Breaking Down the NBA Playoff Picture at the First Quarter Mark
The first quarter of any given NBA game is rarely definitive. So as we come upon those "if the playoffs were today" thoughts, it's important to keep things in perspective.
Because if the playoffs were today, the Los Angeles Lakers would be out and the Minnesota TImberwolves would be in. Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks would be on the verge of missing the playoffs, and the New York Knicks would have the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
While some of these teams will remain on their current paths, it's unrealistic to believe that things won't change, as reality and the law of averages allow more familiar teams to get back in the playoff picture.
But as it stands prior to Dec. 11, here are the playoff seedings, with a breakdown of what has brought each team to this point.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves
Preseason Prediction: Either the fringe of the playoffs or not included.
Current Prediction: No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
A true title contender? No. The upside is there. Injuries have already held the Timberwolves back, but they should be able to hang in there with the return of Ricky Rubio in mid-December. They have one of the league's top coaches in Rick Adelman and are one of the NBA's best rebounding teams, averaging the third-most boards in the league.
But Rubio will need to become a superstar. Hey, it could happen. Seriously.
Most Disappointing: Losing Kevin Love for half of the first quarter. However, Love hasn't been a disappointment since returning. He is averaging his usual star numbers.
Most Surprising: Andrei Kirilenko has been one of the league's most efficient forwards.
MVP: Nikola Pekovic is developing into the center the Timberwolves have needed. The soon-to-be 27-year-old is averaging 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds. His importance for Minnesota early on can't be overstated.
7. Dallas Mavericks
Preseason Prediction: On the fringe of the Western Conference playoffs.
Current Prediction: The Mavericks will be in the mix as one of the final four Western Conference playoff teams, but they could miss the playoffs for the first time since 1999-00. They'll battle with Golden State, Minnesota, Denver and Utah. It will come down to the return from injury of superstar Dirk Nowitzki.
A true title contender? Not anymore. Nowitzki's last stand came in 2011. Now the Mavericks seem to be scrambling to make pieces fit.
Most Disappointing: The fact that Nowitzki hasn't played yet. Though, if they have any hope of a serious run, it's smart not to rush him back too soon.
Most Surprising: Chris Kaman has averaged 14.3 points and 6.7 rebounds in 26.1 minutes per game and started 12 games.
MVP: The team's other surprise is also its MVP. O.J. Mayo has displayed the type of talent that was gushed about when he came into the league. He's averaging 20.8 points per game.
6. Utah Jazz
Preseason Prediction: Just outside the Western Conference playoff picture.
Current Prediction: Out of the playoffs.
A True Title Contender? Not even close. The Jazz have not beaten a team that has a winning record, other than the Dallas Mavericks who just moved above .500 days ago. They do have two wins against the Lakers, but that hasn't counted for much this season.
Most Disappointing: Utah has been able to score and rebound with its young big men. But its experiment of dividing minutes between Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter hasn't produced anything special.
Most Surprising: In limited playing time, Favors has been great. His 7.5 rebounds in 22.8 minutes per game is impressive.
MVP: Al Jefferson
5. Golden State Warriors
Preseason Prediction: Just out of the Western Conference playoffs.
Current Prediction: Depending on the vulnerable ankles of Stephen Curry, anywhere from a No. 6 seed to out of the playoffs. Curry is playing a career high in minutes and appears to be good, so the playoffs look achievable.
A True Title Contender? Not yet. Curry and David Lee have been outstanding, but the team is still a superstar or All-Star big man away from contending.
Most Disappointing: Andrew Bogut. He might be back, but who knows if he will be in playing shape after too many seasons with significant time off.
Most Surprising: Carly Landry may be in line as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. He has come off the bench in all of the team's 20 games, averaging 13.3 points and 6.9 rebounds in 26.2 minutes.
MVP: Curry and Lee take co-owners of this title. Curry has stayed on the floor and averaged a career-high 20 points and career-high 6.5 assists. Lee is averaging 18.8 and 11.2 rebounds per game.
4. Los Angeles Clippers
Preseason Prediction: About where they are.
Current Prediction: A No. 2 or 3 seed in the Western Conference.
A True Title Contender? They are, but that's not an easy statement to make. How's this for streaky: The Clippers opened by winning eight of 10 before dropping four in a row, only to bounce back with six consecutive wins.
They've had an easy schedule of late, but consecutive wins over Atlanta, Miami, Chicago and San Antonio in November proved the Clippers can play with the big boys.
Most Disappointing: The injuries to Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill. Imagine how much deeper this already deep squad will be when Billups is back to full strength and Hill returns.
