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.