As the NBA regular season edges closer to the Feb. 21 trade deadline, the playoff standings have started to take shape.
Contenders have separated from pretenders, with both parties likely participants on the trade market in the coming weeks.
But this isn't focusing on either the teams near the top of postseason picture, nor the ones that have already fallen out of frame. Though their rankings will likely change over the final two-plus months of the season, it's a relative safe bet to assume that the top six teams in the conference are headed for postseason play.
That means that the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers, Memphis Grizzlies, Golden State Warriors and Denver Nuggets can use their remaining games to strengthen their playoff position, along with the likelihood of making their playoff run a lengthy stay.
It's becoming just as apparent that the bottom four teams out West (Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and New Orleans Hornets) should start thinking about their future in terms beyond the 2012-13 season.
So that leaves five teams (Utah Jazz, Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, L.A. Lakers and Dallas Mavericks) competing for the final two playoff two spots. While I don't have a crystal ball at my disposal, I do have three months of statistics to lead me to my best educated guess as to how this season will play out for Seeds 7-11.
*To simplify the argument, this slideshow assumes all teams will keep their current roster intact.
Say what you will about Mark Cuban's disastrous superstar chase, but you have to admit he found some intriguing, low-risk options on the free-agent market when those pursuits came up empty.
But Dallas was doomed from the moment word leaked that Dirk Nowitzki needed knee surgery before the start of the season.
With such a drastic overhaul to the roster, it's no coincidence that Nowitzki was greeted with a season-derailing 1-8 stretch after returning to the floor on Dec. 23. The rest of the roster was still feeling each other out, then had to revamp their strategies around the future Hall of Famer.
The season wasn't a complete loss, even if it had more than its fair share of unwatchable moments for the Dallas faithful.
The Mavericks remain in position for more star chasing this summer, and the potential depth of this free-agent crop (via Hoopsworld.com) should make for some more attractive alternatives if the biggest names again spurn Cuban's team.
They also found a few likely keepers on those short-term contracts, as O.J. Mayo ($4.2 player option for 2013-14) and Darren Collison (restricted free agent) have shown enough to factor in the team's future plans.
There's a lot to like about this Portland team.
The starting five is as deep as any in the league (all five players average at least 12.6 points per game), and none are over 27 years old.
Damian Lillard (18.3 points and 6.5 assists) has built his lead in the Rookie of the Year award race, and LaMarcus Aldridge (20.5 points and 8.8 rebounds) has punched his All-Star ticket for the second straight season.
The fact that the team has managed .500 basketball without even a semblance of a second unit (Portland's reserves average the fewest minutes, 13.3, and points, 16.5, in the league, via hoopsstats.com) has been nothing short of remarkable.
But at some point that lack of depth will finally sink their playoff hopes.
On the season, Portland starters have combined for a plus-26.8 differential when they're on the floor. The reserves, though, have offered a putrid minus-35.5 differential in their combined playing time (via 82games.com).
Coach Terry Stotts isn't asking for any more than a respectable job from his subs to support his dynamic starters, but that's been a daunting task all season.
It's hard to imagine Utah not making a move at the deadline, but in the spirit of this piece, here's why the current roster will ultimately fall short of the postseason.
The Jazz are overloaded with frontcourt talent, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself. But without the perimeter complements to keep opposing defenses honest, Utah cannot maximize the effectiveness of their bigs.
Utah's lack of effective shooters is most easily seen in the team's pedestrian 44.8 field-goal percentage, despite the team's four post players (Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter) accounting for nearly 39 field-goal attempts per game and each converting over 47 percent of their looks.
Those same four players rank in the team's top six in both player efficiency rating and points per 36 minutes (via Basketball-Reference.com).
Mo Williams wasn't having an All-Star season by any means, but the team has certainly missed his presence due to his nagging thumb injury. Williams was one of the few players defenses had to account for both on the perimeter (37.6 three-point percentage) and off the dribble.
When the Lakers put together their Hall of Fame roster over the summer, the conference's No. 8 seed seemed well beyond the worst-case scenario.
When the club stumbled through a six-game losing streak to open the month of January, the playoffs seemed an equal stretch.
At 19-25, there's still plenty of work to be done, but the team has finally offered some reasons for optimism.
Who knows how long we'll see a pass-happy Kobe Bryant (14 assists in each of his past two games), but the prolific scorer has been known to put winning above individual achievements.
What's really spurred this recent resurgence, though, has been the team's growing familiarity with coach Mike D'Antoni's system—and their ability to put their own twists on those schemes.
The Lakers still have dangerous size, and now, the avenues to expose that advantage.
When the Rockets were steamrolling opponents during a 12-3 stretch from mid-December into early January, this team appeared on the brink of threatening to clinch home-court advantage for their opening playoff series.
A subsequent seven-game skid all but ended those lofty goals, but did not remove the team from postseason contention.
Their dynamic backcourt duo of Jeremy Lin and James Harden may have limitations on the defensive end, but both pack the offensive punch to compensate for their struggles on most nights. Not to mention the fact that the rest of the roster has enough scoring potential to carry the load when either player suffers through a rough shooting night.
Coach Kevin McHale knows what kind of team he has (an offensive force with some defensive deficiencies), and he puts them in position to win. When the Rockets push the tempo and control the pace of the game, they're as tough to slow down as any offense in the league.