Most Surprising: Jamal Crawford. The Sixth Man of the Year front-runner is averaging 17.9 points per game.
MVP: Chris Paul has been the league's best point guard.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
Preseason Prediction: Among the top teams in the Western Conference, but not this good.
Current Prediction: No. 4 seed.
A True Title Contender? If Memphis wins it all, it will be a rare example of a team winning without a true superstar. Why can't they be the 2004 Detroit Pistons? Memphis can win a title because it has the best defense in the league.
Most Disappointing: The Dec. 1 loss to San Antonio brought the Grizzlies back to earth.
Most Surprising: The league knew Mike Conley was legitimate. But he's even more valuable than many anticipated.
MVP: Zach Randolph
2. Oklahoma City
Preseason Prediction: The team to beat in the Western Conference.
Current Prediction: The Thunder will be one of the last teams standing, with a late challenge from the Los Angeles Lakers.
A True Title Contender? Absolutely. In Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder have the best duo in the league, and those two are surrounded by a supporting cast that keeps getting better. The team has simply stopped losing, and its eight-game winning streak continues into mid-December.
Most Disappointing: That they didn't end the first quarter alone in first place in the conference.
Most Surprising: James Harden didn't matter as much as everyone thought. Kevin Martin has filled in just fine, averaging 15.8 points per game while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 47.9 from three-point range.
MVP: Kevin Durant
1. San Antonio
Preseason Prediction: Among the top five teams in the Western Conference.
Current Prediction: The No. 2 seed in the West.
A True Title Contender? They still are who we thought they were. The old crew is still at it, and head coach Gregg Popovich doesn't care what David Stern has to say about it.
Most Disappointing: Stephen Jackson's Twitter account.
Most Surprising: Tim Duncan was supposed to stop at some point. But his old-school mechanics keep him relevant. Duncan is having another incredible season, averaging 17.7 points and 9.9 rebounds per game.
MVP: Tony Parker is back, too. He's leading the team in scoring at 18.9 points and averaging 7.6 assists per game.
8. Milwaukee Bucks
Preseason Prediction: Out of the playoffs.
Current Prediction: It looks as if there are only nine teams capable of making the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. Milwaukee will battle it out with Indiana for that last spot.
A True Title Contender? The backcourt offers a consistent scoring threat. But it's not close to enough. It will be interesting to see what the Bucks will become.
Most Disappointing: Ekpe Udoh was supposed to be the hidden piece of the Monta Ellis-for-Andrew Bogut deal. While Bogut's health and Ellis' performance validates the move, Udoh should be worth more than 5.5 points and 3.8 rebounds in 21.8 minutes.
Most Surprising: Wins against Brooklyn, Chicago (split), Philadelphia, Indiana and two against Boston prove that Milwaukee can compete in the East.
MVP: Brandon Jennings has been more efficient (+17.4) for the Bucks. He is averaging 17.2 points and 6.3 assists per game. Neither Jennings nor Ellis is shooting well from the field.
7. Boston Celtics
Preseason Prediction Somewhere in the top five in the Eastern Conference.
Current Prediction: They are just a half-game out of the No. 3 spot and will bounce between there and No. 4.
A True Title Contender? It's hard to rule out the Celtics. They're Peyton Manning, Mariano Rivera, The Simpsons. They just keep playing. Come postseason, not many teams want to match up against their trio of superstars.
Most Disappointing: Rebounding has been bad in Boston before, but it's reaching new lows. The team is worst in the league, even worse than Miami. Boston needs Jeff Green to continue coming on. Bleacher Report featured columnist Brett David Roberts wrote about this in great detail.
Most Surprising: Jason Terry went ahead and took a starting job.
MVP: The Celtics live and die with Rajon Rondo's mercurial personality. You know what you'll get out of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but they need Rondo to stay driven and focused to succeed. Rondo's 12.8 assists per game help make him the most efficient (+23.3) point guard in the league.
6. Philadelphia 76ers
Preseason Prediction: One of the last spots in the Eastern Conference.
Current Prediction: The No. 6 or 7 seed.
A True Title Contender? It's going to take a healthy Andrew Bynum. The 76ers are playing over their heads without him, and that's a good sign. With him, they become that much more dangerous. But he's as big of a question mark as they come.
Most Disappointing: Bynum. The injury was one thing. But the nature of the setback, injuring his knee while bowling, made things worse. Philadelphia likely did its homework, took a risk on the big man and is now paying the consequences. Still, there is time, and if he comes back to old form, the risk could pay off.
