The 2011-2012 NBA season is now starting to pick up speed, as we have entered March and are officially in the second half of the season. Much can be anticipated in the coming weeks; for example, a number of stars may be traded as we approach the March 15th trade deadline.
However, the coming weeks may be very important for some losing teams. Most of the teams in the No. 1-4 seeds are safely in the playoffs, but March is the time when the playoff picture starts becoming clearer.
Teams that don't currently own a playoff seed will need to step up their game, as well as possibly hope for some bumps and bruises for other teams as they try and fight their way into the playoffs. A No. 7 or No. 8 seed may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but just look at last year's Memphis Grizzlies, who beat the first-seeded Spurs in six games and then forced a seven-game series with the Thunder before eventually losing.
The odds are against most of them, but here are eight NBA teams that have the best chance at fighting their way into the playoffs.
Current Record: 12-26
Current Seed: 11th in East
A 12-26 record may not look like much, but a 12-26 record in the East means a lot more than it does in the West. The Pistons are just seven games out of the eighth seed, and while their 12-26 record holds the 11th seed in the East, the Sacramento Kings, who have a 12-24 record, own the 14th seed in the West.
Although it is unlikely, the Pistons definitely have a chance to make the playoffs. They are 4-6 in their last 10 games, and after ending January on a 6 game losing streak, they picked up the pace in February, going 8-6 over the whole month.
Most of the credit for their recent success has to be given to Greg Monroe, as well as Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight. The three youngsters have formed a great trio and are the core of the Pistons. Monroe is doing especially well, getting almost 17 points and 10 rebounds a game.
If the Pistons can continue to play like they did last month, they definitely have a shot at the eighth seed, as long as a team with a playoff seed like the Knicks or Celtics struggle in the second half. Unfortunately, a big obstacle for the Pistons will be the opponents they have to face in the upcoming weeks. Of their final 29 games, 17 are against .500 teams or better. Why is that such a big deal? They are a terrible 5-12 against above-.500 teams this season.
Chances of Making the Playoffs: 10%
Current Record: 16-20
Current Seed: 12th in West
Don't count Steve Nash and the aging Phoenix Suns out of one last playoff run just yet, because after winning four of their last five, the team is 3.5 games out of the eighth seed. Steve Nash has been his usual great self, and playing second fiddle is Marcin Gortat, who is having a breakout year, averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds a game.
After that, the team doesn't possess much talent, but having Nash is enough to keep them at almost a .500 record.
There have been a ton of rumors about whether or not Nash will be traded by the deadline, but he hasn't requested a trade. So for now, let's assume he stays with Phoenix for the remainder of the year. The Suns will face a few obstacles if they want to get into the playoffs.
First and foremost is the insanely hard schedule they face for the rest of the season. It is absolutely ridiculous. In their last 30 games of the season, 19 of those games are against above-.500 teams. The Suns are a decent 8-13 against winning teams, but that won't get them into the playoffs.
Also, this entire team is led by Steve Nash. Nash is the motor of the team and without him they are almost talentless. The Suns are going to need the 38-year-old to maintain his current level of play. But that might be a problem. The condensed schedule may tire him, and as his 2010-2011 stats show, he is not indefatigable. Last year, he averaged just 10 points and shot just 40 percent from the field post-all-star break. If that happens again this year, the Suns' playoff chances may be nothing more than a hopeful dream.
Chances of Making the Playoffs: 15%
Current Record: 14-19
Current Seed: 13th in West
The Warriors are dealing with their own set of trade rumors, as Otis Smith may try and bring in Monta Ellis to keep Dwight happy, but rumors are never set in stone, especially this one. The reality is that the Warriors are unlikely to trade Ellis without receiving a star, or at least a center.
So Monta Ellis will most likely remain a Warrior after the deadline passes, and then he can focus on trying to get his team into the playoffs, which is not too far out of reach. In fact, the Warriors are only four games out of the eighth seed.
The Warriors are also ahead of the Suns for a couple reasons. One is that they are younger and can trust that Curry and Ellis won't fatigue easily, but they also have a friendly schedule. For the rest of March, just five out of their 17 games are against above-.500 teams. If they can build up momentum by beating these teams, which they should, then they should be able to carry that momentum into April and use it against their much more difficult April schedule.
The only thing standing in their way is the amount of competition in the West. Minnesota, Portland, Utah and Phoenix all carry a higher seed than they do. If they want to make the playoffs, not only do they need to win, but they need those other teams to lose. The chance of all those teams having miserable second halves is pretty slim. Still, it isn't impossible.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 20%
Current Record: 17-19
Current Seed: 11th in West
The Jazz may be close to a .500 record and only a couple games out of the eighth seed, but they are further away from the playoffs than most think.
Right now the team is led by the two big men, Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson. They average 16 and 18 points, respectively, and both grab nine rebounds a game. But they are not enough to propel the Jazz into the playoffs. They will need some help.
The most important thing the Jazz can do is try and get Devin Harris back to playing like he did as an all-star with the New Jersey Nets a couple years back. Harris has had his name floating around the trade block, but he isn't a very valuable trade asset, and if the Jazz are serious about a playoff run they will need to keep Harris, because they won't get much of a return in a trade.
The next thing they need to do is improve their defense. Currently the team gives up 97.4 points a game, which ranks 22nd in the league. They are also 21st in Opponent FG%, allowing their opponents to connect on 45 percent of their shots. They are a decent rebounding team, and are also third in the league in blocks and 10th in steals, but they need to improve their overall defense and contest more shots.
And finally, they need to win on the road. If a playoff team can't win road games then they can't advance. An eighth seed will have just three of seven games at home, so it is impossible for a lower seeded team to win a playoff series without winning at least one road game. And as for the Jazz, they are 3-13 on the road, which is worse than the 15th-seeded Hornets. Making the playoffs is pointless if you can't win road games, and the Jazz need to start winning quickly.
