. Led by their two anti-establishment stars, they could certainly appeal to the favorite-haters out there. Washington has a magnetic star in Gilbert Arenas and an attractive style of play.

Perhaps the most likely candidate to capture the nation's fancy is New Orleans. Despite being a No. 2 seed, the Hornets are a easy to rally behind, considering they are new to the second season landscape and represent a city on the rebound from Hurricane Katrina. How can you not root for that?

8. Atlanta swingman Josh Smith: Joe Namath or the Steelers' Anthony Smith?

Smith said the Hawks would "shock the world" and upset the Boston Celtics. Somehow, his words aren't as inspiring as they were when Muhammad Ali said he would "shock the world" against Sonny Liston in 1964. Maybe it's because of the many failed sports predictions made since Ali, then Cassius Clay, dropped Liston in that fight. Of course, the world would be shocked if the Hawks won a game. Maybe Smith's guarantee is possible after all.

9. Is Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki ready to reach a new echelon?

There are major questions about Nowitzki's heart and whether his name deserves mention among the league's elite. His star fizzled after his top-seeded Mavericks were upset by the Warriors in the first round in 2007, especially since it came on the heels of Dallas blowing a 2-0 lead in the 2006 NBA Finals to Miami.

He certainly showed heart during the regular season, coming back faster than expected from a pretty bad knee and ankle sprain to lead Dallas into the playoffs. But true stars are made in the postseason. And this time, his Mavericks are the underdogs.

10. Would a Celtics-Lakers Finals be the best thing?

It no doubt would be a thrilling series. It's the trip down memory lane that's scary. One obnoxious fan base in the Finals is enough, but two is overkill.

Lakers fans have already cornered the market on arrogance. To deal with them on top of irritating Boston fans would be a borderline human rights violation.

Just imagine if these two teams did meet. Faded Kevin McHale jerseys and purple and gold jump suits everywhere. Marathons of classic Lakers-Celtics battles. The re-release of the Magic Johnson and Larry Bird Converse sneakers.

Seriously, it would be good only for Lakers and Celtics fans -- and Damon Wayans and Dan Aykroyd, who'll get royalties from all the "Celtic Pride" movie rentals.

Contact Marcus Thompson II at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com.