Most Surprising: Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen are providing a combined 10.6 rebounds per game in a combined 44.4 minutes. That's fine. But without Bynum, the team needed even more help in this area. The wing rebounding of Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner has been the nice surprise. Both are rebounding at career-high levels.
The team is in the middle of the pack in rebounding and near the bottom in points scored, so the efforts on the defensive glass are vital to the team's top-10 defensive efforts.
MVP: Jrue Holiday might also be one of the more surprising players. The 76ers aren't here without their point guard. Starting in each of the team's 21 games, Holiday is averaging 18 points and 8.9 assists per game.
5. Brooklyn Nets
Preseason Prediction: All over the place, but mostly in the middle of the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference.
Current Prediction: The No. 4 seed.
A True Title Contender? They absolutely are, though they lack frontcourt depth. They will go as far as their top five can take them.
Most Disappointing: The team's lack of bench contribution.
Most Surprising: The Nets were 10-4 when Brook Lopez was playing, as the big man was averaging 19.3 points and 7.0 rebounds in the team's wins. But since Lopez sprained his right foot, the team has lost five of its last six games, even more proof of a lack of depth.
MVP: Deron Williams is playing as advertised. He's scoring 16.9 points per game with 8.8 assists.
4. Chicago Bulls
Preseason Prediction : Depending on Derrick Rose's return, predictions range from a high seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs to done.
Current Prediction: So much depends on the unknown timetable of Rose. If he returns to full strength in February, they will be a No. 3 seed. If he's not full strength or his return is delayed, they could be one of the bottom seeds.
A True Title Contender? Broken record mode here, but only with Rose. They have played well without him, but can't be considered contenders if he isn't playing to his superstar abilities. When will he return? What type of player will he be? Might he ever be the same?
Rose told Bryan Crawford of NBC's Chicago affiliate that he's working out six times a week. But there remains no timetable on his return, according to the article.
Most Disappointing: Once the Bulls' best bench player, Taj Gibson has been a complete disappointment. He should be hitting his prime, but instead the 27-year-old is averaging just 6.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, continuing statistical declines across the board since his rookie season.
Most Surprising: Without Rose, it's surprising that the Bulls have been one of best teams in the East. The adequate play in the backcourt of Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson has helped to soften the blow.
MVP: Luol Deng has played 40-plus minutes, averaging 17.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
3. Atlanta Hawks
Preseason Prediction: Middle to the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff teams.
Current Prediction: No. 7 seed.
A True Title Contender? This early on, any team is just a few games from being out of the playoffs altogether. While the Hawks look likely to grab at least a low playoff seed, they are not a title contender this season.
Most Disappointing: It's not that Devin Harris came with a lot of hype, but at least there was hope. He's been a disappointment, averaging just 7.3 points on 30 percent three-point shooting and just 2.6 assists.
Most Surprising: Jeff Teague continues to grow, and his scoring (13.5) and assist (6.6) numbers are up.
MVP: Al Horford has career-high averages in points (16.8) and rebounds (10.2).
2. Miami Heat
Preseason Prediction: No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Current Prediction: The best in the NBA.
A True Title Contender? The favorites have reloaded, and the talent seems to fit through the season's first quarter.
Most Disappointing: The Heat have to figure out how to fix their rebounding woes. They are one of the worst in the league, second only to the Boston Celtics. James is leading the team, but they'll need more from Udonis Haslem (4.9 rebounds) and Rashard Lewis (2.0).
MVP: Default league MVP, LeBron James.
1. New York Knicks
Preseason Prediction: In the top to middle of the Eastern Conference playoff pack.
Current Prediction: The No. 2 seed.
A True Title Contender? The Knicks are capable of winning a title, as evidenced by their ability to play strong defense and beat good teams, including Miami twice and San Antonio. In pivotal contests, they come through. That's a big part of the learning curve of becoming a contender and an indication of the change for the better in Carmelo Anthony's game.
Most Disappointing: The Knicks certainly have their vulnerabilities, and rebounding is the glaring one. While Anthony (6.7) and Tyson Chandler (10.0) lead the team in rebounds, too many bench guys lack quality rebounding numbers.
Most Surprising: It was anyone's guess how Raymond Felton would perform back in New York. So far, the rejuvenated point guard has meshed well with his teammates, averaging 15.8 points and 6.8 assists per game.
MVP: Carmelo Anthony. He's killing it with 27.7 points per game, and he's showing an ability to do other things on the court, such as play a little defense.
Follow Jimmy Spencer on Twitter at @jimmypspencer for more NBA news and opinion.