If they can do all those things, then they are a playoff team. But right now, they aren't as close as their record suggests.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 25%
Current Record: 13-22
Current Seed: 10th in East
What a turnaround this would be, if the Cavs were to make the playoffs just one year after finishing with only 19 wins as the 15th seed in the East.
It is certainly possible. It was more feasible before their current five-game losing streak, but the Cavs are still in the race for a playoff spot. In fact, they are only a few games out of the eighth seed. But their defense could definitely throw them out of the race.
The Cavs desperately need to work on their defense. That is probably the most important area to work on right now. They allow five more points then they score per game, and they are 24th in points allowed, by giving up over 98 points a game. In addition, they are 24th in opponent FG%, 22nd in opponent 3P%, 23rd in blocks per game and 18th in steals per game. They are also 2-12 when their opponents score over 100 points. If they want any chance at winning a game in a playoff series or even making the playoffs, those numbers need to improve.
If they work on their defense, they have a good chance. The only non-playoff-seeded team really competing with them for a playoff spot would be the Bucks, who have only a slightly better winning percentage and are also on a three-game losing streak.
And as for the teams in the playoff picture right now, nothing is definite and a lot of teams are struggling. The eighth-seeded Knicks are surging, but the seventh-seeded Celtics are aging and surrounded by trade rumors. The sixth-seeded Hawks, who were 8-3 with Horford, are now 14-12 since losing their center to injury. The fifth-seeded Magic are dealing with Dwight Howard trade rumors and the fourth-seeded 76ers are 4-6 in their last 10 games. The Cavs can still seize control and steal a spot from any of those teams.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 35%
Current Record: 18-19
Current Seed: 10th in West
The Blazers are a great and deep team that would be a perfect addition to the playoffs. Nicholas Batum and Jamal Crawford are the best players on a very good bench, and the starting lineup itself is full of great, talented players such as LaMarcus Aldridge, Gerald Wallace and Wesley Matthews. The Blazers are also a good defensive team, giving up just 94 points a game, which is good for 11th in the league, and at the same time they score 98 points a game, which ranks fifth in the NBA.
What is most concerning about the Blazers is that they struggle so much on the road. With a 5-12 road record, they are tied for third-worst in the West. Their schedule has 16 of their last 30 games on the road, which isn't too bad. But what is concerning is looking at the teams they have to face on the road. In just five of their 16 road games do they face an opponent with a worse record than they have, and among the teams they play are the Pacers, Knicks, Bulls, Thunder, Lakers, Clippers, Mavs, Grizzlies and Spurs.
With such a tough schedule, they'd be lucky to win five or six of those road games, and those losses could send them down the standings. It certainly won't help them with such fierce competition for a playoff spot in the west.
Portland could make the playoffs, but a few things need to go their way. They need Felton to step up his game, they need to win those road games and they need the teams on their tail in the standings to give them a little room to breathe by losing some games.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 35%
Current Record: 14-23
Current Seed: 9th in East
Even after losing a few games in a row, the Bucks are still only 4.5 games out of the playoffs and have a significant chance at making the seventh or eighth seed if they can improve their defense.
Right now, the team ranks 23rd in the NBA in points allowed, and they also grab just 41 rebounds a game while allowing 45 rebounds a game, which is 29th in the league. That stat has certainly impacted their record, as they are 6-17 when they have less rebounds then their opponents.
The fact that the Bucks have such an easy upcoming schedule will definitely be a factor in whether or not they sneak into the playoffs. The team plays the majority of the rest of the season at home, and of the 12 games they do play on the road, the only winning team they face away from home is Indiana.
Milwaukee has a pretty bad 6-15 road record, but if they can win these easy games on the road and also take the tougher ones that they play at home, then they can definitely sneak into the playoffs. My guess would be that they will win the majority of their games for the rest of the season.
Besides improved defense, all Milwaukee needs is to hope that a veteran team like the Celtics break down. Trading Rajon Rondo would certainly affect the team's chemistry, and a condensed schedule could cause Garnett, Pierce and Allen to tire later on in the year, especially considering the Celtics have an extremely difficult April schedule. If that happens, stealing a playoff spot will be easy for Milwaukee. For now though, the odds stay against them.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 45%
Current Record: 19-19
Current Seed: 9th in West
The Timberwolves are finally starting to improve, as they have been the bottom feeders of the West for the past several years. Young guys like Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Derrick Williams, Nikola Pekovic and Michael Beasley, as well as others, are developing great team chemistry, and the T-Wolves are winning games against tough opponents.
Minnesota doesn't have the greatest defense, but they have a solid defense and are also third in the league in rebounds. Those rebounds have played a factor too, as they are 13-8 when they have a rebounding advantage.
The Timberwolves are good right now, but their schedule isn't exactly easy. The team still has plenty of challenges and obstacles up ahead, but it is the misfortune of their opponents that will propel them into the playoffs.
The Jazz and Trailblazers both have difficult schedules coming up, and this should definitely give Minnesota some breathing room. In addition to that, Denver, the current eighth seed, is only 1.5 games ahead of Minnesota and has an extremely difficult schedule. Denver is 9-0 against the East, but at 11-17 against the West, they carry a worse inter-conference record than almost any other team in the West. And luckily for Minnesota, the Nuggets play 20 of their remaining 30 games against Western Conference teams, and not many of those games are against below-.500 teams.
The Timberwolves got lucky. They definitely have talent, but because their biggest competitors have big obstacles to face, they have a great opportunity to make the playoffs. Denver may have the eighth seed now, but Minnesota may be making their first playoff appearance since 2004.
Chance of Making the Playoffs: 60%