The NBA playoff picture is solidifying in both conferences. According to the Hollinger Playoff Odds, there are eight teams in each conference who already have a better than equal shot of making the postseason.
The odds are a useful tool, but it's important to remember that they result from a computer simulation. Aspects like scoring margin and schedule strength come into play. It's a great shorthand, but a shorthand that can't incorporate which players are injured and when teams expect to get them back.
The odds also can't incorporate which coaches got fired and whether that matters. The objective is fine grounding, but subjective can inform what to make of that foundation.
Currently, the playoff odds have the Milwaukee Bucks making the not-so-big dance. Color me skeptical, as opposed to red-and-green.
The Bucks parted ways with Scott Skiles, architect of whatever semblance of defense they can have with a Jennings-Ellis lineup. That, in my estimation, will be the difference between making the playoffs and falling off the bubble.
It's possible that interim coach Jim Boylan will hold the fort. I just prefer betting on a Monta Ellis team missing the postseason.
If you're an optimistic Lakers fan, don't watch ESPN's "Numbers Never Lie" special on L.A.'s chances. There are many harrowing statistics for Laker lovers, but chief among them is that, of the 294 teams that got off to as bad a start as L.A. has, only 13.6 percent of them made the postseason.
That's rough, though the Lakers could still pull it off. If Pau Gasol returns from injury. If Mike D'Antoni succeeds while benching Pau Gasol. If Kobe keeps this up. If Steve Nash stays healthy. Are you noticing all the "ifs"?
The biggest "if" is Dwight Howard. Should he return to old form, the Lakers will pull this off. Based on what I've seen from the slightly hobbled Dwight, I have my doubts.
If I predict that the Milwaukee Bucks miss the playoffs, then I need a replacement team. Enter the Toronto Raptors.
Andrea Bargnani was miserable early this season and the Raptors lost 18 of 21 games with him in the starting lineup. Since losing Bargnani to injury, the Raps have won 10 of their last 18.
Small sample size caveats apply, but I believe in the post-Bargs Raptors. If Kyle Lowry can get back to health, this is as formidable an Eastern Conference playoff team as there is. Truth be told, though, that's not saying a lot.
I can't bet against this collective of three-point assassins. Though the Houston Rockets would finish as the eighth seed, were the playoffs to begin today, I see them going even higher in the West.
Why is that? Well, for one, I don't believe in the slump that has them shooting only 35 percent on threes for the season.
The Rockets get plenty of space in their four-out system, and when their three point averages swing upwards, they should reap the benefits of chucking 28 triples per game. As it stands, they already have a top-10 offense. When they can combine some better shooting with James Harden's foul-drawing ability, this can be a devastating offensive machine.
With apologies to a rabid fanbase, I just don't see this as a playoff mix. On some level, the triad of Damian Lillard, Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge sounds like a playoff team.
The issue is that the talent doesn't combine to play offense well enough to outweigh its bad defense. The Blazers are currently 23rd in defensive efficiency. It's a tall order to make the Western playoffs while playing D like that, but especially so when you're only the 14th-ranked offense.
Portland can grow enough as a team to get better in both departments. I hope they do, but this is an exciting mix for the future. I just happen to believe that a playoff bid exists in a future farther away than this spring.